The Half Life of Stone

By Elizabeth Cone

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Can you ever see or experience the essence of a thing, separate from the social and cultural layers the thing is hiding under?

The Recreation Room, Vincennes Imperial Asylum, 1858-9
The Recreation Room, Vincennes Imperial Asylum, 1858-9, by Charles Nègre (1820-1880). Salted paper print from wet colldion negative.

An imperial decree of March 1855 confirmed Napoleon III’s wish that an asylum be constructed as a convalescent home for sick or injured workmen. Charles Nègre was commissioned to produce a commemorative album around 1858. His instruction was to document the architecture and the internal activity of the asylum. In order to achieve rapid exposures in the relatively dark interiors, Nègre used small wet collodion on glass plates and then made enlargements. Here, supervised by uniformed attendants, the inmates relax in their smocks and straw hats, some leaving shadowy afterimages.
   – The Dean Gallery, One Hundred Photographs Exhibit, Edinburgh, 2003

It requires great love of it deeply to read
The configuration of a land,
Gradually grow conscious of fine shadings
Of great meanings in slight symbols.
   – Hugh MacDiarmid, “Scotland”

 
During a month in Scotland, there are plenty of days. On some days, I am a tourist—backpack, camera, bottle of water—visiting big monuments and small villages by the sea, taking one hundred photographs, scribbling notes, absorbing atmospheres. On other days, I’m just me, living in Edinburgh, buying fruit and cheese and scones and cream in the small shops along Portobello High Street, writing pages over pots of tea, researching at the National Library, washing clothes at the launderette on the corner and dropping everything at 10 o’clock every night to run across the street and down the block to the beach, to watch the sun go down slowly over the Firth of Forth while my temporary neighbors walk their dogs along the promenade.

There is something about Scotland that draws me, the mythology and Celtic lore and Scottish history and even every day, present day Scottish life. But when I finally visit, am here in Edinburgh or Inverness or even tiny North Berwick, it seems to be that essential Scottishness that I cannot touch. Sometimes, though, what I like about being in Scotland is that I can drop the pretense of belonging to my life, to the lives around me. 

What I like about being in Scotland is that I can drop the pretense of belonging to my life, to the lives around me. 

On a tourist ferry boat on the way to a 12th century abbey on a tiny island in the Forth, all green hills and grey water and silvery mist around us, a man with white hair and a friendly wide-open face with bright blue eyes sits down next to me, on the edge of the seat, as though he’s about to get up again, and he tells me this: “I want you to know you dinnae have to worry. Whatever is troubling you will be settled and over by month’s end, all your troubles, darlin’, you’ll have nae worries at all.” I can’t think of anything that is particularly troubling me, but there is that Scottish song in his voice, and whispers of things old and pagan and knowing in the air around him, so I smile and almost believe him.

Victoria Street in Edinburgh
Victoria Street in Edinburgh.
Photo by Elizabeth Cone.
The stories that are mine begin only after the first five months of my life disappear into dusty filing cabinets in the basement of an adoption agency, and into the memories of the very few people who know I exist. I am born again into the middle of a new narrative, the fabulous stories of the heroes and villains, pranksters and ten-year-old boys, my dad created out of his memories of friends, cousins, aunts, uncles, and neighbors on the street he grew up on in Brooklyn, the street to which I was born, fully formed, five months old and already sitting up by myself. There is no childbirth narrative, and I feel as though I’m not a member of something to which everyone else has already gained entry. I don’t belong.

 

In A Circle of Quiet, the first of Madeleine L’Engle’s Crosswicks Journals, L’Engle spends a summer fascinated with the ontological. Being. The “isness” of a thing or a person. “There is an essential, ontological me…,” she says, “which is that which I was created to be, the imaginative Adam and Eve as they were in the pre-history of the Garden.”

I wonder whether an essential, ontological Scotland exists, or even an ontological me. And can I access either?

