The ties that bind

Here's something that's been on the simmer ring for a fair few months in one shape or another. For some it'll be too political, for others not political enough. It's been submitted to two different places and rejected both times... and now look - I'm inflicting it on you. Hardly seems fair, does it!


I’m an incomer to Scotland, and I’ve been here less than three years. Like millions of people around the world, my family has history here but history isn’t the same as roots. I’ve spent way too long figuring that one out. A place belonging to us is very different to us belonging to a place. Owning land is not the same as being owned. There’s no right answer here, just stories of people moving around for all sorts of reasons. My family’s reason was the Second World War. My granddad was a self-taught electrician, a useful skill in 1939. He moved to Biggin Hill airfield, south of London and became Douglas Bader’s radio engineer. His wife and 2-year-old daughter followed later.  Here they are on the left, with my mum in the pram.

'My mother was very homesick for Scotland. When I was a child she used to tell me stories of Bonnie Prince Charlie and sing The Skye Boat song. She talked to me about Fort William and the Western Isles and said the thing she missed most was the sound of running water. She said wherever you went in The Highlands you could hear water running. When we visited I knew exactly what she was talking about'.

This is my mother talking about her mother. Sound, and songs - memories are made of these. She continues

'Mum visited Netta in Scotland once. I remember her going and we weren’t living on the farm so I must have been about 8 years old. When she came back I asked her if she would go again and she said ‘no’. When I asked her why she wouldn’t go again she said “I am afraid that I might not come back”. Even though my dad tried to encourage her to go she never went back to Scotland after that one visit. Netta and mum corresponded by letter and the letters were full of instructions to mum about housekeeping, cooking and titbits of gossip about people they both knew. In between letters Netta sent parcels. They contained things like Black Bun, kippers and honey from Uncle Jimmy’s bees'.

Food - is there anything more important (apart from song, maybe)? The fruit of land and labour become a part of us. Where we are is who we are - unless it’s somewhere else. When I moved to Edinburgh, one of the first things I noticed was how many independent shops still exist on the high street. In London, that mostly went to the wall at the back end of the 80’s. Total dislocation. For a generation there's been almost no independent grocers, fishmongers, or bakers. By comparison, in the central belt at least, we’re spoilt for choice.

My Mum’s cousin lives in Perth, and has done most of his life. Now we’re up this way, we try to visit him when we can, which isn’t often enough. One day last autumn, he took us for a walk in the Sma’ Glen. His wife died a few years ago. This was one of her favourite walks. As we walked, the atmosphere shifted somehow. He talked of her and their time together in a way I’d never heard him talk before. There was a deep connection here for him, a connection between people and place. The processes of walking that same path allowed him, and in turn us, to re-witness that. Finally, we reached the spot where he and Helen would often turn around and walk back.

Seeing those memories triggered just from a simple stroll was humbling. But all over the Highlands there are places like this, intersections of geography and memory. You probably have your own examples. The maps here are saturated, layer upon layer, dripping with history, thoughts and feelings. So much is lost forever or shrouded in myth, some is still accessible, just under the surface, and some we’re still making afresh. The land is alive.

Before moving to Scotland I worked as a music tutor with refugee kids. I don’t think it was an accident. I’d moved around as a kid and didn’t feel like I was from anywhere. These kids, displaced for much more serious reasons from Iraq, Iran and Afghanistan, weren’t either. Instead, they carried their homes in their hearts, but they’d much rather not have had to. I guess if there’s any thread in this disparate collection of stories, it’s this. If everywhere is homogenized, flattened, and if we’re divested of our connection with the land - what will become of our memories? Do they grow richer by necessity, or just rawer, more monochrome, full of longing for connections lost.

Later, when I came north, I worked for a conservation organization that aims to connect people with nature. From people exiled, to land dispossessed. Clearly, in my own personal story at least, there was a drive to connect the two, to do some healing. Have I found what I’m looking for?

 
 

Invoking the spectre of belonging a month before the independence referendum is probably a risky business, but (you may be relieved to hear) I don’t have any really sweeping statements to make. As the son of a Scottish mother and an English father who grew up in Wales and then the badlands of South London, home for me is wherever I can pitch my shelter - which thankfully is most places north of the border. I’m not from Scotland, not really from anywhere - and as I've established, that's not as romantic as it sounds - but I’m extremely happy to have made a home here. It feels like it is its own place, and I really value that. There’s a few customs, quirks and idiosyncrasies that make the country unto itself, and in general, people seem to value where they stay.

Whatever your views – Yes, No or as yet Undecided, one of the things that is positive about the upcoming referendum is that it’s got us all engaging in debate about where we live - kids and grandparents alike. Whoever I meet right now, everyone is talking about it, from landlords to artists, postmen to shop assistants - not just politicians. And despite mainstream media telling me that the debate has been inflammatory, that's not been my first hand experience at all. I know both Aye's and Nae's but to a man, woman and child we have talked openly and honestly. I can't help but contrast this to the weariness, cynicism and apathy I've met elsewhere - 'What's the point? They're all the same!' Don't mistake this optimism for naivety - professional parliamentarians will always speak with forked tongue sooner or later, whether it's an east coast, west coast or home counties accent. What's important is that some of the non professionals are in on the debate right now, which might , in time, mean a better stab at accountability. To this newcomer at least, it looks and feels like a country connecting and investing in itself.  It might even be something approaching democracy.

Imagine that.