Findings by Kathleen Jamie

FindingsHer latest poetry collection The Overhaul recently won the Costa Prize for poetry, another accolade for this award-winning writer who has found her niche, her publisher previously having had difficulty placing her work in a clear genre.

Findings was, by anyone’s standards, a fiendishly tricky sell. Jamie’s choice of the essay form was unfashionable; her subjects (Orkney in midwinter, a pair of nesting peregrines, 21st-century flotsam on a Hebridean shoreline) were queer and disparate. Her publisher wasn’t even sure how the book should be classified. Travel writing? Not quite: none of the essays took Jamie outside her native Scotland; many were written from her own back door. Autobiography? The book was bewitchingly first-person, but there was no sense of a coherent memoir.

An extract from the Guardian’s Kathleen Jamie – A Life in Writing


Nesting Peregrine Photo by Christophe Cage, Wikipedia

I see them as wonderful nature essays, a form of creative non-fiction, much more than notes of a nature walk, though they are  inspired by her time on the Hebridean and Orkney Islands and near her home in Fife; but with the purpose of observing and learning to capture in words what she sees, without the need to analyse.  She describes watching ospreys and peregrines and shares her concern over whether they are nesting or not, there having been evidence of only two pair of these birds attempting to nest in the entire country.

She moves away from identifying and labelling what she sees, towards painting a picture with words, a description so apt, it is as if you are there with her as that large unknown bird she describes so vividly traverses the sky overhead.

This is what I want to learn: to notice, but not to analyse. To still the part of the brain that’s yammering, ‘My God, what’s that? A stork, a crane, an ibis – don’t be silly, it’s just a wild heron.’ Sometimes we have to hush the frantic inner voice that says ‘Don’t be stupid,’ and learn again to look, to listen.

Visiting a few of the Scottish Hebridean Islands, Ceann Iar, Coll, meandering along the tide line of inlets, she and her companions find the washed up remains of a small whale, a bit of a plane and other flotsam including seal’s vertebrae, an orange traffic cone, driftwood and plastic garbage.

This is what we take away from Ceann Iar: a bleached whale’s scapula, not the door of a plane: an orb of quartz, not a doll’s head.

Visiting a Shieling – from Twenty Years of Hebridean Memories (1939) by Emily McDonald

Traces of contemporary life at the water’s edge and higher up in the hills, she walks among remnants of an earlier life, the shielings, now abandoned summer huts made of stone and turf, built in the mountain pastures where girls often spent their summers, grazing the animals, receiving visits once a week to take back the cheese and butter they’d produced and to replenish their food stocks, not to mention the young men who paid calls on them in the evening, the time passing sharing local news, story-telling, fun and laughter.

The top of the year, the time of ease and plenty. The people would come up from the farmsteads below around the beginning of July – ‘the girls went laughing up the glen’ as the poem says – and return at harvest time. Up here, they made milk, butter and cheese, and it was woman’s work. What a loss that seems now: a time when women were guaranteed a place in the wider landscape, our own place in the hills.

Not only does Kathleen Jamie evoke something of the present and the past in her observations of these remote islands, she leaves you reminding yourself to pay more attention, to be mindful, to stop, to listen, to stand and stare, to look up – promising as a reward, a renewed connection to our surroundings and an appreciation of all the species that live and have lived within it.

To read Kathleen Jamie is the next best thing to a slow walk in that great living outdoors, I believe she has found the perfect niche.  I’m already looking forward to her next collection of essays ‘Sightlines‘. Do you have a favourite nature writer?

28 thoughts on “Findings by Kathleen Jamie

  1. What a lovely review Claire. Your capturing of the author’s spirit and intention leaves me yearning to read her words, slowly and meditatively. Another utterly gorgeous review, dripping in evocative language!


  2. I don’t know about Kathleen Jamie’s writing, but your own is just beautiful at times. How do you come up with a phrase like “to read KJ is the next best thing to a slow walk”? Lovely. I have to be honest – I don’t think I’ve ever read a nature essay in my life – however I do know a bit of these wild and majestic parts of Scotland and that, along with your review, means that I’ll now take my first steps in the world of nature essays. Thank you for the steer on this one!


