The Western Isles are often shrunk from the scale afforded the mainland of Britain so as to fit onto a page of an atlas. Love of Country should serve to restore spaciousness, air and attention to this intensely differentiated gathering of societies, set in the margin of the seas with the Atlantic Ocean at their backs. Many island communities are officially designated ‘communities at the edge’.
Madeleine Bunting’s rich, precise book addresses questions of history, religion, politics, culture, language and emotion as they affect the islands themselves and their residents, living or gone before, as well as the outsider’s understanding of them.
The Hebrides lie between the narrow seas and the great ocean; they are places in literature and in the self-understanding of the nation, at once at its heart and ‘other’; they are located, too, in the oft-treacherous main of Romance. In English, we say, ‘How do you do?’ meaning ‘How are you?’ In Gaelic it would be, ‘Where are you from?’ or ‘Who do you come from?’ An answer would provide a sense of location, not merely physical but in memory too. Islanders tend to share not only memories but also what they have forgotten.
In this account of several journeys to the north and west, to the islands of Jura, Iona, Staffa, Rum, Eriskay, Lewis and St Kilda, Bunting demonstrates with vivid craft, like that of a manuscript illuminator or an embroiderer (this is very much a stitched, as well as a woven, text), the truth of Rebecca Solnit’s words in The Faraway Nearby: ‘We think place is about space but in fact, it is really about time.’ Bunting’s location on Eriskay of three events, centuries apart – the arrival of Prince Charles Edward Stuart in 1745; a 19th-century scandal involving a young Englishwoman, the supernatural and several distinguished thinkers; and the grounding of the SS Politician with 28,000 cases of whisky in 1941, giving rise to the book and the film Whisky Galore (gu leòir being the Gaelic for ‘abundance’) – makes the notion of arranging history around not time but place both seductive and refreshing.
‘My mother explained a precise ethnic genealogy to me of which I was very proud: we were one quarter Jewish, one quarter Irish, one quarter Scottish and one quarter English,’ she writes. Bunting wished to investigate the vivid understanding of nation accumulated from her parents, never, in the words of Saul Bellow, feeling it ‘necessary to sacrifice one identification for another’.
As if to epitomise the theme that the islands are at the centre of several worlds and on the edges of others, depending upon the story told, Bunting mentions glancingly that it was at the summit of Mullach Mòr on Holy Isle, where she had gone to mourn the end of her (first) marriage, that she met – and knew she had met – the man she would marry. First and second sight.
Her discussion of the place of Barnhill, the house on Jura in which Orwell wrote Nineteen Eighty-Four, in the evolution of the novel locates the island at the heart of its genesis and execution, and makes plain the deeply salvific – a word she uses twice, with reason, in the book – nature of islands.
It is not easy to write about these islands. Loss has played its complex role. The history of Lewis, the largest island, after Britain and Ireland, in the British Isles, loads loss upon loss. Bunting steers a clear course; she knows where she is going. There are the all-but-implausible casual actions of ‘improvers’, removers of ‘redundant population’ (people), theoreticians and plutocrats, with all the consequences and extreme behaviour, for ill and for – rarer – good: a successful American advertising man buys Staffa for his wife’s sixtieth birthday; she immediately gives it to the National Trust for Scotland.
There is an explicit sense of pilgrimage. It is not possible to evade some sense of the holy in the Hebrides. The founder of the Iona Community, George MacLeod, whose moral vision and example influenced a strand of Labour politics last century, described it as ‘a thin place – only a tissue paper separating earth from heaven’. Bunting asks the community’s current director, ‘Do you like the place?’ The response includes the words ‘This is a place where I have always worked and it’s incredibly hard.’
A worthy successor, then, to Colum Cille, better known as St Columba, the aristocrat who came over the sea roads from Ireland in 563 and was said by his biographer Adomnán to sleep upon rocks. But we must again adjust our inward eye, for so crowded did Iona become in the time of St Columba that he would retreat to the island of Hinba to avoid the diplomats, students and delegations from courts who flocked there.
An island lying off an island is a recurrent image, like a challenge to meditate upon infinity. Staffa, with its hexagonal columns of basalt rock (to encourage the reader to envisage how these were formed, Bunting invites us to think of how a muddy puddle dries out) and Fingal’s Cave, named by the naturalist Sir Joseph Banks, became a destination. It grew fashionable to bemoan the numbers of visitors there, among them Keats, Turner and Mendelssohn. ‘A great golden age of heroic virtue and antiquity was being projected onto the Hebridean archipelago, and imprecision was part of it.’
This beautifully structured book redresses any such imprecision without sacrificing a sense of numen and enchantment, while also cautioning us, in its refusal to be fanciful, not to project onto the real presences that these islands constitute our own occidentalising imaginings. Nor are the rich seas left unconsidered, with their kittiwakes, puffins and shearwaters, whose chicks are said to be so fat that, if you squeeze one, a drop of oil hangs from the tip of its bill.