Adam Nicolson, the Shiant Isles and the crisis in seabird populations

Adam Nicolson, the Shiant Isles and the crisis in seabird populations

Recently, I watched a pair of films on BBC Four presented by Adam Nicolson. In The Last Seabird Summer? he took us to the Shiant islands in the Outer Hebrides, given to him on his 21st birthday by his father, which he said ‘have been the most important thing in my life’. Every spring sees the phenomenal spectacle of a sky thick with tens of thousands of puffins, guillemots and razorbills as they arrive on the Shiants from far out in the North Atlantic to breed.

But there’s a crisis that threatens to end this remarkable show: although the numbers on the Shiants are holding up, in the last fifteen years in Scotland alone, 40 per cent of the seabird population has been lost. In The Last Seabird Summer? Nicolson explored the reasons why this is happening, and how in places like the Shiants there has been long history of dependence on seabirds: thousands of years of collecting eggs and hunting the birds for meat, oil and feathers.

Watching the programmes, I was reminded that for some time there had been a copy of Adam Nicolson’s book Sea Room in the house, in which he told the story of how he inherited the Shiants from his father, his love for these lonely, uninhabited islands, and his exploration of their geology and history, and of the lives of the people who once lived and made their living on these remote islands. I decided to read Sea Room. Continue reading “Adam Nicolson, the Shiant Isles and the crisis in seabird populations”

Sundown on the Union?

Sundown on the Union?

Scottish sunrise

Sunrise in Scotland this morning

Will we all wake up in a new country tomorrow morning? Whichever way the Scots vote today, it looks like we could be in for interesting times. So, some very brief thoughts.

If I were resident north of the border, I think I might have voted Yes.  This is an extrapolation from how I feel living in a northern city forced by a London government few people here voted for to make savage and soon to be unsustainable cuts to public services. And I how I feel about a political elite more concerned to bail out the banks for their grievous errors; one dedicated to cutting taxes paid by the rich rather than funding investment in the nation’s health, education and well-being.

Writing in yesterday’s Guardian Linda Colley, though she didn’t name him, drew upon the sort of analysis which Tom Nairn, the Scottish political theorist, has been making since his The Break-Up of Britain in 1977 – namely, that forces of civic (rather than ethnic) nationalism would be awakened by the tightening grip of global capitalism on national economies, governments and party political programmes.  Colley wrote:

The fiercer, more uncompromising, often utopian nationalism that now grips some Scots possesses echoes in other parts of the world. In part this is because the relentless advance of globalisation has fostered a desire in many countries for a more distinctive and reassuring local identity. This trend is particularly marked in Europe because it contains so many ancient, culturally distinctive groupings – like the Catalans in Spain – who do not possess a state of their own, and want to have one.

It’s this aspect of the Scottish campaign that I strongly identify with: if there was a referendum here in Liverpool tomorrow on whether the city – or a city-region perhaps encompassing Manchester as well – should have more power over local services, and more freedom to raise taxes to fund those services, I would unhesitatingly vote Yes.

(However, I was given pause for thought by Polly Toynbee’s argument that ‘localism is no panacea’ for deprived regions in yesterday’s Guardian:

At first sight, how attractive it looks for each locality to raise tax and spend its share of national income as best suits local circumstance. Localism sounds comforting. It is indeed high time to give back powers Margaret Thatcher stripped out and replace the millions of council homes she sold. Labour would give local health and wellbeing boards some NHS powers. Schools and further education should be returned too. Borrowing to build, councils should sell bonds.

But alarm bells ring when groupthink grips all parties. For social democrats there are as many dangers as opportunities. Unlike more equal federal countries, England is so grotesquely unequal in geography and class that London and the south-east make all the money, the rest take it. Redistribution from the south must limit the scope for local tax-raising. The north-east, Cornwall or West Midlands may feel angrily alienated from Cameron’s government, but they can’t break away.)

Nevertheless, it seems that Scots voting No today might really mean Yes: yes to ‘Devo-Max’, more devolved powers to Scotland (and perhaps, if Tory backbenchers and UKIP don’t put their oar in, to Wales, Northern Ireland and the English regions, too).  In one sense, it’s becoming clear that the result doesn’t matter: the Scots are going to want to exercise more power at their level whatever the outcome.  As Neal Ascherson wrote some 14 years ago in the London Review of Books (reviewing a book by Tom Nairn):

The Scottish public are not much interested in distinctions between supposedly incompatible variants of self-rule like devolution, independence, quasi-federalism and so on. What they want is to run their own affairs, never mind what the arrangement is called.

I think the Welsh, Liverpudlians, Mancunians, Geordies and the Cornish would like to run their own affairs as well – and sod the banks, global corporations, the London government – and, sadly, probably the European Union, too. Fundamentally the issue is democracy.

As Billy Bragg thoughtfully argued in another Guardian piece this week:

In the post-independence debate about how the remaining parts of the UK are governed, the elephant in the room will be devolution for England. Regional assemblies elected under a proportional system with Holyrood-style powers would offer us the opportunity to address the inequalities that have opened up between London and the rest of the country.

