The lessons of place


When it comes to writing about place, there are certain books which so captured my imagination that I find myself referring to them time and again. Keith Basso’s Wisdom Sits in Places is one such book. The book emerged out of his anthropological studies of the Western Apache people, and it focuses on the ways in which place names are associated with stories which not only convey the history of these people, but which are used to illustrate good and appropriate ways of living and being. Basso’s story of the Western Apache people is primarily a story of place-making: of multiple acts both of historical remembering and transformational imagining which inform each other in complex ways. ‘If place-making is a way of constructing the past, a venerable means of doing human history, it is also a way of constructing social traditions and, in the process, personal and social identities. We are, in a sense, the place-worlds we imagine’, Basso tells us. And the stories – again, a mixture both of history and of imagination – which the Western Apache tell about specific places, inform their daily lives. ‘Knowledge of places is therefore closely linked to knowledge of the self, to grasping one’s position in the larger scheme of things, including one’s own community, and to securing a confident sense of who one is as a person.’

In this sense, Western Apache place-lore resembles a similar Irish concept, that of dinnseanchas, though it can be argued that the Western Apache variety is much more overtly focused on stories of place as methods for teaching societal mores and promoting certain ways of being in world, as well as offering a cultural history and associated sense of identity. ‘The land is always stalking people. The land makes people live right’, and ‘I recall stories of how it once was at that mountain. The stories told to me were like arrows. Elsewhere, hearing that mountain’s name, I see it. Its name is like a picture. Stories go to work on you like arrows. Stories make you live right. Stories make you replace yourself’, say members of the Western Apache community in Basso’s book.

The web of complex place-making woven by communities such as the Western Apache can only spring from a long and deep rootedness in place. And yet most of us now live in a world and a society from which that kind of rootedness seems to have long since disappeared, along with the sense of belonging that accompanies it. Does the idea of ‘place’ have anything to teach us, then, those of us who are more prone to moving on; those of us who are migratory birds? That sense of rootedness, of ‘digging in and digging deep’, is something I’ve written about on several occasions. But in spite of my admiration for the ability to root oneself in place, and wanderlust associated with Irish travelling genes apart, I have found myself throughout my life moving on from place to place much more frequently than I had ever planned. But this is not because I’m looking for the perfect place, just as I might once have thought of searching for the perfect love; rather, it’s because at each of those different stages in my life I’ve felt that different places have been needed. That different places – yes, the purely physical aspects of these places, as well as the various and varying human cultures that have been associated with them – have different things to teach me. And so in each place I’ve lived, for however long I’ve lived there, I’ve found myself for the duration of that stay digging as deeply into it as I can. Because this is another way in which we can learn the lessons of place, whether we’re inclined to rootedness or not, and whether we can derive a sense of belonging and identity from the places in which we stay or not.

Yes, I have come to believe strongly in the lessons of place. And so, as we prepare to leave this wild and extreme land which we currently inhabit in the Outer Hebrides, and to head next spring for the Gaeltacht of Donegal in north-west Ireland, I have been very focused on what I have learned from this place, and on the results of that learning. I’m exploring both what drew me here at the time, and also the precise reasons why I feel it necessary now to leave it, and move on. Because this won’t be an easy place to leave. I have merged so deeply with the old rocky bones of this place – and of one specific wild coastal location in particular – that I have sometimes feared I would myself turn to stone, sink right into this hardest of all landscapes of gneiss and schist, become it once and for all.

But that is precisely the problem, and precisely the learning which must be taken away.

It’s hard to explain, but in a curious way it’s all to do with elements. Yes, those elements: air, water, earth, and fire. As Meg, the elderly storyteller from the islands, says in The Long Delirious Burning Blue: ‘everyone has their element: the element to which they are drawn, to which they are bound.’ In the novel, my character Cat is drawn to air, and the lightness and crisp clarity she finds in flying; she struggles with the idea of earth, and associates it with heaviness: ‘Everything is so simple up there. Just you, and the sky, and the will to survive. Everything comes down to this: you balance on a knife-edge but it’s a clear, clean cut and what bleeds away is doubt … I am immunising myself against the earth and all that would weigh me down.’ In contrast, her mother Laura is drawn to water: to the sea and seals and selkie-stories. For me, it has always been air and water, and in particular that misty liminal place where one becomes the other – what is usually referred to as ‘the distance’. And so it’s not surprising either that it was those grand mergings of sea and sky which led me to this beautiful place on the edge of the known world – or that it was the extremity of the cold, old hard earth which in the end almost broke me.


