I managed to catch, yesterday, a re-run of Radio Scotland’s excellent Book Cafe. There was one discussion of particular interest, for it centred on the volume that currently rests on the bedside table, and majored on the chapter I had read that very morning. The book is only half read, but already I have added it to this year’s list.
The Old Ways – A Journey on Foot, is the latest tome from Robert Macfarlane. It was reading his The Wild Places that pointed me in the direction of a developing genre that goes under the badge of Nature Writing. Earlier works from the likes of Barry Lopez or Farley Mowat may have been defined more as natural history but in recent times works from Jay Griffiths, Tim Robinson and others have given the subject a niche in it’s own right. Macfarlane is a master linguist, and our landscapes his canvas.
The Old Ways is one of those works to be read with a couple of bookmarks; the second holding a place in the notes section. But the final pages, the bibliography, are where I visited first. The list of works referred to in reading and researching extends to a dozen pages, listed alphabetically. To pick one letter at random, L, I find the mighty authorial jazz trio of Laurie Lee, Paddy Leigh Fermor and Barry Lopez. Elsewhere Chatwin is named, Mark Twain too, and RLS. It’s no wonder that Macfarlane manages to get the words right.
But to the book itself. Our guide sets out one snowy winter solstice, dram in pocket, to wander the fairways of the local golf course, marvelling at the various tracks recorded in the snow.
“There were neat deer slots, partridge prints like arrowheads pointing the way, and the pads of rabbits. Lines of tracks curved away from me across the field, disappearing into shadow or hedge. The moonlight, falling at a slant, deepened the dark in the nearer tracks so that they appeared full as inkwells. To all these marks I added my own.”
And so we set off, and I was hooked. Surpisingly perhaps, for a book exploring old roads, we spend much time on water, firstly walking on it. The Broomway lies of the Essex coast, tidal, treacherous, and ancient. Boots off we can smell the mist and taste the salt. Shadows stretch the walkers to ten foot beanpoles anxiously seeking the brooms planted 200 yds apart that mark the safe passage before the tide hurtles in across the flats. By this route Macfarlane walks us back a few thousand years, back to when Doggerland was green and fertile above the waves, inhabited and hunted; back when The Channel existed not.
We follow too the old sea roads, the ones that took our ancestors from the isles to Norway and Iceland, the Faroes and St Kilda. In clinker-built open boats, up to a century old, we are guided to the Shiants, stars of Adam Nicolson’s Sea Room – An Island Life, and then northwards, guided by the stars, in the last open boat, the Jubilee, that took the Men of Ness to Sula Sgeir and the anuual guga hunt. Since 1953 those men had made the trip by diesel-engined trawler. By the old ways Macfarlane takes us to the rocks of the gannetry, the green machair of North Rona lying to the east. Safely back at the Hoil, think amalgam of oil and hooley, in Stornoway, before the winds rose. The next trip is on foot, across the wilds of Lewis, following waymarkers of yesteryear.
Already I am picking out author’s to read. Finlay MacLeod is one, and I’m sure one of his works rests on a shelf somewhere. An interesting man indeed, one of the brave souls to rail against the Sabbatarians and take his place on the first Sunday ferry to Ullapool. He tells of Darwin’s thinking path, which the great man had made round his home at Downe. We’re back in the territory of Holloway which I mentioned yesterday. MacLeod approves of Christianity, but only the version that flourished in the 12th and 13th centuries on Lewis, with pre-Reformation worship in which pagan habits mingled with Christian rites. I think I might enjoy MacLeod.
But back to Macfarlane. I was taken instantly to the clifftops at the north end of Staffa, and if you’ve ever been there when the puffins are feeding their young, arriving from the sea with beaks filled with sand eels to deliver to the youngsters waiting down in the burrows, then you’ll know exactly the “amplified riffle: banknotes being whirred through a telling machine”. The sound of puffin wings. Magical.
For now though we’re off over the peat bogs, another old road to travel. I know not where Macfarlane will take me next, but I do know that I will enjoy every word of it; whether he is following maps or looking for the occultism that helps decipher the charts. Good company indeed.