Don’t dwell on it?

I heard the verb dwell the other day and I decided to dwell on it. As I was dwelling in my linguistic dwelling it occurred to me that dwelling, as well as meaning dwelling, means dwelling like in a dwelling.

To dwell somewhere. It is not a phrase you often hear. It has fallen out of use. The sign of a restless transient society you cry? We ‘pick things up’ which have an ‘impact.’ We less often now ‘ruminate’ or ‘chew things over’ less still do we ‘mull.’ One mulls on occasion but the stationary time consuming metaphors are perhaps falling out of fashion. ‘Falling’ itself being an interesting metaphor, implying that fashion or the ‘done thing’ is something suspended in the air (perhaps sustained by ourselves and our efforts) and that if we neglect them they will fall. We associate the ‘done thing’ as being something ‘up there’ that we crane our necks to see as opposed to being something ‘down here.’ It may be within arm’s reach but only an extended arm with elbows locked. It is not comfortably in reach down here with the rest of us, ‘the done thing’ is precariously placed where we can all see it but if it should ‘fall’ it is no longer with us as we look to the new ‘done thing’ which perhaps is easier to carry and support.

So ‘dwelling’ perhaps is slipping down our societal understanding because we can no longer get a grip on it. Houses are rarely referred to as dwellings, at least in the everyday sense.

‘If you get back to the dwelling by six can you take out the turkey legs to defrost.’

We are a more mobile people that think less and less of dwelling on an idea as we don’t see ourselves as dwellers. We are movers who commute, commune and compute in new ways. Does dwelling on an idea suggest living with it, residing there, getting to know it? Is that something that makes us dandies and debutants uncomfortable? Does the process of dwelling on something ask us to carry that something with us, integrate it into our life, really wrestle with it?

‘It does not do too dwell on it’ – the sharp implement of disinheritance we have inherited from our disinheriting heritage. Itinerant internetters like us rant, rave and chillax but we don’t dwell. Our ties are getting looser. A moment’s reflection is about all we can afford. Reflect – looking back, not going back but looking back. We can turn our head over our shoulder and take stock but we can’t turn around, we can’t go back there and live there.

Should we ‘dwell on it’ more? And why do we dwell ‘on’ it? Surely we should dwell ‘in’ it? We should dwell inside something. That is how we dwell – inside a house, a town, a country. You can’t dwell ‘on’ your house. Well you could but you’d get funny looks from the neighbours.

What can one dwell on? A ship? A hot air-baloon? Are we perhaps finding a more moveable adaptable form of dwelling after all? One could dwell on a plain (although not a plane) nomadic, restless. But one would definitely dwell ‘in’ a forest.

There is a tension in dwelling and in our thinking between movement and stillness. Is dwelling something that happens ‘somewhere’ or ‘something’ that happens somewhere?

In Scotland there is a tension about the word ‘living’. Ask a Scot where she lives and she will tell you where she stays. In Scotland, by and large, we ‘stay’. That’s not to say we don’t move, we are a notoriously adventurous bunch, but we tend to move to ‘stay’ somewhere else. When I lived in England I got confused looks from people when I asked them ‘Where do you stay?’ In England that question implies a temporary lilt, as in ‘Where do you stay when you are in Dorset?’ or ‘Where did you stay last year in Malaga?’ An Englishman’s home is his castle and he lives there. A Scottish man’s home is not his castle (as Lesley Riddoch incisively explains) and he only stays there.

Riddoch herself explores this awkward anomaly. What is it about the restless Scot that means she only stays somewhere rather than lives there? Riddoch explores how historically deeply unfair land systems kept power in the hand of a few at the expense of the many. This ‘many’ than had little choice about being shoved off the land they had lived and worked for years and being pushed into the city. As we have seen in cities in the 60s, ‘the few’ showed little remorse in shoving the ‘many’ back out again into the ‘deserts wi windaes.’ Andy Wightman’s excellent ‘The Poor Had No Lawyers’ explores this history and takes it up to the present.

Riddoch contrasts this with the situation in England where ‘the many’ had to be coaxed into the city (being that it was easier to scratch a living out of the land) and were often done so at the offer of a little piece of land to own. This perhaps provides some explanation as to the Scottish ambivalence with ‘living’ somewhere.

As I say I have been dwelling on these things. I have come to the conclusion that there is a restless, seeking Celtic spirit to be unearthed also in the ‘staying’ vs. ‘living.’ To some extent an admission that you only stay somewhere is not a denial of living but suggests that living is something that happens beyond four walls (or six walls and an extension lighthouse/chatteau/thatch/Grand Designs thing). Staying is partially defined by what it is not – moving. Staying has bound up in it ‘moving’. I stay here. I move from here. Living is defined partially by what it is not – dying. I live here. I will die here. To live somewhere is perhaps to expect to die there. To stay somewhere is to expect to go from there.

In Scotland, despite our ambivalence over ‘living’ we are very interested in where people stay. Riddoch also talks about a Scottish sensibility for locating people when we talk to them. Knowing where each other stay, if you know ‘so and so’, ‘my cousin worked there’, ‘my sisters always shops there’, ‘we used to drink in there all the time.’ Imagine you and a large group of friends are going on holiday. It’s important to ascertain where everybody is staying so you can share information and work out arrangements.

Where you staying?

At the cliff edge.

There’s a great wee restaurant there.

In Scotland life’s one big holiday.

There is a Celtic sensibility, an openness to possibility. Perhaps instilled from centuries of tenancy, forced eviction, relocation and emigration but also a more seasonal history where we stayed in different places depending on the time of the year. And it’s a very open sensibility, ‘Celtic’ itself is a bit of a construct. Anyone can be Celtic who wants to give it a go. Maybe dwelling is more like ‘staying’ with an idea than ‘living’ there.

Dwelling is something which implies a richer degree of involvement. It means going to an idea, not just an idea coming to you fully formed. It means living with an idea. But maybe also it means staying in the Scottish sense.

To dwell on an idea is to go there and set up camp. It’s not about laying a cornerstone. To dwell on an idea is to spend enough time there to get to know the lay of the land. It’s not to establish dominance. Perhaps we don’t like dwelling on ideas because it involves a lighter sense of being than ‘living’ and obliterating what all else that lives there..We are happy to adopt and co-opt new ideas because it means buying up the rights, paying the stamp duty and making it our little idea, our little comfort zone.

Dwelling on an idea – not ‘in’ a secure foundation. Means actually ‘staying’ there. A place where we stop not a place where we build. We are alienated from dwelling on an idea because we always want to develop a thought, a piece of real estate. We are developers not dwellers. We are happy to live with an idea – if we can cover it in our furniture and our photographs and that awful occasional table we occasionally use when our uncle who gave it to us occasionally pops by.

Dwelling means getting to know what is already there.

Dwelling requires sensitivity, a willingness to let ideas roam. You dwell on and with the land – not just inside it. You have to be aware of what is there.

I also think there is something in there about recognising that while we live everywhere we dwell in pockets and for a season.

In a wonderful, theological sense we live everywhere and nowhere. We dwell here and there as we dwell on the enormity of it all. We are all at home on earth because we are all homeless on it. We dwell in corners and one day we will die and then be home and then live.

Let’s dwell on it.


  1. I like this … always thought of ‘Celticness’ as a big amorphous mass of pseudohistorical nonsense but the flip side of that is that as you say we can have an inclusive positive Celticness too. And I love a bit of dwelling on language and land and space and what it all means.

    Though for a concise definition you could always try looking up dwelling in a Dwelly’s :p

    1. Cheers! Here’s to inclusive pseudohistorical nonsense!

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