My wife and I have been wandering around the Highlands of Scotland. Yes, I went looking for ancestors—it seems the clan McLaren is one of the oldest in Scotland and not a few of us ended up here, in the Bruce. But we found a lot more.
We found the thin places. It’s a phrase that St Angus used to describe Balquidder, which happens to be the seat of the McLarens in Perthshire. By it he meant a place where the usually opaque barrier between this time and that, between the realm of the spirits and our own becomes translucent.
And when you walk among the grave stones and beside the waterfall, you get the feeling that if you turn around quickly enough you might catch out a Little Person following you. The Scots sometimes called them the People of Peace, but don’t be fooled by that. Best to leave behind an oat cake or two if you value your life in this world.
We attended other thin places (I think “attend” is the proper word, for you must sit and be present in them). The old kirk at Nigg with its moss-covered markers and its Pictish cross stone. The ancient standing stones at Callanish on Lewis … Alban giants turned to stone by St Kieran because they refused to become Christians goes the legend. But they are much older than that. We stood them up beside the sea so we could track the moon and the sun and re-orient ourselves (as all churches do) to our proper place in Creation.
There are thin places all over the world of course. Cape Croker is one. But for some reason, I can see the Scottish ones a lot more clearly.
In Scotland the past is not yet history
The thing about Scotland is (to quote William Faulkner) the past is not history—it’s not even past. Of course we were there as tourists and we went looking for history. What we found was the present.
Culloden, just southeast of Inverness, is the site of the last battle fought on British soil, and the death of an independent Scotland. The cold, driving rain that swept the battlefield gave us some inkling of what it meant to charge across that soggy moor into the withering fire of English troops.
The Scots who fought for independence under the Jacobite flag were disarmed and those who escaped Culloden alive were hunted down as rebels and traitors. The McLarens (I’m proud to say) were deemed to be the most irredeemable of the Highland clans, thanks to a long history of opposing foreign rule that reached back, beyond Edward the 1st.
The new rulers began clearing the land of people and replacing them with sheep. The tartan was outlawed, the Gaelic suppressed and the clans dispersed. That history has yet to pass.
For today, there are 8 million sheep in Scotland and 5 million people. Of those, only 750,000 are Highlanders. … On the Isle of Lewis we stayed with a lovely lady who still had her Gaelic and who told us stories of how she was beaten by her teachers for speaking it at school.
But in the 17- and 1800s, it was either starve or leave. Thousands set sail for the colonies, primarily Canada and Australia, where they were promised cheap land of their own—manna for a people whose generations were crofters. Trouble was, the land was someone else’s and our ancestors, dispossessed of land and culture, became complicit in doing to others what had been done to them. That history has not passed either.
There’s a decent 6-part video (9 minutes per part) from the BBC on You Tube on the role of Scots in battles from Culloden to Afghanistan. “Rory Bremner and the Fighting Scots” is a bit jingoistic but gives Scotland’s close history an interesting perspective.
I don’t much care for William Wordsworth’s romantic brand of poetry—all those babbling brooks and echoing rocks and gentle fields. This hills are alive with the sound of his muse.
Still, after visiting Scotland and re-visiting some of Wordsworth’s words, it sounds as though he is, in his own way, trying to push through the barriers of thin places or, by the force of his own vision and poetry, thin them enough to make them translucent.
He certainly recognizes the proximity of history, as he proves in his “Address to Kilchurn Castle, Upon Loch Awe,” although the conceit of addressing a pile of rocks, no matter how artfully put together, furrows the brow and makes me yearn for Robbie Burns’ ironic “Address to a Haggis.” In “Bothwell Castle,” Wordsworth invokes Bannockburn, the singular victory for the Scots over the English, and collapses seven Centuries into a day of roaming the ben and the glen around the ruins.
In any number of poems he “attends” to the places he writes about in a way that suggests he was fully present in them and looking for something just beyond his capacity to see it. But it is in his poems about decrepit men and marginalized women that he pushes hardest at the boundary between worlds. In “The Leech Gatherer” and in “The Cumberland Beggar” (for example) the poet sees these marginal men with one foot in this world and the other in the next.
In his sonnet to the Lucy of “She Dwelt Among the Untrodden Ways” Wordsworth laments the passing of one who lived apart from society and yet was a “light” (as Lucy’s name suggests) to the poet on another world. In “Gipsies” and in “To a Highland Girl” and “Beggars” and “She Was a Phantom of Delight” are more women on the edge of things. For the poet, they point to things beyond his ken.
To say Wordsworth’s view of women and poverty (and women in poverty) is problematic is an understatement—but still. They and the old men, being barely on this side of society and life, draw Wordsworth and his readers into contemplation of the barrier between this world and that of the spirits. They are walking thin places, as it were
Intriguingly, they do the same for others—for society. The Cumberland beggar slows “the sauntering Horseman” in deference to the old man’s plodding progress along the road; and the woman minding the toll-gate “lifts the latch for him that he may pass.” True, the things the beggar elicits from people are small charities; but in the moment of giving, the barrier between us and the spirit thins a tiny bit.
© David McLaren, October 2012.