Whenever new trends in literature start to emerge, there is an understandable desire to label them: tartan noir, mummy porn, silk-punk – sooner or later someone will come up with a zingy and hopefully patronising term for “novels with girl in the title”. But this haste to baptise a movement often is counter-productive Nowhere is this more evident than in the phenomenon dubbed “the new nature writing” by Granta magazine. Eight years on, and we can begin to see the different strands in the tapestry. There are three distinct and discernible approaches in it.
There is an elegiac strand, exemplified by writers like Helen MacDonald and Malachy Tallack. There is a metaphysical strand, best seen in Robert MacFarlane and Sara Maitland. And there is a political strand, of which James Rebanks and Rory Stewart would be examples. Madeleine Bunting’s Love Of Country is poised between the second and third categories. It recounts several journeys to the Hebrides, beginning with the Holy Isle and Jura, and snaking its way up to Lewis and out to St Kilda. Her crisp and luminous prose is the ideal medium to capture the ambiguities and dichotomies of the landscape; between ever-shifting sea and unfathomably old rock; between tradition and modernity; between wilderness and depopulation; between feudal subsistence and aristocratic profligacy.
Bunting has a keen eye for a story, and there are many here that have been dealt with in more detail in other books. Her great achievement is to weave these elements together.
For example, her chapter on Eriskay quite brilliantly links it as the landing point of Bonnie Prince Charlie, the scene of Ada Goodrich Freer’s problematic investigations into second sight for the Society for Psychical Research, and the grounding of the SS Politician which provided the inspiration for Compton Mackenzie’s Whisky Galore. “What strange re-ordering of historical narrative might we find if, instead of structuring it by when it happened, we structured history by where it happened,” she writes, “A history jumble sale, in which the odd, the delightful and the significant sit alongside each other.”
Most of Bunting’s journeys were taken just before and after the independence referendum, and she writes sensitively about the issue. Based in London, but having a long and emotional attachment to the area, she writes “it was no longer clear that I could call this north west part of the country home at all”. But she widens out to discuss belonging in more abstract and complex terms than a yes/no question. She contrasts the “island story” narrative of Britain with an “islands story”, an archipelago of identities. There is a very insightful comparison, when she is discussing the decline of Gaelic and how its loss erodes the speakers’ connections to their ancestors, with Orwell’s ending to 1984 (written on Jura) and Winston’s inability to remember his parents.
But as I said, this straddles the political and the metaphysical versions of the genre. Bunting repeatedly refers to her journeys as a “pilgrimage”. In part, she is more interested in the politics of religion in the area, and the way in which a secular mysticism surrounding Staffa and Fingal’s Cave, the “instructress of the world” of the Iona Community and the long-standing Catholic and Free Presbyterian communities actually manage to rub along not too shabbily.
It seems to me that the “new nature writing” – or rural psychogeography as I prefer to think of it – requires such engagement with questions of politics, religion, history, culture and our emotional responses. As the philosopher Raymond Tallis has observed “the biosphere has to be complemented with the memosphere: to take account of cultural evolution”. This splendid, precise and gracious book does that perfectly.