In William Atkin’s The Moor, a heady brew of literary criticism, topography and nature writing, our attention was directed to that most enigmatic and evocative of landscapes. It is a stark place – clean-lined, curving, emptied of landmarks – the perfectly bleak backdrop of that classic work of inner-wilderness, Wuthering Heights.
Atkin’s walking and writing took in Bodmin Moor, Exmoor, Dartmoor and the North York Moors, but bafflingly stopped short ‘at the Scottish border – for there the island moors became a moorland sea; and because it was necessary to stop somewhere’. It was Atkin’s prerogative to set his own parameters, but I could not understand how a self-proclaimed moorland fanatic could pass up the opportunity to explore those endless, undulating uplands of the north: the sweeping panoramas of Rannoch Moor, the dense tapestry of heather and thatch and glittering pools of the Flow Country, the winding roads of Harris, lined on either side by the blackslash contours of freshly cut peat.
All the better then, now, to be shown around by Donald S Murray, the Scottish poet and author of Herring Tales, who grew up in Ness, on the Isle of Lewis, and has bathed in peaty water, literally and culturally, since birth. In The Dark Stuff: Stories from the Peatlands, Murray explores how the people of the moors have interacted with and been shaped by their environment, starting with his own experiences: long summers reluctantly spent cutting fuel with his father; a childhood of scrambling over hags hairy with dead grasses, playing on ‘possibly the only football pitch with a surface of bare and dusty peat’.
As a teenager Murray found the monotone landscape dull and deadening, but over time and through the work of Iain Crichton Smith, George Mackay Brown and others, he came to acquire a taste for the particular flavour of desolate beauty he depicts so well in The Dark Stuff. A depth of appreciation comes with familiarity: his father, he says, could shut his eyes and know the exact moment the car crossed the town boundary at Stornoway, when the distinctive aroma of peat smoke switched to that of coal, and with it the urban world of pavements, shops and the English language.
Could a non-Gaelic speaker have written this book? Perhaps not. The bilingual among us have not only two tongues, argues Murray, but two modes of thinking. Writing recently for the Scottish Book Trust, he expanded upon this point: ‘Each native language… contains its own landscape, summing up within its parts the unique way a country’s inhabitants have seen their world for centuries.’ Murray sprinkles terms borne of this process throughout his book: sùil-chruthaich, one Gaelic term for bog, translates literally as ‘eye of creation’; the margin between the peatbank and the wall of new-cut peats is known in his district as rathad an isein, or ‘the bird’s path.’
The richness and precision of the Gaelic’s descriptive language has been noted before: Robert Macfarlane, in Landmarks, highlighted the work of Finlay MacLeod and friends in the creation of a ‘peat glossary’ of Lewissian words. The beauty of these glossaries, I find, lies not so much in the words themselves as in the act of noticing, the necessity of making fine distinctions.
Non-moor-dwellers may too be gratified to learn of the different gradations of the peat bank made by those who cut them. The top layer, pillowy with spaghnum and dry grasses, is simply ‘turf’. The next layer, white peat (mòine bhàn) is matted with roots, ‘suitable only for smoke and rarely for flame’. Finally, in the depths below the surface, the good black peat (mòine dhubh), rich and dense, almost edible – the consistency of chocolate brownie which dries to a hard cake for the fire.
But bogland is not unique to Scotland, and Murray seeks to move his narrative beyond the hyperlocal. He demarcates the book via chapters titled in an assortment of peatland languages, taking in Irish Gaelic, Danish, Finnish, Dutch and Icelandic (although, confusingly, the origin of the title bears no relation to where the chapter itself is set). As he journeys to the Netherlands, Denmark, Ireland and Germany, patterns emerge: the universal perception of moorland as the ‘province of peat and poor people’ – where occupants were often judged by outsiders for their lack of fortitude in draining and converting to more productive farmland.
