Book Review: Sightlines by Kathleen Jamie

Kathleen Jamie’s extraordinary book of essays is full of journeys and discoveries, most of them taking place in high, fierce latitudes, buffeted by the wind, frozen and dazzled by bright northern days. And the book is a collection of marvels, like a scrapbook compiled by someone with a keen eye and an enormous heart.

It shrieks and blows with the noises of wild things and isolation – there are accounts of her visit to gannet sanctuaries and abandoned island villages, descriptions of whales, petrels and guillemots on the very edge of the inhabited world.

Jamie has already won prizes for her poetry, and that’s no surprise: ‘...To be named for the sky or the rainbow, and live in constant sight and sound of the sea. After a mere fortnight, I feel lighter inside, as though my bones were turning to flutes’.

And here’s a description of a flock of crossbills taking flight on the Isle of Rona: ‘There were about a hundred – the males were bright red and the females brown, so when they all flew by, they were like ambers blown from a bonfire.’

There were times when I got a little slowed up by the archaeology and naturalist lore, but then some delicious fact would stop me in my tracks: ‘It was said that when Hirta was inhabited, a thorough-going gale would leave the people deaf for days’.

Central to the collection is the recurring presence of whales – and more especially whale bones. She is at her most elegiac and inspiring in some of these passages, describing the whale bones set up as monuments around the country: ‘Whales apparently hear through their jawbones; they have no external ears as we do – so the very jawbones now raised around the country at large would, in life, have picked up sound waves in the ocean. What did they hear, these jaws, these eardrums? They heard us coming, that’s what.’

‘Sightlines’ is published by Sort Of Books – CLICK HERE to be directed to the relevant Amazon page.