Support for Scottish self-determination might not fit neatly into any leftwing pigeon hole, but it does chime with an older progressive tradition that runs deep in English history – a dogged determination to hold the over-mighty to account. If, during the constitutional settlement that will follow the referendum, we in England can rediscover our Roundhead tradition, we might yet counter our historic weakness for ethnic nationalism with an outpouring of civic engagement that creates a fairer society for all.

We’ll see…

polling station

It’s democracy, stupid


A clear vote for No – yet 45% of Scots, including majorities in the cities of Glasgow and Dundee, voted to leave the Union.  The turnout was an astonishing 84.6%.

So where now?  Curiously, the rejection of independence for Scotland seems to have led to a clamour from Tory backbenchers and UKIP for English independence – to which Cameron’s opportunistic response has been to open up the question of whether Scottish MPs should be allowed to vote on ‘English’ matters in the Westminster Parliament.  Since such matters include health, education, human rights and social care this smells to high heaven of crude party manoeuvring and threatens a situation where, even with a Labour government, the Tories could out-vote policies in those crucial areas.  (See Helena Kennedy, Constitutional reform: English votes for English laws cuts two ways).  So, in England at least, we appear to be exactly where some feared we’d be if the Scots voted to leave us.

And Scotland? In today’s Observer, Neal Ascherson writes:

Even SNP figures say independence won’t return to the agenda for a generation. This is unlikely to be true. Scotland is being carried along on a process of steady institutional, political and social divergence from the rest of the UK, which will continue.

The case for full self-government will make increasing sense in the next few years. The latest hasty suggestions for increasing the powers of the Scottish parliament are little more than a rehash of existing proposals judged some years ago to be hopelessly behind the curve. Anyway, Mr Cameron now proposes to embed them in a vaster constitutional reform for all Britain. This is unlikely to get anywhere serious, and would take many years if it did. If the Westminster system has one real expertise, it is for gently enfolding radical ideas, like a jellyfish with its prey, and dissolving them to transparent mush.

In the past three days, Scots have looked at one another and asked: “What do we do with all that joyful commitment, with the biggest surge of creative democratic energy that Scotland has ever seen?” For many, perhaps thousands of people, it has been the most important public experience in their lives. Must it go to waste?

Nearly one in two Scots, it seems, consider the United Kingdom as broken. Now that they must remain in it, some of their energy for change can go into fresh reforms through the devolved Scottish parliament – for example, giving back power to the people through a grant of real responsibility to local communities.

Best of all, they should not break their hearts because they failed to bring their country into the world of free and sovereign nations. This referendum year leaves Scotland a transformed, empowered society. The men and women of yes should live and work as if they already belonged to an independent country. And perhaps, in a sense, that is what Scotland has now become.

A society transformed and empowered ? Now that would be something to be.

Glen Sannox: landscape, nature and industry

Glen Sannox: landscape, nature and industry

Something about Arran that I don’t quite understand is how it is possible, with no great effort, to walk from sea level into the mountains.  One example is the trail that follows Sannox Burn from the golden sweep of sandy Sannox Bay along the gently rising path to the head of Glen Sannox,  where spectacular mountain peaks tower over the head of the Glen. Continue reading “Glen Sannox: landscape, nature and industry”

Coire Fhionn Lochan: ‘mountain line and shoreline’

Coire Fhionn Lochan: ‘mountain line and shoreline’

It’s not a long or particularly difficult walk up from the delightfully-named hamlet of Thundergay up to Coire Fhionn Lochan, the lake like a teardrop that nestles in a bowl hollowed out by glacial ice in the mountains a thousand feet above.  But we did it on one of the last days of the long, cold spring of 2013; it may have been mid-June, but the wind battered us that day, making the going an effort, and the temperature did not speak of midsummer.

Nevertheless it was an exhilarating walk.  We parked the car opposite the access road to the tiny settlement of Thundergay where the main road round the isle of Arran hugs Kilbrannan Sound.  On the shore a pair of swans were fiercely protective of their brood of cygnets. Continue reading “Coire Fhionn Lochan: ‘mountain line and shoreline’”

Back on Kildonan shore

Back on Kildonan shore

on a clear day
unfasten the gate
and take the path
over the machair
through the orchids
down to the sea
– Thomas A Clarke, The Path to the Sea

We returned to the isle of Arran and the cottage on Kildonan shore where we have stayed before.  Once the coastguard’s home, ‘Streamlet’ is the last house on the shore; beyond here lies nothing; nothing, that is but the ancient meadows, their walls overgrown and slowly sinking into the land as the years pass, and the brooding bulk of Brennan Head. Continue reading “Back on Kildonan shore”

Kathleen Jamie: an appreciation

Kathleen Jamie: an appreciation

Kathleen Jamie

I’ve just spent a week or so in the company of Scottish essayist and poet Kathleen Jamie.  It began last summer when I heard her reading extracts from her latest collection of essays, Sightlines, on Book of the Week.  I liked what I heard and promised myself that I’d read the book when it appeared in paperback.  A couple of weeks ago I did, and then immediately moved on to her previous collection, Findings.  After that, totally impressed, I moved on to her first book Among Muslims and her latest poetry collection, The Overhaul.