 

Just below Arthur’s Seat and the Salisbury Crags in Edinburgh, a few steps and a thousand years away from the Royal Mile of tartan scarves and souvenir bottles of whisky and toy Scottie dogs wearing kilts, King David I of Scotland escaped a charging stag and to give thanks, built an abbey called Holyrood, named for the fragment of the true cross he pulled from the stag’s horns. The Black Rood of Scotland, as it was called, the abbey’s own origin story, lived and breathed at Holyrood until the English stole it in 1346.

The ruins of Holyrood Abbey are so beautiful that it’s not enough to visit or photograph them. I want to absorb them with every drop of my blood. Standing in the shell of the abbey, I understand majesty for the first time—grok it, know it, intuit it, ken it. I take one hundred photos of sky and stone and feel how building monuments like these makes people powerful, and it seems, almost, that some of that power has been left behind to seep into the stones themselves.

View of Edinburgh from Salisbury Crags
Looking down over the Scottish Parliament and Holyrood Castle from Salisbury Crags.
Photo by Elizabeth Cone.
Scotland’s national identity was created, constructed at least, in part by Sir Walter Scott. He did it through his novels, particularly Waverley, but he also did it when he stage-managed the visit of King George IV in 1822—the first visit to Scotland of an English monarch in two centuries. The Scotland we see in Edinburgh on Princes Street, on the Royal Mile, and at the tourist center of every historical attraction—what you could take as essential Scottishness—was constructed by Sir Walter Scott out of bits and pieces of history, interpretation and misinterpretation, affectation and artifice, as Scott planned the pageantry that welcomed George IV to Edinburgh. Scott’s novels and his orchestration of the royal visit gave the Scottish Highlands back their plaid, their bagpipes, and their Highland history. Through George’s visit, Scott enabled the spread of Highland culture—itself constructed—throughout the lowlands as a “new” Scottish identity.

Hugh Trevor-Roper, in The Invention of Scotland:

My theme… is the history of this process of innocent ritualization in Scotland: the process whereby the customs and costumes of the Scottish Highlanders, previously despised as barbarous, and at one time formally extinguished, were resumed, elaborated, and extended. Thus, today, the kilt and the tartan are regarded as the traditional dress of historic Scotland: Lowland Scots imagine themselves as members of “clans,” and visitors from England are welcomed by the noise of bagpipes and must struggle to read road signs in Irish lettering.

How fitting that the enormous Scott Monument dominates the space between Old Town and New Town, its shadow always hovering above the city. And how I resent that all of this artifice exists between me and Scotland, a lover I can’t get close enough to, attempts mocked by the mundane physical fact of skin and bone. I narrow my eyes and scowl at Sir Walter Scott every time I walk by him.

 

When I get home, I know I’ll want to stare hard at my photos, hard enough to maybe fall into them and be transported back to Holyrood, just as Eustace Clarence Scrubb, cousin of Peter, Susan, Edmund, and Lucy, falls into a photograph on his bedroom wall, lands in a Narnian sea, and is scooped up the crew of the Dawn Treader in C.S. Lewis’s novel.

I’ll wonder if I think about Holyrood hard enough, will I be able to grab hold of whatever makes Scotland, Scotland.

I pick up a tiny bit of stone chipped off a flying buttress at the abbey and hold it tight in the palm of my hand, this small witness to all of its history. I wonder if Scottish people have this history, the memory of it, the passion of it, roaming around in their veins, inherited somehow, and I squeeze the stone, and hope it will bleed into me, become mine in a way the stories of my families cannot.

Bass Rock
Bass Rock, viewed from North Berwick.
Photo by Elizabeth Cone.
When I find my biological family—mother, four sisters, brother, aunts, uncles, and cousins—for a little while, they feel like my real family, like I have found my story. But I haven’t. There are 50 years of memories, experiences, sisters arguing, camping trips, First Holy Communions, graduations, golden retrievers and grandparents, school photos and summertime lunches by the pool, that I am not privy to, any more than I am privy to the essence of Scotland. I can never know either at the deep level of a native. And yet with my own family, my adoptive family, in spite of decades of Thanksgiving games of ring and run, trips back to Brooklyn to look at the Christmas lights in Dyker Heights, summer block parties with Big Wheel races and fireworks, making forts in cousins’ backyards, there is always that tiny, almost inconsequential gap between bloodlines on the family tree that keeps me from being completely theirs, or them, mine.

