“Sweet the Cuckoo’s Sound”: Prof. Michael Russell
“Sweet the Cuckoo’s Sound” Argyll: Place, People and Neighbours
Prof. Michael Russell, MSP for Argyll & Bute; Minister for UK Negotiation on Scotland’s Place in Europe
Keynote address at the Scottish Centre for Geopoetics ‘Expressing the Earth’ conference, 24th June 2017
The Glenmasan Manuscript, written in 1238, brought to light a much older gem of Scottish/Irish literature, the Lament of Deirdre. Full of imagery of the place and its environment it is a good starting point to consider Argyll as an integral whole and the way in which it relates to its neighbours, then and now.
“It is a great pleasure to be here this morning.
It must be coming on for two years since I first discussed the possibility of this event taking place. I did so on the neighbouring island of Luing with my friend Norrie Bissell, and it is he and my other good friend, Mark Sheridan, among others, who have made it happen.
At that time I was out of Government; released after 8 years of Ministerial office, five of which were as Scotland’s Education Secretary, which followed on two years as Environment Minister and too short a time – only 9 months – as Culture Minister.
I had recently taken up an intriguing and enjoyable position as Professor in Scottish Culture & Governance at Glasgow University and I was looking forward to contributing to a range of events such as this, as well as teaching and writing in the University – all the while continuing to represent the most beautiful, and the most rural and diverse, constituency in the Scottish Parliament: Argyll & Bute.
I was more than aware of Norrie’s championing of Geopoetics over many years and the idea of an event that brought to our shores and doorsteps a consideration of this part of Argyll in a wider, deeper way; a way that connected the land, landscape, environment and culture to the people was (and is) very attractive.
What, of course, I did not know, is that when I agreed then to deliver a keynote, I would be doing so in very changed times and with a very changed role: back in Government and spending every day focused on the threat to Scotland that is presented by a UK Tory Government fixated not on moving forward in understanding, but instead backward in polity.
So what I have to say today will be different from what I might have planned to say even twelve months ago. It may be as much geopolitics as geopoetics – or perhaps an amalgam of the two – although it is driven by my own continuing fascination with and support for, the extraordinary vision of Kenneth White.
Twelve months ago of course, on this very day, we had woken up to the reality of the Brexit referendum decision (or, rather, decisions). A positive intention to stay was declared by every area of Scotland and by Northern Ireland and London, but a narrow decision to leave recorded in other areas and by the UK electorate if taken as a whole.
I was driving that morning to Oban – to catch the ferry to Mull – and it was with a heavier and heavier sense of foreboding that I approached the town. On the boat I found myself holding a surgery of sorts as people approached me to discuss the outcome and what might happen next.
Yet, even then we could not have imagined how much worse things were to get. The triumph of the UKIP Brexiteers was not yet complete; they had still to take over the policy and the party of Government, though that has now happened.
The recent election has merely deepened the crisis. As a diplomat said to me earlier this week, when the Italian press start to describe the governance of the U.K. as “unstable” you know you have problems!
But I am not going to dwell on that today – or rather I am going to approach it and its impact from a very different angle.
So let me start in a different time and place. A time of greater hope.
In August 2001, at the Edinburgh Book Festival, Kenneth White gave what I still think of as one of the finest lectures I have ever been privileged to hear.
The lecture was sponsored by Consignia, an ill-fated re-branding name for the much better titled ‘Post Office’ which came and went in a mere 15 months (a little lesson in that). They invited every one of the 129 MSPs who had been elected only two years before.
However, I learnt later that only two bothered to turn up – myself and, I believe, Roseanna Cunningham.
It was the other 127 MSPs’ loss.
At the very beginning, White stakes out the intellectual ground on which he stands when he says this:
“Scotland at this moment is in a transitional stage – we can probably all agree on that, for a start. At surface level , it’s a question of politics. At a deeper level it’s a question of poetics. I don’t neglect the politics, but Im I am more concerned with the poetics. If you get politics and poetics coming together you can begin to think you’ve got something like a live, lasting, culture.”
And then he starts off on our voyage of discovery with the physical reality of where we stand:
“A country,” he says, ” begins with a ground, a geology. When it loses contact with that, it is no longer a country at all. It is just a supermarket, a Disneyland or a madhouse.”
Both remarks are as true today as they were then. We are still in a transitional stage. Though the transition is less hopeful, the destination perhaps less appealing and more problematic.
But let me too start with a ground, with the ground, which is what he calls his ‘first zone’ in the remapping of our country – a task needed more than ever.
