Show Your Stripes

News last week from my football club, to coincide with ‘Show Your Stripes’ Day, that it was launching a ‘progressive partnership’ with the University of Reading to improve its sustainability practices was welcome. What I didn’t know was that my hometown – in addition to giving football the greatest team the world has ever seen (well, the greatest team the Championship has ever seen, indisputably) – has also given the world climate stripes: the barcode-style heat map which demonstrates an easy-to-read visualisation of how the world, or your part of it, is getting hotter is an initiative of the University of Reading’s Ed Hawkins, a Professor in its well-established Meteorology Department. I was aware of climate stripes, of course, and there is a website which makes it relatively easy to show your stripes, but the hometown connection motivated me to dig a little bit deeper and see what I could do to show my own, very local, stripes (Ed – hoops, surely?)

The weather station for the Met Office – until 2003 also headquartered in the Royal(s) County – which is most local to me is South Uist Range. Located about 3km as the corncrake flies across open ground to the south-east of Ardivachar, what weather the Range station records is pretty much what we get. This station has, however, only been in use since July 1996, so its data – while building a dataset which will be comprehensive in the future – is of limited use in modelling the climate stripes for where I stay.

The other Met Office station for the Western Isles is Stornoway with a location which – at least in current terms – is adjacent to the airport. While the Met Office currently calls this location ‘Stornoway Airport’, I’ve no reason to assume it’s ever been located anywhere else than here at this point. Such a location is not untypical of many stations globally – they tend to be located on flat, open ground – and has led many climate change denialists to assume that recordings of termperature rises are associated with rapidly increased numbers of aircraft movements – that such locations thus give rise to false readings. We can, for evident reasons, probably discount such a theory at Stornoway Airport, though.

The station at Stornoway is one of the five oldest in use in the UK, dating back to 1873 and, indeed, the other four read as something like a tribute to the diversity of the UK, being Armagh and Oxford (both 1853), Southampton (1855) and Durham (1880). How such a spread came to be is rather heart-warming in its inclusiveness of the nations and regions of the UK. A graphic showing the climate stripes for these is readily available, with Sheffield substituting for Southampton, but the historic data for each of the Met Office’s ‘historic stations’ (37 in all) is easily found, so I thought I’d come up with my own, singular, version for Stornoway. Here, in a style which observes Hawkins’s commitment to ‘No words. No numbers. No graphs’, it is:

NB This is my own version, using a slightly different colour regime drawn from MS Excel, and is subject to data entry errors.

By way of explanation, the chart shows the mean annual temperature for Stornoway, from 1874 at the left-hand edge to 2021 at the right. Each column on the chart compares the mean temperature for that year with the mean for the twentieth century as a whole (1900-1999): annual temperatures significantly cooler than the C20 mean are shown in dark blue; those significantly warmer in dark red (with other shades indicating annual temperatures which are either cooler or warmer but with lesser significance). The annual means are an arithmetical average of the means for each month, themselves composed of the mean daily maximum temperatures in that month. There are other ways to approach the data – the station also records mean minimum temperatures and it would be possible to construct a figure for monthly mean temperature that way ((max+min)/2) but the outcome is, broadly, the same: Stornoway is clearly getting hotter.

We can see this from the red to the right of the chart; and we can also see it from the progression from the darker blues substantially to the left (the early part of the period), bearing in mind that we are comparing each annual mean to the mean for the C20 as a whole. Thus, the early years at the left (from 1874-1899) are largely cooler than the C20 mean while the later years to the right (2000-2021) are substantially warmer. Indeed, the mean maximum temperature for C20 is 11 degrees Centigrade; for the 26 years of the C19, the mean was 10.6 degrees; while for the 21 years of C21, the mean was 11.6. So, Stornoway has got hotter in the last 150 years by around 1 degree Centigrade – that’s pretty much in line with the average experience globally.

Obviously, annual temperatures fluctuate (as the following charts indicate, the year-to-year changes are volatile, which is why it is the trend that is most important, not what is happening in individual years (this cool summer included!). The pinker colours more or less in the centre of the climate stripes chart were in the later years of the Second World War and in the immediate period subsequently. We have indeed had temperatures that are ‘warmer’ in the past, too, but the years of the twenty-first century have been hotter for what is, in the context of this chart, an unprecedentedly sustained period. We might also record that the weather plunged into the cold in 1979.

I also had a look at the average ‘winter’ temperatures and the average ‘summer’ temperatures on the same basis (‘winter’ being defined as, within each calendar year, the six months from January-March and October-December inclusive while ‘summer’ is April-September inclusive. There are, of course, other ways to approach the data). While both summer and winter temperatures are rising, according to the annual means of the mean monthly maximum temperatures at Stornoway, it is the winter temperatures that are rising more quickly: the summers are getting comparatively warmer, but by less than the degree to which winters are becoming comparatively milder. The following charts compare the deviation for each season in each year from the C20 mean for that season (in Stornoway, 13.7C in ‘summer’; and 8.3C in ‘winter’); trendline added by Excel to demonstrate the comparative difference):

I suspected as much – rising annual rainfall (a measure of climate change also recorded by the Met Office stations), much of which falls in the winter months, speaks to rising winter temperatures. While there are still outliers – the 2010 winter was cooler than the C20 winter average by 0.76 degrees Centigrade – winter snows are, it seems, increasingly less and less likely; and, while the Caribbean may occasionally visit the Hebrides, this is going to be more evident from the photos than the reality for some time. Nevertheless, we are getting warmer.

As always, the essential question regards what is to be done. From an archaeological point of view, rising rainfall presents a particular problem both as regards ongoing digs and as regards the protection of particular established sites of interest. Temperatures becoming warmer also speaks to rises in sea levels which threatens coastal communities and sites of interest. There is only a limited range of effective measures which can be taken within such a field, however. The wider challenge to us all remains how we, as nations, address the rising temperatures that we all face. There are plenty of measures which can be taken about which much is already known, at societal level through decarbonisation, investment in renewable energy and building greater resilience in which biodiversity will flourish; through to individual decisions around transport and diet. Inevitably, there is a wide range of seriousness, a range of comparative priorities and plenty of lip service involved from those at governmental level charged with making policy which reflects these issues.

I’ll let this post bed in for a few days and then I’ll be changing the header picture to show my stripes, as above. It may not actually do anything in itself, but keeping the fundamental importance of the issue in mind, by quite literally nailing my colours to the mast, can never be a bad thing.

Halfway from sunset to sunrise

My timeline yesterday was full of beautiful solstice pictures, taken at either end and full, in the first case, of oranges and then, in the second (and actually a little later than sunset), of lavenders. Regular readers will know that their chances of a sunrise picture on this blog are pretty slim but that sunset ones are more possible. Well, the sun set yesterday here at 2231 but, to get a sunset picture you first need a sun and, at that point, a blanket of thick grey cloud covered the sky to the north-west, following a day of murk and drizzle, and, well, dear reader, it was something of a let-down.