  3. Claire, your lyrical way with words convinces me to take a chance and become a far more adventurous reader than ever before. If my TBR topples over on me, I’ll be a long time digging out from underneath!


  4. Claire, thank you for introducing me to James. I haven’t read her work, but I think I would really connect. Pay attention, look up – I try to remember those words. I often walk in our arboretum that borders the university where I live. It is always full of something new and beautiful, if I only can see the detail. Have you read Robinson Jeffer’s poetry? He wrote from the California coast town of Carmel, and I think you might find his work soothing.


  5. I’m so excited to pick this one up. Right up my ally. Am a big nature reader, but nature/essay is one of my faves. Reg Saner. Lia Purpura. Jonathan Maslow. Terry Tempest Williams. Really excited to add Kathleen Jamie.


  6. I may not get to read all the wonderful books you recommend 😦 though I’ll try 🙂 At the very least, I can sing your praises on my blog. Yes, I’ve tagged you a ‘very inspiring blogger.’ Whether or not you choose to pass it along, just know that, for me, it’s all about the spirit of appreciation.


  7. Describing the experience and not identifying the species… That’s the difference between a poet and an ornithologist. Thanks for the excellent review of this book. Several bloggers have recommended it to me. And now I must find it, hopefully it’s in the Public Library. Your review makes me think of Annie Dillard’s nature writing. That’s right, the genre is Nature Writing, isn’t it?


    • Yes, the only other work I have read that generates the same feeling for me is Annie Dillard’s ‘Pilgrim at Tinker Creek’, it’s when nature writing is taken on by those with poetic inclinations as I do believe it’s as much the language used as the observations made that make it so uplifting and as if one were there seeing what they are seeing.

      I like that difference you point out, between the ornithologist and the poet, when the two combine it’s a wonderful shared experience.


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  13. Thank you for highlighting what sounds like my sort of book. I highly recommend the writing of Robert McFarlane, and I loved H is for Hawk by HelenMacdonald, as well as The Snow Geese by William Fiennes. 🙂

    Liked by 1 person

    • I’m so happy to bring them to your attention Liz, Kathleen Jamie is just fabulous when observing nature and wildlife. I loved H is For Hawk too and while I’m aware of McFarlane I haven’t read him yet, I have perhaps a little of a bias towards the lesser known and publicised female voices. Another one you may wish to look at, which I have reviewed here is Rachel Carson’s Under the Sea-Wind, which is absolutely brilliant. She mentions being inspired by Henry Beston and his book The Outermost House, which I have since read and also reviewed, but in my humble opinion Carson is the more inspiring writer. In fact this book of hers is the first in a trilogy of books about the sea, I now have the other two which I’ll get to eventually as well.

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      • Oh my – I am of course very familiar with Silent Spring but had never thought to look more widely at Carson’s other work. I now have the sea trilogy on order from the library, thank you! 🙂

        Liked by 1 person

        • Oh fabulous! Yes, I have Silent Spring as well, but I was looking for someone who written something kind of like Kathleen Jamie, but about the sea and so came across Carson by chance and bought her books. At that time I wasn’t aware of Silent Spring, but when I reviewed Under the Sea-Wind, I discovered everyone knows her for that book and yet Carson herself said that Under the Sea-Wind was her personal favourite. It’s delightful and magically created, such a unique perspective. I’m so pleased you’re able to get them from the library!

          Liked by 1 person

        • Wow I’m impressed, we have a wonderful library here too, except everything is in French and since I have to speak it every day, I allow myself to indulge my reading world in English. But I do have a Kindle which is often a more viable option.

          Liked by 1 person

        • There’s nothing like a ‘real’ book, but the Kindle is utterly brilliant too – for instant access and especially travelling. I love that we can have both in our lives! 🙂


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