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Journey to the Centre of the Skye | Paul Carter

Hostile images abound of missionaries who participated in the global spread of secularism. Scots sport pundit Archie McPherson expressed disdain for heathen missionaries: “An atheist sermon is an unprovoked bellum; hit seeks tae wyle, tae gadge, tae broubatter, tae steer, and tae fricht; hit ends, hit it can, by grafting intae yer hert, and leavin tae fructify thare, an fremd impulse, the grunds a that ye dinnae ken, and the efterins  a whit ye neer hae craved.”  Portobello missionary Alexander Peden understood not a jot of this strange auld blether, setting out eagerly to claim the dark lands as his own property and gain Establishment.
Peden was one of the first amateur explorers to pack up trunk and Global Positioning System and hotfoot it north unassisted by private militia or sponsorship from Virgin. The Scottish interior was a place forbidden to Lallanders who either died easily of midge bites or lay awake for fear of being ‘milked on’ by cows. Before setting upon his nimble heels to sea, Peden sought valuable advice on the storms that lay ahead from John Laurie. A presptarian grim-lifer, Laurie lived in an abandoned gasoline station in North Berwick surrounded by shrunken crisp packets and luminescent bottles of white cider. He was best remembered for his role of Private Frazer in Dad’s Army, a Scottish undertaker who had previously served in the Royal Navy as a Chief Petty Officer Cook, and was well-known for being a skinflint. “I say, how awfully nice to see you”, addressed Peden as he brushed past Frazer in the long queue for Scotch Eggs and pornography at the local Spar. “Rrrrrrubbish!!”, Frazer bellowed. A brief silence ensued, followed by an unswerving calm. “You’re doomed, doooomed!” I know not whether it may be worth observing, that Frazer had no word in his language to express anything in the affirmative. Peden shrugged his shoulders and began to stock up on sweeties and bottles of ginger, remembering to purchase an assortment of gold mirrors, hawks’ bells, Tartan Special and scratchcards to trade with the the strange races of the (far) North.
Peden’s fantastic voyage took him across the heavily fortified Highland line to strange lands where he experienced a world of superstition and, lands of crofters who painted their faeces[1], and archipeglios of white English settlers who believed in money and worshipped the scone, offering financial sacrifices to their Gods. Armed to the teeth with three beautifully worked knives of obsidian and four half-bricks, glistening with sun -tan oil, soaking up the powerful rays, he strolled northwards towards tropical uncertainty through thick forests peppered with warnings of heavy plants and zero-tolerance Sports Utility Vehicles. This was one of the most difficult parts of the trip, since Carter had forgotten his outboard motor and had hitch a ride with a passing ferry. After an hour and a half, his rations were reduced to half a packet of Strepsils and a bottle of Sunny Delight. Half-dead with hunger, he stumbled onto dry land. An orchard pathway paved with mobile phones led him towards a gleaming tower of filth.
I poised trembling before an ancient concrete dwelling. Shadows no longer existed. Above the door I could read the legend: Descend, bold traveller, into this Saturday MadHouse, and you will attain the centre of the earth; Quod feci, Abbot. The walls were strewn with cibachrome water-horses, trompe l’oeil paintings of mince, light-entertainment awards and cheap fancy dress, all of which announced that one had entered the abode of a shapeshifter. It was enough to distract the most ingenious classifier of interior design.
As Carter gingerly entered the lounge, tall twinkle-eyed, Chester-born farce comedian and impressionist Russ Abbot confronted him. His audacity, his joy, and his convictions were magnificent to behold. He had a handsome and sensual face and boy did he smell great with the heady cologne he was wearing today.  