Marram – Leonie Charlton

A review of Marram, Memories of sea and spider-silk, non-fiction by Leonie Charlton published by Sandstone Press

Marram, memories of sea and spider-silk would have made a great Xmas gift! Published by Sandstone Press, it is a lilting account of the author, Leonie Charlton and her friend’s ride on Highland ponies across the Outer Hebrides from Barra to Callanish on Lewis. Charlton, author of short stories and poetry, dedicated her first full-length book to her mum, a jeweller, with whom she had a tricky relationship (‘I’d wondered if life would be better without her. Then she died and I was broken’). Charlton takes a bag of her beads on the journey, and leaves them in nooks as she meanders the ‘necklace’, ‘strung on streams of salt and fresh water’.

Marram grass growing beside the sea, not in the Outer Hebrides in this instance, but the east neuk of Fife

The carefully chosen language, the delicacy of description, is one great strength of this travelogue – it invites the reader to smell and touch the landscape. It causes us to slow to a walking pace and admire the ’empty, sun-bleached snail shells’ at our feet, and to look up and listen to the Arctic terns which ‘serrated the air with their cries’. Marram is full of colour: ‘the aubergine hue of the South Uist hills’; a drake Mallard, a ‘startle of tourmaline’; the ‘gold-gilt ‘of the title’s grass; and tones of dappled grey and cream dun taken from the coats of their four-legged friends. Indeed, for those who love things equestrian, there are many parts which will delight. Alongside the lush detail lies narrative and some reported conversation, intimate shared memories, meetings with islanders who offer grazing, and much fascinating local history – who knew that horses came to Scotland with the Spanish Armada, staying and enriching the local breeds?

‘a pilgrimage of love and personal sea-change’ p. xv

With a few more travel books by women thankfully being published nowadays, some featuring extreme treks and adventures, Charlton moves around with a refreshing and altogether Shepherdian * disregard for clocking up the miles or achieving great summits. The group endure their fair share of turbulent weather, not only dreich terrain and sodden camping, but silent striding which allows for recollections of sick beds to surface and feelings to be bravely faced. Although they dine on oysters and prosecco, they also display capability and strength when called for.

Which it is! We are pre-warned, but it is nevertheless shocking when, towards the end, there is a hair-raising account of some serious difficulty all four characters encounter and the established pace and style of the writing changes to reflect this incident. However, despite the occasional humorous episode (one horse takes a very long pee in a church carpark!) and a few joyous beach gallops, the overriding gait of the ruminative narrative is steady throughout. This is indeed a quiet, attentive book which brings the remote country alive, and reminds you to go off and explore.

*Nan Shepherd Scottish writer best known for ‘The Living Mountain’, a collection of essays about walking and living in the Cairngorm Mountains of Scotland.

Marram will be published on 19 March 2020

Have you read this? Please leave a comment and tell me what you thought.

To the Island of Tides – Alistair Moffat

Non-fiction.

A pilgrimage, by its nature, is a personal journey of discovery as well as a geographical and historical trek. In To the Island of Tides, Alistair Moffat follows in the footsteps of Saint Cuthbert (634 – 687); monk, bishop and hermit. From the Scottish Borders to the Holy Island of Lindisfarne, Moffat endures a broken rib and faces some deep familial sadness as he immerses himself in the life and times of this medieval holy man.

Written in a smooth and jaunty style, the book’s basic timeline mirrors Moffat’s route from his inland home to the sea, and Cuthbert’s intriguing life of politics and worship from birth to death. In the same way that this is not a continuous walk, rather an interrupted series of day trips with a week’s retreat towards the end, so there are many textual asides: lush scenic descriptions, divers detailed accounts of battles (Flodden et al), and involved analyses of Latin place names interspersed throughout. The writing shines when bringing the Lindisfarne Gospels and The Great Tapestry of Scotland to life.

This book is brimful of liturgical references, despite his oft mentioned atheism, and his own search for succour from painful public and private events is woven into the story in sometimes uncomfortable and exposing detail. Going to some lengths to get inside Cuthbert’s head and heart, he scrambles up shifting sand dunes and under barbed wire fences before seeming to find some peace through his first experience of solitary contemplation on Lindisfarne.

Author of some twenty books, Moffat’s The Hidden Ways (Canongate 2018) was a vehicle for sharing his excitement in uncovering lost paths, and he utilises the same dogged skills in To the Island of Tides. Quoting from eighth century primary sources, he steers a fine line between facts, storytelling, anecdote and conjecture – after all St Cuthbert lived a long time ago. This tome is well researched; part autobiography (his family and ancestors play a strong role), and part paean to the spirit of the unnoticed: “until the coming of the census in the middle of the nineteenth century, the voices of others are largely silent. The fields … seem .. to remember their people, those who tended them.”
This pilgrimage incorporates local lore and biblical references, touching self discovery and a Saint’s life. Above all it is a homage to the importance of family and of belonging.

Review originally published by The Wee Review.

Published by Canonngate Books August 2019