Review of 'Landmarks' by Robert Macfarlane: Journey Through a 'Word Hoard' Gleaned From the Varied Landscape of Britain

Updated on September 7, 2018
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I love to read & am enthusiastic about recommending any book I consider a great read. Fiction or non-fiction, it must be well written.

Robert Macfarlane's LANDMARKS

LANDMARKS  ISBN 978-0-241-14653-8
LANDMARKS ISBN 978-0-241-14653-8 | Source

A 'Lexis for Landscape'

If I told you I’d just read a book about words, you’d think, ‘Ok, so what? Sounds pretty boring to me.’ Most authors would have difficulty making such a subject interesting to more than a handful of committed logophiles. However, Robert Macfarlane is not your average author. He has a style and a way of crafting words, old and new, that knock many a novelist into a cocked hat. He imparts an enthusiasm impossible to ignore.

Robert Macfarlane is a travel writer, a Fellow of Emmanuel College Cambridge, Director of Studies in English, University Senior Lecturer in Post-WWII Literature in English. Not only do we get to explore the words, we are given an overview of Britain's varied and wonderful landscape.

Every page of ‘Landmarks’ is packed with meaningful words, phrases and concepts. He begins with ‘This is a book about the power of language… to shape our sense of place… What we cannot name, we cannot in some sense see.’

He’s made a collection of ‘words [what he calls a word hoard]… for specific aspects of landscape, nature and weather’ and he wants a ‘Terra Britannica’ of terms used by a variety of workers, artisans, mountaineers, shepherds…’ and so on. His purpose is to assemble some of the diverse vocabulary to form a ‘lexis for landscape’, ‘releasing its poetry back into imaginative circulation.’ The poetry aspect is manifest in words such as ‘gallitrop’, meaning fairy ring in Devon, Gloucestershire and Somerset; and ‘zwer’, used on Exmoor for a ‘whizzing noise made by a covey of partridges as they break suddenly from cover’.

Knowing where a word comes from, its etymology, ‘illuminates - a mundane verb is suddenly starlit.’ Macfarlane is referring to ‘consider’, from con-siderare - to ‘study or see with the stars’.

Language of the Commons

Macfarlane refers to other authors and literature, introducing some amazing people along the way, giving, at the end of each section, a glossary of words specific to each one’s respective landscape or viewpoint. It is the ‘literacy of the land’, as he puts it.

He found, to his dismay, that the Oxford Junior Dictionary had decided to omit words of country and seasonal origin and he says,

‘A basic literacy of landscape is falling away up and down the ages. A common language - a language of the commons - is getting rarer. And what is lost along with this literacy is something precious; a kind of word magic, the power that certain terms possess to enchant our relations with nature and place.’

So this book is a ‘celebration and defence of such language’.

My favourite, because I’m from Sussex, is

‘smeuse’ - the gap in the base of a hedge made by the regular passage of a small animal’.

When you know words such as these, you look for examples as you walk about - the word connects you to the landscape.


gap in the base of a hedge made by a small animal
gap in the base of a hedge made by a small animal | Source

Influence of other Writers

The chapters of ‘Landmarks’ all concern ‘writers who are particularisers, who seek in some way to look at the detail.’ All writers mentioned ‘have sought to pierce… rotten diction and fasten words again to visible things… to use language well is to use it particularly’.

He refers to being precise in language, using precise words to convey meaning, purpose, feeling: ‘Precision is a thing of the imagination [and produces] writing of maximum force.’ It involves ‘watching and waiting’.

Another quote: ‘Language deficit leads to attention deficit…. Without a name made in our mouths, an animal or a place struggles to find purchase in our minds or our hearts.’ An area becomes a ‘blandscape’ instead of landscape. How true that is!

There are languages, within English, which have no translation, such as ‘coddish’ from the fishermen and ‘Pitmatical’ from the miners, so-called as it has a mathematical quality. Macfarlane describes these as ‘super-specific,… born of lives lived long - and laboured hard - on land and at sea.’

Flatlands, Uplands & Waterlands

We fly into Lewis, in the Outer Hebrides, with Macfarlane and meet Finlay MacLeod who has amassed ‘The Peat Glossary’, terms collected to save the ‘flatlands’ of moor and bog.

We meet Nan Shepherd who becomes one with her beloved Cairngorms, talking about ‘weaving and interconnection’.

We’re taken to water-man Roger Deakin who conveys the world from the perspective of water itself, deriving ‘pleasure at moving with the world & being swept along by its rhythms rather than sweeping it along with ours’.

