In his latest book, The Unremembered Places, historian and author Patrick Baker travels the length and breadth of Scotland in an attempt to uncover the history of its people through its places. Over centuries, trails, caves, roads and islands have fallen into ruin. Baker chases these down and seeks to inform, enlighten, and imbue them with renewed meaning. In each chapter, he undertakes a different journey taking the reader from Argyll in the West to Aberdeenshire in the East; from Lochaber in the North to the Firth of Clyde in the South.
Through each journey various aspects of history come to life. The storytelling takes different forms and is always uncovering fresh layers. Some particularly poignant pieces include the history of osprey hunting and how these birds were nearly hunted to extinction. Another, of course, are the stories of the Highland Clearances.
The book’s blurb almost does it a disservice by describing it as a nature/travel read – it is so much more than that. The engineering marvel of the Lighthouse Stevensons, the geological debates on the formation of the Highlands, many religious sites of theological value, and the threats in the Forth after American independence all add colour to the places that may otherwise seem bereft of meaning.
Baker’s prose makes for slow, steady reading. And not being a long read it is particularly suited to ‘isolation reading’ where attention spans may be lower amongst readers. There is enough to savour slowly and mull over like, for instance, the writing of a gull’s flight during his travels on the Ardnamurchan Peninsula:
“I watched as it shaped its course, silently surveying the land below it: the empty sickle-shaped bay, the strange volcanic forms of the hillside, the ruins of the township half-hidden in the moorland, and the solitary human figure moving among them.”
Through his travels, Baker transcends time. It may be a while yet before we can enjoy these places for ourselves again but in the meantime, The Unremembered Places will take us there.