J D Davies

Looking at Things The Right Way Up

Cards on the table: sat nav is the spawn of Satan. So, too, are such iniquities as reality TV shows, Welsh rugby teams that aren’t the Scarlets, and, of course, caravans, but today I’m concerned with geography. I refuse to use sat nav, partly because I prefer to rely on maps and that trusty piece of equipment, the Mark One Eyeball, partly because I’m of the opinion that it drains drivers’ ability to think for themselves and to deploy that increasingly underused commodity, common sense. Witness the recent story about the Belgian woman who set out to drive to Brussels, 90 miles away, and ended up in Zagreb, 900 miles away, because she was relying on her sat nav and ‘got distracted’ (with respect, madame, that’s one heck of a lot of distraction). Ok, I’ll admit that my aversion to sat nav sometimes leads me to take unexpected alternative routes – anyone thinking ‘huh, that’s a euphemism for getting lost’ is toast – but I always take the view that this might lead me to discover interesting places that I wouldn’t have come across otherwise. I can invariably get back on track pretty quickly due to a very well-developed sense of direction and good map reading skills, plus always factoring in lots of time for journeys. From quite an early age, my dad let me do the navigating whenever we went for long drives (which was often), so I quickly became a skilled map reader. This later led on to my becoming pretty good at Geography – indeed, it was notionally my second teaching subject, which I’ve actually taught to 15-16 year olds – and, when I started sailing, to taking to navigation like a duck to water.

All this is by way of preamble to the fact that later this week, I’ll be driving all the way to the very northern end of Scotland and then taking the ferry to Orkney, where we’ll be spending a week; apart, that is, from a day and a bit in Shetland, where we’ll be going to see the Up Helly Aa festival, something that I’ve always wanted to see. The wisdom of making the journey by road given the current weather conditions in Britain, or of making it in January at all, remains to be seen, but I’m taking three days to get up there, doing some research en route, with Wendy flying up at the weekend after she finishes work. When we first started planning the trip, my thinking was pretty conventional, along the lines of ‘it’s a very long way, and the islands are pretty remote’. But the more I thought about it and placed it in a historical context, the more I realised that this way of thinking is just lazy.  To start with, what we Brits consider ‘a long way’ would be regarded very differently by my friends in Australia and the mid-west of the United States, to give just two examples, while the islands are only ‘remote’ if one falls into the trap of donning certain historical and geographical straitjackets. As a Welshman, I’ve spent a lot of my career as a historian battling against the Anglocentric, and frequently Londoncentric, biases that dominate a lot of allegedly ‘British’ history, and obviously, those mentalities would see Orkney and Shetland (along with my own place of origin in south-west Wales) as ‘remote’ and peripheral. But it’s interesting that the same problem even seems to affect Orkney and Shetland within Scotland; as in Britain as a whole, the capital is situated in the extreme south-eastern corner of the country, leading to a perception of a warped perspective from Edinburgh-based politicians and media and to a sense in the northern islands that they’re perceived as just as remote from the Scottish capital as they are from London. It’s even been suggested that this could play a part in the islands’ reaction to the forthcoming Scottish independence referendum, with the possibility that they might prefer to stay with the remainder of the UK than go with an independent, Edinburgh-dominated Scotland. It’ll be interesting to see if we pick up any vibes about this while we’re up there.

Note the subconscious geographical bias in that last sentence – ‘up there’. This, of course, is one of the great dangers of my grumpy old man’s adherence to maps in preference to sat nav. There have been a number of controversies about, and a great deal of literature produced about, the alleged political biases of mapping, which has always been used as a propaganda weapon by governments or else has been accused of perpetuating ethnic or racial superiority (for example, the Mercator projection was attacked for its portrayal of a big Europe and north America as against a small Africa and India). From a British perspective, entire generations grew up with attitudes to the world and to their place in it that were shaped by maps which showed the British Isles pretty much at the centre of the world, whole swathes of which were coloured red (and having the prime meridian going through Greenwich, the outcome of a cartographic war with the French, only enhanced the mindset of geographical superiority). Witness, too, the vast raft of preconceptions, assumptions and biases implicit in using ‘Down Under’ to describe Australia. Then there was the uproar when the BBC changed its weather map to one which stretched the south of England, squashed Scotland and moved Shetland a long way further south, a common mapping ploy which gives a warped picture of where the islands really are; in reality, Shetland is nearer to Bergen, in Norway, than to Edinburgh. It’s interesting that these distorted perceptions only seem to have developed since it became possible to establish longitude, and maps took on their standard form with the north ‘at the top’. Seventeenth century people would have had a much more flexible mentality: maps of the time have south, west or east at the top just as often as north, or else give an entirely different perspective. This affects the history of Orkney and Shetland, which were arguably much more central to both politics and naval strategy in the early modern period than they are now – a subject to which I’ll return next week.

My current intention for next week is not to do the usual big single blog on a Monday but to do some ‘mini-blogs’ about Orkney and Shetland, focusing primarily on the naval and 15th-18th century history and heritage as well as general impressions of the islands. But much will depend on what we decide to do during the evenings, on the time available generally, and of course on internet access…oh yes, and on whether we actually get there in the first place… So watch this space for news of the Gentlemen and Tarpaulins road trip!