Isle of Lewis, the Cairngorms & a Stream

Lewis, Outer Hebrides - location in the British Isles
Lewis, Outer Hebrides - location in the British Isles | Source
Braeriach; the highest peak in the Cairngorms, Scotland
Braeriach; the highest peak in the Cairngorms, Scotland | Source
Flowing Stream
Flowing Stream | Source

Coastlands, Underlands & Northlands

J A Baker, on the coast of Essex, tries to become one with the Peregrine Falcon; he follows them and hunts with them, though wracked with arthritis and failing sight, aiming to adopt ‘catascopy’ - falcon sight. His precise descriptions are stunning, like the peregrine itself with its ’cloud-biting anchor shape’.

Richard Skelton, through grief, explores rugged terrain, quarries and workings in Cumbria, and shows the ‘Tunnel of Swords and Axes’ to Macfarlane. Skelton is ‘a keeper of lost words’ such as ‘Hummadruz. It means a noise in the air that you can’t identify, or a sound in the landscape whose source is unlocatable.’

We’re introduced to Barry Lopez, who writes of the Arctic North, and Peter Davidson whose writings mirror the seasons. Through Lopez, says Macfarlane, ‘I learnt how to write’, finding that ‘non-fiction could be as experimental in form and beautiful in its language as any novel.’ The Arctic holds vast areas of white-out, so description is difficult; however, Lopez moves from ‘panoramic to specific’, thus ‘detail anchors perception in a context of vastness.’

Davidson has a cabinet of many strange objects, referred to as ‘art-historical’; he accentuates the ‘instant’s perishability’ which has to be captured in words. Throughout both these men’s writings ‘recurs the idea that certain landscapes are capable of bestowing a grace upon those who pass through them or live within them.’

Peregrine, Quarry Tunnel & Arctic

Peregrine Falcon: the fastest creature on earth!
Peregrine Falcon: the fastest creature on earth! | Source
Tunnel entrance to Quarry
Tunnel entrance to Quarry | Source
Vastness of surface-ruffled Snow
Vastness of surface-ruffled Snow | Source

Edgelands, Earthlands & Woodlands

Then we have Richard Jefferies’ ‘edgelands’, the outskirts, roads and ‘soft estate’ of the verges, railway cuttings, suburbia - labelled ‘marginalia’. The edgelands have their own literacy, and he is all about ‘optics & perception’ creating ‘a decentred eye and a centreless nature’.

We find Clarence Ellis’ language of stone, a myriad of words for all types of rock. Macfarlane collected stones, each stone becoming a souvenir. ‘Collection spurs recollection’; how many of us look through our own collections of objects or images, being reminded of place, person, time or event?

Then comes Jacquetta Hawkes’ writing about the land of Britain, rising from her passion for archaeology. To her, rock was thought; there was a deep psychological connection. Like Nan Shepherd, she merges into her landscape but it is the whole history of the earth that Hawkes infuses.

John Muir, another writer ‘at one’ with his environment and an example of ageing writers ‘gradually resembling the landscapes they loved’, ‘touched, tasted and smelt the trees’ and spoke of ‘diffusion’ - ‘most people are on the world, not in it - having no conscious sympathy or relationship to anything about them.’ It’s easy to walk through a town or through a field without noticing anything around you, isn’t it? Because you’re in your own world rather than the one around you.

Marginalia, Stones, Rock & Trees

Edge of town: industry, canal & river
Edge of town: industry, canal & river | Source
Collection of Stones: from beach & countryside
Collection of Stones: from beach & countryside | Source
Beachy Head, Sussex; our Ancient Land
Beachy Head, Sussex; our Ancient Land | Source
Shades of Woodland
Shades of Woodland | Source


Lastly we’re introduced to Deb Wilenski who studied ‘the hundred languages of children’. Children live in a world where doors open everywhere, where there are secrets and magic around every corner. To children, landscape ‘is a medium, teeming with opportunity and volatile in its textures.’ Children make up names for places, and realms within those places; they ‘weave words and ways together’.

Macfarlane has a personal example from his son: ‘currentbum’, for ‘the dome of water created by water as it bunches up before babbling over a rock in a stream’. How delightful!

Sadly, as Macfarlane bemoans, ‘we live in an era of diminishing childhood contact with nature, and landscapes outside the urban.’ A shocking statistic is that between 1970 & 2010, ‘the area in which British children were permitted to play unsupervised shrank by 90 per cent’!

Macfarlane uses a quote from one of Britain’s explorers and presenter of children’s and adults’ nature programmes, Chris Packham (May 2014) -

‘The children out in the woods, out in the fields, enjoying nature on their own - they’re extinct.’ Macfarlane’s reaction is -

‘These changes in the culture of childhood have huge consequences for language.’

