Roger Hutchinson: An island journey to reconcile with tangled memory

NOT JUST BOOKS….by Roger Hutchinson

In the May and June of 2017 Leonie Charlton and her friend Shuna Shaw rode their horses, Ross and Chief, from Barra to Lewis.

Seven years earlier Leonie’s mother, with whom she had a difficult relationship, had died.

Both the journey and the book which has since emerged, ‘Marram’, were deliberately undertaken by Leonie as both a tribute to her mother and an attempt, post mortem, to reconcile with her tangled memory.

Leonie, Shuna, Ross and Chief on their journey through the islands

Original travelogues are not easy to write, and the length of the Outer Isles is a well-worn route.

Parental memoirs are equally difficult to accomplish successfully. It is a tribute to Leonie (not forgetting Shuna, Ross and Chief) that she combines both in one charming volume.

But first, before we forget, a word about the publisher.

Sandstone Press is a truly remarkable, and too little recognised, Highland achievement.

The company was established in Dingwall in 2002 by Bob Davidson. Bob’s expanding operation led to a move to Inverness last year, but it remains true to his founding principles of a national/international publishing house rooted firmly in the Scottish Highlands.

Sandstone has combined local titles with offerings from authors all across the UK and the wider world. One of its books, ‘The Testament of Jessie Lamb’ by Jane Rogers, was longlisted for the Man Booker prize in 2011.

Last year the Man Booker’s 2019 international prize for translated novels was scooped by another Sandstone author, Jokha Alharthi, with ‘Sayyidat el-Qamar’ or ‘Celestial Bodies’.

It was the first novel by an Omani woman to appear in English translation, and the first translation from Arabic to win the £50,000 Booker international award.

Not bad for a modest little operation north of the Highland line.

Sandstone has proved that it is possible to combine such popular crime novels as Volker Kutscher’s Gereon Rath books with literary fiction – and with such distinctly local titles and authors as ‘There’s Always the Hills’ by Cameron McNeish, Johnny Muir’s ‘The Mountains are Calling’, and Andy Howard’s ‘The Secret Life of the Mountain Hare’.

Leonie Charlton’s ‘Marram: Memories of Sea and Spider Silk’ falls firmly into that category.

Unlike some other literary Hebridean adventurers, Leonie was not a stranger to the islands. Her father, Max Bonniwell, was a vet who was based for a time in Oban and whose work occasionally took him, accompanied by young Leonie, across the Minch.

Leonie’s companion Shuna is an Argyllshire woman: the sister of Capercaillie’s Donald Shaw and therefore the sister-in-law of the singer Karen Matheson, whose mother came from Barra.

The two women had already a foothold in the islands, and connections which would be valuable.

It is fair to say that simply turning up at Castlebay with two horses and expecting a carefree canter northwards through the machair and hills of the Long Island would not guarantee a stressless journey.

Leonie Charlton is known to her familiars as Beadie. The nickname was given to the baby by her mother, and it stuck into adulthood.

As a result, and because her mother was a jeweller and a collector of beads, Leonie/Beadie leaves tiny memorial beads at carefully chosen points on her path from Barra to Lewis.

“Where better than through this archipelago that she’d loved, itself a necklace of granite and sand, schist and gneiss, strung on streams of salt and fresh water.”

Her late mother inhabits the book like a living person. She is the third person on the pilgrimage.

There are echoes in Leonie’s memories of Esther Freud’s account of a hippy mother in ‘Hideous Kinky’. Vivid, free-spirited, loud and alive, her mother led Leonie on a merry dance through childhood until 1988, when the 16-year-old Beadie upped and left.

Her mother seems almost to have expected her daughter’s flight.

She continued living in Galloway with Paul Minns, a founder member of that echt-sixties free-form music group the Third Ear Band.

Minns hanged himself in 1997.

Thirteen years later cancer claimed Leonie’s mother. “My relationship with her was fraught with pain and misunderstanding,” writes Leonie Charlton, “at times I’d wondered if life would be better without her. Then she died and I was broken.”

There is more of the islands between Barra and Harris than of Lewis in ‘Marram’. That is because of a traumatic experience in the hills between north Harris and south-west Lewis.

For once unprepared, Leonie and Shuna decided to make for Callanish through the rough bounds between Kinloch Resort and Morsgail.

Despite a rough sign at the southern entrance to the district which read “Welcome to the last resort. You will never leave”, they underestimated the terrain.

The ponies were almost fatally sunk in peat bogs. This is a genuinely dramatic and disturbing section of Leonie Charlton’s book.

I will spoil no plots. Suffice to say that the incidents meant that they were unable to ride through Lewis.

Nor, it transpired, did they need to. The Southern Isles had done their work. A form of reconciliation had been achieved. “It was what it was, Mum,” concludes Leonie Charlton.

“Deeply flawed. Real. Human. Difficult. You were impossible. I was impossible. And all the same we loved each other. It was far from perfect. But it’s enough to know that I loved you, that I love you now, that I feel you in me… I’ll be travelling paths you opened to me for the rest of my life, travelling them with lion-hearted love.”

‘Marram: Memories of Sea and Spider Silk’, by Leonie Charlton, Sandstone Press, £12.99