Northwords Now Issue 39

The FREE literary magazine of the North

Narratives describing journeys with an equine companion

A Review by Kenny Taylor

Marram - Memories of sea and spider-silk
By Leonie Charlton
Sandstone Press (2020)

Pabay – An Island Odyssey
By Christopher A. Whatley
Birlinn (2019)

Reading the Gaelic Landscape
Leughadh Aghaidh na Tire

By John Murray
New, expanded edition
Whittles, 2019

Narratives describing journeys with an equine companion can have great appeal, even for readers with no prior knowledge of such animals, save for offering the occasional handful of grass over a fence. Robert Louis Stevenson’s Travels with a Donkey in the Cévennes (1879) is an acknowledged masterpiece, both of this horse family sub-genre, and of travel writing in general. Through the skill of his descriptions and asides, details of place and character that might otherwise seem trivial become fascinating; the meandering journey beguiling. And improbably, at the core of the book, is Stevenson’s love for a small, mouse-coloured donkey, Modestine, at turns both amusing and moving.

Writing to dedicate the work to his friend, the literary and art critic, Sidney Sheldon, RLS sets out the stall: ‘…we are all travelers in what John Bunyan calls the wilderness of the world – all, too, travelers with a donkey; and the best that we find in our travels is an honest friend. He is a fortunate voyager who finds many. We travel, indeed, to find them. They are the end and the reward of life. They keep us worthy of ourselves; and when we are alone, we are only nearer to the absent.’ Fitting, then, that Sheldon would become a significant editor of Stevenson’s letters, both during and after the great writer’s short life.

Some 140 years after Stevenson’s stravaiging in the Massif Central with Modestine, his travel credo also applies to many aspects of Leonie Charlton’s journey in Marram, where she goes north, at pony pace, through much of the Outer Hebrides. Her human travelling companion is a friend, Shuna Shaw. Their four-legged companions are the ponies, Ross and Chief. The writer’s passion for the ponies (shared with Shuna) shines through from the outset, including in descriptions of coat colours which make them sound nice enough to eat: ‘Ross is a Rum Highland Pony with rare ancient bloodlines…They have unique colour combinations – fox dun and silver dun, liver and mouse and biscuit dun too. Some have zebra stripes along their spines. Ross’s passport states his colour as ‘dappled chocolate’; his mane has blonde highlights, and in summer you can see the dark dapples across his body.’

Chief, in contrast, is bright silver grey. Together, the ponies’ characters complement each other, with Ross being the older, ‘experienced’ one and Chief’s ‘bravery’ bolstering Ross in moments of pony doubt. As below, so above in the saddles, as the two equestrians support each other through challenges of weather, wild camping and more, meeting diverse island residents along the way, from Barra to Callanish. But a central challenge for the writer is not the externals, but the lingering trauma of her relationship with her late mother. This can still haunt her waking present, whatever the glories of sea and machair and camaraderie might be.

At different locations, Leonie, (nicknamed ‘Beady’ as a baby by her mother, on account of her eyes being ‘shiny, like beads’) strings a bead or more from her mother’s collection through silken thread – also her mother’s – to leave as a kind of necklace, punctuating the journey with small, symbolic gestures. This is part of what gives the journey an unexpected emotional undercurrent. Studded with well-crafted and memorable descriptions and told with great honesty, Marram is much more than the ‘travelling with two ponies’ book it might seem at first glance. It’s moving and compelling, in quite a different way. RLS would understand.

‘At the shore of Sky foresaid, lys ane iyle callit Pabay, neyre ane myle in lenthe, full of woodes, guid for fishing, and a main shelter for thieves and cut-throats. It pertens to M’Kynnoun.’

So the wrote the clergyman, Donald (‘Dean’) Monro in 1549, just a few years prior to the Scottish Reformation. Some three centuries later, Hugh Miller – geologist, writer, editor and key figure in the disruption that split the Church of Scotland, early in the Victorian era – wrote in glowing terms about the same place:

‘This island, so soft in outline and colour, is formidably fenced round by dangerous reefs. He would be a happy geologist who, with a few thousands to spare, could call Pabba his own. It contains less than a square mile of surface; and a walk of little more than three miles and a half among the line where the waves break at high water brings the traveller back to his starting point; and yet, though thus limited in area, the petrifactions of its shores might themselves fill a museum.’

Fast forward to recent years, and a time of further changes – not in religious practices, but in other ways. Shifts in ownership of land, especially along the west coast and in the isles; declines in population and traditional means of making a living from that land and surrounding sea; shifts in the culture and background of many people who make their homes there; now all part of the contemporary scene across much of the Highlands and Islands. Fertile ground too, perhaps (in contrast to the wet, nutrient-poor soils of the west) for an historian with deep knowledge of the region to dig in archives and document past changes and how they might inform current thinking.

Christopher A. Whately, Professor of Scottish History at the University of Dundee, has now turned the soil of the small isle of Pabay in ways such as those, and more, to write a remarkable book. As might be expected from someone with his standing as an historian, the breadth and detail of his research into the history of this little place is impressive. At a rough tally, there are more than 1,300 entries in the index and many hundreds of chapter notes (placed at the end, so not encumbering the chapters themselves).

But this is no dry-phrased, academic treatise, aimed principally at other historians. It’s a story with narrative drive to power it, and a passion that shines through for both the place and the people who have shaped it.

What makes the book unusual is how it blends both personal and wider history: ‘Islands mesmerize and intrigue me, ‘writes the author, ‘They have since I was a very young boy. One in particular, the subject of this book.’

Christopher Whatley’s link to Pabay came through his uncle, Len (named, as revealed in an amusing anecdote, in honour of Lenin) and aunt, Margaret. They moved from the Midlands in 1950 and lived on Pabay until 1970. During that time, they raised a family (one of whom, Stuart, runs the Edinbane Pottery on the adjacent mainland of Skye). And they tried, tried and tried again to find ways to eke a living from land and sea and to develop a range of small, potentially money-making ventures.

Towards the end of her life, Christopher, who was a regular visitor to Pabay as a child, promised his Aunt Margaret that he would write a book about the part the family had played in the story of the island. By blending his own experiences there, family recollections and old photographs, he has fulfilled that promise. But he has also achieved something with much wider resonance. By casting an expert eye over sources that reveal (including through richly characterised key players) shifts in ownership and thinking about land, for example, including in times when shipping magnates held sway here and earlier generations farmed, he gives the story of this tiny place national significance.

This is a book that will be a resource and a pleasure for readers for many years to come. Margaret, Len and the many Pabay dwellers who came before them could be proud of that legacy.  

Any Ordnance Survey map has layers of meaning hidden, for many, in plain sight. Scattered across it are names of topographic features whose origins could be from centuries before even the first edition OS maps were drawn. It’s as if past generations can still speak about parts of the land where they lived and worked and fought and travelled, if you trouble to look, then listen.

Across the Highlands and Hebrides, especially, and parts of Scotland beyond, this means paying heed to Gaelic names. But even if you have little or no knowledge of the language, you can still get expert guidance as your eye scans the maps or walks the terrain. Reading the Gaelic Landscape by John Murray is the ideal aid to such exploration. Its style is clear and engaging, making even an overview of Gaelic grammar and pronunciation a pleasurable read.

But it’s the details of many names (some common, some scarce) that have made this book such a valuable resource since first publication in 2014. The expanded edition has additional images, enhanced drawings and extended text in parts. The useful format remains, where separate index entries for Gaelic nouns and specific place-names help with searches. The chapters are short, but full of inspiration. Just think of where Chapter 9: ‘Climate, Season, Mood, Sound and Time’ might lead you.