An extrasensory sense of place


by Michael Grey
Piping Today #57, 2012.

It seems to me that the more we visit a place and the more we get to know it, the stronger are our feelings for that place. It dovetails, maybe, that the deeper our memories connect with a place then the deeper our sense of that place.  It’s the sentiments and the emotions that affect us that give place meaning. I don’t know the science associated with this feeling. I only know what makes sense to me. 

Good or bad, our meaning of place is usually connected with a broad brush of complex things like the kind of experiences we — or people we know — have had at that “place”.

I suppose a simple example of what I mean by a ‘sense of place’ might be the feeling we have when we move away from a house where we’ve spent a good few years. Anything we feel in leaving might be connected to years of happy birthdays, Christmases, parties, good tunes and times generally well spent with people we love — or not. Sometimes we’re happy to be a long way from a place.

I think for most people a sense of place can go beyond a warm home. I think of places I know, like a few often-visited around where I live: a small clearing in the woods, a large lichen-covered rock on a hillside, a shale-strewn beach. These very personal places have somehow impressed me.  Not impressed as in having offered up dazzling conversation — I’m not crazy (yet). I mean ‘impressed’ as in these places have left an impression; they’ve moved me, moved my spirit, made me think, made me feel something. I’m not sure why. It’s a mystery. And I’m good with that.  Sometimes I think there’s way too much science and not enough mystery in the world today.

I’ve mentioned before about Scotland and the many (many beyond count) visits I’ve made. Give me a map of the country and I could draw you a good picture of places that have gifted me something, that near-indescribable sense of connection, association, affinity and — sometimes — kinship.

Take the Tartan Tavern in Oban. This place has been the scene of years of some of the Argyllshire Gathering’s most memorable piping times. It may be just a pub but high emotions of post-contest victories and defeats have seared a deep impression that has me forever affected by a sense of connectedness.  There was a time when the Tartan Tavern was the piping world’s equivalent of figure skating’s ‘kiss and cry’ area.

I remember the late piper Jimmy Bayne in full flight one midweek August night, us in a small group squeezed up against the tiny bar. “Canadian pipers are a’ fingers an’ nae music,” he pronounced. For a moment he had over-looked my flat Canadian accent and was talking as if to a group of country-less pipers. A fleeting yet, somehow, oddly great moment. I was back recently to Oban in the off-season and, of course, the TT. Eerily, vibrations of gatherings past still moved the place — and me.   

And then there’s another kind of place. Almost magnetic, they’re like specks of geography that just pull you in.

Think of them, maybe, as Graceland moments. Said Paul Simon: “For reasons I cannot explain / There’s some part of me wants to see / Graceland”.  So last summer, a good few miles east of Memphis, walking along Argyle Street, not far from the heart of the dear green place [Glasgow] I was struck with a sort of Graceland moment.

It was midday and raining. Passing through Finnieston, I was walking fast along the northerly side of Argyle Street in the direction of the city centre.  For reasons I cannot explain I stopped just as Argyle turns into St Vincent and looked up — not too far up now — but enough to see a street sign:  Breadalbane Street. “What a great name for a street,” I thought to myself. I didn’t spend too much time pondering Breadalbane Street and its many nondescript charms. I just reflected that it was good ‘piping name’ sort of street, “The Atholl and Breadalbane Gathering” and all that. I also thought how silly people sound when they, wrongly, say, ‘breddlebane’ — though, surely, I was once one of those people.

So,  I moved along and sodden wet I ended up back to where I was headed — and, before too long, back home to Ontario.

It wasn’t until November when my Graceland moment would crystallise.

In doing a little research I happened across the 1901 UK census. And there it was: Breadalbane Street; home to my grandmother, her mum and her cousins. The second I saw the address I could see the place and clearly recalled my momentary summer stop. Yeah, I know, you’re thinking it’s a big fat coincidence; get over it. But I prefer to think it was more than that.  It has to be — surely the power of place: exhibit A.

As I write this I’m looking at an old drone reed box on my desk, a good old heavy cardboard box with corners reinforced with metal staples. The top is stamped, ‘R. G Lawrie Ltd, 38 Renfield Street, Glasgow’.  The box is about 100 years old. There’s still an advertising insert sticking to the sides (see photo).  The reed will apparently “last for years” with “sympathetic treatment”. Like most things — and  people — I’d say.   

Consider 38 Renfield Street.  It’s still there — of course; today a shop for sale beside Sarti’s restaurant. But at one time it was the place where for almost 30 years John MacColl worked as Lawrie’s manager. Think of the tunes played at 38 Renfield — maybe even built on the premises. The world’s full of these spaces, these places that push and pull people.

And for poor boys and families and pipers, especially, Scotland, more than most other places, has much to offer to tantalise our sense of place. And for reasons I cannot explain, better than even odds at a chance of a Graceland moment. •