The Unremembered Places

Patrick Baker

Birlinn, £14.99

Review by Rosemary Goring

In a book rich in literary references, one in particular stands out. “Such comfortless places comfort me”, begins Norman MacCaig’s poem, The Pass of the Roaring. He was referring to bleak, barren Assynt, where he would spend his summers soaking up emptiness. It is a sentiment that Patrick Baker could tattoo on his forehead, drawn as he is to the outermost reaches, the all but inaccessible parts of Scotland: places where history still sings, yet whose stories are often forgotten.

You’d need to be something of an explorer, though, to follow in Baker’s steps. He has climbed, kayaked, slogged and slept outdoors so we don’t need to. The result is a historical travelogue, subtitled Exploring Scotland’s Wild Histories, packed with information and reflection.

Baker’s earlier works, The Frayed Atlantic Edge and The Cairngorms: A Secret History, have demonstrated his outdoor spirit, his breadth of references, above all his fascination with sea, coast and mountains.

Once more seeking out portals to the past, he begins with the Glen Loin caves which, while hardly unremembered, are difficult to find. Here, between the wars, working-class walkers would take shelter on their weekend tramps from Glasgow and Clydebank to the Arrochar Alps. In these well-hidden caverns they would find companionship and kindred spirits, setting standards for the climbing community that persist to this day.

Less well-known is the graveyard at Blackwater Dam, near Kinlochleven, where navvies laboured in slave-like conditions. Their desperate existence is chronicled in the unflinchingly autobiographical novel, Children of the Dead End, by Patrick MacGill (1914). The graves, writes Baker, are “perhaps the most desolate cemetery in the whole of Britain”.

Baker’s selection is shaped by his fondness for wild islands, and for caves, “a veritable sinkhole into the past”. He and friends kayak from Portobello to Inchkeith Island, a creepy military bastion at the mouth of the Firth of Forth. Risking ferocious tidal currents, he explores the industrial heritage on the Slate Isles, south of Oban, “Russian dolls, each one further out and smaller than the one before”.

On one outing he reaches the Inner Hebridean island of Eigg. Here the Massacre Cave bears witness to appalling reprisals in 1577, when all the island’s inhabitants – around 400 MacDonalds – took refuge from a party of MacLeods, hell-bent on punishing them. After days of searching, the MacLeods spotted someone leaving the cave. Fires were lit at the cave mouth, suffocating all within.

The stories in this compact book are the stuff of campfire nights, and occasionally Baker could be accused of moving too quickly over the bones of a tale to fill in the backstory or wider picture with quotes and additional material. At times, as when he digresses to discuss the astonishing feat of building The Bell Rock Lighthouse, there’s a hint of a teacher padding out a lesson, when there is more than enough to hold the reader without further trawling.

But these are minor complaints about a book of great interest and insight. The effort of reaching these outposts is impressive in itself, but when he arrives at his destination, Baker brings a sensitivity to history, landscape, and the lingering spirit of those who once lived there that raises The Unremembered Places far above reportage. It is a reclaiming of remoteness, and a reminder that, no matter how far off the map, for those who lived here these locations were the centre of the world.

At its core is Baker’s belief that “there are places whose importance may never be fully understood yet which continue to resound with mystery and meaning.” All these historical footnotes, he writes, “speak of immeasurable social change”. Seeing how easily human endeavour is airbrushed out of sight and mind leaves you wondering which will be tomorrow’s forgotten places, and why.