Helmgras_kijkduin_februari_2005

Marram Grass, Ammophilia arenaia

Marram describes the journey on Highland ponies through the Outer Isles, by Leonie Charlton and her friend. They ride from the tip of Barra up South and North Uist, the islands of Harris and Lewis, to the ancient stone circle of Callandish. Living in Argyll, loving  the Scottish countryside, Leonie proves an observant guide. During the 22 day ride she shares the drama of what is also a pilgrimage. Leonie lays a trail of beads in memory of her late mother, a jeweller.  As Leonie reflects on their relationship, ‘fraught with pain and misunderstanding’ she comes to accept and understand it.

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Callanish standing stones

At the beginning of the book, two interfacing maps chart the way. Each day of the journey is given its own chapter. Detailed descriptions include: scenery, the ponies and their well-being, conversations between Leonie and her friend and the people they meet. Black and white photos accompany the text. ( though colour would have been even better!)

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Mute swan landing on water

For the most part,  description gives the reader the specific details of the journey, interspersed with vivid images.

‘We stepped over old turf dykes, through constellations of Bog Cotton, across banks of Ling Heather and Deer Grass and Black Sedge. From the nose of the hill two faces peered down at us, a ewe with white face markings showing some Swale blood, and her black-faced lamb. She lifted pale eyebrows towards us, her lamb’s eyes lost in the pitch of its face.’

Leonie is an experienced rider,  having completed several long trips with her friend. They decided not to meticulously plan this journey, so they can pause and listen to Oystercatchers, or make an unplanned stop-over after a mix-up over the date for a ferry crossing. This creates a sense of adventure, particularly towards the end when serious and life-threatening problems arise.

What makes Marram a particularly absorbing read, is Charlton’s memories of her childhood and late mother. She describes her kitchen:-

All around the room on this (tiny) shelf, were Mum’s treasures: a dead Stag Beetle, a dried out Frog, Fish fossils, a carved wooden figure, the size of a bantam’s egg, that when you tilted it forwards its eyes and tongue popped out on tiny ivory stalks.

During the journey, the reader meets many varied people- Kathryn at Valley who is also a lover of horses, some decidedly weird men as the couple leave Kinloch Rèasort where…

‘In the daylight Kinloch Rèasort had felt remote and isolated In the peat-light, I felt the presence of past people. … Fleas bit my stomach, the camp beds were full of them. I scratched at my body, feeling the changes in texture where each stretch mark crossed my stomach. I scratched harder and harder…’

The book combines demanding outer and inner journeys. The riders meet increasingly difficult challenges. All pilgrims are given the chance to grow. Descriptions of the islands are detailed and evocative and it is easy for the reader to travel along with Leonie. Her relationship with her mother, while specific and personal, is sufficiently universal to relate Leonie’s growth, to that of their own.

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Scottish Outer Isles

Photos: Marram Grass by Ellywa, 20 March 2005

Callanish standing stones by Marta Gutowska, 20 June 2000

Mute swan landing on water of Grand Canal, Dublin, Ireland by Steve from Ireland photographer  19th October 2010

Scottish Outer Isles 

All the photos can be seen in wikipedia. They illustrate my blog rather than Leonie Charlton’s book

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