The sky gets bigger as the train travels further north.
When, in September, a bookseller in Waterstones asked me if I’d read The Outrun, and went on to tell me excitedly that it was the best book he’d read this year, and that it had just won the Wainwright Prize, I was intrigued. Then he said that it was set in Orkney, and that was all I needed to take it from his hands and put it on my pile.
I spent the first two weeks of August in northern Scotland with my family. We stayed in a cottage on a headland near Wick, and our neighbours were a lighthouse, a farm, and a castle. We could see the sea from every window, and the wind whistled around us constantly. After a really busy few months, it was exactly what we all needed. We went to the local towns, creeping along the main road in either direction but not straying far, and we took a daytrip to Orkney, and it was a tantalising idea of what else it holds, enough to make us want to go back. Mostly we walked, and explored the coast around us, staring out to sea, at horizon and the skerries and more distant islands and oil rigs, laying on clifftops to see the seabird colonies (we thought we would be too late for the puffins, but we weren’t*!), being followed by seals, putting our (okay, my) feet and hands in the sea and yelping at the cold, having our breath stolen from our lungs by the wind, being constantly amazed by the ever-changing sea and sky, and how much of it there was. It was wonderful. Up there, even with tv and the internet and the radio, it feels like the rest of the world isn’t quite real, and it’s a frightening and liberating feeling.
The Outrun catches that feeling of the rest of the world being like a dream, and it really drew me in. It is a memoir, an account of Amy’s struggle with alcoholism, of how she moved to London and back to Orkney, how getting sober drove her to get a job counting corncrakes then spend a winter on a little island. It’s so honest, and frank, and unyielding, that I left it for a couple of days at a time, more than once, unable to face thinking about things that much. But it kept pulling me back, and her accounts of those places that felt familiar though unknown, of the sky and the sea and the wildlife, and of how existing in the world there is so different from being in a city, were comforting and fascinating. It’s beautiful and painful and hopeful. I recommended it to a friend who has just been to Sutherland, and he was excited about it, and I am excited to recommend it to pretty much everyone else.
*Birds I saw in those two weeks (not counting species like blackbirds which I didn’t think to record as I see them at home all the time): Arctic Skua; Black backed gull; Black grouse; Black guillemot; Chiffchaff; Common tern, Corncrake; Curlew; Eider duck; Fulmar; Gannet; Great Skua; Greenfinch; Hooded crow; Kittiwake; Lapwing; Linnet; Osprey; Oystercatcher; Puffin; Raven; Red grouse; Redshank; Rook; Sand martin; Sanderling; Shag; Short eared owl; Stonechat; Treecreeper; Wheatear; Whitethroat.