Colquhoun’s two topographical books record travels through Ireland and Cornwall. They are not simply chronological or linear records of journeys made: they move easily between travelogue, history, mythology and autobiography.
Colquhoun’s Cornwall is not to be found by taking a train to Penzance nor her Ireland by catching a ferry to Dun Laoghaire. They are to be found within: in the imagination, in myths and folk memories, in mystic visions and in the iconography of the druids and early Christians.
Written and published in 1955, The Crying of the Wind: Ireland was the authors’ first published book. It was commissioned by Peter Owen, with whom she was on friendly terms. As an author able to supply her own cover artwork and simple illustrations, she would have been an attractive prospect to a small, cost-cutting independent publisher such as Owen. Their association continued for several years. He published The Living Stones: Cornwall in 1957 and Goose of Hermogenes in 1961. During this period she also designed a number of book jackets for him. No doubt for sound commercial reasons, these betray nothing of her interests in the surreal or the occult.
The structure of the book is simple. Each chapter starts with a description of a place or an excursion. This becomes the springboard for descriptions of the local folklore, antiquities, flora, fauna and the cultural life of the vicinity. Holy wells, healing wells and ancient chapels jostle with pagan lore, druidic belief and herbal remedies. These vignettes frequently lead to personal memories, literary allusions and other musings. The writing, however, is straightforward with none of the declamatory or poetic hymn-like passages that later featured in The Living Stones.
As with all her books, it is written in the first person. She gives no background information and does nothing to set the scene for the reader. This gives the book a great sense of immediacy as the reader is plunged into the narrative without preliminaries. It is also mildly disorientating, a feeling that is enhanced by the fact that her companions are generally left unnamed, or identified only by their initials. The reader enters Colquhoun’s world, therefore, on her terms. The world is one that we have learned to expect: it is a world of physical and spiritual intimacy with the landscape. This intimacy is experienced through her artistic eye, as when, for example, she describes the appearance of limestone mountains after rain, through physical sensations, as when she describes the feel of rain drops on her naked body or the feel of walking on wet turf in her bare feet and through the spiritual ties she feels with the land:
“Ireland is at the mercy of the elements as a sensitive
human being is at the mercy of elemental waves of feeling –
angst alternates with bitterness, an insane gaiety with sorrow
and mindless reverie. There are days when one feels completely
lost, doomed to be engulfed like Atlantis in mist and spray, or
blown away by a gale from the ocean.” (p108)
The great cycle of birth and death is everywhere to be found. Thus, she finds death and, less obviously birth, in the great passage graves on the Boyne. She points out that in plan, the passage and side chambers of a monument such as New Grange are reminiscent of the female reproductive organs. These megalithic structures belong not only to the kingdom of the dead but also to the unborn. Her visit to New Grange came several years before the idea that the tombs are also wombs became commonplace. The iconography of mound as womb, the passage as birth canal and the sunrise orientation symbolising birth would not have struck her as the least bit surprising.
continue to next section: The Living Stones: Cornwall
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