Yet Abbot was no fool; he recognised the unavoidable relationships of culture and the wider spectrum of ideology, social power, and personal and cultural identity. Wearing a balaclava, a wet suit, flippers, snorkel and navy officer’s jacket, he stood with his back to Carter. He opened a large humidor and selected a Hamlet cigar, then carefully prepared the end of the cigar with a cutter. “My dear dear boy, we do not commit murder here. We are a deeply religious people.” The cigar began to smolder and thick aromatic smoke filled the air. “Your attempt to conquest Northern Scotland, which mostly means the taking it away from those who tie up the kids swings on Sundays or are slightly doorer than ourselves, is not a pretty thing when one looks into it too much”, he intoned. Bewildered by the tobacco fumes, Carter’s found his attention drawn the Evil Eye mural above the fireplace. “Uch aye see yoo Jimmy ahll kick yer up tha airse”, Abbot jammered aggressively. Abbot had transformed into a prehistoric lout. His head, huge and unshapely as a buffalo’s, was half hidden in the tangled growth of his unkempt ginger hair, atop which he sported a Tam O’Shanter as large as an English shilling. His wetsuit was now an oversized kilt. Suddenly he turned and made to head-butt a startled Carter. Carter’s skull cracked, as whisky glugged by jugload went down the cavernous throat of the vast brute.
Carter entered into a concussion. He gawped wide-eyed as Abbot’ velvet-soft commands surrounded and bewitched him. He heard intriguing tales of showers with goats and more everyday occurrences such as the devoted love of the seal woman and her fisher mat. Such was his phenomenal repertoire of silky voiced  tales from the Celtic legends of Kirk Cobain to the mythical tales of Dustin Gee and Les Dennis, that Carter remained under his spell until the summer solstice. Carter learned how Abbot had become the village’s Byronesque leader by appropriating the local faery traditions and customs, integrating himself into the day-to-day Otherworld of Clannad-listening society. Abbot’s post-colonial lesson inspired the hypnotised Carter to produce discourses that explicitly foreground the complicity that art collecting, display, and viewing have on the wider social conditions and cultural politics of the moonflow and the semen. His passion for barbarity would soon overwhelm the politest nation. By collecting the oddest objects available in the dark lands, Carter’s collections seized the feeling of wonder and surprise encapsulated in creationist doctrines. All objects were seen to have a divine origin. Some were ambiguous. This produced further curiosity. For example, it was often puzzled if shortbread was of vegetable or mineral origin. These objects seem to be in an intermediate state. The secrets of creation were thought to lie in such transitory phenomena. True to his time, Carter would build a scatological tapestry of Scotland as a mystical, enchanted land obsessed with anality, a disposition he always observed in nations he visited. In the latter half of the century it was possible to visit Carter’s collection with a letter of introduction.
Carter’s collection was not defined by its contents. Objects were extracted from the circuit of utility and economic activities to form new meanings and relationships with each other. Works of art were not valued as highly as some objects. For example, the Carter paid €6000 for a poster of Slipknot, €100 for an KISS Action Figure and only €3.75 for a DVD by Carey Young. Collections of precious plastics were required, not as jewels, but as rarities. Many plastics were perceived as having healing virtues. This meant that they were often crushed into powder and carried in a key ring. Collectors were not interested in practical uses of plastics. Crisp packets and plastic bottles of white cider were coveted for their extraordinary characteristics. Crisp packets were revered like asbestos, because they resist fire, and plastic bottles of white cider, for their capacity to attract women. Objects were split into categories. In the first would appear clothing such as snow-washed/cartoon denim, purple robes, Archie McPherson’s sheepskin coat, etc. Alongside would be found all kinds exotic writings (Tatler, Harry Potter, sectarian graffiti, etc.) on various supports (paper, bark, brick wall, etc). In the second category appear mechanical instruments (Tamagotchi, Roman candles, spinning wheels), balaclavas, Airfix models, large double corona cigars and, finally, works of art. The genesis of Carter’s collection reveals a need to control an emerging middle-class population, providing it with civilising values and the rules of social decorum by programming it to hypnotically respond to the aroma of cigars. At the same time, it is put into service as a locus from which to project non-secular values. In this sense it was largely successful, admired widely in its time. Even the cynical old git Frazer was impressed with the results of Carter’s expedition: “I never doubted ye for a single minute”, he wrote in the letters page of the Edinburgh Evening News.
Neil Mulholland

[1] See Laporte, Dominique. History of Shit, MIT Press, 1978.

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