Monday, 30 May 2016


Sitting in a broch: 
the provocation of 
the overheard conversation


I admit it. I like listening in on other people’s conversations. Not the deeply personal, requiring-the-release-of-eavesdropping-mice, tucked-away-in-a-corner exchanges but those brash, loud and quite-possibly-intended-to-be-heard-by-strangers ones. And given that I am not all that inconspicuous, being some 190cm tall, extensively tattooed (if not always obvious), and excessively hairy (in some judgements), I seem to be quite good at being overlooked*.

In visiting a place, be it historic monument, ancient site, city park, formal gardens, rock on a beach or occasional tree, I like to just sit. To sit and soak up the atmosphere, to sit and feel the place around me, to sit and simply enjoy the moment. And eavesdrop.

The Broch of Gurness is a favourite loitering place for me when I’m on Orkney. 1000 years of settlement in layers and structures and precisely stacked stones, mortar free houses and wheel-houses and twin-walled towers of rock.

I watched. I listened. Standing in the centre of this dramatic site, this set of visitors could only talk about other places. Yes, I concede, without question, that the ancient tombs of Malta are wonderful but you’re not on Malta, you are here. Have you come to these islands on the edge of the world to stand in the midde of this broch and burble about somewhere else. And no. You’re not burbling about somewhere else. You are burbling about yourself in that other place. Is that the key? You can visit marvellous places as long as everyone knows it is you (or, in Scots, “yous” as in you plural) who is visiting. You are the centre of this story - the “you” in this instance being 4 people. I was there. I listened for all of the 15 minutes they were in the Broch. Not long, but quite long enough for uninterrupted monologue, and no-one seemed to even notice me (suprising, see parag 1 above, and add barefoot and crosslegged on the grass….ok, maybe “carefully not noticing wierdo in corner” counts as a survival strategy). But in that time, there was no reference to here, to looking at, enjoying, appreciating this place - or even comparing it to the Tombs on Malta. It was enough that here in this place everyone knew that yous had been Somewhere Else (within a genre)as well. Is a visit to a site like that just to provide a setting for broadcasting of your own experience?
O, it was dull. But intriguing in a dismal sort of way, so I waited and watched and listened and wondered if we would ever get to any perception of here. We didn’t.

This wasn’t a random monologue directed at the rocks, the winds and the wierdie in the corner. It could have been a closed conversation among the visitors concerned, but they seemed to have cornered a young man who I took to be the curator/guide/warden of the Broch (there had been a little notice in the window of the gatehouse: “warden on site”), but no, the young man being so informed and instructed was just another visitor. Maybe the warden had already escaped or was spreadeagled out of sight just over the cliff-edge waiting for the terns to scream an all-clear. I met the victim/subject later and we shared a quite, stone-filled moment of empathy.

 They left. I sighed. I think the Broch sighed, too. It’s seen worse after all. They left, with Birsay and Skara Brae and the Tomb of the Eagles to do as their declared targets in the next 2 hours. This would make for an interesting whirlwind tour of Mainland and South Ronaldsay especially as the tide was high and Birsay would be out of reach
Birsay causeway at high tide
This is a bit of a rant. Not really an angry one but more a recognition of a challenge. For those of us who try to educate and work face-to-face - but more for those of us whose interpretation has to do its job in our absence, there is a question renewed for me about what can we do to encourage people to stop. To simply stop, to shut up, and appreciate a place for what it is: not for its connections, its similarities to 6 other places I’ve been to and which might have been better, not for its amazing this or appalling that, not even for its story but just for its own sake.

Can we build a philosophy of observation into our work?

And I still wanted to slap those people with a bit of wet kelp.

And the great mountain
Is unconquered, when
It remains the victor
By not noticing the men

Nicholas Stuart Grey

* There is an activity I sue withg roups that amkes the point that being invisible isn’t about being able to hide, it is about beign able to become inconspicuous, see Celebrating Nature

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