Wednesday, 20 February 2013

Autobiography: In the beginning...'First Reflections'



From time to time, my family has urged me to write my recollections of my boyhood in the island of Tiree.  I take my 'boyhood' to be the years between 1949, when I was born, and approximately 1965, when I left the island to study at Oban High School.  Others, beyond my family, have urged me to write my autobiography; and still others have suggested that I should write an account of the croft at 'Coll View', Caolas, where I spent my boyhood.


The present blog-book is an attempt to meet the wishes of those kind souls who were unwise enough to encourage me in the first place.  However, I have no doubt that the finished product will fail to satisfy their wishes, as it is, to a large extent, a mixture of all three potential approaches – to which several other strands have been added.   I am perhaps best qualified (at this stage) to write an account of my boyhood, but I cannot yet aspire to write my autobiography, as my life, as it stands, simply does not merit generous treatment at my own hands.  I am acutely aware of the self-promotion which almost inevitably lies at the heart of any attempt to write the story of one's life.  In the process of its creation, autobiography – and the psuedo-self that writes it – frequently make a positive value-judgement on the contribution of the subject to life in general, since a life worth writing about must be (by the writer's definition) one that has special significance.  To that degree it often contains a marked element of pride and pomposity, often subtly unrecognised.  I hope that I have avoided these pitfalls in the present work.

'Wee Crofter Boy', complete with bib and brace overalls and his faithful dog, Norman -
one of an endless series of images which represent some aspect of 'me'.

I am no less aware that modern literary critics regard any attempt at autobiography as essentially a 'reinvention' of the self.   It is 'faction' rather than fact. In writing the story of her or his life, an author allegedly creates another persona, which is a mixture of ascertainable fact and outright fantasy, as well as a skilful attempt to disguise and eliminate uncomfortable realities which might distort the overall picture.  I would plead guilty immediately to an inclination in that direction, even in writing this blog-book.  All of life's experiences are filtered through a series of lenses, and each lens distorts the image.  The lenses change as life moves on, and retrospection adds still more layers of distortion.  I would therefore wish to present this blog-book as a gathering of many pictures rather than a single volume containing the authoritative 'big picture'.  Or, to put it another way, this volume is a collection of many threads, amounting to a tapestry which can be read on the colourful - and publicly acceptable - surface, or turned over and seen as the jumble of loose ends that life really is.

I am disinclined - at this stage - to write a sociological volume on 'Coll View'.  An account of the family croft would be fascinating, but to some extent it would be an academic treatise, containing details and minutiae which might deter the reader who lacked a passion for the sights, sounds and smells of that wonderful 'small piece of land surrounded by an ocean of legislation' (as one wag defined a croft).  In the fulness of time, I will write such an account, but now is not the time, and this is not the place.

My intention here is to present a series of interlocking portraits of my family and acquaintances, my island home and the island itself, in an effort to present the formative phases in my awareness of human society.  I will reach out from my island vantage-point to wider vistas, and to the 'great world out there',  particularly as I have encountered it in Scotland.  Schools, churches, education, transport services, and inevitably the family croft, its routines and restrictions, have played an immense part in my 'formation', and these will feature prominently. I have had particularly close contact with educational establishments.  My main emphasis, however, will be on people, since it is in contact with other people that the 'self' (or the various 'selves'?) is (are?) actually created.  People are community, and community is what an island - and a town, for that matter - is all about.  Within a single larger community, there are many smaller communities, in which bonding takes place through kinship, interests, occupations, politics, likes and dislikes.  That is true of any island, or any town, or any place where there is a sufficient number of human beings to make it viable as a 'community'.

'Wee Kiltie Boy' - made to measure the Highland stereotype!
Here and there, I will allude to attitudes which belong to different sectors of the community, in its narrower and wider aspects.  I will express my own views, perhaps forcefully, on many matters, from rubbish to royalty.  In so doing, I am well aware that I myself am not a single 'personality', but a complex set of personae, each one with a different view of the world around him.  At times, I am scholarly and deeply serious, as befits my former profession; at other times, I disparage such 'seriousness', and turn my back on scholarship and its pointless profundities; on still other occasions, I am 'poetic', though sometimes only barely so, as my verse (if such it can be called) is light-hearted to the point of 'daftness', with a deliberately mischievous 'take' on the world around me.  Following one strand of Gaelic culture with which I was wholly familiar in Tiree, I transmute readily into the 'bard of the global township', cocking a snook at developments, people and events within, but often far beyond, my native community.  Depending on mood and inclination, I can become a boat-builder too.   I am known (by some) to be an author and perhaps even a 'writer'.   It is all in the jeans, but perhaps more obviously in the bib-and-brace overalls, which, when worn with style, impart a sense of 'can-do' certainty to a ceaseless range of dabblings.

