How the land lies

Jutting like an orthodontic problem, the rocks of Hutton’s Unconformity are reached along a shingle path from Lochranza, at the crown of Arran. The crooked strata here mark one of several Scottish sites where geologist James Hutton discerned the deep, plutonic processes involved in land formation. Along the bracing coast these are easy to overlook, though Hutton did not. His visit here, in 1787, was an enlightened moment in an era curiously ready to see the world anew – and, by so doing, as ever more ancient than had been supposed.IMG_0808

Discovering the Unconformity was one of many attractions back to this luminous place, where (with a keen eye on ferry times after last year’s crisis) we stayed again at Brae Cliff, the decomposing farmstead inherited by my sister-in-law. Too preoccupied with England after writing ‘Parish’, some cross-border perspective was long overdue. So, abandoning Bruce Chatwin’s In Patagonia, I pulled down instead The Highland Clearances, John Prebble’s vivid (if not uncontested) account of the enforced desertion of highland communities already underway when Hutton was hammering the schist on Arran.

The most striking impression made by this book is of contrasting types of ‘landedness’: that of the clan chiefs and (often English) aristocracy – whose property the land was, yet who appear uprooted from it – and their people, in ‘mystic unity’ with a shared soil of which they owned not an inch. For Prebble, a communist, this was deeply significant. Like most historians, he found in the past what he was looking for – which is not to say that it wasn’t really there, merely to affirm that we perceive those aspects of the truth which our traditions attune us to. The land itself equivocates, and sometimes bears false witness.

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The Twelve Apostles, from an original painting by Nikki Surridge

Nevertheless, even this far south there is evidence of a seismic social shift, discounted for generations until Prebble and others had the eyes to see it. Just down from Lochranza, there is a ridge of whitewashed cottages known as The Twelve Apostles, built to rehouse resistant islanders who, replaced on the hillsides by deer, now had to fish for their lives. Predictably, the parish church was complicit in this upheaval. The patronage system, whereby landowners would appoint malleable ministers, inevitably meant the muting of a more radical voice, one that would eventually be liberated as the Free Church of Scotland split with the established denomination in 1843. In the Clearances, it seems as if the main role of the parish minister was to lend moral support, seasoned with eternal threat, to the uprooting process.

Here on Arran, unconformity again broke the surface in 1815, with the appointment by the Duke of Hamilton of Reverend Crawford, ‘a man well stricken in years’, according to island historian Thorbjorn Campbell. His flock deserted the kirk faster than they had the hills, setting up an unofficial alternative in ‘The Preaching Cave’, just along from Blackwaterfoot, our home for Half Term. Learning of this on the last day, I scrambled down the shore to find it, an ecclesiastical Hutton (as I imagined), drawn by the out-of-place.

Such a holy moment when I did: a green, prismic hollow, in whose receding apex leant a driftwood cross, lashed with netting. I preached, naturally, though with none to hear my brief gospel but a few seals and the slick, slate sea.

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