Book No 7 (2021) : The Last Wilderness

With this choice, I don’t want to give the misleading impression that I spend my weekends tramping through the wilderness with my backpack, self sufficient and unafraid. In actual fact, whilst I do like to be out in the countryside, I’m still a nature tourist rather than a traveller. I don’t like to be too far from the nearest Costa or the relative safety of shelter. With this disclaimer though, Scotland is my favourite place in the whole word and I’ve spent a fair amount of time exploring it over the years.

Neil Ansell writes about the Rough Bounds of Scotland, details of separate visits he makes throughout the course of a year. He makes his trips alone, reflecting often on his preference for solo expeditions – something with which I have great sympathy, as I often prefer to walk alone. As he traverses the countryside, the author intersperses his observations about landscape, weather and wildlife with facts. Having been interested in the natural world since he was a youngster, his knowledge is wide and really added to my enjoyment of the book.

There is an under-current in the book though, as Neil is losing his hearing. Initially this has affected only sounds within certain ranges, but is slowly becoming more profound. The effect of this is that he is no longer able to hear some birdsong and animal calls, losses which might threaten to break part of his connection with the natural world. For someone who derives enormous solace from the adventures of camping alone (midges nothwithstanding!), walking and exploring, this is a huge threat to the author’s wellbeing. His eventual acceptance is poignant and profoundly moving.

Reading this book made me realise something about myself; although I look at wildlife and nature, I don’t see very much. The author doesn’t just spot birds, he understands their movements, flight patterns, calls. He can follow tracks and understands what might have caused a change in vegetation, weather or animal behaviour, The author describes sitting watching the waves, which are roughly the same size, until the rhythm is broken by one very large wave. Out at sea, there is a pod of pilot whales. Watching them, Neil figures out that the creatures have systematically surrounded a shoal of herring to hunt. I would probably have seen the whales and been very excited, but not figured out what they were doing. I’ve spotted sea eagles, eagles, deer (never an otter, sadly), seals and have good enough binoculars to be able to bring them closer, but am not observant in my looking. This book gave me a much greater appreciation of what I might be able to actually see, with more time and patience.

Book No 6 (2021) : Close to Where The Heart Gives Out

Another Scottish island experience, this time of a GP who moves from his Glasgow city practice with his wife and children to Eday, one of the Orkney islands. Written retrospectively, the book recounts Dr Alexander’s time on the island.

At the time of starting work on Eday, Malcolm and his wife, Maggie (also a doctor) have four young children, all boys. As you’d expect, life is a bit crazy as everyone adapts to the new lifestyle with wild and windy weather, a slightly rundown cottage and dramatically different lifestyle. The GP’s surgery attached to the cottage isn’t well equipped and takes a while to get organised. Supplies come by boat, weather permitting.

The islanders leave the new arrivals alone for a while, not wanting to bother the doctor while he settles in. Gradually though, the new GP gets to know his patients, consulting in the surgery and visiting them in their homes. The recollections of these home visits allow the reader to learn about Eday life – cottages with no running water, peat fires, hard working islanders – straight talking, uncomplaining and stoic. Doctor quickly earns the respect of the locals and is asked to step up as a preacher, teacher and vet: very few people have only one job!

What I loved about this book is that it has heart. This isn’t a medical journal or textbook. Dr Malcolm Alexander seems genuinely modest and he treats people, not ‘cases’ or symptoms. His writing is reflective and insightful – about his own part in his marriage difficulties, being a good dad, serving his community and where he seeks fulfilment as a medic. When Maggie encounters difficulties in her fifth pregnancy, her husband’s anguish rises from the pages, as all the while he cares for the boys and his patients.

As you’d expect, the book is also shot through with observations about the landscape and wildlife on Eday; wind and sky, otters, owls and gulls. Tempered with the author’s gentle philosophy about the sanctity of life and his duty to do no harm, embracing the pace of island life instead of resisting it, I found this book enchanting.

The irony of me reviewing a book called ‘Close to Where The Heart Gives Out‘ when my partner has died of a heart attack, is not lost on me! Hearts do give out between these pages, and death itself isn’t euphemised, as you would expect from a doctor. But I was touched by the author’s refutation of the view that as death is commonplace for medics, it becomes almost meaningless to them, part of the job. ‘Patients sometimes think they are just one among many but they aren’t. Each life stays with us.’ I imagine this is why Eday took Dr Alexander to their own hearts. How lucky they were.

Malcolm now lives on Bute, having spent a while working in Stromness before leaving the Orkneys. I’ve started following him on Twitter, where he continues to offer comment on landscape, home comforts, vaccines and duck eggs. In the meantime, I’ve added Eday to my list of places to visit.