Islands are irresistible for the unique identities they develop through isolation, and the extra effort that it often takes to reach them. Over the years, my husband and I have developed a special fondness for Britain’s islands – the smaller and more remote the better. After exploring the Inner Hebrides in 2005 and Orkney and Shetland in 2006, we always intended to see more of Scotland’s islands; why ever did we leave it this long?
Rail strikes and cancelled trains threatened our itinerary more than once, so it was a relief that we were able to go, even at extra cost. Our back-up plan left us with a spare day in Inverness, which we filled with coffee and pastries outside the cathedral, browsing at Leakey’s bookshop, walking along the River Ness and in the botanical gardens, and a meal overlooking the 19th-century castle.
Then it was on to the Outer Hebrides at last, via a bus ride and then a ferry to Stornoway in Lewis, the largest settlement in the Western Isles. Here we rented a car for a week to allow us to explore the islands at will. We were surprised at how major a town Stornoway is, with a big supermarket and slight suburban sprawl – yet it was dead on the Saturday morning we went in to walk around; not until 11:30 was there anything like the bustle we expected.
We’d booked three nights in a tiny Airbnb house 15 minutes from the capital. First up on our tourist agenda was Callanish stone circle, which we had to ourselves (once the German coach party left). Unlike at Stonehenge, you can walk in among the standing stones. The rest of our time on Lewis went to futile whale watching, the castle grounds, and beach walks.
This post threatens to become a boring rundown, so I’ll organize the rest thematically, introduced by songs by Scottish artists.
“I’ll Always Leave the Light On” by Kris Drever
Long days: The daylight lasts longer so far north, so each day we could plan activities not just for the morning and afternoon but late into the evening. At our second stop – three nights in another Airbnb on North Uist – we took walks after dinner, often not coming back until 10 p.m., at which point there was still another half-hour until sunset.
“Why Does It Always Rain on Me?” by Travis
Weather: We got a mixture of sun and clouds. It rained at least a bit on most days, and we got drenched twice, walking out to an eagle observatory on Harris (where we saw no eagles, as they are too sensible to fly in the rain) and dashing back to the car from a coastal excursion. I was doomed to wearing plastic bags around my feet inside my disintegrating hiking boots for the rest of the trip. There was also a strong wind much of the time, which made it feel colder than the temperature suggested – I often wore my fleece and winter hat.
“St Kilda Wren” by Julie Fowlis
Music and language: Julie Fowlis is a singer from North Uist who records in English and Gaelic. (This particular song is in Gaelic, but the whole Spell Songs album was perfect listening on our drives because of the several Scottish artists involved and the British plants and animals sung about.) There is a strong Gaelic-speaking tradition in the Western Isles. We heard a handful of people speaking it, all road signs give place names in Gaelic before the English translation, and there were several Gaelic pages in the free newspaper we picked up.
Wildlife: The Outer Hebrides is a bastion for some rare birds: the corncrake, the red-necked phalarope, and both golden and white-tailed eagles. Thanks to intel gleaned from Twitter, my husband easily found a phalarope swimming in a small roadside loch. Corncrakes hide so well they are virtually impossible to see, but you will surely hear their rasping calls from the long grass. Balranald is the westernmost RSPB reserve and a wonderful place to hear corncrakes and see seabirds flying above the machair (wildflower-rich coastal grassland). No golden eagles, but we did see a white-tailed eagle flying over our accommodation on our last day, and short-eared owls were seemingly a dime a dozen. We were worried we might see lots of dead birds on our trip due to the avian flu raging, but there were only five – four gannets and an eider – and a couple looked long dead. Still, it’s a distressing situation.
We also attended an RSPB guided walk to look for otters and did indeed spot one on a sea loch. It happened to be the Outer Hebrides Wildlife Festival week. Our guide was knowledgeable about the geography and history of the islands as well.
