Walk and talk with Sara Maitland

Sara Maitland

Author Sara Maitland won the Somerset Maugham Award in 1978 for her first novel, Daughter of Jerusalem, and found more recent fame with 2008’s A Book of Silence. Susan Gray talks to her about her new book exploring Britain’s forests, and asks how nature connects us all to the magical and divine...

Click here to listen to an exclusive podcast of Sara reading one of her updated fairy tales

You live alone in the Galloway Forest. What are the realities of living in such an isolated place?
The good thing is the spot is magically beautiful and quiet – you never disturb anyone and they don’t disturb you. Also, my water comes from peat moor and tastes wonderful. The bad things are having to manually open two gates in the rain, and the power cuts. It takes a long time to get the power on again around here. But it’s all great, really, and you’re never as isolated as people think. The postman still comes!

In your new book, Gossip From the Forest [Granta, £20], you visited 12 forests across Britain over a year, reworking a famous fairy story for each. Why?
I wanted to explore the idea that the great stretches of forest in northern Europe created the themes and ethics of the fairytales we know best. Coming to terms with the forest’s seasonal changes, restricted views and terrors, and utilising its natural gifts to gain its help, is the way to ‘happily ever after’.

Fairy stories set up expectations of vast, wild forests, yet some of our best-known forests are rather tame. Where do you recommend for a primeval forest feeling?
Staverton Thicks, in Suffolk, is the most magical place I’ve ever been – the oak woods there are the forests of childhood and dreams. There’s also Ballochbuie Forest, a remnant of the Great Caledonian woodland, and Glen Affric is wild and spooky. The Kyle of Tonge, in the northwest Highlands, has a little bit of ancient birch wood on a steep hillside. And some of the least messed-about- with forests I know of are the oak woods of Glentrool in Galloway, near me.

Last year’s proposed Government sell-off of Forestry Commission land caused huge public protests. Do you think we’re on the brink of re-asserting our common rights to the forest?
The forestry sell-off is an issue for England; forestry is devolved, so there was never going to be a sell-off in Scotland. Initially I was surprised by the bizarre strength of the reaction and the shocking ignorance of people who wanted to protect the forest. Kielder Forest is not a wilderness, it’s a factory – it’s deranged to see it as wild! But now, through writing my book, I’m not as surprised as I was. The forest is deeply embedded in our imagination and there’s a strong instinct that it belongs to us in common.

In your book, you describe Glenlee – a 19th-century wooded park – as not ancient woodland but ‘enchanting’. Is the conservation movement too fixated on trying to restore the landscape to an idealised wooded version of Merrie England or Scotland, which may never have actually existed?
I don’t know. There’s no primary woodland left in Britain, but we definitely have pre -1600s ancient woodland, and it’s very beautiful and species-rich. Plants grow there that don’t grow anywhere else. So in one sense it is something to be decently hung up on. But plant-a-tree schemes and more deciduous trees are a good thing. Glenlee is built on ancient woodland and is full of exotics, including rhododendrons, which they are now trying to get rid of. And that’s fine: we put them in, so we can take them out. Rhododendrons are like grey squirrels – there was no democratic demand for either and they’ve been a complete disaster.

You also quote your neighbour as saying the wind turbines planned for the area can’t be any more disfiguring than the existing conifer plantations. Do you agree with him?
Personally I dislike wind farms very much, but I ought to put up with them and find them beautiful. I don’t object to Scotland’s commitment to sustainable energy, but I do object to wind farms being so ill thought out. They should all be together, but as they all belong to different companies, they’re spread out. Some areas – such as Wigtown Bay – shouldn’t have any turbines, and it’s right to fight them there. Offshore developments shouldn’t be too close to land, either. Wind turbines have certainly exposed a fundamental split in the ecology movement. NIMBY [‘not in my back yard’] conservationists want to conserve the landscape as it was, while the wind farm lobby has a larger, more dynamic view encompassing climate change and the developing world – the two views are irreconcilable. People don’t see themselves as NIMBYs; they see themselves as loving a particular place. After all, nobody is thought weird if they love a particular partner.

With yourself and fellow author Robert Macfarlane, are we entering a new golden age of British landscape writing?
It’s called new nature writing and it’s very personal, bringing poetry and fiction writing into nature. We’re an opinionated bunch! A lot of walking books are incredibly dreary. I want to say to the author: tell us how you felt, tell us about the weather, tell us something!

You’re a devout Catholic: how does the environment connect with your faith?
I don’t know many people with active faith who don’t believe in God as creator. People may have difficulties with Jesus, sin or heaven, but usually they believe in a creator. So part of the link is being alone in nature. If you’re hearing only non-manmade sounds you are more likely to have a religious experience.

Is walking important to you?
I walk daily for an hour at home, and having a dog means I can’t wimp out. I’ve just completed the St Ninian’s pilgrimage route along the Ayrshire coast. It was a great walk, and I did around 15 miles each day, but I don’t normally walk that far. I believe walking adds to our sense of self. At a moral and spiritual level, there’s something about walking in nature that’s good for you.

What other personal qualities can time in the forest foster in us?
Forests are a very safe place to feel in danger. We over-protect our children, yet send them off to explore mountains that are far more dangerous. Nothing in our forests is going to hurt you, and forests encourage a sense of magic. Empowerment of the imagination for children and adults comes out of the tradition of forest fairy stories, which everybody knows. They give us a shared experience.

Do you have a favourite fairy story for adults?
The Seven Swans has lots of elements, so there’s bound to be one in there you like. And it’s interesting because there aren’t many stories where a woman prefers something else to her children: the heroine would rather have her children stolen away than break her promise to her brother. There isn’t a perfectly happy ending, either, which acknowledges that, often in life, things aren’t perfect, but as good as they can be.

What's your favourite?

…country walk?
Staverton Thicks, in Suffolk.

…city walk?

Istanbul, a fabulous city to get lost in.


The one from my kitchen window, over the moor in South Ayrshire.

…piece of walking kit?

Boots. Until 10 years ago I used the pair my mother was given as a wedding present in 1948.

…post-walk tipple?

PHOTO: Adam Lee