Marram, published by Sandstone Press, is a lilting account of the author, Leonie Charlton, and her ride (together with a friend) on Highland ponies across the Outer Hebrides from Barra to Callanish on Lewis. Charlton, author of short stories and poetry, dedicated her first full-length book to her mum, a jeweller, with whom she had a tricky relationship: “I’d wondered if life would be better without her. Then she died and I was broken.”
The carefully chosen language and the delicacy of description, is a great strength of this travelogue – inviting the reader to smell and touch the landscape. It causes the reader to slow to a walking pace and admire the “empty, sun-bleached snail shells” at our feet, and to look up and listen to the Arctic terns which “serrated the air with their cries”. Marram is full of colour: “the aubergine hue of the South Uist hills”; a drake mallard a “startle of tourmaline”; the “gold-gilt” of the title’s grass.
Alongside the lush detail lies narrative and some reported conversation – intimate shared memories, meetings with islanders who offer grazing, and much fascinating local history.
With a few more travel books by women thankfully being published nowadays, some featuring extreme treks and adventures, Charlton moves around with a refreshing and altogether ‘Shepherdian’ disregard for clocking up the miles or achieving great summits. The group endure their fair share of turbulent weather, not only dreich terrain and sodden camping, but silent striding which allows for recollections of sick beds to surface and feelings to be bravely faced. Although they dine on oysters and prosecco, they also display capability and strength when called for.
The reader is pre-warned, but it is nevertheless shocking when, towards the end, there is a hair-raising account of encountering some serious difficulty, and the established pace and style of the writing changes to reflect this incident. However, despite the occasional humorous episode (one horse takes a very long pee in a church carpark!) and a few joyous beach gallops, the overriding gait of the ruminative narrative is steady throughout. This is indeed a quiet, attentive book which brings the remote country alive, and reminds people to go off and explore.