Findings and Sightlines are both published by Sort Of Books but it’s not easy to define what sort of books they are.  Jamie herself has said that there doesn’t seem to be a term that captures the disparate topics that she ranges over in these essays.  In Sightlines, in the very fine ‘Pathologies’ she ponders the meaning of ‘nature’, exploring the landscape of cells through a hospital microscope not long after she had sat by her dying mother’s bedside waiting for ‘nature to take its course’ and wondering what the phrase really means.

Kathleen Jamie isn’t one to be seduced by romantic or lyrical evocations of ‘nature’ or the wild. Back in 2007, she wrote a refreshingly astringent review of Robert MacFarlane’s Wild Places for the London Review of Books in which she stated what might be deemed the underlying philosophy of Findings and Sightlines:

Waiting to be discovered is a wildness which is smaller, darker, more complex and interesting, not a place to stride over but a force requiring constant negotiation. A lifelong negotiation at that: to give birth is to be in a wild place, so is to struggle with pneumonia. If you can look down a gryke, you can look down a microscope, and marvel at the wildness of the processes of our own bodies, the wildness of disease. There is Ben Nevis, there is smallpox. One wild worth protecting, one worth eradicating. And in the end, we won’t have to go out to find the wild, because the wild will come for us. Then, I guess, someone will scatter our ashes on a mountaintop, and someone else will complain.

Her clear-eyed stance was apparent elsewhere in that review:

There’s nothing wild in this country: every square inch of it is ‘owned’, much has seen centuries of bitter dispute; the whole landscape is man-made, deforested, drained, burned for grouse moor, long cleared of its peasants or abandoned by them. It’s turned into prairie, or designated by this or that acronym; it’s subject to planning regulations and management plans. It’s shot over by royalty, flown over by the RAF, or trampled underfoot in the wind-farm gold-rush. Of course there are animals and birds, which look wild and free, but you may be sure they’ve been counted, ringed maybe, even radio-tagged, and all for good scientific reasons. And if we do find a Wild Place, we can prance about there knowing that no bears or wolves will appear over the bluff, because we disposed of the top predators centuries ago, and if we do come unstuck there’s a fair chance that, like the man on Ben Nevis, we’ll get a mobile signal, and be rescued.

Wild is a word like ‘soul’. Such a thing may not exist, but we want it, and we know what we mean when we talk about it. And yes, we’re drifting here towards the religious. When we want to scatter someone’s ashes in a wild place, we know the kind of place we’re looking for. Further: we know what the wild is because we’re making small acts of reparation towards it. It’s noble to reintroduce species once persecuted into extinction, albeit as part of a management plan. Once reintroduced, though, they might show signs of being a bit self-willed: white-tailed eagles have an eight-foot wingspan. Recently, one took a flight round the Asda car park in Dunfermline. People were so alarmed they called the police.

The white-tailed eagle in the Asda car park alarming shoppers into phoning the police is typical of the shrewd and telling observations to be found in Jamie’s essays.  They often begin with an autobiographical recollection – in ‘The Woman In the Field’ it’s the memory of leaving school at seventeen and spending the summer working as a volunteer on an archaeological dig in the Perthshire hills.  The dull routine of scraping and digging is dramatically interrupted by the unearthing of a Bronze Age coffin containing the body of a woman and a baby, buried together on the wing of a swan.  A mobile crane has to be brought in to lift the coffin’s great stone lid.  Just at the moment that crane began to lift the capstone, the sky darkens and there is a great clap of thunder.  The following winter, with the opening of the coffin lingering on her mind, Jamie wrote her first small poem.  She was eighteen, and with exams no success, ideas of trying for university had been dashed. But, she writes, ‘you could sign on the dole’:

You could hide among the swelling numbers of genuinely unemployed, and claim a little money each week.  That’s what people did: artists, diggers, mountaineers, would-be poets and musicians, anarchists and feminists.  Anyone for whom the threat of a job, of conformity, felt like death.

The opening of the coffin, with its accompanying thunderclap, had been thrilling and transgressive.  She discovers that, in its own quiet way, poetry is like excavating treasure buried beneath layers:

The weight and heft of a word, the play of sounds, the sense of carefully revealing something authentic, an artefact which didn’t always display ‘meaning’, but which was a true expression of – what? – a self, conciousness.

Jamie’s prose is finely-crafted and sometimes verges on poetic. At the same time, there is a matter of fact groundedness, rooted in the humdrum ‘here and now’ of kids, house and home.  Sometimes, though, she has to break away: sailing to far-flung, remote Scottish islands like uninhabited St Kilda and Rona, the subject of the finest essay in this collection.  It’s an account of time spent on the island one summer with two companions: Stuart, a naturalist who is counting the numbers of Leach’s Petrels, and Jill, an archaeologist documenting the remains of a long-abandoned village.  It’s a wonderful piece in the unclassifiable Jamie mode: part nature writing, part travel, part environmental and philosophical meditation. Its highpoint comes with a vivid account of the sudden arrival of four killer whales, ‘scary, beautiful animals’, that circle the island:

Out of the shifting sea, the witless sky, out of the ambivalent world had come terrible certainty: a natural law, laid down in black and white, but mystery, too.

