September 27, 2018

Are human societies better than their worst tendencies?

Stewart Sanderson


As a writer I’m drawn to the past, not to escape the present but to focus more clearly on where we have come from and where, collectively, we might be going. Long-inhabited places, old words and material things can all help us ask questions about the key ethical issues which confront us today. This work of creative questioning is not necessarily straightforward – often in my poetry I feel the questions are there, but under the surface.

The focus of this poem, The Orkney Hood is, for me, one of the most fascinating objects in the National Museum of Scotland: an exhibit I find myself gravitating towards each time I visit. That an Iron Age garment, apparently made for a child, could have endured in the ground till it was unearthed, intact, in 1867, is an incredible thought to come to terms with. This object, like the overwhelmingly pre-literate society which created it, offers us no words. Nonetheless, the fact of its existence speaks volumes. The central question, unstated in my poem, is whether the humane sympathy and kindness which items like this suggest outweighs or in some sense justifies the extensive evidence of historical and prehistorical violence and inequality.