Walking on Wild Air: genius loci and the spirit of place

Genius Loci is a Latin term for the deity that rules over a particular place or location. The Oxford Reference dictionary says “every place has its own unique qualities, not only in terms of its physical makeup, but of how it is perceived”. We humans are fond of personifying inanimate objects and places, and it’s an important part of many mythologies.

Whenever I visit somewhere new I’m keen to find out the local name for it, preferably in the native tongue of the place, which can often give a sense of meaning or history. For instance the Isle of Mull (where Walking on Wild Air is set) derives from a Norse word meaning a high flat plateau viewed from the sea. Seamarks like this were useful to the Norse, who went everywhere on the Sea Roads and could navigate by way of familiar landmarks. ‘Vik’, meaning harbour, and ‘Tarbert’, meaning a low place where boats can be portaged from one seaway to another, are also common around the west coast of Scotland for much the same reason.

I know that once upon a time every landmark on Mull, from the most significant to the most intimate, was named and known and cherished by its inhabitants, from Duart (Dubh Ard, the High Dark Place, globally important as the home of the MacLean clan chieftains) to the nameless spring that bubbles on the hill above the house where I used to live. When places are cleared wholesale, and the inhabitants bundled off into cities or encouraged to emigrate, much is lost, and the names of places are not the least of it.

I was tramping in the hills near Dervaig back in 2013, looking for rare moths (or at least their food plants) and wondering about the lost names of every hill and vale, every hummock and streamlet I passed. And then I thought to myself: what if there was something here before the Gaels? Before the Irish settled western Scotland and their language began to diverge into what we now know as Scottish Gaelic. Before the Picts, or whoever was living in these parts before the Gaelic speaking kingdom of Dal Riata arose in the Middle Ages. Before the builders of stone circles and chambered tombs got to work here. Before even the Mesolithic hunter-gatherers created trails around and through the valleys of Mull, and its surrounding islands (they are known from several sites here).

What if there was something that came into being in the fiery chaos of the opening of the Atlantic? Something that arose from and was fed by the constant rain of the Hebrides. Something living. Something strange. What would that be like?

And as strange and wonderful a thought as that was: what then, when people arrive, with their passion for possessiveness and ownership and the naming of things?

And so the idea of the spring came to me, as a locus and source of the strangeness that I wanted to write about, and down ten thousand years the people of the land came to me and gave me their names. And Dougie MacLean was born.

My characters’ names are very important to me. Dougie is short for Dougal, in Gaelic Dubh Gall, the Dark Stranger. That seems pretty appropriate for someone who is not entirely of this world, and whose strangeness becomes ever more apparent as the story unfolds. And the main narrator of Walking on Wild Air, Sushila Mackenzie, has her own naming story. The child of Sri Lankan and Scottish parents, she is named after the daughter of a lovely man I worked with long ago. He told me stories of his daughter, away at university, and how she was the sweetest, kindest, cleverest and most wonderful daughter in the world. How could I not channel that deep-rooted stream of love and affection into my character, especially as she was facing so much pain and tragedy in her life?

In ‘Walking on Wild Air’ the spirit of the spring meets the girl with the broken heart, and who will be healed? Who will be loved? Who will be harmed when two such different worlds collide?

Escape to a place forged not by time, but by memories.


Come along to my Facebook event 8am-midnight BST on Sunday 28 June 2020, for competitions, conversation and music. Drop in any time to take part. https://www.facebook.com/events/254480262667365/

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