I’ve had a print of Joseph Beuys, a German sculptor and performance artist, on the Giant’s Causeway in Northern Ireland, over my desk as long as I can remember. I don’t recall why or when I bought it—sometime in college, from some museum gift store, probably. My Beuys print has gradually grown up from being stuck to the wall with Fun Tak, to a do-it-yourself plastic poster frame—the kind where you put the poster on the Masonite board and the thin film of acrylic over it and then slide on the sides of the frame to hold it all together—until I finally had it professionally framed, mat and all. In all that time, and in all those incarnations, it remained right over my desk, a place to fall into while I think and write.

“Joseph Beuys. Plight.” I don’t know what it is about this print. Beuys’s face? Andy Warhol loved his face, too, and created one of his screen prints using a photo of Beuys. The ambiguous “Plight?” The geological structure of the Giant’s Causeway? The mythology of the place? For years I didn’t even know it was the Giant’s Causeway—or who Joseph Beuys was—because I didn’t read the tiny print on the bottom of the poster. The framer pointed it out when he asked me whether I wanted the text to show above the mat. But I was, and still am, drawn to the photo, and I’ve spent a lot of time staring at it since.

This is not unusual for me. The desires I am most confident of come from a place of instinct, little or no reason involved. I choose living spaces, and art, by gut alone. I walk into a space and I know. From deep in my subconscious I hear, “No. No. No.” until suddenly, quietly, “Yes. This one.” I feel, “I must have this photo near me,” or, “I don’t need this to survive.”

As it turns out, Beuys loved Scotland too. He was invited to Edinburgh from his home in Germany by Richard Demarco, a Scottish artist, advocate, and promoter, and Demarco and Beuys explored the highlands and drove the legendary “Road to the Isles” —45 miles of remote Highlands going from Fort William to Mallaig—and Beuys was inspired by Rannoch Moor.

Beuys, in his “action” at Rannoch, immersed himself in the very matter—the most basic elements—of Scotland—earth, water, light and sky—and tried to identify what it was in this land that produced the Picts, the Celts, their art, their poetry, their legends and monuments, their mythology.

I won’t claim to understand Beuys’s work, but I do understand his question. Not the answer, but the question.

I spend a few weeks in Ireland but I am never stirred by it the way I am by Scotland, even when I follow Beuys’s footsteps over the Giant’s Causeway; it doesn’t touch me. The same kinds of stories, the same kinds of myths and history and hills and glens that I find charming and intriguing in Scotland land a bit flat inside my heart. Or maybe don’t even reach toward my heart. Ireland is not mine, even in spite of the Irish heritage of my adoptive family, and my own ethnic background. And I am okay with that.

I have had my DNA tested with Ancestry.com. While the adoption agency said I was of Italian, German and Native American descent, according to Ancestry, 30 percent of my genes can be traced to the British Isles. I immediately decided those genes must be specifically Scottish, although there is no evidence of this beyond my own Delphian predisposition.

At Rannoch Moor, like Beuys, I want to get my hands into the earth, to dig, to soak up the sun and fill up my body with the air, to take Scotland inside me. I want it to be mine.

On the lawn of the Dean Gallery
On the lawn of the Dean Gallery, now known as the Scottish National Gallery of Modern Art (Modern Two).
Photo by Elizabeth Cone.
One day in a gallery on Cockburn Street, I get to hear Ian Rankin read from a new book, Rebus’s Scotland. Rankin has written more than two dozen novels featuring detective John Rebus, who lives in Edinburgh, and I hunt them down in book stores and charity shops while I am here. And then I go to all the places Rebus visits: the Oxford Bar, Fleshmarket Close, Dean Village, St. Giles and Greyfriars Kirk… all the places around the city where Rebus investigates suspicious deaths and where he catches murderers, where he works and where he routinely maddens his supervisors, where he has his after-work pint. And these become some of my favorite spots in Edinburgh in their own right—St. Giles for Sunday evening concerts, Fleshmarket Close which is a quick shortcut between Cockburn and Market, Dean Village for a walk along the Water of Leith after an afternoon spent at the National Gallery of Modern Art.

