Tuesday, 26 October 2021

FROM THE ARMITT TO THE HEBRIDES

What to do on a wet day in Ambleside? I've wondered about this since my first visit to Ambleside when I was in my teens. I mean wet - torrential quasi-monsoon wet. The answer, I recently discovered, is to visit the Armitt - the wonderful independent library, museum and gallery founded by the Armitt sisiters, Sophia and Mary Louisa, in 1909 and rehoused in a fine slate and stone building in 1997. There is so much to see - examples of the work of Beatrix Potter and Kurt Schwitters, many fascinating objects (including artefacts from the Keswick School of Industrial art) and a wonderful collection of (mainly Lake District) books. My friend was soon lost in a history of her old school written by one of her former teachers. I discovered the wonderful and extensive Fell and Rock Climbing Club collection of books, permanently housed in the Armitt library. I spent a happy hour browsing and reading. There are books about mountaineering of course but also about wild places in general. I was delighted to discover books by the Scottish naturalist, walker and prolific author, Seton Gordon (1886-1977). I settled down with Hebridean Memories, first published in 1923. I've visited several Scottish islands so it was fascinating to be transported back in time almost a century ago. The books are not for lending so when I got home I bought second-hand copies of Hebridean Memories and the almost equally fascinating, Afoot in the Hebrides (1950). Seton Gordon, especially in his earlier books, records a way of life that was disappearing in the first half of the twentieth century and influenced poets such as Sorley Maclean and Iain Crichton Smith. It was a simple way of life but hard and poor. Seton Gordon first visited St Kilda archipelago when the main island of Hirta was still inhabited and he wrote a scary account of landing with the islandmen on Boreray. He visited again after the evacuation, mentioning that a few islanders returned every summer to work at weaving the St Kilda tweed. Robert Atkinson's classic book Island Going goes into more detail about the way the summer islanders picked up the threads of their old way of life. But the threads were fragile - the Second World War ended their summer visits. Past classics of island literature tend to have been written by men in the past, but now we can add women writers such as Kathleen Jamie and Madeleine Bunting to the list. I visited the St Kilda archipelago in 2010 and wrote a sequence of poems which were later published in North Words Now. At the Armitt in Ambleside I spent a happy morning revisitng the Hebrides - and sheltering from the rain. www.armitt.com Seton Gordon Afoot in the Hebrides (Country Life 1950) and Hebridean Memories (1923, reprints 1995 and 2011 Neil Wilson Publishing. Robert Atkinson Island Going (Collins 1949; reprinted Birlinn 2008) Kathleen Jamie Findings (Sort of Books 2005)and Sightlines (Sort of Books 2012) Madeleine Bunting Love of Country (Granta 2016)

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