Actually, my idea this year was to capture a shot of what Shetlanders, some degrees to the north of us – call the ‘simmer dim’ (a phrase I can’t hear without a smattering of The Wailers singing about something or other hot): that time between sunset and sunrise at midsummer when, at these latitudes, the sky doesn’t really get dark – especially to the north – but continues with a glow as if from a low wattage bulb from which it is perfectly possible to see; and when you can track the apparent progress of the sun – below the horizon – from broadly west to broadly east and out of which a new day can commence. No wonder that birds migrate to Scotland – the extra light gives many more opportunities for hunting and for feeding growing families.

With sunset at 2231 and sunrise at 0431 (precisely sixteen hours of full daylight) that half-way point is 0131, with an hour or so of twilight after sunset and an hour or so of pre-dawn, that’s in the middle of only four hours of ‘dark’. Given the quality of the light here yesterday at sunset, I quickly gave up on that idea but, in its place, here’s one I prepared a little earlier – on Sunday, to be precise, when there was a sunset and when the ‘simmer dim’ was a little more evident. It’s not quite halfway, being taken at 0100 precisely, so it’s a little under-cooked in terms of the intention but, well, you get the picture:

Here, I’m looking broadly north. The lights on Benbecula: the white one to the right I think is the old HebridesNet repeater station at Torlum; the red and the white ones to the left, this is a little harder to work out, but may be the Caley Timber shed at Griminish or, perhaps, the steadings at Nunton. Either one could also simply be the outside security lighting for someone’s house – a more accurate description is pending better weather.

It’s not been a great summer so far to be honest and, now the days are starting to slip away (via later sunrises; at my end of the day the sun continues to set at precisely 2231 for another week or so yet), it’s impossible to escape the thought that summer is, too. G**gle’s StreetView car – spotted near these parts last week – probably won’t be picking up enough sunshine to be enticing the tourists, as much as some photos (its last visit was 2009) do need updating. This morning was again damp and cool, and, at 12C at 0930 yet ‘feeling like’ something in single figures, there was even a chill in the air ahead of further rain early this afternoon. With the rest of the country – even mainland Scotland – basking/sweltering in temperatures in the mid to high 20s, out here we have yet to see a temperature over 20C and the late spring and early summer, after a very decent April, have been disappointing. There’s a long way to go yet, of course – it’s probably the lack of realisation of that early promise which has made the position seem more gloomy – but the thought of an actual summer seems a long way away.

There may be a further report.

Trade unions the true ‘fix for cost of living crisis’

A busy couple of months has seen my eye somewhat taken off the ball on this blog – this is my first post this month and only my second since the end of March.

Aside of all that, however, I couldn’t help but notice the publication of the Office for National Statistics’s monthly labour market overview last Tuesday and its subsequent weaponisation by the government (a) as an inevitable distraction from its reign of perpetual chaos and omnicrisis; (b) in connection with its refusal to do anything of note about the sharply rising cost of living; and (c) to talk up its own record on the labour market (as if any of this was the result of its own policies). In particular, I did manage to note Boris Johnson’s appearance in the Sundays to link (c) and (b) – to stress ‘work’ as the ‘fix for the cost of living crisis’.

From the ONS’s overview, it’s true that unemployment – at least on this measured definition – is low and declining, and has also dropped beneath pre-pandemic levels. The employment rate – the number of people in work, of some type – is also slightly higher. The number of vacancies in the economy rose sharply and, at 1.295m, is actually higher than the number of the registered unemployed (1.257m); while the number of job movers from one job to another during the first three months of the year – as a result largely of resignations than dismissals – is also high. All this might, at superficial level, be a sign of a labour market that is ‘tight’, or ‘heating up’ – but this is indeed, far from being ‘red hot’ with many of the jobs being poor quality and with a mismatch to skills.

We don’t have to delve too far into the data to find the most obvious sign of why the labour market is not ‘red hot’: wages. In a ‘tight’ labour market, theory would indicate that wages should be rising to compensate for the evident shortages of labour. But, while they are rising, according to the ONS’s data, it is largely because of the contribution being made by bonuses: rises to basic pay are rising much less quickly and, currently, are rising less fast than the cost of living – thus, real wages across the economy are actually declining, despite the headlines in some sectors. Bonuses are short-term, given (and withdrawn) at management discretion; they are confined substantially to the finance and business sectors, which account for 60 per cent of all bonuses; they do not provide proper compensation for workers’ labour; they are outside the purview of collective wage setting; and, quite frequently, they prove to be discriminatory against women, people of colour, disabled people and the young.

Additionally, we know that no less than 41 per cent of universal credit claimants are actually already in a job (formally, in what the DWP’s ‘conditionality regime’ calls ‘working – no requirements’) – i.e. that taxpayers’ money is being used to subsidise wages for workers that are uneconomically low; while 68 per cent of working age adults in poverty live in a household where at least one adult is in work. Government support to subsidise low wages is a major intervention which both undermines the labour market and the incentives for workers to collectivise.

Of course, all this shouldn’t be happening – Brexit, in ending the free movement of labour, was supposed to ensure that ‘reserve army of labour’ arguments no longer applied to this country’s wage setting mechanism. In truth, it might be a little too early even to be thinking of sending the jury out on that one, although the signs are evidently not good. Nevertheless, wage growth in the UK has been poor for more than a decade – since at least the 2007/08 financial crisis, in fact – and, while there is likely to be a lag between a ‘tight’ labour market and the point at which wages start to rise, even if this does kick in at some later point, it is clearly starting from a low, and unstably weak basis. While it has changed little in the last twenty years, the labour share of income is lower than in the 1970s and the last time it rose consistently was in the few years of the first Labour government after 1997. In short, we do not have any evidence that the UK’s wage setting arrangements are currently able to respond appropriately to the signals sent by the labour market.

Consequently, it is more than evident that work is not the route out of poverty – and not only the elderly, those who are economically inactive, for whatever reason, and the ‘in-work’ poor. Everybody in work is poorer off than they should be, with an evident impact on living standards both in the here and now and in the future, in terms of pension saving. The labour market that we have is good at creating jobs but much less so at raising wages. Not for the first time, nor no doubt for the last, it is clear that Johnson does not know what he is talking about.

Chief among the reasons why our wage setting arrangements are not fit for purpose is the 40-year neoliberal attack on our collective labour market institutions – both trade unions and collective bargaining. Trade union density in the UK – the percentage of employees who are members of a trade union – now only reaches 23.7% (fewer than one in four workers); while collective agreements only cover 25.6 per cent of employees (both heavily supported by the public sector): these are official government membership figures drawn from its specific annual statistical bulletin (the 2022 update, containing figures for 2021, is actually due out later this week). The decline in collective agreement coverage is part of a Europe-wide phenomenon (and, likely, for similar reasons of the political shift rightwards); and the signs on trade union membership in the UK are not all bad – there have been rises in each of the last four years; trade union members still number a substantial 6.56m; and there is indeed a lot more ‘buzz’ around the phrase ‘trade unions’ than in many years – decades, even – hitherto.