Allan Massie, a writer for The Spectator, says, “[Rankin] may even be said to have invented modern Scotland, or at least modern Edinburgh, for his readers, just as Scott did in his time.”

But Rankin is reaching for something too:

I’ve said in the past that I started writing the Rebus books in order to make sense of Edinburgh, my adopted home…. Not that Rebus is me, of course, and the title of the book, Rebus’s Scotland—is a trick typical of a novelist. Since Rebus is not real, how can the country where he lives be real? The only way to make sense of my fictional universe is to say something of myself, showing how my autobiography merges with his, and how my sense of Scotland and Scottishness becomes his. This then is the story of the relationship between Rebus, his creator, and the country called Scotland.

Rebus himself, in Set in Darkness:

There were those who said that Edinburgh was an invisible city, hiding its true feelings and intentions, its citizens outwardly respectable, its streets appearing frozen in time. You could visit the place and come away with little sense of having understood what drove it. This was the city of Deacon Brodie, where bridled passions were given free play only at night.

We are all looking, grasping, for something withheld, something perceptible only by its absence, by its gravitational pull. Dark matter.

 

Roland Barthes uses the word “mythology” to refer to grand narratives, the stories cultures tell about themselves that subtly (or not so subtly) infuse certain values and beliefs and mores into (onto) its people—really, political messages about how to be a member of a particular culture—that give structure and meaning to human experience.

Richard Brody, in a New Yorker review of a new translation of Barthes’s Mythologies:

The very title of Roland Barthes’s book Mythologies… is a misnomer. There’s nothing of Sisyphus or Oedipus in the 53 short studies of French popular culture and mass media…. Its subject is messages—by and large, political ones—that are transmitted and reinforced by the media; a simultaneously more accurate and more sensational title would be You’re Being Brainwashed!

But is Barthes’s use of the word “myth” really so different from what we usually think of as myth? The mythology of Nessie, of selkies and bogles and water horses, and of ancient Greek and Roman gods and their stories indoctrinate a culture just as much as any grand narrative, any ideology that we think of as universal or natural that is instead constructed, arbitrary, context-bound.

My father’s stories about how we became a family, the mythology of our family he constructed into which my adopted self was absorbed, was enough for a long time.

Fidra and the Lamb
Fidra and the Lamb.
Photo by Elizabeth Cone.
The Oxford English Dictionary defines occult as “Not apprehended or apprehensible, by the mind; beyond ordinary understanding or knowledge; abstruse, mysterious, inexplicable.” Things exist that we cannot see—entities not attached to a religion or an ideology—and I feel a frisson of excitement, the same frisson I feel when my feet touch Scottish soil.

 

I wonder, at Inchcolm Abbey: How much does land and stone absorb fear, sadness, fervent prayer? I don’t know if what I feel is holy or magic and mystery or faith or the leftover passion of people who believed in something or even whether those are different things. But I think that sort of passion, that fervor—it has to have been absorbed for centuries by the sea and the air and the stone, and it’s emitted now like something radioactive, the presence of ancient gods and beliefs and rituals older than anything we can imagine.

My guidebook tells me that the abbey was founded by Augustinian priors in 1123, but it is one of those places that I think must have been sacred long before the abbey was built on it. The ruins are dark with unexpected shafts of light from barred windows in thick stone walls, as if to remind the men who lived and worked and studied and prayed here of the existence of good and evil.

There seems something so suburban about churches at home with their accidents of location. I want a church that is built on land that is primordial and sacred, somewhere where pacts were made with spirits, where there were sacrifices under full moons, where ancient and barbaric rituals were conducted to honor forces outside the reach of history.

I think you should feel something divine when you worship. You should feel it in the power of the wind and the water and the rock on which you stand. And I think there are places that are holy, that are magic—where alchemical transformations happen—where there are things present that are outside our ken.

Walking through the ruins I smell burnt palm, like church on Ash Wednesday, and I think it’s more than hundreds of years of ashes on foreheads and Meménto, homo, quia pulvis es, et in púlverem revertéris. Something elemental stirs my blood and all my senses. My fingertips tingle and my hair wants to stand on end, and I shiver.

