Posts Tagged ‘Scotland’

The Living Mountain

January 7, 2013

Happy New Year! I saw in 2013 up in Scotland, where two dear friends were getting married on New Year’s Eve itself – great cause for a magnificent double celebration.

Scotland is a very special place. I feel like I will never get enough of it. Not only is it the home of jawdropping landscape and all my favourite foods – raspberries, smoked salmon, porridge, whisky – but it is also home to many wonderful books. On recent trips to Scotland, I’ve read Lewis Grassic Gibbon’s coming-of-age classic Sunset Song – which, incidentally, also features a wedding on New Year’s Eve – and Gavin Maxwell’s beautiful Ring of Bright Water. This time, knowing I was going to be surrounded by friends and mostly drinking and dancing for the few days, I took a slim book as my companion, most of which was read on the train journey home.

The Living Mountain by Nan ShepherdI came across Nan Shepherd’s The Living Mountain in Robert Macfarlane’s The Old Ways. Macfarlane evidently loves this book, as, in addition to writing about it at length, he found one of his epitaphs in it: ‘My eyes were in my feet’. Happily, in this Canongate Canons edition of The Living Mountain, Shepherd’s masterpiece is preceded by a mighty Macfarlane introduction.

The Living Mountain is Nan Shepherd’s tale of her ‘traffic of love’ with the Cairngorm mountains. Today’s traffic – the scourge of cities, motorways, modern-day life – seems like it must be a million miles away from the Cairngorms; indeed it is to escape this traffic that one goes walking in the mountains. But Shepherd means traffic in the sense of movement not congestion, as exchange – this book is what she has learned from the mountain, what she has experienced through years of climbing, walking, foraging, sleeping on it:

Something moves between me and it … I cannot tell what this movement is except by recounting it.

Looking at the etymological root of ‘traffic’, etymonline (a wonderful and fascinating website, by the way) states it could be from the Vulgar Latin word transfricare, meaning ‘to rub across’, with the original sense of the Italian verb being ‘touch repeatedly, handle’. I love this etymological resonance of ‘traffic’ as it hints at the sensuality of Shepherd’s book. There is a huge amount of touching in The Living Mountain, as though she spends the hundred pages of it literally rubbing herself across the mountain. There is for sure an eroticism in this book full of bodily sensations, a thrill at the touch of things:

After rain I run my hand through juniper or birches for the joy of the wet drops trickling over the palm, or walk through long heather to feel its wetness on my naked legs.

Nan Shepherd’s prose is stunning – clear as a mountain stream, deep as a loch. Macfarlane describes it as ‘precision as lyricism’, which is spot on. There are no wafty, vague, romantic sweeps across the landscape, instead she pays attention to minutiae – names of flora, specific encounters with animals. Somehow in Shepherd’s hands a list of flowers becomes a spell of poetry:

birdsfoot trefoil, tormentil, blaeberry, the tiny genista, alpine lady’s mantle

Who knows what on earth these queerly named alpine plants look like? It is as though she is conjuring a magical kingdom, some kind of Narnia, but in very precise scientific terms. And indeed, as she points out:

The more one learns of this intricate interplay of soil, altitude, weather, and the living tissues of plant and insect … the more the mystery deepens. Knowledge does not dispel mystery. Scientists tell me that the alpine flora of the Scottish mountains is Arctic in origin – that these small scattered plants have outlived the Glacial period and are the only vegetable life in our country that is older than the Ice Age. But that doesn’t explain them. It only adds time to the equation and gives it a new dimension … It means that these toughs of the mountain top, with their angelic inflorescence and the devil in their roots have had the cunning and the effrontery to cheat, not only a winter, but an Ice Age. The scientists have the humility to acknowledge that they don’t know how it has been done.

It is astonishing to think that these mountain flowers, with their peculiar names, have been alive since before the Ice Age. Even Shepherd admits that her ‘imagination boggles’ at this. Boggling or not, she treats this fact with her idiosyncratic intelligence: ‘Knowledge does not dispel mystery.’ This should be every scientist’s motto! Even from my amateur scientific experience of Biology and Chemistry A-Levels, I could see that the more you learn about the nature of things, the more there is to discover, and the further you feel from getting the bottom of it. Moreover, I found science to be riddled with a sense of a mysterious beauty underlying everything. The double helix of DNA, for instance, is an astonishing, mysterious beautiful thing literally at the heart of our existence. So much work and knowledge went into discovering this structure, yet never dispelled its mystery.