St. Kilda: This uninhabited island really takes hold of the imagination. It can still be visited, but only via a small boat through famously rough seas. We didn’t chance it this time. I might never get there, but I enjoy reading about it. There’s a viewing point on North Uist where one can see out to St. Kilda, but it was only the vaguest of outlines on the hazy day we stopped.
“Traiveller’s Joy” by Emily Smith
- An extended late afternoon tea at Mollans rainbow takeaway shed on Lewis. Many of the other eateries we’d eyed up in the guidebook were closed, either temporarily or for good – perhaps an effect of Covid, which hit just after the latest edition was published.
- A long reading session with a view by the Butt of Lewis, which has a Stevenson lighthouse.
- Watching mum and baby seals playing by the spit outside our B&B window on Berneray.
- Peat smoked salmon. As much of it as I could get.
- A G&T with Harris gin (made with kelp).
“Dear Prudence” (Beatles cover) by Lau
- Gorgeous, deserted beaches. This is Luskentyre on Harris.
- No midges to speak of. The Highlands are notorious for these biting insects, but the wind kept them away most of the time we were on the islands. We only noticed them in the air on one still evening, but they weren’t even bad enough to deploy the Avon Skin So Soft we borrowed from a neighbour.
- People still cut and burn peats for fuel. Indeed, when we stepped into the Harris gin distillery for a look around, I was so cold and wet that I warmed my hands by a peat fire! Even into the 1960s, people lived in primitive blackhouses, some of which have now been restored as holiday rentals. The one below is run as a museum.
- Not far outside Stornoway is the tiny town of Tong. We passed through it each day. Here Mary Anne MacLeod was born in 1912. If only she’d stayed on Lewis instead of emigrating to New York City, where she met Fred Trump and had, among other children, a son named Donald…
- Lord Leverhulme, founder of Unilever, bought Lewis in 1918 and part of Harris the next year. He tried to get crofters to work in his businesses, but all his plans met with resistance and his time there was a failure, as symbolized by this “bridge to nowhere” (Garry Bridge). His legacy is portrayed very differently here compared to in Port Sunlight, the factory workers’ town he set up in Merseyside.
- The most far-flung Little Free Library I’ve ever visited (on Lewis).
- Visits from Lulu the cat at our North Uist Airbnb.
“Wrapped Up in Books” by Belle and Sebastian
What I read: I aimed for lots of relevant on-location reads. I can’t claim Book Serendipity: reading multiple novels set on Scottish islands, it’s no surprise if isolation, the history of the Clearances, boat rides, selkies and seabirds recur. However, the coincidences were notable for one pair, Secrets of the Sea House by Elisabeth Gifford and Night Waking by Sarah Moss, a reread for me. I’ll review these two together, as well as The Summer of the Bear by Bella Pollen (inspired by a real incident that occurred on North Uist in 1980), in full later this week.
I also read about half of Sightlines by Kathleen Jamie, a reread for me; its essays on gannets and St. Kilda chimed with the rest of my reading. Marram, Leonie Charlton’s memoir of pony trekking through the Outer Hebrides, will form part of a later 20 Books of Summer post thanks to the flora connection, as will Jon Dunn’s Orchid Summer, one chapter of which involves a jaunt to North Uist to find a rare species.
Stormy Petrel by Mary Stewart: My selection for the train journey up. I got Daphne du Maurier vibes from this short novel about a holiday Dr Rose Fenemore, an English tutor at Cambridge, takes to Moila, a (fictional) small island off of Mull in the Inner Hebrides. It’s a writing retreat for her: she’s working on a book of poetry, but also on the science fiction she publishes under a pseudonym. Waiting for her brother to join her, she gets caught up in mild intrigue when two mysterious men enter her holiday cottage late one stormy night. Each has a good excuse cooked up, but who can she trust? I enjoyed the details of the setting but found the plot thin, predictable and slightly silly (“I may be a dish, but I am also a don”). This feels like it’s from the 1950s, but was actually published in 1991. I might try another of Stewart’s.
I also acquired four books on the trip: one from the Little Free Library and three from Inverness charity shops.
