Wild Harbour – Ian Macpherson

A recent addition to the Science Fiction Classics range of the British Library, first published in 1936, Ian Macpherson’s Wild Harbour only sits peripherally on the farthest stretch of that wide shore, an early survivalist novel of a husband and wife who flee their homestead for the Scottish wilderness rather than face the inevitability of the coming war in which he is liable to be conscripted.

Set from May to October 1944, the world was indeed at war by that time though Macpherson himself did not see it, exempt from active duty as a farmer as explained in the accompanying essay dating to 1940, Wild September, but even though he did not see military action nor did he survive the war years, dying in a motorbike accident in 1944 before the age of forty.

Introduced by Timothy C Baker, senior lecturer in Scottish and contemporary literature at the University of Aberdeen, he draws parallels between Macpherson’s first novel, 1931’s Shepherds Calendar, and Lewis Grassic Gibbon’s Sunset Song, published the following year, and indeed Macpherson and Gibbon attended the same school, Mackie Academy in Stonehaven, and both display a similar love and connection with the land, as obsessive and possessive as any of the other relationships in their works.

A flowing cascade of prose, poetic and sometimes dreamlike as Hugh tries to recall his history in the wilderness, he and Terry shelter in a concealed cave near on Creag Doire near Loch Caoldair, nestled at the foot of the Grampians north of Dalwhinnie and Loch Ericht, from spring through to winter: “This air, like a sea of purifying waters, washed the green earth and the rocky hills…the predominant yellows and browns of the moor seemed to have altered, as if the rain had changed them, or the air like glass altered their aspect.”

Each chapter beginning with a narrative jump which is then filled in retrospectively, much of Wild Harbour is Hugh’s internal monologue in thrall to the land, desolate and daunting, accepting them but not embracing them, a stark and relative safety in which they have nothing but each other and yet in which they find a fragile peace and happiness, even as they hide from the wider world: “It’s wicked to be so happy,” Terry remonstrates at one point, catching herself.

The details of the distant war unclear, Wild Harbour is Macpherson’s paean to the land of his birth, of sculpting rock and clay and fashioning furniture from branches and fern leaves, of fishing for pike, snaring rabbit and hunting deer, of foraging for turnips and potatoes, of survival outside the laws of the country and the obligations and expectations of society, Macpherson as dedicated to his purpose as his avatar yet without a wider context caught in a trap of futility as surely as the game which he catches and guts.

Wild Harbour is available from now from the British Library



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