Love of Country elucidates the importance of one of Britain’s edge communities, the Hebrides, in the formation of national identity.
Edge communities have been all the rage in U.S. cultural production over the last year, from Oscar-winning films (Moonlight) to best-selling books (Hillbilly Elegy) to the newest viral podcast (“Shit Town”). But these explorations of edge communities lack an analysis of the way such fringe areas have been crucial to shaping mainstream U.S. society, an especially egregious omission considering that Miami slums, Appalachian hollows and Alabama lumber towns have each played an undeniably vital role in the construction—both literal and metaphorical—of the United States.
Madeleine Bunting’s Love of Country, in contrast, does elucidate the importance of one of Britain’s edge communities, the Hebrides, in the formation of national identity. She demonstrates the way that local and regional ideas have conflicted with and helped to shape British policies and ways of thinking. Love of Country performs this difficult intellectual labor while also serving as a wildly entertaining travelogue. In fact, while Bunting lambasts the nineteenth-century Romantics’ portrayal of the Scottish Isles as an idyllic playground, reading her evocative prose still conjures the peaty campfire taste of an Islay malt whisky or the stiff, salty sea breeze of a jagged Skye peninsula. This is more a book for the traveler who has already fallen in love with the Hebrides and their beautiful geography and people than it is for the uninitiated—the reader needs to already have that ever-constant pang for the Isles.
Love of Country details Bunting’s island-hopping throughout the Hebrides, from south to north. The seven chapters concentrate on specific islands: Jura, Iona, Staffa, Rum, Eriskay, Lewis and St. Kilda, but the book is broader and features lengthy sections on Barra, Harris and the Flannans as well as short anecdotes about virtually every single Hebridean isle, rock pile or ferry-accessible point of interest.
Bunting delves into the history of Gaelic Scotland in most chapters, describing the Jacobite rebellion, the subsequent clearances and the depopulation of the land in the wake of the World Wars. She also cleverly interrogates the Gaelic-Briton encounter, both through the eyes of famous English writers like George Orwell and Samuel Johnson and through the research of recent historians who debate the nature of British incursion into the area. She jostles with several prominent scholars of nationalism and links their theoretical tomes to the rocky slopes of the Hebrides. Bunting also works diligently to consistently center Hebridean culture and daily life, lionizing the brutality and endurance of life on this edge without being reductive or quixotic. This is a careful and thoughtful celebration of subsistence fishing, crofting and the preservation of an endangered language.
Love of Country’s characters include the ascetic Celtic monks who brought Catholicism to the region more than a thousand years ago, “islophilic” amateur ornithologists obsessed with the bird colonies, avaricious Victorian playboys who bullied the islanders and Bunting’s rain-sodden fellow-travelers as she drives and ferries all around the Minch. With this cast, the book is able to illuminate the contradictions of modern society’s methods for dealing with nature and diversity. For instance, outsiders have often posited the Hebrides as untrammeled wilderness, but the Isles have historically been heavily populated; that population was heralded as backward or savage, but Gaelic culture is rich, poetic and erudite. These contradictory viewpoints have been central to British society’s construction of itself as both civilized and civilizing; the Isle Gaels are the counter-image of what is genuinely British.
The real pleasures of Love of Country are not intellectual, but rather visceral. Bunting is good at discussing ideas, but she is outstanding at summoning the sensory experiences of the Hebrides. This book is an experience: of the impossibly white sand of the beaches, the implausible desolation of the moors, the terror of the dark and looming Cuillins and the overwhelming presence of millions of sea birds. Through her words, a reader can see and feel and smell the Isles.
The book has its issues. The most glaring problem with Love of Country is the highly unsatisfying images. There is only one map for the whole book; there should be at least one for each chapter, as the writing is much more geographically-detailed than the single map can possibly express. The photographs are also insufficient: they are too few in number, too low in quality, lack captions and are often not of the main sites under discussion. Having access to a Google image search is crucial to enjoying the book. Bunting also ignores one of the more obvious features of the Hebridean landscape: the dozens of lighthouses constructed throughout the nineteenth century. A discussion of their establishment would seem crucial to the narrative of nation and identity at the center of the book and their absence is a real puzzle. It is also worth emphasizing that there are far too few sheep in Love of Country—the Scottish islands are full of sheep.
In spite of these critiques, Love of Country is a wonderful book and an essential one for a lover of the Hebrides who is now estranged from those magical isles. It is not exactly a cure for wanderlust—it just deepens the desire to return—but it does provide a good excuse to finally buy that expensive bottle of Talisker and ample motivation to decipher the grammar rules for lenitions in the Celtic languages.