Sunday, 21 April 2013

Kathleen Jamie: Sightlines

As I’m currently in the north of Scotland on an ‘eco-poetry’ retreat, I thought it might be good to feature Kathleen Jamie’s new collection of meditations/essays - it’s difficult to put a label on these wonderful pieces of creative non-fiction.

I admire Kathleen Jamie very much as a poet, but her essays about the natural world and our relationship with it are exceptional.  Whether she’s crawling through a whale’s rib-cage in a forgotten museum in Norway, or digging up fragments of iron age pottery in a field, the questions she asks are always significant.

What is nature?  Why do we think in terms of ‘primroses and otters’ and leaping dolphins?  The bad things are ‘natural’ too - bacteria, cancer tumours, parasites; they’re all part of the natural process of things. ‘Death is nature’s sad necessity, but what when comes for the children?’  In the aftermath of her mother’s death, Kathleen goes to the hospital pathology department and gazes through a microscope at some of the things that kill us and finds that this landscape too, has a strange beauty.  Microbes graze on fleshy mounds, cells divide like herds of animals on the veldt, heliobactor pylorus swims in stomach acid - perfectly adapted.

The essay I liked best was about trying to get to St Kilda - one of the wildest places on earth, over the horizon from the Hebrides heading for the arctic circle.  Once a thriving community, it is now uninhabited, a sanctuary for birds and other wildlife, and it is a World Heritage site.  The island has passed into mythology and is on a lot of people’s bucket lists. As Donald, the Islander whose boat she sails on, says;  ‘It’s like the Holy Grail.  The edge of the world.  That’s what they come looking for.  It’s what they’ve heard about and nothing else will do.’  Kathleen Jamie too wants to experience its isolation - ‘Sea-cliffs and abandonment’.

 She’s interested in the human history too. The island’s people had survived for over a thousand years - perhaps much longer - a people who knew how to live in primitive places. They kept themselves warm with peat fires and grew ‘a few crops and kept a strange kind of wild sheep, and they ate seabirds, and seabirds’ eggs.  They made shoes out of gannets and medicine out of fulmar oil; they stitched their clothes with feathers.’  It was a way of life that could survive the worst nature could throw at it, but not the temptations of the modern world.

But Kathleen’s first two attempts to get to the island ended in failure.  She was given a trip as a 40th birthday present, but while still at sea the weather changed and the boat - skippered by her friend Donald, a native of the islands - was unable to reach St Kilda; ‘wind and weather kept us firmly away’.  The second time, again in Donald’s yacht, Kathleen actually made St Kilda, to be met by a National Trust Ranger, with a Kensington accent, who read a list of by-laws before they were allowed to set foot on land.  She was surprised by a curiously modern, industrial building on the shore, which turned out to be a radar base for missile tracking.  Kathleen wandered up to the museum and looked at the photographs of St Kilda as it used to be, frustrated by the low cloud obscuring the views of the island.  But when she got back to the boat, Donald told her that the weather had changed again and they must leave immediately. ‘I’ve spent longer standing at bus stops,’ Kathleen remarks.  St Kilda seemed to be eluding her.

A chance meeting with an archaeologist friend changed everything.  The Royal commission on Ancient and Historical Monuments of Scotland was setting up a project to survey the ‘cultural landscape’ of the island, and Kathleen Jamie applied to be one of the volunteers.  One of her jobs was to help survey the stone structures left behind by the inhabitants - store houses called ‘cleits’, roofed with living turf ‘like a Neolithic Anderson shelter’.   There were more than 1400 on one island alone.  With the surveyors Kathleen learned to look at the landscape in a new way.  ‘It was like the difference between looking through a window pane and looking at it.’   And beyond the land, the light left shining trails on the water, whales breached and rolled off-shore, and the air was full of wheeling gannets and fulmars.

A cleit
But the experience of being on the island wasn’t what she had expected.  There was the constant awareness of satellite surveillance.  The volunteers were using GPS to map the buildings and Kathleen is unnerved by the knowledge of being watched.  ‘It was disquieting, to be aware all the time of satellites prowling unseen above the sky.’ A Japanese film crew circled the island in a helicopter.  And one day a cruise ship anchored off-shore and 200 tourists landed to look around.  ‘St Kilda, far from being an escape,’ is just another 21st century tourist destination.  Kathleen was in that frame of mind when the weather changed again.  She had the choice of leaving on the next tourist boat, or being trapped on the island for perhaps another week. ‘Go or stay?  I was hardly the first to have faced that choice.’  But her children are still young; ‘another week would be took long’.

The thing I like most about these essays is that they look at the landscape and our relationship with it in a way that is totally stripped of romance. Which doesn’t mean not being awed by it - as in Kathleen Jamie’s first encounter with icebergs, the aurora borealis - ‘natural wonder, enthralling, mysterious and wild’.

This book is essential reading for anyone interested in the natural world and the way we interact with it.

Sightlines  by Kathleen Jamie
Published by Sort Of Books
available on Kindle


  1. Glad to discover this review of one of my favourite books! There is something so quiet about her work, yet it's as important as any writing about natural history I've read. I also loved Findings -- and of course her poetry. All of a piece somehow, coming out of an integrated life, an observant eye and ear and maybe most of all, a generous heart.

  2. Lovely comment Theresa - I agree with all you say!