The Outrun is a stretch of uncultivated coastland on Mainland in Orkney (that is, the main island of this ‘sea-scoured and wind-battered’ archipelago) at the edge of the farm on which Amy Liptrot was raised. This ‘only semi-tamed’ tract provides the locus for her impressive opening chapter, which takes in agricultural terminology, Orcadian folklore, an acute and vivid evocation of the landscape, history from the distant past to recent times and her own childhood memories, setting a pattern for Liptrot’s memoir as a whole. She is very good on the blurred boundaries of the place – an almost unavoidable theme here – and also draws on botany, zoology, geology, meteorology, astrology and a host of other disciplines, all the while attending to the ways in which these different lenses are overlaid. She delights in the uniquely understated idiom of the islands: short-eared owls are ‘catty-faces’; the twinkling, barely dark time between summer sunset and sunrise is ‘the simmer dim’ or ‘grimlins’. But it is an accomplishment of The Outrun that, having lived and worked in Orkney as an adolescent and again as an adult, Liptrot is as alive to the political, economic and social realities of the place as she is to the folkloric and the extraordinary, consciously resisting the temptation to construct a Romantic ‘island paradise’.
Under the surface of these layers of perception and information lies a more recent history still, in which ‘attackers’ lurk and the feeling of being ‘unstable’ is not just a product of the precipitous clifftop walk. Once desperate to escape the confines of this small island, Liptrot has returned, retreating