The disapearance of the past
by Alan Warner
In 2002 I wrote a novel, The Man Who Walks, set in Scotland; one of the narrators - a delicious maniac - tells a Hollywood location scout who is setting up the filming of a battle scene this:
“Do you know some battlefields have gone missing, the soldiers unable to agree where they were on the actual field where they were so afraid? Fourteen hours stood in the cannons at Waterloo, relieving yourself where you stood. That makes a battlesite like a field of dreams, a shitty one. Has so much praying ever been done in one place such as a battlefield? More than in any medieval cathedral. Have so many souls ever been taken? It’s a supernatural spot; imagine that mad exodus of spirits. Think of Waterloo, or Culloden, the Macdonalds bursting apart under Belford’s grapeshot, all those spirits rattling upwards so quickly they would need air-traffic control to organise them. You don’t just chose a battle site for your films there, you need someone like me to sniff out the blooded ground for you, reconnoitre that specific degree of haziness on the horizon which is required: the proverbial stream that gets a gruesome nickname, the precise geography of a place where fate is going to close in on thousands. You know, when the Romans were in Scotland, Ninth Legion was marching north and vanished? Grandmother used to tell me that if you listened closely at bedtime you could just hear them, marching away in the distances. Many’s the night I dropped off to sleep shivering as I heard them get closer and closer.”
I think of these obsessions of mine – of vague geographies causing violent slaughter - when I look at Philippe Bazin’s photographs of Scottish battlefields. What we see are generally uncelebrated battle sites dematerialising before our eyes. Under a succession of negative factors: historical uncertainty, entropy, modern development, these battlefields are vanishing rather than being manifested as historical phenomena. Here we see the process of historical forgetting; of the disappearance of the past.
But Philippe Bazin, who has sought out each battle field with his own feet, still creates a subtle, haunted power with each candid photograph.
Other than outside our public bars on Saturday nights, a land battle has not been fought on Scottish ground since 1746. And I am happy for this. However, under our low grey skies, sealed close to this blooded earth, those hundreds of years make it much easier for us to distance ‘ourselves’ from battle and its true face.
Scotland’s romantic history has become a source of fame and some wealth for the country – developed in the 18th century, from Macbeth to Mary Queen of Scots to Bonnie Prince Charlie, this constructed narrative was perfected during the romantic period by Sir Walter Scott, (with his lame leg, a frustrated, study-bound intellectual who violently regretted not having drawn sword and charged with the Scots Greys heavy cavalry at Waterloo).
Today, the unease which one feels in north eastern France, or Belgium where, from that Lion’s Mound south of Brussels, one can cheerfully set out over undulations of cultivated countryside, through gradations and layers of human slaughter: 1815 to 1861 to 1914-18 to 1939-45 - this unease does not exist in Scotland – its smaller, more ancient battlefields do not come with symmetrical masses of war graves. These tracts of land have been disinfected from any whiff of immediacy. ‘History makes harsh demands of us all,’ Ralph Ellison once wrote. But in Scotland today, it makes no demands of us at all.
There is a quixotic element to any historic battlefield – an immediate melancholy not connected with the death and pain which has happened on the ground beneath our feet. Nobody visits a battlefield without the imagination coming in to play as it attempts to create the sights and horrors on the field that day.
As Philippe Bazin understands, as well as making pictures himself, we too “make pictures” in our heads when we look at these photographs. It was Napoleon who warned his own generals against this tendency to “make pictures” in their imagination when in action. Napoleon cautioned against the human brain’s instinctual structuring of eidetic images which thrust forward in anticipation of what will happen next. It is believed animals hunt, utilising eidetic imaging. The United States Air Force has tried to develop weapon guidance systems based on probable imaging. The greatest battlefield tactician of all time instructed his generals never to be seduced by these imaginings but to be strict empiricists, trusting only what their own eyes saw on the topography of a battlefield: beware of the hidden ravine, the unnoticed steep slope or small stream - all of which could spell disaster for a troop movement. At Waterloo, it is alleged Marshall Ney made just such fatal pictures in his own head when he mistook carts carrying wounded to the Allied rear as a retreat. Ney “threw” forward the enormous, doomed cavalry advances of that butchering afternoon.
