Robin Crawford's Reading for the Peatlands
Robin Crawford's Into the Peatlands is both a sensitive portrait of the unique landscape of the Outer Hebrides and a fascinating investigation into the way physical space becomes interwoven with history, culture and storytelling. Here, the author explores some of the narratives embedded in his book's creation and in the peatland environment it explores.
On the far north-western fringes of Europe peat is formed from tiny water-saturated mosses. As they grow and die layer upon layer builds at a rate of about one millimetre per year transforming into a solid. This is cut, dried, transported, stacked and finally burnt - changing into smoke. Within its strata the peat holds lines of history - preserved pollens of the plants that once grew on and around the bog’s fringes, Bronze Age offerings, Iron Age bog bodies, Roman coins, ashen fallout from medieval Icelandic volcanoes, pollutants from the Industrial Revolution, radioactive isotopes from Chernobyl. It is a library of our past but in its ability to capture carbon it also offers hope for our warming planet’s survival. These layers of peat become words and sentences on the page of the moor, the cut slabs drying on the heather like sun-baked tablets of cuneiform script from the libraries of Nineveh and Babylon.
“Changes of shape, new forms, are the theme which my spirit impels me now to recite.”
This moor story, going down through the different levels of experience, brought to my mind Ovid’s Metamorphoses, where the constant transformations of gods and people into other shapes and forms are set within the Ages of Man ‒ from the Golden Age of paradise and innocence to the cruel Age of Iron, war and death. The year I wrote this book, 2017, marked the 2,000th anniversary of Ovid’s death. In that time 2 metres of peat have formed.
Ovid’s themes are eternal, in what are shaping up to be the literary novels of the decade Ali Smith is half-way through writing a seasonal quartet. This summer at the Edinburgh Book Festival I was fortunate enough to hear her in conversation with Scotland’s First Minister Nicola Sturgeon. They talked of transitions both political, national, personal and of that wonderful space between author and reader where there are no right or wrong answers, no ‘correct’ interpretations just an infinite interplay of thought, ideas and language.
Rathad an Isein: The Bird’s Road by Anne Campbell
Language and words are formed and shaped by experience and environment. Out on the moor, a landscape so different from the norm, where each footstep is tentative, you never know if you are about to step on firm ground or sink into quagmire bog. Ovid’s Latin may - to the botanist- describe the unique plant life but English has not the understanding of this landscape. Campbell’s dictionary of Gaelic moorwords is a guide, a natural history, a manual for survival.
Carmina Gadelica by Alexander Carmichael
Words enunciate a landscape but how words fit with actions and belief combine in the classic collection of prayers and incantations from the Western Isles. Carmichael records, for example, the ritual chanting by the matriarch of the house, beseeching the help and protection in the dark night of Mary and Christ as she makes the sign of the cross in the ashes of the peat fire at the end of the day, smooring the fire that will smoulder through until rekindled in the bright dawn of a new day. Here are embers of a timeless, pre-Christian world.
Fireside Tales of the Traveller Children by Duncan Williamson
The peatlands retain some aspects of a bardic rather than a written tradition. In my book I quote from Duncan Ban MacIntyre’s epic mountain poem ‘Praise of Ben Dorain’ though MacIntyre himself could not read or write. At the peat fire tales would go round merging, mingling, leading one into the other, metamorphic like in Ovid. The last flames of this Homeric oral tradition was kept alive by Scottish Travellers like Williamson who said when he told a story that he could hear not only his father and his grandmother telling the story but sense generation upon generation of ancestral storytellers spiralling back in time- like DNA- coming through him and into the tale.
Folksongs and Folklore of South Uist by Margaret Fay Shaw
Shaw’s remarkable book records prayers and saints days in the Catholic Southern Hebrides. Proverbs and sayings, recipes for food, for cures and dyeing wool are all captured. Clapping songs that pace and regulate the rhythms of work; women’s songs to be sung when spinning or milking; men’s songs of war and hunting; sailing songs; ballads to be sung round the peat fire; dancing songs; songs of love and passion; lullabies and laments are all here. This book is a document of the multifaceted lives necessary to survive on the peatlands, a rich and moving memorial to the crofting tradition.
The People of the Sea by David Thomson
Where the peaty waters off the moors flow into the North Atlantic the sea is brown, the waves frothy, brackish. In these half salt/half fresh waters you often find seals, land animals that have evolved back into sea creatures. In his wonderful book Thomson has collected stories, tales and myths of the ‘selkies’- people when on land but seals in the sea - from the western coasts of Scotland and Ireland.
Out of those seas also came men. Whilst until recently the DNA of most Icelandic males was almost pure Norse that of Icelandic women was heavily mixed with that of the Celtic fringes of these islands. In Nobel prizewinner Laxness’s novel of life in a turf built farm on the edge of Reykjavik familiar themes and experiences North Atlantic peatland cultures faced in 20th century life are addressed.
From the peatlands of the brackish Baltic, from transitional Danzig/Gdansk came Günter Grass. Nearing the end of his own life where quagmire layers of history, personal, national continued to surface and be unearthed he wrote of his distaste for the macabre displaying of Iron Age bog bodies in museums whilst describing the preparations for his own death.
It is out on the moor, neither land nor water that the would be king meets the witches, neither of this world or the next. The ’First Folio’ edition describes them:
“The weyward Sisters, hand in hand,
Posters of the Sea and Land…
Even their genders are transitional, Banquo says to them:
“…You should be women,
And yet your beards forbid me to interpret
That you are so.”
These tempters of mortals open the possibilities to the future- Macbeth could be king, Banquo create a line of kings, what will and will not be?
In closing Into the Peatlands I pick up this question and return to Ovid. Will our coming season be a new Golden Age or an Age of Folly?