My first visit to Gretna Green was about twenty years ago. But because I've been back there three times in the last two months, I was reminded of that first time, of something that had stuck in my mind. My recent visits were to see the cairn being built on the border between Scotland and England. A very tangible and lasting symbol of the 'auld acquaintance' - the solidarity among the people of the United Kingdom - building a cairn was the idea of Rory Stewart, MP for Penrith and the Border.
What I'd remembered seeing in Gretna all those years ago, or what I thought I'd seen, was a sculpture of Hephaistos, the god of metalwork, appropriate for a town where the blacksmith's anvil was the centrepiece for conducting marriage ceremonies.
On a gloriously warm summer's day, I headed into the village from the bus stop, bought a coffee and asked about the sculpture. It will be up at the Blacksmith Centre, I was told, go back to the roundabout, turn left. I did. But the old Blacksmith's house was now surrounded by cafés restaurants and tourist shops, the courtyard and garden was crowded with people, all eating and drinking, a piper played, and there were a couple of large sculptures which had nothing to do with Hephaistos. As well as these smaller, delicate ones which blended in well with the garden foliage. (I didn't note who the sculptor of this one was, and haven't been able to find out, sadly.)
So I walked back, past the Gretna outlet village (a shopping mall for tourists) and found a handmade sign for the cairn, pointing across a field.
At the age of 41 Rory Stewart has already done many different things in his life, (served in the army, worked for NGO in Afghanistan, diplomat, teacher, writer) and I feel an affinity with that capacity to change and transform, to elude being pinned into one defining role or identity. But what really caught my interest was his walk across Afghanistan and his ability to write so engagingly about it (in The Places in Between). Travelling and writing, how could it not? I'd also watched the documentaries he made, one about Afghanistan, and one about the border lands that cover territories in both Scotland and England, digging into the history of this part of our island. And now, in another metamorphosis of identity he has become an MP and had the idea of building a cairn on the Scottish/English border. As the border is not far from where I live, I set off to visit the cairn.
It was the end of July, just a few days after the project had started and the cairn then consisted of a low outer ring of terracotta stones, around an empty circular space that was gradually being filled with mainly grey or slate-coloured stones. Rory was walking about, while people approached him, asking questions or wanting to take his photograph. There was a young man dressed in khaki with a long lens camera, then some people involved with the cairn building wanted his advice on the wording of a leaflet. Kitchener was mentioned, and there was laughter. Rory pulled out his phone and started putting in some text.
I had scribbled down a few questions I wanted to put to him, and when I saw a tiny chink in the flow of people, I stepped forward, introduced myself and asked if he could spare a few minutes. He was friendly and engaging and immediately pointed to a ridge of ground about 100 metres away, shaded by the spreading branches of a leafy plane tree and suggested that we go there.
We talked about Afghanistan, the land and the people. I pointed out that though he has had many different jobs and professions, it seems to me that the connecting thread between them all has been a desire to serve, to apply his abilities in a way that is useful.
I've always had the sense of looking for a purpose in my life, he said. Sometimes it has not been very clear, but I've tried to find that sense of purpose in different ways. I like the idea of people coming together, doing things together, away from the usual kind of politics.
But you are in politics now. You are an MP.
Yes, but I'm interested in a different kind of politics, one that is community led and driven.
On the UK staying together, he said:
I see the UK as a symbol of diversity that is constructive. We have people from different backgrounds who live together peacefully. And this idea – the idea of people living together peaceably, it is really very modern.
Towards the end of your book I said, you seemed to have an epiphanic experience in Afghanistan.
Yes! But it's difficult to know how to regain this experience. I've chosen to work in the public eye, for the time being. But I've been tempted to go the other way and live a more private and reclusive life. But this – he gestures towards the cairn and the people – bringing people together in this way, this makes me deeply happy.
|Rory Stewart at the cairn|
It seems to make other people happy too. When I join the chain of people passing stones from the pile a few metres away to the inside of the cairn itself, there are people of all ages, and from both sides of the border, as well as a French couple who are on holiday, saw the sign, and stopped by to help.
