By Hector MacInnes.
A ship called Bistromath (and we are in Douglas Adams’ seminal Hitchhiker’s Guide To The Galaxy trilogy) features a cloaking device call a “Somebody Else’s Problem Field”. When engaged, this renders it invisible to, or at least unseen by, passers-by.
“An SEP” explains the Hitchhikers fandom page, “can run almost indefinitely on a torch or a 9 volt battery, and is able to do so because it utilises a person’s natural tendency to ignore things they don’t easily accept, like, for example, aliens at a cricket match. Any object around which an SEP is applied will cease to be noticed, because any problems one may have understanding it (and therefore accepting its existence) become Somebody Else’s Problem. A starship taking the appearance of a large pink elephant is ideal because you can see it, yet it is so inconceivable, your mind can’t accept it.”
HMP Inverness, the only prison in the Highlands and Islands, is similarly cloaked in a Somebody Else’s Problem Field. It is situated in the Crown area of the city, almost as centrally as it’s possible to be, and is closely surrounded on all sides by houses, B&Bs, hotels, restaurants… It is (I’ve been searching for measures that might raise a smile from the staff) a single 4 par golf hole from M&S. And yet, the number of people who know it’s there is surprisingly small, limited mainly to those who have a reason to know, and the folk living on the four streets that run down each side, reminded by the “Prison Watch” notices facing their front doors that it is, in a small and probably only theoretical way, also their problem. For almost everyone else, though, the Somebody Else’s Problem Field works pretty well, and has done since 1902.
Part of its effectiveness might be down to quite how much it looks like a prison. Unlike some more recently built facilities, whose modern glass facades maintain a dry municipal ambiguity, HMP Inverness looks inconceivably (unnoticeably) carceral – high and uninterrupted stone walls, with doleful Victorian cell blocks, coils of barbed wire and a flag pole visible over the top. The prisoners serving their sentences there are triple-locked behind further layers of SEP fields: they spend their days cloaked inside the prison’s device but, as individuals, they are hidden by their own, which run on various cartoonish stereotypes that we don’t like to think about. Should those fail, a backup is available which shows them to be so overwhelmingly unlike those stereotypes that we are unable to assimilate them into our worldview.
It’s hard to imagine anything more disruptive than a prison to that vision of the Highlands which has been saturating the think-piece market over the course of the combination-pandemic-and-climate-crisis. Even though (after hard work and strict measures) the old High Highland Kitsch of shortbread tins and Jimmy hats is now mostly contained to small outbreaks in Edinburgh and Glasgow, the picturesque ecotopia of bothy life, rewilding and sustainably made waterproofs which has replaced it, has the potential to be just as shallow. “I’d go today,” wrote Philip Larkin of his own imagined elsewheres, reminding us of the imagery’s long pedigree, “Yes, swagger in the nut-strewn roads, crouch in the foc’sle, stubbly with goodness, if it weren’t so artificial, such a deliberate step backwards.”
Neither image of the Highlands can easily accommodate the existence of a prison (not, I mean, the prisons we think exist, but the ones that actually do). Nor can they easily accommodate the poverty, lack of housing, addiction problems and poor mental health which keep a prison over-populated. These things are not part of the aesthetic package. To be fair, though, if prisons in the Highlands of Scotland are aesthetically anomalous, they are also just geographically anomalous – the Highlands is a big place, and you can go a long way without seeing one. The next closest prisons to HMP Inverness are a 108 mile drive to the east, or a 110 mile drive to the south. To the north and the west there are none. For what it’s worth (and I’ll do this in miles, not in golf holes), the crow flight distance from Barra to the north of Shetland – both of which call Inverness their ‘local’ – is about 360 miles, the same as the distance between the two furthest apart prisons in England which have another 111 prisons lying in between.
The prison just isn’t consistent with dominant experiences of the Highlands. It appears in that context as ill-fitting, as a disturbance, and as unheimlich – a German word normally translated as ‘uncanny’ but more literally meaning not home-like. It may as well be a starship shaped like a large pink elephant – not just out of sight and out mind, but out of scope.
Before I had started working with the Highland Culture Collective, I had long been thinking about how my creative practice could engage with overly aestheticised visions of rewilding, many of whose proponents seem all too willing to Photoshop the Highlands I know and love: its idiosyncratic communities, its irreverent traditions and its ramshackle alt-iconography of Volvo-carcass-sheilings, tune names, hydro schemes, oil rigs, accordionists, in-jokes, pylons, hi-viz, badly behaved faeries, badly behaved ferries, and so on. In thinking about the presupposed incompatibility between this Highlands and the Highlands of Ecological Potential (and how the two are going to have to co-exist) I had been mulling over the term “Reweirding”: a word for resisting attempts to bring the Highlands to heel under any one vision; an appeal for the region’s basic right to multiplicity, grass-roots experimentation and vibrant incoherence.
The word was self-evidently too sweet to be a totally original coinage, so it was pleasing and unsurprising to find a handful of other people deploying it in related ways, and writing pithier summaries than I could. Matt Colquhoun, blogging as Xenogothic, was one:
“Many a Guardian columnist has sought the rekindling of this relationship to our wildernesses through a sort of romanticised primitivism, but in charting and recognising our histories we mustn’t claw for an illusionary past. Rewilding is nothing if it’s devoid of a tandem cultural consciousness raising that is built around collective activity on the commons. We don’t need our spaces ‘rewilding’ but ‘reweirding’.”
The Highlands remains, for whatever reason, a magnet for visions of romanticised primitivism and illusionary pasts, all of which seek to attract attention to some aspects of the place, and mask other aspects behind an SEP. It’s also worth saying that not all of them are delivered upon the Highlands from the offices of Guardian columnists, or the tax havens of absentee landlords – many are also home-grown. Reweirding the area, then, isn’t just drawing attention back to the odd, or to the many alternative and less romanticised ways of representing place. The ramshackle alt-iconography I listed above is, of course, not “the real” Highlands either, but just my own cutesy-quirky list of faves. More important are the possibilities opened up by reweirding to use our creativity and imagination to remind people of the interconnectedness between the stark beauty or the rich history, and the prison or the food bank or the queue outside the pharmacy. To remind ourselves – especially those of us who see the Highlands’ potential to lead the way into a sustainable future – that the parts we might find weird, unheimlich and difficult to accept, are not Somebody Else’s Problem.