KERRY Tremain, in a 2004 article about the 100 rapidly vanishing indigenous languages of California, quoted in Rebecca Solnit’s A Field Guide to Getting Lost (2017), said this: “Such language differentiation may be tied to ecological differentiation.

“In this view, people adapted their words to the ecological niches they occupied and California’s highly varied ecology encouraged its linguistic diversity. The theory is supported by maps indicating that areas with greater numbers of animal and plant species also have greater numbers of languages.”

That locates and emphatically connects our activities in language and biodiversity, grounding them in a necessary sensitivity and duty of care to both. There are general truths in what Tremain is driving at here and Solnit herself attaches them to the singular human being: “There is no distance in childhood: for a baby, a mother in the other room is gone forever, for a child the time until a birthday is endless.

“Whatever is absent is impossible, irretrievable, unreachable. Their mental landscape is like that of medieval paintings: a foreground full of vivid things and then a wall. The blue of distance comes with time, with the discovery of melancholy, of loss, the texture of longing, of the complexity of the terrain we traverse, and with the years of travel.”

In his essay The Storyteller (1936), collected in one of those essential books, Illuminations, edited with an introduction by Hannah Arendt, translated by Harry Zohn, Walter Benjamin (1892–1940) explores the work of the teller of tales in various aspects of “the years of travel” and in another, different kind of experience:

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“Experience which is passed on from mouth to mouth is the source from which all storytellers have drawn,” he writes, and identifies two kinds of storyteller, the wanderer and the stay-at-home: ‘When someone goes on a trip, he has something to tell about,’ goes the German saying, and people imagine the storyteller as someone who has come from afar.

“But they enjoy no less listening to the man who has stayed at home, making an honest living, and who knows the local tales and traditions.”

There’s a theory that the earliest structures of community did not arise from farming but from fishing. Maybe villages, towns, collectives of people, grew up around coastal communities before they did around inland locations with cultivated fields and centres of trade.

Perhaps – and this is sheer speculation, but why not? – the seafaring communities bred wanderers, the farm-based communities bred stay-at-homes. And the sounds of a locality, a community based in the annual round of cultivation of the land, the seasons, families and generations, might overlap with, but be differently governed than those of the coastal worlds.

Such relations with land, sea and seafaring would generate a sensitivity to the acoustics of place and the music of position that has never been fully considered. Geology might seem more permanent, mappable, earthed; sea roads are variable, currents and shifts of depth and velocity, water and wind, might always remind us that the world we inhabit is not static, never finally mappable, will always evade our control. I think there’s some hope in that.

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In Window to the West, the vade mecum I’ve been referring to in recent weeks, available freely online at, Meg Bateman and John Purser bring their scholarship and insight to bear on these matters insightfully and suggestively. For Purser, composer, poet, Scotland’s greatest musicologist, acoustics are the essential thing. In the sub-chapter “Geography and Sound” he writes: “There is a well-documented relationship between land form and sound, nearly always associated with mountainous country

“John Murray draws attention to some examples but there are many more in what is a relatively unexplored area of research. The song ‘Tha sìor chóineadh am Beinn-Dórain’ refers specifically to unusual sound effects from the wind in the high corries, of which Dr George Henderson writes as follows:

‘The reference [to wailing] is to what is known to shepherds and others who are often out at night as a’ ghaoir-uisge, a’ ghairm-uisge, a loud continuous murmuring sound, like the cry of a child in pain. It is very eerie in its rise and fall, and may last for 10 minutes. It is a natural phenomenon, and is a forerunner of wind and rain. ‘Beindouran in Glenorchy ... emits this noise in a most striking manner.’”

It is perhaps surprising to think of the acoustics of a place offering a means by which to navigate or orientate oneself through it. In our over-visualised culture, where advertising saturates most people’s vision, the faculty of listening carefully is neglected and undervalued. In this context, we can note a marked contrast with the priorities of cartography.

Purser informs us: “The first written records of travel in and around Scotland come from Greek and Roman sources … with merchants, travellers and refugees as possible sources for much of the information gathered in Greek and Roman accounts and on their maps.

“However, in the early medieval period, one of the first geographers to take an empirical approach to mapping was Dicuil (fl. 800) who probably served under Abbot Suibne on Iona before proceeding to Aachen to write his Liber de Mensura Orbis Terrae in 825 …”

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Purser continues: “Dicuil’s observations were based on maritime experience and in many respects maritime mapping was, and remains, as important an aspect of mapping the Gàidhealtachd as that of the land mass. With 13,115km of coastline, including islands, Scotland has 69% of the UK coastline, with the west coast possessing proportionately by far the greater part. The Gàidhealtachd has 56 inhabited islands and innumerable uninhabited ones, although many, such as Barra Head, Mingulay, Pabbay and Sandray, were inhabited up to the early 20th century. What this means is that, in terms of access to the substantial population as well as to the mainland, a knowledge of the sea routes was fundamental.

“In 1750, Murdoch Mackenzie published eight coastal charts – three of Lewis and five of Orkney – using Kirkwall as the meridian rather than Greenwich. This work so impressed the Admiralty that in 1751 he was commissioned to chart the coastal waters of the Hebrides and Western Scotland, work he completed in 1757.”

As we move through the 18th century, the priority of measurable mapping takes on a rather different purpose. “With the Scottish Enlightenment came a further stimulus to mapping, but of a much more scientific kind, with the use of theodolites and careful measurements.

“One of the most significant initiators of Enlightenment interest in mapping was Colin MacLaurin (above left), born in the parish of Kilmodan in Argyll and son of one of those responsible for translating the psalms into metrical Gaelic.

