Writers as Travellers in Time

Marking Time

image via shutterstock
image via shutterstock

Writers as travellers in time.

How do you like your history? Do you prefer it linear or layered?

As writers we get to move freely through time. We can set our fiction in the past, present or future and our characters can even move from one time period to another as we allow time to shift or slip around them. If we write non-fiction, it can be a personal record of the past by way of a biography or memoir, or an analytical record of past events; it can involve speculation about the future by extrapolation form where we are now, or  it can chronicle the present as, for example, so many bloggers do.

Then there’s creative non-fiction. Writers in this genre can really blur the timelines. Some blur them beautifully as they muse on past and present – H is for Hawk by Helen Macdonald and On the Shorelines of Knowledge by Chris Arthur – being two fine examples. My current personal favourite is Robert Macfarlane who just writes so beautifully about the etching of time on our landscape, in its high places and in the rocks beneath our feet.

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Many sunsets and moonrises ago ( a less brutal way of putting it than admitting to the forty years that have passed since I started uni) I studied history as part of my MA degree. My other subject was psychology. So I suppose it’s not surprising that I’m fascinated by the nature of time, by how we humans measure it and perceive it. And I’ve also noticed as both parent and grandparent, and of course as a teacher, how children often perceive time in a more intense way than adults, but also in a more fluid way. The year between a seventh and eighth birthday is much longer than the year between a fifty-seventh and a fifty-eighth one. Last week is as far away as a decade ago. It’s no accident that so much of children’s fiction involves flexibility in the laws of time and space. And yes, that’s what I do in my soon to be published novel for children – but more of that in a future post.

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On the subject of time and space, I was equal parts enthralled and bewildered by Professor Brian Cox’s BBC television series on quantum physics and its relation to time. But what the programme did confirm for me was that there’s more to history than the linear approach. And on a less highbrow note, I LOVED the recent movie Interstellar in which Matthew McConaughey travels through a wormhole and through vast amounts of time in an attempt to (what else) ensure humanity’s survival. The movie gave a first class and very entertaining portrayal of time travel.

But back on Earth, when considering history whether in terms of personal, national or world events, we tend to think in a more practical and yes, down-to-earth way about time, i.e. in terms of a timeline. Even when going very far back to pre-history and the beginnings of human life, we still tend to view all that has happened in a one-event-after-another sort of way. Days in history in one long line.

In each twenty-four hour period things happen, have always happened. Some of these things are considered important enough to be noted down. Long ago they may have been recorded as cave paintings, chiselled onto stone tablets or scribed on parchment scrolls. More recently they’d be published in newspapers, journals and books, and of, course on the internet.  And those recorded events provide reference points on the timeline. They’re there to be read, understood and interpreted. They’re there to give structure and meaning and a bit of an underpinning to our lives.

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I find it fascinating, in a weird sort of way, that there’s a date every year that will become the anniversary of my own death. Yes, I’m at an age where I’m aware of time passing, of my own mortality and the end to my own personal timeline. It’s not something that scares me exactly, but I don’t want it to come around just yet.

I try to make each day count, I try not to waste time and I try to be mindful of this day in my own history. I strive to enjoy the gift of the present and to leave my own tiny, but positive, marks in time.

This day in history, its moments, its joys and disasters, it’s all we ever truly possess. However, we can be so pressed for time that we often experience our days as fleeting. We wish we could fit more in, wish we had more leisure and more time for our loved ones. On the other hand, on some days the hours pass too slowly, filled with yearning for days gone by, or perhaps with impatience for days still to come.

So, what of all those other days? Days of past and future history. Are they truly inaccessible; the past behind us and the future further on up the line? What if we imagine history as layered rather than linear? So instead of looking back, or even forward at a particular day in history, we look down and through.

Time for some lateral thinking.

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We live on a small but beautiful, very old planet that spins in an ancient and vast universe. Contemplating history and the passage of time on a planetary or universal scale is truly mind-bending.

Astrophysicists view time as a fourth dimension. They suggest not only that time can bend, but that it flows at different rates depending on location. They posit that its rate of flow is relative to the other dimensions of space and to the amount of gravity that is present.

The everyday, human version of time is just a construct. A useful construct, and one that facilitates the organisation of our lives, but a construct nevertheless. Our clocks and calendars measure something that is relative and is organised in neat lines and circles by a shared understanding and agreement. But it’s not fixed and it’s not absolute.

