Alain de Botton on the terrible poignancy of the thinning pate. Image: Chris Fraser Smith/Gallery Stock
Show Hide image

The best of the NS in 2014: Essays

Our best pieces from the past year - this selection gathers memoirs and features.

The last World Cup: after Brazil 2014, is the tournament finished?

By Jason Cowley.

Football is a supreme instrument of soft power and can unite people as little else can. But allegations of Fifa corruption have tarnished the image of the beautiful game. Can anything be done to save it?

Bring back the big cats: is it time to start rewilding Britain?

By George Monbiot.

Rewilding means the mass restoration of damaged ecosystems. It involves letting trees return and allowing parts of the seabed to recover. Above all, it means bringing back missing species.  

Humour in ancient Rome was a matter of life and death

By Mary Beard.

It has always been bad for your public image to laugh in the wrong way or to crack jokes about the wrong targets, not least in the presence of Caligula…  

Why are old people in Britain dying before their time?

By Danny Dorling.

Mortality rates for elderly people are rising across the country. Initially, the authorities blamed merely cold weather.  

Invisible subjects: the men who fuel the demand for prostitution

By Lucy Fisher.

If prostitution is the oldest profession in the world, then punting is the oldest consumer activity. Yet it remains broadly unexamined, perhaps because the questions it raises are too uncomfortable.  

Caroline of Ansbach: the Georgian queen who brought the Enlightenment to Britain

By Caroline Crampton.

Three hundred years ago, an unlikely set of circumstances led to a minor German aristocratic family becoming the British royal family. Once the Georges arrived, Britain took the first steps towards becoming the nation it is today.  

The rise and fall of Default Man

By Grayson Perry.

How did the straight, white, middle-class Default Man take control of our society – and how can he be dethroned?  

Anxiety nation: why are so many of us so ill at ease?

By Sophie McBain.

It is difficult to quantify whether it is our feelings of anxiety that have changed, or whether we’ve just watched too much Woody Allen.

Life and death at his fingertips: watching a brain surgeon at work

By Erica Wagner.

Henry Marsh is one of the country's top neurosurgeons and a pioneer of neurosurgical advances in Ukraine. Erica Wagner witnesses life on a knife-edge.  

How not to be a boy

By Robert Webb.

Nobody ever told me: you don’t have to waste years trying to figure out how to be a “man” because the whole concept is horseshit.  

Why empires fall: from ancient Rome to Putin's Russia

By Tom Holland.

Moscow, to western eyes, does not look much like Rome. But if there is any country in the world where the tug of the Roman ideal can be felt, it is Russia.  

What the Battle of Waterloo teaches us about Europe today

By Brendan Simms.

The centenary of the start of the First World War has reopened old wounds. Yet Germany and Britain once enjoyed a special relationship – as when they defeated Napoleon at Waterloo – and they could do so again  

More than old crocodile brains

By Brian Blessed.

Each of us has over a hundred billion cells in our brain, comparable to the number of stars in a giant galaxy. The cerebral cortex is our liberation.  

The terrible poignancy of the thinning pate

By Alain de Botton.

Baldness has been spun as synonymous with exaggerated potency, but the bald know that, far from having the vigour of a skinhead, most of them look like nothing so much as a fragile librarian.  

The long ride to Riyadh

By Dave Eggers.

A tense taxi journey across the Saudi desert makes the author consider the folly of nationality.  

Before the First World War: what can 1914 tell us about 2014?

By Richard J Evans.

Old world decline, rogue empires, killing for God – looking at 1914, we can discover that there are many uncomfortable parallels with our own time.

Show Hide image

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