An image of Dunnottar Castle, or ‘fort on the shelving slope’, taken on my birthday. At the foot of the castle, which had just closed for the evening, a group of high schoolers were setting up for a production of The Tempest. The weather was blustery, with flecking rain that wets your face but doesn’t do too much to your clothing. A piper began to play on the steps that descend to the beach, rise steeply up to the castle.
I thought of Sunset Song, by Lewis Grassic Gibbon who came from not too far away. Sunset Song, which centres around Chris Guthrie, a girl born into a poor farming family around the beginning of the 20th century, charts the hardships of that way of life and its sudden, wrenching decline after the First World War. Chris or as she is often called, ‘Chrissy Quine‘ (lass, or woman-in-service or queen…a multipurpose word if ever there was one) personifies the idea of ‘smeddum’ or backbone (but much more than that, as the link will show you). Her mother commits suicide, exhausted by constant pregnancies. Her brother runs off to a new life in Argentina, leaving her to do all the farm work for her cruel, injured and injurious father. Yet she exerts her endurance, stands emanating it like an ancient bronze statue glints under the Greek sun.
She is often called in criticism, Chris Caledonia – as one of the main themes of the novel is the idea of Scottish Nationalism, which is a hot topic right now, with the referendum a little over the horizon in 2014. Being of the early 20th century, it’s a nationalism of ethnicity and locale, rather than civic or culturally based, ideas the current nationalist movement (across various affiliations) is firmly behind. I hope to re-read the novel soon, thinking of girlhood and identity, of the ferocity Chris possesses at her straitened life, and so on, as I’m planning a guest post for Subtle Melodrama who is focusing her summer reading on Scottish literature (and encouraging others to join her).
But why did I think of her when looking at Dunnottar? There was a scene in the book set here, which I saw in the TV adaptation of Sunset Song. Filmed on a glorious day, it shows a softer castle, and the theme is of love, marriage, harmony. The shadow of war is hidden away, but with a ruin such as this, it’s hard to see it in that light. It’s a castle that seems made for tempests, to loom on its lonely rock above the white-horse-driven North Sea.
But then, there are flowers, cuts of green where a burn turns into a waterfall, that from any angle you cannot see the bottom of unless you tumbled down into the canyon.
It is summer, however dark and almost dreich. Both castles, the castle of peace and the castle of gloom, exist at once. Simplification is not possible. And I must write, with momentum from pictures, from my limited time, from my sense of things thrumming through the skin of the rain.