Sure, the few tentative attempts at defining a new British nature writing suggest that this is a (sub) genre dominated by men, with the notable exception of Kathleen Jamie. Nonetheless, I’d never really thought of these new British nature writing texts in terms of gender – perhaps the result of years of reading of ecocritical texts in which such gendered approaches to nature are often, and so successfully, deconstructed.
So I hadn’t given gender – and gendered experiences of landscape – in new British nature writing much thought until I came across Adam Nicolson’s Sea Room (2001). In this declaration of love to the Shiant islands in Northern Scotland, Nicolson, quite matter-of-factly, calls the sea “the male domain” (65), and that made me wonder: really? To what extent do we still perceive nature in gendered terms? And, more interestingly, do male and female experiences of nature in new British nature writing differ?
Particularly in early ecocriticism and 1990s environmentalism, the relationship between nature and culture was placed in a larger context of other dichotomies, particularly male/female. Val Plumwood, for instance, is very persuasive in Feminism and the Mastery of Nature (1993) in showing how inequality is caught up in the binary oppositions that determine how we think about men and women, nature and culture, reason and emotion. Especially interesting in this whole debate, I think, are the ways in which these associations are also fluid: the positive part of the opposition – the male – can be seen as both culture, and nature: culture, when ‘wild’, ‘natural’ women have to be civilized, nature when it comes to drawing a contrast to the domestic sphere of the home, the place of women and children.
Although this debate has not been resolved – if it ever can be – I was surprised by the very typical, and strongly gendered, way in which Nicolson portrays (his relationship with) the Shiants in Sea Room. At the same time, Sea Room has been heralded as one of the first examples of the new British nature writing, which makes me wonder: what is the place of gender, and gendered perceptions of nature, in new British nature writing?
The Shiants, Nicolson writes, are “quite unfeminine”. Describing the rough journey by boat, crossing the treacherous Minch, struggling to find a landing place among the rocks, only to find shelter in a rat-infested house, in which “guttering candles and smoking lanterns have coated the ceilings with a film of grey soot”, Nicolson writes that “Women don’t like it much… My own mother went only once and never again. Sarah, my wife, has braved it twice but not which much enthusiasm and will not, I think, return” (65). Instead, the islands now seem to be a boy’s playground, and the dangers that Nicolson and others meet – including the death of a teenage boy in the 1980s – are described with a certain pride that reminded me, at times, a bit too much of pub talk.
Yet Nicolson’s gendered picture of the Shiants goes beyond the stories of adventures and risk. Towards the end of the book, Nicolson describes the last family to live on the islands. In 1862, Catherine and Donald Campbell, a young couple from nearby Molinginish, moved to the Shiants. For at least the first decades or so, they lived a relatively good life: their house was improved by their landlord in the early 1870s, and two of the rare visitors to the islands mention a maid servant. The visitors – the naturalist John Harvie-Brown and his friend, Matthew Heddle – particularly note the daughters of the family: “The family consists of two daughters both uncommonly handsome girls. My fancy was on the younger & I think sweeter-tempered and merrier of the two – Bella – Profr. Heddles fancy was the tall graceful dark haired black-eyed Spanish looking belle who would have graced any ball room. She certainly is one of the very loveliest women I ever beheld” (qtd on 324).
Two young beautiful women on a near-deserted island: soon the attraction of the islands was not so much in the puffins or other animals to be hunted, but Mor and Catriona, the Campbell’s daughters. With fishermen visiting the islands every year, it wasn’t long before both girls became pregnant – an episode which Nicolson interestingly introduces by describing the dangers the Shiant fishermen were exposed to. In 1886, four young fishermen from Scalpay – “glamorous, charming, brave, strong, witty, sexy men”, as Nicolson describes them – came to the Shiants to fish but never returned. Nothing was found of them but a cap and the tiller of the boat.
Traditionally, Sirens lure fishermen to shore, either to capture them for life, or cause them to wreck their ships on rocks. The Scalpay fishermen, and others, may have similarly fallen for the lure of the Mor and Catriona, who, as Nicolson notes, represented the kind of “excited sexual naughtiness [that] was common among Hebridean girls” (329). He seems to get a little excited himself, in fact, when he imagines “these beautiful and sexy girls out in the middle of the Minch, surrounded and besieged by the man’s world of boats and danger at sea” (331) – new nature writing meets Freudian psychology.
Nevertheless, as these things go, at the end of the day Mor and Catriona were the ones punished for all this sexual excitement. They remained single, living on the islands with their parents and mute brother until their mother died in 1901. When she did, the family left the islands, taking Catherine’s body with them in a coffin, and never returned. Nicolson speculates that it was the mother, Catherine Campbell, who kept her children and grandchildren on the island for forty years. She was the one who refused to leave, the one who imposed this solitude on her family, and with it, a life of alienation, illegitimacy and loneliness.
Within Nicolson’s story of distinctly masculine islands, this final, and very unfortunate episode in the history of permanent human habitation on the Shiants, suggests that it’s for the best that the island is now a male place, away from the confusions and siren-calls of women. And the Shiants are to Nicolson, as they were to his father, and at present are perhaps also for his son, the ideal place for boys to become men. New nature writing, then, much like some of the ‘old’, as a ritual, a rite of passage, and the remote corners of the British isles as the not-so-new frontier.
(In part 2 I explore the works of Kathleen Jamie examples of new British nature writing by women and discuss how gendered their experiences and readings of landscape are)