MARRAM

Memories of sea and spider-silk
Seven years after her mother's death, Leonie Charlton is still gripped by memories of their fraught relationship. In May 2017, Leonie trekked through the Outer Hebrides in the company of a friend and their Highland Ponies in search of closure. When Leonie's pony has a serious accident, she begins to realise that finding peace with her mother is less important than letting go. Leonie Charlton blends travel and nature writing with intimate memoir in this beautifully written account of grief and acceptance.

Publisher: Sandstone Press Ltd
ISBN: 9781913207106
Number of pages: 256
Dimensions: 198 x 129 mm

 

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An island journey to reconcile with tangled memory

Review of 'Marram' by Roger Hutchinson, The West Highland Free Press

In the May and June of 2017 Leonie Charlton and her friend Shuna Shaw rode their horses, Ross and Chief, from Barra to Lewis.

Seven years earlier Leonie’s mother, with whom she had a difficult relationship, had died.

Both the journey and the book which has since emerged, ‘Marram’, were deliberately undertaken by Leonie as both a tribute to her mother and an attempt, post mortem, to reconcile with her tangled memory.

Original travelogues are not easy to write, and the length of the Outer Isles is a well-worn route.

Parental memoirs are equally difficult to accomplish successfully. It is a tribute to Leonie (not forgetting Shuna, Ross and Chief) that she combines both in one charming volume.

But first, before we forget, a word about the publisher.

Sandstone Press is a truly remarkable, and too little recognised, Highland achievement.

The company was established in Dingwall in 2002 by Bob Davidson. Bob’s expanding operation led to a move to Inverness last year, but it remains true to his founding principles of a national/international publishing house rooted firmly in the Scottish Highlands.

Sandstone has combined local titles with offerings from authors all across the UK and the wider world. One of its books, ‘The Testament of Jessie Lamb’ by Jane Rogers, was longlisted for the Man Booker prize in 2011.

Last year the Man Booker’s 2019 international prize for translated novels was scooped by another Sandstone author, Jokha Alharthi, with ‘Sayyidat el-Qamar’ or ‘Celestial Bodies’.

It was the first novel by an Omani woman to appear in English translation, and the first translation from Arabic to win the £50,000 Booker international award.

Not bad for a modest little operation north of the Highland line.

Sandstone has proved that it is possible to combine such popular crime novels as Volker Kutscher’s Gereon Rath books with literary fiction – and with such distinctly local titles and authors as ‘There’s Always the Hills’ by Cameron McNeish, Johnny Muir’s ‘The Mountains are Calling’, and Andy Howard’s ‘The Secret Life of the Mountain Hare’.

Leonie Charlton’s ‘Marram: Memories of Sea and Spider Silk’ falls firmly into that category.

Unlike some other literary Hebridean adventurers, Leonie was not a stranger to the islands. Her father, Max Bonniwell, was a vet who was based for a time in Oban and whose work occasionally took him, accompanied by young Leonie, across the Minch.

Leonie’s companion Shuna is an Argyllshire woman: the sister of Capercaillie’s Donald Shaw and therefore the sister-in-law of the singer Karen Matheson, whose mother came from Barra.

The two women had already a foothold in the islands, and connections which would be valuable.

It is fair to say that simply turning up at Castlebay with two horses and expecting a carefree canter northwards through the machair and hills of the Long Island would not guarantee a stressless journey.

Leonie Charlton is known to her familiars as Beady. The nickname was given to the baby by her mother, and it stuck into adulthood.

As a result, and because her mother was a jeweller and a collector of beads, Leonie/Beadie leaves tiny memorial beads at carefully chosen points on her path from Barra to Lewis.

“Where better than through this archipelago that she’d loved, itself a necklace of granite and sand, schist and gneiss, strung on streams of salt and fresh water.”

Her late mother inhabits the book like a living person. She is the third person on the pilgrimage.

There are echoes in Leonie’s memories of Esther Freud’s account of a hippy mother in ‘Hideous Kinky’. Vivid, free-spirited, loud and alive, her mother led Leonie on a merry dance through childhood until 1988, when the 16-year-old Beadie upped and left.

Her mother seems almost to have expected her daughter’s flight.

She continued living in Galloway with Paul Minns, a founder member of that echt-sixties free-form music group the Third Ear Band.

Minns hanged himself in 1997.

Thirteen years later cancer claimed Leonie’s mother. “My relationship with her was fraught with pain and misunderstanding,” writes Leonie Charlton, “at times I’d wondered if life would be better without her. Then she died and I was broken.”

There is more of the islands between Barra and Harris than of Lewis in ‘Marram’. That is because of a traumatic experience in the hills between north Harris and south-west Lewis.