Economically, trade unions are a good thing: on pay, we know for example that unionised workplaces see wages that are higher, on average by 5 per cent for equivalent workers; and that wages in unionised workplaces are less dispersed, thus helping to reduce wage inequality (both stats from Alex Bryson and John Forth from 2017). Any reduction in inequality in the UK is entirely welcome, not least in view of the UK now, as a result of rising wage disparity, having the highest level of income inequality than anywhere in the EU other than Bulgaria – itself, as an aside, an interesting indicator of the failure of ‘trickle down’ theory. Furthermore, there is significant evidence about the cost of living gap: that it is the poorest who face inflation rates that are much higher than they are for the richest (as a result of a much higher share of income going on the sorts of things where prices are rising quickest: energy and food).

One solution – and possibly the most significant, as far as workers are concerned – to the cost of living crisis is, therefore, a strengthening of our labour market institutions to ensure that workers properly receive the value of their labour, thus allowing workers better to face the cost of living crisis. As we know, the much-promised Employment Bill has again gone AWOL but, should it ever appear, one of the most important things it could do is to take the shackles off trade unions and encourage collective bargaining at industry-sectoral level, ensuring that fair rates of pay are set and which apply across a sector, preventing employers from competing against each other on wages, thus driving wages downwards, and stopping workers being set against each other. Boosting collective bargaining will boost the labour share of income.

I am, of course, not holding my breath; a government which takes its cue from the sorts of newspapers whose headlines today, as Johnson is again pictured with wine at a gathering during lockdown, try to pin the blame on strikes for the problems in the energy and food supply chain is not going to throw the gears into reverse on 40 years of neoliberalism. The TUC argued for a restoration of the role of collective bargaining in its evidence to the Spring Statement, back in March, and there is no evidence that anyone in the government was listening then or, just as importantly, has learned anything since.

But it is precisely this that workers need if we are to be able to deal with the rising cost of living.

A little Word-le research

Judging by my little corner of the internet, Wordle – certainly since its take over by the New York Times – is not being played as much as it was in the early part of 2022 when it began to attract the attention of media columnists (e.g. here and also here too in the same paper on the same day). Some players certainly are carrying on (and with a variety of philosophical and dialectical approaches) but I tend to see a few less posts based on coloured squares and certainly a few less times does Wordle ‘trend’. Perhaps that’s Twitter’s algorithm speaking, or perhaps it’s just that people indeed aren’t communicating about it as much as before (one of the aims of its original inventor) – but, at this point, it looks to me as though getting a six-figure sum for the rights to the game looks a pretty good bit of business for Josh Wardle. A lesson in the importance of selling at a peak.

After a couple of trial goes, my interest as a researcher was piqued and, armed with my spreadsheets, I decided to use the daily game to test a few things, not least around the usage of letters in the English alphabet, chiefly: what were the usage differences between five-letter words and all other words; and what word would maximise the possibilities of solving each game in as few attempts as possible. I used to have a boss who insisted that you knew the way any trade union ballot was going to go after the first 100 returns so, after (actually 101) goes, I reckon I’ve got enough to tell me some answers.

Comparing my list of Wordle letter usages (built since early January) with a standard list available off the net (I used this one) tells me that the usage of five letter words varies little from other words. The five most common letters in Words – E, A, O, R, L/T – compares pretty well with the standard list (E, A, R, I, O) and, indeed, across the whole alphabet, Spearman’s Rank Correlation Coefficient stands at 0.93 – so it correlates very highly. From the Wordle list, H and K are used a lot more than ‘normal’ but they’re anyway not particularly common letters: within the top half of used letters in the alphabet, D is used a lot less in five-letter words, as also are N and I, while L appears a lot more frequently (often as a result of double usages – knoll, skill, swill, spill, allow and shall have all appeared in this first 100 (as has lowly). E tops out at a fraction over 50 appearances – i.e. it appears in every other Wordle – and frequently at the end of one (23 times – nearly one in four); and then there’s quite a gap to A (44) which, in contrast to E, appears at the end of a word only three times. The rest until L/T (35 each) follow with small gaps between each one, with S (33) quite close before a sizable fall to I (25) with H, C and N the only other letters scoring more than 20. P and U complete the top half of Wordle’s most used letters in the alphabet, which then descends to X, Q, Z and J with the last of these being the final letter to break its duck.

With three vowels in the top five letters, it’s pretty hard to make a single five-letter word (that Wordle would accept as legitimate) from the most used letters – though maybe a cosmetics company might at one point usefully have decided to branch out into word games. Trialling a few different words and summing their letter counts across these 100 Wordles produces ‘rater’ and ‘treat’ as the top scorers (206 and 203, respectively) although doubling letters is not the best choice in a word game of this type (actually, 23 words of these 100 have double letters but the difficulty is picking which one to double – L, E, A, B, C, T, O, and even V, have all featured twice in one word. Using five different letters comes up with ‘store’, ‘steal’ and ‘roles’ each of which score 198 but ‘store’ looks the most likely choice on the grounds it also has an E at the end. So, I think on the basis of continued research, I’m going to switch from ‘raise’ (which scores 191 so far) to ‘store’ for future attempts. The advantage is small, but present. There may be another report.

{Edit 30/4/22: ‘stare’ is marginally better than ‘store’, scoring 201 on yesterday’s counts, so ‘stare’ it is from now on.]

The system of picking common letters – depending on the outcome of ‘raise’ I try and use the second attempt to squeeze in T and N and, as required, either O or U – hasn’t yet let me down. I’ve not had an ‘/X’ since ‘proxy’ on 18 January spread across a ‘run’ of 92 games although I had a ten-day break in the middle and my current streak thus stands at 47. My average score – omitting two Xs – is 3.77 (and it has been as low as 3.69) – i.e. somewhat more towards ‘splendid’ although with a dose of ‘impressive’, too. Where it does cause problems is where the word choice features uncommon letters – proxy being a good example: R and O were in place after my second go, but the rest all featured much more common letter combinations than P, X and Y (‘broom’ being my sixth and final go). Once the core of the word is in place, all the less common letters are as possible as each other, even if they look apparently less likely.

And that’s not a bad thing, either in word games or indeed in life in general.

Content is king: Squid Game’s global tentacles

This post is the text of my winter 2021 column for Stage, Screen & Radio – the quarterly magazine for members of BECTU, the media and entertainment union and a part of Prospect. The text, which sets the success of Squid Game in the context of Netflix’s strategy and programming, has been updated from the published version, not least in the context of the market capitalisation figures quoted in the final paragraph, while some links have been added.

Squid Game

Few readers (even those of us without televisions) can have missed the impact that Netflix’s Squid Game has had not just on the UK audience but globally.

