The University of the Highlands and Islands Humanities & Arts Research Cluster (HARC) themed research event ‘Ruination & Decay’ is now truly up and running. The year long event itself features monthly seminars, blog articles, photographs, podcasts and culminates in a themed conference in December 2019.
In this article, Dr Ragnhild Ljosland, Orkney College UHI , talks about the attraction of the theme – Ruination & Decay.
Ruined buildings and decaying remnants of human activity have a strange attractiveness and bewitching aesthetics to them. When ruination and decay was taken up by the Humanities and Arts Research Cluster (HARC), University of the Highlands and Islands, as the first of its annual research themes, I was immediately excited by the topic. Why should this be so? Why was I not repulsed?
Firstly, there is the detective aspect, of course. As I child, I always wanted to be an archaeologist, because it combined the professions of detective and adventurer. True enough, I had a somewhat skewed image of what an archaeologist does, influenced by Indiana Jones and Thor Heyerdahl. However, even now with a more mature understanding of the profession, I am still attracted to its puzzle solving aspect. It is like finding fourteen pieces of a thousand-piece jigsaw and from there trying to gain some sort of understanding of the picture. This attracts me to ruined buildings, too. From what is left now, can we form a picture of what it was like before and about its story over time?
Another thing I like about ruins and decay is the effect of getting a little glimpse, as if looking briefly into a single shard of a broken mirror. A wartime hut at the old naval base of Lyness in Orkney: Reduced to a pile of rotting wood like a match-stick house after a storm. But on the one wall that is still standing: Miraculously, a little mirror is still hanging up! Allowing us for a short second to have a look into the past and at the person who last used it to shave before going out into another day of war.
There was an underwater archaeological survey done recently here in Orkney, looking at the naval wrecks of Scapa Flow. The most amazing images came out. What touched me to the core was not the ships in themselves, or their gun turrets, but the little everyday things that were spread on the seabed around the wrecks. A tuba. A fork and a saucer with the ship’s name on the porcelain. Shoes. Lots of shoes, which once contained feet.
I am mesmerised by looking at photographs of decaying structures from the relatively recent past. A well-known example is the Mark Twain Public Library in Detroit, which closed down due to budget cuts and lies abandoned with books and furniture still in it. There are Pinterest collections out there dedicated to urban decay, showing abandoned and decaying schools, factories, swimming pools and sports centres, mansions and churches, lecture halls and theatres. I have spent hours on Google Earth, looking at the town of Chernobyl, where trees and grass have taken over the apartment blocks and the Ferris wheel in the amusement park has become no more than a trellis for the returning plant life. My fascination with urban decay stems, I think, from the clashes between the familiar and the strange and between the temporal moment and vastness of time. It shows so clearly and unrelentingly that human structures are no more than temporary surface alterations and that however familiar we are with the music hall it is but a brief and temporary assemblage of materials which one day will be claimed back by Planet Earth. A mirage of civilisation and illusion of governance over nature.
We have such places here in Orkney where I live, too. Little stone cottages, abandoned as farms grew bigger. In the island of Sanday, there is an entire abandoned village. Little remnants of past community life are still there: Rhubarb is still growing, a tea pot is left on a windowsill, a sewing machine stands abandoned behind a little stone window. We even have abandoned islands. The last inhabitants of the island of Swona – a brother and sister by the name of Rosie – thought they were only leaving for a few days, but never returned. Rose Cottage stands lonely with food in the cupboards, a tea towel hanging on the range in the kitchen, but with cattle and birds as the only inhabitants of the island. The human time-line which started in Swona five millennia ago with a Neolithic chambered cairn stopped in its tracks in 1974. But the time of the cattle and the wildlife still goes on.
Regarding sunsets, I have noticed a strange effect. Sunsets are sometimes better enjoyed when not looking at them directly. I was thinking of this latterly as I was walking home from work one late February afternoon. My path took me along an old stone wall, rather tall, which I could not see over. Behind it, a glorious, golden sunset was in progress. The sky above looked like Soria Moria, the fabled golden castle in the clouds from Norwegian fairy tales. But when I got to the end of the wall, and I could finally look directly at the sun, it was no more than an ordinary sunset.
Perhaps part of the attraction to ruins, too, is that it allows you to look at human life without staring at it directly. Just like the attraction of a traditional Geisha is how she hides behind fans and draperies and layers of silk, allowing only glimpses into a secret world (paraphrasing Arthur Golden, Memoirs of a Geisha). Or the way that a horror film is much scarier when you don’t see the monster, only its shadow. There is something about that step of removal, that distance, which makes ruins and abandoned places attractive. Not too far, but not too close. Layering and glimpses of a hidden world.
In the 18th and 19th Centuries, when ruins were at the height of fashion, intellectuals had this idea that their own modern times were characterised by the loss and corruption of an older, truer culture, belonging to our forefathers. They carried around copies of the Poems of Ossian, they dug out prehistoric tombs and monuments, looking for the Celtic Twilight and the Old North. They thought of archaeology and folklore as these scattered jigsaw pieces, or shards and glimpses of a hidden world which was purer and truer than their own.
I remember visiting Fountains Abbey in Yorkshire some years ago. Although the abbey itself has an interesting history, I was also fascinated by what the tour guide said about its use as a ruin. A beautiful Georgian garden had been designed around it, with the ruined abbey as its centrepiece. The land had been landscaped, the stream had been deliberately directed to create an artificial Arcadia. In this Georgian version of augmented reality, the ruined abbey was the jewel in the crown.
At this point, I suddenly felt that the abbey lost its magic and became no more than a garden folly. A special effect in a theatre. It had lost its mystery. It had been tamed. Georgian landscape gardeners would even build fake ruins. But these have no mystery. Built ruins are not alive.
In his seminar on “Decaying flesh and the instability of substances” 28/2/19, Colin Richards spoke about the blurring of the categories ‘animate’ and ‘inanimate’. That the type of Neolithic building which we call a ‘tomb’ may in fact not be a static disposal unit for dead bodies, but rather the opposite: A living transformation. “The monument itself becomes a living thing,” he said. “It is all a process of becoming.” It has been deliberately built with layers of stone ‘skin’. The stones of the inner walls have been carefully split to create an ‘open’ face inwards, ready to absorb the persons who are put inside. Through this process, the entire building and bodies together become something new. We don’t know what they called it, but we can think of it as something along the lines of an ancestor.
This made complete sense to me, both in terms of my own personal response to ruins, and as a researcher who is interested in Viking Age, medieval and early modern folklore and beliefs. In the Orkney archive, there are accounts from as late as the 1920s telling us how people saw ancient burial mounds as alive. Opening or destroying it meant bad luck. The inhabitant of the mound was called a “hogboy” or “hogboon” (from ‘mound dweller’ in Old Norse) and he could be dangerous if his mound were to be disturbed. You could tell that the mound was alive by observing the strange fire that would burn above it on certain nights. The fire is like the beating heart of the burial mound, just as the peat fire in the hearth was the heart of a croft-house.
Both for ancient ruins and more modern ruins, the following holds true: When human life in it, or human use of it has come to an end, the building nonetheless still has its own life. It continues to live and interact with nature and the world around it. Abandonment, ruination and decay is not about stopping time, but about transforming into something else. As Colin Richards put it: Decay is a generative process. Perhaps the root of my fascination lies here, in the notion of a ruin being alive. And perhaps this is why once the ruin is consolidated, made secure by Historic Environment Scotland and opened up to ticket-buying visitors, it loses some of its appeal to me?