Love of Country: A Hebridean journey
Church Times Bookshop £17.10
AS BRITAIN stumbles blindfolded and uncertainly into the morass of Brexit, Madeleine Bunting publishes a vital, even prophetic analysis, using travels through the Hebrides to examine the changing nature of nationalism and identity.
She writes “of empires, of appropriation and resistance, and how, within these politics, we may inherit or make a home, and (if we are lucky) a narrative of belonging and loyalty”. She finds, during six years of exploring from her London home, not another “home”, but a Gaelic poet’s “soul territory”, grounding our individual histories. Bunting, a history scholar and former Guardian writer, brings to her meditative travels a historian’s diligence, and a reporter’s descriptive interrogations.
She ranges widely, from the domesticated holiday isle of Arran, with its offshore Buddhist settlement on Holy Island, to St Kilda, 50 miles out in the Atlantic. She climbs and camps, braves pitching crossings, observes, interviews, reads, and analyses. She takes readers with her, into a weaving shed for Harris tweed, to the isolated farmstead on Jura where George Orwell wrote Nineteen Eighty-Four, and in Dr Johnson’s determined footsteps, as he sought “savage virtues and barbourous grandeur”.
Bunting enjoys good stories, and relates them with relish. They include the Trump-like George Bullough, son of a wealthy Victorian industrialist, who not only imported 300 workmen to build his castle on Rum, but paid them a “small supplement” to wear kilts. Turtles, humming birds, and alligators were brought in to populate the palm houses, with 250,000 tons of Ayrshire topsoil for landscaping.
Today, Bunting found the folly leaking and crumbling, but echoed as a vanity project in the redevelopment of an estate on Jura by an Australian hedge-fund manager once reported to earn £1.7 million a day.
Loss, and radical transition, hallmark the history of the 270 Hebridean-named islands, from the agonies of the Clearances to translating once public gardens into a private golf course. Finding “home” there remains problematic.
Bunting writes when independence dominates Scotland’s news agendas and the Gaelic pedigree provides a “resisting force” to the rootlessness of late capitalism. With its sense of community, and litany of embracing places, resistant Hebridean Gaelic culture offers a haven and a challenge to “the placelessness which capitalism requires”, Bunting writes.
This is no romantic vision, but a literal earthing and evaluation. A leader of the Iona Community told her that she took the isolated job because nobody else would do it.
This acknowledgement of the faithfulness of place makes Bunting’s book spiritually valuable. In times when so much travel is diluted to immediate experience by the “tourist industry”, she summons the integrity of inquiry back into our definitions of “home”, and its foundations.
Dr Martyn Halsall is a poet and journalist.