The nine-part series, featuring severely-indebted and desperate South Korean men and women competing against each other in updated, deadly versions of children’s playground games to win a substantial cash prize – of which there can only be one winner – was released on 17 September and was an immediate success. It attracted a global viewing audience of 142 million people within the first four weeks; and is the first Korean drama to break Netflix’s top 10 weekly most-watched shows across the globe, reaching in the process No. 1 in 90 countries, including the UK.

These figures are all from Netflix itself. There are very good reasons not to take the company’s word alone (indeed, figures for October 2021 from BARB, the body which measures the TV audience – and whose figures now encompass streaming – show that the BBC’s Countryfile had more viewers). Nevertheless, on the company’s own metrics ‘Squid Game’ has been phenomenally successful. Netflix expects to make some $900 million from it – not a bad return on a series that cost only $21.4 million.

What is more interesting than this, however, is, firstly, the theme: essentially, Squid Game is an allegorical critique of winner-take-all capitalism, economic disparity and inequality; and secondly, that the script, originally written (as a film) in 2009, was then regarded as too grotesque and unrealistic to be filmed.

Little more than 10 years later, and set against an exacerbation of Koreans’ personal debts and the reality facing the poor of Covid-19, as well as our own increased hunger for dystopian drama, it is clearly no longer so. The writer, Hwang Dong-yeuk, has created a resonant series which conveys a message about ordinary people’s awareness of the unfairness of a global economic order built on inequality. The success of Squid Game – and the patency of that message – highlights that this was unlikely to have been lost on viewers.

Netflix

Netflix is open to criticism. Its modern history as a programme streamer is sustained by venture capital. While profitable, it has experienced cash flow problems over several years and has not only never declared a dividend but will openly not be doing so in the foreseeable future. In that situation, the ‘dividend’ for its backers, like in much of the modern online world, of course, lies in obtaining and then processing detailed, individual information about viewers, the programmes they watch and their viewing habits. Venture capital, as with Deliveroo and Uber, is prepared to sustain a lack of returns (or even losses) simply to build and entrench market share to the point where, in Netflix’s case, people do not question their monthly subscriptions. Not least when these go up (and by more even than inflation).

In that, of course, lies a quid pro quo: ensuring subscribers see value for their money means making precisely the sorts of programmes they want to watch. And Netflix does make programmes – some 40% of its offer is original, in-house programming. Ultimately it will build the data it is collecting on viewing habits into its programme making at micro level – and its investment at Shepperton should probably be seen in that light – but, for the time being, the metric available is a familiar one: that a particular programme’s success is likely to lead to similar ones being made. That might be a Squid Game sequel (now confirmed, even if only in outline as yet, and with clearly a long road between here and transmission); it might be more Korean drama, building on the global success of the K-wave; it might be more captivating drama whose content focuses on inequality.

Venture capital

The idea of venture capital sustaining programme-making with that sort of message is not exactly a win-win situation; but it is a highly entertaining one.

Squid Game hasn’t been good news for everyone: SK Broadband, a Korean communications company, used the success of the programme for another round in its legal battle with Netflix about who funds the infrastructure over which streamers deliver their programmes. It is a familiar, but probably losing, battle to telecom companies the world over in which the ultimate lesson is that the concept of ‘net neutrality’ might alternatively be written as ‘content is king’.

Netflix’s current market capitalisation – some $166bn at the time of writing, having topped $300bn in November last year prior to January’s earnings announcement highlighting low forecast subscriber additions in these (nearly) post-pandemic times – set against, to pluck one possibly unfair example out of thin air, that of BT (c. $25bn), is also contemporary proof that there is plenty of life in old adages.

Three gigs in one week

A recent extended trip to Perth (purposively for a car service appointment but converting a necessary trip to the mainland to do other things too) gave the chance to take in a series of gigs none of which were planned from the outset. These were not my first gigs since the outbreak of Covid-19 but they did provide the opportunity to take the temperature about going back out again in these not-yet post-Covid times but as lockdown measures are being increasingly lifted. Musicians and stage performers have been among the hardest hit by lockdowns, and the roar of the crowd and the smell of the greasepaint needs to be experienced again.

First up was Perth Theatre for ‘An Evening Without Kate Bush‘ – motto: ‘She’s not there / But you are’ – Sarah-Louise Young’s tribute act with a difference. With millions of ‘Fish People’ watching Bush’s videos, many of which come from an era before even MTV, alongside a historic aversion to appearing on stage, overcome in 2014 with tickets even to the extra shows being sold out in 30 minutes, Kate Bush’s draw is still sizable as is the scope for tribute acts.

As Young said from the stage, it’s very easy to parody Kate Bush – dress up in a curly wig, wave your arms around a bit and do some wailing. However, doing all that actually undermines why people come to the show, which is to relive a little bit of magic about a star most attendees hold dear to their hearts and which sees those whose intention is only to parody quickly caught out. What Young’s show does, therefore, is combine those parody elements with ensuring that gig-goers, whether Fish People, those who remember a few bits and pieces from a while ago or those who have little idea of what’s going on or really why they are there, are placed firmly at the centre. She calls early on for audience participation, with the audience having the role of barking out the response in ‘Hounds of Love’, before descending into the stalls to get four women on a night out to go up on stage with her, after some gentle persuasion, to sing the string parts in ‘Cloudbusting’ (Do do do do / Do do do / Do do do do do do do / Do do do / Do do do) and later getting a couple to waltz around each other in a winsomely heartwarming copy of Godley and Creme’s video for Peter Gabriel’s ‘Don’t Give Up’ – a stage manoueuvre which effectively covered up that Young’s one-woman show has no Peter Gabriel in it while still putting fans at the heart of things. She even appeared at the side of our seats with what seemed to be a pair of communicating heads on sticks (sorry: not sure of the title of this one) before dashing back to the stage to make her next move.

At the end of the show, as that white dress is pulled out of her on-stage dressing-up box – everyone knows what’s coming as it’s the only song not yet done – it’s held aloft and then danced with as Young approaches her mic stand, slipped on over the rest of her costume and then. Oh. She’s missed her cue. Someone in the audience starts to sing, falteringly, meeting crucially with silence but an encouraging smile from Young. Others join in and, as the chorus grows, Young gently turns the mic stand around, so that the mic is facing the audience, allowing us to be the voice and her to be the dancer before she joins us for the bridge and the final few rounds: a brilliantly executed move that showcased what the show was about.

Mixing in a fair amount of ad-libbing with the songs that Bush has both written and covered, as well as stories and anecdotes about the influence that Bush had on her as a young girl, is not easy when the show’s dynamism depends on audience participation and when there is no other actor on stage to spark off. Perth, being a little conservative by nature, is perhaps not the most dynamic of places, but the show – both well-attended and well-received – was a success. Young is touring it around England and Wales through the rest of March and into April; and summer shows are booked, too. If she’s appearing near you, go and see her. And do be prepared to overcome that very British reservation and participate!

