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Love Of Country : A Hebridean Journey - Madeleine Bunting - Granta 2016

Updated: Jun 29, 2021

Madeleine Bunting's Hebridean journey starts with herself - she sets herself out as the archetypal contemporary, melting pot Londoner created from a mixture of origins with her interest in Scotland stemming from a desire to understand the 1/4 "Scottish" part of herself(Farquharson) and re-establish that connection. It is interesting that her interest in this remote and unknown part of the British Isles was born initially out of family holidays to Scotland and whilst the book is partly a travelogue, it is more importantly a cultural and anecdotal political history of the Western Isles and importantly, conceived and written during the years around the independence and Brexit debates.

As she travels further out into the Atlantic to ever remoter Islands, finally finishing on the uninhabited St Kilda, she becomes acutely more aware that the inhabitants of this harsh environment(increasingly an adventure tourist destination}, have been subjected to pains and hardships that have clearly shaped their precarious way of life. We are, after all, on the Edge of western Europe, isolated and confronted by the ferocious elements of the north Atlantic and any sort of survival is no mean feat.

Setting out from Jura we are drawn into the escapist island existence of George Orwell whose stay in a croft was a post-war retreat from the "dying" industrialisation of England and where he conceived and wrote "1984" speculating on what might have driven him to write his most famous novel. She memorably recounts her own encounter with the boiling waters of the Coire Bhreacain and how they nearly did for Orwell before she moves north to Iona and the cultural heart of the Gaidhealtachd with her attention turning to aesthetics and the subliminal attractions of Staffa and Fingal's cave musical and poetical interpretations.

On her arrival on the small Isle of Rum, Bunting narrates a darker political history and the inevitable analysis of the clearances which has become such an important part of Scotland's view of itself and its relationship with its southern neighbour and nemesis. She uses the story of the Lancashire industrialist, George Bullough (whose mausoleum survives on Rum) and his island fantasy as a metaphor for the way in which some now see Scotland as being "colonised" by the English. And as she heads further out into the Atlantic and across to Eriskay and finally Lewis we are led towards the harsh realities facing Gaelic World as it tries to maintain its relevance in the modern world.

As Scotland continues to address its history and try to forge an identity that can set itself apart from its southern unionist partner any book that provides a voice for that is important and Love of country is undeniably an attempt to provide context to that debate. The book has been carefully researched and the travelogue approach enables the author to extol her own personal passion for this part of the world in a narrative that is both honest and whimsical at the same time.

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