Changing landscapes: a perspective on home

Image credit: Lewis Thomas

We grow up in landscapes. 

The world is quiet at 9 a.m., the two hills hidden from view by the forest which surrounds the car-park. I’m standing between the Lomond Hills, bang in the centre of Fife and, after a fashion, the centre of the view I always associate with home.

There is a school of thought which states that home is wherever you make it: that through the construction of our own spaces and relationships, we can make home a movable feast, proceeding through life like a great psychological caravan of gifts and memories. I don’t disagree with that view - I have been studying away from home since I was sixteen, and have formed attachments to the places I stayed during the course of that. When I am in England, I grin involuntarily whenever I see the chalk ridges of the Downs appear through a train window, and I have a fierce affection for the Surrey Hills (there’s a badger sett near Godalming I’ve been keeping an eye on since I was sixteen - last time I checked, its occupants were still digging away). 

This attachment extends to Cambridge - over my first year, I saw the town at all hours and in all weathers, whether it was leafletting at 5am on a June Morning, crossing Orgasm Bridge on my way to a February 9 a.m., or climbing a rooftop to watch the Trinity Fireworks during the first deep snatches of a May Week night. These are all landscapes I’ve become attached to, and think of as having special significance. Sometimes, these places become superlative - as far as I’m concerned, the best sunset I have ever seen was on a June evening in 2015, as I descended the Downs on a walk from Rodmell to Godalming. It broke over the walkers, with shades of blue, yellow and red smashing and blurring between the wooded plain to the North and the blue strip of the channel to the South, with the chalk ridgeway stretching ever Westwards. But, for all the merits of these places, none of them can inspire (for me at least) the affection and sense of belonging that Fife does.

The Lomonds are a case of spectacular geological processes descending into farce. Picture this: millions of years ago, Scotland was an uninhabitable hellhole, with great volcanoes spewing ash into the atmosphere. Eventually, two volcanic vents hardened, leading to two volcanic plugs emerging- these now form the East and West Lomonds. At some point during the Ice Ages, a glacier moved over these plugs, grinding down the sandstone ridge that connected them and further defining the hills. As a result, Fife is dominated by a pair of hills that, if you squint a bit and want a cheap laugh, look a bit like a pair of breasts (hence their nickname - “the paps of Fife”). Geologically, they are outliers in the county, the rest of which is made up by rolling hills in the north and a coastal plain in the south, sloping down towards the Forth (another remnant of that glacier’s run to the south). 

As humans emerged, we occupied the summits, building Hill Forts on both and farming the surrounding land - this area was the final frontier of the Roman Empire, with the tribes beyond Fife disappearing into the Highland mist (if you believe Gibbon, so that they could chase deer naked, genitals boldly flying loose in the Northern chill).

Their geography and history, however, is nothing compared to their spiritual significance - to me, they are the view that tells me I have arrived home; the London to Aberdeen line passes by their base, and it’s possible to make them out from the train as it pulls into Edinburgh. For three years, I have come home at intervals dictated by term dates, and whether it is watching from a car window or a train, the sight of those hills will always remind me that the home I grew up in, with its familiar smells, people and sights, is less than an hour away. From the summits, I can see the country of my youth stretching before me; there is Edinburgh to the south, with its memories of day trips to the Castle and solitary wanders around the city; to the north, I can make out Dundee, the squashed and rain-soaked city I know from childhood; and to the east, nestled behind a hill and on the last ridge before the sea, there is my home village. And even then, looking to a horizon I know I cannot see beyond, I will find more places, more sites of triumph and experience. From the top of those hills, I sometimes feel as if I can see my life in map form.

People change - buildings rise and fall, society adapts and morphs. But geology? That takes far too long to change for it to be witnessed by us. In time, other volcanoes may erupt and change the hills - the ridge may be ground down some more, the land between it and the Tay may be reclaimed by marsh. But for the moment, they remain a symbol of home. A sign that I have arrived back in the land I grew up in and that no matter what happens, there will always be some inviolate spots. People change. Fortunes change. But in spite of all this, the birds will still circle over the Lomonds, and the sunsets will still break over the Downs.

We grow up in Landscapes - they shelter us, define us, and give us a background. And in return, we live in their grip.

And it has just started to pour with rain. I said my Fife’s a beautiful county - I never said the weather was nice.

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