I write from the midst of a landscape – at a desk at a window that looks out upon a part of the world that is as real for me as it is also remembered and imagined. Wherever I gaze, sitting at this window here at home in Sutherland, or going from the kitchen to the other rooms in the house and seeing it out there, or when I am actually in it, in the midst of that same view, walking through it, I am looking at hills that were written into the stories I was told by my family as I was growing up in far away New Zealand as well as a landscape I myself drew upon and then transcribed again into a work of make believe in a novel I wrote that was set here, both factual and a work of fiction.
Sutherland then, one might say, for me, is a place of fancy – as the Romantics would have had it, with that 'synthetic' and 'magical' power which could bring about the fusion of human faculties, according to Coleridge – as much as it is a fact of geography, of life. And I'm not the only one who thinks this way. For how much of the Highlands, the empty parts of Scotland, the largely uninhabited moors and mountains, are areas that exist as much in the mind, before, or even if ever, for a great number of people, they are realities?
It's part of how we think about Scotland altogether – in mythic, hopeful terms that comprise so much of the rhetoric around the independence debate, for example, or in various cultural exports such as films and a certain kind of literature, where the country's rugged, empty landscape is invoked as an emblem of independent spirit and a kind of proud isolationism. And Highland culture, in particular, its ballads and songs, piobaireachd and stories and poems, is riven through with the kind of double thinking that allows at once for both what we dream of and where we really are.
So we outline the region in our thoughts while we talk of it, giving it this character and that, filling in its colours and textures, inhabiting it hypothetically while we go about our lives in other places. For that is how, for the most part, the quiddity of these remote Scottish localities suggests itself to us: more imagined, for most of the time, than actually experienced. Unlike our cities and towns with their present-day agendas and activities that are articulated and represented in the press and general media, and in the schedules of people we know and are in touch with, our remote places that don't figure so much, if at all, in the national news and broadcasts, these other empty regions we must, for the most part, dream into being; creating in so doing a context, a geography with value and history, that would otherwise barely exist or be known only according to what is put about based upon the most general impressions or clichés.
If we didn't imagine a Sutherland – sing about it or paint it or photograph it or write it, such as I started to write it here into this piece, with the view from my window – this region of Scotland might be known only as the place where, for example, the Clearances were most pronounced. Or where the wind turbines are, laid down into their great concrete bases that have been sunk deep in the soft peat and now proliferating all over the hills.
Or it might be a place where, recently we've read, a rocket station can be established... Because, as the thinking went first with regards to people, and now to the concept of empty space itself: Out of sight, generally, is out of mind – which is why Sutherland may well not be a 'somewhere' at all were it not for the more subtle complicated stories about it we tell, the names of the places in it remembered and recorded, the paragraphs we write bringing it into being in words.
For imagination, reality... Philosophers would tell us they are concepts both, only of the mind. As is thinking about the future of a land mass, of land, a theory; the notion in general, of empty land, wild land... These are all ideas we conjure up and give words to, definitions, as versions of reality when we should know by now from the history of land habitation and use in the Highlands how values and priorities change like the weather. Telling ourselves what's important, and what's not, is part of the business of being human, too, as practical and social beings, when we think about land use, figuring out how we might live.
When historians and politicians think of Sutherland, for example, they might think of it in a set of various economic units – estates and crofts and farms and sheep clubs – and when it comes to talking about what I see outside my window I know that my view's pleasures comes criss-crossed with the boundary lines of private ownership and privilege that I cannot see.
Yet is what I see out there so strictly unambigious? That the forced dialectic of, say, the wealth of the big sporting estates versus 'the people', the haves and the have-nots, must dominate our thinking, our seeing, our very understanding of what is valuable and true? Is land really so easily read in the simple language of of ownership and domination and usefulness that it may be translated so easily to a political stance? A frame of mind?
My own mind can't compute the wild freedom of thought that this empty place engenders, ideas of emptiness and space at great opposition to the posturing and presenting of all those capitalist and socialist ambitions that rage in town; the cities' and economies' obsessions, whether legislating against personal gain or for independent nationhood... All those priorities and policies that might seem so important in Holyrood or Westminster are lost to me out among the gray green spaces and dissolving air. It's all I can do to remember my own name once I'm in contact with a place that is so.... without. Does who-owns-what-and-how really, really, make any difference to my delight in being here, now?
This sounds – that word 'fancy' again arises from my page – day-dreamy, I know; that one might dismiss political movements and a challenging economic reality with a wave of a hand as I pass over the brow of a hill and out of sight. But I return to that view outside my window... Is it definable? Accountable? I know how its history moves in and out of versions of feudalism and deprivation that are still narrated today; as I know, too, that local shops and services cry out for the income provided by the needs of those enjoying their leisure on the traditional estates that have been in private or landed ownership for decades and years.
As one gamekeeper put it to me recently, forcefully, not only about his own profession and livelihood but about the welfare of animals in remote regions and Highland land management in general: 'Thank God for the toffs!'. Both realities pertain. As do a whole host of versions in between – as many different versions of experience as there are people who live here, whether for for some or all of the time, each and every one of us with our own feelings of what this place means and how it measures. In general then, what kind of summing up could I ever make about what I think of as 'my' view – though it's actually someone else's, I suppose, and a unit of cost as well for the Scottish Parliament and Westminster, too.
What if its contribution to our lives might be as abstract as a story? But, like a story, adding to our understanding of self and individuality and culture? The notion that a mass of land, just the fact of it – knowing that it's there, at our back, that we could go to it, whether or not we do so – can be part of our imagination and is valuable for that reason? That it makes up our feeling of wholeness, of wellbeing, part of defining who we are, not only in Scotland, but perhaps throughout the rest of Britain too, and even the world?
It's quite a thought! As with David Attenborough's penguins and whales that he shows us on our televisions – those waters and ices that most of us won't swim in or trail over in our lifetimes, yet look how we all talk about these places with their animals as though we might have that connection – just imagine if we felt that this view I see here and write about now is, similarly, something we all might share. So Sutherland not 'there' or 'theirs' but 'here' and 'ours'. In the same way that places of historical importance, or geographical significance are connected to our notion of self, that we feel part ownership of, invested in – from the Eiffel Tower to the Pyramids to Mount Everest – so how would it be if these hills, this lovely empty space marked out mostly in white on the map for want of roads would be something to which all of us felt linked and travelling towards?
By so knowing places in our minds do we possess them. Is how my thoughts run, sitting here at the window as night draws in, as they have been running for a while... My view also your view, and yours, and yours and yours... One vista laid upon the other, as hills lead onto hills lead on to hills, one rising behind another and another and another, all the way into distance, to the sky.