Scotland has featured prominently in the explosion of writing about the natural world in the past two decades. Yet often this work is written from the point of view of an outsider. As Kathleen Jamie makes clear in her introduction to Antlers of Water, the first collection devoted to contemporary Scottish nature writing, the perspective of those who live and work in Scotland is very different. “Our experience of our land and nature is not one of ownership”, she writes. “[And] certainly not of the landscapes that feature on calendars.”
This, then, is a welcome corrective, uncovering a country that has hitherto been underexplored. The twenty-three writers, poets and artists collected here include established authors, like Gavin Francis, Jim Crumley, Amy Liptrot and Jamie herself. But there are emerging voices, too, with contributions from the poets Chris Powici and Em Strang, and the memoirist Chitra Ramaswamy. The subjects tackled are varied and unexpected, ranging from an exploration of a forgotten archaeological attraction to mothering an autistic child. The Scotland we find here is a bracingly complex place, deeply enmeshed in contemporary concerns, such as migration, globalization and the climate crisis. It is a congested and contested space; its landscapes home to Red Kites and Roe deer, but also to wind farms and radioactive leakage from nuclear power plants.
The collection is not organized thematically, but there are suggestive correspondences between the pieces. Jacqueline Bain’s reflection on the nests wasps build in her back garden, season after season, as her mobility declines comes before Gavin Francis’s deep-time mediation on bones salvaged from the Firth of Forth: “the detritus of everyday life, grown strange with age”. Anne Campbell overlays Gaelic song, poetry and handwritten annotation on archive photographs of the Lewis Moorland in a way that evokes the dense historic texturing of the place. Her work is followed by Garry Mackenzie’s “Ben Dorain: A conversation with a mountain” which interlaces an eighteenth-century Gaelic ode with new material by the poet; a call-and-response that echoes across a divide of 250 years.
Noticing, suggests Jamie, “amounts to a political act”. It also yields some very fine writing. Jen Hadfield describes foraging in the tide pools of Shetland with surreal vividness: “It occurs to me that what I’m standing in, what I’m wading through, is nothing less than the entire Atlantic … The water is lagoon-warm, skin a formality”. But that attention can be unsettling, too. In David James Grinly’s teasing, monochrome photographs, nature – trees, moors, hills – peers uncannily from behind a suburban landscape of telephone lines, privet hedges and garages. “Is there an identifiably Scottish streak to their work?” Jamie wonders. She answers: “All responded, I believe, out of love of the world, and our particular place in it”.