I’VE been introducing the online publication Window to the West: Culture and Environment in the Scottish Gàidhealtachd by Meg Bateman and John Purser, freely available from the publisher, Clò Ostaig HERE.

It’s a kind of miraculous vision in itself, this technological innovation. To many readers, the existence of the book and all it contains remains invisible, beyond approach, far beyond comprehension.

And yet, the merest touch of fingertips on keys opens the window and your eyes take your mind into new perceptions, considerations, ways of understanding the world, if you take the risk and go through with it.

That’s a kind of parable that underpins everything I have to say about it today, which is mainly to introduce some aspects of the first section, on “The Environment and Sight”. If we all now live within the world of technology known as artificial intelligence and if that technology is threatening to overwhelm the innate human practices of physical sensibility, intuitive understanding and touch, then reminding ourselves of what’s truly unique in being human and cannot be encapsulated by algorithms is increasingly important.

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What’s that you say? As soon as it’s described, an algorithm is summoned up. The machines accommodate our every human singularity. To spell out such uniqueness is a gift to the enemy. Perhaps. Perhaps there is a balance to strike between saying so much that we can find a way in and not quite so much that robotic “intelligence” consumes us.

I said last week that the two most essential co-ordinate points in all forms of cultural production were language and geography. Here is where they come together most intimately, palpably, and mysteriously.

In a sub-section on “Latitude and Light” in the overall section on “The Geographical Context”, John Purser says this: “The pioneer of countryside interpretation, Don Aldridge (1930–2008), making associations between the physical and the cultural, writes, ‘Along with other parts of Europe north of 56° north, much of Scotland can claim to have sublime elements in its landscape as a matter of scientific fact.’ “Aldridge lists ‘Infinity’, ‘Mystery’ and ‘Solitude’ as the three component parts of the sublime.

The age of the rocks, the situation near the edge of the continental shelf and glacial erosion he gives as examples of Infinity, to which he might have added that we have not just a maritime, but an oceanic coast with the consequence that the horizon can be unbroken by land.

“For Mystery, for which Aldridge also reads ‘Obscurity’, he cites the darkness of winter, the struggle between four major air masses and the consequent climate effects: and for Solitude he refers to an inhospitable landscape, poverty of natural resources and the Arctic-Alpine terrain surviving from an Ice Age climate.”

We might start with the geology, the land and the terrain on which we live, but quickly we’re into the meanings this geography gives us, challenges us to understand in human terms. Paradox after paradox sets in.

“One of the most significant and characteristic features of the landscape in the Gàidhealtachd is that of the temperate rainforest, intimately connected to latitude. These woodlands are now becoming known as the ‘Celtic rainforest’.

“The expression certainly makes sense with respect to the western seaboards of Scotland and Ireland, western Scotland in particular having a rainfall well above the diagnostic two metres per annum. The additional factor of a multitude of steep gullies retaining high humidity levels, along with proximity to the sea, ensures that this environment is remarkably species rich.

“This partly explains why Scotland, with a tiny proportion of the land area of Europe, supports about 58% of the total species of mosses and liverworts, 45% of ferns, and 37% of lichens known in Europe.”

And human clothing responds to such conditions, with the tartan plaid, the kilt, for the body; brogues for the feet: water will always come in but equally surely goes out. Such an intimacy and commerce between the internal and external are essential considerations.

As the American poet Charles Olson puts it in his “Maximus Poems”: "I have this sense, that I am one with my skin Plus this – plus this: that forever the geography … leans in on me."

Given that principle of physicality, what of sight and seeing in the dark (because dark is an essential component of our world)? I can exemplify this with a poem from closer to home.

Try this, from Hugh MacDiarmid’s “A Drunk Man Looks at the Thistle”:

“Let there be Licht,” said God, and there was A little: but He lacked the poo’er To licht up mair than pairt o’ space at aince, And there is lots o’ darkness that’s the same As gin He’d never spoken – Mair darkness than there’s licht, And dwarfin’t to a candle-flame, A spalin’ candle that’ll sune gang oot.