For once unprepared, Leonie and Shuna decided to make for Callanish through the rough bounds between Kinloch Resort and Morsgail.

Despite a rough sign at the southern entrance to the district which read “Welcome to the last resort. You will never leave”, they underestimated the terrain.

The ponies were almost fatally sunk in peat bogs. This is a genuinely dramatic and disturbing section of Leonie Charlton’s book.

I will spoil no plots. Suffice to say that the incidents meant that they were unable to ride through Lewis.

Nor, it transpired, did they need to. The Southern Isles had done their work. A form of reconciliation had been achieved. “It was what it was, Mum,” concludes Leonie Charlton.

“Deeply flawed. Real. Human. Difficult. You were impossible. I was impossible. And all the same we loved each other. It was far from perfect. But it’s enough to know that I loved you, that I love you now, that I feel you in me… I’ll be travelling paths you opened to me for the rest of my life, travelling them with lion-hearted love.”

 

 

 
A Review by Kenny Taylor in Northwords Now Issue 39

Marram - Memories of sea and spider-silk

Narratives describing journeys with an equine companion

Narratives describing journeys with an equine companion can have great appeal, even for readers with no prior knowledge of such animals, save for offering the occasional handful of grass over a fence. Robert Louis Stevenson’s Travels with a Donkey in the Cévennes (1879) is an acknowledged masterpiece, both of this horse family sub-genre, and of travel writing in general. Through the skill of his descriptions and asides, details of place and character that might otherwise seem trivial become fascinating; the meandering journey beguiling. And improbably, at the core of the book, is Stevenson’s love for a small, mouse-coloured donkey, Modestine, at turns both amusing and moving.

Writing to dedicate the work to his friend, the literary and art critic, Sidney Sheldon, RLS sets out the stall: ‘…we are all travelers in what John Bunyan calls the wilderness of the world – all, too, travelers with a donkey; and the best that we find in our travels is an honest friend. He is a fortunate voyager who finds many. We travel, indeed, to find them. They are the end and the reward of life. They keep us worthy of ourselves; and when we are alone, we are only nearer to the absent.’ Fitting, then, that Sheldon would become a significant editor of Stevenson’s letters, both during and after the great writer’s short life.

Some 140 years after Stevenson’s stravaiging in the Massif Central with Modestine, his travel credo also applies to many aspects of Leonie Charlton’s journey in Marram, where she goes north, at pony pace, through much of the Outer Hebrides. Her human travelling companion is a friend, Shuna Shaw. Their four-legged companions are the ponies, Ross and Chief. The writer’s passion for the ponies (shared with Shuna) shines through from the outset, including in descriptions of coat colours which make them sound nice enough to eat: ‘Ross is a Rum Highland Pony with rare ancient bloodlines…They have unique colour combinations – fox dun and silver dun, liver and mouse and biscuit dun too. Some have zebra stripes along their spines. Ross’s passport states his colour as ‘dappled chocolate’; his mane has blonde highlights, and in summer you can see the dark dapples across his body.’

Chief, in contrast, is bright silver grey. Together, the ponies’ characters complement each other, with Ross being the older, ‘experienced’ one and Chief’s ‘bravery’ bolstering Ross in moments of pony doubt. As below, so above in the saddles, as the two equestrians support each other through challenges of weather, wild camping and more, meeting diverse island residents along the way, from Barra to Callanish. But a central challenge for the writer is not the externals, but the lingering trauma of her relationship with her late mother. This can still haunt her waking present, whatever the glories of sea and machair and camaraderie might be.

At different locations, Leonie, (nicknamed ‘Beady’ as a baby by her mother, on account of her eyes being ‘shiny, like beads’) strings a bead or more from her mother’s collection through silken thread – also her mother’s – to leave as a kind of necklace, punctuating the journey with small, symbolic gestures. This is part of what gives the journey an unexpected emotional undercurrent. Studded with well-crafted and memorable descriptions and told with great honesty, Marram is much more than the ‘travelling with two ponies’ book it might seem at first glance. It’s moving and compelling, in quite a different way. RLS would understand.

Review of Marram for The Wee Review, 19th March 2020, by Tamsin Grainger.

Marram, published by Sandstone Press, is a lilting account of the author, Leonie Charlton, and her ride (together with a friend) on Highland ponies across the Outer Hebrides from Barra to Callanish on Lewis. Charlton, author of short stories and poetry, dedicated her first full-length book to her mum, a jeweller, with whom she had a tricky relationship: “I’d wondered if life would be better without her. Then she died and I was broken.”

