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A place in time

January 06, 2013

LET the eye of the imagination pan out from the complicated climes of Pakistan and focus on another place that has, like this part of the planet, seen much bloodshed and many tears wept over the sins of men.

This is a land where upwards of a thousand years, men have battled for control of land, resources or simply power. It is a place where dark crimes were committed in broad daylight, often with the participation of an entire community.

An old rhyme that has survived the centuries into the modern age reminds: “They tied her arms behind her back/ And twisted them with a pin;/ And they dragged her to Kilconquhar Loch/ And threw the limmer in;/ And all the swans took to the hills,/ Scar’d with the unhaely din.”

This is a land where ‘witches’ were once persecuted, where the air rang out often with the clash of steel and where the smell of blood hung rank on the air either in the aftermath of battle or, in pre-Christian times, because of the human sacrifice the druids are believed to have carried out.

Standing on such a spot in midwinter, even in the 21st century, it is easy to picture that. The garden which now boasts a lovingly manicured lawn is enclosed by stone walls that were put up centuries ago, their chipped and rough façade a mute witness to history. Such a history is shared by many places across the world, but the specific

one that I am thinking of is Kilconquhar Castle, towards the northeast of Scotland near the town of St Andrews.

From the year 1200AD onwards, this was the fortified house of the local laird. In 1266, this happened to be Adam, the Earl of Carrick, who left soon after his marriage to the former earl’s daughter to fight in the Crusades in the train of Prince Edward of England. He died in Palestine in 1270 and his last wish to his friend Robert Bruce was to take some messages back to his wife, the Countess of Carrick.

Robert Bruce honoured that wish. According to some accounts, the Countess of Carrick was so taken by Robert that she had him imprisoned until he agreed to marry her; kinder — or cleaned up — versions of history say that love blossomed. Either way, Robert and the countess married, and it was their son who was to change the fate of the land.

Robert the Bruce waged a guerrilla war against the English, then in control of Scotland, and defeated Edward II’s much larger army at the Battle of Bannockburn in 1314, thus re-establishing an independent Scottish monarchy.

Today, Kilconquhar Castle looks from the mildewed exterior pretty much like it would have looked 500 years ago, a graceful yet businesslike monument to the power the laird held over his tenants. But beyond that, it is now meticulously maintained as a holiday destination. To the visitor, it seems to say, the past is real and must be remembered everyday, so that it never plays out in the same way.

Most parts of the world that have hosted humanity for any appreciable length of time have markers that remind of the past.

Some countries have done better than others, though, at learning from and preserving history. Consider, to take an example close to the heart, that Pakistan was born in 1947, just two years after the end of the Second World War which nearly, in the eyes of the somewhat fanciful, brought civilisation as they knew it to an end.

Millions of lives were lost, often in the most brutal fashion imaginable, and horrors hitherto unknown on the same scale and in such cold-bloodedness were committed. Several of Europe’s greatest cities were cripplingly bombed and bludgeoned.

Out of the ashes, though, rose a spirit to learn from experience and not relive it. Nearly seven decades on, while the viability of certain aspects of the European Union is on the table again, the fact remains that the region acts as a unified bloc. The generation that witnessed the war could not have imagined then that they would live to see a Europe with minimal border control and more or less free passage. But they did.

A couple of studies put the modern age as a period of unprecedented prosperity, happiness and wealth in the history of humanity; these number crunchers acknowledge turmoil and large-scale death such as in Iraq or Afghanistan, but even accounting for that estimate that the number of people who have it good is weightier.

In the same amount of time, Pakistan has managed to conjure for itself out of the hat a demon of nightmarish proportions.

It sounds frivolous to put it that way, perhaps, for many would argue — and to an extent, rightly — that this country’s current predicament is the outcome of complicated turns of events and factors, internal and external, some of which were/are within control and others not.

But it is also possible to argue that at its root the problem was simple: to take the civilised course of action and let the people be heard.

With an election round the corner and once again, murmurings about whether that process might be derailed at Pakistan’s very great peril yet again, it is instructive to note that the issue of independence is back on the agenda over in Scotland.

Next year, a referendum of the Scottish electorate is to be held to decide on whether the way forward is further devolution within the UK or full independence concerning issues including economic policy, defence and other crucial points.

There are no parallels here with Pakistan, of course, except on one key point: when there’s a problem, cards need to be laid out on the table and the people’s opinion — for it is them the government and state machinery work and exist for — factored in.

In this country, the choice of the citizenry in terms of governance has almost always been overruled. That a right-wing government has never been voted in, even in small numbers, says a great deal for people’s ability to learn. Ought they not just be allowed to get on with it?

The writer is a member of staff.