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April 21, 2020

Where (and what) is here?

The lexicon of policy makers evolves over time at a fairly steady rate. Important not to chop and change too much lest they be accused of lacking continuity but equally important to freshen it up every so often with the introduction of new buzzwords to keep our attention. A word cloud created out of policy over the past couple of years would have ‘place’ pretty near its centre.  In fact ‘place’ is so commonly used these days that there’s a risk of it losing all meaning. Frank Rennie, an academic from the Isle of Lewis reflects on what makes a place.

Frank Rennie, Professor of Sustainable Rural Development, Lews Castle College, UHI

What makes a place special? We probably all have places that we consider to be our ‘favourite places’, but what is it that makes them so? Is it the scenery? The people there? The wildlife or the sense of space? The last factor is critical, even in crowded places, for a space does not really become a place until we interact with it. The Space acquires layers of meaning by our interaction, and thereby becomes distinguishable from other spaces. It becomes a Place. The interaction might be due to the fact that we (or our ancestors) went hunting there, or fishing, or gathering berries. It may be a good harbour, or a sheltered place where a village has grown up, or a farm. In any case, layers or meaning are built up. The handing-down of these meanings and these stories is a major part of what contributes to our heritage. At each telling of the story, the story-teller (and the hearer) will each have subtly different understandings of the story. These nuances affect what makes the place distinctive for us, or ultimately what makes it unique, and what makes it ‘special’ (they are not all the same).

Perhaps the most simple (yet arguably the most complex) distinction is in the relative positioning of place. It is so automatic that we describe a place in terms of its distance or direction from another known place that we scarcely stop to think about it. Although we generally use the same units of measurement (e.g. miles or kilometres) our ideas of distance are strongly culturally shaped. I have often been aware of getting directions in the city to ‘take bus number X and change at…’ in order to travel a distance that is barely 15 minutes away by foot. Similarly, in some rural areas, we think little of ‘popping into town’ for a quick message, even though that might mean a forty-mile round trip. To go back further in time, before the creation of an efficient road network, travel around areas like the Highlands and Islands was arduous over land, (often by foot) whereas travel by boat was easy and flexible. That placed islands at the centre of things, not as isolated, hard-to-reach lumps of land.

Another method of differentiating places is by naming, and here, although the localisation of place is more specific, we increase exponentially the difficulties of perceiving the heritage of landscape. Places are often named in the vernacular, but people change, the dominant language may change, and certainly meaning, or understanding of meaning, will change. A place may be named after a farmer, or a funny event, or even a major battle, but with time the farmer dies, the funny event loses its context, and the battle becomes an embellished folk-tale (recounted differently by the winners and the losers). But the place name remains, perhaps unchanged from the original, frequently mangled into phonetics or (mis)translations, but either way listed on a map like a fossil of our intangible cultural heritage. A detailed consideration of the maps of our favourite place will often produce a mongrel nomenclature, such as Gaelic spellings of Norse place names, recorded by monoglot English-speakers, which were then type-set by Dutch cartographers who knew none of those indigenous languages. There are some wonderful cartographical howlers, but I have written about them elsewhere and now is not the time to elaborate.

The combination of all these factors, topography, positioning, culture, people, and many more variables, is what contributes to making a place distinctive. Many of us like our own space, by which we may actually mean, the place where all these variables conspire to make us feel more comfortable, or more creative, or safer. For some people this ‘special’ place is perhaps far away, somewhere that we return to in our imagination, and if we are lucky at holiday times. Others of us are fortunate to inhabit that special place, literally and metaphorically. The local place names are familiar signposts, not simply ink on a map, but a tangible link with the family who live in that locality, whose children went to school with ours. The changes in that landscape are not simply measured in the recognisable alterations occurring during a single life-span, but are rooted in the anecdote and history of that place. Highland author, Neil Gunn, wrote about ‘the other landscape’ by which he meant not simply the landforms that we currently all see, but also the hidden landscape of meaning, of utility, of history, and of heritage that is largely oblivious to the visitor but is embedded in that landscape.

