Patrick Baker, author of The Cairngorms: A Secret History, returns to Scotland to explore unwritten landscapes – the “discreetly acquainted places” of magic, drama, and human tragedy that don’t give up their stories easily. Alex Roddie reviews this ‘intriguing’ book.
This is a book of journeys and of wildness, but it does not fetishise wildness. Instead, it aims to look beneath the surface at the forgotten human stories that underpin our perception of the landscape. Baker’s narrative tries to disrupt “class-bound and urban interpretations of the past” to find something more honest. Our preconceived notions of what is “wild”, Baker says, can obscure the truer, deeper stories.
The journeys, then, are to a wide variety of places in Scotland, but they all have things in common: they hide layers of human history, and they all exert a powerful imaginative appeal. We visit the bleak Blackwater Reservoir where an isolated cemetery marks the graves of the Navvies who died constructing the dam. We walk along the old highway of Jock’s Road in the Eastern Highlands, learn about Davie’s Bourach and this place’s role in creating Scotland’s world-leading rights-of-way legislation. Islands feature prominently in this book: places of childhood fascination, symbols of exploration and independence. I was particularly fascinated by Baker’s quest to find St Finnan’s Bell – a legendary hand bell that had lain undisturbed in an old chapel on an island for hundreds of years, wreathed in legends. Other fascinating journeys include searching for the ruin of an illicit whisky still and delving inside the Assynt bone caves.
I was particularly intrigued by the idea that places themselves are capable of “emotional transferance” – that landscape can be a repository of collective memory, for those who are able to listen and learn rather than just see what is in front of them (or what their preconceptions have trained them to see). This book is a monument to slow travel, to intuitive and emotional responses to deep time, and to landscape as a record of immense social change. “There are wild landscapes which transcend our modern notions of utility and purpose,” Baker writes, “whose importance may never be fully understood yet which continue to resound with mystery and meaning.”
The Unremembered Places: Exploring Scotland’s Wild Histories by Patrick Baker is published by Birlinn Books (£14.99, 21 May 2020)