“He studied at the University of Glasgow, was appointed Professor of Mathematics at Aberdeen University at the age of 19, and then to the Chair of Mathematics at the University of Edinburgh, where he lectured on surveying to ‘a brood of illustrious surveyors, architects and mathematical instrument-makers such as Alexander Bryce, Murdoch Mackenzie, Robert Adam and James Short. Sitting in MacLaurin’s audience, the Dundases, and perhaps Watson too, were among inspiring cartographical company.’

“All of this, it should be noted, precedes the Jacobite Rising of 1745, which undoubtedly prompted the Military Survey of Scotland, begun in 1747 and resulting in William Roy’s map. Roy was a pioneer of spherical trigonometry and a member of the Royal Society, where he met James Cook. Cook’s father was a Scot and it was his son who named New Caledonia [in the Pacific Ocean, a long way east of Australia and north-west of New Zealand] – because the north-east of the island reminded him of Scotland – and the New Hebrides (Vanuatu), presumably for the same reason.”

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And since that moment, the militarisation of the mapped territories of Scotland enters most profoundly into our accepted reality. Readers of The National need no reminder of the need for a reformation of land ownership. We don’t have to state our preferences here but it’s worth studying how closely what we accept as “natural” was pinned down and drawn up by the 18th-century map-makers, and how far we have inherited the politics calling the tune that they danced to. They cover the world.

Purser continues: “Following on Roy came William Bald, who surveyed Harris in 1805, when he was only 16. Later, he surveyed Benbecula, South Uist, Eriskay and Argyll. His surveys were incorporated into Aaron Arrowsmith’s map of Scotland in 1807 and were amongst the most advanced of their time.

“Later, the Ordnance Survey (founded in 1791) was to put such ventures out of business, though the independent firm of Bartholomew was to survive into the late 20th century.” There is “an ongoing debate about the quality of the Ordnance Survey’s recording of place-names. In that context, one should remember that the motivation for these surveys was initially driven by military and subsequently economic factors.

‘While maps are primarily intended as useful guides to location, offering the user the opportunity to find and fix a place in reality or the imagination, not all maps have to feed such expectations. Alastair Noble’s ongoing project Mapping Arcadia seeks to provoke thought and its powerful particularities are motivated by much broader concerns, for all that they are highly site-specific.

“Thus, the rowan trees planted on Isle Martin near Ullapool in Ross and Cromarty delineate an outline of the island’s own contours. But it is important to note that this is a living ‘map’, existing in time. In this, as with place-names, it carries its own memories.

“It also approximates to the notion of a map as large as the area to be mapped – as first conceived by Lewis Carroll in his Sylvie and Bruno. Even such a map can be but a poor approximation. To a crofter surveying lazy-beds, each clump of invasive rushes or intrusive stalk of bracken has a place marked in the mind, offensive to order but pursuing its own competing rationale.”

There’s a grim aspect to the story we’ve told here but there are other ways of understanding it as well. Edwin Morgan, in his crucial collection Sonnets from Scotland (1984), has a poem in which he imagines the great-granddaughter of the conceptual artists Jeanne-Claude (1935-2009) and Christo (1935-2020).

Christo was well-known for his large-scale, site-specific works, wrapping up existing landmarks such as the Pont Neuf in Paris (1975) in sandstone-coloured fabric, or the Reichstag Building in Berlin in 1995 in 100,000 square metres of silver fabric fastened with blue rope.

Morgan imagines their great-granddaughter flying over Scotland in a “swing-wing / converted crop-sprayer” and shooting out a sheet of plastic: “Scotland-shaped and Scotland-sized” which “descended / silent, tough, translucent light-attended, / catching that shoal of colour in one net.”

Beneath it, what amazement; anger; some

Stretching in wonder at a sky to touch;

Chaos at airports, stunned larks, no more rain!

…Children ran wild under that counterpane.

And Hugh MacDiarmid, in his poem, In Memoriam James Joyce (1955), likens his own imaginative capacity to become familiar with a variety of the world’s languages to that of:

… a farmer surveying his fields [who]

Can distinguish between one kind of crop and another

At a stage when that is a mystery to the unskilled eye

– Knowing that wheat has a deeper green,

Barley a twisting blade that gives it a hazy look,

Oats a blue, broad blade.

The beans blossom, and the cloverfields also,

Now the valley becomes clothed as with diverse carpets

– Red clover, white clover,

The silver blue of beans,

And occasionally

The wine-glow of a field of trifolium …

This doesn’t foster a sense of military occupation and domination but rather one of intimate and loving familiarity with an entire terrain, all the regenerating possibilities that constitute the meaning of all the languages of the world, and of the cultivated earth, through all time.

And in the second of his “Direadh” poems, he extends this vision from “a farmer surveying his fields” to the poet, looking over the whole country and all the people who live here. Would any politician ever venture such a vision of potential, aspiration, and hope?

Now I see all my land and my people

As I saw Berwickshire and East Lothian…

With every potentiality completely realized,

Brimming with prosperity and no waste anywhere,

And note once more as I cast my eyes this way and that

How the healthy well-fed flickering turnip breadths

Are more vivid in their green between the woods,

And even that homely article, the potato,

When clustering over a thirty-acre field

With the slanting sun upon it,

Contributes a characteristic note.

And how every one of the streams of the Merse

Brings the spirit of the mountains and the wild

Into the rich low ground, and retains the buoyancy

Of its clear amber waters until its voice

Is ultimately silenced in the wide swish of the Tweed.

With fine disregard for the well-ordered landscape,

Its pride of timber and its pride of crop,

See how the impetuous Whitadder churns

In the deep twisting valley its chafing waters

Have cut in the course of ages

Through the sandstone! Narrow breadths of green meadow

Serve to set off the glitter of its rapid currents

And take no great injury from its floods.

Chafing always upon a rocky bed

The river gathers round it

All that fine tangle of foliage

You see only upon impetuous streams.