Northwords Now Issue 38

The FREE literary magazine of the North

Issue 38 - Non-fiction reviews

A Review by Kenny Taylor

Archie’s Lights
By Anne MacEachern
Whittles Publishing

Oor Big Braw Cosmos
By John C Brown & Rab Wilson
Luath Press

The Missing Lynx
By Ross Barnett
Bloomsbury

Lighthouses can fire the imagination. Beyond the beauty of their structures, there’s a symbolism that shines. Light beams sweeping the darkness; stability atop raging seas and remote headlands; tales of wrecks and rescues and bravery and endurance; unsolved mysteries. Think of the Flannan Isles, where the lightkeepers vanished four days before Christmas in 1900, or Sule Skerry, with its shape-shifting seals.  Then there’s the allure of the link between Robert Louis Stevenson and the family that designed most of Scotland’s lighthouses over more than 150 years. But that’s another story.

Since 1998, when the last keepers left Fair Isle South, all of Scotland’s lighthouses have been automated – controlled from afar and visited mostly by maintenance engineers.  For over two centuries until then, those lights and their associated foghorns were tended by live-in keepers; all men (though many women gave support as wives and mothers at stations where families lived). Those statistics book-end a now-vanished profession and sub-culture. So testimony from keepers can be both fascinating and historically invaluable .

‘Archie’s Lights’ is a superb memoir of a lightkeeper’s life, written from transcribed conversations between Archie MacEachern and his second wife, Anne, who compiled the book. Born into a lighthouse family in 1910, Archie’s professional connection to the Northern Lighthouse Board began in the 1920s and continued through the rest of the century. So his recollections are legion, his perspective on lighthouses, their keepers and locations superb. For anyone drawn by the allure of the lights, this book is a must-read classic.

Shifting from earth lights to the shine of countless stars, ‘Oor Big Braw Cosmos’ is one of the year’s most surprising non-fiction collaborations. In it, John Brown, Scotland’s Astronomer Royal, combines with Rab Wilson, Screiver in Residence at the Robert Burns Birthplace Museum, to give their contrasting takes on the universe. The results are both surprising and intellectually challenging.

This is a book to use both for reference (the astronomer’s summaries of many subjects, from the Big Bang to solar physics and exoplanets, are models of clarity) and sheer fun. Think of moving at one page turn from details of star clusters to a poem that describes them as ‘Sequins shewn oan ‘Strictly’/That blinter oan TV’ and you get some of the picture. But the illustrations throughout the book are also braw – a clever mix of images and art selected from recent sources. It’s a book that rewards both concentrated reading and random toe-dipping in its seas of stars and universal energies.

Back on earth, ‘rewilding’ is a term now much used and perhaps less-well understood, in our part of the planet. So ‘The Missing Lynx’ by Highland-based writer, Ross Barnett, is a welcome deep dive by a scientist into the lives of now-extinct species and the future potential for reintroduction of others. Ross’s specialization is the analysis and interpretation of ancient DNA. But as befits a prize-winner in the most recent Hugh Miller Writing Competition, this is no dry, academic text. There’s zing in the ways he describes creatures such as sabre-toothed cats and cave hyaenas and fun – with serious purpose – in how he tackles species such as beaver.

“There is no cut-off point, no box where the spectre of human-caused extinction can be confined’ he notes. So we need to find ways of avoiding such mistakes. This is a book to inform future thinking through its skillful accounts of both the distant and recent past.