June 12th, 2008



* I stood on the most northerly beach in the British Isles. It lies just north of a holiday resort equipped with machine gun turrets, formerly an RAF base used for the interception of Soviet submarine communications. It's somewhat bleak, there at the top tip of Unst. The sea rattles in, and a dog barks.

* Norway, Shetland, Faroes, Iceland, Greenland; a sort of Viking's Causeway, a series of stepping stones from Northern Europe to North America.

* The tourism here is dominated by "biddies" -- ladies in their 60s and 70s, typically from northern English cathedral and university towns (Durham), terribly interested in local crafts and history. They wear brightly-coloured rain cagouls and Nikes and like to ask the tour guide intelligent questions. They occupy all the rooms in the B&Bs.

* Much of what I've been seeing here is reconstructions. Of a crofter's cottage, of a Bronze Age village, of "trowie" dells, of a Viking longship. Jumping from the present to the past -- and finding the past, for all its poverty, superstition and chilliness, more beautiful than the present -- you can't help asking yourself something like this:

In how many, out of, say, a thousand parallel worlds in which the people of the past are offered a choice between their lifestyle and ours, do they choose their own?

In other words, how much of what you consider beauty -- the muted colours of the croft's workspaces under its thatched roof, the pancreatic forms of the paleolithic brochs and roundhouses -- would be junked in a flash by these "virtuous poor" in exchange for, say, your mum's Citroen with its longboat-shaped digital speedometer display?

* My mother tells me that when we emigrated from Britain to Canada in 1973 it really felt like going to a more advanced culture. But after two years with Canadian wages (three times what my dad had been earning in Britain) and central heating, and a truly free and universal education system, we made the decision to return to Scotland. So perhaps the Bronze Age people I bring with me to the Citroen turn back at the last minute, shake their heads, proclaim that the future is not the place for them, and return to their mossy warrens, their dark brochs, their thatched drystone foundations.