Antlers of Water: Writing on the Nature and Environment of Scotland, edited by Kathleen Jamie

Reviewed by Hayley Anderton

Ever since I read Findings sometime around a decade ago I’ve viewed anything with Kathleen Jamie’s name attached to it with interest and it’s probably fair to say that I was even more enthusiastic about the promise of Antlers of Water than I was about last years Surfacing. Antlers of Water is a collection of new writing on the nature and environment of Scotland, although writing doesn’t quite cover the scope of a book that also takes on the work of photographic artists like David James Grinly or Anne Campbell who mixes images with text in Gaelic and English.

It is by any standard an excellent anthology which has been expertly curated to confound, challenge, delight, and comfort. I didn’t realise until after I’d finished the book and was adding up the number of chapters to write about it that the balance tips in favour of women’s voices. I didn’t realise it whilst I was reading because the variety of women’s voices included is sufficient to dispel any preconceptions about how women might write about nature.

It’s worth mentioning because that variety is due to a series of choices – the choice to choose men who write about fatherhood as well as women who write about nature through the lens of their motherhood. The choice to amplify the voices of a good dozen women here with all the different concerns and strands of interest that implies, and the choice to let the essays in this book range over such a lot of different topics. It shouldn’t necessarily be noteworthy, but it does feel as if this collection is in part an extension to an interview that Jamie did in The Guardian last year which came with the headline ‘Nature writing has been colonised by white men’, as well as an answer to some of the criticism that it received.

It succeeds at doing both, and it’s probably more accurate to say that an interview that came out in October last year would be informed by the book that Jamie must have been working on then, even if she was promoting Surfacing at the time.

The other key thing that this collection does is to not just avoid the clichés of how we might be inclined to view wild Scotland, but to subvert them in all sorts of subtle, and sometimes not subtle, ways. Canongate is always an interesting publisher and this book is an excellent example of why, it is distinctly Scottish in that it’s informed by the landscapes its writers live, work, and observe in – the islands and highlands are here, sometimes drawing the responses we might expect but there’s always more going on. This isn’t the Scotland where you go to bag islands or Munro’s, it’s a home that’s being examined from within.

For me the bravest and most uncomfortable entry is Sally Huband’s chapter ‘Northern Raven’. There was an abbreviated version of this essay in The Times in early August focusing specifically around Up-Helly Aa, but there is more to Huband’s essay than this. It’s brave to talk about the darker aspects of island life when you’re in the middle of it because it will almost certainly cause some resentment, but these are also things that need saying. The raven as a symbol is a bird that’s at the heart of Shetland’s idea of its Viking heritage – which does nothing to protect the actual bird from those who see it as a threat to lambs. It’s an uncomfortable but necessary piece to read.

There are chapters which are a pure delight to read – Jim Crumley on the tomb of the eagles in Orkney, and Amanda Thomson writing about a voyage to some of the islands which are personal favourites. Things to re-read simply for pleasure. There are other chapters which I want to revisit because they call for further and deeper consideration, and inevitably a few that I have limited enthusiasm for, but that’s the joy of a good anthology – it has something for everybody.

I hope that Antlers of Water will be the first volume of an ongoing series. It feels like it should be, and it’s surely only scratched the surface of new Scottish nature writing. Even so it’s given me a list of writers to look up and look out for (each contributor gets a paragraph at the end which includes websites, twitter handles, and similarly useful details) it has to be a must buy for anybody with even the slightest interest in nature writing.

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Hayley blogs at Desperate Reader.

Kathleen Jamie, Antlers of Water, (Canongate, 2020) 9781786899798, 278pp., Hardback.

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