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New Walks in An Old Field
‘And then twilight deepened into night, and we went snorting through the Strait with a
stream of green light curling off from either bow in the calm, towards the high dim land, that
seemed standing up on both sides like tall hedges over a green lane. We entered the Bay of
Tobermory about, and cast anchor amid a group of little vessels. An exceedingly small boat
shot out from the side of a yacht of rather diminutive proportions, but tautly rigged for her
size, and bearing an outrigger astern. The water this evening was full of phosphoric matter,
and it gleamed and sparkled around the little boat like a northern aurora around a dark
Hugh Miller, The Cruise of The Betsey – on leaving Oban.
Until rather recently it was well understood that water is what joins people and places together: the
sea is a fluid means of connection, augmented by the dendritic lacework wrought by river systems,
great and peedie. Imaginative engineers, furnished with substantial cash from ‘old’ and ‘new’
money, added canal networks of great gravitas to those filaments fashioned more slowly through
geomorphological processes: deep time met modern time in the lock gates at Inverness, Fort
Augustus and An Gearasdan (Fort William). Even the new iron roads, which eventually undercut the
canal profits, joined port to port and ran straight to the pierhead wherever possible. The railway
made Oban and greatly shaped An Gearasdan, Mallaig, Kyle, Thurso, Wick and ‘Sneck,’ but it never
quite reached Cromarty.
Cromarty sits in the geographic centre of the great Moray Firth. The state’s historic habit of
managing and interacting at the level of the County has tended to direct our attention to Ross &
Cromarty as a key geographic unit, or region, when in fact it is the culturally diverse and
economically dynamic Moray Firth and its’ histories which are pivotal to Cromarty’s story. The shift
from a dominance of sea, to a dominance of land based transport networks, not only changed the
fortunes of the prosperous Cromarty of Miller’s youth, but also fundamentally altered Cromarty’s
relations within and beyond the Moray Firth basin. The meteoric ascendency of the internal
combustion engine eroded Cromarty’s previously tight, sea based connectivity. By the mid twentieth
century Cromarty had become isolated from the dominant currents of Moray Firth trade and society.
I am a Research Fellow at the University of the Highlands and Islands Division for Health Research,
Rural Health & Wellbeing, and am joining this journey from the Representing Cromarty project. This
project seeks to use artistic, historic and creative means of expression as a way of informing more
effective policies for wellbeing and health. We are looking at fiction and visual art about particular
places as well as descriptions and depictions by current residents. This is a radical departure from
the more usual, statistically based, policy development models. Five communities and five
universities are involved in this work. Cromarty is the sole rural locality.
It must be stated that health and wellbeing in Cromarty is deemed to be average or better than
average, compared to regional trajectories. So why choose Cromarty? It is a mistake to treat the
meadhan (Gaelic pronounced mee-anne) - meaning middle or median – as unremarkable. The
middle is a site of movement and becoming – an energetic multiplicity or process geography,
revealed through encounters. Deleuze observed: ‘In a multiplicity what counts are not the terms or
elements, but what there is ‘between’, the between, a set of relations which are not separable from
each other. Every multiplicity grows from the middle, like a blade of grass or the rhizome.’
Cromarty’s land-bound liminality was critically adjusted through the construction of the Cromarty
Bridge and the Kessock Bridge in the 1970s-80s. That change was ushered in by imaginative minds in
successive generations of the old Town Council. In the same era, oil industry development created
new jobs at Nigg and a new set of arts, crafts and academic folk began to move into the lovely, but
derelict, empty houses in the old town. Cromarty will never be ‘on the road’ to anywhere, but its
presence and dynamism is now re-established within the region. This is a good place to explore new
ideas precisely because local health is ‘average’ and because several local people have generously
agreed to participate, in the interests of ‘the greater good’. The possibilities for ‘greater good’ reach
far beyond the region.
In the Representing Communities project, alongside Cromarty, are Dennistoun in Glasgow, where
inner city aspects are being explored; Hodge Hill in Birmingham where the experiences of the
Pakistani community form the focus; Butetown in Cardiff, where the pivot is the fourth and fifth
generation Caribbean community, and North Merthyr, in the Welsh valleys, where the dynamics of a
post mining/post-industrial community forms the heart of the work. Any changes in policy derived
from this work will be felt across Scotland, Wales and England, by and by.