I started reading all three in the bottom pile, and read a few more books on my Kindle, two of them for upcoming paid reviews. The third was:
Tracy Flick Can’t Win by Tom Perrotta: A sequel to Election, which you might remember as a late-1990s Reese Witherspoon film even if you don’t know Perrotta’s fiction. Tracy Flick was the goody two-shoes student who ran for school president and had her campaign tampered with. Now in her forties, she’s an assistant principal at a high school and a single mother. Missing her late mother and wishing she’d completed law school, she fears she’ll be passed over for the top job when the principal retires. This is something of an attempt to update the author’s laddish style for the #MeToo era. Interspersed with the third-person narration are snappy first-person testimonials from Tracy, the principal, a couple of students, and the washed-up football star the school chooses to launch its new Hall of Fame. I can’t think of any specific objections, but nor can I think of any reason why you should read this.
“Other Side of the World” by KT Tunstall
General impressions: We weren’t so taken with Lewis on the whole, but absolutely loved what we saw of Harris on our drive to the ferry to Berneray and wished we’d allotted it more time. While we only had one night on Berneray and mostly saw it in the rain, we thought it a lovely little place. It only has the one shop, which doubles as the bistro in the evenings – warned by the guidebook that this is the only place to eat on the island, we made our dinner reservation many weeks in advance. The following morning, as we ate our full Scottish cooked breakfast, I asked the B&B owner what led him to move from England to “the ends of the earth.” He took mild objection to my tossed-off remark and replied that the islands are more like “the heart of it all.” Thanks to fast Internet service, remote working is no issue.
We are more than half serious when we talk about moving to Scotland one day. We love Edinburgh, though the tourists might drive us mad, and enjoyed our time in Wigtown four years ago. I’d like to think we could even cope with island life in Orkney or the Hebrides. We imagine them having warm, tight-knit communities, but would newcomers feel welcome? With only one major supermarket in the whole Western Isles, would we find enough fresh fruit and veg? And however would one survive the bleakness of the winters?
North Uist captivated us right away, though. Within 15 minutes of driving onto the island via a causeway, we’d seen three short-eared owls and three red deer stags, and we got great views of hen harriers and other raptors. One evening we found ourselves under what seemed to be a raven highway. It felt unlike anywhere else we’d been: pleasingly empty of humans, and thus a wildlife haven.
The long journey home: The public transport nightmares of our return trip put something of a damper on the end of the holiday. We left the islands via a ferry to Skye, where we caught a bus. So far, so good. Our second bus, however, broke down in the middle of nowhere in the Highlands and the driver plus we five passengers were stuck for 3.5 hours awaiting a taxi we thought would never come. When it did, it drove the winding road at terrifying speed through the pitch black.
Grateful to be alive, we spent the following half-day in Edinburgh, bravely finding brunch, the botanic gardens and ice cream with our heavy luggage in tow. The final leg home, alas, was also disrupted when our overcrowded train to Reading was delayed and we missed the final connection to Newbury, necessitating another taxi – luckily, both were covered by the transport operators, and we’ll also reclaim for our tickets. Much as we believe in public transport and want to support it, this experience gave us pause. Getting to and around Spain by car was so much easier, and that trip ended up a lot cheaper, too. Ironic!
“Take Me Back to the Islands” by Idlewild
Next time: On this occasion we only got as far south as Benbecula (which, pleasingly, is pronounced Ben-BECK-you-luh). In the future we’d think about starting at the southern tip and seeing Barra, Eriskay and South Uist before travelling up to Harris. We’ve heard that these all have their own personalities. Now, will we get back before many more years pass?
As treats to look forward to after our DIY and moving adventures, we booked ourselves two summer holidays. Next week we’re off to Northern Spain for eight days. Thanks to a Brittany Ferries voucher from a cancelled trip in 2020, it ended up being a really cheap option – but it means I have to go to sea for 20 hours, each way. And I hate boats. My last sea voyage back from France only lasted four hours or so, but I was so sick. This time, I will be packing all the seasickness remedies known to woman. Your ideas are welcome!