Second up was a trip into Edinburgh for a couple of family-related reasons but also to catch ‘Seven Drunken Nights‘, a performers’ tribute to The Dubliners on a one-night stand at the Edinburgh Playhouse and now on its fifth anniversary tour. The show takes the form largely of a session in O’Donoghue’s, where the band started out as The Ronnie Drew Ballad Group, with the five musicians, including the grandson of the first ever musician to be allowed to play tunes in O’Donoghue’s, plus attendant barman, interspersing songs written and made famous by the Dubliners with dialogue relating the story of the band told in the style of craic as the musicians rested between songs. Other sections of the show take place in surrogate TV studios for appearances on ‘Top of the Pops’, ‘The Late Late Show’ and ‘The McCann Man’.

I hadn’t realised that people playing music in pubs in Dublin was not really a thing until the 1960s when the Dubliners came along; or that ‘Seven Drunken Nights’ was banned by the Irish broadcaster RTÉ (alongside much of the rest of the band’s material) as a result of the, er, dubious lyrical content. The Dubliners as a prototype Frankie Goes To Hollywood was not a thing I ever envisaged contemplating (interesting side-note: ‘Seven Drunken Nights’ and ‘Relax’ are actually only seventeen years apart). Singing along is compulsory and, while I might have caused some frowning among my neighbours (to whom apologies…) with lyrics to the chorus of ‘Seven Drunken Nights’ and to ‘The Irish Rover’ that were only half-remembered, I did a bit better on ‘Dirty Old Town’, ‘Whiskey In The Jar’ and show-closer ‘Molly Malone’. ‘The Fields of Athenry’ was also beautifully performed and, indeed, accompanied although the selections otherwise tended to eschew the social and political comment for which The Dubliners were also known.

There were plenty of choices of seats towards the back of the stalls and, while the Playhouse could have spread people out a little better, there was therefore room for those who wanted to make a bit more space for themselves from their neighbours. From my vantage point there, though, the sound could perhaps have been a little louder not only for the dialogue which was sometimes less than audible but certainly also for the songs.

The band are terrific musicians, several, including Ged Graham who wrote the musical, sport befittingly-magnificent beards and the band is really hardworking, featuring no fewer than 70 more shows throughout Britain before the end of May, some twice a day, and from Cardiff up to Darlington and Arbroath down to Brighton via Reading. All the original members of The Dubliners have now passed on and the name has been formally retired – so this is the nearest thing you’ll get both to recreating the atmosphere of The Dubliners in their heyday and, if you’re on the mainland, as they’ll almost certainly be coming to a town near you, the nearest thing you’ll get in the current environment to a proper session in an Irish pub. And far better for everyone concerned than hopping on a Ryanair to Dublin.

Gig no. 3 saw us back at Perth Theatre for Blue Rose Code plus Katie Whittaker in support. This was a bit of a surprise gig since we had intended to be at Western Isles legends Peat and Diesel the same night for the ‘Away with your Wellies’ tour. However, with two of the band going down with the ‘rona (there has been a sizable spike up on Lewis this last week (now also on Benbecula) and community transmission is ‘widespread’), the gig was cancelled (and now re-arranged for the end of April). However, Blue Rose Code – whose own tour has been several years in postponement as a result of CV-19 – provided a more than suitable substitute and need no introduction to avid readers of this blog since one of Ricky Ross’s songs featured on my New Music Mondays series of posts during lockdown a year last December. Indeed, the band kicked off with this very song and a very effective opener it made, too, in the circumstances.

However, I’m getting a little ahead of myself since Katie Whittaker is more than just support. A recognised part of the established Perth Americana set, Brora-born Katie has appeared with local legends Red Pine Timber Company and, in her own right, was well-received as part of Billy Bragg’s ‘Big Bill’s Radical Roundup’ on the Leftfield stage at the 2016 Glastonbury. This gig represents a bit of a departure for Katie since it featured only her own songs (no covers from any of the likes of Etta James and Dolly Parton that have featured on her highlights reels in the past – at least, none that I could spot) and there are whispers of a new album. Despite being audibly nervous as she took to the stage – the gig was close to selling-out Perth Theatre – and in addressing the audience between songs, her warm vocals and gentle acoustic guitar revealed a natural talent for the musical stage and for her material which sees her combine bluesy and soulful numbers with aplomb. This was an enjoyably well-crafted set with strong songs that you want to hear again and Katie has attracted a talented band, particularly the lead guitarist. If that is indeed a new album, it’ll be a good’un.

Ricky Ross is a busy man, featuring as vocalist for Scottish faves Deacon Blue as well as Blue Rose Code and with several radio gigs for Radio Scotland and BBC Radio 2 on the country/Americana scene. Notably, he also visited Bosnia as a part of one of the Remembering Srebrenica Scotland delegations and is well-placed to comment on the role of music during wartime. Indeed, Nick Lowe’s ‘(What’s So Funny ‘Bout) Peace, Love and Understanding’ featured as one of an interesting choice of covers (including, otherwise, ‘Sunshine After The Rain’ as made famous by Elkie Brooks, Amazing Grace and Elton John’s ‘Benny and the Jets’. There may have been others.). But, in ‘promoting’ a ‘new’ album – With Healings of the Deepest Kind – which was actually released two years ago, the gig also featured plenty of original material among which ‘The Wild Atlantic Way’ and ‘Starlit’, the latter dedicated to those losing their lives during Covid-19, were highlights. The set was an emotional one – inevitably so given Ross’s material and the history of cancellations amidst all that has been going on these last two years – but was well-judged and well-paced and, with an eight-piece band, including Ross himself on occasional acoustic guitar and frequent dancing, as well as a three-man horn section, there were plenty of louder moments among the emotional ones. Ross interacts frequently with the rest of the band on stage, driving greater performances on featured sections, and there ought to be a special mention for the drummer who was absolutely on it all night.

Blue Rose Code are touring throughout the rest of March and, if you’re up for a gig – I know not everyone is just yet and of course cases are rising again as an inevitable result of the removal of lockdown measures and the spread of the virus among children, as Peat and Diesel having to cancel indicates – they’re well worth an evening of your time. If you do feel confident to get out there, mask up, pack your hand gel in your pockets/bags, keep your own safety and those of others always in mind and strike out: not least in respect of live music, the last two years have given us an awful lot to catch up on.

Ardivachar’s mystery mound

Our Understanding and Recording Coastal Archaeology sessions are now finished, but there was an optional assessment which students could submit; and, of course, I treated it as an integral part of participating. A full .pdf is elsewhere on the blog, but here is a short post both advertising that and providing a blog-length summary of the report (in terms of the word count, this is actually on target whereas the assignment turned out to be twice the required length – funny, that!).

