An Offshore Account

I don’t like to be late.  And I don’t like to be lost.  I find both states deeply unsettling, breaking, as they do, the temporal and spatial maps we hold fast to in our heads. 

So, if I manage to be late or lost, my brain does little intracranial loops and tends to get a bit cross.  But crossness in the face of your own stupidity is a waste of time and energy – you need to save crossness for things that are important.

I started to feel just a tad uneasy when I could not find my flight in the departure board, so I checked and double-checked, but no, it was not there.  I walked up to the check in desk (which was suspiciously quiet) and asked: 
“Where do I go for this flight?”
“Aberdeen” came the reply.

I let that sink in for a while – looked at my ticket and felt pretty stupid.  There I was, in Glasgow airport, looking at a ticket to Orkney from Aberdeen airport.  A mere 3 hours away by road – and the flight was departing in 90 minutes.


Lost and late.  Well maybe not lost, given that I was where I thought I ought to have been, but where I ought to have been was somewhere else.  

Ah.   Shit.

I produced my credit card, booked on to the next flight – which was at 10 am the next morning – and spent a not insubstantial sum patching up the errors of my ways.  I went back to my hotel, ate some cheese, drank some wine and went to bed.  In the end, it was the only option I had.

The next morning I was neither late nor lost, turning up at the correct airport, the correct time.  Glasgow continued to outshine itself, with a clear sky morning promising fair weather to come.  At just past nine in the morning, I was shocked to see a tall woman in a sky blue ball gown walking down a grey concrete walkway by the rush hour busy road.  The whole scene was strange beyond experience, like a mirage brought on by the heat and repeat viewing of The Matrix.

“Either a very early start or a late finish” I suggested to the driver who agreed, but pointed out that we were passing a University and that there was some form of graduation at this time of year.  “They like to get dressed up, especially the lasses,” he added in a way that suggested he knew what he was talking about.  Never judge a book by its cover.

Much as the night before had been a (self-inflicted) stuff-up of massive proportion, there was an up side.  Taking the later flight would mean I would be on the same plane as my brother, who being older and (so he says) so much wiser than me, had actually arrived at the right airport at the right time. 

For many people a trip with your brother may not be that remarkable.  But we aren’t that sort of family.  As a round figure we had not really lived together, at the same address, for 30 years, and the number of holidays we had taken together at any time, without other family being present, was precisely zero.  Much later, in the long evening twilight of an Orkney over a pint, we would realise that it would be probably the first time we had ever slept in the same room together. This really was a long way from adjacent rooms in a damp and failing cottage in Somerset.

The dozen of islands that form Orkney are scattered across the sea about 30 miles beyond the northern tip of Scotland.  The number of islands depends on the state of the tide and the shape of the wind.  To the west there is nothing but water until you reach Canada, to the east lies Norway.  The islands spread over three sheets of the Landranger map series, that classic of mapping with the bright red cover that weathers down to trademark pale pink with use.  1:50,000 scale, perfect for almost all things, wonderful in its detail and miraculous in completion.  Much can be learned from the close observation of these maps; old names, out of place today, pass on a history that can be read and understood.  Viking names; farming names; field names.  Names from a time when each place had a special role and purpose.  Names that would tell you if there was water underfoot, or peat for winter fires.  Summer places, winter places, places where eagles nested and seals gave birth.  The land made the words and the words we gave shaped our understanding the the land.  These maps may well be one of the finest, but least appreciated, accomplishments of human endeavour. 

With a little practice, and a shot of imagination, you can use maps like these to build a picture of a world you cannot see.  You can see ahead of yourself and over the next hill.  The flow-lines of contours allow you to build the shape of the land in your own head, they allow you to predict things you have not seen.  In the hands of an expert, this skill can become close to miraculous, and even I can manage some crude approximation of this skill.  These maps allow for a kind of spatially creative magic that builds the shape of the land within your own head – the maps do not show the reality of the land, they are a 2D cypher of a 3D planet.  By definition they cannot be accurate, the world is not Cartesian, but the map is.  They are a wondrous tool for the creation of a mental illusion, which often bears a striking resemblance to the real world.

