The Mitchell Library, 19th March
Nations define themselves by the stories they tell, and often these are the stories of edges and border. The Cliffs of Dover, for example, are an iconic image of the United Kingdom, separating the country from the sea and mainland Europe beyond. Similarly, the North-West-coast of the UK consists of the Hebrides, the landscape of which has been an image of empire or utopia, idealised and romanticized throughout history.
Madeleine Bunting inherited this romantic outlook on the Western isles from her father, who always dreamt about the “magical land over the hills”, when their family was on holiday in the Highlands. In her latest book Love of Country: A Hebridean Journey, former associate editor and columnist at the Guardian looks at the history and the role of the Hebrides in shaping both Scottish and British identity.
While only being a quarter Scottish and living in London, Bunting feels a deep sense of connection with the Hebrides. Throughout her talk for Aye Write, her love and fascination for the islands is palpable. She describes the complete wonder at the Hebridean landscape as “going to the absolute essence of our brief life on this beautiful planet and being fully present”; they are “places that haunt you long after you’ve left”. Her novel, a mix of memoir, travel-writing and philosophy, also looks at the engagement of other artists with the Hebrides, such as George Orwell, who wrote 1984 while living on the island of Jura, and J.M.W. Turner.
When she started writing the book, Bunting never thought the question of borders would have turned into a question of the UK’s relation with the EU and a strong nationalism seen everywhere in European politics. While the UK defined itself by its edges, such as the Hebrides, the empire-building project of the 18th-century was never fully completed on the islands itself, leaving pockets of Catholicism and Gaelic-speaking communities. Questions of belonging and what a country is speak to that time as much as they do to the UK anno 2017. In this time of referendums, Bunting states that this novel is “about questions, and whether we ask the right ones.” Rather than taking the text as an instruction, the reader should come to their own conclusion. However, when the question of the second independence referendum comes up during the Q&A any way, Bunting shares that, in her opinion, British-ness would be impoverished with Scottish independence, or rather, that British-ness would be over. While British-ness, being inherently multi-ethnic in Bunting’s view, gives space for British-Islamic identities, for example, she is unsure of how to create the same English identity that allows for a multiplicity of voices and identities. “How English-ness is currently shaping makes me feel homeless.”
Love of Country: A Hebridean Journey, by Madeleine Bunting is published by Granta Books in October 2016.