I represent a constituency which consists of a large swathe of rural, West Coast Scotland, as well as 23 inhabited islands and hundreds and probably thousands of other pieces of rock and grass surrounded by sea, which are outcroppings of a geology that floats on a plate in constant, though very slow, motion around our planet.
Last October I stood on the border of ‘our’ plate – the Eurasian Plate – where it abuts onto another of the 15 large plates, the North American Plate.
It is a plate, we should not forget, on which we float with the whole of Europe and which, therefore, declares some form of common destiny.
At that particular point in Iceland, however, there is in the process of being made, as the Icelanders say, ‘new earth,’ for the plates are what is called in geology ‘divergent.’ Their boundary is that of the North Atlantic ridge where vulcanism brings to the surface molten lava from deep under the plate.
But at that spot the Icelanders also made something else: a country.For in the valley between the plates – where the new earth is being made (though at this spot the motion is presently ‘transformative,’ that is side by side) – a tall flagpole flying the Icelandic flag marks the spot where the ancient Parliament of Iceland met; and where, on the 17th of June 1944, the Republic was proclaimed, bringing an end to the Union of the Crowns with Denmark.
The link between the country and the ground is obvious in Iceland. In Argyll it can be obvious too, if we look for it.
‘Deirdre’s Lament,’ or her ‘Farewell to Alba’ is a work that we know from the 13th century Glenmasan manuscript, though it is undoubtedly earlier in origin. ‘Alba,’ of course, being Kenneth White’s preferred name for the country in which we live, for, as he puts it:
“The word has “an A for a beginning and another A at the end, for an opening. In between you have lb; libra, books.”
Glenmasan is in Cowal, a high glen still difficult to enter. It is here that the manuscript seems to have been written, and it starts with these words:
“Do dech Deardir ar a heise ar crichibh Alban, agus ro chan an Laoidh Inmain tir in tir ud thoir
Alba cona lingantaibh
(Deirdre looked back on the land of Alban, and sung this lay:-
Beloved is that eastern land,
Alba, with its lakes.)”
Deirdre – Scotland’s ‘Helen of Troy’ – is, of course, preparing to leave Alba, and it is the land, the landscape, the environment and the people which she is mourning, but also celebrating.
And here are just a few more of the places she celebrates:
“Glenmasan! High is its wild garlic, fair its branches
I would sleep wakefully
Over the shaggy Invermasan.
Glen Etive! in which I raised my first house,
Delightful were its groves on rising
When the sun struck on Glen Etive.
My delight was Glen Urchay;
It is the straight vale of many ridges.
Joyful were his fellows around Naos
In Glen Urchay.
My delight in every man who belongs to it.
Sweet is the voice of the cuckoo
On the bending tree,
Sweet it is above Glendaruadh.
Beloved is Drayen of the sounding shore!
Beloved is Avich (Dalavich?) of the pure sand.”
I count myself lucky today to be one of those men who ‘belongs’ to Glendaruel, having lived there for the past quarter of a century and having heard the cuckoo there often.
This poem – perhaps the oldest recognisable description of Argyll – is, in every sense, ‘grounded.’ Deirdre’s Argyll is not a supermarket or Disneyland; it is a place that shapes her and us, and is in turn shaped by her and us.
Deirdre had an intimate connection with, thoughts about, experience of and sensation in the landscape and the places. Just as we have, today, in the same places and landscape that have not changed greatly in a thousand years.
The same grounding remains a feature of the aesthetic of many creators in Scotland. We can experience it ourselves in the poetry of Norman MacCaig who draws in the living as well, in poems such as “So Many Summers” and in the poetry of Jim Carruth, a particular contemporary favourite of mine, whose poem ‘The Field’ ends with these two verses:
“He looked at Muirsheil’s dark and blackened hills
Round to the hard won grazing of the Law
And further to the creep of city high rise
He raised one strong arm across his body
Then with the grace of a sower’s wide arc
Scattered his father to the wind”
In any consideration of country and ground we have to include people and their physical and intellectual creations as well as their state of life or death.
And in so doing we move to White’s “second zone”, the zone of history, identity and culture. It is here, of course, that White in his Edinburgh Book Festival lecture was at his most critical. He despairs of the inability to draw the ‘significant lines together’ and wonders if it is possible to re-ground our country and culture, or as he later puts it , to ‘re-found’ it.