But when you start to look, and maybe think a bit, the maps show more that just the relative locations of objects and the shape of the land.  They also contain an archaeology of the people who made them.  The maps I grew up with contained symbols for Post Offices and public phone boxes, both of which were of far more significance than they are today.  Their inclusion says something about the society that existed within the landscape in which they were found.  And the removal of these from the maps tells us something about how the world around us has changed.  The symbol at a road junction which said ‘here is a device with which you can talk to the world’ has become as redundant as the device itself.  Equally, on the 30 year old maps that sit on my shelves, you can find the location of both pubs and churches (with or without a tower).  These were included as places of both community and connection, where people filled themselves with one form of spirit or another.  I wonder how long these symbols will retain their utility as we abandon community and connection.

For maps to be able to work their wondrous magic they need to be based on meticulous observation and measurements.  Hundreds of distances and angles, forming triangles that march over the landscape in a remarkable trigonometry.  Maps are based in the human observation of the world as it actually is.  I may declare the world flat, and assign it four corners, but the measurements say something else.  The measurements are not biased by politics, cant or religion. Additional lines can be added to the maps after wars and agreements, but the triangles and measurements remain unchanged: political maps are a human invention laid over the top of the shape of the land.

Today, we take maps and their technological surrogates for granted – we have come to rely on them.  Maps plot our journeys forward, both in time and space.  And we think that we clever beyond measure.

But when you stand in the landscape of Orkney, you are challenged to think again about the measure of our achievement.

Possibly more than anywhere else on Earth, Orkney gives us a view into the landscape of the past and the way that early people mapped and predicted their world.  When you stand in the centre of the Stones of Stenness and come to see that the stones line up with specific events – solar and lunar – you cannot help but be amazed.  How was this done?  How did the engineers of the Stone Age create these great maps of the sky and the future?  Stone circles that speak of both direction and time, crafted by hand, pulled from the Earth by a people we have the temerity to call primitive.

The landscape of Orkney is rich in human symbols and measurement.  The bumps and barrows, henges and hill top circles are the result of measurement and observation just as meticulous as those used by our modern mapmakers.  Stones align with each other, with hilltops and with solstice sunrises.  Precisely what these alignments meant to the life of the people who built them we may never know, but the intact Stone Age landscape of the Orkneys suggest a degree of sophistication that was never communicated to me at school. The laughable New Age nonsense of Druids or the conspiracy of Alien Intervention devalues the simple fact that these structures are remarkable. But one thing is entirely clear; the Stones of Orkney are based on the observation of the world as it is – or was 4000 years ago.  Far too many of the stones align with the events of space for their placements to be luck.

The light that shines down the entrance tunnel of Maeshowe on the winter solstice meant to do so, and the Barrow was built by people who wanted that to happen.  We don’t know why, but we do they achieved it.   And yet it seems we are still not fully ready to give the people who build these structure from the cooperative Orkney stone the full credit they deserve.

While we were stood within the circle of Stones of Stenness we were told in no uncertain terms that the shape of the stones themselves had no meaning.  This seems fair enough after you have seen the broken stones at the Ring of Brodga where a recent (ish) lightning strike felled one of the monoliths – but as a general statement it seems to be a rather sweeping one.  The care with which both the location of the stone circles and the stones within them suggests (at least to me) that ‘any old stone’ would not have been chosen.  Would Capability Brown have designed the sweeping aspects of his landscapes and then said ‘just stick a big rock up there’ to finish off?  I don’t think so. And neither, I suspect, would the builders of the circles on Orkney.

At Skara Brae an even more remarkable expression of the care these Stone Age Orkadians took in the use of stone comes, not from a grand monument, but from domestic furniture.  In 1850 a Stone Age village started to reappear from the sand dunes after a winter storm.  This was a village that is still recognisable as such today.  The round houses have beds made from the flat stones and ‘fish tanks’ that were lined with clay where bait or lobsters could be kept fresh and alive.  But most remarkably, some of the houses have storage cupboards – side-boards if you like – with a wide flat top and shelves.  Some people think these may have been used in some form of ritual manner, but others suggest that they were simply storage units.  In fact if you copied the layout of this stone furniture, gave it a strange, vaguely Nordic name you, could sell it in Ikea.  There are grindstones next to at least one of these ‘cupboards’ and many of the houses have ‘box gutter’ plumbing to take away all the foul things a family can produce.  Many, many people live today in houses that have less amenities than these. And in case you missed what I was saying there – these Stone Age houses had a form of plumbing, built of stone stabs that still functions today. 