There are places that are holy, that are magic—where alchemical transformations happen—where there are things present that are outside our ken.

As an undergrad, I took a sociology/anthropology course called Phenomenology and vague and at best incomplete memories of talking about the essences of things still intrigue me—whether an object in fact had an essence, a thing-ness, that exists outside of, or before, all of the social and political and value-laden and constructed narratives. An essential self.

John Locke, in the 17th century, believed that human beings were incapable of discerning something’s essence. “The substance of spirit is unknown to us and so is the substance of the Body equally unknown to us.”

Edmund Husserl, who established the phenomenological school of thought, argued that an essence is not hidden, not mysterious, not occult, that the essence was the thing embedded in all of its contexts.

The social constructionists and the poststructuralists would argue that no such thing exists. We are nothing but subjectivities, our experiences always and already interpreted, overlaid, performing within something like Barthes’s mythology.

I’m in Scotland searching for its identity and with it, perhaps, my own identity. But I am the poststructural subjectivity, my experiences, my memories, my body, always and already embedded in an adoption narrative, no origin story to ground me. No pre-adoption self. No ontological self.

But I don’t want philosophy. I want occult.

I am an untrained anthropologist. I am Claude Levi-Strauss without the benefit of education or practice, trying to get inside Scottishness. An essence I’m not even sure, philosophically, exists. I want it anyway. I am in love with Scotland. But I am outside. I am other. And I cannot get inside Scottish subjectivity. The ideology that is Scotland, that is Scottishness. The collective consciousness of a country I was not born in, or to, but that calls to me.

Bagpiper
Bagpiper on the Royal Mile in Edinburgh.
Photo by Elizabeth Cone.
When my father passed away a few years ago, we did a quick bit of research before choosing a cemetery in which to bury him. I learned then that not only are you buried in a casket that is steel-lined (18-guage steel if you buy from Costco), but your casket is then placed in what is essentially another concrete casket that is ostensibly there to prevent the grave from caving in; but really: How does the whole dust-to-dust thing work when your body is enclosed in steel and concrete?

Right around my dad’s death, I was reading Sum: Forty Tales from the Afterlife. David Eagleman imagines what happens when you die:

In the moment before death, you are still composed of the same thousand trillion atoms as in the moment after death—the only difference is that their neighborly network of social interactions has ground to a halt.

At that moment, the atoms begin to drift apart, no longer enslaved to the goals of keeping up a human form. The interacting pieces that once constructed your body begin to unravel like a sweater, each thread spiraling off in a different direction. Following your last breath, those thousand trillion atoms begin to blend into the earth around you. As you degrade, your atoms become incorporated into new constellations: the leaf of a staghorn fern, a speckled snail shell, a kernel of maize, a beetle’s mandible, a waxen bloodroot, a ptarmigan’s tail feather.

I am sad and cold when I think of my father’s atoms trapped inside concrete and steel, never morphing, never touching my own atoms again.

 

The Great Glen is actually a giant fault line running right across the Scottish Highlands—a crack in the earth. I need to be in it. I want to dip my fingers in the water, dig into the moss, dirt beneath my fingernails, scratch my skin with gorse and bracken. I roll the Gaelic around inside my mouth—An Gleann Mór—feel the syllables on my tongue, my lips, in my throat. I want to sleep in the shadow of Ben Nevis.

And when I die, I want to be buried there—no concrete or steel lined casket, please—my molecules, my atoms becoming lichen, ferns and moss, an oystercatcher, an osprey.