I’ve never been to Spain and have lost my kindergarten Spanish beyond the few bits I’ve picked back up from my husband’s Duolingo practice. We’ve had next to no time to plan what we’re going to do while we’re there, but it should be a great place for hiking and wildlife watching, with a more Atlantic than Mediterranean climate. (We’re no beachgoers.)
What I have been planning, of course, is what I’ll read. I asked Twitter for recommendations, and got a couple that I followed up on. My library’s holdings weren’t particularly helpful, but I found a few somewhat appropriate reads: As I Walked Out One Midsummer Morning by Laurie Lee, Homage to Catalonia by George Orwell, A Parrot in the Pepper Tree by Chris Stewart, Ordesa by Manuel Vilas, and The Shadow of the Wind by Carlos Ruiz Zafón. Alas that all of these are by men and only two are in translation! For place-specific reading, I’ve supplemented them with Book of Days by Phoebe Power, a book-length poem about the Camino pilgrimage route to Santiago de Compostela, which passes not far from where we’re staying.
I also amassed a bunch of doorstoppers and slightly lighter literary fiction to help the hours at sea pass. See anything you’d particularly recommend? I’ll likely pack all of these and more (‘sensible’ is not a word that can generally be applied to my reading plans or habits!) because we’re taking a car onto the ferry so space/weight is not an issue.
Ironically, I have many more relevant book ideas for our second summer holiday to the Outer Hebrides in late June, but we’re travelling up by train so my book capacity will be minimal! There are loads of novels set on Scottish islands. Here’s what I’m pondering from the library:
Love of Country would be a reread, but is really more for my husband to read. I also fancy a reread of Night Waking by Sarah Moss.
Do you have any trips to look forward to? Will you try for any reading on location?
A peek at the bylines I’ve had elsewhere so far this year.
A Good Neighborhood by Therese Anne Fowler: In Fowler’s sixth novel, issues of race and privilege undermine a teen romance and lead to tragedy in a seemingly idyllic North Carolina neighborhood. A Good Neighborhood is an up-to-the-minute story packed with complex issues including celebrity culture, casual racism, sexual exploitation, and environmental degradation. It is narrated in a first-person plural voice, much like the Greek chorus of a classical tragedy. If you loved Tayari Jones’s An American Marriage, this needs to be next on your to-read list. It is a book that will make you think, and a book that will make you angry; I recommend it to socially engaged readers and book clubs alike.
Pew by Catherine Lacey: Lacey’s third novel is a mysterious fable about a stranger showing up in a Southern town in the week before an annual ritual. Pew’s narrator, homeless, mute and amnesiac, wakes up one Sunday in the middle of a church service, observing everything like an alien anthropologist. The stranger’s gender, race, and age are entirely unclear, so the Reverend suggests the name “Pew”. The drama over deciphering Pew’s identity plays out against the preparations for the enigmatic Forgiveness Festival and increasing unrest over racially motivated disappearances. Troubling but strangely compelling; recommended to fans of Shirley Jackson and Flannery O’Connor. [U.S. publication pushed back to July 21st]
Shiny New Books
Losing Eden: Why Our Minds Need the Wild by Lucy Jones: While nature’s positive effect on human mental health is something we know intuitively and can explain anecdotally, Jones was determined to investigate the scientific mechanism behind it. She set out to make an empirical enquiry and discovered plenty of evidence in the scientific literature, but also attests to the personal benefits that nature has for her and explores the spiritual connection that many have found. Losing Eden is full of both common sense and passion, cramming masses of information into 200 pages yet never losing sight of the big picture. Just as Silent Spring led to real societal change, let’s hope Jones’s work inspires steps in the right direction.
[+ Reviews of 4 more Wainwright Prize (for nature writing) longlistees on the way!]