Hale Point February light
February light on the Mersey at Hale Point

The shortest piece in Sightlines is a crystalline essay on how, at this time of year, there comes a sudden sense that ‘the light is back’. In ‘Light’ she writes:

Every year,in the third week of February, there is a day, or, more usually, a run of days, when one can say for sure that the light is back. Some juncture has been reached, and the light spills into the world from a sun suddenly higher in the sky. Today, a Sunday, is such a day, though the trees are still stark and without leaves; the grasses are dry and winter-beaten.

The sun is still low in the sky, even at noon, hanging over the hills southwest. Its light spills out of the southwest, the same direction as the wind: both sunlight and wind arrive together out of the same airt, an invasion of light and air out of a sky of quickly moving clouds, working together as a swift team. The wind lifts the grasses and moves the thin branches of the leafless trees and the sun shines on them, in one movement’ so light and air are as one, two aspects of the same entity. The light is razor-like, edging grasses and twigs of the willow and apple trees and birch. The garden is all left-leaning filaments of light, such as you see on cobwebs, mostly, too hard to be called a sparkle, too metallic, but the whole garden’s being given a brisk spring-clean. Where there are leaves, such as the holly 200 yards away, the wind lifts the leaves and the sun sweeps underneath. All moving because of the fresh wind.

Now the town’s jackdaws are all up in a crowd, revel ling in the wind, chack-chacking at each other. And I hear a girl’s voice, one of my daughter’s friends, one of the four girls playing in the garden. She makes a call poised just between play and fear. What are they playing? Hide and seek? No matter. It pleases me that my daughter says they are ‘playing in the garden’, because they’re eleven years old; another year or two and they wouldn’t admit to ‘playing’ at all, and for a while the garden will have no appeal, because everything they want will be elsewhere. For a few years they’ll enter a dark mirror-tunnel whose sides reflect only themselves. The girls themselves can’t be seen, obscured by trees and that edgy, breezy light. The year has turned. Filaments and metallic ribbons of wind-blown light, just for an hour, but enough.

Sightlines garnered a host of positive reviews when it was published last year.  Doug Johnstone reviewing it for the Independent wrote:

She is a deep thinker on the human condition and nature, and especially the relationship between the two. There is a refreshing lack of romanticism here; a realistic down-to-earthness that grounds her prose and makes it all the more accessible.

While Adam Nicolson in the Telegraph wrote of Jamie ‘coming to moments of poetic precision and acuity, but always set in a frame of ordinariness’:

The whole book is an experiment in honesty, a refusal to romanticise in a Vaseline-on-the-lens way. “I sail on the surface of understanding, a flicker here, a silence there,” she says, and all the time circles around the agonised status of what “nature” actually is. What does that word mean? What is nature? Everything we are? Or everything we are not? And do those two questions ever connect?

She refuses to find any answers and as a result the book plays a subtle line between enchantment and disenchantment, between believing in nature and distrusting it. The book is suffused with a kind of tenderness, but she can also be funny, in an understated and melancholy way.  In the museum in Bergen, full of the hunted, killed and flenched skeletons of dead whales, there are, “on a central pillar, neatly painted in Norwegian and English, the words ‘Do not touch the animals’, but it was a bit late for that”.

And for all her scepticism about empty responses to the natural, she does not fight shy of the heroic. The climax of the book, and its most sustained performance, is the account of two weeks spent on Rona, the green island 40 miles north of the northern tip of Lewis, where she was counting Leach’s petrels and one day met a gang of killer whales, whose brutal, raging arrival at her oasis sears off the page like a knife. I don’t think I have ever read a passage which transcribes so exactly the deep unsettling weirdness of the wild.


I worked my way back, then, to Findings, her first collection of essays published in 2005. In the piece which gives the collection its title, Jamie is frustrated by an easterly wind from her objective of landfall on St Kilda.  Instead the skipper of the yacht in which she’s sailing deposits her on one of the Monach Islands.  She’s never even heard of them before, never set foot in a yacht before, ‘never sailed the sea in anything smaller than a CalMac ferry’.

‘I hacked off the gannet’s head with a penknife, which turned into one of those jobs you wish you’d never started.’ That’s the arresting opening sentence of this piece whose theme is the random objects we find in ‘wild’ places.  Lying on her back by a small loch she notices a stand of flag irises, a white plastic tub trapped among their stems. ‘The islands are a 21st century midden of aerosols and plastic bottles’, she observes, and muses on the things that she and the rest of her party had picked up along the shore, things they valued enough to keep. Apart from the gannet skull washed clean by the sea, she had kept two pale sticks (‘like the first man and the first woman’), an orb of quartz bits of a crashed aeroplane and pieces of whalebone.  ‘It seemed that what we chose to take were not the things that endured, but those that had been transformed by death or weather’.

She is still lying there ‘thinking these idle thoughts’ when a shepherd appears on a quad bike. He’s been alone on the island for seventeen days, and he’s collecting driftwood from along the strandline for his fire.  Jamie asks him about the great number of creel-markers and buoys strewn across the islands.  he answers:

‘They are without value.  I have told the fishermen there are plenty here, but they say they are without value.  If they were of any value,’ he laughed, ‘they would be gone.’