Interior of the Museum of Scotland
Interior of the Museum of Scotland.
Photo by Elizabeth Cone.
From the Rose Strang Artwork blog:

At the centre of Edinburgh Arts journeys was a concept Demarco described as “The Road to Meikle Seggie.” This was originally inspired by his walks in the countryside of Fife where he discovered a sign pointing to a place called “Meikle Seggie” which was almost impossible to find, but in the process of searching and exploring he encountered magic and beauty in the landscape:

Discovering the Road was like opening a door beyond which lay the reality of my dreams of a world beyond the confines of the 20th century. It promised a landscape I would wish to define with pen and ink and watercolour. Each bend and corner would be like another door opening up gradually more and more aspects of the landscape I had known in my childhood when every door and every road was an invitation to a mysterious space, forever desirable and forever new. It was the sacred threshold through which I had to pass which would reveal the space in which I would seek freedom from all restricting linear concepts of time…

What resonance this has for any creative soul! It captures the essence that an artist in any form wishes to explore and show or communicate—the way they perceive the world around them—to express meaning and share that with others. It’s the essence of being alive, of being present to witness truth whether it’s in the lines of a landscape, a face we love, or the tragedy of conflict.

 

Long before Beuys came to Scotland and hooked up with Demarco, he studied with sculptor Ewald Mataré at the Dusseldorf State Art Academy.

Found on Beuys’s artist page on the website of the Pinakothek der Moderne, Munich:

Working in an elegantly streamlined graphic style, in which a process of formal reduction evoked a sense of drawing nearer to the essence of his subjects, Mataré attempted in his art to move beyond appearances and connect with reality’s hidden core.

Matare’s animal forms reduce the animal to a flank, a hip, horns, head—their most basic shapes reproduced, and somehow carrying the weight, the depth, the strength, of each part. His animals are clear, objective, reduced to their essential parts unencumbered with emotion or context.

The River Ness with Inverness Castle
The River Ness with Inverness Castle.
Photo by Elizabeth Cone.
At Culloden Moor, I step into the modern building, air conditioned, with the museum, gift shop, and the Scottish Tourist Board Café and wonder if there is still time to catch the bus to the castle that’s the next stop on the all-day hop-on, hop-off double-decker tour bus.

On this day, Inverness is the hottest place in Britain, nearly 90 degrees, and it’s not much cooler out here on the moor, a few miles away from the city. The heat and the crowd of tourists combine to create a lethargy that makes me want to sit in the café with something cold to drink, and skip the battlefield.

But when I finally step out onto the moor, my back to the museum, the reproductions, the gift shop with its tea towels painted with purple thistles and men in kilts, a strange and unexpected wave of sadness creeps at my edges, an undertow, as though all the clansmen who were slaughtered here 250 years ago for Bonnie Prince Charlie, who are buried under stones bearing only their clan names—Fraser, Cameron, MacKenzie—are still here, mourning, weeping, bleeding into the earth. And I just want to bolt, to run, to get out of there and off the moor. But I make myself stay and soak it up, know it, my throat tight with their lingering grief.

 

Ley lines are sort of rivers of supernatural energy—to those who believe in them. Believers have drawn ley lines all over the planet, illustrating the alignment of significant historical sights and landmarks along ley lines. The points at which they meet often were, and still are, considered sacred sites, used by human beings for thousands of years, and in many places co-opted by various religious and political groups, as they gained or lost power and influence. I imagine churches, castles, standing stones, Roman sites, Iron Age forts, even sites of great tragedy, layered upon the points of connection, generation after generation recognizing the energy, or the power, and believing in it. Or just capitalizing on it.

In North Berwick, four islands are within easy sight of the shore. Ley lines run right through three of them—the Lamb, Craigleith, and Fidra—and the islands the lines run through sit in the Firth of Forth in the same pattern as the Pyramids in Egypt, and the stars in Orion’s Belt. A line extended through the Isle of May, also in the Forth, and then through the Lamb, will cross right through the Hill of Tara, the seat and the burial place of the High Kings of Ireland.

At Clava Cairns, just outside of Inverness, among the burial cairns and standing stones, our tour guide shows my two friends, my cousin and me how to look for energy and ley lines using dowsing rods, shaped like the letter L. The rods move in my hands when they (or I, subconsciously) detect energy, and at first it is freaky. I feel the attachment… the past, the energy we maybe become when we die, pulling the rods along specific but unseen pathways. The energy of the Druids, the Picts, all the ancient people who have used this site for the past 4,000 years. All this energy flowing around me.