Shepherd says that the knowledge of something ‘gives it a new dimension’. This is an idea that she comes back to again and again on the mountain – new dimensions, new ways of seeing:

A scatter of white flowers in grass, looked at through half-closed eyes blaze out with a sharp clarity as though they had actually risen up out of their background. Such illusions, depending on how the eye is placed and used, drive home the truth that our habitual vision of things is not necessarily right: it is only one of an infinite number, and to glimpse an unfamiliar one, even for a moment, unmakes us, but steadies us again. It’s queer but invigorating.

This idea of looking at things with ‘half-closed eyes’ reminds me of Hermia’s line in A Midsummer Night’s Dream:

Methinks I see things with parted eye

When every thing seems double.

For Hermia, it is  as though she is awakening from a dream, and so there is a feeling of being bleary-eyed and half-asleep, but there is also a sense of other-worldliness. ‘Every thing seems double’, as though there is another version in another world, which you can only see with this eerie ‘parted eye’. This is not so far from Shepherd’s ‘half-closed eyes’ seeing illusions that suggest ‘our habitual vision of things … is only one of an infinite number’. Here in the thin air of the mountain, perhaps she is on the edge of another world – if not of fairies, then certainly of magic.

The Living Mountain shines and pulses with the magic behind life. If ever there was a book to show you how feeble and limited our ‘habitual vision of things’ is, this is it. Shepherd has an astonishing way of pointing things out and distorting your vision, pulling things around, leaping from peering at the track of a hare to staring over a vertiginous drop. It is indeed an ‘unfamiliar’ vision of things, ‘queer but invigorating’.

How I long to go to the Cairngorms and see this landscape for myself – I wonder if it will be anything like as magical as the landscape conjured by Shepherd’s prose.

For now, however, my memory has been imprinted with the stunning neverending flatness of the vast West Sands beach by St Andrews, where we walked after the wedding, the new year stretching ahead of us.

West Sands beach at St Andrews


Sunset Song

August 13, 2012

There was no post last week because I was up in the wilds of Ardnamurchan, staying somewhere so beautiful and remote that there was no electricity, let alone an internet connection.

I have often mentioned my predilection for reading books that match the setting. This wee trip to Scotland was a welcome opportunity to revisit the pile of Scottish books I bought when we went to Harris last year, and I got too caught up with Gavin Maxwell’s wonderful Ring of Bright Water to read any of the rest of them.This time, I picked Sunset Song by Lewis Grassic Gibbon. And so I embarked upon one of the most enjoyable reading experiences of my life.

Every day, in the late morning – once we’d blearily risen and tidied the mess from the previous night’s drunken antics, which in a caravan swiftly becomes mountainous – I poured a mug of coffee and climbed up on to the rocks where I sat and read, the breeze snatching my hair, alone apart from the occasional gull and eagle. Every very few pages I looked up and saw Arnamurchan lighthouse, marking the most Westerly point on the British mainland, poised over a sandy white beach, on which the boys were usually playing Frisbee or beach golf.

In the other direction, loomed the Lord-of-the-Rings-like islands Eigg, Muck and Rhum, and – if it was really clear – there was a glimpse of the Outer Hebrides too. What a view! (The artfully placed book marks the very spot where I sat.)


Admittedly, Sunset Song is set in a different bit of Scotland – in the fictional Kinraddie, just inland from Aberdeen. And when Gibbon writes so lovingly of the land there, he is writing about the hills, not the sea. But still, I felt I was breathing the same fresh Scottish air, experiencing the same feel of the landscape – far more dramatic than anything England’s got to offer.