Philippe’s images force us to make pictures beyond what we see on these coy, contemporary Scottish landscapes he has photographed. It appears Philippe has in no way attempted to romanticise, dramatise or even structure these images. Their gaze is blank and dazed, a probe for open ground where conflict between large bodies of men could possibly have occurred. Though he shows an interest in the historical King Macbeth - rather than Shakespeare’s fictionalised character - Philippe Bazin has not attempted to use his own awareness of any historical narrative to structure his images. Such stuff as: “Looking north from the English position,” becomes meaningless in his candid image of shopping centres at Falkirk’s battle site of 1298.
Bazin has certainly made no attempt to shield contemporary construction or features from the photographs; a common technique in popular “plates” reproduced in tourist or military history publications which try to convey spurious notions of how a battlefield once “really was.” Bazin has filmed neutral, blank, even dull bits of land but the moment we canonize these - often banal - contemporary landscapes as “battlefields,” we attempt to react to the them in a different way. We now “make pictures,” as Napoleon warned.
We should both celebrate and be wary of our imaginings.
For a country that pretends to be proud of its past and trades on its history – or at least the convenient ones – we see scant regard paid to the preservation of Scottish battlefields here. Many are without monuments. Development has encroached on all of them. The present shows little sensitivity or interest for history or indeed the dead. Notice how Philippe is corralled in by the modern features on these generally forgotten battlefields around him. Shopping centres, fences, railways and embankments, bridges, or politely cultivated municipal lawn by the river at Stirling Bridge. Almost mockingly in the photograph of Dunbar farmland, Philippe is forced to photograph from the edge of a mature corn field – the corner fence post restricting his way ahead. But often we are grateful. Battlefield ghouls - like myself - let out a silent cheer when any site has survived clear of a suburban housing development!
Many of the battlefields Bazin has chosen to photograph are poorly documented. Whereas in some of these images the historical record can be fairly confident, there is certainly debate if some of the landscapes Bazin shows us are – precisely – where the battles took place at all! This indeterminate reality introduces an element of mystery to these images. There are no well delineated battlefields here and even the very famous Bannockburn battlefield of 1314, where Robert the Bruce defeated King Edward of England and brought about Scottish independence, carries some vagueness as to where the exact incidents of the battle were played out. Philippe’s photographs thus contain a sceptical quality.
Philippe Bazin has not photographed the more obvious battlefields of the middle ages such as Pinkie of 1574, outside Edinburgh, or the much more famous 17th and 18th century sites where the historical record is well documented and reliable.
For instance Culloden battlefield of 1746 – the famous last land battle fought on Scottish (and British) soil, is a National Trust owned land tract recently cleared of the obscene commercial forestry which had previously completely obscured the ground.
That curiously suspended and curved summit has been well laid out with a theme-park feel – quaintly chopped pine logs and colour coding show the visitor the positions (probably quite accurate) where each Hanoverian regiment stood and fired musket volleys into the advancing clansmen. One sees local residents running their dogs on the ground. The local wit claims the dogs only soil on the English side of the field. Culloden even has a quaint collection of small, possibly genuine, clan war graves where many Americans can be witnessed having their photographs taken.
Philippe Bazin has photographed - if we may use the term - some of the less fashionable Scottish battlefields.
Alan Warner, May 2005
(and 2002 for The Man Who Walks, Jonathan Cape, London).
Alan Warner was born in Oban, Argyll. His first novel, Morvern Callar, won a Somerset Maugham Award and has been filmed by Lynne Ramsay. His second novel, These Demented Lands, won the 1998 Encore Award, and his third, The Sopranos, received the Saltire Scottish Book of the Year Award. He has published the novel The Man Who Walks (2002) and The Worms Can Carry Me To Heaven will be published in 2006.