Hamish Hamilton, $45 hb, 400 pp, 9780241146538
The Western Isles arch across the north-west coast of Scotland, sheltering the mainland from the North Sea’s fury. In summer there are few places more magical than these islands, which Seton Gordon once described as standing ‘on the rim of the material earth’ looking west to the immortal realm of Tir nan Og.
On the northern islands, granite and gneiss mountains rise shattered and fractured from the patchwork of rolling bogs, lochs, and heath stippled with cinquefoil, tufted vetch, and gentians. To the south, white sands are blanketed by machair, scented with yellow bedstraw, milkworts, and harebells. Between them lies a scattering of smaller islands in the Sound of Harris, resisting the tug and pull of fierce tides that surge the narrow channel, breaking the ‘Long Island’ in half.
Everywhere, in this remote and sparsely populated landscape, the work of human hands is apparent. The smallest rocky island, seasonally submerged by winter swells (by bóc-thannoc, as Robert Macfarlane tells us), will be populated by crofters’ sheep. Furrowed feannagan orlazybeds crosshatch the island’s thin soil. Everywhere, in this apparent wilderness, are the ruins of shielings and blackhouses; thatched roofs eaten and low walls sheltering sheep. Herringboned peatstacks demarcate family turf in lonely bogs. Neolithic chambered tombs, prehistoric stone circles, and Viking treasure hoards document continuous human habitation for more than 10,000 years.