This blog-book, with its various sections, is therefore not about one 'me'.  Rather, it tries to show the multiplicity of my personae, the many 'me's' that make 'me'.  It does not attempt to create an all-embracing mask which somehow represents a single 'reality' which can be reduced to the mirage of an authoritative 'autobiography'.   It represents the worlds (plural) with which I have interacted during more than sixty years of earthly existence, and the different 'me's' that have existed at each point of interaction, or have been shaped by that interaction.

'Feargaidh mo ruin-sa' (faic na h-Orain Eibhinn).    This was the only Fergie in my life, and 'she'
will never be displaced from my affections.  

I will explore in some depth my own changing relationship to and with my native island, as it has shaped me and haunted me across the years, as I have left it and returned to find that it has left me.  The ‘voyage out’, for the native of the island as for the ‘incomer’, is quite different from the ‘voyage in’, and the passages have to be negotiated at various levels, with concessions and demands, gains and losses.  The image of the ship, linking Tiree to the mainland and weaving together a range of experiences, has a significant place in this book, because I have been on many 'voyages', physical, intellectual, emotional, artistic...and these voyages continue. 

'Crofter at Cambrdige'.  I am shown here in July 1973 in the grounds of Emmanuel College, Cambridge,
with the then Senior Tutor of the college, Dr David G. T. Williams.  Dr Williams later became Sir David
Williams, Chancellor of the University of Cambridge. 
Like the ship, I will expect to enter stormy seas.  Almost certainly, I will provoke disagreement and disquiet, particularly among those whose view of an island has been formed by a quite different set of initial perceptions.  I will not give much place to the kind of romanticism that conceives of the Hebrides as a peripheral drop-out centre, where life is always positively ‘other’ and pleasingly different from mass culture.  My experience at the receiving end of the Highland cow’s tail, struggling to maintain my link with my native island as my family reaches the very end of its existence as a kindred, has been quite different.

'Crofting orator'.  Commemorating the Rev. Donald MacCallum, the pro-crofter minister of the parish
of Heylipol, in July 1986, on the occasion of the rededication of the cairn
erected by Tiree cottars and crofters in appreciation of MacCallum.
Nor am I your 'standard' Highlander or Hebridean, with unsullied Gaelic blood flowing in my veins.  As I show in this book, my roots are both Lowland and Hebridean.  Although I am closely connected to Gaelic-speaking families, it was only in the course of the last century that the Meeks became thoroughly Gaelic-speaking, by marrying into Gaelic stock. The Meek side of my being has a long history of cultural displacement, which is but a small reflection of the turmoils that have racked others during the last tumultuous century.  The Meeks apparently chased employment across Scotland, before my grandfather settled in Falkirk around 1900 and married my Tiree grandmother.  My father spent his first six or seven years in Falkirk, before moving to Tiree, where he was brought up by his grandparents.  As a consequence of that move, I am a Gaelic speaker.  I am also a person with hardly any close relatives in Scotland on my father’s side, for the simple reason that the rest of my father’s family, including his parents, emigrated to Canada as he moved to Tiree.

Passages of all sorts, literal and metaphorical, have therefore affected my family, and continue to provoke thought.  At one level, they have caused me to feel a deep sense of isolation which begins in Tiree.  I have no remaining family relative who will look after ‘Coll View’ when I am not there.  Now I find it hard to ‘go home’ every summer, whereas it was a delight in years of boyhood and early manhood.  The loss of family and community in Tiree has made returning an agony.   All too often my ‘holiday’ (as some deluded souls, including myself, would call it) has become a nightmare of hard work, difficult thinking and creative self-doubt on my personal ‘gulag’.  It is an encounter with the past which I would gladly avoid. Yet, once I have negotiated the passage at the other end, it can also become a hugely stimulating experience, resulting in the production of books and articles.  Several pieces, including this book, have been planned, initiated or written in substantial measure within the walls of ‘Coll View’, between spells on the top of the ladder, when the demands of other institutions have seemed remote and insignificant.  There is still something in that house that connects closely and intensely with deeply personal aspects of my being, and makes it difficult to dispose of it, despite the incessant  demands of fabric.