In another essay, Jamie watches, with a small crowd of spectators,  salmon making desperate attempts to leap falls on the Braan river, every huge effort met with cries as if in recognition of the nobility and heroism displayed.  Only later does she discover that the salmons’ way upstream to their breeding waters has been blocked – in the interests of new salmon hatcheries further upstream.  This provokes the characteristically wry thought that what the spectators at the falls were seeing was not the survival of the fittest, but ‘the survival of the ones who give it up as a bad job and settle someplace quiet.  A small life in the suburbs.  Salmon wisdom’. But also another thought – and a question:

They say the day is coming – it may already be here – when there will be no wild creatures.  That is, when no species on the planet will be able to further itself without reference or negotiation with us.  When our intervention or restraint will be a factor in their continued existence.  Every creature: salmon, sand martins, seals, flies.  What does this matter?

In one essay, Jamie journeys to the island of Coll to hear the call of a bird that, in the time of Constable and Clare, could be heard in every county of this land: the corncrake, Latin name Crex-crex, a perfect onomatopoeic rendition of its rasping call. In another, she notices cobwebs hanging from the gutter of her house.  In the room behind, her husband is gravely ill.  These essays were written during a traumatic period for herself and her family. Her mother is incapacitated by a stroke, her husband’s life threatened by a strange complication of pneumonia, the illness that devastates the lungs’ alveoli – that branching mesh that gives us breath, and that, if spread out, would cover an area the size of a tennis court with a fine, fine cobweb.

These alarms, these thoughts are interwoven with accounts of small journeys, explorations, and experiences from her life: scanning the Edinburgh skyline with a telescope to discover the unseen architecture of weather-vanes, steeples, spires and cupolas; or watching peregrines nesting near her home. Jamie is always alive to her surroundings and the human connections with the natural world:

Between the laundry and the fetching kids from school, that’s how birds enter my life. I listen. During a lull in the traffic: oyster-catchers; in the school-playground, sparrows.

In another finely-written piece, Jamie walks out along the cliffs near her home one Sunday.  A sign at the gate leading onto the coast path reads, ‘Please avoid disturbing the Sabbath’.  She wonders if she can ever reconcile herself to the dreary silence and restrictions of the Sabbath she’d known as a child.  Another day she notices that the local shops have notices saying they will observe a minute’s silence on the anniversary of September 11th.  She recalls a friend scornfully commenting that there would never be a minute’s silence for the many more children who had died in Africa on that September morning alone – because they had no clean water.  This leads Jamie to wonder whether,

if we join up all these minutes we are beginning secularly to observe, we could string them together in a new kind of Sabbath, where there are no men in black blighting our lives with their notions of sin, no chaining up the children’s swings for the Lord’s day.  I mean a contemplative time, a time reserved to reflect.  Perhaps we would feel less imperilled.

Amen to that.

Among Muslims

In November 2001, ten Pakistani men suddenly appeared in Kathleen Jamie’s Scottish home town.  They are on a peace walk, a pharmacist, a draper, a glass merchant, a town mayor, a businessman, a teacher and a student of economics.  Jamie remembers the welcome and hospitality she received when she travelled, a woman alone, in Pakistan’s Northern Areas in the early 1990s and invites them back to hers.

This is the scene-setting opening of the new edition of Jamie’s account of her time travelling alone and living among the Shia Muslims in the mountainous region wedged between Afghanistan, India and China.   and one of the most volatile borderlands in the world.  Originally published as The Golden Peak, for this edition – now entitled Among Muslims: Meetings at the Frontiers of Pakistan – Kathleen Jamie returned to Pakistan and adds a new preface and  afterword.

Among Muslims is a rare thing – an account of a privileged westerner’s travels among a people with a different culture, lifestyle and beliefs and having only limited access to the essentials of life that is sympathetic, non-judgemental – and, above all, superbly written. There was one crucial sense in which Jamie was privileged –  as a single woman travelling alone she was able to slip into the role of ‘honorary man’ and have long conversations about history, politics or religion with men in bars or offices, as well as being invited into homes to spend time with purdah-observing women.

In her account of her travels, Kathleen Jamie displays a natural empathy and curiosity without preconceptions.  She approaches the lives of those she meets from the standpoint of own Scottish upbringing: its puritanism and strict observance of the Sabbath mean that she can readily empathise with the  lifestyle of her Shia Muslim hosts.  She successfully treads a fine line, avoiding being an apologist for any way of life or holding back from critical observations about aspects of the culture she is moving in.  When one man asks the question that they all ask – about travelling alone – she responds:

I told him I was torn between staying with Westerners, in purdah, safety and seclusion. I can’t fully denounce purdah because we do it ourselves, we go in gangs everywhere and keep ourselves separate, in a little cultural bubble.

Gilgit: one of the towns in the Northern Areas where Kathleen Jamie stayed.

Jamie writes beautifully about the bleak and mountainous landscape, and of the people who unreservedly take her in, offering her food and accommodation despite living a hand to mouth existence.  Her observations on the economic and cultural  impact of tourism on the communities she spends time with are probing and perceptive: nearly twenty years ago new roads are pushing their way towards mountain villages, changing lives forever.  Men gain employment as guides to groups of trekkers who head into the Himalayas strewing the villages with plastic water bottles as they pass, camping in a village graveyard, and scandalising the locals with their behaviour and immodest clothing. She questions the Western assumption that increased tourism will bring increased freedom, noting that in the villages women are often kept behind even more firmly behind closed doors. But she also gives voice to those who welcome the opportunities that tourism brings:

‘USA, Saudi have! Why not Hunza people? Hotel-building is self-help. We need money.’
‘And if you make a lot of money, Ghulam, what would you do with it?’
‘I would go to Karachi, maybe Europe, to get treatment for my arm.’