Supposing I left the Earth today and travelled on out of our solar system and our galaxy. Suppose I went through a wormhole – a bend in time and space that would let me travel hundreds of thousands of light years in a blink, perhaps even to another of the possibly many universes – I would be far away, not just in spatial terms, but in terms of time as well. And then, after maybe a couple of years holidaying on a far away world, I return to Earth. I would be two years older but it’s theoretically possible that fifty, a hundred, maybe five hundred years would have passed here. My days in history would be very different from, and totally  out of step with, those of you who remained earthbound .

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I don’t fully understand the astro-physical concept of time and space, but I like the idea of it. I find it comforting that time isn’t fixed and that the atoms that make up our bodies have existed since time began, and will always exist in some form as long as time continues to be.

I love that when I walk the Earth’s surface my footfalls connect me with all the layers of life and time on our wee blue planet. Layers of geology, topography, ancestry, experience and time. Layers not limited by days, months and lifespans.

I love the possibility that all my days could exist simultaneously and forever, all of them layered up, down and through the planet’s physical layers and throughout all the multiverses. I love that I might magically get a glimpse of these other days. I love that, even if it’s just in theory, there could be places in time and space where my days in history have other and infinite possibilities.

I love that time is immeasurable, and I love that the marks we make on it are immeasurably small.

I love that as writers we can, at least for a short while, make time do our bidding.





The Tenth Stone

A picture and its many words. Four generations – father, me, daughter, granddaughter – look out at the world. Time – generates a backwards shackle – a forward lifeline – a cherished, present bond.

Travels in Time and Space

View of North Uist from Skye

Last Saturday, after almost three weeks of mist and showers, the thick layer of grey cloud that had been pressing grimly down on the Hebrides, cleared away and the sun shone on the north of Skye.

We – that is me, the husband and our house guests for the past week, the daughter and her boyfriend – grabbed boots, waterproofs, walking poles and backpacks and headed out on a hike. Waternish Point was our destination. Having parked the car opposite the ruined church at Trumpan, we set off.

It’s an eight mile, circular route to the lighthouse and the deserted settlement  of Unish on the northern tip of Skye’s Waternish peninsula. We’ve done the walk several times before and it’s always delightful. This time was no exception.

As we set off along the rough cart track, I already felt better. I think I’d begun to suffer from an out-of-season bout of S.A.D. during our mostly dismal July. I guess the full spectrum light went straight to my sun-starved pineal gland. The sky was an almost cloudless blue and the sea air was invigorating.

The walk goes over heather moorland and peat bog. Because of all the recent rain, the going was very wet in places but our walking boots and waterproof trousers did their jobs. There was a fair bit of scrambling and jumping to be done to avoid the deeper puddles and the squelchier areas of muddy bog. But that all adds to the fun.

Ferry heading for Lochmaddy, North Uist

The view westwards to the Outer Hebrides, as always, made us stop and stare. Over a glinting, sparkling sea crouched the island of North Uist. As we watched, a small, white-sailed boat made good progress in the strong breeze. The Cal-Mac ferry also appeared round the headland on its regular and frequent route from Uig on Skye to Lochmaddy on Uist.  And looking north there was Harris – its purple mountains and white sandy beaches seemed very close on this bright, clear day. I thought again how we really must make the effort and go and visit the Western Isles. We can see them from our living-room window but have never ventured over.

Crossing the burn

We continued on our way. We crossed a shoogly, makeshift bridge over the fast- flowing burn – its water peaty brown.

and the burn flows on...

The moor was covered in purple heather, and thistles bordered the path. Yes – living Scottish clichés.

Aye, the bonny Scottish emblem 🙂 (YES- I know, nobody talks like that!)

And the bonny, bloomin' heather. Okay I'll stop now.

There were plenty other, less emblematic, wildflowers on show as well. Red clover, purple knapweed, wispy white cotton grass, buttercups, daisies, rosebay willowherb, white meadowsweet and angelica – all bloomed in colonies, clumps, singly and in swathes – depending on their preferences.

clover, meadowsweet and angelica

I heard curlews calling, probably from their nests out on the moor, but didn’t actually spot any of these shy birds. I did see a little wheatear sitting on a rock beside the path – it flew off as soon as I approached – and shag circled and called overhead all along the walk.