In those situations, what might be regarded as the orthodox conventions defining a ‘sense of place’ are subverted, or reversed, and how could it be otherwise? The village that is described as being ‘at edge’ is actually at the centre of things. The island described as ‘remote’ or ‘isolated’ is only so if your frame of reference is focussed elsewhere. When you are in that island, in that community, you are a central component of that place and your perception of that place is added to the mosaic that we use to perceive and identify that place. It is the cities of the south that are remote and quaintly strange (even superficial?) to our world view.

That world view is increasingly dominated by a globalised media that overwrites the narrative of place and the importance of place in our lives. Like the place names on a map that are re-written and changed by each successive cultural invasion, the meanings and the importance of place are being changed by this superimposed dominant narrative. This has political implications, of course, as rural houses become holiday homes, and urban service solutions are grafted onto rural localities with a very different population structure, infrastructure, and social requirements. That is for a different discussion, let’s stick with the conceptualisation of place.

In his classic work on ‘Orientalism’, Edward Said explored the construction of the ‘western conceptions of the orient’. No-one from the north and west of Europe can read this work and not discover surprisingly similar correlations. In one way, Said was fortunate, for ‘east’ and ‘west’ of the globe have been conventionally (if arbitrarily) defined for hundreds of years. In the biggest hegemonic land-grab in human history, the Greenwich meridian placed London at the centre of the world, and from this point we have measured longitude in each direction (until they meet, thereby proving the fickleness of the decision). Not so for our definitions of ‘north’ and ‘south’. North of what? Where does north start? For convenience, the equator is sometimes used, but how often have we heard the London-based media talk about ‘the north’ when they really mean somewhere around Birmingham, or ‘the north-east’ when they mean Newcastle, without stopping to consider that there is a great deal more further the north, even within their own country? I sense this slipping into the political again, so let us return to the topic of a ‘sense of place’.

Perhaps one of the most effective ways to get a good idea of the multiple layers, or perspectives, of a place is to consider a longitudinal study of a specific locality. From an islander’s perspective, and most crucially from the perspective of my own village, this would entail a multi-facetted study to consider what is important at every different stage from the prehistory before written record, to what we consider we can reasonably know about the immediate future. My recent writing has done this for the village of Galson on the north-western coast of the Isle of Lewis, and I hope to publish it as a book this summer. This involves an epistemology of place (a system of place-based knowledge) that requires multifarious disciplines, including (but not exhaustively) geology, botany, history, archaeology, ornithology, climatology, and several other ‘ologies too esoteric to mention here.

The re-combination of these, and many other disciplines, will be different for every individual person who takes time to consider a place in four (or more) dimensions. A particular emphasis will be laid upon one aspect of importance or another, as new information is added to the sum total, and as other knowledge is (deliberately or accidentally) left out or reinterpreted by radicals or revisionists. In our personal interpretation of place, in ‘the other landscape’ that we each might observe, there is a gradation of association and emotion that speaks to all of us. It gives voice to the feelings that the land is ‘bleak’ or ‘beautiful’; it configures descriptions that are pejorative, like ‘remote’ and value-laden, like ‘isolated’ as well as the hyperbole of the ‘best’ beach or the ‘unique’ vista. The narrative of place is more than social history, it is natural history also, and the interaction of these with the cumulative actions of the wider world. For certain, there are unique combinations of perception that may be special for each and every one of us. There are some places that seem to hit all of our buttons and pull all of our strings, so that the location acquires an almost mystical persona-of-place that imbues it with a certain grace. Not ‘grace’ in the religious sense, but a profound elegance and charm that can be so amplified and so personalised that it becomes a ‘special’ place for us. In certain cultures there is a specific term for this unique resonance of a place; for some people, their heritage includes ‘sacred’ or ‘holy’ sites that encapsulate those intangible properties that set a location apart from the ordinary and make it particularly memorable or pleasant. Others are content to appreciate the quality of the light, or the peace that they find there.

For me, islands in general have that attraction. In this island, and in this particular village, that combination of factors coalesces for me into an intimate vibrancy that I have experienced nowhere else. I recognise that there are many such villages and other ‘special’ places that other people will recognise. Personally, I am content to be here, in the present iteration of this place, and for this place to nurture me in ways that I am sometimes slow to realise. I can only hope to reciprocate.