Children become immersed in their worlds and create their own stories with infinite boundary-less imagination. We need to nurture this.

Children's Language

'I know and I can do anything in my imagination!'
'I know and I can do anything in my imagination!' | Source

Impact & Impulse

This is a book to re-read and re-re-read. I have drawn so much inspiration from it. It is writing which yields different emotions, details and wonder each time you immerse yourself or take an occasional delve. It has a poetic style, worthy of the best authors. You will not regret partaking of this remarkable prose.

Most of all it reminds us to use, and thereby keep alive, the power and precision of specific words. Let's say you're writing about an icicle: how about the Kentish 'aquabob' instead? Anyone can write 'drizzle'; try 'dimpsey' from Devon, then you're describing low cloud with fine drizzle, much more specific.

Say them! Read them! Write them!

I’ll leave you with this quote:

‘We see in words: in webs of words, wefts of words, woods of words. The roots of individual words reach out and intermesh, their stems lean and criss-cross, and their outgrowths branch and clasp.’

Other Titles by Robert Macfarlane

  • ‘Mountains of the Mind’, published in 2003: an account of the development of Western attitudes to mountains and precipitous landscapes, and takes its title from a line by the poet Gerard Manley Hopkins.
  • ‘Original Copy: Plagiarism and Originality in Nineteenth-Century Literature’, published in March 2007: exploring the difference between creation and invention, the book surveys the "borrowedness" of much Victorian literature, focusing on the writings of George Eliot, Walter Pater & Oscar Wilde, among others.
  • ‘The Wild Places’, published in September 2007: he embarks on a series of journeys in search of the wildness that remains in Britain and Ireland. The book explores wildness both geographically and intellectually, testing different ideas of the wild against different landscapes, and describes Macfarlane's explorations of forests, moors, salt marshes, mudflats, islands, sea-caves and city fringes.
  • ‘The Old Ways: A Journey On Foot’, published in June 2012 by Hamish Hamilton/Penguin UK, and in October 2012 by Viking/Penguin US. The book describes the years Macfarlane spent following 'old ways' (pilgrimage paths, sea-roads, prehistoric trackways, ancient rights of way) in south-east England, north-west Scotland, Spain, Sichuan and Palestine. Its guiding spirit is the early twentieth century writer and poet, Edward Thomas, and its chief subject is the reciprocal shaping of people and place.
  • ‘Landmarks’, published in the UK March 2015 & in the US in August 2016: a book that celebrates and defends the language of landscape,
  • ‘The Gifts of Reading’ published in May 2016, a short book about gifts, stories and the unexpected consequences of generosity.

Macfarlane is presently writing

  • ‘Underland’, a book about underworlds real and imagined, the Anthropocene and deep time, due to be published in the spring of 2019;
  • a book about troubled landscapes called Eerie, Unsettled,
  • and collaborating with the artist Jackie Morris on a large-format book for children called ‘The Lost Words: A Spell Book’.

Robert Macfarlane



'LANDMARKS' by Robert Macfarlane

Published by Hamish Hamilton, an imprint of Penguin Books Ltd. (Hamish

Hamilton, 2015). Cover reproduced by permission of Penguin Books Ltd.

ISBN 978-0-241-14653-8

Do you know of Robert Macfarlane?

Have you come across his books before?

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Do you enjoy non-fiction such as this?

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© 2017 Ann Carr


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    • annart profile imageAUTHOR

      Ann Carr 

      2 years ago from SW England

      Thank you, manatita. One of the reasons I like this writer so much is his passion and his love of words. Being a Cambridge lecturer in English I suppose he should be!


    • manatita44 profile image


      2 years ago from london

      I can see why you like him Ann. He seems very detailed and has a sense of observation and imagination. He is also extremely creative, a quality which I admire. probably a 'free spirit' as well, but with an ability to write well. Great picturesque scenes and I'm glad that you like his work. Great writing too. carry on!

    • annart profile imageAUTHOR

      Ann Carr 

      2 years ago from SW England

      Thank you Lawrence, for reading and for your input. Glad you enjoyed this.

      That sounds great; I'm encouraged that others are "keeping the 'vocal landscape' going". Well done!

      Just looked you up - in New Zealand - lucky you! I love it there.


    • profile image

      Lawrence Hebb 

      2 years ago


      Thoroughly entertaining hub here, I loved it.

      I belong to a couple Facebook groups trying to keep some of the history of the town I grew up in alive. We've got a couple of posts where we put phrases from our childhoods, just to keep them alive!

