"Wild History: Journeys into Lost Scotland" by James Crawford is a surprising and exciting book and one we'd highly recommend to anyone with an interest in this country of ours and its history. It would be easy to believe that books have already been written about pretty much any aspect of Scotland it's possible to imagine: without going for something quite so arcane or niche that it couldn't possibly be of interest to anyone other than the author themselves.
James Crawford's book proves how wrong a belief that would be. He has alighted on a subject that is absolutely fascinating, and all the more enjoyable for being so totally unexpected. You get a hint of what to expect from the publisher's description: "You scramble up over the dunes of an isolated beach. You climb to the summit of a lonely hill. You pick your way through the eerie hush of a forest. And then you find them. The traces of the past. Perhaps they are marked by a tiny symbol on your map, perhaps not. There are no plaques to explain their fading presence before you, nothing to account for what they once were – who made them, lived in them or abandoned them. Now they are merged with the landscape. They are being reclaimed by nature. They are wild history."
The book looks at 55 examples of wild history across the length and breadth of Scotland, from Fethaland in Shetland in the north-east to Ailsa Craig in the south-west; and from Callanish XI on Lewis in the north-west to the Roman signal station at Rubers Law in the south-east. Each site has a short chapter of superbly-written text and one or sometimes more photographs taken by the author on his visits "whether in sun or rain or frost or snow". The author notes that some of the sites are easy to find while "others offer more of a challenge". He gives an eight figure grid reference for each and invites his readers to accept the challenge of finding the sites on the ground.
Sites are divided into four themes. "Worked" covers old industrial sites such as a Viking shipyard on the Isle of Skye; lime kilns on a promontory sticking out into a loch in northern Sutherland; or the site of an early venture into pumped-storage hydroelectric generation in the Scottish Borders. "Sacred" covers various sites of religious significance from a "Cathedral of Trees" near Oban to a derelict seminary at Cardross. "Contested" looks at three structures built by the Romans, a road, a signal station and a fort; as well as relics from more recent conflicts, including the X-Craft midget submarines that can be found at low tide at Aberlady Bay off East Lothian. "Sheltered" looks at relics of housing, from the Bone Cave at Inchnadamph to the abandoned Mingulay Village in the Western Isles to the abandoned and derelict grand house at Mavisbank in Midlothian.
For me the measure of a book such as this one is whether I am likely to find it of continuing value in the future. The answer is a very definite "yes". I'd like to think I know the country pretty well, but of the 55 sites described and illustrated here I've only been to twelve; and such is the buzz of reading about the others that I fully expect to be using the book to track some of them down in the future. Starting with a trip to Sheriffmuir to find... no, not traces of a battle fought in a Jacobite rising over two centuries ago. Who knew that in 1943 the British military built a recreation of a section of the Nazi Atlantic Wall here so they could practice attacking it before they had to do so for real on D-Day?