My second visit to the cairn was about a month later. I stopped off at the information office in Gretna outlet village, and asked there about the elusive Hephaistos sculpture which I'd begun to think I'd possibly imagined or perhaps had seen somewhere else and mis-remembered the place as Gretna. Neither of the two young women in the office knew of any Hephaistos sculpture.
So I walked on to the cairn. It had progressed dramatically. The outer ring had been built up by experienced dry stone dykers and the inner pile of stones rose several feet high, many of them painted with images or words expressing solidarity. There was a gap in the outer ring, with a narrow entranceway and corridor leading into the inner circle, so it also combined some of the features of ancient barrows and labyrinths, with its narrow entrance and its circular heart. Flags of the countries of the United Kingdom had been raised at the roadside behind the cairn.
My third visit was shortly after the referendum. I hadn't intended to go to the tourist information office again, but the bus stopped very near it and I decided on the spur of the moment to look in on the off chance that someone more knowledgeable might be there. I don't know why the memory of this sculpture nagged at me so persistently but then one often doesn't know the reason for such things, one follows the feelings, hunches, intuitions and directions that can take you half way across the world or on just a short journey, in search of something.
The Greeks had two words for time, Chronos, or measured time, and Kairos, that sense of multi-layered time where things come together, a feeling of things fitting into place (finally), the feeling of 'appointed time'. The person behind the desk had not heard of the sculpture of Hephaistos or Vulcan, the god of smiths and metalwork, but she was not busy, and her search on the computer came up with something. I've got it she said. There's a sculpture in the car park of the Gretna Smiths Hotel. And she pointed it out on the map. It was very close to the Old Blacksmith's House I'd visited the first time, surrounded by pubs and restaurants and the sculpture garden.
And so I walked there, and finally saw the sculpture, though it did not correspond to my mental image or memory of it. The intervening years had clearly made some alterations. It was not next to an old whitewashed building, it was not made of shiny metal (though it may have been, when I first saw it) and it was smaller too, than I remembered, but at least I had tracked it down. The photograph is not very clear, as the day was overcast and the light was dull.
This is part of what has been carved on the side of the plinth.
He marries metal to metal
Grace to fury -
In the white heat of the forge
|Sculpture of Hephaistos by R & L Lauren|
After this success, I walked to the cairn. The different flags had been replaced with one union jack. The structure is basically finished though I imagine that stones could still be added, should you wish. But this stone marker, symbol, celebration, which goes deeper than the political dimension only, is no temporary edifice, it is going to remain.
Created by many people, it has become as enduring as a sculpture. Whatever your definition of art is, one of its qualities is that it will embody a desire to express, drawing on existing skills, and combining feeling with thought, care and ability, to create something original. Art can transcend the Everyday focus or frame of our lives with its concerns, conflicts and decisions and can, through the materials used, show us the non-material, the hidden power and meaning of our lives. The result may be functional, such as a vase or a shield, it may even if you're lucky, be beautiful. To me, the cairn is a moving statement, both in the way it brought people together in its creation, in the way it will endure, and in its visual appeal.
According to myth, the god Hephaistos was lame, his body was imperfect (making me think of Chiron, the wounded healer) yet, working with metal, hard and intractable, subjecting it to fire, the heat of passion, he moulded it into shapes of great beauty. His work symbolizes the creative transmutation of energy.
The symbol and meaning of cairns is a very ancient one, waymarkers and links to those who have gone before and those who will come after us. The art and craft of wall or dyke building also has a long tradition. The circular formation, always a symbol of wholeness, links with even older stone circles, created to demonstrate humanity's eternal relationship with the skies, stars, the movements of earth and of the heavens and so reveal that changing energy we call time. And the idea of a maze or labyrinth, with space at its heart, symbolizes our journey through life, not as a straight line but as a wandering that circles and spirals around the centre. A journey not just in physical space but also in the less tangible realms of effort and aspiration, of feeling and imagination, circling around and sometimes inhabiting, the nameless wonder and mystery at the heart of it.
|Late afternoon sunlight as I walk home|