The Bass Rock by Evie Wyld: While it ranges across the centuries, the novel always sticks close to the title location. Just as the louring rock is inescapable in the distance if you look out from the Edinburgh hills, there’s no avoiding violence for the women and children of the novel. It’s a sobering theme, certainly, but Wyld convinced me that hers is an accurate vision and a necessary mission. The novel cycles through its three strands in an ebb and flow pattern that seems appropriate to the coastal setting and creates a sense of time’s fluidity. The best 2020 novel I’ve read, memorable for its elegant, time-blending structure as well as its unrelenting course – and set against that perfect backdrop of an indifferent monolith.
Times Literary Supplement
I Am an Island by Tamsin Calidas: A record of a demoralizing journey into extreme loneliness on a Scottish island, this offers slivers of hope that mystical connection with the natural world can restore a sense of self. In places the narrative is a litany of tragedies and bad news. The story’s cathartic potential relies on its audience’s willingness to stick with a book that can be – to be blunt –depressing. The writing often tends towards the poetic, but is occasionally marred by platitudes and New Age sentiments. As with Educated, it’s impossible not to marvel at all the author has survived. Admiring Calidas’s toughness, though, doesn’t preclude relief at reaching the final page. (Full review in May 29th issue.)
We Swim to the Shark: Overcoming fear one fish at a time by Georgie Codd: Codd’s offbeat debut memoir chronicles her quest to conquer a phobia of sea creatures. Inspired by a friend’s experience of cognitive behavioral therapy to cure arachnophobia, she crafted a program of controlled exposure. She learned to scuba dive before a trip to New Zealand, returning via Thailand with an ultimate challenge in mind: her quarry was the whale shark, a creature even Jacques Cousteau only managed to sight twice. The book has a jolly, self-deprecating tone despite its exploration of danger and dread. A more directionless second half leads to diminished curiosity about whether that elusive whale shark will make an appearance. (Full review in a forthcoming issue.)
Dottoressa: An American Doctor in Rome by Susan Levenstein: In the late 1970s, Levenstein moved from New York City to Rome with her Italian husband and set up a private medical practice catering to English-speaking expatriates. Her light-hearted yet trenchant memoir highlights the myriad contrasts between the United States and Italy revealed by their health care systems. Italy has a generous national health service, but it is perennially underfunded and plagued by corruption and inefficiency. The tone is conversational and even-handed. In the pandemic aftermath, though, Italian sloppiness and shortages no longer seem like harmless matters to shake one’s head over. (Full review coming up in June 19th issue.)
Do any of these books (all by women, coincidentally) interest you?
I’ve been asked to repost my review, and you get a bonus: I’m also posting part of the review my husband wrote for his blog last year, which opens with memories of seabird-rich trips he and I have taken. (Chris is a lecturer in animal ecology at the University of Reading, a Newbury Town councillor, and an off-and-on nature blogger.)
In 2016 Rutt left his anxiety-inducing life in London in a search for space and silence. He found plenty of both on the Orkney Islands, where he volunteered at the North Ronaldsay bird observatory for seven months. In the few years that followed, the young naturalist travelled the length and breadth of the British Isles – from Skomer to Shetland – courting encounters with seabirds. He’s surrounded by storm petrels one magical night at Mousa Broch; he runs from menacing skuas; he watches eider and terns and kittiwakes along the northeast coast; he returns to Orkney to marvel at gannets and fulmars. Whether it’s their beauty, majesty, resilience, or associations with freedom, such species are for him a particularly life-enhancing segment of nature to spend time around.
Discussion of the environmental threats that hit seabirds hardest, such as plastic pollution, make for a timely tie-in to wider conservation issues. Rutt also sees himself as part of a long line of bird-loving travellers, including James Fisher and especially R. M. Lockley, whose stories he weaves in. This is one of the best nature/travel books I’ve read in a long time, especially enjoyable because I’ve been to a lot of the island locations and the elegantly evocative writing, making particularly effective use of varied sentence lengths, brought back to me just what it’s like to be in the far north of Scotland in the midst of an endless summer twilight, a humbled observer as a whole whirlwind of bird life carries on above you.