Sunset Song is about Kinraddie and its community. It was written in the 1930s and – aside from a whistle-stop, bonkers, Danny Boyleish historical tour in the Prelude – set in the few years preceding the First World War. These years, although harsh and tough, are portrayed as something of a golden age before war comes and wreaks destruction on the community. The story centres on Chris Guthrie, who we meet when she’s just sixteen, torn between pursuing an intellectual life of studying English books or a more visceral appreciation of the Scottish land:

Oh, Chris, my lass, there are better things than your books or studies or loving or bedding, there’s the countryside your own, you its, in the days when you’re neither bairn nor woman.

That tight inversion ‘your own, you its’ reveals just how close Chris’s connection is with the land, as indeed is everyone’s who works their croft in this community. It reminds me of John Donne’s line in ‘The Good Morrow’, ‘my face in thine eye, thine in mine appears’ and perhaps this mingling of people and land is not unlike that of lovers, without wanting to get too D.H. Lawrence about it.

This division between books and the land is echoed in other divisions portrayed in the book – brain and body, town and country, but most fundamentally, English and Scottish. And this is felt most keenly in the language:

Every damned little narrow-dowped rat that you met put on the English if he thought he’d impress you – as though Scotch wasn’t good enough now, it had words in it that the thin bit scraichs of the English could never come at. And Rob said You can tell me, man, what’s the English for sotter, or greip, or smore, or pleiter, gloaming or glunching or well-kenspeckled? And if you said gloaming was sunset you’d fair be a liar…

I think my favourite of these words has got to be ‘glunching’, which Gibbon thoughtfully translates in the much-needed glossary at the back of the book to mean ‘to mutter half-threateningly, half-fearfully’. I now fully intend to glunch at people.

Perhaps a nation’s roots are felt most keenly through its language. This would explain why we spend so much time tirelessly chatting with Americans to point out the differences between ‘lift’ and ‘elevator’, ‘pavement’ and ‘sidewalk’, ‘petrol’ and ‘gas’. Difference is more identifying than sameness and it is usually with a feeling of pride that people cling to these points of variation, especially if they are the underdog, the smaller, less powerful party. Small wonder then that the Scottish crofters in the book feel so protective over their language. Keep on glunching at those posh English chaps who rule over you and are going to make you fight to your deaths in Belgium, say I! English is seen as a snobby thing, as a way of raising yourself up above the commoners, and, moreover, it is seen as false. For as Chris comes to realise:

The English words so sharp and clean and true – for a while, for a while, till they slid so smooth from your throat you knew they could never say anything that was worth the saying at all.

Of course I disagree. But I expect that if I lived in this marvellous rugged countryside, with a language born to express it, I’d also feel that English words never said much that was worth saying.

Gibbon himself evidently felt this tug in opposing directions, one Scottish, one English. In her introduction, Ali Smith tells how he was born in the Scottish parish of Arbuthnott – on which Kinraddie was based – but then moved in later life to English suburban Welwyn Garden City. For the more Scottish of his books he used the pen name ‘Lewis Grassic Gibbon’, adapted from his maternal grandmother’s name, but his English books were written with his English name James Leslie Mitchell.

As you might have gathered from the various quotations, while Sunset Song is written in English, it is an English fused, idiosyncratically, with bits of Scots. Words like ‘meikle’, ‘bit’ and ‘quean’ (to mean respectively ‘great’, ‘something vaguely derogatory’ and ‘girl’) are used so often that they are part of the rhythm of the language, punctuating it so frequently that you take on the inflections in your head. Thankfully, I refrained from talking like this to my friends, but it was certainly an easy lilt to pick up and one that resounded in my head while I sat there on the rocks looking out at the islands.

Sunset Song revels in this unique synthesis of language. It is English enough for an Englishwoman, like me, to read, yet it is undeniably Scottish. You need the glossary, but you don’t resent looking the words up, and before long you can feel the sense of the words without having to check them every few minutes. The result is a prose that really sings and dances off the page, not unlike the Ceilidh that takes place during one of the happiest moments of the book.

It is a marvellous book – but it is for sure a book, and Gibbon takes care in Sunset Song to associate books with Englishness, as opposed to Scottishness. Is Sunset Song then a claiming of literature for Scottishness, an appropriating of this English medium into something Scottish? It has been heralded as ‘the first really Scottish novel’ and the language certainly makes an English reader think in Scots – albeit a doctored version of it. Or is it a conquering of Scottishness by English, an act of colonisation, of capturing the Scottish land within a book? It is words that describe the landscape and many of them are English ones. Most importantly it is called ‘Sunset Song’, not, as Rob would have it in the quotation above, ‘Gloaming Song’. It is a troubling paradox indeed.

