Book review: The Dark Stuff, by Donald S Murray

Structure is important in novels, though not always even there, but not necessarily in non-fiction, which may dangle on a single peg, sometimes a shoogly one. The peg here is peat, and the subtitle of this delightful, rambling, reflective, erudite and amusing book is 'Stories from the Peatlands'.

Donald S Murray
Donald S Murray

It begins in Lewis in a house behind which was only the Atlantic, and in front of it the moor where sheep roamed and peats were cut. The subject of peat leads Donald S Murray (the S there less in American style than to distinguish him somewhat from the many other Donald Murrays) to range west to Ireland, north-east to Shetland, east to the Netherlands and Germany and Denmark, and on. It doesn’t, except in imagination, take him to the Congo basin where, apparently, there is a peat bog “the size of England”. “Peat,” he quotes an Australian botanist and friend as saying, “is like an encyclopaedia, one that contains much knowledge of the past.”

Peat preserves things, not only butter for the table but bodies for centuries, even millennia. “There is no end to the secrets peatland contains,” and reveals only reluctantly.

Sign up to our daily newsletter

There are memories of growing up on Lewis, including one when he was sucked deep into a bog while his unnoticing friends argued about football, and anecdotes of elders, some wise, some foolish.

There is folk-history, stories of faeries and bogles, stories of poaching, and grimmer stories of murders and deprivation. Most of the time Murray is relaxed, genial, tolerant, always alive to the oddities of human nature and history. But he is capable of indignation too; indignation provoked by his own ancestral memories and the stories of the Clearances he imbibed in youth and has since had confirmed by further reading.

He quotes appositely – Karl Marx on the Clearances which may surprise some. Marx observed that there had been clearances in England from the 16th to the 18th century – when as was said in Tudor times, sheep were eating up men. If those in the Highlands and Islands are more bitterly remembered, this may have been because there was a clash not only of economic systems but also of different linguistic cultures, as was not, for instance, the case in the Lowland clearances in Scotland.

Moorland may be harsh, but the cruelty of Nature may be matched by man’s inhumanity to man. Improving the moor in early 19th century Holland was linked to “an attempt to modify the nature of the poor”. One paternalistic figure estimated that 70 per cent of moorland was not used for the benefit of humanity; the same might be said of “a similar proportion of the Dutch people”. Bring them together and … horrors resulted.

Moorland, Murray notes, was favoured by the Nazis, often to offer evidence of judicial or ritual murder. Murray doesn’t shrink from the dark stuff of humanity as well as of Nature.

And yet the book is a delight. You will want to read through it, even though the narrative is as rambling and at times as inconsequential as in any picaresque novel. Indeed the book is a sort of picaresque novel in that it is also a travel book, in which you travel as deeply in time as well as in space. It’s also a book about the progress of Murray’s own life. A girlfriend in his last year at school gave him two copies of Corgi Modern Poets which he was reluctant to read until “the tug of romance defeated the pull of teenage inhibition”.

Coming upon the work of Seamus Heaney, Iain Crichton Smith and George Mackay Brown, “I discovered that there was much that was extraordinary in a world I considered all too dull and mundane”. This book is a celebration of both the ordinary and the extraordinary.

The best travel books offer you two voyages of discovery, one through the place or country described, the other into the author’s mind. A dull mind will produce a dull book, no matter the intrinsic interest of the subject-matter. It follows therefore that the author of a good travel book must himself or herself have a mind worth exploring, one that is pleasant company. Donald S Murray has such a mind which is why this book is so deeply enjoyable. Also, as if as an afterthought, he scatters some of his poems through the text – good poems too.

The Dark Stuff, by Donald S Murray, Bloomsbury, 256pp, £16.99