Alec Ross: We Don’t Own the Franchise for Modernity and Technology

Last week saw me, once again, in Orkney. On Friday night, I was in the parish of Birsay, giving a presentation to local farmers. While it seemed to be well enough received, I was more interested in the speaker before me, who headed up the regional heritage trust and who was organising a number of events to commemorate the Martyrdom of Magnus in 1117 – 900 years ago.

I mentioned this to the landlord of my digs when I met him for coffee the next morning. He wasn’t impressed. “To matter a damn in Orkney”, he said, “you have to be dead for a very, very long time”.

On the long drive back to Stranraer I thought about that a lot.

I’m thinking about it now.

Do we think too much about the past? Shouldn’t we think more about the present? And this – was the past so very different?

Last year, a colleague and I visited Orkney to attend the Dounby Show, a huge event in the county’s calendar. The next morning, I dropped my colleague at the airport and headed back to the hotel. On arriving, he ‘phoned me to tell me his flight had been cancelled. I booked him a room and then wondered what to do for the rest of the day.

What we did was visit Neolithic Orkney. We visited Maeshowe, a burial chamber that predates the pyramids and makes Stonehenge look young. It is over five and a half thousand years old and very, very beautiful. Our guide pointed out that, on the day of the winter solstice, the sun shines directly in the front door and illuminates the whole chamber. A camber in the floor means that you never get your feet wet. And some of the stonework has no architectural merit whatsoever. It just pleased the eye of the man who built it.

Which led me to think this. If you were building a place just to keep dead bodies in, why go to all that bother? Which is why I believe that Maeshowe isn’t a burial chamber at all. I think it’s a place designed for thought and reflection. A sanctuary for the living, not the dead.

Suitably humbled and enlightened, we headed for Skara Brae, the most famous Neolithic village on the earth. When you get there, what strikes you isn’t just the age of the houses, but their quality. The details, as always, are crucial.


Skara Brae Neolithic Village Orkney

The village was discovered in 1850 after a storm revealed it. Victorian archaeologists discovered sophisticated tools and remarkably progressive architecture. But they also discovered evidence that this had been a highly sophisticated community. Clothing made for aesthetic, not just practical, purpose. Jewellery, perfume, games. It changed the way we viewed ancient societies.

So what am I driving at?  Two things.

Firstly,we should never assume that human progress is on a constantly upward curve. 2017, perhaps, is a big bump on the road.

Secondly, we don’t own the franchise for modernity and technology.

My mother recently visited France to pay homage to my great uncle and Scottish rugby captain, Eric Milroy. She visited the Somme, the haunting lone tree on no man’s land, the memorial at Thiepval. It got me thinking about my own relationship with the past.

And this is what I believe. We tend to mentally compress time when it falls within our own lifetimes, and extend it when thinking about past generations. In 1913, for example, tens of thousands of Civil War veterans gathered at the battleground of Gettysburg, the shadows of the mid-nineteenth century looming large and long into the twentieth.

Similarly, the world of Eric Milroy, though separated from mine by two global conflicts and the rise and fall of communism, feels, to me, eerily familiar. The parallels are deeply unsettling. The challenge to American dominance. Britain in decline. The growth of Asia. Rising powers challenging the ancien regime. We have, I think, a tendency to see ourselves as quintessentially modern. Yet much of what we think of as new – air travel, the telephone, globalisation, the motor car, package holidays – aerial bombing, even – was established before my uncle set foot in France.

In his seminal 1953 novel “The Go-Between”, LP Hartley writes the following lines:

“The past is another country. They do things differently there”.

But today I believe otherwise. If my visits to Neolithic Orkney – if my mother’s pilgrimage to Eric Milroy in France – has taught me anything at all, it is surely this.

It isn’t.

And they don’t.

Well known to many in Orkney, Alec Ross will be contributing a regular column to The Orkney News on farming (look out for Fridays) and occasionally other articles

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10 replies »

  1. Funnily enough – I’d just written this to someone, when I received the most recent posting on the ‘Orkney News’. We’re just people – have our ups and downs, individually and collectively. Often, the only way I can deal with what’s happening around me is to remind myself that …..’There’s ‘nowt so queer as folk’.
    Have a look a the Orkneyjar dig diary for the Ness of Brodgar – should be of interest.