It takes almost no imagination to see how families could live in these houses, gathered around the central fire and eating meals of grilled sea-bass and shell fish.  And when you bring this to mind, the idea that the same people, sophisticated and recognisable, would just say ‘F**k it, just use any old stone,’ in their circles and monuments, seems even more far-fetched.

And where did all this kind of thinking start – well, it started right here: when I found a benchmark cut into one of the stones of the Ring of Brodga.  A benchmark is a sign that a mapmaker has been here and determined the height above sea level – it’s a fixed point around which the information of the cartographer flows, and from which maps are drawn.  A modern symbol on a Stone-Age monument, thousands of years apart in their creation, but linked by the common purpose of their manufacture – to help people navigate the world.

People have lived and found their way on Orkney for thousands of years, and for a few days I was glad to join them. 

Bonny on Clyde

It was mid-morning as the plane banked for one last time and settled down to its long approach.  Small clusters of houses, woods with arterial bike tracks and capillary branches, fields with horses gathered in anticipation round feed stalls.   Each growing bigger in the plane window by the moment.  Each adding to a patchwork  countryside typical of a city edge.

Greens.  Browns.  Off-white buildings flanked by regulation lawns.  A football pitch, where dozen of kids chased a ball: ebbing and flowing, a school of little fish. Factories and shopping centres. 

Normally the houses seem to go on for ages and ages, as if the whole land is swamped in urban sprawl.  But this is different.  Just over there are hills, and beyond those, more hills.  I suspect – maybe imagine – the glitter of water, spreading wide and long in valleys still rebounding from the loss of ice. 

This is not London with its gentle, rounded hills, this is Glasgow with its views to the highlands and its hints of lochs.  This is not England.  This is Scotland. This is not homecoming, but a form of out-going.  A journey to a place that is, once again, embracing its difference and finding that this difference is good. 

When you travel for business, but don’t travel Business, there are few better things to see the your name written on a board, where a friendly face offers help and guidance.  And above all else, offers an easier journey to your hotel. 

Whoever said it was better to travel than arrive, never went through the long night of Economy on the way to Dubai, or the endless daylight beyond it.  

I knew what to expect in Glasgow.  Grim rundown old place.  The ghosts of industry.  A place that once built ships but did not anymore.  A place to be before I went somewhere else.  I had seen the pictures on the TV in the 1980s, so what more was there to know.  I had the clear-eyed benefit of belief without the baggage of evidence.  I knew what to expect, and expected to see what I knew.

Maybe I should have taken the weather as a sign; clear blue skies unending.  Early summer warmth.  Swallows rushing past leaf rich trees, a magpie calling from a windowsill.  The taxi driver laughed at the weather and said it would be raining soon, as was right and proper for June.  He mocked the weather forecasters for suggesting the sun would shine and shine and shine.  And that the rain would stay away.

Jackdaws pecked at scraps on the side of the road.  Gulls swirled over the Clyde.  And the sun kept shining.    Two bright and shiny buildings sat by the river.  The Armadillo and The Space Ship.  The driver slowed for me to get a better view. If the Armadillo – really the Clyde Auditorium – had uncurled and walked off I would not have been surprised. 

But then it struck me.  The buildings were bright and shiny.  There were apartments being built, and the sun was still shining.

The taxi turned right onto a down slope.  A church of fine red stone stood across the far end of the road, and on both sides tall buildings of the same red rose up from the wide pavements.  In George Square, a large public space, tall statues and neat grass were studded with pigeons and people eating an early lunch or a late breakfast.

