Finding Solace in Kathleen Jamie's Nature Essays


As we leave January behind and face up to the last month of winter hibernation, I think about taking the kids for a walk along the coastal path near Carry-Le-Rouet and even put the epuisette and bucket in the car, but our plans are thwarted by my daughters descent into "hypo", she has Type 1 diabetes and this sudden loss of energy requires an immediate sugar-kick and that she eats.


Suddenly, a walk in the great outdoors is the last thing on my mind and we retreat to the safety of home. She's exhausted without the addition of what I'd hoped would be an uplifting sojourn, taking in the sea air. So I content myself instead with a more leisurely walk through the pages of Kathleen Jamie's excellent essays in her collection Findings.


Her latest poetry collection The Overhaul recently won the Costa Prize for poetry, another accolade for this award-winning writer who has found her niche, her publisher previously having had difficulty placing her work in a clear genre.


Findings was, by anyone's standards, a fiendishly tricky sell. Jamie's choice of the essay form was unfashionable; her subjects (Orkney in midwinter, a pair of nesting peregrines, 21st-century flotsam on a Hebridean shoreline) were queer and disparate. Her publisher wasn't even sure how the book should be classified. Travel writing? Not quite: none of the essays took Jamie outside her native Scotland; many were written from her own back door. Autobiography? The book was bewitchingly first-person, but there was no sense of a coherent memoir.



An extract from the Guardian's Kathleen Jamie – A Life in Writing







I see them as wonderful nature essays, a form of creative non-fiction, much more than notes of a nature walk, though they are inspired by her time on the Hebridean and Orkney Islands and near her home in Fife; but with the purpose of observing and learning to capture in words what she sees, without the need to analyse. She describes watching ospreys and peregrines and shares her concern over whether they are nesting or not, there having been evidence of only two pair of these birds attempting to nest in the entire country.


She moves away from identifying and labelling what she sees, towards painting a picture with words, a description so apt, it is as if you are there with her as that large unknown bird she describes so vividly traverses the sky overhead. Photo: Nesting Peregrine Photo by Christophe Cage, Wikipedia


This is what I want to learn: to notice, but not to analyse. To still the part of the brain that's yammering, 'My God, what's that? A stork, a crane, an ibis – don't be silly, it's just a wild heron.' Sometimes we have to hush the frantic inner voice that says 'Don't be stupid,' and learn again to look, to listen.



Visiting a few of the Scottish Hebridean Islands, Ceann Iar, Coll, meandering along the tide line of inlets, she and her companions find the washed up remains of a small whale, a bit of a plane and other flotsam including seal's vertebrae, an orange traffic cone, driftwood and plastic garbage.


This is what we take away from Ceann Iar: a bleached whale's scapula, not the door of a plane: an orb of quartz, not a doll's head.




Photo: Visiting a Shieling - from Twenty Years of Hebridean Memories (1939) by Emily McDonald



Traces of contemporary life at the water's edge and higher up in the hills, she walks among remnants of an earlier life, the shielings, now abandoned summer huts made of stone and turf, built in the mountain pastures where girls often spent their summers, grazing the animals, receiving visits once a week to take back the cheese and butter they'd produced and to replenish their food stocks, not to mention the young men who paid calls on them in the evening, the time passing sharing local news, story-telling, fun and laughter.


The top of the year, the time of ease and plenty. The people would come up from the farmsteads below around the beginning of July – 'the girls went laughing up the glen' as the poem says – and return at harvest time. Up here, they made milk, butter and cheese, and it was woman's work. What a loss that seems now: a time when women were guaranteed a place in the wider landscape, our own place in the hills.



Not only does Kathleen Jamie evoke something of the present and the past in her observations of these remote islands, she leaves you reminding yourself to pay more attention, to be mindful, to stop, to listen, to stand and stare, to look up – promising as a reward, a renewed connection to our surroundings and an appreciation of all the species that live and have lived within it.


To read Kathleen Jamie is the next best thing to a slow walk in that great living outdoors, and the Scottish Isles just as therapeutic as the Mediterranean any day. I do believe she has found the perfect niche. I'm already looking forward to her next collection of essays 'Sightlines' and perhaps next weekend we'll manage that coastal walk.

Wow, thanks for sharing that Brian. Being a McAlpine I have highland ancestry as well, though I have not visited the isles or the highlands for that matter. But my father visited them a few years ago and as he has recently been in hospital (in NZ) and told to rest more, I decided to send him a copy of these essays as a reminder of that visit and then thought to read them myself at the same time, so I can talk and write (letters) to him about them as well.

Those shielings really intrigued me, firstly a new word, I'm a word/language lover and then I learned much more than what Kathleen Jamie wrote about by following the picture link through to an extract from 'Twenty Years of Hebridean Memories' which sounds like a fascinating account.

The Isles are definitely on my list of things to do and in the meantime will continue to read about them.

Thank you so much for taking the time to read this and comment. Its thanks to a tweet about your own post that I found this little virtual corner of France. Delighted.

Ah, the joys of insulin dependency - at least it promotes a healthy lifestyle, just a bit difficult to convince an 11-year-old, who is prone to respond "C'est pas juste!" and yeh, she's right.

I know, 'Twenty Years of Hebridean Memories' very well. My ex-wife wrote 'The Western Isles Today' that appeared in 1980 and I, being of Highland but not Island ancestry. I have things like Donald MacKenzie's 'As it was' and fond memories of walking and climbing in Cuillinns on Skye and a fantastic visit to Mull a decade ago. The Isles are totally bliss and very underrated. Books sometimes do them justice though, they transmit something about the islands, especially the past that is very soothing.

My ex- incidentally, with whom I worked until recently, has been insulin dependent for many years.