Caught by the River

Love of Country

Sue Brooks | 6th November 2016

love_of_countryLove of Country: A Hebridean Journey by Madeleine Bunting
(Granta, hardcover, 368 pages. Out now.)

Review by Sue Brooks

One must have a proper moral sense about the points of the compass; North must seem the “good” direction, towards heroic adventures, South the way to ignoble ease and decadence. W.H. Auden’s words, quoted by Madeleine Bunting as part of the exploration of her lifelong fascination with the North. Her previous book The Plot, published in 2009, looks back through her father’s early life and her own childhood, growing up in Oswaldkirk, North Yorkshire, until she fled south aged sixteen. John Bunting had been evacuated to Ampleforth as a child from his London home, and years later returned with his wife to start a family and make a living as a sculptor. He is buried on The Plot, five miles from Oswaldkirk, the place to which felt he belonged.

Not completely, however. In Love Of Country, Madeleine Bunting recalls the school holidays spent in a small cottage near Croick. The Road Atlas, which accompanied my reading, showed it on page 56, at the end of a lane to the moor, a mere twenty miles, as the crow flies, to Ullapool and the ferry to Stornoway on the Isle of Lewis. John Bunting’s restless spirit, it seemed, never lost its desire to fly further north. The contradictions of home and belonging, exile and exploration are Madeleine Bunting’s legacy from her father. And an extreme sensitivity to place – even as a young child on holiday at Croick, it felt like….. a Promised Land, and yet mute with trauma.

Her new book combines all these themes with a sense of inevitability. She has spent the last six years on a journey to the Hebrides, sometimes with members of her family, sometimes with friends and latterly, at the extreme north, alone. She is a historian through and through, and introduces the reader to a hybrid book, part curation, part investigation, but she is also an explorer guided only by her own footsteps.

From Mullach Mor on Holy Isle, off the east coast of Arran, she sets out for Jura, Iona and Staffa, the southernmost of 270 named islands stretching 241 miles, north to south. I have some familiarity with the three islands myself, having once made the pilgrimage to Ardlussa, and taking the seven-mile track to reach the house at Barnhill, Orwell’s home on Jura for three years while he was writing 1984. Madeleine Bunting goes much further. She takes a boat across Corrywreckan, and researches landownership on the island, both past and present – David Cameron holidays there with his in-laws on the vast Astor estate, for example.

Iona was a reminder of how easy it is to fall for what the author calls the seductive mythology of remote islands. In reality, the monastery founded by Colum Cille (Columba) was a centre for learning and the hub of a sea road which stretched from Ireland to Iceland, Scotland and Scandinavia. It was busy with diplomats, students, delegates and enormous artistic industry, the most powerful evidence being the richly illuminated Book Of Kells. Kenneth Clark’s memorable TV series in 1969 featured Iona as a symbol of the precarious survival of civilization at the edge of the world. In the Abbey graveyard, kings of Norway, Scotland and Ireland are buried, and also the leader of the Labour Party, John Smith, who died in 1994 aged 55. I was struck by Madeleine Bunting’s conversation with the Director of the Iona Community, who finds nothing romantic on the island, only hard work.

Romanticism reached its peak when visitors discovered Staffa in the late eighteenth century – the speechlessness of the sublime. Staffa, with its hexagonal basalt pillars and the sea crashing into Fingal’s Cave has inspired countless musicians, artists and writers. A great golden age of heroic virtue and antiquity fuelled a thriving tourist industry. Staffa had it all – grandeur, terror, beauty and solitude. The last inhabitants had given up in 1800. Madeleine Bunting points out that Historic Scotland does the same kind of promotion in 2016 – castles, historic sites, remote rural areas – with no encouragement to ask why there are so few inhabitants. Part 1 entitled Imagined Geographies ends at this point. Part 2 has a different tone. It asks the question Whose Histories?

In 1796, there were 443 people living on the island of Rum. In 1826, 300 were loaded onto ships for Canada, followed by the remainder in 1828. 8,000 sheep were introduced and the pasture so degraded by overgrazing that the island was sold in 1845 to the Marquis of Salisbury. It was sold again in 1888 to the Bullough family and George Bullough built the castle which stands at Kinloch, abandoned in 1957, the stone crumbling, the interior untouched. Victorian furniture, fabrics and shooting trophies slowly decaying. Only the servants quarters are still used as a basic hostel for visitors. History here [on Rum] for those who care to pay attention, is raw and contested: whose history counts and whose is lost? These shocking statistics compel attention to events which were repeated throughout the Highlands and Islands in the nineteenth century. The Clearances were brutally executed, often by landowners who were Scottish themselves, and the enforced emigration decimated the Gaelic language and culture.

I turn again to page 56 in the Road Atlas. Madeleine Bunting is about to set foot on Eriskay in the Outer Hebrides. I am paying attention this time and realise that the Western Isles do not have a page to themselves, as 241 miles of land would need on a scale of 4 miles to the inch. They are given less than half a page on a reduced scale of 10 miles to the inch. Squeezed into a small box in the top left hand corner. I feel outraged by this perfect example of what I have been reading. When she reaches Lewis – the third largest island in the British Isles after Britain and Ireland – she describes it, despite having a population of 19,000, as big and forgotten.

Eriskay is only two and a half by one and a half miles, but its significance in Scottish history could not be greater. Here, Bonnie Prince Charlie landed from France in 1745, raised an army to take back Scotland from the British, and marched south as far as Derby. Fatefully deciding to return to Scotland, he was defeated in April 1746 at Culloden. A Jacobite rebellion that was ruthlessly put down by the victors, including a ban on carrying arms and wearing the kilt. Ironically, Madeleine Bunting’s visit to the Long Isle (Harris and Lewis) coincided with the build-up to the Scottish Referendum in 2014. She found on Lewis a fierce sense of identity, more powerful than any other I experienced in the Hebrides. It is the biggest stronghold of Gaelic in Scotland and over half the population speak the language. She was deeply attracted to the place and returned several times over the course of the next twelve months. She learned from many encounters there, that people belong to places rather than places belong to people, and that community creates a sense of security which can endure emigration and long absences. And perhaps most tellingly that knowing one’s place …lies at the heart of the Gaelic language.

The intrepid explorer presses on to St Kilda, now a World Heritage Site and MOD missile testing base since 1957, only 27 years after the remaining 36 Hiortaich asked to be evacuated. It is possible, weather permitting, to take a day trip and buy souvenirs in the National Trust for Scotland shop by the jetty. Madeleine Bunting reminds herself (and me) that the island had been selling souvenirs made by the islanders to tourists for over a century. Undaunted and still hungry for more time out in that big ocean, we catch a last sight of the author on the catamaran heading to the Flannan Isles to collect two ornithologists. These islands are off the Atlas altogether. The furthest north of Madeleine Bunting’s heroic adventure.

I feel an immense pride in what has been undertaken to write this book, and gratitude for the historian’s skill in demonstrating how interpretations change over time. Whose history counts and whose is lost? Ownership is changing now. Many islands in the Hebrides have Community Land Trusts which are investing in small-scale renewable energy projects. Inspiring victories have been won, such as the one to save the Brindled Moor on Lewis from development as the biggest wind farm in Europe. There is a very real sense that the Atlantic Edge is where hope lies for the future, as Orwell felt so strongly on Jura when he was writing 1984; encapsulated in the twenty first century, as Madeleine Bunting discovered, in the survival of the Gaelic language.


Buy a copy of the book here.

Sue Brooks on Caught by the River