A Message that Stands the Test of Time

  07 Dec '20   |  Posted by: Birlinn

The demands of publishing and the constant need for new books can often be an exhausting and demanding process. One of its great pleasures is when books come out of that process which have a message that stands the test of time, a message that keeps them relevant and in print long after the fluff and noise of social media have moved on. These are often quite ‘quiet’ books but books whose authors can communicate a passion and a commitment which makes them jump to life. In a time of COVID there are three books that I would like to say a little about that all share a single message – that the strength and resilience within each of us can be drawn on in times of crisis or used to build from in better days.

Anne Cholawos Island on the Edge is a remarkable story about a young woman who gave up a comfortable life in the south of England to come and live on her own on an island she had never seen, an island with no regular ferry service and where she quite simply had to teach herself to survive. Soay is a remarkable and incredibly beautiful island with the Cuillins towering on one side and the Elgol peninsula on the other. It’s a place I have been to and have had the privilege of being menaced by its most famous inhabitant, Tex Geddes, with a harpoon. When Anne arrived there were eighteen people on the island. There are now three. Anne is the last tradition bearer of the place, a place where thousands of years of human occupation now hang by a thread. There is something to me very sad about the loss of memory in Scotland as we seemingly accept an endless retreat and retrenchment of population into centralised and faceless conurbations when everything about the multiple crises that we have brought on ourselves shouts out exactly the opposite. This is a powerful and moving book and a statement of hope about what we can be if we find it within ourselves.

Polly Pullars A Drop in the Ocean is the story of Laurence MacEwen and the island of Muck. Laurence is one of the most extraordinary people I have ever met. In his lifetime Muck’s population has grown from the low teens to almost fifty and any visitor to the island can see the signs of new housing, treeplanting, sustainable development and above all a vibrant and successful community built on a remote island without mains electricity. Laurence and the people of Muck put most politicians to shame in what they have achieved and how they have achieved it. One of my most moving memories when we launched the book was walking over to the headland on which stood the MacEwen graveyard and seeing the depth of their connection to the land in a place looking out on the spectacular mountains of Rum.

My third book is very different. It is Mike Cawthorne’s Walking Through Shadows, a walk across Scotland in the depth of winter in memory of a friend with an autistic companion using food dumps to survive. As we drive round Scotland in the comfort of our cars we forget the harshness and toughness of the landscape and how survival itself is at a premium. We are lucky in the depths of wilderness we still possess and the journey Mike describes is a truly epic one in every sense, battling demons of weather and mind.

All of these are books where the sense of place is not an end in itself but a grounding for something much bigger and deeper about our humanity. None of the authors or subjects place themselves in the forefront of the books. This is what they do, this is who they are. And through all of them in a very special way comes a realisation that fulfilment of who and what we can be comes not from the tricks and baubles of a never to be sated consumerism but from reaching into ourselves to find a strength we often fear is lacking. To categorise these as books about islands, or walking – as the modern book trade seeks to do – is to trivialise what they say and the hope they give. They are books that in recent years have particularly moved and stayed with me. I hope they might do so for you.

Hugh Andrew, Managing Director

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