WE seem to be in one of those self-lacerating moments in Scottish life.

Ferries, reasonable eco-policies, drugs rehab, gender identification – all struggling to be constructed, never mind function. “Competence as the path to indy” is being shot down by pundits and media on all sides.

The old trope – “too poor, too wee, too stupid” for nation-statehood—is raising its head again. Sometimes popping out of the mouths of those who should know a lot better.

So I was relieved to hear this week of an ancient Scottish construction that inspires on every level. Not just historically, but as a pointer towards how we might adapt to a demanding future.

In 2021, a terrible fire consumed the Scottish Crannog Centre at Loch Tay. The good news is that it will be reconstructed on the other side of the loch, with £2.3m of ScotGov investment and a call-out for volunteer and community labour. The interesting news stems from what a crannog is in the first place.

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The scholars tell you that a crannog is an islet in a loch, more often artificially created than naturally found, on which a roundhouse is built, and a causeway or bridge laid from shore to building.

Its era stretches from the Neolithic, through the Iron Age, even lingering into the 17th century.

The Loch Tay Crannog Centre was a painstaking reconstruction, using original methods. It joined the seventeen crannogs that had been discovered around the loch (there are 390 sites in Scotland, and an estimated 1200 in Ireland).

Into the loch’s waters, rocks were pulled and carefully stacked. Trees were felled from local forests (some of the oldest managed forests in existence). They were sharpened at one end, then driven by many hands into the loch bed. Local reeds, rushes and grasses were used to weave together walls and surfaces.

In the news reports this week, you could see how engaging and revivifying it was for volunteers to be re-crafting these forms. Indeed, so therapeutic is it to make pottery and weave textiles in this place, that the Loch Tay crannog offers itself as a service to heal schoolchildren alienated from formal education.

Weeks after the fire in 2021, the Edinburgh Unesco chair Prof Alison Phipps wrote a soulful essay in this very newspaper. Phipps described the “weaving” of human connections that the Loch Tay crannog made possible. People were encouraged to press their fingers into thumbprints originally left on Neolithic pots. African visitors grappled with the fact that, before imperialism, there were indigenous ways of living in the West, that resonated with the present.

As Phipps wrote: “So often it’s the objects of everyday life, the earthenware, the songs shared, the process of making things in community that can speak of the possibility of home after people have arrived, have fled fire and flood, and bombs, guns and persecution.”

I’m not going to deny the transforming effect of being in Scottish neolithic environments. I’ve rarely felt as much continuity with the past as during my visits to the Skara Brae village in Orkney, 5000 years standing (and older than Stonehenge or the Pyramids).

Its science-fiction collection of ceremonial objects – looking like fractals, weapons, mobile phones, game controllers – are weirdly contemporary. Were they for child’s play or religious ritual? In the hands of a village shaman, were they as much handheld devices to access other worlds of meaning, as our own networked technologies are?

I am always inspired by the persistence of human creativity, across the millennia. Professor Phipps puts it well, as she explains the power of ancient craft at Loch Tay. “The labour here – of the lyre-player, the paddler in the dug-out canoe; the storyteller and singer; the weaver and bread-baker, the puppeteer and the curator; the women at the forest gate – is engaged in the opposite of alienating work.”

But crannogs aren’t only examples of bucolic communalism. From my readings in the archaeology, these structures seem to have had many functions for their communities.

ONE unsentimental usage is as a redoubt against other families, clans and Roman forces. Crannogs are eminently defensible from the water, able to store food and ammunition. The crannogs may be indicators of a much more warring and violent era. The need for them perhaps subsiding, as the rule of law takes over.

There are many more interpretations to be made. A 2017 study of Outer Hebridean sites notes that a lot of pottery seems to have been just thrown out of the crannog window – implying (as the authors primly put it) “social gatherings, ritualised feasting and commensality.”

In short, a wild bacchanal – something which might easily have been a display of abundance and excess by local leaders and elites. The bling is dead, long live the bling…

I also love the points they make about the huge amount of community effort required to build a crannog, especially if its function was more ceremonial than anything else: “these islets could have been perceived as special places, their watery surroundings creating separation from everyday life”. You imagine a slow walk across the bridge, celebrating life or death, the passage between realms made beautifully concrete.

The Loch Tay crannog reconstruction makes much of its sustainability, both in its building and its operations. But as I looked at pictures of real or simulated crannogs, creating a space of habitability on the open water, I couldn’t help but imagine the climate crisis we’re currently in.

Our melting ice sheets, in the Arctic and the Antarctic, will generate meters of global sea-level rise by the last quarter of this century. The story for human coastal settlements – everything from fishermen and farmers to megacities – is usually that of slow-creeping calamity. Conurbations like Lagos in Nigeria, or Jakarta in Indonesia, are already planning to doggedly reclaim, or completely abandon their streets and harbours.

Yet what if we could imagine, like our Neolithic kinfolk, a way of living on the waters, instead of recoiling at their advance? Water-borne houses, neighbourhoods and even cities are the topic of the moment in architecture. For example, Amsterdam design studios are building a water-city for 20,000 people in the Maldives, a theatre in Lyon, houses in Miami, and both a village and a park in their base city.

These constructions are floating, rather than staked into the seabed. But it’s the concept that counts. If you want a plausible account of how a viable on-water civilisation might be conducted, search out Kim Stanley Robinson’s SF novel New York 2140. It depicts a flooded Manhattan, yet still operating with its usual brio.

I’m invoking all this because, as a green citizen, I believe that serious environmental damage is baked-in and on its way. And that adaptability to worsening conditions will be (or should be) one of our new societal drivers.

So isn’t Scotland the lucky country, yet again? We have a precedent, going back thousands of years, whereby everyday communities can conceive of themselves as alive and vital on their nearby waters. And not just for reasons of sheer survival, but for joy, meaning and mystery too.

The Loch Tay crannog will be rebuilt. But the crannogs of the future should start to be imagined. Which would be much, much better than swelling the current “aren’t we rubbish” chorus.