Metamorphic layersI’ve written before about the location which I call simply ‘The Rocky Place’. Vast fields of metamorphic rock pierced with rock-pools sweep down to the sea, with cleanly carved cliffs behind. Here it is again:

It’s hard to get a sense of the scale of it from a photograph, but it goes on and on. And it’s filled with treasures of the imagination, all of which spring from the stories I’ve constructed about this place.

But the stories that this place mostly evokes for me, and which haunt my own newer imaginings, are the old stories. These are the stories which exist both in Scottish and Irish mythology, and which tell of the old Celtic goddess of the land in her two aspects: Brighid (or Bride in the Hebrides, who was later Christianised by the church as St Bridget or St Bride) and the hard, stony blue-faced Cailleach (the Gaelic word for old woman, crone or hag). One version of the story says that the old woman of winter, the Cailleach, dies and is reborn as Brighid the spring maiden on the old festival day of Imbolc (February 1). She is fragile at first, but grows stronger each day as the sun rekindles its fire, and turns scarcity into abundance. But as winter approaches and the light begins to fade she weakens again, and her sister the Cailleach begins to awaken. And by the old festival of Samhain (November 1) it is the Cailleach who rules this season, and Brighid who sleeps quietly in the hills. There are many stories about this battle for the seasons which takes place between Brighid and the Cailleach, but they can clearly be seen as two aspects of life in balance, of the need for both darkness and light, summer and winter, the cyclical nature of the world.

Not surprisingly, perhaps, it was the image and symbology of the Cailleach which interested me most as I tried to root myself in this unfertile, rocky land. Indeed, in the old mythologies she is in some sense a personification of land like this. She is associated with mountains and large hills, which she is said to have created (in some stories, to have formed from stones dropped from her apron) to serve as her stepping stones as she dances across the land, bringing winter in her wake. There are a number of locations in Scotland in which the silhouette of the reclining Cailleach can be seen in the shapes of specific mountains or ranges. The best-known of them is probably Lewis’ ‘Sleeping Beauty’ mountain (known in Gaelic as Cailleach na Mointeach – the old woman of the moors), but many others exist. There is one in the mountains to the east of our house, and I look out at her every day from the window of my study. Here she is, looking away from us, arm flung back and up above her head, burning in a midsummer sunset:


Sleeping beauty sunsetThere is also a silhouette of the Cailleach in the Rocky Place, though it is a standing silhouette rather than reclining. Appropriately so, because we know from the old stories that it is in places like this that the Cailleach stands and stares out to sea, perhaps looking for her husband the Bodach, otherwise known as Manannan, the sea-god. (As a digression, what is interesting about this photograph is that you can see both the silhouette of an old woman with a hard, chiselled profile, facing left, and the face of a man, larger and full-on, just to the right of her. You have to stand back to see it, but once you see it, it’s there forever and you may well find yourself switching interchangeably between the two. He has a very short nose and a very large space between the nose and his upper lip, and his left eye is lower than his right. David pointed this out to me the first time I showed it to him, and it gave me some comfort to think that although I had seen her as a solitary figure in this harsh place, maybe her husband the sea-god is there with her, after all …)

Cailleach1 LRSuch locations and the stories associated with them – both those that are old, and those that are new, of my own making – bind me to this place, and whether I stay or go, and in whatever shape or form I might emerge, I will always carry them with me and they will in some sense bind me here. They may be stories, by which we often mean fiction, but they make the place more real to me, not less. They give it texture, layers, meaning … and both through these stories and through the direct physical experience of living in the places from which they spring, I am taught many lessons.

The lessons? Well, when we moved to this place in the spring of 2012, it was exactly what we were looking for. We had had enough of the world, and of what passed for civilisation. We wanted not only remote but remotest; we wanted fewer people, fewer frills. We wanted instead to dig ourselves deeply into the land, to be with, stand with and to witness what remained of one of Britain’s last wild places. And so we came here, to one of the most beautiful and remote places on this part of the planet. We had found exactly what we thought we needed back then, and we immersed ourselves in it – David in his rocky, boggy fields and his fencing and his farm animals, and me in my beloved bogs and my hidden rocky places by the sea, trying all the while to create the Garden of Eden in a place with poorly drained acid soil that bears the full brunt of salt-laden prevailing south and westerly gales. Both of us were by nature creatures of air and water, but we tried to transform ourselves into creatures of this harsh, bleak, old, stony, solitary piece of stunningly beautiful earth. We learned to live without trees and fertile ground and green grass. We learned to live without people. We turned inwards into ourselves and into the land, all the while believing in some strange fashion that we were turning outwards.

