Touring the northwest quadrant of the “damp Atlantic archipelago of the British Isles.”
The quintessentially British Bunting, former longtime Guardian columnist, traces her heritage to four roughly equal components: Jewish, Irish, Scottish, English, the first being the “most exotic,” the others pretty well canceling out any temptations of ethnic nationalism. Thus freed from certain preconceptions but given to a certain kind of border Scottish-meets-Yorkshire practicality, Bunting ventured into the well-traveled Hebrides at just the time that Scotland’s nationalists were venturing most closely to breaking the union with England. As if to put off worldly things for a more sacral view of place, she began her travels with a visit to Holy Isle, on the Argyll coast, a kind of jumping-off spot into the Hebrides. As she writes of juxtaposed cultures and historical associations, she is aware not only of the ethnic and social diversity of these places, but also of the many travelers who have preceded her, including poets and writers such as Auden and Orwell. Even today, as she recounts, the places of the northwest can offer cultural surprises: that early stop was to a place once thick with monks, once Christian hermits but now Tibetan Buddhists. And thick with tourists, too; after crisscrossing the Hebrides, Bunting journeyed to St Kilda, once the most remote of the islands but now heavily visited by people seemingly in need of crossing it off a life list. Ever bookish, Bunting, in the company of a former player in the Buzzcocks, ponders such matters and quotes the French revolutionary Saint-Just: “the present order is the disorder of the future,” which perfectly describes the piles of picked-over Harris tweed in the tourist shops.
In the end, it is clear from Bunting’s lively, literate book why, in the words of an Irish poet, the Hebrides might become part of one’s “soul territory.”