A few weeks ago (5 August
), I wrote an article for SR on the tricky nature of historical time, or human perceptions of time. I did not foresee then how easily my own perceptions of time, place and identity could shift.
I grew up in Stonehaven, in a house on Carron Terrace. The street name meant exactly what it said. There was a row of houses, a narrow strip of tarmac, a line of pollarded elms, a grassy bank and then the River Carron. Beyond that lay (at the time) a disused mill dam inhabited by moorhens, a pair of swans and (as I eventually discovered) some very elusive water rails. A childhood idyll – an Eden.
The river formed the backdrop of my life for 20 years, visible from the front windows, audible whenever you stepped out of doors. From an early age, I played on the riverbank – the Carron wasn't deep enough or fast enough to pose any risk. Every so often heavy rain swelled the river into spate, a raging brown turbulence. Once or twice it threatened to burst its banks. Some houses a couple of hundred yards downstream got flooded occasionally, but never us. My great personal loss came when a flood washed out a sandy bank that had been a favourite play-spot. In retrospect, this may have been the first time I grasped the permanence of change, the irreversibility of time.
The Carron was also a political boundary: it divided the parishes of Fetteresso and Dunnottar and such boundaries, in the old days, had real social significance. They determined which primary school you went to, which church you attended, things which shaped lifelong friendships and enmities. The Carron also divided the old town of Stonehaven (an ancient inbred fishing community) from the new town (a planned – bourgeois – community mainly geared to tourism).
One idiosyncrasy of this historical evolution is that Dunnottar parish church lies on a knoll above the Carron a mile outside town, surrounded by woods rather than houses. It was here that Sir Walter Scott encountered Robert Paterson, the original of Old Mortality
, a stonemason who devoted his life to preserving the graves of Covenanting martyrs. In the days of religious instruction, school pupils used to walk in crocodile through the woods to hear a suitably uplifting sermon.
So the Carron came to form part of my personal mythology, now upturned by what has come to be called the Stonehaven rail disaster. In the name of geographical accuracy, I want to reject this nomenclature: precise and accurate naming matters. But I realise this is a lost cause. In reality, the accident happened near Carmont, a place as remote to many Stonehaven people as Ulan Bator. (A glance at the map will show just how inaccessible the site is: aside from walking – not easy – you need either a train or a helicopter.)
As it happens – happenstance is important – Carmont also features in my personal mythology. In the late 19th and early 20th centuries, my grandparents leased the farm of Blairs. All their children – all those who survived beyond infancy – went to school at Tewel, a mile from Carmont. I grew up among tales of Grains of Fetteresso, Upper and Nether Baulk, Upper and Nether Wyndings and Auquhirie. (For context, think of Lewis Grassic Gibbon's Sunset Song
– Kinraddie is six miles away as the imaginary crow flies.)
Names and connections spiral off in many directions. I once went on a Scout hike to find the source of the Carron which peters out somewhere on the Hill of Bogjorgan. I love the euphony of that name but Bogjorgan is also famous as the place where Robert Burns' great-great-grandfather was born sometime around 1615. And his grandson George was tenant of Elfhill, across the river from Carmont. This landscape, like all landscapes, is shaped by a shifting web of meanings and associations.
Reading about an accident that happened in Aberdeenshire, I am also kerflummoxed on a larger scale. I grew up in Kincardineshire and in the 1980s I edited a volume of the Third Statistical Account of Scotland
entitled The County of Kincardine
. In the introduction, I commented on the local patriotism that had fought off Lord Wheatley's proposal in 1969 to split the county between what became Grampian and Tayside regions. In the next reorganisation of local government in the 1990s, that battle was finally lost. Names slip-slide away.
As do landslips. Name changes, like accidents, have real-world causes. Until the Carmont disaster, it never occurred to me to ask why the railway followed such an unlikely route. It was a fact of life, as fixed as that sandy bank which suddenly vanished. On the map, the railway runs parallel to the A90 as far as Drumlithie, then swerves wildly northwards to follow the twisting course of the Carron. Why? At a guess, because economics sometimes trumps geology. Since the Howe of the Mearns contains some of the richest farmland in Scotland, building a railway across it in the 1840s would have been expensive and politically contentious. In contrast, the Carron gorge is low-value bog and scrub, a geological marker of the Highland Boundary Fault which bisects Scotland to hit the coast a mile north of Stonehaven.
Many commentators have linked the crash to the occurrence of more extreme weather events (meaning both more frequent and more severe). Choices that were economically rational in the 19th and 20th centuries may no longer be rational in the 21st. Decisions that our ancestors made generations ago can come back to bite us.
The accident also led me to wonder for the first time about the meaning of Carron. There are at least six rivers in Scotland with that name, spread from Dumfriesshire up to Sutherland. The modern Gaelic spelling is Carrann but there seems to be no agreed meaning or etymology. Should we imagine some Celtic water god or proto-kelpie, lost in the myths of time?
Perhaps the best place to end this tour of mythical landscapes is Ian Hamilton Finlay's garden at Little Sparta. Finlay is a profoundly destabilising artist: he confronts unaccountable powers, human, natural and (perhaps) supernatural. Just when you think your feet have found firm ground, the perspective shifts and the world spins. In his lighter moments, he is laugh-aloud funny; in his darker moments, images of moral and natural evil loom and twist.
Finlay often borrows and subverts texts and insignia from the French Revolution. A waterfall is transformed into a guillotine, or vice versa. One complete text reads: 'The sound of running water heard through the chinks in a stone dyke: Revolution'. The obvious reference is to political revolution but Finlay's meanings are rarely obvious. In the Anthropocene era, perhaps the boundary between political and natural revolutions has already been lost.