Book review: Walking Through Shadows, by Mike Cawthorne

This book has a subtitle: A Journey of Loss and Renewal. In memory of their friend Clive, who died alone, somewhere in the hills, Mike Cawthorne and his companion Nick make a long walk in the worst of winter, in the wake of a great storm, from the extreme north of Scotland to Knoydart where he died.

Mike Cawthorne
Mike Cawthorne

They carry tents but sometimes sleep in bothies or ruined cottages, and, prudently, they have prepared for the walk by storing food packages at various points along the way. They love wild places and extreme weather, which is just as well, for the weather they experience is usually vile.

Cawthorne is the leader, Nick the follower, sometimes in distress from painful feet. At times the relationship is strained, partly because Nick is more tolerant of what men, especially landowners, have done to the wild country they traverse; yet less strained than one might think likely.

Each day’s walk is described in detail, and the sedentary reader can only wonder at the hardships the two chose to endure, and then admire their fortitude.

Cawthorne is a fine descriptive writer; Kathleen Jamie calls him “marvellously evocative”, and this is a fair judgement. He seems to be gifted with a remarkable memory, enabling him to recall in often vivid detail, every step of their arduous journey, every obstacle they encountered and the manner in which they overcame it, every shift in the wind, every snowfall , every burn, river or loch that is in spate.

It is very well done, and yet there is too much of it. Some repetition was no doubt unavoidable, but one day is much like the day before. The reader might wish that Cawthorne had been more selective, more willing to discard the less significant details – even if, from the author’s point of view, everything recounted had its own significance.

In other respects one is, surprisingly, left wanting to know more. For instance, Cawthorne has a book – perhaps books – with him, and we are told that he reads by torchlight when they settle in their camp. But he tells us nothing, or next to nothing, about what he is reading and what he thinks of it. Knowing nothing of this, we know less about Cawthorne himself than one would wish. All good travel writing offers us an insight into the mind of the author; it is not only the landscape but the author himself that the reader is vicariously exploring, and his choice of book tells us something about him . But if it is just “a book”, we learn little.

Likewise one might wish to know more about what they eat and drink. There is some of this, certainly: Nick likes to sprinkle raisins and coconut on his porridge, but more information of this sort would be welcome.

There are good conversations – arguments indeed – about man’s relation to the land and to what we may regard as wilderness, and it is to Cawthorne’s credit that he often allows Nick to have what some of us may consider the better of the argument.

All the same, it is Cawthorne who insists that “the world’s ecology was in pretty reasonable shape before we picked up a plough and began herding animals” so that, in time, “our language… framed nature as something... to be controlled and, come the Enlightenment we began to develop the means to do just that…”

“True”, some in full agreement may say, others replying that this is an idealistic, or indeed sentimental, view.

You can’t undo or deny the past, and in any attempt to make things better, which is what the response to what we identify as climate change will be, you have to start with things as they are now.

Harking back to the idea of ancestors who may have held things in common and had no acquaintance with money really isn’t a good starting-point.

Much of what is most interesting in this book comes near the end.

It’s a pity if some readers are bored by the repetitious account of the arduous daily journeys and give up. They should persevere – or skip –

and they will find much matter to brood on. - Allan Massie

Walking Through Shadows, by Mike Cawthorne, Birlinn, 213pp, £12.99