Thursday 22 March 2018

A treasury of landscapes and language

Landmarks, Robert Macfarlane, Hamish Hamilton

What's in a name: Macfarlane explores the Gaelic terms
used for landscape features, such as 'rionnach maoim' which
describes the shadows cast by clouds moving across the sky
What's in a name: Macfarlane explores the Gaelic terms used for landscape features, such as 'rionnach maoim' which describes the shadows cast by clouds moving across the sky
Landmarks cover

Hilary A White

In 2007, travel writer and academic Robert Macfarlane was shown a "Peat Glossary", an exhaustive catalogue of Gaelic terms for the features and characteristics of Outer Hebridean moorland.

He encountered phrases such as "rionnach maoim", which means "the shadows cast on the moorland by clouds moving across the sky on a bright and windy day". The tiny word "éit" was found to denote "the practice of placing quartz stones in moorland streams so that they would sparkle in moonlight and thereby attract salmon to them in the late summer and autumn".

Macfarlane was engrossed by the poetry and "compressive precision" of items within this glossary compiled from oral histories and archiving.

In the same year he prefaces in this magical new book, a new edition of the Oxford Junior Dictionary was published that amplified the poignancy of that Hebridean encounter. Words had been culled on the basis that they were no longer important to a present-day childhood and replaced with more "relevant" terms. "Acorn" made way for "attachment". "Cut-and-paste" elbowed "conker" out of the lexis. "Bluebell" was shot down by "bullet point". "For blackberry, read BlackBerry," Macfarlane half jokes.

The scary disconnect between young people and the outdoors may sound a very worthy premise on which to launch a volume about how language sculpts our sense of the natural world. However, Landmarks is a gift to be cherished by anyone with even a passing interest in the written word or just the world beyond our tablet screens. Hopefully, that's most of us.

Macfarlane, who has form in verve and dynamism (seek out the award-winning Mountains Of The Mind or The Wild Places), traversed the UK and Ireland to meet with remarkable people, places, animals and texts.

These he uses as prisms through which to savour the lingo that prevents landscape from becoming "blandscape". As the great Tim Dee puts it, "without a name made in our mouths, an animal or a place struggles to find purchase in our minds or our hearts".

In agile, streamlined prose, he riffs and rummages, taking an element at a time: water, mountains, woodland, coast etc.

En route, he compares Patrick Kavanagh to Aristotle, unpicks the mysterious life of JA Baker (author of the peerless 1967 classic The Peregrine) and befriends unique characters who suck him further into wonderment. Each chapter closes with a glossary for phrases in the many ancient and latter-day tongues of these islands.

Landmarks talks to you, not at you, and never lectures. Some nature writing can irk for being little more than "walking and reporting", but that well-trodden template is absent. Macfarlane presents the spoils of his research and legwork shoulder-to-shoulder with us, like a fascinating new friend at a dinner party.

A spellbinding non-fiction highlight of 2015.

Available with free P&P on

Sunday Indo Living

Entertainment Newsletter

Going out? Staying in? From great gigs to film reviews and listings, entertainment has you covered.

Editors Choice

Also in Entertainment