The Occasional Tang of Salt
This is an essay I wrote for Stravaig 2, back in 2013, introducing Richard of St Victor, who got a mention in the last post.
At sixty miles distance, this village where I have lived for thirty years is about as far from the coast as you can get in Britain. It wasn’t always so. About 10,000 years ago, when the last ice melted, there was a long sea loch here which stretched another twenty miles inland, and the fossilised remains of whales were found just up the road, near where the famous battle of Stirling Bridge took place. But since then the land has lifted and the water has drained away. It’s all about the earth round here now, farmland reclaimed from the mosses, coal and silver mined in the hills, gravel for roads and clay for making the tiles all the houses in the village had, before we became a conservation area and had to be gentrified to slate.
Gentrified doesn’t bother this house, though. Gentrified has been where it’s at from the start. Unlike my neighbour’s houses, which were built for miners and rope makers, this house was built as three holiday lets for the Glasgow Boys, who came to the village in great numbers at the turn of the twentieth century (drawn, it is said, by the lure of the modern girls, art students at Denovan’s school of animal drawing a mile up the road). This is why our house, despite its small rooms, has unusually high ceilings, some original cornicing, and, under the seventies woodchip in our guest room, the very latest in Edwardian interior design chic – plastered walls painted in a kind of mustard/old-gold colour, with a fine line of dark green along the skirting board. We put the wood chip back. I like to know the original work is still there, but I’m not inflicting it on any of my guests! We’ll come back to the Glasgow Boys later. They are only one set of the ‘wandering Scots’ who have flowed through this strange inland peninsula, which turns out to be much less of a backwater than you might think.
Although we are now so far from the sea, we aren’t entirely landlocked. The Forth is still tidal here, and when there is a high tide and an easterly wind you occasionally get the tang of salt in the air. There’s even a bore sometimes at the spring equinox, but I’ve never seen it. I do sometimes see seals rolling lazily upriver after the salmon, and in winter sea-birds come this far upstream looking for shelter, guillemots one year, young loons two years running, identifiable only by their eerie unmistakeable call, goldeneye, goosander and the sinister black cormorant every year from August to April. There was a thriving harbour just a little downstream until the thirties, exporting hides and cloth, and importing timber and wool from northern parts and wine from the south. Road traffic came this way too; it was the first place you could cross the Forth until they built the bridges at Queensferry. But the deep meanders of the river cut us off from the urban sprawl of Stirling, making this place feel a little apart and secluded, a little bit special.
That has been an attraction for ages. A recent archaeological dig found a fortified ditch from Pictish times encircling the vulnerable north side of the village, and effectively closing off the river. Local tradition has it that the Arrouaisian monks who settled here in the twelfth century built on the site of a church founded by an Irish monk from Derry – St Kenneth, a friend and follower of St Columba. Kenneth was the son of a poet and a scholar, who travelled widely in Ireland and Scotland, even going as far as Rome, and united in his teaching the traditions of Celtic and Roman learning.
The Arrouaisians themselves were a cutting edge blend of the oldest and most radical in monastic thinking – the canons Regular of the Augustinian order, and the Cistercians. Augustinian Canons had been around for centuries, often in large urban centres, at Cathedrals, specialising in services to travellers (not only hospitality, but in the building and maintenance of roads and bridges), liturgy and learning. They developed skills in medicine and diplomacy and often found themselves caught up in affairs of state. But at the time of the first Arrouaisian, Abbot Gervaise, they had begun to long for a little more solitude, more peace, and the perspective you get from being more grounded. They came under the influence of the new kids on the block, the Cistercians, who were keen to get out of the courts and the cities – they’d have understood Kenneth White’s motorway of culture – and get some real work done. Cistercians chose waste places and learned to farm them (becoming ironically, very wealthy and powerful in the process) and expressed their love for the places they settled in the monastery names – so many bright valleys, beautiful valleys, clear springs, monasteries of the forests, snows or gardens. So the Arrouaisians got out from under the shadow of the castle across the river, settled here, and made orchards which outlasted them by some four hundred years.
Travellers, scholars, earth-conscious – they already sound quite interesting, but what really concerns us as geo-poeticians is their connection with things that were happening in Europe. They came back fairly quickly into the Augustinian order and made contact with the highly influential School of St Victor in Paris – a forerunner of what would eventually become the Sorbonne. Kenneth White talks a lot about the ‘scoti vagantes’ – wandering Scots of the Middle Ages, but he doesn’t mention my favourite, Richard of St Victor.
All that is known of Richard is that he was Scottish, and I can’t even find out what grounds there are for thinking so, but he was Abbot of St Victor from 1162-70. It’s not surprising that Kenneth White doesn’t have too much time for him. His writings are mystical, theological and burdened with some very cumbersome allegorical interpretations of Biblical figures. But in an age which could veer wildly between contempt for any learning that wasn’t directly theological and contempt for any intellectual activity at all, the Victorines were inspired by their first Abbot, Hugh of St Victor, who produced an encyclopaedia of all the branches of knowledge including philosophy, carpentry and agriculture, and who famously said “Learn everything, and you will find out later that nothing is useless.” Richard of St Victor produced a study of the mind which held a balance between intellect and emotion, and between science and imagination which I don’t think has ever been bettered. It sits nicely in my head alongside White’s talk of erotic logic, body-mind and sensuous abstraction.
Of course, being so close to the Castle they couldn’t entirely keep out of public life. They were all over the political scene during the Wars of Independence, and under James IV, who was a leading patron of the arts, and they benefited from the royal court’s openness to the Renaissance in Europe.
After the last Abbot left to become the head of the First Court of Justice in Edinburgh, the Abbey became a place for wanderers who couldn’t afford to be seen drinking in Stirling to hide out. Cromwell fought over it, and Jacobites – they are still discovering cannon balls and musket shot from minor skirmishes, alongside lead from more modern wild-fowlers. The orchards lasted, and the village grew up, served first by a ferry and then by a footbridge. But towards the end of the nineteenth century, Joseph Denovan Adam set up his art school a mile away across the fields. Soon the Glasgow Boys followed, and several, including William Kennedy, James Guthrie, Crawford Shaw, George Henry and A.E. Hornel spent their summers in Stirling and Cambuskenneth. Some of their paintings – for example Harvest Moon by William Kennedy show the village pretty much as you can see it today.
The Glasgow boys were in reaction from the Edinburgh-based Scottish Academy, and believed in getting outside, away from the Romanticism and desire for sentimental prettiness, to paint real people in real places. They were influenced by Japonisme, in contact with the Impressionists in France, and travelled widely in Europe and the Middle East. Once again, this little enclosed pocket of ground became a crucible for artistic developments from elsewhere.
In between times, things sometimes settle and stagnate. Mists sometimes gather here because we are low-lying, trapped between the Ochils, the Trossachs and the Campsies, and so do stories of ghosts, of monks, orphaned children screaming, and grey ladies. The older generation of miners who used to travel through the village to the pit at Polmaise didn’t like walking through the village after dark. It’s easy to understand when your view is cut off by the trees, the familiar hills, the village boundaries, but in thirty years I’ve never met anything worse than myself. And it’s autumn, now. When the leaves have fallen I’ll be able to see out to the north as far as Ben Ledi on the skyline. The pink footed geese and the greylags are coming up from the coast in their thousands ahead of winter’s gales, filling the air with their clamour, with rumours of Norway and Iceland, and the occasional tang of salt.