Few landscapes are as iconic as the islands off the north-western Scottish coast. On the outer edge of the British Isles and facing the Atlantic Ocean, the Hebrides form part of Europe's boundary. Because of their unique position in the Atlantic archipelago, they have been at the centre of a network of ancient shipping routes which has led to a remarkable history of cultures colliding and merging. Home to a long and rich Gaelic tradition, for centuries their astonishing geography has attracted saints and sinners, and stimulated artists and writers, inspiring awe and dread as well as deep attachment.
Over six years, Madeleine Bunting travelled north-west, returning again and again to the Hebrides, exploring their landscapes, histories and magnetic pull. With great sensitivity and perceptiveness, she delves into the meanings of home and belonging, which in these islands have been fraught with tragedy as well as tenacious resistance. The Hebrides hold a remarkable place in the imaginations of Scotland and England. Bunting considers the extent of the islands' influence beyond their shores, finding that their history of dispossession and migration has been central to the British imperial past. Perhaps more significant still is how their landscapes have been repeatedly used to imagine the British nation.
Love of Country shows how their history is a backdrop for contemporary debates about the relationship between our nations, how Britain was created, and what Britain has meant – for good and for ill.
Madeleine Bunting was for many years a columnist for the Guardian, which she joined in 1990. Born in North Yorkshire, Bunting read History at Cambridge and Politics at Harvard. She is the author of The Model Occupation: The Channel Islands under German Rule, 1940-45, Willing Slaves: How the Overwork Culture is Ruling Our Lives (both published by HarperCollins) and The Plot: A Biography of an English Acre (published by Granta in 2009) which won the Portico Prize and was shortlisted for the Ondaatje Prize. She left the Guardian in 2013 to concentrate on her writing. She lives in London with her family.
"[A] moving and wonderful journey through both the geography and history of the Hebrides [...] As much as it offers intellectual insight, Love of Country is readable and full of empathy [...] both the author and reader of this book end up losing themselves not just in politics and history and the details of nature, but a sense of wonder"
"[Bunting] explores the history and culture of the islands and, through them, the nature of home and what it means to belong to a place"
"[This] is a luminous enquiry into love of islands, their romance and their history chafing in the long-inhabited islands of the Hebrides, their myth and peoples; an exquisite and realistic account of life at the edge and at the edges of identity for this part-Catholic, part-Jewish writer. Her powers of concretion are poetic; she is hawkeyed amid nature, lucid of thought, a shining companion through the tangle of the isles"
– Candia McWilliam, Best Books of the Year, Herald
"Bunting explores the choppy history of the Hebrides and makes you feel you are there even if you have just left"
– Jackie Kay, Best Books of the Year, Observer
"A skilful exercise in weaving, drawing together the memories of childhood holidays in the Highlands, the literature and history of the Hebrides and her own journeys over six years"
"Part travelogue, part history, part personal reflection [...] Bunting is a good travelling companion, writing with involved detachment, and with a magpie's eye for intriguing detail"
"[Bunting's] crisp and luminous prose is the ideal medium to capture the ambiguities and dichotomies of the landscape; between ever-shifting sea and unfathomably old rock [...] Bunting has a keen eye for a story [...] [and her] great achievement with this book is to weave these elements together rather than concentrate on particular examples [...] When writing about the natural world – particularly the ocean – her prose reaches its own kind of lyrical epiphany. It seems to me that if the 'new nature writing' [...] is to be something more than Fotherington-Thomas from the Molesworth books swooning over tormentil and machairs, then it requires Bunting's engagement with questions of politics, religion, history, culture and our emotional response [...] [A] splendid, precise and gracious book"
– Scotland on Sunday
"[An] excellent history book [...] [Bunting's] depth of engagement gives authenticity to the writings and substance to the arguments [...] Almost the perfect marriage of travelogue to the inner landscape of political ideas and cultural reflections that makes this such a super read. I cannot think of a more intellectually challenging or rewarding travel book in recent years [...] Love of Country is in every way a richer, more mature work than Bunting's award-winning 2009 memoir, The Plot. I expect it to bring her prizes and fame"
– New Statesman
"Bunting has expertly combined history, literature and travel in a book that certainly taught me much that I was unaware of about these islands, which lie so close to the Scottish mainland but have a history and identity all of their own"
– National (Glasgow)
"Rich in detail, richer in writing: the elegiac Love of Country is one of the year's best, taking Madeleine Bunting through her old Hebridean haunts"
– Wanderlust Magazine
"Madeleine Bunting's rich, precise book addresses questions of history, religion, politics, culture, language and emotion as they affect the islands themselves and their residents, living or gone before, as well as the outsider's understanding of them [...] Bunting demonstrates with vivid craft [...] the truth of Rebecca Solnit's words in The Faraway Nearby: 'We thing place is about space but in fact, it is really about time' [and] makes the notion of arranging history around not time but places both seductive and refreshing [...] This beautifully structured book redresses any such imprecision without sacrificing a sense of numen and enchantment, while also cautioning us, in its refusal to be fanciful, not to project onto the real presences that these islands constitute our own Occidentalising imaginings"
– Literary Review
"Bunting weaves together the islands' rich culture with her own experience of feeling 'both at home and abroad' on these uninviting but welcoming islands"
– BBC Country File
"'Madeleine Bunting's pilgrimages to the farthest edge of Britain are revelations of place, language and perspective – uncovering a world rich in story; a world where the ambitious have often foundered, but where the quietly observant visitor can discover self-sufficiency, in the people, their unforgiving land – and in themselves"
– Ted Nield
"Madeleine Bunting's thoughtful, question-asking journey through the Hebrides makes Love of Country an indispensable guide to the past and present of one of the most inspiring landscapes in Europe"
– Ian Jack
"Madeleine Bunting writes with both heart and brain at full throttle, weaving together history, geography, literature as she travels the islands she has loved all her life. Love of Country is personal, erudite and quirky – through the history of the Hebrides she has hit on an original and timely exploration of what home means, of what Britain was, and what it has become"
– Lucy Kellaway
"A heroic journey that takes us as far into the regions of the heart as into the islands of the north-west"
– Richard Holloway
"[A] fascinating book [...] an eye-opener with a new stance – particularly blending the history of the various islands with the present day [...] The glorious text [...] is the best I have read about any of these islands in the past [...] It is simply a book you must read"
– Highland News
"An exploration of a part of the country where traditions have grown, identification established and the creative flair of numerous writers and artists have been ignited"
– Scottish Islands Explorer
"Bunting [...] brings to her meditative travels a historian's diligence, and a reporter's descriptive interrogations [...] She climbs and camps, braves pitching crossings, observes, interviews, reads and analyses [...] She summons the integrity of inquiry back into our definitions of 'home' and its foundations"
– Church Times