Saturday, July 29, 2006

Every Village Has One

Every village has at least one war memorial. Sometimes even where there is no longer a village you find a simple monument to the men who, like Cinncinnatus, dropped their plough and went to war because their country called. Some of the men or their widows who followed their men through the campaigns came home to find they had lost their home to the same landlords who had obliged them to go to war.

The inscription on the Dingwall memorial has had the 's' on "war" carefully added to the original inscription to include another "great war". Perhaps we could forgive their naivete or grieve for their vain hope in 1918 when the world was so much younger, but still each generation seems to have to discover anew the pain and the loss. The village memorials for the most part become just another part of the landscape. Directions may be given by such phrases as "just after the memorial turn left" as easily as use the speed markers "after the big 30 sign, go 200 yards and then turn at the second left". The remote historical marker may be visited by the occasional tourist but few people go by there at all any longer and it is easy to roll the loss of those men and their families into the time of the clearances and push it into a distant, more comfortable past.

Near Spean Bridge we had the sad privilege of visiting a living memorial. In contrast with the ancient, wind swept stone of Culloden surrounded by sheep or carefully carved civic architecture of Dingwall where people come to remember from a safe distance, the commando memorial was still raw with grief. Around the central memorial were smaller sites for individual divisions within the commando organization. I don't know why it is we stopped there that day, but as we walked around I was struck by the unofficial decoration of the memorials: fresh flowers, dog tags and even medals left as markers beside the smiling young faces frozen in their photographs. I moved slowly and looked intently at each one because I could not bear to omit a single one of those smiling faces even though each step got heavier and heavier.

At the time I walked around Spean Bridge, both Britain and the United States were at war again--not a great war, just one of those ugly, mindless conflicts in which people die far from home. Despite the fact that every day young American men and women and not so young men and women were dying, it was prohibited to photograph their flag draped coffins. It was as if their death as well as their life was to be consumed by the cause for which they died. As if by depriving us of the raw grief we might more easily accept the gloriousness of their death or forget the cost of the war.

Hoosiers and Scots have in common that they are often proud to serve in the military. They go willingly because they believe that they are doing the right thing or they go because they have been asked by the people in charge and obeying is the right thing to do. In Scotland this obedience is a strong tradition. Having recently visited Culloden, I was reminded of this fact. The clan leaders thought Bonnie Prince Charlie was mad for showing up with less than token support from the French for the would be revolution, but they were persuaded to send their men into battle nonetheless. Now, of course, Culloden is seen as the turning point for the end of an entire way of life, but as a newcomer to this country I see it as part of the way in which Scotland, or more particularly the highlands, continue to be viewed.

Highlands of Scotland compete as a "Less Favoured Area" (LFA) with Eastern European countries for extra money from the centralized organization, the European Union. When the BBC recently made a new weather map, it used a London-centric projection that made Scotland into a tiny sliver that disappeared after Edinburgh. I joked that they should just put "Here be dragons" and be done with it. After much controversy and complaint, the BBC tilted the map a little bit. The Highlands are now about the size of a fingernail at the edge of the map.

In addition to the LFA designation and the near invisibility on the BBC map, I began to understand the use of the phrase "white settlers" applied to people from the south who bought holiday homes or chose to retire up here. At first it had baffled me because everyone up here is white, very white it seems to me, but I think the highland Scots have much in common with Native Americans and African Americans. As with Native Americans, highlanders share a common tradition of an indigenous people whose land and culture have been exploited, often ruthlessly. And I believe that highland Scots have in common with African Americans what Martin Luther King Jr. described as having been given a bad check. African Americans were in many cases stolen from their countries and then promised emancipation and equality, which as Martin Luther King Jr. explained, was past due after about 300 years.

Queen Victoria loved the "wild" highlands and the open space. Her enthusiasm for her country home, Balmoral, made it fashionable and so shooting estates and train stations to the door of these estates brought wealthy business men to the highlands to experience the wild lifestyle as a respite from their city living. Ian Mitchell* dubbed it the "Balmorality" of the highlands and argues that her affection for the country and her fond descriptions of it were "a modest part of the ideological offensive against" social disorder. By extension, the highlands needed to stay "wild" or undeveloped in order to allow for the industrialization, including its attendant excesses, of the south.

Recently, it was suggested that a solution to the drought in the overcrowded southeast of England would be to make a great pipeline to bring the water down from Scotland. The legacy of Victoria lingers not only in the minds of outsiders but in the local imagination as well. Some have opposed developing wind turbines here not on aesthetic grounds but because they saw it as one more resource that would be "sent south." Shortly after I first heard this argument, I saw a newspaper article about an attempt to do just that.

*Mitchell, Ian R. On the trail of Queen Victoria in the highlands. Edinburgh: Luath Press Limited, 2000.


At 12:06 PM, Anonymous amy perry said...

I like knowing the origin of the "Big 30 sign and then turn left."

At 10:07 PM, Blogger ZACL said...

Oh yes, very little stays here in the north as much as possible is purloined to go south in one form or another,for many manufactured reasons, and that includes Scotland's youth.

At 9:58 PM, Blogger landgirl said...

Amy, I thought you might like that touch.

zacl, good to see you back in blogville. Yes, alas, the movement to the south is disconcerting. Have you read any of Ian Mitchell's works?

At 7:58 AM, Blogger Oun said...

What if all the people of this world could share just one day of peace?


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