Recently, I’ve been reading Landscape to Light, a collection of essays by the late Neil M. Gunn – who, in addition to being one of the 20th century’s foremost novelists, also hailed from Caithness. I’ve loved reading Gunn’s views on all sorts of things, and as well as finding his essays interesting in their own right, they’ve also helped illuminate some of his other works (such as The Well at the World’s End, which I wrote about not long ago). Naturally, the article that attracted me most was ‘Caithness and Sutherland’, in which Gunn pays homage to the far north in prose that is both evocative, thrilling and poetic.
More than that, the 1935 essay rings with a sense of connection to place that can sometimes be lacking in the insta-filtered travel writing we’ve become accustomed to in 2022.
Gunn begins by pondering the warnings of an of-the-time travel guide, in which the author describes Caithness as ‘rather a dull county’, and advises travellers that only the kudos of a visit to John O’Groats will be missed if they bypass as much of the county as possible. It’s the mention of a reduction in ‘grandeur’ when approaching Caithness from the west that really bothers Gunn here, and he states his case as a ‘Caithness man’ – retorting that the ‘mind must be prepared for the reception of beauty in its more exquisite forms.’
That exquisite form is laid out beautifully in a passage on the same approach, which Gunn sees through a very different lens, in which the observer confronts ‘an austerity in the flat clean wind-swept lands that affects the mind… a movement of the spirit.’
I know of no other landscape in Scotland that achieves this harmony, that, in the very moment of purging the mind of its dramatic grandeur, leaves it free and ennobled.Landscape to Light, Neil M. Gunn
The travel guide’s view of the far north will be familiar to many of us here in 2022 (I’ve previously been irked by internet reviews calling Caithness ‘boring’, ‘unappealing’, or making unfavourable comparisons with other places). I once saw the town I live in referred to as a ‘nowhere town’, which contrasted with my own view of the place, which is that it is everything, everywhere – beauty is in the eye of the beholder, as they say. After experiencing the challenges brought by increased tourism in recent years, residents might be forgiven for not rushing to convert those who find themselves unmoved by the charms of our landscape. Indeed, it’s not hard to imagine what writers like Gunn might have said about modern ventures like the ‘North Coast 500’:
The Highlands, of course, may yet become a popular tourist playground dependent on tourists and nothing else. After sheep, deer; and after deer, tourists. It is the ascending order of our age of progress. For those who know the deep humanism of a past age, there will be regret at the gradual passing of the human stock that was bred of it.Landscape to Light, Neil M. Gunn
Much of the external indifference towards places like Caithness seems to stem from an image of what the Highlands ‘should’ look like – perhaps leading to an unwillingness to appreciate places based on their unique characteristics and landscapes. Gunn points to this in his essay, gently chiding the picture-postcard image of the Highlands in which ‘gigantic crags, their tops swathed in Celtic mist, form a background to smooth purple slopes and the wan water of a loch on whose near shores long-haired Highland cattle for ever stand and dream.’ In 2022, social media is awash with such scenes, and would-be visitors might naturally assume no people exist in such a landscape. Tourism companies often perpetuate this view, offering the impression of places with all the people removed. The power of writing like Gunn’s is that it puts people, and their connection to the landscape, at the very centre of the picture. In reading his stories of the far north I fell in love with my homeland over and over again. Stories have the power to do that – to make us fall in love with places – even the ones we were already in love with. People protect the things they love, and in order for visitors to fall in love with a place – to want to protect and respect it – they also need to fall in love with the stories of place, and to an extent, with the people who call places home. Telling a story of place without people severs that connection – perhaps explaining the hollow feeling I get when I see the way the far north is (sometimes) portrayed on social media. Too often we find people rubbed out of their own stories, their history extinguished, their presence an inconvenience at best.
2022 is Scotland’s Year of Stories, so what better way to understand the stories of the far north than by asking the people who live here? We’ve become accustomed to hearing others tell our stories, sometimes hanging on the hashtagged wings of those who don’t serve our interests best. Yet we have a wealth of our own stories here in Caithness – projects like Wick Voices and the Living Landscapes of Castletown illuminate place through the first-hand accounts of people, while local tour guides Above and Beyond Tours offer tailor-made experiences framed with local knowledge and experience. Later this year, Lyth Arts Centre’s Northern Stories Festival will celebrate the stories and culture of the far north, while Caithness Broch Project have recently revealed plans for a replica Iron Age broch they hope to construct right here in Caithness.
Falling in love with a place can begin by falling in love with a story. That applies as much to the people who live here as those wishing to experience it – for shouldn’t a place be firstly for the folk who live there all year round?
If you want to understand a place, seek out the stories of the folk who live (or lived) there.
And if you want to understand Caithness, start with Neil M. Gunn, and an essay from 1935.
‘Landscape to Light’ by Neil M. Gunn is available from Whittles Publishing.
Also read lately: ‘Native’ by Patrick Laurie – a lyrical account of farming and connection to place in Laurie’s native Galloway. ‘A Breath of Snow and Ashes’ by Diana Gabaldon – Outlander book six. Currently reading: ‘Losing Eden: Why our Minds Need the Wild’ by Lucy Jones – an exploration of the link between nature and well-being. Currently writing: a memoir of place, people and home.
This article is not affiliated with any of the organisations or projects mentioned.
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