Many years ago whilst cycling in the Orkneys, I stumbled across a story that still haunts me. On a windswept saddle of land in the middle of the Island of Hoy is a single grave. It holds a young mother who died giving birth to the babe that also lies with her. The young girl fell in love with a visiting sailor who left her, promising to return but never did. She became pregnant by and when she died, unmarried, she could not be buried in either of the parish graveyards, so lies alone with her child on the border of the two, a miserable, boggy nowhere land.
But there is a sequel of sorts to this. The soil there is so boggy the headstone kept falling over. A visitor from Canada heard the story, and was so touched that he arranged for a replacement lightweight fibreglass gravestone to be installed, one that doesn’t fall over to mark this tragic, fallen woman.
I’m a historian, and I am interested in such things. They matter to me because in the greater scheme of things, they don’t really matter. In a world in economica and environmental freefall, with tsunamis, hurricanes and famines regularly in the news, this is pretty small beeer. Why should anyone go to the effort to mark the passing of a woman they never knew, and who would have been dead by now anyway?
As Einstein said, the things that can be counted don’t matter, and the things that matter can’t be counted.
I don’t know who that Canadian benefactor was, or if he is still alive out there somewhere. But I hope someone took the time to thank him for what he did. Because to anyone cycling past that windswept patch of land, that small act of kindness might inspire them to do something good. Or maybe just to write about it.