We passed below two cairns –monuments to John and Roderick Macleod, a father and son, who both died in a clan battle with the Macdonalds in 1530. We also pass the ruins of two hilltop Iron Age (about 200BC) brochs – or ‘duns’ to use the Gaelic name – Dun Borrafiach and Dun Gearymore. Duns were stubby, cone-shaped, circular buildings. They were fortified dwellings, built using the dry stone technique – a technique still in widespread use. They would have had staircases leading to different levels and would have provided shelter to both animals and humans.  The clear and open view from both duns would have meant it would have been very difficult to take the residents by surprise.

Remains of Dun Borrafiach - Iron Age hilltop dwelling

I paused, as I always do below the these ancient homes, trying to imagine the lives of the Picts – these pre-Scots – who’d have lived, loved, raised children and died here. The physical landscape would be the same, apart from the cart track. They’d have grown root vegetables and raised cattle, sheep and pigs much like modern Highland crofters. Yes, life was probably more’ nasty, brutish and short’ than now, but I guess their daily pre-occupations were similar to our own. Standing by the remains of their homes never fails to inspire images of the ancestors who gathered and piled the stones and worked the land. Pictish genes are probably present in many present-day Scots and standing on the same land, looking at the same sea and mountains, hearing the same birdsongs has the effect of telescoping the intervening time between us and them. And last Saturday, as I stood where they’d have stood, differences of pace and technology fell away and it was the similarities that remained.

After the duns, the track bends slightly eastwards and we got our first glimpse of the lighthouse. Sighting the lighthouse spurred us on just as we were all flagging. We picked up the pace and strode on. We passed a rabbit warren on the left of the track and paused to watch several of the residents scampering about.


 Soon we turned left and headed west once more, following the sheep track down towards the former crofting township of Unish. Only one house remains – roofless, granite-grey and stark against the landscape. The other houses and byres are reduced to a single layer of stone marking out their boundaries. The former residents were burned out and driven off their land during that most infamous period in Scottish history, the Highland Clearances. From the 1840s to the 1870s, landlords oversaw these enforced removals in order to replace poor, low yield, peasant farmers with much more profitable sheep. Their former tenants were forced to emigrate. Even on the brightest day, the atmosphere around Unish is eerie and haunting. I got a completely different feeling standing in this rubble from what I’d experienced further back at the duns. This time there was no connection – just a sense of sadness and dislocation.

Last house standing - Unish

We climbed up a small hill above Unish and sat in sight of Waternish’s rather short and stubby lighthouse. We had a welcome snack – kitkats and water, took photos of each other as trophies of our hiking achievement and then just sat for a while, a part of this ancient and timeless landscape.

Trumpan church

We returned, simultaneously footsore and exhilarated to the car park at the church where our walk had begun. I spent some moments in the ruined church before getting into the car. The story goes that Trumpan church was burned down by members of the clan Macdonald, in 1580, while their enemies the Macleods worshipped inside. So this is another place of ghosts. I sat on the old lichened wooden bench and reflected for a bit on how hundreds of years later we still allow carnage to take place, justified by our tribal concerns, jealousies, beliefs and mutual mistrust – only the size of the stage has changed. I think reconnecting with the landscape makes a person see how pointless a lot of the conflict was and is.

Lichen encrusted bench

Doing the walk again and sitting in the churchyard was a bit weird for me at times, as the two main characters in my new novel – the work in progress – take this same walk and talk about displacement and dislocation, two of the novel’s main themes. I half expected to meet the pair of them. Writing fiction can mess with your head!

Graveyard at Trumpan church

And then we were home. Boots kicked off by hot, grateful feet, chilled beers and slices of cake (baked earlier by the daughter) swiftly downed.

Daughter and I cooked dinner together – something we both enjoy doing whenever she’s home. We made a creamy, beef stroganoff. Daughter’s boyfriend had not yet experienced this culinary family favourite, and this would be a further initiation into Stormont customs for him. He quickly cleared his plate – approval enough – relief all round.  This was an end-of-holiday meal for the two young people. Their week with us passed too quickly. Heck the daughter’s whole childhood passed too quickly. They’d be returning to their lives in the city the next morning. I was missing them already – and that breath of fresh air our children bring to us.

Saturday was a lovely day and one when I was aware of the landscape – internal and external – and more than usually aware of the passage of time.

The long view...