Richard Ashworth’s Diary from the Hebrides: Refugee

Refugee.

“The least we can do is wave to each other”. Peter Hammill.

Right now I’m hiding on the Isle of Arran for a few weeks to write and research. As I look across the roofs through my cottage window, I’m listening to Karla Bonoff’s plaintive version of “The Water is Wide”, a traditional Scottish tune dating from at least the 18th century. It’s not really about Water by the way.

On my morning walk I pass what appears to be The Sporran Arts Club. I blink, no it’s the Arran Sports Club. It’s February, neither as quiet or as cold as I expected but quite sleepy nonetheless. An LED sign in a coffee shop window blinks “Closed” welcomingly. The spring sunlight plays across the bay; dappled stripes are divided by lighter channels. Snow-capped across the water stands Goat Fell (elevation 974m) high over the protective arm of the sound; in the lee, Brodick Castle ancient seat of the Hamilton family, stands out from the pines in its Victorian splendour. Uncrenellated red brick is not really my idea of a castle and feng shui bore that I am, I note that the conifers in front have grown so tall as to block the space directly in front. Such an open space (known as ming tang) represents the future, here an impeded one.

Flat-topped goy moon hills embrace the sea. The Chinese words translate as something like “open gate”. These are welcoming slopes. The land meets the Water too gradually for a natural harbour but it makes for a sheltered beach. Such feng shui implies openness and comfort rather than power or wealth. Hong Kong it isn’t but it is a place where people belong.

Feng shui is sometimes defined as “doing the right thing at the right time in the right place.” Which will do. I have a brief to research for a client and I have a book to write. The research is into timing. Since our understanding of time is principally derived from the Sun’s apparent journey across the sky and that journey always starts East and concludes West, time and place like the Arran sea and the sky, fold into one. I am in the extreme North West of Britain which right now is a powerful place to be. This is early in Spring, the season of Wood. And one expression of Wood is the written word.

The proposed book is a follow-up to my “Feng Shui Diaries” which despite modest sales appears to have changed lives from Russia to Vancouver by way of Bermuda, Poland, Spain, Kuala Lumpur and other exotic points too numerous to list. I stopped writing the regular diary entries that make that book up for several reasons: one was that miracles don’t happen every fortnight. Another was that I feared twisting the truth to make a better story. Reading it back now as the cold weather sets in around my cottage here, I am happy I never did that. The third reason was that so many people don’t want to be written about. This includes the famous and – wait for it – those who sought me out over thousands of miles because of that book. Go figure.

Someone once said that they didn’t know the secret of success was but they were pretty sure it wasn’t achieved by pleasing everybody. The Feng Shui Diaries has some good jokes in it and it’s mostly stories of course but some found it too technical and some not technical enough. I notice that its author was a simpler, gentler person than the one writing this.

The bulk of Brodick Castle dates from 1844. Fifteen years before that, a ship load of crofters set sail for a new life in Canada. They had little choice; the Duke of Hamilton had taken their homes. Brodick Heritage Museum dismisses such “clearances” as something like necessary modernisation. They’re currently embroiled in an argument with local historians who see it a bit differently. My son Jaime who is a proper professional historian tells me history is always about the present day. The only constant is change and yet nothing changes.

To everything there is a season. The task my client has set me is identifying her perfect moment for certain types of action. To do that I have to delve into real time; that is not time as dictated by clocks and calendars. It’s time as marked by the Sun, the Moon and nature itself. We all recognise it, I think. Before we’re fully awake and reach for ipad, phone or laptop, we are all able to tune into what season it is, what day of the week and what time. We are not distinct from nature but part of it. This morning I woke at 5:30; I knew by the light that it was Spring and barely dawn. It was cold but not the ambient cold of Winter, dark but not night. And there’s more.

