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.
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.
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