In one of the most eloquent pieces of travel writing that I have read, Jamie follows a dusty track winding through mountain villages to the head of a valley where, amidst gardens full of trees laden with mulberries and plums, she finds a magical Tibetan palace, complete with princess.  She is led by the princess and her brother, Arif, to the roof of the three hundred year-old palace:

I stood between earth and sky, and looked round. I couldn’t breathe for wonder. I’d climbed a ladder without rungs and squeezed through an old trap door, and so clambered into heaven. Behind us the rockfaces of the mountains rose to remote and jagged summits, and before us fell a cornucopia: the villages of Khapalu. They tumbled in golden terraces and green trees down to the banks of the great river. On all sides mountains bound our vision. The sky was intensely blue. Though all that Alison [a Scottish nurse working at a health centre run by Christian missionaries which she has just visited] knew was also true – that in the exquisite yellow fields, and among the groaning fruit trees and under the roofs of all the little houses I could see, there were people ignorant, sorrowful, superstitious and brutalised – it was a proper kingdom. I’d opened a book of fairy stories, and found a way in.

‘Well?’Arif called. He had clambered on to a rickety wooden skylight. ‘Oh, it’s . . . wonderful! Wonderful’ The three young bloods took up the cry, and whirled like dervishes around the roof calling, ‘Wonderful! Wonderful! Wonderful!’From her garden far below, the princess waved.

When Jamie returns ten years later, in a much-changed world, it is with a companion and with her shalwar kameez pulled closer to her face. But despite the tension of the times, she is remembered and welcomed wholeheartedly:

We sat around the oil-heater, with a kettle on top, and told about our lives, the lives of women with families. We had young children and frail, elderly relatives, and jobs. That’s what ten years had done; turned us from Shia girls and Western girls into grown women – mothers and daughters, wives and teachers.

Among Muslims is a superbly-written account that gently probes at questions concerning the nature of freedom (and in particular, the freedom of women), religious values and the impact of development on the lives of the people that Jamie encountered:

What do people want? A sewerage system. Peaceable, open borders, that accord with the land. A language, and a culture, rose bushes. A professional job – for every job advertised in Gilgit, 100 young women apply. Peace. Where can one go for peace? Some help around the house. A decent tourist season.  They asked me if they would lose their jobs, if the hotel closed, others have lost their jobs. That is fifteen families.  I told them I would sooner sell my land. Schoolbooks. A husband, and a necklace of lapiz to wear when he arrives. A farm of one’s own.  That pretty widow at the end of the valley.  Free iodised salt. A cure for grey hair. A baby. To go home. I pray to fill my stomach! A house among the mountains, beside the river: For the first two nights, I hear only the river, then it becomes inside me, like my heart …

Kathleen Jamie’s most recent book is her ninth collection of poetry, The Overhaul.  As in the prose collections, Jamie positions herself in, not apart from, the natural world. The title poem ostensibly concerns a beached boat awaiting repair, but midway the camera eye pulls back to give a wider view inland from the shore where quotidian life goes on: a road runs, washing flaps and the school bus calls.  Meanwhile, in the other direction, ‘little wavelets leap/less than a stone’s throw’ from the boat.  It can’t be easy, hauled out above the tideline:

Look – it’s the Lively,
hauled out above the tideline
up on a trailer with two
flat tyres. What –

14 foot? Clinker‐built
and chained by the stern
to a pile of granite blocks,
but with a bow

still pointed westward
down the long voe,
down toward the ocean,
where the business is.

Inland from the shore
a road runs, for the crofts
scattered on the hill
where washing flaps,

and the school bus calls
and once a week or so
the mobile library;
but see how this

duck‐egg green keel’s
all salt‐weathered,
how the stem, taller
‐ like a film star ‐

than you’d imagine,
is raked to hold steady
if a swell picks up
and everyone gets scared…

No, it can’t be easy,
when the only spray to touch
your boards all summer
is flowers of scentless mayweed;

when little wavelets leap
less than a stone’s throw
with your good name
written all over them –

but hey, Lively,
it’s a time‐of‐life thing,
it’s a waiting game –
patience, patience.

On Caught By the River, Will Burns commented:

This is a beautiful book, shunning both whimsy and sentimentality, because at its core are concerns that become more powerful than mere pastoral elegy. There is a real sense of human mortality here, of frailty and of loss. The poems ask questions of how we live amongst so much other life …

That sense of being part of, not separate from, the natural world is very apparent in the book’s closing poem, ‘Even the Raven’:

The grey storm passes
a storm the sea wakes from
then soon forgets . . .

surf plumes at the rocks –
wave after wave, each
drawing its own long fetch

– and the hills across the firth –
golden, as the cloud lifts – yes
it’s here, everything

you wanted, everything
you insisted on –

Even the raven,
his old crocked voice

asks you what you’re waiting for

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Across Iona to the Bay at the Back of the Ocean

Across Iona to the Bay at the Back of the Ocean

On the far side of Iona is a bay of white sand and shingle where you can stand on the shore and look to the west, knowing that the next landfall is Newfoundland.  It’s a magical place with an enchanting name – Camas Cuil an t-Saimh in Gaelic: the Bay at the Back of the Ocean.