Hugh Miller would not have minded me quoting a difficult critical thinker like Deleuze. From his
family stories of seafaring; his knowledge of Cromarty’s engagement in global trade, including
empire and slave trading; and from his schoolyard scrapes, Hugh Miller had a sophisticated sense of
the ways in which the global is woven into the local and vice versa. His storytelling and writings
range comfortably amongst pebbles on the shore; ferns and lichens by the caves; the geological,
philosophical and spiritual aspects of ‘the Highland controversy’; the trickiness of brose making; the
new urgencies of ideas about ‘the rights of man’, in the wake of revolution in France and America,
and the emergence of Chartism in Britain. Hugh Miller luxuriated in the written word and in an
intellectual journey, in conversation and in text, which kept him perpetually at the very edges of
conceptual possibilities, for his day and his age. He knew ill health: at home; in the family; in the loss
of his first child, when still so tiny. He knew a quite other kind of mental and physical anguish, in his
last tormented months and hours when, transfixed by his own fear of becoming ‘insane’, weakened
by long term silicosis and overwork, sleep deprived through nightmares and ‘hallucinations’, and
complaining that his brain was ‘burning’, he took his own life on Christmas Eve 1856, aged 54.
Prolonged sleep deprivation alone could create these symptoms and several 19
working in the Highlands suffered dangerous bouts of mental exhaustion. We can never know what
occurred for Hugh.
The tenor of his account of ‘The Cruise of The Betsey’ indicates that, for him, this was a good and
hopeful time. The minister for whom The Betsey was manse and church was his old school friend,
Swanson, so Hugh had the great pleasure of renewing old conversations and embarking upon new
ones, with someone close and dear. For both men, the early years after The Disruption were
charged with the whiteheat of hopes and energies bent upon the kinds of earthly and spiritual
change in which they each believed most deeply.
This new sea voyage to Eigg achieves an important recalibration in how we understand and activate
relations between places within a region like the Scottish Highlands and Islands – and in the warp
and weave of its relations firth of local. Since Hugh’s day we have come to understand plate
tectonics, which explains much that troubled 19
century minds, but our appreciation of the impact
of intensive fisheries and the ubiquitous car, on oceans, seabirds, waves and rain, has come
perilously late. Taking these seapaths allows us to reinscribe subtle resonances between places,
geographies, histories, geologies and potentials: past and present experiences of and strategies for
wellbeing and (dis)ease - or the role of local action and imagination in development, for example.
The last time I worked with Maggie Fyffe and Camille Dressler from Eigg was in March 2012, during
The Claim of Crofting project in Skye, when they were invited as seannachaidh, or bearers of historic
knowledge and insight. Camille said, ‘Hugh Cheape says that we need to create new narratives of
Highland history, and we are’. Traveller and storyteller, Essie Stewart, with whom I have worked for
many years, was there too and will be in Eigg in September. We will gain a new kind of knowledge
about Cromarty and The Black Isle by taking the seapaths to Eigg via Oban. Did I mention that Hugh
Miller’s school teacher badged him ‘sennachie’ when he was still just a loon? For me this journey
will afford the chance of renewing old conversations and embarking upon new ones, with folk close
and dear, and with folk as yet unknown. Out of this we will surely make many new strands to
augment the narratives which have brought us here and to ornament the new stories still to come.
Hugh Miller – opening pages from ‘The Old Red Sandstone; or New Walks in An Old Field’:
‘Learn to make a right use of your eyes: the commonest things are worth looking at, - even stones
and weeds, and the most familiar animals.’ (P33)
Issie MacPhail, Assynt, July 2014.
Dr Issie MacPhail
Research Fellow - Representing Communities
University of the Highlands and Islands
Division of Health Research
Rural Health & Wellbeing
The Centre for Health Science
Old Perth Road
tel: +44 (0)1463 279559 mobile: +44 (0) 7552 211627 web: Centre for Rural Health
Project website: http://representingcommunities.co.uk/cromarty/
Connected Communities Festival, Cardiff 2014: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=BIbpzzlpo4s
Images via Dropbox – link in separate email:
Issie on fieldwork in St Kilda, June 2014
Claim of Crofting 2012 – Camille Dressler & Maggie Fyffe, Eigg
Essie Stewart outside the Bough Tent at Durness Gathering, 2014
Cromarty 2014 – misc shots
Representing Cromarty logo
Connected Communities logo
Issie MacPhail is cultural geographer and community worker living in north west Sutherland. Her
cultural praxis and curation is delivered and explored through intimate events. Highlights include
Summer in the Straths, a 150 mile journey on foot on the old travellers’ routes, with the ‘old’
travelers; Claim of Crofting, a docu-theatre project in Skye involving actors, musicians and poets, 300
school children and 15 seannachaidh or tale tellers and, lately, an exquisitely affecting set of events
for Mackay Country’s Moving Times and Telling Tales project. She is Research Fellow at the UHI
Centre for Rural Health, working on the Representing Communities project, lectures at UHI Centre
for History and is an Honorary Research Fellow at The School of Geographical and Earth Sciences,
University of Glasgow.
Claim of Crofting reviewed in Northings – ‘perhaps this potent mixture of art and academia could be
replicated across Scotland. In a jaded age of information overload, it just might provide the spark to
ignite the imaginations of those who are currently disaffected with historical and political discourse.’
March 2012 http://northings.com/2012/03/20/taking-stock/
Gilles Deleuze and Claire Parnet, Dialogues II (Columbia University Press, 2007), p. viii.
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