At their last meeting, the late Scottish poet Norman MacCaig issued his younger friend (and fellow writer) Andrew Grieg with a challenge. The challenge, which became a quest, which became an experience, finally became this remarkable and profoundly moving book, At the Loch of the Green Corrie. Grieg describes the genesis of the project like this: "I should like you fish for me at The Loch of the Green Corrie", MacCaig concludes over our final dram. "Only it's not called that. But if you go to Lochinver and ask for a man called Norman Macaskill, if he likes you he may tell you where it is. If you catch a trout, I shall be delighted. And if you fail, then looking down from a place in which I do not believe, I shall be most amused." So Greig, after MacCaig's demise and funeral, embarks for Assynt in order to pursue a challeneg and a trout in an idyllic spot in lonely Assynt for a dead poet.
The trip to find this loch is not really the subject of this book however, merely the occasion for it. What this book is really about is an exploration of friendship, of memory, of landscape and culture, and the older poet's fishing challenge the channel through which all this pours. What makes this book rather special (for such a prospectus could merely be the beginning of something rather odd) is Greig's quite marvellous writing. I don't recall ever reading anyone who is able to evoke the feel, sense, and history of the Scottish Highland landscape as Greig does, or to write so movingly of times, and friends lost. He sees the world differently than I do (in fact we Christians do not get an especially sympathetic write-up), but this does not dim the brilliance with which he is able to explore our common human condition, and so forcefully, indeed magically gather up so much of what we treasure and press it into the front of our consciences. This is one of those rare books which is so well written that I kept finding myself reading it out loud so as to not risk losing anything of the wonder sound of the language. "Are you reading that again?" my wife asks me.
Greig writes of MacCaig, of the wonderful landscape of Assynt, of company, of friendship, love, of death, of poetry, of whisky, of geology, of Scotland. He stands in the places were lost poets and their wives, drank, and debated, and danced, and laments the inevitability of passing with whimsy and wonder. He writes of walking and climbing companions lost - one to the savagery of the mountains, the other to the tragedy of AIDS, another to age, and still another to whisky. He writes of climbing, of fishing, of walking; of battles for land-ownership, of geology and of time. Most gloriously he writes of the exultant feelings which overwhelm the mind in wild and lonely places - a sensation which he has most acutely at The Loch of The Green Corrie ("only it's not called that"). Greig calls this, "expansion" - a neat phrase.
This passage follows on from a description of having attended Norman MacCaig's funeral:
And then, he quotes MacCaig himself -
So economical, so sad, so poignant (so tragically accepting of hopelessness); and so thoroughly rooted in its imagery in things every hillwalker has seen and noted.
While Greig's descriptions of interacting with the wild read like this:
We are human gore-tex! How true, and how pleasantly observed.These few snippets are just a small sample of a few of my favourite pages from this delightful book. Even though I might wish to debate with the author about his conclusions on some matters, this does not dilute the sheer joy of reading delicately insightful writing, expressed through such perfectly crafted sentences. Such is the power of the writing here that even as Greig lamented the passing of a generation of poets, I re-encountered the memories of my lost. As Grieg's wonderful words opened up the landscape I so love, from here in my house, I glimpsed the great landscape of the of Northwest Highlands, felt the wind on my face, smelled the gently burning peat, heard the voices of those no more, and tasted the hot, pepper of Malt Whisky on my tongue. What a pleasure to read someone for whom words are an artform, with such subtle and disarmingly honest and vulnerable insights into our humanity. I will return to this book again.