Marram by Leonie Charlton – 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.
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.
‘Marram’ by Leonie Charlton is published by Sandstone Press, £12.99 hardback