Lerning to dowse
The author’s cousin learns to dowse at Clava Cairns.
Photo by Elizabeth Cone.
“A typical Scots greeting: more evasion than anything else,” Rankin says.

Rebus himself, in Set in Darkness, laments:

The Scots are seen as “canny” in business matters, which is why our economy remains strong in invisibles such as banking and insurance. “Invisibles” is an interesting term in itself. The journalist James Campbell wrote a book called Invisible Country, detailing his attempt to travel around and define Scotland. Others have tried before and since, most notably Edwin Muir. Yet somehow a clear notion of the Scots and Scottishness remains out of reach.

 

During my last days, I run around Edinburgh in a frenzy of gift-buying for myself and my small cousins, my parents, my brother and sister-in-law, my friends. And I recognize, as I again sit on the stones inside the abbey, that this zeal is all about possessing something of Scotland—something that is not a plastic Nessie or a wee stuffed Scottie dog—something that can bring back that feeling of sitting on ancient stones erected to honor ancient gods, of belonging to those stones.

In the One Hundred Photographs exhibit at the Dean Gallery, Bruce Bernard tells me this: “For me a real photograph is an image mechanically contrived but conceived by its taker in such a way that it mysteriously becomes a potent fact in its own right—though only with the help of things just beyond his perception or control.”

How much is Edinburgh, the Highlands, Inverness, my own fictional universe? How much have I imposed Rebus’s reality, the Royal Mile and Inverness High Street representations of thistles, highland coos, kilted men with bagpipes, tartan everything, and Scott’s pageantry, on essential Scotland?

I think I can’t become this land without having grown up here, without years and decades and generations of experiences, of language, of thought, of myth and story, without all of the different Scotlands someone inhabits across each moment of a lifetime, all working on my subjectivity. A few months here, some research, a few souvenirs won’t do it.

Mostly, I am privy only to some great reduction of this country, the broad themes of its constructed history reproduced everywhere, the substance perceptible only by its gravitational pull.

I want to feel what it means to be Scottish in my bones, the way I am, unexaminedly, American, the way people are, unexaminedly, members of their own families.

But. Does the essence of Scotland, overlaid as it is with mythology, matter? Or have the narratives, imposed by politics, by economics, by social forces, by story itself become Scotland? Can they be separated, really? Have they been co-opted? Subsumed?

Can you ever see or experience the essence of a thing, separate from the social and cultural layers the thing is hiding under?—the essence of a thing not imbricated in created narratives?

Even if such a thing did exist, could that essence ever be reached or observed or experienced? Isn’t Elizabeth, or family, or Scotland, always and already an interpretation from a specific place, time, stance, grand narrative?

We are inside an ideological formation, an epistemological construct that we cannot see, or choose not to see—and it looms between me and Scotland, me and my own self, distorting, obscuring, refracting.

Creaigleith Island
Craigleith Island from North Berwisk.
Photo by Elizabeth Cone.
Scotland does come to me in unexpected moments, when I’m not trying to see it, not looking directly at it. Moments at Culloden, at Holyrood, at Inchcolm, and I slowly learn to let them in.

“This is one reason I love stories,” Katherine Patterson says. “They allow us a version of the unknowable. They let us perceive what we cannot prove. They let us see on a slant what we could never confront directly.”

There is more than one way to know a thing, I think, and maybe not all ways of knowing are available to all of us. In the hills and on the moors, I stand very still and try to absorb. I want to feel what it means to be Scottish in my bones, the way I am, unexaminedly, American, the way people are, unexaminedly, members of their own families. You just are. Or you are not.  I want to be a part of it, this country of green and purple hills and black, peaty earth. “Hail, Caledonia, stern and wild.” I want to melt into the stone, to become the stone and sea and sky.

 

 

Elizabeth  ConeElizabeth Cone writes essays often focusing on the power of narrative and memory, and what happens when you change your own narrative. She teaches writing at Suffolk County Community College on Long Island. Her work has appeared in RiverSedgethe Doctor T.J. Eckleburg Review, and The Nasiona.

Header photo by of Edinburgh Castle by RaquelGM, courtesy Shutterstock.

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