Strange Allegiance: Ian Macpherson’s Wild Harbour

Ian Macpherson’s Wild Harbour might initially seem like an outlier in the world of apocalyptic narratives. First published in 1936, and telling the story of a war-torn Scotland in 1944, the novel depicts neither divine retribution nor material devastation. The environment is not poisoned, technology has not run rampant, and whatever hardships that the general population may experience are scarcely represented. Indeed, the first half of the novel, which depicts its protagonists Hugh and Terry – closely modelled on Macpherson and his wife Elizabeth – building a life in a remote part of the Cairngorms, seems more akin to survival narratives like Daniel Defoe’s Robinson Crusoe (1719) than anything in the realm of science fiction or disaster writing. Hugh and Terry do not initially experience any direct violence, but leave their small town for a cave when they hear guns in the distance, and resolve to fend for themselves. The action of the novel is premised on the persistent threat, and growing reality, of foreign invasion, but for long portions of the novel that threat remains as an unsubstantiated rumour. While the couple initially finds, in Hugh’s words, that ‘the civilization that brought us to exile had first unfitted us for the life of outlaws’, they soon develop skills in hunting and fishing, as well as making their domestic space gradually more comfortable.1 The novel can be seen as a story of survival and recuperation, rather than destruction.

Yet Macpherson’s novel is not a simple tale of pastoral idyll or wilderness adventure. Instead, he draws attention to the violence at the heart of human relationships, both with each other and the land. While there is real and horrific violence in the novel, especially towards the end, Wild Harbour also suggests, more alarmingly, that the apocalypse is always present, or immanent. The apocalyptic does not appear solely as an outside threat, but is found in failures of kindness and care, in self-absorption and easy cruelty. While the novel remains fascinating as a sort of alternate-history-before-the-fact, presenting a vision of a Britain ravaged by foreign invasion, it is also notable for depicting humans as locked into a continual cycle of violence, both with each other and the environment.

This bleak perspective is apparent from Macpherson’s first novel, Shepherds’ Calendar (1931). Like Nan Shepherd’s The Quarry Wood (1928) and Lewis Grassic Gibbon’s Sunset Song (1932), both of which have eclipsed it in popularity, Shepherds’ Calendar depicts the struggle of a young person in a rural northeast community to choose between their duty to the land and their family and their own aspirations to attend university. While both Gibbon and Shepherd, however, praise the rural landscape, presenting it as a vibrant source of being, Macpherson’s northeast is consistently brutal, filled with death and decay. It opens:  

The head of the valley is waste land. […] On the ridges of the valley fantastic rocks bear witness to the forces which once tormented the earth. […] Slow weathers have caressed the havoc; mists have slobbered over the broken skeleton of the world. The bones are hid with miraged flesh.2  

The visible world emerges from violence and loss, and any pastoral idyll is an illusion. Shepherds’ Calendar is set in 1925 and, like Gibbon’s novel in particular, points to the First World War both as a moment of complete change and as remote from the lives of many of the novel’s central characters. Instead, in Macpherson’s text violence is simply pervasive, part of the natural order of things. The apocalypse, or the waste land, is not something that emerges in a potential future, but arises from the past, and is always with us.

This sense of a prevailing doom continues through even the most idyllic passages in Wild Harbour. Hugh reflects at one point that ‘We were mortal folk, and all our work, all our home-making in the cave, all our happiness on this day of June, though it was sweet, did not divide us from our human fellows nor obliterate their woe’ (p. 91). As Frank Kermode influentially argues, apocalyptic writings are frequently set in the near future, and the movement of time gives us a new perspective that, in his formulation, disconfirms without discrediting them.3 That is, when an apocalyptic novel is read after the time in which it is set, the reader will be aware that the events described did not take place: in this case, the reader knows that Scotland did not have a ground-force invasion in 1944. Kermode’s argument goes further, to say that this is one of the main reasons for the success, rather than the failure, of such stories: if this apocalypse did not happen, the tale is not invalidated, but rather the apocalypse, paradoxically, remains just as near. There is a double reading to apocalyptic narratives, then: even as we know that the events described are fiction, the threat remains. And it is this double reading that Macpherson captures so well not only in the historical setting of the novel but in its action. Hugh and Terry are positioned, for much of the novel, as if the apocalypse has passed them by, but that does not provide peace, only a sense that it is always about to arrive.

What Macpherson offers in Wild Harbour, then, as well as in his other work, is the unusual notion that the apocalypse cannot wholly arrive, or it cannot be completely written, because such disaster would be a form of resolution. Instead, the true apocalypse exists outside of time and history. This is most clear in the persistent animal violence depicted in the story. For many modern readers the detailed descriptions of animal death, while framed as practical necessities, might be disquieting. This violence towards nonhuman animals, however, is positioned as essential, rather than hierarchical. Humans do not harm animals because they are superior beings – Hugh laments, at length, the cruelty of poachers who kill without conscience – but because they are animals themselves. Hugh says explicitly: ‘We are like wild animals. […] [W]e’ve got back old lost instincts for danger’ (p. 118). A state of constant alertness, even fear, is a way of being on the earth.