The taxi stopped outside an old industrial looking kind of building; the doors to the inside were wonderfully designed of old wood and new steel.  Reception was staffed by a sane collection of blue eyed eastern European and authentic locals with poetry in their accent.  I was offered a tea, for which I was thankful, and when it arrived, it was in a mug; “The cups are too small for a decent cup” I was told and I found myself in total agreement with the sentiment.

But something was not working; something was remarkably and deeply wrong.  This was not the Glasgow that I knew existed.   This had to be somewhere else - maybe Edinburgh with its festival cool, or Aberdeen with its….. whatever Aberdeen has.  This could not be Glasgow. 

What I saw and what I knew were clashing in a way, which compounded by jet lag, brought my confusion to almost fatal levels.  I was in that political dream state of the current age where knowledge is unhindered by experience, and certainty never challenged by evidence. Opinion, being far more important than the mere empiricism of measurement, meant that what I was seeing must be wrong.  I shook my head and went in search of my room.

The outside of the room’s single window was deeply speckled with dust and dirt, breaking the view in to a broken patchwork that hid the details of the buildings and courtyards behind.  The nearest rooftop sprouted a small tree and a few tiles were missing, slid off by winter storms or pushed off by the growing Ash.  Beyond that building was the back of a pub, where wide wooden tables were laid out with glasses and plates of food.  This was more of a vision of the truth that I knew to be true, and feeling slightly superior I took a shower.

An hour later I was back in George Square, where more people had gathered to soak up the sun and meet with friends.  On the outside wall of the Guilds Hall a metal plaque held a set of standard measures – one foot, two feet, a yard – and the back of a war memorial recalled the number of people from Glasgow who had died 100 or so years ago.  Measurement and numbers.  Facts and figures.  I think this may have been some form of sign as well.

I picked a sunny spot – and there were plenty to choose from – and tried to let the daylight reset my biological clock.  Tour parties came and went. People took selfies and flashed peace signs at family cameras as they stood in front of the War Memorial.  Kids climbed on the feet of the imperial lions that guarded the flanks of the memorial.  Adults walked past the ‘please do not enter’ signs to get a better shot of the catalogue of the dead, a digital memory, lest we forget.  I find such things disquieting.

At the other end of the square, away from the Lions and the cross of remembrance, a group of workmen, striking in bright orange, eat lunch below a statue.   Nobody seems keen to be photographed in front of them, preferring the memory of the past, to a vision of modernity.  Maybe it’s the spirit of the age.

I walk away from the square, following my nose, looking for the river.   Many of the buildings are grand in a way that I find surprising.  Elegant, if a little time worn, and red.  Warm.  Intricate.  The detail speaks of a history I do not know about, when the profits of industry must have stayed in the city rather than disappearing off shore in the digital brown paper bags of modern banking.

I find the river more by Zen than navigation, walking down unfamiliar roads, hoping that my foreignness does not show too much.  The Clyde is wide and brown, overstepped by bridge after bridge and often hidden behind high walls and cut off by fences.  At least in the sections I saw, Glasgow still seems to look to its warm red stone, than the flow of its river.  There are more buildings here in need of care than in the city center.  Nobody seems to be stopping for lunch. Gulls gather and fight over unseen scraps, mallard spin in circle eddies by the shore. The sun keeps shining.

I talk to a street-sweeper who bemoans that senseless violence of the bottle smashers; people who throw their empties at walls rather than place them in the bin.

“They could leave on the ground for all I care ” he says, “I’d pick ‘em up.  But once they are all smashed – the bottles that is! – they cut my bags and take ages to clean up.  Arseholes.”

This was my first, and certainly not my last, encounter with a kind of conversation humor that was as refreshing as it was unexpected.  I’m a serial conversation starter – and here, for once, I seemed to fit in.

The sunlight had not yet woven its magic on my biological clock and my eyes were closing despite the hour.   I had landed in Glasgow in full possession of a Fox News kind of certainty – one that was firmly rooted in a world where fact and fiction are indistinguishable, and all you need to know is that your own beliefs render things to be true.  It was a kind of Magical Thinking that surprised me when I saw it for what it was.  Knowing most of what I knew of Glasgow was wrong, and wondering what was true, I turned my back on the river and walked back towards the center of things.