My assignment seeks to bring together what we know about the mound situated at Ardivachar Point (Rubha Àird na Mhachrach) and also includes some basic recommendations about the management of the site in terms not only of the course themes but also with a view to a wider assessment of its value as a community and archaeological resource.

The mound

Nothing is known concretely about the mound: indeed, it has only been ‘known’, in an archaeological context, since 2005 when it was added to the record as a result of the Coastal Zone Assessment Survey carried out subsequent to the violent and tragic storm of that January.

The mound measures c. 9.1m x c. 3.6m and appears to have a rather definite heart, or diamond, shape in terms of how the grass falls at the edges and which may represent the limits of the displacement of ground when the mound was constructed.

Photo 1: the mound’s heart shape

The mound is located on the headland at Ardivachar and is around 11 metres from the edge of the rock platform facing a small reef a short way offshore. The site is not a physically obvious one to an untrained eye but there are a couple of interesting features around the site which add to its potential interest.

Firstly, there is a line of stones set into the grass some 15m to the north-east which may form part of a boundary wall (or which, alternatively, may be part of a structure which is nothing to do with the site – for example, boundary walls which pre-date the sub-division of the land into crofts).

Secondly, there are a number of grassy tussocks located c. 11m to the north-west, visible in Photo 1, which may indicate setting points for the sun around midsummer or which may act as some other orientation markers for the site (or which, alternatively, may be just tussocks of grass). Assuming that both of these are deliberate and part of the site increases its footprint quite sizably from the pure dimensions of the mound itself.

Thirdly, there is the issue of what the mound was used for or what it represents. Without more detailed archaeological examination, this is almost completely unclear although we can suppose that the thin topsoil does indicate that there is unlikely to be great depth to whatever may exist below the ground. However, there is an interesting story told locally about it which adds quite considerably to the tale that the site tells.

Erosion

Moore and Wilson’s assessment that the mound is not an eroding site – it is still graded yellow on SCAPE’s sites-at-risk register – remains a fair one: there is no evidence that the mound itself is under imminent threat from coastal erosion except in the very long-term. Nevertheless, this is not to say that the site is free from forces of erosion: in particular, there is the issue of excessive amounts of rainfall amidst the rising number of extreme weather events posing an increasing challenge to a site whose features are low in profile.

However, erosion is threatening the additional features mentioned above: the potential boundary wall; and the potential orientation markers. Were either indeed to be part of the story told at the site, their loss is much more imminent and likely to lead to a loss in its archaeological value. These issues are explored in the series of photographs below.

Boundary wall

The following two photographs look at the potential boundary wall which, if true, might have protected the mound and also served the function of setting it apart in some way. Photo 2 shows the length of the visible stones in a line which runs north-east from this angle – about 6.5m in length; Photo 3 shows the scale of erosion (note the fallen stones as well as the slippage of grass). There is, however, no evidence of a similar wall to the west.

Orientation markers

The largest of these is centre-left in Photo 4, with three others stretching beyond it in a small arc extending towards the deeper area of erosion further back in the photo. It may be that it is the wind that has sculpted these markers to look as they do and that there is no actual function. The mound itself is to the centre right of the picture and can be found between the second and the fourth fence posts leading to the right from the strainer. Arrows point, to the left, to the orientation marker; and, upwards right, to the mound.

Photo 3: proximity of markers and mound to eroding coastal edge

In addition to the erosion around the markers, note also the rough drainage run-off and its close proximity to the site. That drainage channel runs broadly north-south and connects with others in the area, suggesting that drainage may have been put in place deliberately to skirt the mound. This, in turn, would indicate a community awareness that there is something of value here which ought not to be damaged.

Towards a meaning

If the grassy tussocks are indeed markers for orientation purposes, the most obvious explanation is that these mark the setting of the sun around midsummer, which unofficial guesstimates suggest is certainly a feasible one.

However, more likely is a story about the mound related to me locally by a crofter who, as a small boy (around seventy years ago), was told that it was a memorial to a woman drowned offshore when looking for shellfish while her husband, posted as lookout on account of riptides, deliberately looked the other way as he had fallen in love with another. He further said that the story had been commemorated in song. The South Uist version of the song A Bhean Eudach (The Jealous Woman) is set in Ardivachar and commemorates the drowning of a woman at sea off the Point while collecting dulse. This appears to be the song being referred to – and, in the Gàidhlig, pretty haunting it is, too. Here, the story departs a little from the tale as related to me in that the woman had been drowned by the actions of a servant girl who had fallen in love with her husband.

Folklore is thus making an interesting contribution here towards interpreting and understanding the site. Perhaps it was folklore that informed, with suitable embellishments, a technicolour warning to a small boy not to go into the sea there; or perhaps folklore, in having the song set at Ardivachar, was borrowing from an existing story inspired either by the mound and/or by a real-life tragedy.

Either way, what looks like the heart shape to the mound provides a thoughtful comment on its inspiration.

Conclusions

It is impossible to be definite about the conclusions since we do not know what the mound is, what it was for or anything about its chronology. This can only be known by some sort of further assessment and the use of low-cost, low-intrusive assessment techniques such as laser scanning, photogrammetry and auguring.

Knowing a little more about the site would spark a consideration of the possibility of a range of well-designed remedial actions which should aim to incorporate the community at the heart of the response.

1. the site needs to be better protected against livestock (the well-observed may have spotted that that is indeed a cowpat in Photo 1!) – though animal grazing is also responsible for keeping the grass low and the shape identifiable.

2. existing drainage systems need to be monitored to ensure that water run-off does not damage the site, or that the ground does not become waterlogged as it is around the area of the rough drainage channel.

3. about the potential orientation markers and boundary wall, they are clearly subject to erosion, chiefly from wind and rain washing out the undersoil on the exposed face, although in stormy weather the sea is also likely to present a direct threat. It would appear that little can be done about either of these other than, in the short-terrm, continued monitoring and recording.

Finally, better publicity of the existence of the mound may bring forward more stories and more accounts as to its origins. Working with Uist Community Archaeology Group would seem to be important first steps. Further research also needs to be done not least to assess the alignment of the site. It is also worth making the point that the loss of a mound which has a strong link to a well-known Gàidhlig folk song would represent real loss and that action, at some level, is both warranted and required.

The Loch of Intermittent Appearance

As Storm Eunice rages across Wales and south and south-west England, people have been checking on us, which is very kind – but, up and out here, we’re absolutely fine: it’s us that should be checking on friends and family in the south. Winds are currently gusting to the high 10s (that’s well below normal!); and, while Sunday doesn’t look too grand for a day out, with winds gusting to the high 50s, that’s not even the highest winds this month – the Range got a gust of 70 on 10 February.

