Something happens when I drive north. Between the central belt of Edinburgh and Glasgow and the Scottish Highlands, new spaces open up, the air changes, my mind clears. It intensifies as the A9 enters the Cairngorms with their eagle emblem.
By the time I pass Aviemore and the road glides into the Great Glen, I’m practically flying. I first experienced this Highland effect when I arrived in Scotland, 15 years ago. Eight years after moving from Edinburgh to Inverness-shire, this expansive feeling hasn’t abated. If I had to describe it in a word, it is “freedom”.
A child of the Iron Curtain (I grew up in Bulgaria in the 1970s and 1980s), in my writing I explore the psychology of borders and their antidote — confluences. The intimate human experience is my starting point and destination. In a climate of internecine conflict, accelerated change and fast-spreading mental and biological viruses, direct experience provides routes back into the truth of where — and who — we are.
When the Ullapool-based artist Peter White invited me to join him for one of his “Memorial Stone” walks to the hills of Craig Dunain and Craig Phadrig above Inverness, I put on my boots at once.
Peter’s project began with his father’s death, some years ago. He picked up a stone from a hill where his father liked to walk, painted it and dedicated it to him. From there, he started dedicating stones to people he didn’t know but whose memory he wanted to hold.
“It’s only a glimmer of their story, but it becomes part of my life.”
Then he travelled to Palestine and walked across the countryside, picking up stones, bringing them to Scotland, turning them into paintings, and placing them back in the landscape.
“There are three key words,” Peter says. “From. To. For.” Once he places his stone paintings in the landscape, he never retrieves them. “Though sometimes others do,” he smiles.
We meet at the duck pond by Craig Dunain Hospital, a disused psychiatric facility (1864-2000). Inverness, the gateway city to the Highlands, is growing, and the buildings of the asylum are being turned into apartments. One wing remains gutted, a reminder of its origin.
Peter has brought a stone painting dedicated to a famous resident — the outsider artist Angus McPhee of South Uist, who spent decades on a hospital farm here. Known as “the silent weaver”, he used grass and sheep’s wool to weave his extraordinary creations. “I chose this hill because it’s on the edge of the city, and of society,” Peter says.
“The edge” is often also the edge of collective memory. But who stipulates where “the edge” is? The centre of power. And who defines where the centre is? All of us, all of the time, because the collective mental landscape is shifting fast, along with the physical changes brought about by climate, human displacement and technological leaps. And with it are shifting entrenched notions.
Here, I haven’t once felt on a periphery. When you love a place, it becomes the centre of the world. The Great Glen of Ness with Moray Firth to the north-east is a geological faultline, and a psycho-geographical heart.
We enter the forest and squelch along a track muddied by heavy rain. The sun is out and it feels good to climb through the wood. Though much of it is a single species of pine planted to replace the original forest. No light enters and little else survives here. Roots are shallow and have no communication. This is the nature of monoculture. It is a dull place.
Art in nature is, of course, an ancient human tradition. The stone paintings are so exquisite that I can understand the impulse to take one home with you. Once, in the hills of Ullapool, Peter found a painting he had placed a year earlier. Frost had separated the painted surface from the stone. The painting sat on top of the stone.
“I was a bit disappointed,” he says. “I’d expected it to remain longer.”
How much longer?
“Three, four years?” We laugh. Three, four years is nothing to the stone, but in three, four human years (the time since Brexit, for instance), a psychic landscape can be transformed.
“To me it’s the process of turning the primary material — a stone, a flower, a person’s life — into something that both is and isn’t the original.”
It is one definition of art. At the top, we find satellite towers from the 1970s and a trig point from the 1920s that reminds me of border pyramids in the southern Balkans. Peter opens his rucksack full of stone paintings wrapped in specially sewn pouches. We lay them out on the ground. The backs are inscribed with their place of origin: Beinn Dearg Mhor, Sgurr Mor. And the names of people. Each person a world.
Peter has dedicated some to people who drowned in the Mediterranean in boat crossings. For Oumou “Belle” Bah, 16, drowned. For Marian Shaka, 20, pregnant, drowned off the Libyan coast with 25 other women. Abdullah Dilsouz, 15, from Afghanistan, run over by a truck while walking along the road at Calais en route to Britain.