As well as reading, we did a little walking up in Ardnamurchan. We climbed to the top of a nearby mountain, sat there and watched two eagles soar through the valley, while someone in the distance struck up a tune on the bagpipes. It was too perfect for words. Then we clambered down, scrabbling through the gorse and the heather. I am particularly bad at those kind of scrambles and feared that the Scottish land might take revenge on my clumsy English feet (clad in rather smart new walking boots), but somehow I got to the bottom unscathed. Not so our Spanish friend who fell off the side of the rockface and tumbled half-way to the bottom of the mountain, the offending loose piece of rock bouncing alarming after him. By a miracle he survived, but perhaps the Scottish land was indeed protesting. Fine, it said, you English scum can trample the heather, but a Spaniard too? Not likely. If nothing else, it certainly made our Spanish friend start glunching.

The Reading-Gassing Challenge

November 21, 2011

I spent rather an uncharacteristic weekend up in Scotland, shooting.

Well, admittedly, I didn’t actually do any actual shooting. That was left to the men, while we women either hovered nearby, covering our ears and watching them miss the startled pheasants, or did things like cook and sit around chatting. My friend and I were set our own little challenge of being sent home to fetch thermoses of sausages and Bullshot for elevenses. We managed to fail abysmally and abandoned the hire care in a field, only to be laughed at for being too London to understand how to open a gate and then discovering that we’d manage to cause a traffic jam for a rather unimpressed shepherd.

The other main challenge of the weekend was achieving the perfect reading-gassing balance. One of my favourite things about weekends away in lovely houses with drawing rooms and fireplaces is the inevitably large proportion of time spent semi-supine on a sofa, drinking tea or booze and gassing away. It is such fun. I can’t think of a better way of getting to know people, or a better way of whiling away an afternoon.

Yet, in such circumstances, I often get a little nagging pulse in my head telling me that I should be doing something useful. Sometimes this can be mollified by making another pot of tea, or fetching a packet of biscuits. But sometimes I feel a bit like time is slipping through my fingers and I should be spending it writing, or, failing that, at least reading something.

So, for me, the only thing better than sitting around and gassing, is sitting around and gassing while reading. This, as you might imagine, can pose various problems. Some books are too engrossing, so it really is impossible to read them, whilst even occasionally engaging in conversation. It’s just too rude to sit there in the midst of a lively conversation with ears closed off, thoroughly ensconced in one’s own private book world. Besides, it makes one feel as though one’s missing out. There’s nothing worse than being startled out of a paragraph by hearing gales of laughter and not being able to discover what’s so funny.

Conversely, if a book doesn’t hold one’s attention quite firmly enough, then it’s hard to read any of it while conversation is going on, as one’s mind is too liable to graft onto the latter. Rereading a book can be a good option. Or else, a book with short chapters or several section breaks, so that you can slip back into the conversation every page or two.

I had a brief flick though Nancy Mitford’s Highland Fling, which in many ways would have been the ideal thing to read. All about shooting in Scotland, I could move between the book and the conversation almost seamlessly. I more than empathised with the bit when the girl gets told off for wearing black. ‘Whoever heard of black on a hill?’ she’s asked, more or less. Well certainly one isn’t supposed to wear yellow on a hill. For the first time ever, I was rather ashamed of my bright yellow wellies, which I rather feebly tried to pass off as camouflaging with a patch of gorse. (Luckily everyone was too polite to be all that mean about them.)

Yet I wasn’t really in the mood for Nancy Mitford. Perhaps I’d had old-school overload with the blissful Mariana – see my last post, here. In any case, I ended up reading a very new book, made up of conversation-dipping-friendly short sections, by a bright young thing of today.

