John Mackay, the author of Heartland, is a well-known Scottish TV presenter and journalist. His coverage and knowledge of current events gives him a unique insight into the heart and pulse of Scotland. Growing up he spent holidays in the Hebrides, the land of his parents, and Heartland is an awesome tribute to a way of life rich in being and spirit – a book about a man letting go of the speed of city life as he returns to the isles of his childhood.
Heartland is a lyrical novel with an opening that sings the heartsong of those drawn back to their land, wherever it may be. I found a copy of this book in a secondhand bookshop in Ullapool (on Scotland’s north-west coast). Ullapool has daily ferries to Stornaway on the Isle of Lewis - the island being the setting for this book.
The story is of a man returning to his roots after half a lifetime on the mainland – his intention to rebuild the old family home, an uninhabited blackhouse which has been empty for generations. His belief – that in rebuilding the house he can also rebuild and find himself again, working with hands softened from city living, breathing the rhythm of the land around him.
Iain, the key character in the book, journies into a past that brings him face to face with people he grew up with who have carved their own lives; face to face with loss and suffering that has dimmed with time and distance. He stays with his mother and in doing so learns both of who she is now and who she used to be. He relearns old stories that were told and retold as he grew up. He starts to uncover secrets of the past and is hesitant to share his knowledge with others. Upon these planks, rough yet sound, the story of Heartland is built.
This book echoes through generations. It explores the dance of relationships within a small community where the only way out is to cross the waters to a new life. There is a richness of language and detail that brings the islands alive – peat cutting, the centrality of the church, fishing as a livelihood, touches of history such as the story of the ill-fated ship the Iolaire.
I would recommend this book to anyone who is interested in people and their roots. It is an easy way in to an understanding of the Hebridean islands. A book exquisitely written through a "knowing" of people, of land, of lives half forgotten yet well met in story and in the song of oral traditions that echo down the ages.