Up to a point I can do this detective work with ba zi (or Four Pillars, sometimes misleadingly referred to as the Chinese Horoscope). Ba zi which is probably what I’m best known for, is drawn from the Gan Zhicycle of 60 Animals which is not subject to the phases of either Sun or Moon. But what I plan to do is work with a more demanding method of divination called Qi Men Dun Jia. Qi Men is relatively simple to calculate (though the Masters whose material I have studied disagree over how) but lengthy. It starts with ba zi and then factors in Sun, Moon and much more. Because calculation is lengthy there are Qi Men apps for phone and tablet. I don’t use these for ba zi and I’m not about to for Qi Men. To do that is to completely miss the point.

At the weekend I trek to Lamlash, some four miles away cross-country. The initial climb simply follows Strathwhillan Burn. When the burn peters out at the summit, another replaces it following the downward slope. Mountain follows Water, Water follows Mountain and Mountain follows Water.

It’s cold but the sun is shining. I notice where moss has run rampant in shadow and where stretches of trees are starkly brown against the green of their neighbours and I climb to a plateau by the main road from where as I marvel at the view, I call my son Alex at work. It’s Sunday but he’s an industrious man. It’s the first time in a while we’ve both had time to catch up. I thank the pace of the island for this opportunity.

It was an anomaly in Scottish property law that allowed the  laird to turf out tenants whose families had been in Brodick or Lamlash or Whiting for centuries. As I walk I’m thinking of those families huddled together against the Atlantic gale, knowing they had several weeks to brave followed by a future that was at best uncertain in a land where they owned nothing. That much is history but it’s the image of three-year-old Alan Kurdi washed up on a Turkish beach in 2015 that keeps superimposing itself. A refugee is a refugee is a refugee. I don’t know how many of the crofters made it but I do know that little Alan’s parents were also heading for Canada where they had family.

The last few hundred yards of the walk into Lamlash are across the camber of the slope and parallel with the main road, so I cross several burns running right to left under the road. Now there are houses either side and I am relieved to find a bus stop. The time table tells me there’s a bus back to Brodick in four hours’ time. There are actually five buses running today, Sunday. I’m impressed; that’s five more than in rural Surrey. Transport – don’t start me talking; privatisation plus monopoly equals chaos. All part I guess, of the periodic “need for reform” as the museum put it.

There’s an extraordinary view across Lamlash Bay to Holy Isle. Like other such isles around the Northern coasts of Britain, the island is named for the monks and kings who settled there down the ages. St Columba himself was based on Iona just a few miles North and it’s likely he sent a cell of monks here possibly including his most famous successor St Aidan.

I sit on a bench a while taking in the view. Then I investigate ferries across to the island.

“Not before Easter,” says the boat man dourly.

Then I stop for a pot of tea and I buy some local marmalade. As I walk back towards the bus stop, my attention is drawn to a monument to the displaced crofters by the side of the road. Funded from Canada it lists many of the individual economic migrants by name. Most ended up in Quebec, many gravitated to Nova Scotia where some erected crofts which wouldn’t look out of place right here.

The bus is on time and the return journey takes about quarter of an hour. The map made Lamlash look so distant and walking is such an on-the-ground experience. My ipad tells me the rest of the country is snow bound but none has fallen here. It’s cold and windy now so I stop at the Douglas in Brodick for a further cup of tea.

3 million Scots emigrated following the clearances. These were rural people used to rising with the Sun and resting when it set. They did what work they had to, then rested, danced, constructed and repaired things, cared for their children and wrote and sang songs like “The Water is Wide.” It wasn’t perfect of course; they lacked penicillin, flush toilets and tv remotes but they worked as they had to and prior to lightbulbs and central heating, lived pretty much in tune with nature.

Unlike Alan Kurdi, many of these economic migrants didn’t of course venture far from home. Many ended up in the satanic mills of Glasgow, Newcastle, Manchester, Birmingham and even distant London. And there they became part of a system that paid them just enough to keep returning at 7am each morning.

Looking out over the goy moon hills from the Douglas, I remember that it was Cecil Sharp, famous for his far and wide search for folk song who tidied up the lyrics to the “Water is Wide.” He concluded that there was no such thing as a London folk song.
Richard Ashworth © 2018

For more information on Richard’s courses and services, please email sheilaashworth@gmail.com or visit his website.

Richard Ashworth©
www.imperialfengshui.info

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