Monday, 3 November 2008

Mid-Atlantic book feast

Whoosh - there goes a month. I took a holiday - the Torc went to Turkey - missed the Osborne/Mandelson Corfu affair, most of it, and watched the global economy carry on down the pan from afar.

I'm mid-Atlantic now which, I'd like to pretend, is the opening dateline for my US election coverage but the sad truth is that I'm home at my mother's house on the Isle of Lewis.

My colleague Jim Cusick won the toss for the USA and has filed some great copy from Cleveland overnight. See the Herald website. Jealous, me? Not while I sit here, feet by the peat fire, eating scallops and Stornoway black pudding - great combo - with the armrests freighted down by a collection of new books from the Hebrides. Bet Alistair Darling wishes he was here now.

First off the shelf is Donald S Murray's "The Guga Hunters", a history of the Ness men who harvest the young solan geese from the Atlantic outcrop of Sulasgeir each autumn. Their story is an ancient one - ten men against the elements, a rock 40 miles out in the Atlantic, the last remaining seabird harvest in western Europe.

It takes courage to eat a guga far less go hunting for one. But brave is the writer who takes up his pen to draw even a sympathetic portrait of his own community (you always end up offending someone). But "Rufus", as we know Donald S, has succeeded in steering his book between the reefs of eulogy and documentary to produce a fine history of the hunt the what drives the men of Ness to go to sea time after time.

Sam Maynard's Guga Hunters


Someone who's never afraid to give offence, the writer John MacLeod, has weighed in with "Banner in the West", a spiritual history of Lewis and Harris. Don't underestimate how fascinating, or popular, a book on religion in the last stronghold of Calvinism will be.

It is, as Roger Hutchinson notes on the cover puff, the book this son of the manse might have been born to write - and he is a sparkling writer. Once I prise the tome out of my brother's hands I'll get down to reading it properly. I read the post-war section first which draw on the late Rev Kenneth MacRae's diaries (an under-rated resource until now) to debunk the hysteria surrounding religious "revivals" in the islands from the 1930s to the '50s. Anyone looking for scandal will be disappointed. John quite rightly bodyswerves more recent schisms and controversies and says at the outset that he has avoided Presbytery papers that give "the impression of a church in ceaseless, loveless strife".


When Bill Lucas started freelancing in Stornoway 50 years ago he knew the churches would be a good source of scandal. The legendary Stornoway journalist has just issued a memoir of anecdotes and stories from his half century as Her Majesty's press representative in the Western Isles. "Dateline Stornoway " is a rollicking good read, written as straight and raw as the copy he first filed, with humourous asides thrown in every turn.

As a framework for remembering some of the amazing stories an characters in the islands it's a great resource. I'd forgotten how many of these tales I was involved in covering myself. It contains a good first draft of a history of the BBCI affair, in which the local council lost £23 million. My only complaint is that the book is good on everyone except Bill himself, who has been in many a scrape and close call himself during his time. Like the BCCI affair Bill's own story will, one day, get the full treatment.

On the subject of legends my friend, the amazing John Neil Munro, has produced another Scottish rock history, this time on the "The Sensational Alex Harvey" (Birlinn again). It's unopened here but his book on John Martyn was well received last year and the cove writes as if he was sitting next to your elbow telling the tale in the Lewis public bar. Time to put another peat on the fire.

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