"Darkness comes closer to us than the licht, And is oor natural element. We peer oot frae’t Like cat’s een bleezin’ in a goustrous nicht (Whaur there is nocht to find but stars That look like ither cats’ een), Like cat’s een, and there is nocht to find Savin’ we turn them in upon oorsels; Cats canna.

"Darkness is wi’ us a’ the time, and Licht But veesits pairt o’ us, the wee-est pairt Frae time to time on a short day atween twa nichts.

"Nae licht is thrawn on them by ony licht.

"Licht thraws nae licht upon itsel’; But in the darkness them wha’s een Nae fleetin’ lichts ha’e dazzled and deceived Find qualities o’ licht, keener than ony licht, Keen and abidin’, That show the nicht unto itsel’, And syne the licht, That queer extension o’ the dark, That seems a separate and a different thing, And, seemin’ sae, has lang confused the dark, And set it at cross-purposes wi’ itsel’.

IN this crucible of dark and light, there is more than one way of seeing. In the “Second Sight” section, Meg Bateman reminds us: “Car accidents are seen by modern seers with the same sort of intensity as funerals in earlier times.

“However, not all visions were of bad news: some indicated happy events, such as marriage or a visit; neither were premonitions always communicated visually: sometimes they took the form of the sounds (taradh or taislich) associated with death, for example wailing, coffin-making and the tinkling of glasses.”

I have some personal experience of this. My grandmother dreamt of her cousin’s drowning in black water in a mine disaster that happened on the evening she dreamt it. There was no reason for her to imagine this and when we discovered later that the timing was exact, we had no explanation for it.

She woke up in the middle of the night, terrified of the vision she had had, told my grandfather, who listened carefully and soothed her, and then subsequently we found out the truth of it.

On another occasion, a friend of mine and I were at a particular location in Drumelzier in the Borders and we heard human voices in a conversation just too indistinct to make out words but clear enough for us to identify them as human. There was nobody in sight in any direction for long distances in all directions.

We confirmed to each other that this was happening and to this day I have no rational way to understand it, other than to say that the tone sounded like a kind of benediction, a welcome of recognition, a gift of company, friendly, certainly spooky, but not hostile at all.

Such things I cannot explain. Something from the darkness had come into sight or audible presence, and that’s about as much as I can tell you.

Meg Bateman quotes Eilidh Watt: “Uairean tha mi ’m beachd gu bheil bad sònraichte ann, a tha ceangailte ris an eanchainn chorparra, far a bheil nitheigin a nì an aon obair is a nì crann rèidio, a thogas smuaintean mar a thogas crann rèidio briathran duinn. Ach dhealbhainn an ceangal fhèin ris an eanchainn mar a dhealbhainn ceò ri lasair-theine ... Mur biodh an crann ann am fìor ghleus, cha chluinneamaid lid ged a bhiodh an iarmailt làn ghuthan. Rud a tha.”

Or in English: “Sometimes I feel there is a particular place in the physical brain where there is something that does the same work as a radio aerial which picks up thoughts as an aerial picks up words for us.

“But I would liken its relationship to the brain to the relationship between smoke and flame … If the aerial were not well tuned, we wouldn’t hear a word, even though the sky were full of voices. Something which is it.”

In the following section of the book, blindness itself is the focus. John Purser notes: “Between darkness and light, the unseeing and the visionary, there is a natural connection of opposites.

‘SUCH connections have long been recognised with respect to poetic vision and have been commented upon by scholars with specific relation to Celtic-speaking cultures, also encompassing the appearance and even transfiguration of the poet or poetess from ugliness to splendour in terms of both bodily appearance and raiment.