His description of the ‘self made nitwit, the smart semi-educated nonentity, moneyed without being mannered’ who inhabits this space perhaps strikes a renewed chord though the intrusive ‘lap top and portable’ are probably replaced now (only a decade and a half on) by the iPhone and Twitter.
But the purpose of lampooning that person and the land he inhabits is not only to make us sensitive to ourselves and our faults. It is also to drive on, by means of contrast, to his His real objective, which is the ‘head zone’ as he describes it,
the zone of philosophy and poetics, the regaining of a significant centre for a culture with a re-grounded educational system, with value-oriented information, with enlightened cultural politics…a place where , in a simile, he envisages ‘more and more people going into bookshops, able at a glance, at a whiff, to make the difference.’
‘A virtuous populace’ wrote Burns – in that much-maligned ‘Cottar’s Saturday Night’ – ‘may rise a while / and stand a wall of fire around their much lov’d isle.’ The same thought, in a different cultural time and clad in different clothing.
White’s aim, in this ‘remapping’ is the clearest thing in his text. It is to ‘refound’ and re-centre our selves within our landscape and our culture. To reconnect us to the holistic nature of existence and landscape and to raise our eyes and minds to its significance.
This ‘remapping of Scotland’ was never going to be easy but the importance of the lecture is in part in its date. White saw the opportunity that a new Parliament and a new spirit of optimism had created. Unfortunately, that opportunity was not completely taken, that new optimism not completely converted in to action.
Perhaps it could have never have been but the potential remained alive. And the good news is that it is still alive. There is still an energy for change in Scotland – an energy of aspiration that is more than material; a politics and public life that is still driven, at least in part, by ideas and principle.
But last June a new threat appeared on the horizon. That threat may not only kill the potential, it might also unleash a process of cultural regression and political isolationism. And it is here that the poetics and the politics meet.
In On the Border, White rightly refuses to take sides between globalism and narrow nationalism.
“In the ongoing debate,” he writes, “between commercially high-powered, multinational globalism on the one hand, and, on the other, localism, geared to identity ideology, narrow nationalism, sectarianism, provincial complacency – geopoetics sides with neither party”
But then he goes on to make a plea for something bigger and smaller than both – the “World”
“….“World” for geopoetics is open world. Open world begins with place, not with simple piety of place (from homely couthiness to spooky animism via racial rootedness), but with knowledge (informed, sentient, intelligent) of place. From the smallest rivulet, via a network of rivers, one arrives at the ocean. A little geology allows one to know that not all the stones on the local beach are necessarily of local origin, that glaciers may have brought them in from elsewhere. Likewise, from a layer of local rock one can move across nations and continents. An informed look at the sky will see not only wind-driven cloud, but the tracks of migratory birds. To all of which must be added the movements of population and language.”
World is wide but rooted. World accepts, indeed welcomes, connectedness but knows place. World has knowledge and arises from knowledge, but knowledge is deep, not shallow or easy. And world is not only out there, but in here – not only outside us but alongside us and within us.
He puts it, of course, better than I can.:
“A world is a place, a space that one cultivates. And in order to be up to that world-cultivation, one has to cultivate one’s self.”
When I say ‘cultural regression’ I mean the threat from the process of Brexit that we will have our Scottish voice and our distinctive choices drowned out.
That would be the antithesis of deep knowledge of place. And our political expression may be blunted by the desire of the current UK Government to follow the path of disconnectedness it has chosen no matter the views of the divergent nations of these islands for whom connection is more and more important.
And when I say ‘political isolationism’ I mean the process of turning away from the mainstream of European life which is more than institutions but which is based – at its best – on a vision of peace and prosperity which has secured both those things for the lucky inhabitants of this continent for the past fifty years.
And more. It is turning away from a process that has widened and deepened our sense of who we are and who we can become through common citizenship with France five centuries years ago, through the experience of the peddler in mitel Europa, so prevalent that the word to describe him in high German is Scot. It is turning away from who we are and who we can become through the writings of David Hume in French (because French was his language too) through the vision of the Enlightenment, through the romanticism of MacPherson’s Ossian (whose poems were in Napoleon’s tent on the field of Waterloo) through the founder of the historic novel who was read from Waverley to Warsaw, through, indeed, White at the Sorbonne…
In other words, turning away from a process that has built (at last) political progress on the growing together of cultural roots and which can only be weakened if we take away that superstructure.
I was privileged to hear President Obama, when he spoke in Edinburgh last month, talking of the best moment to be born on this planet – now.