And but for the sky, there are no fences facing…

We took the ferry to Iona from Fionnphort on Mull at ten o’clock on a bright Sunday morning.  Leaving the ferry, most of the foot passengers headed towards Iona Abbey and the north end of the island, but our way took us south from the jetty, following the tarmac road past the island’s fire station and war memorial before turning inland to cross to the west side of the island.  Where the road ends, we entered common grazing land that is also used as a golf course.

The lush green ground is another example of machair – the fertile grassland formed at the back of beaches where windblown shells and sand have improved the soil.

The Bay at the Back of the Ocean spreads out before us, where the machair ends and a bank of shingle fringes the beach sand.  Here people have made circles and other shapes – a heart, a peace sign – from the colour-flecked stones washed ashore.

a wide stretch of sand

you walk out
into space
as to
an appointment

with so much
space around you
drops from you

here is where
forward momentum
runs out in
pure extension

no longer
ahead of yourself
in imagination
nor behind yourself
pushing on

you walk
above yourself
space spreading round you
the sand
bearing your weight

– from Thomas A Clark, The Hundred Thousand Places

Finally we wrenched ourselves away from this beautiful place, taking the track uphill that opened up great views back across the bay and the machair. Half way up the rise we encountered a group of those nameless volunteers who help maintain the paths we walk on.  This group were clearing the gullies across the path that drained away floods of rainwater from the rocky hillside.

At the top of the rise, the track reaches Loch Staoineig, passing to the left of the loch which, right up to the 1980s,  provided Iona’s water supply (water is now piped across from Mull).

We continued south, eventually reaching a viewpoint overlooking St.Columba’s Bay, where St Columba stepped ashore in AD 563. In the middle of the bay is a hill known as the Hill of the Back to Ireland: it is said that Columba climbed this hill to make sure that Ireland was out of sight.  He had left Ireland full of guilt at having triggered a clan war that left many dead, and had sworn that he would only settle when he longer had sight of his native land.  He had previously landed at Dunaverty in Kintyre, but as Ireland was visible from there he sailed again until he reached this shore.

The beautiful shingle beach here is backed by a level meadow that must be a stunning sight in late spring because we found it covered in the leaves of the iris, yellow flag.

The pebbles from the beach here have often been collected by Christians who make the pilgrimage here. They are many and varied, very stone different in colour and texture.  The stones flecked with slivers of green are sometimes called Columba’s tears or mermaid’s tears, and legend has it that if you carry a piece of Iona greenstone with you, you will never drown.  These green and white pebbles are, in fact, examples of Iona marble, whose source is a unique small geological outcrop near the south end of the island where there once was a quarry. That was to be our next destination

I spent some time sifting through the pebbles, picking one or two to take home as a memory of the place.  Then I noticed that on the grass beyond the beach pebbles had been carefully laid to create stone labyrinths, a symbol which seems to have a special resonance for those who come on pilgrimage here (the Christian tradition on Iona seeming to have a definite New Age or mystical tinge).  We had seen one of these labyrinths, too, the previous day on the tiny island of Erraid where the Findhorn spiritual community has a settlement.

Intrigued at the ubiquitous presence of this symbol, I found that labyrinths have had a special meaning for human kind for well over 4000 years. There is evidence of the existence of the labyrinth symbol across southern Europe and North Africa from roughly 2000 BC, taking the form of rock carvings and paintings, inscriptions on ceramics, tiles and coins. The same basic design began to appear across Asia, the Americas and Southern Africa in an assortment of forms including rock carvings, wall paintings and wooden sculptures.  Prehistoric labyrinths are believed to have served as traps for malevolent spirits or as defined paths for ritual dances.

Roman labyrinths took the form of mosaic pavement labyrinths laid in the floors of bath houses, villas and tombs throughout the Roman Empire. The medieval period marked a new wave of labyrinth building , especially the many  labyrinths found in cathedrals and churches across Europe from the 12th and 13th centuries. The most famous medieval labyrinth of this type is the one laid down in 1201 in the floor of the nave of Chartres Cathedral. These labyrinths were built for walking. They offered a bounded space for personal reflection, a symbolic form of spiritual pilgrimage.

I live my life in widening circles
that reach out across the world.
– Ranier Maria Rilke

The next stage of our walk took us through very boggy ground where the path was faint or nonexistent.  After a great deal of doubling back and forth, we reached the remains of the Iona Marble quarry, situated in a cleft running down to the sea between cliffs from which the stone had been quarried. The site may have been worked as early as 1745 by the Earl of Breadalbane when he founded the Marble and Slate Company of Netherlorn.

The quarry was officially opened in the late 1700s by the Duke of Argyll but did not operate for long because the marble was difficult to extract and transport was uneconomical.  There was a failed enterprise by the Argyll Quarry Company in the 1800s, which hoped to extract the stone and ship it from the island on an industrial scale, but the remote and rocky location proved too hazardous for shipping.  However, a final attempt was made to extract stone when the quarry reopened again in 1907.   But it closed for the last time at the end of World War I.