'An t-ARD-Ollamh Domhnall Meek'. as Dr John Holliday once called me,
when he came round the gable of 'Coll View' and found me up a ladder and whitewashing
the house.   The Gaelic word for Professor means literally 'High-Learned One'.
'Height' is evident here, but what about 'learning'?

As I have struggled with hammer and paint-brush to ward off the effects of wind and weather on my island ‘home’, I have battled to come to terms with the loss of my own wider family, but also with an island rapidly losing its sense of Gaelic identity – or at least the ‘sense of Gaelic identity’ which I knew when I was growing up in ‘Coll View’.  I have little doubt that my great-grandfather, who built ‘Coll View’ in 1891, would have been as deeply uneasy with the ‘Gaelic identity’ of the 1950s and 1960s as I now am with what I perceive to be the culture-shift all around me at the beginning of the twenty-first century.  Change, it is sometimes said, is the only constant in life, and there is an element of truth in that, though it is not the whole story.

'Happy Helmsman':   I am at the wheel of the restored Fifie, Reaper, off Anstruther in September 2007.
When I took the helm on the return leg to 'Enster', skipper Ian Murray asked in amazement, 'Do you
have previous experience of boats like this?'

Other stormy passages will require to be negotiated.  I will examine how it feels to be part of minority Gaelic culture in twentieth- and early twenty-first century Scotland.  My analysis may not be flattering, as I don't always feel proud of being a 'Gael' or a Scot, and I am almost congenitally disinclined to be proud of being 'British'.   Crossing cultural boundaries has heightened awareness of difference and apartness.   As a bit of a ‘loner’ in a predominantly English-speaking country, I have sometimes felt isolated as I have made the cultural passage in the other direction, from the island to Lowland universities and Lowland cities.  As I have journeyed on, I have become aware that many Scots are unable to identify with my understanding of culture (indeed 'cultures'), and especially the pro-Gaelic throb which is at the very heart of my being, and broadens out to a wider toleration of, and admiration for, bodies that have asserted their own claims to distinctiveness. 

'The academic crofter'.   Professor Emeritus Donald E. Meek, Doctor of Letters,
 University of Glasgow, November 2011.  Where is my Ferguson tractor?

My life has therefore had its share of tension with institutions, employers and politicians in the ‘other’ cultural context.  I sometimes envy those for whom life and its many attitudes are 'cut and dried', but on other occasions I pity them, because diversity and 'difference' add spice to what can otherwise be a mere existence, a pointless, empty, mundane ritual of going-through-the-motions with clockwork regularity.

All too often in the course of the 1990s I found myself wondering if the ‘plot’ of the Scottish nation had not been carefully written to exclude, rather than to include, minorities and ‘minor’ people.  Sometimes I wondered if that ‘plot’ had not also been adopted, at least in part, by those Gaelic people with whom I identify so closely, but not always comfortably.  Gaels have their own lines of exclusivity, based on regional affinities within the wider Gaelic community. On the other hand, I must emphasise that I have been well aware of my links with other ‘families’ and cultural units within Scotland, whose members have struggled to maintain their own distinctive profiles.  

I will be satisfied with this blog-book if it helps me, and others, to understand how it feels to ‘belong’ to at least two cultures within Scotland, both of which make competing claims.  Perhaps it will likewise help to explain why I have occasionally felt 'out of place' (a telling and, to me, comforting phrase used by Edward Said as the title of his own autobiography) in the greater Scotland. It may also suggest why I have sometimes felt uncomfortable even in the smaller unit of Gaelic Scotland, which includes Tiree. 

'Ex-Crofter Boy'. Here I am keeping up the connection with 'Coll View', and borrowing a dog,
but I know that there is nothing and no-one behind the walls that once throbbed
with life and energy.

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