It has been very wet, though. The Range was the wettest place in the UK last Friday (although not particularly excessive) and high, prolonged and quite intense rains continued in the days that followed, leading to the re-emergence for a few days this week of what I’ve dubbed the Loch of Intermittent Appearance. This is a low-lying area of ground adjacent to a drainage channel which has an exit under the road and out to the sea. When that fills, either because the exit has been blocked by seaweed or else because of the simple volume of rain on the land, the area floods. There was no seaweed at the exit when I checked, but this was the photo at the peak on Wednesday (at least, in daylight hours), taken from our decking:

You can see the water running across the road and draining across the grass, bypassing the exit under the road – the sea is just off-left. The road was, as they say, passable with care. And the farm gate doesn’t currently seem to be generally usable – at least, not without the use of your wellies. The drainage channel is between the gate and the fence line running down from the top right – here it is in close up last Sunday morning, taken from just left of the gate in the above picture:

The water has now gone – the land is, normally, quite well-draining – though it does remain a little swampy.

But, inspired also by my archaeology course – for which my assignment was handed in (finally!) yesterday (and will be posted here in due course) – prompted me to check the flood maps. After all, if the road is going to get cut-off, it might be a good idea to get that boat patched up and recommissioned.

Dynamic Coast produces a range of maps on the issue of coastal erosion (and as such has been invaluable during the course). For the whole of the Scottish coast it has produced detailed mapping of the impact of rising sea levels under a high and a low emissions future, demonstrating where the high water line is expected to be under both scenarios at the turn of each new decade up until 2021. We’re fine up here on the headland – we’re surrounded by a rocky platform built from Lewisian gneiss, which is both dense and heavy and less permeable to erosion – but the softer, sandier areas either side of the headland are much more vulnerable. The bad news is that the road is indeed going to get cut-off – even under a low emissions future, in which sea levels off the headland rise by 0.37m by 2100 – though not at the Loch of Intermittent Appearance, but where it comes close to the shore of Mol Mòr at Kilaulay (Cill Amhlaidh). Under a high emissions future, with sea levels rising by 1.03m by 210, not only the road is under threat but the seafront properties of our neighbours across the bay are also gone:

Loch of Intermittent Appearance marked on the high emissions map in black, with the drainage channel just to the left.

Some of the impact of this on people’s lives, homes and livelihoods might be addressed by some sort of remedial action, though of course the better thing to do is to address rising emissions properly and cohesively not only to ensure but to deliver a low emissions future.

However, climate change isn’t just manifesting itself in rising sea levels but also in higher amounts of rainfall and in more extreme weather events. The Historic Environment Scotland Action Plan for 2020-2025 speaks, in somewhat coded fashion, of:

Total rainfall recorded on extremely wet days has increased by c.17% in 2008–17 in comparison to 1961–90. In the west of Scotland, this figure is 36%. (p. 15)

There’s a bit to unpack there, so I went on to the website of the learned folks at the Royal Meteorological Society to dig out their State of the UK Climate 2020 document for a bit of backup. There’s a lot of data in there and quite a lot of it technical in one way or another – but it does have data on rainfall going back to 1862 and for each of the nations of the UK. 2020 was a poor year – especially for our cousins up on North Uist (see Figure 22; p. 21) – but of course it is not one isolated year which is the issue but the overall trend. Looking at the rainfall in each year expressed as a percentage of the 1981-2010 average clearly shows a rising trend. Scotland is the wettest place in the UK (natch) and where the amount of rainfall is rising quickest – 2011-2020 was 11% higher than the 1961-1990 average – but each of the nations are getting wetter:

Figure 25, State of the UK Climate 2020 (p. 26 of the .pdf version)

Furthermore, six of the ten wettest years in the UK series from 1862 have occurred since 1998 (2000, 2020, 2012, 1998, 2008 and 2014, with particular implications for winters with 2014, 2016 and 2020 all in the top five wettest winters (p. 26). Amidst the rain, winter storms and extreme events attracting red alert warnings – like Storm Eunice – are likely to become a lot more frequent.

Archaeology is concerned about rainfall (hence HES’s Action Plan): access paths, sites and buildings are all adversely affected when exposed to all that water and many properties will need specific action to preserve what we know and love. Let alone what we don’t yet know we love.

If all this rainfall keeps up, it looks as though the Loch of Intermittent Appearance will be making more appearances than usual. And might thus need to be renamed. With rising sea levels going on at the same time, that’s quite a pincer action on Ardivachar, and with major infrastructural repercussions, too. It’s not only the archaeological environment but a question of the state of what we’re also handing down to our successors as reminders and nudges about the way we lived our lives. And if we keep going on the way we are, there’ll not be a lot of keepsakes worthy of the name.

In the meantime, stay safe down there.

Book review: Surfacing

Kathleen Jamie needs few introductions. Since last year Scotland’s Makar, and now a freelance poet, writer and indeed editor, her non-fiction writing, which combines deep observations about nature and the environment with reflections on her own place in it, relates clarity and perceptiveness and also captures fundamental meaning within, and from, moments of time. Her writing ‘at the confluence of nature, travel and culture’ is powerful in its simplicity and Surfacing, her 2019 collection, made a happy – and entirely serendipitous – accompaniment to my own recent (and ongoing) archaeological studies.

The cover (mine is 2020’s paperback edition) features several archaeological artefacts alongside relics of the natural world and its publication leans on two archaeological digs on which Jamie spent some time – on a native Alaskan (Yup’ik) dig, inspired by a visit to the Aberdeen University museum (oh! the power of curators!); and also at the Neolithic/Bronze Age settlement at Links of Noltland, on Orkney (where one of the team, mentioned at several places in the book, was our own Dr. Emily Gal). It’s a well-chosen illustration which emphasises the impact of humans on the environment (and which, perhaps, is suggestive of that impact not being kind) and, at the same time, that nature has – at least up to now – been able to regard and deal with that impact within the circularity of the life cycle (the distinct lack of which, with its non-degradable plastics, is the signature mark of our own Anthropocene) and with humans and nature in a degree of harmony.

The title is also clever, repeating Jamie’s predilection for single-word titles and, at the same time, strongly suggesting a theme of growing consciousness and the coming to light of things – both artefacts and knowledge – that were once lost.

Comparatively lengthy accounts of her time at the digs are book-ended with shorter (more typically Jamie-like) feature writing (blog posts, even) reflecting on climate change, our own lack of care for the environment and others (increasing as technology advances), family and ageing, and listening to nature’s voice. There is also an extended account of time spent in China (close to Tibet) during a tumultuous time in the mid-1990s, written as a promise to herself, and in part exorcism of a dream, made during a recent cancer diagnosis. But it is the digs that take centre stage, in terms both of the content and the theme of the work, and both feature different aspects of climate change: global warming (a lack of snow and compacted ice in Alaska); and coastal erosion (a result of rising sea levels and increasing rain on Orkney). More prosaically, both also illustrate the uncertainties arising from the short-term, piecemeal funding common to archaeological digs; as well as their seasonal nature, with daylight, and the weather, having an impact on what can be done and what can be realised in terms of bringing things to light.