In Ireland, efforts to dig out the peat in ever greater quantity were laced with nationalist sentiment. During the Second World War, when coal supplies from England were interrupted, the large-scale harvesting of peat began in earnest, and with it came pride in self-sufficiency. Those efforts have left their own landscape, a scarred one. Murray visits the Irish Midlands, large areas of which were stripped of fuel in the twentieth century and now been left to recover, dug with trenches and left ‘the dull, khaki brown of a First World War battlefield’. The emptiness and flatness of the peatlands there took on the appearance of ‘the sea with the tide having gone out’.
More than once, Murray turns to maritime imagery to evoke the rolling aspect of moorland and its impact upon the human psyche. He likens the low hill behind his childhood home to Hokusai’s ‘The Wave’, and tells of occasions when he ‘might roll and reel, as if I were on a sea voyage’, toppling into dark pools shining with a petrol iridescence. In Ireland he visits a house sitting upon an island-like hill, surrounded by ‘a sea’ of peatland which recedes with every year, rolling back like a tide.
And as with the ocean, the peatland dwarves the onlooker. On a good day, it might thrill and astound. But in adverse conditions, one is easily lost in an endless expanse without landmark. It is a wilderness, in its more traditional sense: an uninhabited, inhospitable region. Where the peat has been loosened from its moorings by poor management, then heavy rain, a dark avalanche can rush from the hillside – ‘a flood of blackness’ engulfing all that lies in its path and leaving a flayed landscape in its wake.
The moor can appear empty, barren, but it has as many layers of history as it does peat. Murray meets a botanist who tells him of the cold store of pollen in its depths: a continuous record of climate and environmental change for thousands of years. An encyclopedia of life, for those who take the time to translate it. Dark episodes of human history too lie preserved under a blanket of moss; bog bodies emerge centuries later: Celtic kings, ritually sacrificed, and victims of countless unprosecuted crimes.
The desolate moorland ‘wastelands’ were home to some of the most distasteful episodes of European history. In the Netherlands, the cheap and plentiful land provided a accommodation for the least fortunate of society – although in time they became more akin to penal colonies, casting the poor adrift in a desolate landscape. In Germany, they were home to concentration camps: at Belsen, mass graves are shrouded with the heather of Lüneburg Heath; Dachau and Auschwitz too were built upon marsh and moss.
There is much then, in the story of the bog, to write of. To do so is to follow in the footsteps of literary giants. Murray writes of Seamus Heaney (‘the poet laureate of peat’) repeatedly, and tackles similar subject matter. It is hard to do so without provoking comparison. Murray is a poet himself, and the book is studded with verses in the key of peat: the strongest, to my eyes, is ‘Curlew’, which describes childhood ball games on the moor, the bird’s ‘rippling note’ calling matches to a close as twilight falls. Heaney has the more expressive take on Denmark’s Tollund Man; here, as in other spots, Murray devotes too much space to descriptions of the museums he visits along the way. Occasionally he lapses into the mannerisms of the local historian, quoting at length from websites, or making footnoted asides of Highland trivia. Liberal usage of qualifying language – ‘apparently’, ‘perhaps,’ ‘probably’ – lends his writing the gossipy, hand-me-down taste of oral history, although this tic also contributes to the islander lilt that gives the book its charm.
For Murray is very much a product of his upbringing. He cannot help but compare what he finds abroad to what he knows so well. The purplish tone of land near Aarhus reminds him of ‘the bloom of heather on the Scottish moors during August’; whereas Lüneburg is ‘too tame, timid and denatured’ to attract his admiration. In his eyes it cannot compare to the moors of Lewis and Harris and Uist and Benbecula.
Let us return, then, to that landscape of beaten metal. Descriptive passages of the Highlands and islands are where Murray’s writing soars to its highest heights. In one memorable passage, he drives to Sutherland – ‘long miles of emptiness… the deep coffee-shaded grey or red of moorland changing with the light of day’ – where herds of deer ‘hang out like gangs of shy and inscrutable teenagers at every corner’. It is stark, striking, recognisable. This book is a love letter to a homeland, barren and beautiful both.