Landmarks by Robert Macfarlane – Book Review

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I’m a lover of language and when I see an interesting-looking word I just have to try it out loud to see how it trips off the tongue. Living in Scotland is perfect for indulging this little hobby with place names such as Kircudbright (pronounced ‘kurcoobray’) Ecclefechan (‘eckelfeckan’), Auchenshuggle (‘awkenshuggle’), Auchtermuchty (‘awktermucktay’) and Findochty (‘fineckty’). Not to mention words like dreich (rainy, miserable), sleekit (cunning, sly), wheesht (shush!), coo (cow), crabbit (grumpy), stookey (plaster cast)  and bampot and eedjit (both meaning idiot). But enough about me…

Robert Macfarlane is a collector of words, words primarily about nature. He’s written several books on language but Landmarks is the first time I’d come across him (it was on on the kindle 99p offer a while back and sounded like my kind of read). It’d been shortlisted for a couple of awards (The Wainwright Prize and The Samuel Johnson Prize) so also packs some literary clout behind the cover-blurb…

Landmarks is Robert Macfarlane’s joyous meditation on words, landscape and the relationship between the two.

Words are grained into our landscapes, and landscapes are grained into our words. Landmarks is about 
the power of language to shape our sense of place. It is a field guide to the literature of nature, and a glossary containing thousands of remarkable words used in England, Scotland, Ireland and Wales to describe land, nature and weather. Travelling from Cumbria to the Cairngorms, and exploring the landscapes of Roger Deakin, J. A. Baker, Nan Shepherd and others, Robert Macfarlane shows that language, well used, is a keen way of knowing landscape, and a vital means of coming to love it.

On diving in to the book, it is the type of book that beckons you to just jump right in, it immediately becomes apparent that the author is a logophile (a lover of words deriving from the Greek – logos, meaning
“speech, word” and philos, meaning “dear, friendly”) in extremis. He’s clearly spent a very long time collecting an astonishing hoard of words from around the British Isles relating to nature, the weather and our landscape – words that have often been long-forgotten and in danger of dying out altogether . In Landmarks he now generously shares them, along with an insight to the works of some of his inspirations (Nan Shepherd, The Living Mountain, JA Baker, The Peregrine, Barry Lopez, Arctic Dreams and Peter Davidson’s ‘The Idea of the North’).

At the end of each chapter there’s a glossary of words that will delight – some of my favourites include:

Aquabob – icicle (Kent)

Billow – snowdrift (E.Anglia)

Blinter – cold dazzle (Scots)

Drookit – soaked or drowned (Doric0

Fleeches – large snowflakes (Exmoor)

Foggit – covered in moss or lichen (Scots)

Glincey – slippery (Kent)

Haggy – boggy and full of holes (Scots)

Plodge – to wade in water (N.E. England)

Pollywiggle – a newt (Norfolk)

Roorie-Bummlers – fast moving clouds (Scots)

Spangin – walking vigorously (Scots)

Spuddle – mess about in the garden (Devon)

Turdstool – a very substantial cowpat (S.W. England)

Twitchel – a narrow path between hedges (Midlands)

Urchin – a hedgehog (Cheshire)

Williwaw – sudden violent squall (Nautical)

Landmarks is a wonderful read that transports you from the peat moors of the Outer Hebrides into the skies and on to the shores of our wonderfully varied landscape. I happily accept Macfarlane’s challenge of bringing these ‘jewels’ back and rewilding our language with these gloriously descriptive words. This really is a book that you need to hold and thumb through so I’ll now need to acquire myself a hard copy version.

As an aside – I’ve since read Nan Shepherd’s Living Mountain (purely because of this book) and Macfarlane’s effusive praise is not unwarranted- it’s probably the best book about people/place I’ve ever read. Macfarlane provides the foreword in the copy I have. I’ve also added most of the other books he mentions in Landmarks to my wishlist.

 

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