Review of Shadowlands by Matthew Green

In this book Matthew Green charts the decline and eventual abandonment of eight British settlements; a diverse selection ranging from the Stone Age settlement of Skara Brae in the Orkneys, through several Medieval villages and cities and up to the twentieth century, to an area emptied of its inhabitants during the Second World War and a village that was abandoned when the valley it inhabited was flooded to create a reservoir – although in that case ‘abandoned’ is the wrong word, since that particular story is a harrowing tale of folk driven from their homes at the diktat of decision makers far away, not even of their own country.

In each chapter he tells the story of the decline of the settlement drawing upon written records for all but the oldest, Skara Brae, for which he relies upon archaeological evidence, and some of the more recent, for which he uses a mixture of eye-witness accounts and the testimonies of those who had heard their stories at first hand. Of all the stories here, that of Dunwich is probably the most famous, with its myths of bells from long-drowned churches being heard far out under the waves, although the popular description of Dunwich as a ‘drowned city’ is inaccurate, as it fell away into the sea as the cliffs beneath it were eroded away. But much is known of Dunwich, with many extant records and maps of the city, enabling Matthew to chart its decline and eventual end in some detail.

Hirta is the biggest island of the St Kilda archipelago and was occupied for at least two thousand years until 1930, when the final thirty six islanders voted to leave. By then, most of the families and younger residents had left for the mainland, and their traditional way of life had become unsustainable. Until a couple of hundred years ago the islanders were virtually cut off from the rest of Scotland, due to the distance and the difficulty of making a landing at the island. Existing almost exclusively on a diet of seabirds (remarkably, they were apparently lousy fishermen!), the islanders lived a remarkably difficult life and it is no surprise that as they were exposed more and more to the outside world, more and more of the islanders opted to leave for a better life.

I found I was drawn deep into these stories not just because I found them so fascinating, but also because of Matthew’s skilful and easy style. A very well researched and beautifully presented book, I’d definitely give it five stars out of five.

Winter – 3

Winter would have brought a period of enforced leisure for our ancestors. Their days would have become shorter with the increasing hours of darkness, until in midwinter the daylight hours would make up only one third of the time.

All outdoor activities would effectively cease in the darkness, and even during the day the worsening weather would limit what could be achieved outdoors. But other than those tasks that could be carried out, what did they do in these times? how did they pass those long hours?

At times, no doubt, there would have been feasting and merry-making because they would have required some cheer and a sense of well-being to help them get through the winter. But they must also have been mindful of husbanding scarce food resources through those long barren months.

it may be that they played games. Although archaeology hasn’t furnished us with evidence of board games or dice or variations on these, it is still possible they would scratch, perhaps, some form of grid into the beaten soil of the floor and play games of skill or chance. It is not beyond possibility that some flat rocks with strange scorings and lines on them were used for that purpose.

With no TVs or books or computers, it might seem to us that time would have weighed heavily on their hands. But you are used to what you are used to, and they would have seen things differently. They may have looked forward to a period of relative inactivity; long hours of no talk, sitting or lying down, the mind slowing down until hours were passed in no thought. Did they then also pass unusually long hours in sleep? A kind of semi-hibernation as a way of conserving energy?

But long hours also, of talking. They must have talked: of daily life and plans and past disasters and glories, of gossip, and told stories both new and handed down from previous generations. These stories would have been incredibly powerful tools for the preservation of the tribe. With no written word, the spoken word becomes the only way knowledge is transmitted. And thus it has to be memorised, both for use and also to transmit in the future. As aids to memorising, powerful tools are repetition, rhyme and rhythm. We cannot know exactly how this was utilised, but it cannot have been long before poetry and song evolved.

It can be no coincidence, but in all the early societies we know of who had no written records, those of which we know about through records left by others – such as the Romans writing of the Britons – it is clear that poetry and song were important, and the bard a highly valued member of that society. Indeed, the writings left by Romans, who tended to denigrate anyone not Roman as barbarian and primitive, violent, and uncultured, still make it clear these ‘barbarian’ tribes valued poetry and song highly. Partly, this must have been for educational purposes, but they seem also to have been valued for themselves, for their beauty. It is taking things too far to suggest this proves the same would have applied in Neolithic times, but it is certainly possible. At some point, there would have been music. I imagine this developed out of ritual, perhaps through repetitive chanting and the beat of drums…

And so, I can imagine this at first being perhaps the preserve of the shaman, until becoming a specialised ‘post’ – that of the bard – and acquiring the value of entertainment, as well as instruction.