“The best nature writer working in Britain today”
– The Los Angeles Times
I was born in Dundee on Scotland’s east coast on July 6, 1947. My father was a telephone engineer, my mother a telephone operator, and my brother was a town planner, so on the face of it there was nothing much to hint that there would be a writer in the family. And although both my parents had brothers who were journalists, my mother insisted until her dying day that my writing was an inheritance from her mother whose surname was Barrie, and that according to an uncle of hers the family were related to J.M. Barrie. So perhaps she knew what she was doing, or perhaps it was just wishful thinking, when I was christened James (after my father) Barrie Crumley.
Whether or not a much diluted strain of Barrie genius flows in my bloodstream (and I am content to leave the matter unresearched in case it proves to be a family myth), books and writing have been at the core of my life from an improbably young age. That passion was allied very early on to an instinctive, unquestioned love of nature, and foremost among my very earliest memories is standing in the front garden of the family prefab watching wild geese fly over and losing myself in the shapes of the skeins and their wilderness chatter.
That house was admirably placed to nurture the seeds of the life I was to live, for on the far side of the street were fields, behind the house was a low wooded hill called the Balgay Hill, and all this looked out to the most handsome estuary in all Scotland, the Firth of Tay. In 1996 I wrote a book called The Road and the Miles – A Homage to Dundee. This is a passage about my childhood:
“For although there are more beautiful hills and shores which have seduced my turned back away from Dundee, here is the one place where my own characteristic restlessness likes best to draw breath, and knows it can be briefly still. Here I think only of where I stand, and quietly, I celebrate…Here is a wooded hill above a wide and handsome firth, a dark and perpetual crouch which wreathed my childhood in benevolent shadows and sheltered it from ill winds. I think of it often from those twin distances of miles and time, and if nostalgia has filtered out the memory of a few bruises, there were only ever a few in the first place and none caused lasting pain. I remember only happy times.
“I fingered the word ‘idyllic’ here, but decided against it. This was, after all, post- war, pared-to-the-bone, corporation prefab Dundee with glimpses of ration books in the darkest recesses of my memory. There were no idylls, not here, not then. Yet I only contemplated the word in the first place because it seems to me to have been as ideal a childhood as my kind of child could have desired. It revolved around the joys of an admittedly simpler time – football, cricket, bikes, food, and the countryside which lapped the far side of the street, then rose and fell over northbound contours to the summer-blue, winter-white northern bulwark of the Sidlaw Hills.
“Landscapes are fundamental to what my life has become, the raw material for much of my work, the moulds which fashion my peaces of mind. Dundee folk are lucky. Ours is a city with both a landscape setting of rare distinction and an internal landscape. I have often wondered about this passion-in-landscape which has flourished in me unbidden, egging me on beyond the strictures of journalism to writing adventures in such as St Kilda, the Cairngorms, Skye, Mull, Shetland, Sutherland, Argyll, Iceland, Norway and Alaska. Here, amid the Balgay’s shadows is the seedbed. Once, it was no more than a wooded hill on a seaman’s skyline and from its modest summit a forty-miles-wide swathe of river and firth and open sea was your spreadeagled inheritance. The same modest summit instils in me an indefinable sense of wellbeing. It is more than nostalgia. I am rooted here.”
I left school shortly before my 17th birthday and two days later began work as a trainee journalist with the Dundee-based newspaper and magazine publisher, D.C. Thomson. It never really occurred to me to do anything else. I worked there for five years, mostly on their morning and evening newspapers, The Courier and the Evening Telegraph. When I left, it was supposed to be a stepping stone to Fleet Street. I joined a paper in Coventry with a reputation for feeding the big national dailies. I was back in Dundee in two months.
In the next 20 years I worked in various Scottish papers, including the Scottish Daily Express, the Stirling Observer (as editor), the Glasgow Herald, and finally the Edinburgh Evening News where the insistence of its editor Ian Nimmo that my job was “to work on the words” would befit me – at the age of 40 – to begin a new life as a writer. I left the paper after eight years with profound gratitude to its editor and a plaque acknowledging that I had been Scottish Feature Writer of the Year in 1985. It was my first and last award for writing anything at all.
My desire to write books had taken its first meaningful lurch into the daylight when I was about 18 and read Gavin Maxwell’s Ring of Bright Water. I finished it in a kind of trance and thinking: I want to do that. I didn’t want to share my bed with an otter, but that book established what would become my writer’s quest. I wanted to write as well as that, I wanted to write my own Ring of Bright Water. It remains an elusive ideal, but I’m not done yet. Later the work of George Mackay Brown entered my life. He remains the writer I admire most and read most often. I have also become a fan and a student of the North American nature writing tradition, thanks largely to reading the exceptionally beautiful Arctic Dreams by Barry Lopez, and A Sand County Almanac by Aldo Leopold which is arguably the greatest nature writing book of them all.
Over 25 years then, my own books have kept coming at an average of one a year. These have, in their turn, generated new opportunities in journalism, radio and television. And in 1997, shortly after the publication of The Road and the Miles, my old paper, The Courier, invited me to write a weekly column which is still one of the highlights of my working week. And my monthly column Wild About Scotland in the same company’s Scots Magazine has run since 2007.
I have evolved a writer’s territory over the years, an idea that occurred to me while watching a pair of golden eagles over several years. It is an ill-defined chunk of the Loch Lomond and the Trossachs National park that extends from the edge of the Carse of Stirling in the south to the Balquhidder Hills and Glen Dochart in the north.
Its purpose is to try and understand nature better by re-working the same set of circumstances, the same landscapes, seeking intimacy, asking nature to share its secrets. All the work, all the travels, all the thousands of hours of vigils, have only one end product – I do it all to write it down. And the more I can write down while I am in nature’s company – like a plein air painter – the better and more convincing the writing. An unsung English writer called Margiad Evans taught me to do that through a few lines in her modest, magical little book, Autobiography: “All good and true earth writing should be done out of doors…Write in the very now where you find yourself… There is no substitute even in divine inspiration for the touch of the moment, the touch of the daylight on the dream.”
And J.M. Barrie? Well, the connection is not obvious to me, though I love his prose work and its devastating humour. And in The Little White Bird (the story that introduced Peter Pan to an unsuspecting world) there is this:
“The reason that bird can fly and people cannot is that birds have complete faith, for to have wings is to have faith.” Maybe I’ll write about him one day.