“The wind soughing down the Howe died away and a little peek of sun came through the hills; the lost, coarse ground where never a soul lived or passed but some shepherd or gillie. You could see them far off, lone and lonesome there in a still, clear day. Maybe so the dead walked in a still clear, deserted land, the coarse lands of death where only the chance wanderer showed his face and the dead lapwings wheeled and cried out against another sun.”
~ Sunset Song, by Lewis Grassic Gibbon.
Last weekend we took the bus to Glasgow -a two hour journey- to celebrate my 25th birthday, and my sister’s 22nd. On the way I made friends with my window and the passing Scottish landscape. I watched the earth zip by while the hills in the distance dragged themselves in parallax. The Scottish Lowlands are generally flat, lumped with hills and rolling with patchwork farmland. It is speckled with the ruins of Medieval edifices or farmhouses, and veined with small trickling burns that wind down from the Highlands to join a greater estuary before being flushed out to sea. The countryside this time of year is dead or dying and all the colours are muted: yellow grass, brown hills, black trees.
After a few hours of window-gazing, Glasgow reared up on the horizon. Great grey tenement blocks crumbling away. A melting pot of Victorian and Stalin-esque architecture snaked with wet pipes and smoking flues. Car dealerships and old factories. Stores with ‘Now Open’ signs, now closed. We pulled around Cathedral Street and my partner, by my side, nodded out towards the trees at one side of the road. “Someone must have died there,” she said. I looked and saw decaying bouquets of flowers rotting in their shrivelled gossamer wrappings.
The name ‘Glasgow’ etymologically derives from ‘green hollow’, or ‘dear green place’, and derives from the time of Saint Mungo, who formed a religious community by Molendinar Burn in the fifth century. Around what must have been a modest little church grew a town and then a city which would become, over a thousand years after Mungo’s death, one of the major smokey hubs of the Industrial Age. Lewis Gibbon’s Sunset Song laments the rural life dying under the motor wheels of the Industrial Age, which itself culminates in the First World War, where the technological revolution allowed for destruction on an unprecedented scale. Molendinar Burn itself, where Mungo presumably fished and drank and washed and soaked his feet, was covered over in the nineteenth century to make way for pavements, roads, horses, pedestrians, trams, and eventually cars and the nearby Glasgow Necropolis. Over the tarmac where the Burn used to flow now passes the Bridge of Sighs, an algae-marred stone overpass that once led funeral processions from Glasgow Cathedral (built on the site of Mungo’s church and home to his bones) to the Necropolis. I wondered how the ghosts of the dear green place’s ancient monks, abbots, parishioners and field-hands lost and found their way around modern day Glasgow.
On the morning we left great snowclouds had gathered and were pelting the earth with hail and sleet. Rain washed off the roof of the bus. I sat by the window and again watched everything pass by. I saw great stone manor gates leading to nowhere (the manors abandoned and torn down), I saw derelict farmhouses and tractors and telegraph poles canting off into the distance. A Santa Claus scarecrow stood vigilant in his empty white field, frozen to his wooden bones. Rivers were slushing from the mouths of stone bridges and behind all of this were the great sketches of the greater hills and beyond them – mist. At one point the bus went dark as we passed through a copse. The trees were covered in ice and meltwater rained down from the boughs. I noticed that many of the trees had been completely uprooted, as though Gargantua and Pantagruel had tumbled through.
All around me I see the relics of bygone eras and ages; revolutions (industrial or agricultural) turned cold and redundant. In centuries to come, when I’m a stranger to my own descendants, perhaps they will see the bus I journeyed on sequestered away in a museum and will look at it with nothing more than bemusement. Maybe they will travail our roads and cities and watch the sights with detached interest, or maybe they’ll simply sleep their way through passing by. Meanwhile, closer to my time, the winter will pass and the sun will peel back the layers of snow and the grass will breathe and grow, then wither and die, breathe and grow, wither and die, breathe, and wither…
“The folk who wrote and fought and were learned, teaching and saying and praying, they lasted as but a breath, a mist of fog in the hills; but the land was forever, it moved and changed below you, but was forever…”
~ Sunset Song, by Lewis Grassic Gibbon.