Alive alive-o: cockles picked on the shore in Falmoth, Cornwall. Photo: Getty
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“A stained valentine, like a crash-landed space shuttle”: the beauty of bivalves

The poet Jen Hadfield describes foraging for clams, cockles and mussels in spring on the Shetland shores. 

“The winters must be very difficult in Shetland,” people often say to me. I think they imagine a Shetland winter as an ingrowing or hibernatory season. But my stomping grounds – mapped by quests and curiosities – are more likely to be domestic in the summertime: nest scrapes lined with milky chips of quartz, the intricate flora of bog and moor, pea plants in the garden.

A summer beach is bonny, but douce in comparison to the ravishing and slightly manic Shetland spring, the extreme highs and lows of the tides. As many birds are leaving as arriving. No more Northern Lights, or night skies in which Sirius is a disco ball of hot colour. Come summer, I’ll be foraging for puffballs, chanterelles and ceps, but winter is the time for rich pickings on the shore; the spring tides of March and April being the last chance to harvest bivalves until autumn.

In his poem “Collecting Pipi”, Glenn Colquhoun taps the apparently atavistic brain state of the forager: “They leave suckingly/and clatter/at the bottom/of the bucket./Quietly/the sea feels/with a tongue/round the holes/in her still-hidden/gums.”

Foraging – and I’m sure there are parallels with skip diving and hitting the sales – seems to engineer changes in brain activity and our perception of our place in the world. As a non-scientist, I would still dearly love to understand what’s happening; so, in the spirit of opportunism, please consider this a call for recommended reading about the neuroscience of human foraging. In the meantime, I’ll see what I can do with prose.

Consider a walk to the cockle beds in the lowest tides of March or April. The mud is littered with plundered white shells. Storm-waves have fossicked the bivalves from their shallow roosts and black-backed gulls and other opportunists have raided the survivors on the shore. One live cockle is half-buried in the mud under a mop of seaweed. Hardly a feed, so you return it regretfully to the shallows. It’s fine to be away from the desk: it’s more of a thought than a feeling. You scan the shore and horizon for otters, seals, birds.

Come along a second walk, now. Same low tide, a grund ebb, a greemster o’ an ebb. But we’re going further. That half-hidden cockle is the first of many and a perfect heart-shape, a stained valentine, like a crash-landed space shuttle. The cram of a live cockle in your hand is greed itself, leaking a little as it sooks its lingerie of translucent tissues back into its shell, folding them over frilled siphons and a glimpsed golden yolk. The bladderwrack is saying something in its click-and-trickle language.

As you stalk the mudflats, filling your bag, modest fountains spurt in your peripheral vision. What is that? A doubled pipe is poking out of the mud, scrunching up into a brown, muppet-like face. Clams are the hearts of the muddy shore; sucking in and discharging brine through aortic-looking tubes. Tapped with your finger, the thick siphon winces into the mud.

The ten-metre-wide bay is like a mouth that you probe as if with your tongue, lifting swaths of seaweed, shifting rocks. The more food you find – salty, muddy, muscly, plosive, protein-rich, heavy, free – the more you shrink. As you work the shallows, a pterodactyl-like heron lifts with world-weary wingbeats. Unnoticed, a furry wreath uncoils from its nest of bladderwrack and pours into the water, pelt melting to mercury. Your heart beats faster; you’re beginning to see.

The rocks are shellacked in sea lettuce, a single cell thick. In deeper water are sweet, salty, crunchy kelps, patterned with lacy bryozoans. The yellow feet of whelks smooch over blades of kelp like animate marshmallows. You find mussels in a groin of rock and tear at them. Hidden spines jab you back.

You will quit only when the tide chases you out. Otherwise, you would gather more than you can eat. At the cockle beds you are a hungry ghost, like those souls in Buddhist mythology who are perpetually unsatisfied, because their eyes are literally bigger than their stomachs. As a forager, to be hungry is to become small, but not necessarily to be diminished.

Jen Hadfield’s most recent poetry collection, “Byssus”, is published by Picador (£9.99)

This article first appeared in the 01 May 2014 issue of the New Statesman, The Islam issue

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Gael blown: how cultural appropriation went hand-in-hand with the Highland clearances

Madeleine Bunting’s account of her travels in the Hebrides reveals an often-overlooked history.

In the opening pages of this excellent book, Madeleine Bunting tries to provide a justification and rationale both for her Hebridean journey and then her wish to write about the most complex of Britain’s archipelagos. As she points out, the Hebrides comprise no fewer than 270 islands and islets, 51 of which are permanently inhabited, and the Hebridean coastline, at 2,500 kilometres, is almost three-quarters that of England’s.