I immersed myself in those stories of the Cailleach, a solitary old woman carved out of age-old gneiss. It was the utterly magical Rocky Place to which I was drawn time after time, and which in some strange (but beautiful) way I came to believe defined me. Here, I have become Cailleach for a time; I have become Storm; I have listened to the stories of stones – some of the oldest stones on the planet. I have stood for long periods of time by the side of that silhouetted Cailleach in the Rocky Place and stared out to sea with her, imagining the long ages and the unyielding rock and the unending power of the sea. I have learned about endurance. I have learned about standing – and more than I ever wanted to know about making a stand. I have learned about digging in, and for sure I have learned about digging too deep.

From a cultural perspective, I have learned other things too – though in truth, I think they’re probably the same things. I learned that the pendulum of our lives had swung too far: that I do after all need other people – and in particular, real, live, in-the-flesh people who I can talk to about words and stories and music and art. I have learned that for all its failures and horrors, for all the things that I find abhorrent in this civilisation, I am nevertheless a human being and human culture is something I can’t seem entirely to eschew. I have remembered that the Cailleach, for all her seemingly harsh ways, danced her way across the mountains even as she brought the onset of winter, and I have remembered that I too have always loved  to dance. But I have learned above all else that it is good and fine and very probably necessary to be out of your element for a time – but yes, only for a time. I have learned that I am not after all a creature of rock, or stone. I am not gneiss. I am still a spirit of air and water: mutable, changeable, transforming. And when you dig yourself too deeply into an element that is not your natural element – as I dug myself into this hard, dour, peaty earth – then if you are very, very lucky it will spit you out rather than swallow you up.

It was a close thing, but she spat me out. Back to the horizon, and the distance; back to that clear light place where water meets sky, moving on, fluid, transforming, migrating.

And so the idea of migration is uppermost in my mind right now. And migration is informing my writing, which has been stagnant for too long, and which is dancing its way back to life in new forms: always a prose writer by instinct, I seem to have fallen into poetry. I’m especially glad during this new migratory phase to be involved in a collaborative project on this very subject of migrations, organised by a wonderful new friend, Tasmanian artist Desirée Fitzgibbon. The project, towards infinite horizons, is ‘a celebration of islands, migratory species, vessels and journeys across the seas with artists, poets, writers, storytellers, migrants, performers and seafarers’ which will culminate in an event at the Australian Wooden Boat Festival in Tasmania in February 2015. A new poem, Peregrina, is my first contribution to the project.

The truth is, I’ve often written about migrations. The Long Delirious Burning Blue is about many things, but it is very much about migrations and transformations. A few years ago I wrote a handful of short poetic prose pieces (not quite prose poems; I’m not really sure into which genre they might fit) about migrating sea-creatures: eels and salmon and sea trout. Clearly, it’s been a preoccupation for many years. But there’s still a strong part of me which hopes to find itself beached up in a place where it’s possible to settle and stay forever. And a part of me now that fears it, too; as if the end of migrating might become the end of transformation and of fluidity … But I don’t think that is necessarily so. Whether or not we plan to go on learning new lessons of place through all of our days, in ongoing wanderings and wayfarings, or whether we hope finally to come to rest on some richly textured meant-to-be shore, maybe the best lesson of place is simply the lesson of how, and how not, to be. Something we can carry with us, wherever we might go, or wherever we might stay.


2 thoughts on “The lessons of place

  1. ‘Toward Infinite Horizons’ sounds like an amazing project, Sharon. And wow, thank you for introducing me to an Australian artist I hadn’t heard of, though (via the cunning web of the internet) I now realise she is a friend of a couple of artists here whose blogs I follow! Are you looking for any more Australian artists/writers etc? As a citizen of ‘An t-Eilean Mor’ (!) I’d love to know more!

    On the subject of Elements, for most of my life I have leaned towards water, emotionally and mentally, and because I longed to be slim, watery, mermaid-like. I don’t particularly think much of Astrology, but I am actually an Earth sign, and I’ve been pushing my ‘earthiness’ away all my life because I didn’t want to be the stereotypical ‘earth-mother’. Now in middle age, I feel as if it is the right time to accept it, even the colours I lean to now, and want to wear, are becoming earthy. And soon, I am moving to the country where I hope to put down some deep roots into the earth, and learn to how to belong to it.


    1. Hi Christina – that is very much Desiree’s project; I’m just a tiny part of it, and so you’d need to contact her. And yes, maybe those elements we relate to might change as we move through life … I wish you all the best with your move and will be interested to follow the ways in which that rooting impacts your art!


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