Inverness in the highlands of Scotland is not the most attractive town. I wouldn’t say it was ugly, but it’s not far off. Apart from the river, and a couple of restaurants, it didn’t seem to have much going for it. That was, until I found the bookshop.
Not just any bookshop, one that might just be the best bookshop in Scotland, if not bigger land masses. It’s housed in a former church, and retains all the old-world charm, including stone work and a timber altar. The place is immense, and filled entirely with books. They are on two floors, and separated roughly by topic, although the Dewey decimal system clearly does not apply here, judging by the volumes on the floor, on chairs and on every conceivable surface.
Staff are helpful, but otherwise unobtrusive. There is a wood burning stove in the centre of the floor, and a zigzag of pipes take the warmth upstairs, where if you are still not warm enough, you can buy bowls of homemade soup. The entire shop is enveloped in the smell of wood smoke and a broth bubbling away.
I browse. Then I browse some more. Time is ticking away, so I remove my watch and place it in my pocket, so as to be untroubled by the passing of hours. I move slowly from section to section, pausing to pull out volumes here and there, perusing the ‘travel’ section with particular rapture, and being overwhelmed by the wall of orange-spined Penguin novels. I stop for a while to read on a wooden chair.
I return to the travel section, and go through them shelf by shelf. I’m looking for anything Iceland related. Scandinavia features heavily. Norway. Finland. Tattered travel guides. Sweden, the Faroe Islands... getting closer... Iceland. Got it. Instantly I see a smallish hardback book, faded spine that was once red. It’s called Rivers of Iceland by RN Stewart. I ease the book out from its fellows on the shelf, and scuttle back to my reading chair. The chair remains unused, and I’m pleased about this as its delightfully close to the wood burner.
The book smells old. Not in a bad way, but one of years passing by. The cover is worn, and the pages are yellowing. It has the sort of smell and feel that could never be replicated by an e-book. It fits pleasingly in my hand.
Inside the book tells me that it was published in 1950 by the tourist bureau of Reykjavík. Now I’m intrigued. Major General Stewart, it seems was quite the man. As well as being of military rank, he has written books before on the subject of angling, and this isn’t even his first trip to Iceland. This book is about angling too, but I’m not put off by that. I’ve experienced some ‘tight lines’ in my time.
Major General Stewart does not limit his writing to angling. He talks about food – “like all Scandinavian countries they are fond of sweet soups; rhubarb soup figures in the proportion of four to one over all the others, prune soup comes next. Personally I rather like them, but perhaps they are an acquired taste,” and the language of which he “makes very inadequate and entirely ungrammatical attempts to speak.” I know how he felt.
The descriptions of lava fields, farms and life in 50’s Iceland roll on. Stewart describes pulling the plug on his bath in a Reykjavík hotel to find the water rush out all over the floor, seemingly unconnected to any plumbing, and his “bedroom slippers floating like boats.” There are illustrations of Icelandic scenes, and photographs of freshly caught fat salmon. I like it.
I find out, sometime later, that a couple of years ago, an Icelandic newspaper was similarity intrigued by the book, and dispatched a reporter to Scotland to find out more. The reporter unearthed a treasure trove of detailed notes, unpublished work and unseen photographs of the Major Generals’ trips to Iceland.
I’m quite taken with the book, and I take it up to the counter to pay. The guy, partially obscured by towers of books, looks surprised. “This shouldn’t be on the shelves,” he says “it’s quite rare; there only a few left in circulation.”
I explain that it definitely was on the shelves, that I have just spent the past few hours reading it, and that crucially, it will be coming with me. A tense period of negotiation follows. I win. Well, I got the book. We don’t need to discuss the price, do we? The point is this. If someone, sixty plus years from now, when I'm dead and buried, can read my book about Iceland and gain as much pleasure as I did from Rivers of Iceland, then it’s a job well done. I tuck the book under my arm and head out into the cold Scottish wind.
Edward Hancox– [email protected]