Published today by William Collins, Annie Worsley’s ‘Windswept: Life, Nature and Deep Time in the Scottish Highlands’ documents life on a rugged and wild-weathered croft on the west coast of Scotland. Kirsteen Bell reviews.
The word ‘wildness’ used in relation to the Scottish Highlands can be contentious — the romanticised view of untouched landscape is quite different from the reality of human influence — and as a former Professor of Environmental Change, you would imagine that Annie Worsley knows exactly the connotations behind the word choice. You would be right. Windswept is in part Annie’s own story of living on a croft in the north-west Highlands, and in part the story of how all lives in the natural world — including those of humans — have been shaped by elements and time.
Windswept’s narrative follows the movement of the sun and the moon, and the moments in the land and sea beneath them. The names of months are secondary. Worsley’s words reach beyond the modern Gregorian calendar to older, deeper environmental cycles, seen from the still point of her own life. Born from her diaries, the writing began as a means by which Worsley could ‘report, decode and deconstruct the seasons’ of her home, 8 acres of croftland bisected by a Red River. But there is a greater knowledge here than that which comes from scientific observation.
Jenny Brown Literary Agency recently launched an award for debut fiction writers over 50, citing the need to ‘celebrate the diversity of writers over the age of 50 and to value their collected, distilled wisdom, their lifetime of reading and experience’. This is Worsley’s debut non-fiction book and is a stunning example of the importance of hearing those voices. In her own words, ‘there is enough age in my bones to register the swift running of the seasons’, and oh, how she registers every exquisite detail. Even before she describes herself as akin to the Cailleach Bheurra, the ancient Gaelic queen of winter, I have the sense of hearing stories from a true cailleach: a woman who knows this landscape in her bones and can show you the heart of it, if you’ve a mind to listen.
The echoes of her childhood reach through to the present day, carried through her life from daughter to grandmother. Her mother-led time in the Welsh mountains, escaping the brutal air of her Liverpool home; time on her maternal grandfather’s farm; and the time on Scottish hills with her own children: all these experiences reach through her life and into the lives of her grandchildren — a cailleach weaving memories and connections.
There is a touch of magic and folklore threading through the practical and observational. Polished quartz placed in a river at moonlight, a white stag trailing mist through a darkened valley, an eagle bringing light, and an otter spraint-heap as monumental as solstice-marking stones. The real magic though is in the infinitesimal awareness Worsley brings to the play of light and landscape.
Colours shift, morph, brighten and fade across her pages, with hues that can only come from a place of rapt and loving attention: orange marmalade gives way to Prussian blue; spearmint greens and cobalt blues turn to molten black and boiling sable; there is red ice on the mountains and pale-peach rains; bands of soot-black and navy-blue that dissolve into a silent shell of pearl; even the night sky is a ‘silver salver above shadows of charcoal, swirling around a pewter lawn’. Worsley is undoubtedly a painterly writer, working with thick oil paint, textured, the kind that makes you want to reach out and run your hand across the shape of it. She writes that her brain registers elements of the landscape as ‘colour and music’, and as readers we are immersed as deeply as she is. In a world where humans’ perceptual detachment from the living environment has placed it under threat, these words are an antidote.
Her way of seeing is just as central to the way in which Worsley and her husband work with Red River Croft. So many come to live in the Highlands buoyed on ideas of what this landscape should be, imposing their own concepts of what is best for the land. Not so here. Old crofters are listened to with the same respect and regard given to the land itself.
Today’s crofters must strike a difficult balance, between honouring the human past and protecting the future of the ecosystems of which they are a part, and I empathise entirely with Worsley’s own attempts to understand that relationship. References to the Highland Clearances may err on the gentle side of truth, but that is easily forgiven as her patient attentiveness to crofting reveals ‘people, wildlife and environment in close, interdependent and mutually respectful associations’. Indeed, she goes so far as to suggest that the mixed habitats and low impact management of crofts can offer an example of hope. She sees and pulls out the threads of connection to a landscape that are older than crofting, older than human settlements even, and that form the foundations to a way of life entwined with the elements.
When I walk our own croft, so similar in many ways to Annie’s, with birch and oak woodland, fields of orchids, and slopes of heather and bog myrtle, I often find a small smile has grown on my face. It appears of its own volition in an unconscious response to the living environment around me. Annie’s words have the same effect. As I walk through the pages of Windswept with her, as the Earth tilts from the Summer Solstice towards the Autumn Equinox, under a Herb moon, when all the years of looking, listening, and living on the croft bring Worsley to an understanding of how her life is woven into landscape, I become aware of that same small smile.
‘Windswept’ is out now and available here (£16.14).
Kirsteen Bell lives and writes on a croft in Lochaber. She can also be found at Moniack Mhor, Scotland’s Creative Writing Centre, where she is Projects Manager and Highland Book Prize Co-ordinator. Follow her on Instagram and Twitter.