Landfall by Helen Gordon follows Alice, a thirty-four-year-old art critic, who abandons her painfully trendy life in Shoreditch and moves back to her childhood home in the suburbs. It’s a very good book, but I have to say, the opening section in painfully trendy Shoreditch was nothing much other than quite painful. There were a lot of clichéd lines about silly haircuts and living in cold warehouse units and ending up accidentally in bed with artistic wastrels after drinking too much. Nothing new there. I’d rather watch an episode of the – genius – Nathan Barley.

But once Alice gets back to the suburbs, the book becomes quite brilliant. And luckily I’d already got through the Shoreditch bit on the way up to Scotland, so by the time I undertook the reading-gassing challenge, my attention was sufficiently grasped.

At the heart of the novel is a feeling of entropy. Here is a successful young woman, with opportunities offered to her on a plate, who chooses to walk away from everything. She feels like she has nothing left to say, ‘as if her imagination had emptied itself out’. Alice lets her life unravel. She withdraws, cuts her ties, watches herself become increasingly introverted, a recluse. She abandons her friends, her career, her appearance, and watches everything spiral undone.

It’s not long before the trauma at the heart of Alice’s desire to withdraw becomes clear. Seventeen years ago, her sister Janey disappeared. Disappearance is central to the book. As Janey’s haunting voice in Alice’s head says, ‘Everyone has a right to be lost.’ Janey’s disappearance is refracted in other examples scattered throughout the book. Danny, the strange boy next door, nearly drowned as a child. He has no friends, no school, and no job, drifting around silently, almost invisible, almost disappeared from society. A Scandinavian artist, who Alice eventually agrees to write a book about, has become a ‘seaside recluse’, having stopped making art and disappearing from the art world’s consciousness so successfully that Alice’s friend thinks she is dead.

Key to all this disappearance is the idea of the edge. Alice retreats from the false edginess of Shoreditch to the real, geographical edge of the suburbs – ‘the edges of the A–Z’. I expect you’ve noticed the edge on the cover image above. Alice is told, when she leans over the parapet of a multi-storey carpark:

‘You’re making me nervous … Come back from the edge now.’

What happens over the edge? Can someone really step off the edge and disappear? How can someone disappear in today’s densely-populated England of CCTV and mobile phones? This is a book about vertigo. About peering over the edge, feeling dizzy, and letting go.

I suppose there shouldn’t really have been any similarity between this cool young novel about moving from Shoreditch to the suburbs and a rather old-fashioned weekend of shooting in Scotland. But in some ways going up to Scotland, to a remote place with no internet or mobile network was a way of disappearing. Certainly, climbing up big hills, looking down on vast beautiful glens and seeing nothing but reddy-brown space stretching for miles, felt like being on the very edge of the world. So the two ended up striking rather an eerie chime. Landfall is a great book, thoughtfully written and thought-provoking. Best of all, it let me complete the reading-gassing challenge with great success.

A yellow flag of freedom

July 4, 2011

It was raining on our first morning on the Hebridean island of Harris. On that same morning – and on each of the following – we ate the most enormous cooked breakfast, which meant that, in spite of the weather, we really had to go for a long walk.

So off we set, to a nearby mountain, where we were told there was a pretty walk which went past a broch (an iron-age structure) and which might be slightly sheltered from the rain.

It was definitely not even a tiny bit sheltered from the rain, or the wind, both of which grew stronger as the walk progressed. We’d just passed the broch when the weather became truly determined and began to drench us in strong gusts, which felt like standing too close to a dog vigorously shaking itself dry.

The fiancé decided that rather than turning back at this point – an hour or so into the walk – we should continue and walk around the entire mountain. ‘We’ve just got to get to there,’ he pointed vaguely into the clouded distance, ‘and then we’ll be able to cross over to the other side.’ This was said in a way that implied years of traversing the land.

We were standing ankle-deep in peat bog, climbing a steep slope, with only sheep for company. My toes were being given a cool bath inside my trainers. I had to go along with the fiancé, or risk betraying my feeble city-born roots, which make me severely anxious when climbing up peaty mountains in pouring rain, with clouds descending, and no sign of a path.

We continued in this fashion – him striding ahead, periodically stopping to wait for me, who was, rather pathetically, lagging behind. After another half hour, during which the weather only worsened, the terrain only grew steeper, and the mountain seemed to go on getting wider and wider, so that it seemed we’d never reach a point at which we could cross to the other side, I stamped my foot and insisted that we turn back.