    The carefully chosen language and the delicacy of description, is a great strength of this travelogue – inviting the reader to smell and touch the landscape. It causes the reader to slow to a walking pace and admire the “empty, sun-bleached snail shells” at our feet, and to look up and listen to the Arctic terns which “serrated the air with their cries”. Marram is full of colour: “the aubergine hue of the South Uist hills”; a drake mallard a “startle of tourmaline”; the “gold-gilt” of the title’s grass.

    Alongside the lush detail lies narrative and some reported conversation – intimate shared memories, meetings with islanders who offer grazing, and much fascinating local history.

    With a few more travel books by women thankfully being published nowadays, some featuring extreme treks and adventures, Charlton moves around with a refreshing and altogether ‘Shepherdian’ disregard for clocking up the miles or achieving great summits. The group endure their fair share of turbulent weather, not only dreich terrain and sodden camping, but silent striding which allows for recollections of sick beds to surface and feelings to be bravely faced. Although they dine on oysters and prosecco, they also display capability and strength when called for.

    The reader is pre-warned, but it is nevertheless shocking when, towards the end, there is a hair-raising account of encountering some serious difficulty, and the established pace and style of the writing changes to reflect this incident. However, despite the occasional humorous episode (one horse takes a very long pee in a church carpark!) and a few joyous beach gallops, the overriding gait of the ruminative narrative is steady throughout. This is indeed a quiet, attentive book which brings the remote country alive, and reminds people to go off and explore.

 
Marram by Leonie Charlton
Book Review
by Barney Bardsley

Two women, Leonie and Shuna, ride off on their Highland ponies, Ross and Chief, one summer’s morning. They take the boat from Oban, on the west coast of Scotland, to Barra, in the Outer Hebrides. Their mission? To trek the length of the Hebridean islands, from Barra, at the southern tip of Uist, through South Uist, North Uist, Harris and Lewis to Stornaway and Callanish, in the north. Every place name on their journey sounds like the Shipping Forecast, broadcasting through a foggy night to a lonely sailor. Every step of the way sounds – to a city dweller, at least – like a journey full of deep discomfort and uncertainty. Where will they sleep at night? How will their trusty ponies cope with the rough terrain, filled with marshland, rocks, peatbogs and the harsh spikes of the eponymous marram grass?

This is certainly a memoir of endurance, in more ways than one. Both women are experienced trekkers, and have gone on several long horse trips together, so there is a touching trust between them: a very real sense that they have each other’s backs. Nonetheless, this friendship is tested along the way, with moments of heart stopping jeopardy: Shuna’s pony Chief wanders off during a rest period, and gets lost on the beach, in the face of an uncertain tide; and both ponies fall into treacherous peatbogs near the end of their journey, with a distinct prospect of them sinking so deep that they will suffocate and die. But Shuna’s great fortitude and good sense, added to Leonie’s determination and spirit, mean that the outcome is happy. These women are made of strong stuff. The mission, partly done for charity, is completed. And a huge sense of accomplishment radiates from the final pages, filling the reader with affection for the writer, for what she has endured, and the things she has learned along the way.

“Impossible not to be touched”

Leonie Charlton’s journey is not just a physical one. Indeed, the underlying purpose of this book is not really to provide an uplifting travelogue. This journey into the wild is profoundly emotional. Part of Charlton’s mission is to leave a trail of beads at every station along the way, in memory of her mother Kathryn, who was a jeweller, and a collector of beads, and who had died, seven years before. It is this dead mother who haunts the pages of the book: she is, in a way, its main character, and is powerfully present, from beginning to end.

Leonie Charlton is painfully honest about her fractured relationship with her mother, evoking “the emotional, cultural and physical chaos of life” with her. It makes our hearts ache for the small child who struggled to make sense of this chaos, and for the fully grown woman, too, riding her pony through the Highlands, and still in thrall to the woman who, despite her obvious charisma and charm, clearly caused her daughter to suffer in unnecessary and wounding ways. Anyone who has struggled to make peace with a difficult parent, will find much that resonates here. And everything is revealed in a manner devoid of self pity or self indulgence. Leonie Charlton simply tells it as it is, and it is impossible not to be touched by her telling.

Throughout the long trek, the daughter wrestles with thoughts of her mother, realising she will never get to the bottom of the story. “My memories of her are a palimpsest like the sea-licked lichens on the rocks at our feet, merely a thin breathing skin over the unfathomable story of the rock.Nonetheless, resolution comes. A slow coming-to-terms, as slow as the movement of hoof over turf, as quiet as the time turns, out in the wilds of nature. For nature itself heals. And there is a very real sense that Charlton is somehow healed, during this gentle, persistent pilgrimage into the past. As the writer says in her final paragraph, “this journey had helped me find a way to let go of the guilt and pain which had been silting inside me for so many years.” Her mother had loved horses – and on the back of her own horse, Leonie Charlton finds her mother again, and, more importantly, finds peace.

 

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