A favorite passage:
“Gannets nest on the honeycombs of the cliff, in their thousands. They sit in pairs, pointing to the sky, swaying heads. They stir. The scent of the boat’s herring fills the air. They take off, tessellating in a sky that is suddenly as much bird as light. The great skuas lurk.”
Scotland, 2005. That’s the trip I always cite as my ‘conversion experience’ as a birder. Perhaps the most memorable element was a boat trip out to the seabird colonies of the Treshnish Isles. Puffins were the draw, but other memories are more vivid. The sudden appearance of a great skua, powering through at low level causing consternation among other birds and excitement among birdwatchers. A minke whale blowing spray near the boat. The dark eye of a shag up close, inscrutably ancient, a pterodactyl that somehow survived to the present.
Captivated by the peace and isolation of Scottish islands and the incredible sights, sounds and smells of seabirds we did it all again the following year, heading farther north. We started on mainland Orkney, travelling overland by train before catching the ferry from Thurso. During a few days on Westray we experienced a small island community, intriguing to a child of English suburbia, though mostly I remember the rain and superb traybakes in the village café. Finally on to Shetland, making our way up to Hermaness, the very northern end of Britain on the island of Unst. Towering skua-ruled cliffs with the most inquisitive, trusting puffins I have ever known, no land between us and the North Pole. Some four years later we visited Skomer in Pembrokeshire, another famed seabird destination, but since then our visits to Britain’s seabird islands have, alas, largely dried up. I’ve caught up with seabirds on and off since but perhaps let the full wonder of seabirds and the magic of islands drift out of my life.
In that respect The Seafarers was a timely read. It takes the reader, via a series of personal journeys, through the major groups of ocean-going birds that visit Britain while also introducing a significant seabird location in each chapter. It’s an appealing blend of travel, descriptive nature writing, popular science and biography. Author Stephen Rutt balances a highly personal account of what seabirds have meant for him with some solid seabird facts which are well explained, detailed but not at all dense. Rutt is a young birder, naturalist and writer. Since I too am a bearded, balding young (though not nearly so young as he) birder who is not fond of crowds I was probably predisposed to enjoy his voice, and I did, but I also admired its freshness. He successfully avoids the ‘lone white male’ cliché often accused of dominating nature writing. The writing is accomplished throughout and Rutt’s prose is distinctive, concise yet poetic. The life-affirming, simple joy of birding shines through.
The particularly well-crafted short chapter on vagrant birds may be one of those rare pieces of writing to actually change my mind. Where I have lately been inclined toward the view that twitching exotic vagrants is “a morbid act, a premature wake for a waif that won’t last out the day,” as Rutt puts it, I was won over by his “faith in the wondrous, sense-defying, thrilling capacity that birds have of being lost and making that seem … OK.”
The Seafarers follows just two years after Adam Nicolson’s The Seabird’s Cry. The latter is the more complete (and global) treatment of seabirds, what we know about them and why they matter, but that’s not really a criticism of Rutt’s book. The Seafarers is as much an autobiographical account of the transformative power of birding as it is a compilation of seabird lore. What they have in common is that both books are love letters to this extraordinary group of animals.
Rutt has added his own unique chapter to the shared history of people and seabirds on these islands, as well as establishing himself as a writer with real promise. I look forward to seeing what he turns his thoughts to next.
[The answer was geese; see my review of Rutt’s second 2019 publication, Wintering.]
Note: The Seafarers won the Saltire First Book of the Year award and was longlisted for the Highland Book Prize 2019.
For me, 2019 has been a more memorable year for nonfiction than for fiction. Like I did last year, I’ve happened to choose 12 favorite nonfiction books – though after some thematic grouping this has ended up as a top 10 list. Bodies, archaeology, and the environmental crisis are recurring topics, reflecting my own interests but also, I think, something of the zeitgeist.
Let the countdown begin!