In this sense, despite its clear thematic and historical difference, Wild Harbour can be compared to more recent texts concerning climate change and environmental devastation. As many critics have noted, focusing too much on an ‘end’ can make it difficult to inhabit the present: ‘to think that there is no future risks embracing either hedonism or apathy; on the other hand, to focus too much on the future risks eliding or not acting in the present’.4 Wild Harbour may not be a guide to living in and with fear of the apocalypse – without delving into spoilers, everything goes horribly wrong – but it nevertheless suggests ways to inhabit the present moment without giving way to either resignation or despair. Precisely because the apocalypse has always been with us, Macpherson suggests, even when it seems to be presenting itself in new forms, we already know how to live with it. This is one of the reasons why the novel remains relevant now, rather than appearing simply as an historical curiosity: if our own worries of imminent collapse are different, Macpherson shows that the worry itself can be a way of orienting yourself in relation to your surroundings and your own time. Indeed, after a prolonged sequence of human violence, Hugh reflects that the couple has ‘found surer peace in the time of the racked world’s anguish than ever pleased us while the earth was quiet’ (p. 179). 

In her reading of Shepherd’s work in relation to contemporary environmental concerns, Samantha Walton notes an ecological perspective infused with life: ‘Livingness means entanglement and the circulation of all elements, organisms, matter and processes in a natural system.’5

 Macpherson’s focus on destruction, however, arrives at a similar conclusion. Near the end of the novel the couple make plans to leave their cave:

Though we depart, leaving our cave to the fox or the wild cat or the cleanly badger, this place, this land, is ours, and we, tied to it as the wild creatures are, cannot escape from it by going. But we belong to it, we have given ourselves up to it; no other abode can ever break this strange allegiance. (p. 180)

Shepherd’s and Macpherson’s journeys to the Cairngorms could not be more different in tone or emphasis, but both writers find, whether focusing on life or death, a way of inhabiting the world. Wild Harbour, in a way unlike the vast majority of apocalyptic fictions, shows ways to live with disaster, even if that life is fleeting and contingent.

The novel ends in tragedy; its finale is shocking and abrupt. The cruelty of humanity cannot be overcome. But this disaster, too, has been anticipated. The petty disputes between the couple, and Hugh’s more pervasive misogyny, have illustrated that good intentions are not enough. Yet while the novel may be read as nihilistic, its account of human ‘allegiance’ with the natural world might be what lingers in the reader’s mind. In this sense, the novel’s closest contemporary analogue might be Sarah Moss’s Summerwater (2020). Moss’s novel similarly depicts characters fleeing the modern world, and taking refuge in the apparent serenity of the Scottish countryside, and similarly ends in a shocking tragedy that appears inevitable. Human communities, whether as small as a couple or much larger, cannot be sustained. Both novels, however, also demonstrate the way attention to the natural environment does not nullify the effects of devastation or tragedy, but does, perhaps, recontextualise them. Like Macpherson, Moss draws attention not only to differences between human and nonhuman experiences of time, but shows that hardship, as well as joy, is common amongst all creatures.

Moss’s and Macpherson’s novels are not gentle apocalypses: in their understatement, they are often more shocking than tales of complete devastation. But they articulate a sense of apocalypse that is, if not unique to Scottish fiction, certainly more prevalent than is often noted. The apocalypse may appear in the form of an external force, an invading army or a flood, but its given form is incidental. Instead, the spectre of apocalyptic devastation is with us always. This is not, however, a nihilistic sentiment. Instead, novels like Macpherson’s give the reader a way of living in and with the world, recognising the violence inherent in ourselves and those around us, and finding in that recognition a form of peace. While Wild Harbour is dated in many respects, its sense of an apocalypse not only on the horizon, but already here, remains just as relevant in our own time.


End Notes

  1. Ian Macpherson, Wild Harbour (1936; London: The British Library, 2019), p. 19. Subsequent references are to this edition.
  2. Ian Macpherson, Shepherds’ Calendar (1931; Edinburgh: Paul Harris, 1983), p. 11.
  3. Frank Kermode, The Sense of an Ending: Studies in the Theory of Fiction (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2000), p. 8.
  4. Alison E. Vogelaar, Alexandra Peat, and Brack Hale, ‘Introducing the End’, in Vogelaar, Hale, and Peat (eds), The Discourses of Environmental Collapse: Imagining the End (Abingdon and New York: Routledge, 2018), pp. 1–12, p. 2.
  5. Samantha Walton, The Living World: Nan Shepherd and Environmental Thought (London: Bloomsbury Academic, 2020), p. 21.
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Timothy C. Baker

Timothy C. Baker is Personal Chair in Scottish and Contemporary Literature at the University of Aberdeen. He is the author of four monographs, most recently New Forms of Environmental Writing: Gleaning and Fragmentation (2022), as well as a memoir, Reading My Mother Back: A Memoir in Childhood Animal Stories (2022).

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