The Links of Noltland dig features Jamie at her best; but I think the Alaskan section works rather less well. Here she is curiously detached and her observations, while conveying insight, seem as a result a little more forced and certainly occur a little less naturally. Frequently, she is factual rather than poetic; prosaic rather than elevated. The reasons why can only be speculative and are likely to be several: language and culture are surely among them (politically, the Chinese section, the third piece of extended writing in the book and appearing at the opposite end to the Alaskan, provides some particularly interesting contrasts and its selection here in this volume might provide a contribution in this area). The same is also true of archaeological dig experience, perhaps gained for the first time in Alaska. At Links of Noltland, such barriers are not present (or not as present) and Jamie features much more on the dig itself – accurately conveying, as a novice, some of the techniques involved in constructing and cleaning a site, for example. The result is a much more cohesive piece of writing which allows Jamie’s observational ability to come fully to the fore and to present the material exploring and combining her themes in a way which is more rounded and which emphasises the links she wants to make between humans and nature. In Alaska, these are known, but less clear and differently perceived; while the issues raised appear more contended not least since they are also tied up with identity and a shared understanding which is native and not Jamie’s own.

The lack of cohesiveness to the first part of the work perhaps renders this a lesser achievement than her earlier work – but then, such a criticism is also a misstatement of the role of non-fiction writers who change with time and age, learning and understanding, and growth and development. Just as Sightlines was ten years ago now, and Findings a further seven, Surfacing is a product of who Jamie is now and we should cherish her: her ability to synthesise different aspects of the human existence and improve our understanding of our world as a result represents a talent of hugely important significance. I have Antlers of Water – her first edited collection concerning ‘our relationship with the more-than-human world’ on my shelf: this was originally going to be a joint review until archaeology took over. It’s greatly anticipated.

Benbecula’s submerged forest

This week’s archaeology session was the last on the course, so this will be (one of) the last posts on this topic. Apart from the (optional) assignment – at 1,500 words (max), this is little more than a blog post these days (and sometimes even less than that), so I will be viewing it as compulsory – to be submitted in the course of the next two weeks, the formal sessions are now finished. The assessment provides the opportunity to demonstrate our learning on the course themes of coastal erosion and how to shape our futures by learning from the past (hence, of course, the shameless but symbolic plundering of #FridaysForThePast); and I will be posting that here, too.

Friday afternoon saw an online (Webex) session with Kevin Murphy, county archaeologist for the Western Isles archaeology service and a committee member of the Association of Local Government Archaeological Officers. The local authority-based archaeology service was set up across the UK in the 1970s to help overcome the disasters (here: for archaeology) of 1960s planning decisions and that remit, to ensure that the needs of archaeology has an input into the planning and development process, remains the mainstay of the service.

Scarce resources is an abiding issue – Kevin not only leads the team on the Western Isles but indeed is also it – and he is one of a rare breed, there being only a handful of archaeologists in Scotland more than there are local authorities (the numbers being, IIRC, 36 and 32 respectively). Across the Western Isles there are around 13,500 sites of interest; and the perennial problem, as far as I can see, is not only one of the scale of the task – monitoring development projects to ensure that they do not threaten sites of interest, amongst other roles – but also of the distances associated with the patch: unless travelling by plane – and there are evident problems with that in an environmental context – a road trip from Stornoway to Uist and Benbecula (and there are no other options…) is a day’s travel. And, for points even in South Uist but certainly Barra, that’s a day’s travel in each direction.

Managing all those requirements means working very closely with a range of agencies and stakeholders, and, indeed, dedicated and enthusiastic volunteers. Kevin is evidently hard-pressed and we were grateful both for his time and for his insights into his role and to the art of the possible. There is enough resilience to ensure that one big storm doesn’t blow it all away but the inescapable impression is one of an important local service being held together by bits of string and a blob or two of glue; and with fingers that are firmly crossed.

As if to highlight that lesson, the following day’s field trip was to the submerged forest – remains of trees now surrounded by sand and washed by the tide – near Lionacleit, on Benbecula. This was discovered by Ann Monk, a local resident, as recently as 2014; and it was a privilege to have Ann on this trip, as well as the expert and detailed insights provided by Simon Davies. There are submerged forests elsewhere in Europe (including quite famously at Borth, in Cardigan Bay), but this is one of the biggest and best preserved: when surveyed in 2018, teams investigated two 30m x 30m squares and found, in just one, 380 samples of tree remnants including birch, willow and Scots pine set into peat. Storms and the shifting sands that result both from wind and wave action mean that some of these remnants are no longer visible – but, at the same time, that others have also been uncovered.

The day was one of those where you needed to have the right clothes (and not to be a wearer of spectacles) but we visited all the major areas of the site including peat deposits, tree remnants, the butchery site, possible walls and dwellings, and the quern stone (actually both, although one appears to have been moved and replaced recently). It is somewhat humbling both to know that the surface that you’re standing on was a terrain familiar to Neolithic humans – living some 7,000 years ago (even if they might not exactly recognise the surroundings of the place today) – as well as that, crucially, peat doesn’t form in salt water: and that, therefore, what is now a tidal bay was once a freshwater loch, with the Atlantic being perhaps 5km further out to the west and the loch itself stretching south to the modern shore at Balgarva, on South Uist (where there are also tree remnants).

Tree remnants, with archaeology flagpole
With added humans, for scale
The in situ quern stone, used to grind wheat to make flour (though a time consuming business probably taking about 6-8 hours to grind enough to make bread for a single family)

A site that is now entirely tidal and thus flooded twice per day – but which was once secure (and dry) enough for a small community to locate their lives here and call it home.

The point is of course that the submerged forest and the other elements of the site – this ‘incredibly rare’ finding – was found, not by chance (it was the result of informed assessment of the possibilities and of determined exploration with that in view), but by an individual person outside the framework of a planned archaeological survey. In a different sort of society, one less guided by scarce resources, it wouldn’t be necessary for individuals to have to act in this way since we’d know what was (likely to be) there – but, given the constraints provided by our own, it is vital that they do. Lionacleit is a fabulous, historical place and it is completely astonishing that such important remains could have been discovered by an individual; and so recently. And, of course, the question remains of just how much else there is – if not quite beneath our feet – just a little further away. If it is true that we’re never more than 164′ away from a rat, is the same also true of archaeological remains?

This has been a really interesting course and series of lectures and site visits; and, indeed, I’ll not quite be sure what else to do with my Friday afternoons. Thanks to our enthusiastic and motivated lecturers, Dr. Emily Gal and Dr. Rebecca Rennell, and to other course participants, for some enlivening discussions and for information that has been, by turns, mind-blowing and life-affirming. There may well be another local studies course to engage with but, in the meantime, and when the weather improves a little from its damp and blustery self, there’s always some fieldwork to engage with for that assignment. Together with the knowledge that something might well be there which it is now up to me to report on. Humbling, indeed.