- Because Internet: Understanding how language is changing by Gretchen McCulloch: Surprisingly fascinating stuff, even for a late adopter of technology. The Internet popularized informal writing and quickly incorporates changes in slang and cultural references. The book addresses things you may never have considered, like how we convey tone of voice through what we type and how emoji function as the gestures of the written word. Bursting with geeky enthusiasm.
- Surfacing by Kathleen Jamie: A fusion of autobiography with nature and travel writing – two genres that are too often dominated by men. Jamie has a particular interest in birds, islands, archaeology and the oddities of the human body, all subjects that intrigue me. There is beautiful nature writing to be found in this volume, as you might expect, but also relatable words on the human condition.
- Mother Ship by Francesca Segal: A visceral diary of the first eight weeks in the lives of the author’s daughters, who were born by Caesarean section at 29 weeks in October 2015 and spent the next two months in the NICU. Segal describes with tender precision the feeling of being torn between writing and motherhood, and crafts twinkly pen portraits of others she encountered in the NICU, including the staff but especially her fellow preemie mums.
- Surrender: Mid-Life in the American West by Joanna Pocock: Prompted by two years spent in Missoula, Montana and the disorientation felt upon a return to London, this memoir-in-essays varies in scale from the big skies of the American West to the smallness of one human life and the experience of loss and change. This is an elegantly introspective work that should engage anyone interested in women’s life writing and the environmental crisis.
- (A tie) Constellations by Sinéad Gleeson / The Undying by Anne Boyer / Notes Made while Falling by Jenn Ashworth: Trenchant autobiographical essays about female pain. All three feel timely and inventive in how they bring together disparate topics to explore the possibilities and limitations of women’s bodies. A huge theme in life writing in the last couple of years and a great step toward trauma and chronic pain being taken seriously. (See also Notes to Self by Emilie Pine and the forthcoming Pain Studies by Lisa Olstein.)
- Time Song: Searching for Doggerland by Julia Blackburn: Deep time is another key topic this year. Blackburn follows her curiosity wherever it leads as she does research into millions of years of history, including the much shorter story of human occupation. The writing is splendid, and the dashes of autobiographical information are just right, making her timely/timeless story personal. This would have been my Wainwright Prize winner.
- The Seafarers: A Journey among Birds by Stephen Rutt: The young naturalist travelled the length and breadth of the British Isles – from Skomer to Shetland – courting encounters with seabirds. Discussion of the environmental threats that hit these species hardest, such as plastic pollution, makes for a timely tie-in to wider issues. The prose is elegantly evocative, and especially enjoyable because I’ve been to a lot of the island locations.
- Once More We Saw Stars by Jayson Greene: In 2015 the author’s two-year-old daughter, Greta, was fatally struck in the head by a brick that crumbled off an eighth-story Manhattan windowsill. Music journalist Greene explores all the ramifications of grief. I’ve read many a bereavement memoir and can’t remember a more searing account of the emotions and thoughts experienced moment to moment. The whole book has an aw(e)ful clarity to it.
- The Body: A Guide for Occupants by Bill Bryson: Bryson is back on form indulging his layman’s curiosity. Without ever being superficial or patronizing, he gives a comprehensive introduction to every organ and body system. He delights in our physical oddities, and his sense of wonder is contagious. Shelve this next to Being Mortal by Atul Gawande in a collection of books everyone should read – even if you don’t normally choose nonfiction.
- Irreplaceable: The Fight to Save Our Wild Places by Julian Hoffman: Species and habitat loss are hard to comprehend even when we know the facts. This exquisitely written book is about taking stock, taking responsibility, and going beyond the numbers to tell the stories of front-line conservation work. Irreplaceable is an elegy of sorts, but, more importantly, it’s a call to arms. It places environmentalism in the hands of laypeople and offers hope that in working together in the spirit of defiance we can achieve great things. So, if you read one 2019 release, make it this one.
What were some of your top nonfiction reads of the year?