    “Trump’s attitudes, and the increasing meanness in the British government’s attitude to people coming to this country, and even to people who are already here from other places, means that folk are thinking and talking a lot about the ‘Them and Us’ stance.
    This got me thinking about the Neolithic people, again, and how much I admire them. They worked together, while still, it would appear, keeping their individuality as a person ( individual art-work) and as a group, within the larger group. It also got me thinking, again, how much I admire their leaders, whether they were straight-forward leaders/ priest-leaders or whatever they were – they really knew what they were doing. The people must have been amenable to being led in that way, but the leaders knew how to work with this to organize the people to work together. Look at the Ring of Brodgar – as Colin Richards pointed out, the stones were brought by different groups from their own ‘patch’, and the people then worked on their own section of the Ring, but they had to work together to produce the end result, or it would have been a mess. Maybe not so much a ring, as a load of random stones in a field!
    The leaders organized it, and, presumably worked well with their people to hold the communities, and the wider community – what might be called the ‘nation’ now – together. The Ring of Brodgar is a perfect example of how it is possible for folk from different groups to work together to produce something for everyone – even if it is just a place to gather together – a place to gather together is a very important thing – we still have our Community Centres.
    I grew up in Bradford in the 60’s/early 70’s, where there was a real mixture of people – Asian immigrants, Irish, (including my Mum and Dad), and East Europeans who had escaped from the Nazis. What this meant was the opportunity to encounter a lot of different kinds of lovely food, music, and styles of clothing. I used to go along Manningham Lane and stand and stare in the window of the Sari shop at the wonderful colours. I digress a bit there – the point I’m making is…mixing, in harmony, is A GOOD THING. The ancient peoples, not just on Orkney, but at all those other sites which show that folk got together from a wide area, knew this, and their leaders knew this. It can work, with the right attitude and the right leaders. Where are those leaders now? If only………….
    Anyway – Brexit, Trump – once again, the Neolithic people show how advanced they were, not just in knowledge, but in a genuinely civilized attitude.
    And with good, strong, reasonable leaders. And Nick Card is now going round America telling of what they did – I wonder if anyone there will put these ideas together?

  2. Hello again Mr. Ross
    I hoped to send you a link to a piece on the Orkney Archaeology Society’s facebook page, about the mathematics associated with Neolithic carved stone balls. I don’t think I’ve managed to get the specific link, but, if you’re interested, you could scroll down until you find a short film in which a mathematician explains his interest in the carved stone balls. Here’s the link……

    It’s not just mathematics though – farming and the Neolithic walk hand in hand.

    • The Neolithic carved stone balls are all constructed from specific 3D mathematical shapes

    • Cheers Bernie – really enjoyed your reply. I love the idea of the proximity of the past. I have a friend who remembers his grandfather telling him that as a wee boy he remembers speaking to an old man who’d, as a child, been at the funeral of Robert Burns. The past is awfy close.

      It was a fellow Stranraer Speakers Club member, a very wise semi-retired minister called Alex Cairns, who warned me about the hubris in seeing human progress as ever expanding. I look at the world. He’s right, isn’t he?

      • It’s that ‘6 steps to…..’ thing….The idea is that folk can link up in, at most, 6 steps to all kinds of people and events. A similar tale to yours – When my husband Mike was a little boy, his family shared a house with an old lady called Miss Thomas – when they bought the house, they kind-of took her on, with the house. That’s another story! Anyway, Miss Thomas remembered being at Queen Victoria’s funeral, Queen Victoria remembered sitting on her uncle’s knee, that uncle eventually became George the 4th. Me, to George the 4th in 5 steps. My Irish Republican ancestors, would be appalled!
        Funny old world.
        It’s brilliant – can get you down sometimes, but, all in all, it’s brilliant.
        I’ve recently been having a discussion with Howie (Firth) about all this ‘Them and Us’ posturing, and how people can be so bad to each other, and so good to each other. Howie advised me to read ‘Mutual Aid’ by Peter Kropotkin – which I have just started to do. The idea is that an impulse to Mutual Aid is what really drives us, not nastiness. I agree, we are all one, so, it follows that mutual aid, even cross-species, is what will ‘work’ for us, in the long run.
        We just need to grow up a bit as a species and fully embrace that way of being, and stop letting that old bug-bear, FEAR get in the way.
        Enough of my pontificating.
        The ‘6 steps too…..’ game, can be fun.
        Of course, if you don’t see time as being linear – the past doesn’t just have a close proximity, it’s here and now. But that’s another discussion!

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