“It should not be understood that actual blindness was desirable in any way. The Gaelic word rosg couples sight with poetry, for it can mean ‘eye, eyelid, eyesight, an incitement to battle’ and ‘prose or prose writing’. As an adjective, rosgach, it can mean ‘clear-sighted, dawning, wise and knowing’.

“The words are homonyms, but in modern times their meanings have been conflated” and this might suggest that the word could signify “the poetry of vision.”

Purser concludes: “Nonetheless, the relationship between the ‘darkness’ of blindness, inspiration and various abilities such as memorising and musicianship was significant and can perhaps be expressed as a need to look inwards rather than outwards.”

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Most folk thinking of an iconic Blind Poet might imagine Homer, and in Gaelic culture, Ossian. Far beyond the controversy still attached to James Macpherson, Ossian’s presence in the work of artists, composers and poets in Scotland and internationally, insists upon a much larger provenance to the bard and the meaning of his person and his work than English denigrations led by such as Dr Johnson would permit.

The Russian poet Mikhael Lermontov was so drawn to him that his poem, “Ossian’s Grave” strikes a lasting note that goes beyond the cliches of Romanticism. Here’s my version of it: In the Highlands of Scotland I love, Storm clouds curve down on the dark fields and strands, With icy grey mist closing in from above – Here Ossian’s grave still stands.

In dreams my heart races to be there, To deeply breathe in its native air – And from this long-forgotten shrine Take its second life as mine.

And this takes us to the world of dreams. Meg Bateman writes eloquently of this: “In the fifth century, we find both St Patrick and St Brendan inspired by dreams to return to Ireland, St Patrick having escaped from slavery there only a few years previously, and St Brendan having set up a monastery on Eileach an Naoimh in the Garvellachs north of Jura. No doubt the native importance attached to dreams was augmented by their standing in the Bible.

“Fís Adomnáin (The Vision of Adomnán) from the 10th century purports to be a vision seen by Adamnán on the eve of St John the Baptist’s feast, when he is taken by his guardian angel to see the pains of hell and the seven heavens before he returns to his body to impart his vision to his fellow.”

But there are other possibilities. “A satire composed by Dòmhnall Bàillidh after the acquittal of Patrick Sellar for his part in the Sutherland Clearances includes his dream of the perpetrators being imprisoned and burnt.

With the history of mantic dreams in Gaelic tradition, he hoped it would prove prophetic: “Chunnaic mise bruadar, ’S cha b’ fhuathach leam fhaicinn fhathast, ’S nam faicinn e nam dhùsgadh Bu shùgradh dhomh rim latha.

I saw a dream and I wouldn’t mind seeing it still, and if I could see it when awake, I would be happy all my days.”

It would be good if certain dreams could indeed come true. There are more extreme examples. Meg Bateman tells us: “In later cases of bardic composition, it has been suggested that Sìleas na Ceapaich, Màiri nighean Alasdair Ruaidh and Maighread nighean Lachlainn used starvation as a technique for inducing trance-like states of mind. Mac Mhaighstir Alasdair started composing ‘Birlinn Chlann Raghnaill’ in 1751 lying in the dark under a boat at Lag nam Boitean in Canna, where he was bailie between 1747 and 1752 …

“The evidence cited above goes some way to demonstrating that sensory deprivation played an important part in bardic culture, whether by accident or through deliberate action, and that similar practices continued well into the 16th, 17th and 18th centuries.

“Hearing, taste, touch and, above all, sight were excluded to induce the inner visionary states from which prophecy and art could emerge.”

The National: Alexander Runciman’s depiction of Blind OssianAlexander Runciman’s depiction of Blind Ossian (Image: NQ)

The image of Blind Ossian, far from being an invention of the Celtic revival, may well derive from deliberate practice, and “represent a straightforward continuation of elements which even the most sober of scholars is prepared to associate with druidic sources.”

To quote Norman Shaw: “Experience of wild woods, mountains and wildernesses become portals into the unbroken totality from which our reality is born.”

Algorithms do not come close.