29th: Other superlatives and some statistics
30th: Best backlist reads
31st: The final figures on my 2019 reading
Last summer I very much enjoyed Malachy Tallack’s first book, 60 Degrees North, a memoir cum travel book about looking for a place to call home in the midst of a nomadic life; see my Nudge review. His new book is a gorgeous art object (illustrated by Katie Scott), composed of two- or three-page mini-essays about the real and legendary islands that have disappeared and/or been disproved over the centuries. A few of the names may be familiar – Atlantis, Thule and the Isles of the Blessed, perhaps – but many of the rest are fairly obscure entries in the historical and geographical record.
It’s fascinating to see how some of these islands inhabit both mythological and real space. For instance, my favorite story is that of Hufaidh in the Southern Iraq marshes. This area where the Euphrates and Tigris Rivers meet was the ancestral home of the Ma‘dān or “Marsh Arabs,” and was known to Western visitors such as Gavin Maxwell, who came to collect his otter Mijbil (the subject of Ring of Bright Water) there, and travel writer Wilfred Thesiger. Tallack writes that Hufaidh “was part paradise and part hell, both of this world and another.” When Thesiger asked locals about the island in the 1950s, he was told that “anyone who sees Hufaidh is bewitched, and afterwards no-one can understand his words.” So Hufaidh was mythical? In a sense, Tallack acknowledges, and yet Saddam Hussein’s deliberate destruction of the marshes after the first Gulf War also obliterated Hufaidh, and even the ongoing campaign of ecological restoration can never bring it back.
I was also intrigued by the tale of the Auroras, presumed to be located between the Falkland Islands and South Georgia. They were sighted multiple times between 1762 and 1796, including by a Spanish research ship, but were never seen again after the eighteenth century. Were the sailors simply mistaken? In 1820 Captain James Weddell concluded that they must have confused the Shag Rocks, 100 miles to the east, for a new set of islands. But the mystery remained, as evidenced by Edgar Allan Poe’s 1838 novel The Narrative of Arthur Gordon Pym of Nantucket, which has a ship’s crew searching for the Auroras as well as for fur seals.
Plato almost certainly invented Atlantis for his allegories, but in reading this book you will learn that some islands are indeed suspected to have sunk, like Sarah Ann Island in the Pacific, which the USA claimed for its guano resources. And while you might think that bogus territories could not exist in the late twentieth or early twenty-first centuries, a few did: the Terra Nova Islands of the Antarctic were only removed from the map in 1989, and Bermeja, an island in the Gulf of Mexico disputed between the United States and Mexico, was only definitively proven not to exist in 2009.
A few of these cases feel thin or repetitive; even with 24 islands discussed in full and another 10 listed with capsule explanations in an appendix, you sometimes get the sense that the book required a lot of barrel-scraping to craft satisfying narratives out of frustratingly incomplete stories. Still, Tallack has done an admirable job parsing fact from fiction and extracting broad lessons about the truths that might lie deeper than our atlas pages:
Absence is terrifying, and so we fill the gaps in our knowledge with invented things. These bring us comfort, but they conflict, too, with our desire for certainty and understanding.
The science of navigation has worked towards the eradication … of mystery, and to an astonishing degree it has succeeded. We can know where we are and what direction we are traveling with just the click of a button. And though that technology brings its own kind of wonder, part of us mourns what has been lost.
With its excellent color illustrations, this would make a perfect coffee table book to dip into whenever you have five or ten spare minutes to read an essay or two. I would particularly recommend it to readers who are captivated by maps, historical oddities and hoaxes.
(My review copy came wrapped in matching paper!)
The Un-Discovered Islands releases in the UK tomorrow. My thanks to Kristian Kerr of Birlinn Polygon for the free copy.
Further reading: Two similar books I’ve read are The Ice Museum by Joanna Kavenna (about the search for Thule) and Banvard’s Folly by Paul Collins (more tangentially relevant – it’s about historical mistakes and failures). You might also try Judith Schalansky’s Atlas of Remote Islands.