This semester I have been working on an article on Michel Faber’s Easter Ross fiction. I came across him quite by accident: someone told me that he lives in my (odd, spread-out) village. This coincided with teaching a new-to-me module on modern Scottish Gothic fiction, and the release of Under the Skin (the movie). I was struck by the way local geography strengthens and distorts our sense of reality in the novel, and I quickly read more of Faber’s works. His two short story collections, Some Rain Must Fall and The Fahrenheit Twins both contain stories set in and around the Fearn peninsula in Easter Ross, and as I read the stories I thought more and more about the peculiar kind of north-Highland identity Faber captures in the stories. This is the Fearn peninsula:
It is a quiet sort of place – farmland enclosed by the sea on three sides, famous for its Pictish heritage. At its centre is Fearn Abbey, a thirteenth-century Premonstratensian abbey now used as a village church. Here, Isserley – the alien protagonist from Under the Skin stops to daydream about open skies.
To me, ‘Sheep’ (first published in Some Rain Must Fall) captures the peculiar communities scattered across the peninsula. The story is set in Inver on the north coast of the Fearn Peninsula and nearby in the royal burgh of Tain. It tells the story of five mismatched artists invited to ‘The Alternative Centre of the World’ in a hoax perpetrated by an art lover who values landscapes and nature over abstract modern art. The story explores their relationship with the environment when they find themselves stranded in Easter Ross, and anticipates Faber’s novella The Courage Consort (2002), which takes a group of musicians and places them in a remote Belgian chateau. ‘Sheep’ pinpoints the complex social, economic and geographical distinctions so inherent in the area through a poignant vignette of encounters between urban and rural modernity.
In ‘Sheep’ Faber explores relationships between incomers and Highlanders, rural and urban settings, and the wider contrast between Easter Ross and the rest of the world through the neighbouring communities of Inver and Tain. The first glimpse of the Highlands, through the windows of a minibus that carries the sleepy artists north to their unknown destination, is one of idealisation: ‘It’s like a packet of Alpine cigarettes’, Morton comments; ‘like the logo at the start of the Paramount movies’ (p. 219). This is quickly subsumed in the reality of Inver, with its closed village hall, its ‘expanse of shallow water and wasteland’ (p. 222), and its drab ‘modern little bungalows’ (p. 222) that frame the solitude and quietness that dominates the scene. The only place in the village that shows signs of life is the village pub, as one of the artists quickly discovers. Here, the pub’s ‘bright and unpretentious’ (p. 223) interior — ‘reminiscent of a boy scout hall’ (p. 223) — matches the unassuming people in it: the landlord, his wife and a lonely customer. They are quickly followed by four men in overalls and the rest of the artists. Faber captures the quiet matter-of-fact atmosphere miles from ‘civilisation’ well, both in the pub and in the description of the artists trying to find a taxi:
One red Toyota fuelled by adolescent testosterone, one Volkswagen van full of children and one tractor with mysterious attachments had passed by. Overhead, a jet plane screeched back and forth like a giant insect, worrying at the bombing range near-by. Machine-gun fire rattled dully across the boglands. (p. 225).
Here, the connection between youths, families, workers and the military highlights the social make-up of the area. Despite being quickly stereotyped as ‘dumb-assed yokels’ (p. 225) by the urbane artists, the locals are helpful in their own, quiet, unassuming way. After the artists go outside in search for a taxi — unsuccessfully, of course, as there are no taxis in Inver — it turns out that the landlord has already organised transport for them to Tain, anticipating their need selflessly. Nearby Tain, though a royal burgh, seems similarly quiet at first: it is ‘pretty much closed for lunch’ (p. 227) when the artists arrive. However, this is quickly superseded by expansive descriptions of Tain’s surroundings, which — like in ‘A Hole with Two Ends’ — serve to connect the tranquil urban setting with the stunning beauty of its rural surroundings. In Tain, the sun is reflected off the sea (p. 227), and there are ‘panoramic views not only of the sea but of miles of farmland’ (p. 227). Here the story comes into its own, when the titular sheep take centre stage:
Near and far there were sheep, nibbling the grass at the edge of the road, their faces Ektachrome vivid in the sun; sheep milling about in the middle distance; more sheep dotting the unkempt horizon. The artists had never seen so many sheep; indeed, Morton Krauss had never seen any sheep, except in other people’s photographs (pp. 227-228).
Of course, in a northern Highland setting sheep are not just idyllic but also signify the Clearances, but to the characters in the story this moment of stillness epitomises their expectations of picturesque Highlandism. Soon, their anxiousness at their situation — stranded in a remote corner of a foreign country without money — gives way to a serenity first evoked by the sheep, and which continues to grow as they take time to explore their surroundings. As the story continues Faber explores this amongst snippets of quarrelling teenagers through interjections of landscape and beauty: ‘In the distances behind them, the surface of the Dornoch Firth turned gold and hundreds of sea birds wheeled over the ancient rooftops’, with the ‘clean air and uncluttered landscape […] forshorten[ing] perspective like a medieval altarpiece’ (p. 235). Indeed, shortly beyond the town the landscape opens into farmland, where ‘scale shifted almost instantly to dwarf the two women against the hills’ (p. 236). Again and again the landscape is likened to art: ‘every pebble on the road, every clump of grass seemed distinct as if outlined with black, as if the entire landscape were a vast painting executed with impossible skill’ (p. 236). Interposed with that are fragments of local life, such as the evening entertainment in Balintore on the other side of the Fearn peninsula. Here, one of the artists finds himself presented not with the expected drugs which lured him there, but instead with a wholesome scene of Highland tradition: ‘There was a ceilidh in full swing. Rosy-cheeked girls in Highland dress were doing the fling’ (p. 240). Gradually the artists — and the readers — realise that this rural Highland setting really is the ‘alternative centre of the world’, where life is slow, and sheep are more expressive than people.
Dr Kristin Lindfield-Ott, UHI Centre for Literature