The fiancé, fittingly sheepish, agreed, and back we went. By this point, my toes no longer felt happily bathed, but rather squelchy and wrinkly; my Barbour, I’d discovered, needed re-waxing as it was certainly not waterproof enough for the Scottish rain, and everything in the pockets – tissues, wallets, phones – was soaked through. I was mildly worried about getting an electric shock from my waterlogged Blackberry. I was more worried about the fiancé twisting an ankle and my somehow having to transport him back down the mountain. Knowing that I would definitely not be able to carry him, that no-one would be stupid enough to come on this walk in the rain, which was now torrential, I began to weigh up the likelihood of my being able to catch a sheep and use it as a mule. Unlikely, I’d just decided, when the fiancé said, ‘Ems, look at that!’

And there was an enormous bird of prey soaring through the air. It circled around us and then swooped down, landing on the mountain. It was incredible. We wondered if it were an eagle, but when we later told people the story, we were told that if one is in any doubt as to whether or not it is an eagle, then it almost certainly isn’t. Eagles are so big, you see – wingspans of two metres – that you would definitely know one if you saw one. But when we went on a (sunnier) walk a few days later, with an eagle expert, who pointed out eagles souring high overhead, the pattern of their flight looked so similar to that of the bird we saw in the rain that we began to think that our unusually close sighting really must have been of an eagle.

I think the fiancé was trying to cheer me up, or perhaps he was feeling rather apologetic for his miscalculation of the length of the walk. In any case, he kept on pointing things out. ‘Look at all those yellow flowers,’ he said.

‘Oh wow,’ I said, looking at the swathes of yellow flowers, their petals drooping open and the rain splashing off, while their leaves poked up sharply, almost like swords. ‘They’re yellow flag irises.’

And that moment was almost more special than seeing the eagle.

You see, while in Harris, I was reading Gavin Maxwell’s nature-writing classic Ring of Bright Water, in which he recounts his life in the remote Scottish highlands, looking after pet otters. It is rather an eccentric book and, at times, a very funny one too. But what he really excels at is describing his home, which he calls ‘Camusfeàrna’, the Bay of the Alders. In his preface he says that his invention of a name is ‘from no desire to create mystery’. He explains:

The name is of little consequence, for such bays and houses, empty and long disused, are scattered throughout the wild sea lochs of the Western Highlands and the Hebrides, and in the description of one the reader may perhaps find the likeness of others of which he has himself been fond, for these places are symbols. Symbols, for me and for many, of freedom.

I was of course aware that his poetic rendering of the landscape was akin to what I would see on Harris. Even the cover of the book looks remarkably similar to the breathtaking view from the beach by the hotel. But this flower, this patch of yellow amidst the rain-soaked bog of green grass and purplish heather, was immediately recognisable as something I’d read about the previous evening:

The leaves of the yellow flag iris that margin the burn and the shore form a forest of broad bayonets

These sharp leaves were indeed like ‘broad bayonets’ and the wide yellow petals formed the familiar shape of the purple iris. I found that I knew exactly what this flower was.

Reading Ring of Bright Water while staying in a place so similar to the one described was truly extraordinary. Sadly I didn’t see an otter – certainly not a tame pet one like those that Gavin Maxwell kept – but I did see seals, dolphins, eagles, ravens, gulls and gannets. And I saw the ‘bright water’ of the title – the way the sea gleamed silver even in the rain, due to the almost unearthly whiteish glare of such northern light.

I’m pleased to say that that was the worst of the weather, and future walks weren’t nearly as gruelling. Not even the one for which we walked through two miles of soaking peat bog before climbing up into a strange crater of a mountain. (The fiancé’s idea, once again.) I loved my stay in Harris, and am already longing to return. It was easy to see how Maxwell’s life amongst nature in a similarly isolated spot was in many ways a kind of paradise.

In any case, once I’d identified those yellow flag irises, and realised that, in spite of the horrid rain, we were actually in the magical place described so well in the book I was reading, the rest of the walk didn’t seem bad at all.