Tom Pow: The lie of the land

BEST known as a poet, Tom Pow has written a book about the dying villages of Europe after receiving a Creative Scotland award. Here, he looks at whether there are any parallels here

THREE years ago, on a holiday with my son on Harris, we took a walk to the abandoned village of Ceann Loch Reasort. The only access to it is from the sea loch, Loch Reasort, or by rough track overland. For a couple of hours or so, we followed the guiding post stones, sunk into the peat and the mossy earth, till we didn’t need them anymore. Loch Reasort glinted dully before us with the cluster of Ceann Loch Reasort at its head.

“Most of the cottages are ruins now, though their doorways, pediment-proud, are still strong. Before several, there is a green sward. The word comes from the old English ‘sweard’ meaning skin and this short, rich grass seems to fit the earth in a way that matches such a meaning. A stone dyke runs round the community of cottages and the narrow fields that run down to the loch. Once there was a school till the numbers dwindled and the village was reduced to a gamekeeper and his wife. They left in 1966.

Sign up to our daily newsletter

The i newsletter cut through the noise

During the war, it was the first village in the area to get a telephone put in by the Ministry of War, so that it could report U-boat sightings. That apart, the world seems to have left Ceann Loch Reasort alone. Abandoned villages, such as Ceann Loch Reasort, as well as villages I’d known in the Highlands, where abandonment had been a matter of force, gave me my first imaginative connections with the dying villages of Europe that have engaged me over the last few years.

By 2030, it is estimated that Europe will lose one third of its population, through death and low birth rate: it is the greatest demographic change in Europe since the Black Death. Rural areas will be most seriously affected. I visited some of these, from Northern Spain to Russia. During my travels, and after, one of the questions I was asked most frequently was whether the situation in Scotland is similar to the one I found in Europe. My answer is that, although there is ample evidence of dead villages from the past in Scotland, it is more likely that villages now will be recomposed of disparate interests, their prime unity of intent, what gave them their basic social cohesion – say, the life of the land or the sea, the collaborative rituals of the seasons – will have changed or fractured.

The inhabitants of the villages I visited in Europe were the very last of that long lineage for whom the village was a world. These were kin to the French populace David Robb writes of, in The Discovery of France, four fifths of whom, in the late 19th century, were described as “almost stationary”. Similarly, in Russia, folk wisdom was intensified by Soviet strictures, so that to leave the village was to cross a dangerous threshold, one that would take you from ancestors and earth; it was not something to be undertaken lightly. With their inhabitants restricted and stationary, villages everywhere created distinct identities.

Closer to home, Roger Hutchinson describes, in Calum’s Road, the culinary differences that once existed on Raasay, where “the small but separate villages retained their own identities in idiosyncratic ways. Some communities ate ‘braxy mutton’ and dried dogfish, which would be rejected by the handful of families in their neighbouring townships.” In the villages I visited, such customs were preserved in the minds of a handful of people. Like Rimma, the sole inhabitant of the village of Kozino in the Kostroma region north of Moscow. “Why do you live here alone?” I asked her, given that she could have gone to live with her children in the city. “Because I like village life,” she answered.

The push and pull factors of village life – on the one hand, limited options and claustrophobia, on the other, opportunity and openness – are characteristics that are common to villages at any time. The contemporary temptation is not so much to fear the threshold, as not to see any threshold there at all. For some time, technology has allowed us to imagine a world without boundaries and now, with broadband, the village offers “relocation opportunities” for the skilled urban malcontent.

It’s not hard to think of people we know who fit that description. Nor is it hard to think of villages, lying outside property rich cities, like Edinburgh, that have become dormitories for those who work there. So, in Scotland, I do not see villages that are dying in the clearly decisive way of those I visited in Europe. What I do see are villages that are metamorphosing from what they once were – places with a social cohesion born of necessity – to ones which have a mixed economy and a shifting population. Such villages must weave their own stories, rather than rely on the oral inheritance that situated village dwellers in the past.

Of course, such village narratives are rarely consciously brought to light. However, it has been one of the privileges of working on this project and this book that I have had reason to engage with people about what makes their village distinctive. The village of Ae, for example, here in the south west, was the first of Scotland’s 40 forest villages, built after the war. Those who have lived there from that time (1949) can tell lively anecdotes about the way, before mechanisation, an army of men once marched from the village down into the forest. Yet they recognise that the vitality of the local school is key to the current narrative of Ae. But this need not be a universal view. Farther west, in the village of Kendoon, for example, built in the 1930s to accommodate workers for the hydro scheme, the houses are now all privately owned by a mature group of villagers. There are no children and, I was told by one resident, no particular desire to have them in the village. This was not said in any prejudiced way, simply that their village functioned perfectly well without them.

In each village narrative, there will be an awareness of the past and of how the present has been shaped by it. The story of the village of Tarskavaig on Skye’s beautiful Sleat peninsula, for example, takes account of the clearance stories of Skye and of the current state of Gaelic, but also of the way in which the village has been rejuvenated by new residents who have led the transformation of a disused church into a new community hall. Being a ‘local’ there, I was told, means being able “to name each pothole on the road”.

The village represents the opposite of a world without boundaries. So why should we care – or at least pause - if a village dies? Because, as John Berger says, “All villages tell stories”, all villages are a language, a way of looking at the world, though some speak to us in a more nuanced, elliptical way than others. When I sat with my son on the green sward at Ceann Loch Reasort, I did not feel we were alone. The silence was companionable – the past felt reachable. Even more so, in the ‘New’ village of Arnol on the west coast of Lewis, which is not one village but two. The first is a village of shapes delineated by broken, turf-topped walls. The second village stands among the ruins, its white houses clear in the muted landscape with their extensions and their aerials. It is as if this village has grown out of the old one; cast it off like an old skin. But, at night, when the wind gets up and the house holders are settled before their screens, perhaps they can hear the old village singing its songs and telling tales of itself; woven through the place like tidewrack, memories of work, struggle, loss and love.

• In Another World: Among Europe’s Dying Villages, by Tom Pow, published by Polygon Books