It transpires that Bunting’s connection to the nation’s north-western extremities really began when her parents went for holidays to a fragment of what she rather archly refers to as the Gàidhealtachd, the cultural territory of Scotland’s Gaelic-speaking, predominantly croft-working population.

Yet the Buntings’ “Promised Land”, as she calls their summer retreat, was nowhere near the Hebrides. It was in a hamlet called Amat at the heart of the salmon-rich Strathcarron, in Sutherland, near Scotland’s north-eastern coast. These visits were intermittent and happened only in her childhood, since when the author, Yorkshire born and bred, has migrated to London and become a committed metropolitan as well as a senior journalist with the Guardian. What right, one wonders, does she have to des­cribe her travels along Scotland’s Atlantic shoreline as in any way a “search for home”?

The answer is time and commitment. It has taken Bunting eight years to write this book and she made one excursion after the other in order to assemble her thoughts of these beautiful, storm-battered islands. That depth of engagement gives authen­ticity to the writing and substance to her arguments. In truth, she never really claims the Outer Isles as her own but she does ­inquire deeply into the Hebridean people’s own passionate devotion to place. She also illuminates how these islands, but more especially Celtic culture and identity, were instrumental in shaping all of Britain’s, and especially England’s, sense of self.

A critical moment for this came in 1765 with the publication by James Macpherson of The Works of Ossian. These were translations of Gaelic poetry and folk tales that went down a storm in literary Europe and alerted many to the overlooked oral culture of northern Scotland. The Works of Ossian are not without controversy – Samuel Johnson infamously dismissed them as fake and sneered at Gaelic as the “rude speech of a barbarous people” – but the book had a huge impact on Romanticism.

Imbued with Rousseau’s notions of the noble savage and antipathetic to the effects of industrialisation, writers such as Keats and artists such as Turner were suddenly alive to the savage beauties and the more authentic life-ways of the Scottish west coast. Bunting shows that behind this Romantic engagement with Hebridean life was a kind of cultural imperialism that developed through a series of opposites. If Celts were depicted as imaginative, idealistic and wild, then, almost by definition, the Anglos were utilitarian, pragmatic and civilised. If the Gael was backward-looking and melancholic, the Saxon must be optimistic and forward-thinking. Above all, the English were utterly dominant.

The author demonstrates how such cultural appropriation was intimately connected to territorial dispossession. Bunting takes us on a brief tour of the Clearances; the retelling still has the power to enrage, and she shows how the treatment of Hebridean crofters was identical to British imperialism in Africa or Asia. As she puts it tellingly, this is a “history which will not go quietly into the past”. Yet she also demonstrates that it was not Hanoverian England alone which suppressed the Gàidhealtachd. Much of the dirtiest work was done by former clan chiefs who had simply reinvented themselves as London-based grandees.

Bunting further points out that this colonial exploitation has hardly ceased. The recent plans to build a vast windfarm on Lewis, involving 234 turbines with sails the size of jumbo jets, and the 1990s quarry scheme to dismantle whole mountains on Harris to build English roads, are further demonstrations of how the centre plunders resources from its Atlantic periphery.

If I have a small disappointment in Love of Country, it is that Bunting makes too little of the Hebridean natural environment, which involves the most harmonious transaction between human beings and wildlife now found anywhere in Britain. The shell-based coastal lawns known as machair are among Europe’s richest habitats, still smothered in orchids and resounding to the sounds of lapwing display and curlew song.

At times one feels that Bunting thinks much harder than she looks. Occasionally she betrays her metropolitan roots. She describes rivers as being “the colour of manuka honey”, and of a chorus of birds like nothing she had heard before, she writes that “the air vibrated . . . setting all my senses alert”. The prose, however, is always most elevated when she engages the formidable clarity of her intellect. It is the almost perfect marriage of physical travelogue to the inner landscape of political ideas and cultural reflections that makes this such a super read. I cannot think of a more intellectually challenging or rewarding travel book in recent years, except perhaps Jay Griffiths’s Wild.

Love of Country is in every way a richer, more mature work than Bunting’s award-winning 2009 memoir, The Plot. I expect it to bring her prizes and fame.

Mark Cocker’s books include “Claxton: Field Notes from a Small Planet” (Vintage)

Love of Country: a Hebridean Journey by Madeleine Bunting is published by Granta Books (368pp, £18.99)

This article first appeared in the 20 October 2016 issue of the New Statesman, Brothers in blood