Now, because it is, or could be, a golden age in which the wealth of the world was turned to supporting all those who are citizens of it and in which technological progress could ensure equity no matter where one lives.
A golden age that could be – but which is not, yet. And voices that support that type of world are becoming harder to hear amidst the cacophony of fake news and propaganda. Of shallow knowledge.
But no matter one’s view of that world, putting one’s faith in politics to change these situations is a necessary step. It is the means, still, for securing change.
But recognising the deeper connectedness of humanity, not just one to one, not just individual to society, but connectedness to the ‘World’ in White’s definition is equally important. So geopoetics – as the means to ensure deep knowledge, place and connectedness – stands alongside geopolitics as a means of securing the future …the ‘world’ which is still there to be won.
Sometimes this type of discussion seems pointless. No matter how much we, in this small hall – on the edge of Scotland, which is on the edge of Europe and in a state (in every sense of that word) of insecurity – believe in thought, creativity and progress, we may often feel that we are only whistling in a cold wind.
But we are not. We are holding a candle in the darkness, keen to pass light to others to drive away fear.
In our cultural traditions – often diverse but often with common roots – there are many examples of such actions, undertaken symbolically to encourage continued hope. In the Christian Easter vigil, for example, as dusk falls, a blazing bonfire is lit outside the church from which a tiny candle flame is kindled and then carried into the heart of the community. I stood on an Argyll hillside and had a candle in my hand re-lit by this symbolic light coming into the world at just such a vigil only a couple of months ago.
And there will be light in our lives, light in our minds, if, to quote again Kenneth White at the commencement of his Edinburgh lecture we “get politics and poetics coming together” for then we “can begin to think we’ve got something like a live, lasting, culture.”
A live, lasting culture – a culture to rise above the declining culture that would be the poisoned fruit of Brexit.
I live with the reality of political change every day. I see at very close quarters the existential threat – and I use those words carefully but truthfully – that Brexit is. It is about much more than institutions and much more than contemporary political alliances. It is about how we see ourselves, how we view our world and whether we want ourselves and our neighbours to be grounded, to be re-founded, to be connected; or to be cast adrift and looking only inwards.
Here, in Argyll, we have much around us that can remind us of that choice. And remind us that it is the ground beneath us, and the signs of continued presence all around us, that give us the best lessons in ensuring that we join in, rather than walk away.
Just up the road from here there is an ancient site – Kilmartin Glen – where no doubt the questions of connection or isolation were in the minds and rituals of inhabitants long before we were ever plagued by the same thoughts.
My Glasgow University colleague Alan Riach writes this of his experience of Kilmartin, in words which could be well described as ‘grounded’ – in Argyll, a distillation of the goepoetic world view:
“I never saw the intricate connections with quite this sunny clarity before, such intimate revealing of relations in brilliance, and at such an hour: the West and Islands open to the sea and Ireland, always seemed to be alive with colour: bright blue waters, emeralds and snow; but shapes and movement, glacial striations, ox-bow lakes, tidal rivers, hill-tops making patterns to each other – all connect in vision as the art of men and women finds its laws in natural reciprocation: raindrops in a quiet pool form expanding spirals on the bending plane: an ancient brooch, the lunulae – silver, gold: water, sunlight, eyes to see the clearness of design.
And this takes place in mind, imagination: across 10,000 years, while now outside the car my father drives, the rain drives down on grass and bracken, heather rocks and hills and lochs and lochans, midges and elusive little fish. The forestry have camouflaged the earth’s wet dark antiquity; the road between Kilmartin and the ferry just approaching Oban is impatient, twisty, a hard fast exit through this valley of old ghosts. And yet the vision stays perception, the clarity of sunlight’s careful disposition, in this undifferentiated time.”
An ‘undifferentiated time’: a time of continuity and connection. A time grounded in the world, conscious of place and knowing one’s self. A confidence even during transition, even during that transition which Kenneth White imagined taking place in 2001 and which continues under darker skies.
“Fare forward, voyager” instructed T.S. Eliot, echoing that earlier injunction from Walt Whitman: “Now Voyager, Sail Forth to seek and find…”
Sail forward. Sail Forward because we have no alternative but to keep going, to travel with hope, but always to apply intelligence, creativity, poetry and even politics to where we are, where we are traveling through and to where we want to get.
And always to be connected. To hear the sweet sound of the cuckoo in Glendaruel and to know that it is one of the songs that links – and has long linked – Argyll, and us in Argyll, to Argyll and us and to the deep and wide, if not yet grounded, world.”