The Aitken Alexander Isolation Series: There is Always an After by Mary Paulson-Ellis

There Is Always An After

When the edict came I found myself locked down in Cromarty in the North East of Scotland, 170 miles from home. Cromarty is a small town bounded by Firths on two sides – the Moray and the Cromarty. In one of these bodies of water dolphins swim with abandon, leaping in and leaping out as they have done for centuries. In the other huge oilrigs lie tethered just off-shore like great ancient ships, rusting and dismantled, as though they already belong to a bygone age.

I was in Cromarty because my partner, artist Audrey Grant, was half way through a residency with the local Arts Trust. Her nascent project is an exploration of past and future landscapes, both real and imagined. She calls it the Morgenthau Plan for Creative Renewal, inspired by a childhood growing up in the shadow of the Grangemouth oil refinery – barely eighty years in the making but already an industry that is on its way out. Also by painter Anselm Kiefer’s huge canvases, Morgenthau Plan, which depict the bloom of flowers amongst a devastated landscape; in turn inspired by a post WW2 plan (never realised) to de-industrialise Germany and give it over to nature and farmland – a sure strategy for starvation on an epic scale.

Two weeks in, lockdown came and we, like everyone else, found ourselves thrust into the midst of a new landscape, both real and imagined, surveying unfamiliar ground while asking constantly: what will happen now, what will happen next, how will it end.

In Cromarty, as Audrey photographed the rigs and the dead were counted in numbers rather than names, I took a variety of daily walks. A loop about a field. A wander along a beach. A climb through a wood to a cliff, to a view. Also, amongst the remains of those for whom the end had come a long, long time before.

In common with many small towns in Scotland, Cromarty has several churches and just as many graveyards. Of the latter, one is known as the ‘pirates’ graveyard for the preponderance of skull and crossbones marked on the stones. Another radiates from the ruins of a Gaelic Chapel high on a hill, the names of its inhabitants buried by the moss that has grown three feet or more since they were first laid down. It was here, amongst the moss and the celandines with their faces turned to the sun, that I happened across an answer to the question: what happens after, once the end has come.

Cromarty is not a remote town. Well, not for the people who live there anyway. And yet, strung out on its spit of land, bounded by water on two sides, it is the end of the road. It is also the place where, more than one hundred years ago, on a site no one quite seems to agree upon today, they built a military hospital to receive the wounded of WW1. The Great War. The war to end all wars.

Cromarty, as it turned out, has two memorials to that disaster. The first is a solid thing, built on the brink of the hill beyond the graveyard’s gates, facing out to sea. It commemorates the Cromarty men and boys who left on an adventure and never made it home, their bones still lying somewhere beneath the loam of France. Or Belgium. Or on the beaches of Gallipoli, stuck on another spit of land, succumbing to bullets or typhoid, whichever came first. It commemorates a series of lonely deaths, men breathing their last far from where they began, no relative to hold their hand at the last, no return to the family plot for their remains, not even their skulls or their crossbones. Nothing left of them but a mother or a father holding a letter with a black edge. A moment’s silence once a year. And their name on the list that I was reading now.

Cromarty’s second memorial is formed around a neat rectangle of mown grass, stones lined on either side familiar in their sameness, each carved with a name, a date, a rank, the Company in which the owner served. These stones are Commonwealth War Graves. They belong to the men who made it back, but not all the way; reaching home soil, home waters, only to drown in the Firth or die of their wounds in Cromarty’s military hospital, before being laid to rest here in a strangers town.

Most of these deaths are dated: 1914, 1916, 1918. But others lingered beyond that final point, into 1919, 1920… Not succumbing until everyone else had already moved on. Died of long festering wounds, perhaps. Delayed shock. Or another pandemic, the bad luck of Spanish influenza, barely a footnote after the fact today.

Presiding over all these stones is a great spike of grey granite, on its base the exhortation:


Though even that is not strictly correct. For here and there amongst the rest are markers on which is carved nothing but a phrase:

A sailor of the great war

Someone whose bones survived, but nothing more. No rank. No date. No identifying features. Not even a name upon a list. Just one more amongst so many, lost somewhere along the way.

I read all the names. Even those for whom there are no names. It is a familiar landscape after all. There are no beloved here. No sons of. No much missed. But somebody cuts the grass, each summer, each spring. Somebody lays a wreath to fade in the morning light. Because somebody has decided, we must remember them.

Cromarty 1914-1918
Bain, Bain
Finlayson, Finlayson, Finlayson
Hogg, Hogg, Hogg
Hossack, Hossack
Mackenzie, Mackenzie, Mackenzie
MacLean, MacLean, MacLean
MacLeod, MacLeod
Macleman, Macleman
Mactavish, Mactavish
Skinner, Skinner, Skinner
Watson, Watson, Watson, Watson, Watson

Cromarty 2020
Hill, Hill
Ince, Ince
Sharma, Sharma
Vallely, Vallely
And all the rest…