He has left four stones blank for the names of people I wish to commemorate in this landscape. For Aya. For Bessan. For Mayar. The three daughters of Palestinian doctor, peace activist and author of I Shall Not Hate, Izzeldin Abuelaish. His daughters were killed by Israeli tank shells in Gaza. Yet miraculously, he has not interrupted his efforts to bridge sides and speak for reconciliation. His foundation Daughters of Tomorrow helps educate women. This exceptional man has much to teach us.
I ask Peter if I could dedicate my fourth stone to the United Kingdom. After all, this is not the country I arrived in from New Zealand, 16 years ago. There is talk in the media of the “reopened” issue of Scottish independence. But if you live in Scotland, and regardless of your perspective, you know it was never closed. And perspectives shift.
The day after the Brexit vote in 2016, I came across two young men in kilts on my river walk. We smiled in the shared certainty of future Scottish independence. Though I had in fact voted against it in the independence referendum of 2014 — what good could a new border bring? But the day after the current Westminster government was voted in, in my sorrow I was tempted to raise a saltire.
I couldn’t have imagined this a few years earlier. For me, who comes from the topographically and psychically traumatised Balkans, any national flag has wounds stitched into it. And the Balkans are a microcosm of Europe.
Europe walks in the shadow of its divisions; its modern nation states are survivors of the Holocaust, ethnic cleansing, demographic engineering. When this shadow is denied and projected on to another (the neighbour, usually), it becomes trans-generational. I call this effect Saturn devouring his children.
Brexit has opened not only national faultlines within the Union but internal, regional, and generational ones. “The stones are for people only,” Peter says. “Besides, the UK isn’t dead yet.”
Though we agree it feels a bit decrepit. We were on different sides of the Scottish independence vote, last time, and while my position has shifted, he isn’t certain about his own. All is in flux, we agree, like the climate.
One thing seems clear, though: the process of recovery and self-reflection after the indie referendum, followed by the seismic tremors of Brexit, has brought the diverse people of Scotland closer together. It’s in the air — a mixture of loss and determination.
Just then, a weather-beaten man with a white beard reaches the top.
After living in Skye and Orkney, he has returned to his native hills. I ask him where the centre of Scotland is, for him. “Here. Because I’ve come back. After 40 years.”
He is a mild sort, a lover of mountains, people, conversation. Have things shifted for him, politically?
“I’m disappointed by Brexit,”’ he says. “Leaving the EU was a mistake. Nations and people should mingle.”
He thinks Scottish independence is now inevitable, and though he dislikes nationalism, he believes it will abate here, post-independence. But he fears, correctly I think, that English nationalism has only turned darker.
“We are ruled by people in the south of England, and that isn’t right. Ach well, good to see you. Nice rocks,” and he is off. We place the stone paintings, move on to Craig Phadrig.
“What is your centre?” I ask Peter.
“My centre is what I do,” he says. “People, places, making things. Something can become part of my centre even if it is beyond Scotland. By someone else’s understanding, these memorial stones may seem like a stupid thing. A peripheral thing. But to me, it’s vital. And political power games are my absolute periphery.”
Like me, Peter is wary of polarisation and its reductive assault on our psyches. One antidote is to continue to hold a multitude of voices, stories and places, all connected like the roots of mixed tree communities.
I place my fourth stone by a Scots pine inside the vitrified fort of Phadrig. It is believed that St Columba visited the Pictish king Bridei here, in the mid 500s. Stones are highly symbolic of Scottishness — the Stone of Destiny of Scone, the standing stones of Orkney; stones are a confluence of landscape and meaning. But this small stone comes from Sebastia in Palestine. It is for David: a dear friend from New Zealand who began his journey in a kibbutz, 35 years ago.
The snowy tops of Ben Wyvis beckon from the north. Across the firth is the ancient Ord Hill. Just as the network of strategic old roads met here, so today we are unstoppably connected across borders old and new.
The crossroad lying before us all is no longer defined by the faultlines of narrow identity. It is about vision — for the kind of world we want to inhabit. War or peace, opinion or conversation, isolation or friendship? One way leads to insanity, the other — to life.
We say goodbye by the duck pond. Peter says he will continue to do this work for as long as he can.
Kapka Kassabova’s latest book, ‘To the Lake’, is out now; Peter White’s ‘Memorial’ is at Inverness Museum and Gallery to May 7
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