I first heard of Kathleen Jamie’s books through reading about the publication of her new book, Sightlines, at Dovegreyreader & at Desperate Reader here & here. I love reading about Scotland, especially the islands & this sounded perfect. Findings is a series of essays about journeys that the author takes around Scotland & the observations she makes. Jamie is a poet & this is obvious from the beautiful way she describes the places, animals & objects that she observes. There are essays about the skyline above Edinburgh, a visit to Playfair Hall which houses a collection of anatomical specimens & a boat trip out of Tobermory where she sees whales & dolphins playing. Bird watching is a constant theme as Jamie watches a pair of peregrines nesting or sighting a rare crane.
My favourite essay is about a trip to the prehistoric monument of Maes Howe on Mainland Orkney. There are many prehistoric monuments on the Orkney islands. Maes Howe is a chambered cairn where the bones of the dead were placed. The cairn was constructed so that the light of the setting sun would enter the tomb for just a moment at the midwinter solstice. Jamie has been thinking about the metaphors of darkness & light & how they’ve been used over the years so decides to see if she can visit the cairn at the solstice & see the light filling the tomb. This happens for several days around the time of the solstice if the weather conditions are favourable. No one really knows what the purpose of the light was. Was it a religious symbol or a way of telling the time of year? Did it have some magical significance? Did Neolithic people enter the tomb at solstice or was the show just for the ancestors?
You enter into the inner chamber of the tomb by a low passageway more than 25 feet long. It’s more of a journey than a gateway. You don’t have to crawl on hands and knees, but neither can you walk upright. The stone roof bears down on your spine; a single enormous slab of stone forms the wall you brush with your left shoulder. You must walk in that stooped position just a moment too long, so when you’re admitted to the cairn two sensations come at once: you’re glad to stand, and the other is a sudden appreciation of stone. You are admitted into a solemn place which is not a heart at all, or even a womb, but a cranium.
The atmosphere was slightly marred by the presence of surveyors from Historic Scotland, taking measurements of the tomb to check whether there has been erosion to the fabric of the stone. Their bright lights & the presence of webcams detract from the atmosphere a little. The weather is cloudy & Jamie doesn’t experience the moment of light entering the tomb but she isn’t too disappointed.
My ventures into light and dark had been ill-starred. I’d had no dramatic dark, neither at sea nor in the tomb, and no resurrecting beam of sunlight. But lasers are light, aren’t they? Intensified, organised light. I’d crept into Maes Howe at solstice, hoping for Neolithic technology; what I’d found was the technology of the 21st century. Here were skilled people passing light over these same stones, still making measurements by light and time. That thought pleased me.
I enjoyed reading about Kathleen Jamie’s journeys through time & around Scotland. In a busy world, she manages to stop & experience nature, watching birds & examining the corpse of a whale on the beach. I’m looking forward very much to reading Sightlines.