Today all that is left are the very rusted remains of machinery from the pre-First World War period of quarrying – a large winch and cable, a cutting frame, water tank, gas engine –  many of which have been painted black by the Scottish National Trust that looks after the site, now listed as a Scheduled Ancient Monument.

The return from the quarry to the village involved crossing another boggy stretch before, finally, we reached the end of the moor and saw the scattered houses on the outskirts of the village.  We came down to the paved road and the shore just as a ferry approached the jetty. We had lunch and rested awhile at the Martyrs cafe before moving on to explore the northern part of the island.

As the road leaves the village it climbs slightly, passing organic vegetable gardens for two of the hotels before the ruins of Iona Nunnery appear on the right.

The Nunnery was built in 1203, one of only two houses of Augustinian nuns in Scotland. It was made derelict during the Reformation.  The walls are of an interesting construction: pink granite blocks are interleaved between layers of  slate. Despite its ruinous state, this is one of the best examples of a medieval nunnery left in Britain.

Next to the nunnery is St Ronan’s Chapel, a small building was the islanders’ parish church from around 1200 to the Reformation in 1560. Excavations have revealed that there was a chapel on the site as early as the 8th century. The chapel is surrounded by a graveyard which contains the graves of several Scottish kings as well as monarchs of Ireland, Norway and France.  By the wall near est the sea is the grave of John Smith, former leader of the British Labour Party. His grave is marked by a stone with an epitaph quoting Alexander Pope: ‘An honest man’s the noblest work of God’.

John Smith died of a heart attack in 1994 at the age of 55.  He is buried here because he and his family spent many  summer holidays on Iona, a place he loved deeply. However, many islanders opposed the decision to grant John Smith – a mainlander who grew up in Argyll – a plot in a cemetery normally reserved for locals and their descendants.

Looking down at his grave, I remember the deep sense of shock among Labour party members and supporters at the time of his death.  Although Smith was by no means a left-winger, a kind of wistful nostalgia for the Prime Ministership that never was has grown up among those for whom Tony Blair is an anathema, concisely expressed in the article, ‘What if John Smith had lived?’ by Francis Beckett in The Guardian last year.  Who can say how things might have turned out – but I have a gut feeling that Smith would never have ignored the legal advice that an invasion of Iraq would constitute an act illegal in international law, or relied upon a meretricious dossier to justify the action.

Iona is a place of pilgrimage because this is where St Columba established his mission from Ireland in 563, credited with bringing Christianity to the Picts who inhabited Scotland at the time (though in this clip from the BBC series Scotland’s History, Neil Oliver questions the accuracy of that belief).

The abbey that stands beyond the graveyard belongs to a later era than Columba, who, seeking seclusion, had little interest in grand buildings.  Almost nothing remains of the original monastery he established here but traces of the that surrounded the monastic enclosure that would have contained a modest timber church, surrounded by huts for the monks to live and work in, and small cells for solitude and prayer.

In 1203, the Lord of the Isles invited the Benedictine order to establish a new monastery, and the first Nunnery. The abbey has been restored. The Abbey was substantially expanded in the fifteenth century,but following the Reformation,   was dismantled and abandoned. The building we see today was substantially rebuilt in the 20th century by the Iona Community. On the lawn outside the abbey is a board with this photo showing the ruins at some time in the late 19th century.

At the door of the Abbey stands a replica of the St John Cross (the original can be seen inside the Abbey). Carved more than 1200 years ago by craftsmen who worked at the abbey. It was just one of many crosses which showed pilgrims the way to the abbey, as well as being places where people would stop and pray as they passed by.

St John's Cross, Iona Abbey, AD 750-800
The replica St John Cross

The original St John’s Cross is in pieces today. The carvers wanted to build a huge and impressive cross – but overdid it. The arms of the cross were too long, and it collapsed almost as soon as it was built. They tried to fix it by adding the stone rings, but that didn’t work for long either. In 1970 the replica cross, made of concrete, was built which now stands outside the abbey.

St Martin's Cross, Iona Abbey
St Martin’s Cross

Just outside the Abbey stands St Martin’s Cross, another impressive cross with Celtic designs. It’s the most perfect of the surviving crosses on Iona, it still stands where the monks of the monastery placed it twelve hundred years ago. The cross is 17 feet hight and is carved from a stone that originally came from Argyll on the mainland. The raised circles, or bosses, are thought to represent God with everything revolving around Him. Intertwined between these bosses are serpents, which in the Celtic world represented rebirth since the snake sheds its old skin. The ring around the cross head represents eternal life and is a common feature in Celtic Crosses.

From the abbey, the paved road continues past the low hill of Dun I, the highest point on the island. Dun is Gaelic for hill, and I is what Iona was once called. The Hill of Iona is a place from which it is possible to see the whole of the island.  From here, a path continues to the northern shore – but for us it was time to turn back to catch the last ferry returning to Mull.

At Fionnphort, the ferry was met by large wagons onto which catches of fish and seafood were being loaded.  A large seal was in close attendance – we guessed it probably knew this happened at the same time every day, and anticipated being thrown some scraps.

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