I read this lovely book recently;
I will not go into any detail about what it is about, except to say that if you love poetry, landscape and humanity you will love this book. It is a beautifully written travelogue/memoir and obituary of the great poet Norman McCaig.
One of the things that resonated with me was how the book tried to grapple with Scottishness. Up here we are heading towards a referendum on whether Scotland should exist as an entirely separate country to the United Kingdom. The old confused profusion of ideas around history, identity, sense place in landscape, feelings of old injustices to be avenged, or old alliances to be celebrated- it is all there just below the surface.
Andrew Greig talks with such eloquence about Norman McCaig’s generation- McCaig was a conscientious objector in the second world war and had a deep suspicion of nationalism wherever he saw it. I share this feeling. I have an outsider’s discomfort with borders and in-groups. I struggle to think of anything positive that came out of nationalism- it has so much power to bring out the worst of what we are, but rarely the best. It throws up statues of lots of dead people.
However, there is another kind of Scottish identity in Greig’s book- as he moves from city to mountainside there is a profound sense of place- a love of landscape. A sense of one-ness with the roll and curve of the land. A sense of understanding that others too have been here, and in some sense are here still. I have had plenty of glimpses of this in my own adventures. There is a generosity as well as a cruelty to mountains- they do not care about accent.
There is also this lovely piece of writing that I thought I would reproduce here- which is another image that stuck in my mind. Greig starts to think about his father;
…it began as a yarn about how he and his classmates, in the early years of the last century, would challenge each other to walk for as long as possible carrying a penny gripped between thumb and forefinger, the arm hanging down. It may seem an easy thing to do laddie but no matter how hard you try sooner or later it will drop. Muscular fatigue, numbness, something like that. And I thought, what a fantastically futile thing to do, and how deep and Scottish a teaching it must have been, yoking together money, endurance and the inevitability of loss.
Then my father went on to say how, still carrying his penny, as a boy he once stopped in a gale under a Scots Pine. He stood against it, thrilled – not a word he had much use for – to feel bark shift against his back. He said he’d imaged the tree a mast, and yearned to be sailing where the wind was blowing…
I love this simple little story- of how we get caught up in futile loops, and imagine them to be significant.
But how there is a wind in the trees, and if we would let it, it has the power both to root us where we are, and also to call us to something far beyond.
How the two are related.
And so it is that we can be Scottish (even I) and still both bigger, and much smaller.