Sightlines – Kathleen Jamie

Kathleen Jamie’s writing is beautifully calm & thoughtful. They’re the adjectives I would use to describe this lovely collection of essays which all hinge on the idea of seeing. I find the best way to read essays or short stories is to read one a day so that I have time to mull over the words & the images that the best essays & stories call up. I haven’t read any of her poetry but I think that must be my next step.

The other attraction of Jamie’s writing is the setting. Most of the essays are about Scotland. The most evocative writing is about Scotland. She writes about staying on the remote island of Rona, out in the North Atlantic, on the way to Iceland. She is going there with a couple of scientists, one an archaeologist, to observe the bird colonies & plotting the grave markers in the churchyard of St Ronan’s chapel, to record the damage of the elements. She describes how she helps Stuart, the ornithologist, count the number of nests of the rare Leach’s petrel.The birds nest in the field walls of the ruined village & Jamie is instructed to give three blasts from a Walkman with a recording of the bird’s call on it “anywhere that looks likely” & listen from the response if there’s a bird on the nest. She soon learns to pick the likely places but Stuart is worried about the much smaller numbers of nests than on his last visit, ten years before.

Another essay describes three visits to the remote island of St Kilda. St Kilda has become an iconic place. Once a place where a few crofters made a precarious living scaling the cliffs for birds eggs, the last inhabitants asked to be evacuated from the island in the 1930s. The conditions were just too hard & the young people had all left for the mainland in search of work. The island is now a bird sanctuary managed by the National Trust & it’s become a dream destination for bird fanciers.  On the first attempt, the weather turns the boat back, disappointing the tourists who have come from all over the world to see the birds. A couple of years later, Jamie tries again, chartering the same boat & anxiously watching the weather forecast. This time, they get there but have to leave early due to a worsening weather forecast. Jamie just has time to take in the radar base on the island, tracking possible missile launches & the little museum with its photos of 19th century men & shawled women.

Eventually, a few years later, Jamie goes to St Kilda as part of a group of scientists surveying the cultural landscape of the now World Heritage site. The ruined village narrowly escaped destruction when the army built the radar base & now the Heritage listing means it can’t be touched. There are also ancient, possibly prehistoric structures called cleits, to be surveyed. Cleits were storehouses, made of drystone & roofed with turf. Deciding how old the cleits were is a problem. As one of the archaeologists says, “The Stone Age went on until 1930!”

Whales are a constant presence in the book. Watching a group of killer whales circling an island, musing on the giant whale jaws set up as gateways in former whaling ports. My favourite essay was about a visit to a museum in Bergen. The Hvalsalen, the Whale Hall, was in the process of restoration. The many whale skeletons collected & displayed in the 19th century are being cleaned & repaired. The size of the skeletons raises many questions. How were the specimens collected? Were they the results of whaling, deliberately hunted for the purposes of being displayed in the Museum, or were they whales that had been stranded? Even more interesting, how did they get the skeletons up several flights of stairs to their final resting place? The meticulous cleaning of the bones will take months using ammonia, toothpicks & a washing-up brush. Imagine tackling the cleaning of the skeleton of a blue whale with such tools.

There’s so much of interest in this essay. The wonder of the exhibits – 24 cetaceans suspended from the roof of the Museum. The sheer size of the whales & the beauty of their buttery colour & graceful sweeping bones. The troubling questions about the history of the whaling trade, the immense damage done to whale populations that still goes on today, although at a smaller scale. The dedicated work of conservation being done by the team of young workers, none of whom have ever seen a live whale.

It was a privilege to be able to see this place & all the journeys in this book through Kathleen Jamie’s eyes.

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