Book Review: ‘Love of Country: A Hebridean Journey’ by Madeleine Bunting

‘’Many people travel in search of the exotic and the unfamiliar. I was travelling in search of home, in the hope of knowing and understanding where I could call home.’’

Love of Country tells the story of several journeys made by Madeleine Bunting to the islands off the west coast of Scotland, known as the Hebrides. This is a landscape dominated by sea, wind and ancient rock, which has a lamenting history battered by a rolling narrative of land rights, conflict, language and the intrigue of outsiders. It is a place where ‘conventional’ modernity is approached with scepticism and close community held in high regard. From the Holy Isle south east of Arran to Iona, Staffa, Eigg, Rum, Lewis, St Kilda and other islands dotted about this Atlantic archipelago Bunting throws herself wholeheartedly into discovering the nuances of this place, reflecting on the work and experiences of those who have come before her and working to understand the grave complexities (but also frank simplicities) behind the cultural, social and historic framework of the Hebrides.

Bunting is highly perceptive and skilful in recognising the nuanced realities of identifying with place in this book, despite being an ‘outsider’, born in Yorkshire and living in the London metropolis. Inspired by family holidays to the Hebrides as a child Bunting fostered a longing to understand the north west and in the first chapter she outlines, explicitly, her own British heritage, being ‘one quarter Jewish, one quarter Irish, one quarter Scottish and one quarter English’. However, this is not a modern reworking of Samuel Johnson’s A Journey to the Western Islands of Scotland (1775) but a much broader reflection on identity, cultural appropriation, sense of place, natural history and landscape, told through the narrative of history and the context of place. Some might say that we Brits are obsessed with identity and often pretend to belong to something that is perhaps slightly ‘other’ than ourselves. We search for belonging by reaching out to others and hoping for acceptance, at least in the short term. However, so often it is easier to assess the identities of others than that of our own. The challenge is to discover ourselves.

Thoroughly researched and written over the course of six years, Love of Country ties together travel, personal experience and the study of the history and culture of the Hebrides to generate a work that, quite frankly, moves the soul, and encourages reflection on our own sense of place, as well as, let’s be frank, a longing to travel to the west of Scotland. For me, this is probably to escape the ‘crowded’ nature of my own home, Essex, which is suffocating under the weight of overcrowding. I long to experience something that extracts me from this, and the idea of the Hebrides satisfies this longing in my mind. However, this is to do it a disservice. In doing so I impose a view on it without having barely dipped my toes in the water. I’ve only ever visited Mull, and only on one occasion so far. What is more, Bunting’s book does not approach the Hebrides in this way. Hers is not a journey of escapism but of intrigue and her intention is to see it holistically and from the eyes of others as well as her own.

Numerous travellers have headed to the Hebrides over the centuries in search of escape or the sublime. Bunting speaks of weaving in her closing sentences, and tangibly in the form of her extracts about Harris tweed, but for sure she has effectively woven together numerous works of research and literary content that have reflected on this place over time. She links together a number of excellent stories, showing the complexity of place in these islands and the metaphorical place that they have held in the minds of artists, poets and writers. They have also posed ‘a civilising challenge’ in the minds of Victorian industrialists, philanthropists and missionaries, such as Lord William Leverhulme.

Bunting reflects on a host of different issues, from renewable energy to the appropriation of Gaelic culture and this gives the book an intriguing edge to it, informative as well as enjoyable to read. An understanding of what it means to be Gaelic is a central trope, linking community and belonging with sense and spirit of place. The Gaelic language is particularly important in this, and she allows readers to access a world that would otherwise be completely inaccessible. For one thing, she encourages us to recognise that the Gaelic tongue is bound to a way of life and culture that is entirely foreign to the modern world view, whether that is from the perspective of someone in London, Edinburgh, or elsewhere. Indeed, Edinburgh and Glasgow are just as foreign to the Hebridean outlook as the south of England.

When the English language no longer suits Bunting’s purpose she turns to the Gaelic:

‘’There is a Gaelic word, cianalas, and it means a deep sense of homesickness and melancholy, I was told. The language of Gaelic offers insight into a pre-industrial world view, suggested Malkie [Malcolm Maclean, a crofter living on Lewis, with a passion for Gaelic who grew up in Glasgow but with parents from Lewis], a window into another culture lost in the rest of Britain.’’

Love of Country is very readable and at times it is difficult not to end up with a lump in the throat, as the history of this part of the British Isles is released and appraised in honest terms, from the clearances to the impact of tourism and religious differences. For those without much experience of the Western Isles, myself included, the book is a good introduction to its geography, history and culture which would aid any future visit. It is difficult for Love of Country to not have an air of melancholy to it, given the history of the place it speaks of, but there is also one of acceptance that ‘it is what it is’; it isn’t necessarily good or bad. This is a place that has kept its sense of difference from the British civilising project and global modernising project. Marginal communities, whilst they face their struggles, continue in their various ways on this north western borderland between Europe and the Atlantic.

It is perhaps inevitable that amidst the history, politics, nature and trauma, a sense of wonder prevails, aided by Bunting’s excellent writing ability. This book encourages a sense of reflection, not only on our own sense of place and identity, especially if we are British, Scottish or an islander elsewhere, but on the sense of geography of the British Isles themselves, where we have been and where we are heading. My only key criticism lies with her concluding section. She doesn’t seem to draw things together neatly at the end, at least not as I had been hoping for or expecting, given her skills proven elsewhere in the book.

As a book which is fundamentally about landscape and culture Love of Country is successful because it dips in and out of history, politics, religion and geography, as well as natural history, and told with a carefully constructed narrative, fostering an emotional response and a drive to understand sense of place more deeply. It is a moving exploration of landscape, embedded within the special geography of these western isles, and it thoroughly deserves the praise that it has received.

 

Love of Country: A Hebridean Journey was first published by Granta Books in 2016. A paperback edition was published in 2017.

 

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