What compels someone to journey to a wild place? What strange stirrings arise on the first glimpse of remote landscapes? Places such as medieval burial grounds in Clachan Dubh in the Cairngorm Mountains; Davy’s Bourach, the highest usable shelter in Scotland; or one of the British Isle’s 3,000 abandoned settlements, devastated by the Black Death of 1348. In The Unremembered Places, Baker draws on boyhood fascinations to unravel the draw that many adventurers feel for the Scottish Highlands.
On this journey, Baker treads the same path as the shadowy figures of Scottish history: merchants, journeymen, vagrants who each made their way through an unforgiving countryside. For Baker, the landscape is a passageway through time, connecting modern backpackers with the forgotten folk of history.
The thought of an expedition through Scottish Highlands may conjure visions of idyllic wilderness – remote balm for the soul. Yet Baker’s descriptions are often more realistic, featuring nights in bothies surrounded by deer bones and scurrying rodents; possible encounters with phantasms of people perished along cliff-paths; the dangers of careering up Loche Awe, Scotland’s longest loch, in a canoe exposed to the elements.
The Unremembered Places is packed with stories and reflections that dovetail into explanations of our relations with the land. We learn about the industrial forces that have shaped the wilderness of Scotland: empty moorlands punctuated by remains of illicit stills from Scotland’s bootlegging past, and the insurrection of the ‘common folk’ against the landowning elite.
I read The Unremembered Places – a story about emancipation, adventure and discovery – during a period of intense confinement, when any description of fresh coastal air had me scratching at the walls. Thankfully, Baker’s prose is transporting: ‘It was late Autumn, and the moor’s summer colours had rusted back to the earthy hues of a water-colourist’s palette: fawn, umber, ochre.’ For those with any inclination to adventure, natural beauty, or forgotten histories this will be a treasured read.