      Some are pretty hilarious, but it's all about keeping the 'vocal landscape' going!

      Great hub.

    • annart profile imageAUTHOR

      Ann Carr 

      2 years ago from SW England

      Hi Devika! Thank you for reading and commenting; good to see you.


    • profile image


      2 years ago

      Sounds an interesting read and your review says it all.

    • mckbirdbks profile image


      2 years ago from Emerald Wells, Just off the crossroads,Texas

      Hello Ann - I enjoyed reading your review. I'll have to keep my eyes open for a copy of Landmarks. You did a good job of making it sound interesting. As we here who visit your work all have a fondness for words, it seems right up or alley.

    • annart profile imageAUTHOR

      Ann Carr 

      2 years ago from SW England

      Thank you, Jo. It's always so interesting to learn new and different words about your own part of the world. What was that family word of yours? Maybe if you asked around you'd find a few more, then you might gradually build a collection of your own - your own word hoard! I have a few the children and grand-children used to use; all entertaining!

      Thanks for the visit, Jo.


    • jo miller profile image

      Jo Miller 

      2 years ago from Tennessee

      This sounds fabulous. I'm a word person and would love to read a similar book about my part of the world. The South has such colorful, and often unique, language. My family had a word that I thought was real until I grew up and learned that no one outside our family knew it.

    • annart profile imageAUTHOR

      Ann Carr 

      2 years ago from SW England

      MizBejabbers: Thank you very much for your kind words and your great input. One should never be ridiculed for a dialect; diversity is what makes the world go round.

      Word morphs are fascinating and happen much more than we realise. I love the made-up 'nostasia' (and I quite agree with your mother-in-law)! I think it's good to make up one's own words; after all, there are many that catch on because of constant use and popularity.

      Good to see you today!


    • MizBejabbers profile image

      Doris James MizBejabbers 

      2 years ago from Beautiful South

      Ann, what a delightful article! We of Scottish descent in the Southern U.S. have been ridiculed for our country dialect for years only to find out that our words are still much in evidence in modern day U.K. My comment was a little off the subject, but it's true.

      I live outside the city in an area that is part greenbelt and part subdivision, so I'll have to watch for the smeuses as I walk, except that we don't have hedges, just bushes.

      I believe I used the word "gallitrope" in an article I did several years ago on how people misuse "gauntlet," and a couple of similar words. It is sometimes strange, and sometimes amusing, to me how one word morphs from another, but always interesting. On a final note, my former mother-in-law used a word that I've used so many times I tend to forget that it is only made up: "nostasia," which she called a combination of "nostalgia" and "nausea." She was a former school teacher and said that poets like Emily Barrett Browning gave her nostasia.

    • annart profile imageAUTHOR

      Ann Carr 

      2 years ago from SW England

      Eric: I've just found a few links which you might find interesting. Failing those, you could always ask around your local district to see what words are unusual and where they come from - I bet some of your friends know quite a few, especially if they are not originally from your area. Here are the links I found:


      (different pronunciations of the same words)


      for dialect map of American English


      ref North American Indian languages

    • annart profile imageAUTHOR

      Ann Carr 

      2 years ago from SW England

      Hello, Eric! Good to see you. Glad you're inspired to read it. I don't know if there is an equivalent for your area; try looking up local dialects or vocabulary, I'm sure there must be some as people everywhere have their own words for different terrain or for what they use in the process of working. I'd be interested to know if you find anything.

      Enjoy your week!


    • Ericdierker profile image

      Eric Dierker 

      2 years ago from Spring Valley, CA. U.S.A.

      Fantastic. You sure make me want to get this book. I wonder if there is one for this part of the world.

    • annart profile imageAUTHOR

      Ann Carr 

      2 years ago from SW England

      Thank you, Linda, for your kind comment. It's one of the best books I've ever read and I hope you enjoy it; I have every confidence you will as it entertains on so many levels.


    • AliciaC profile image

      Linda Crampton 

      2 years ago from British Columbia, Canada

      The book that you've reviewed sounds wonderful, Ann. Thank you for describing it so beautifully. I'm looking forward to reading it myself.

    • annart profile imageAUTHOR

      Ann Carr 

      2 years ago from SW England

      Thanks, bill. I thought you might like him. The book needs to be read to do him justice though; I could only skim the surface. I had a whole A4 side of quotes to start with so I had to cut it drastically; got a bit carried away! It has to be said that every other sentence is remarkable in itself. Do you get the feeling that I quite like his writing?!!

      Thank you, my Saturday has been very satisfying so far; my older daughter and the boys came down, we went on the beach and the sun's out - how great is that! Now I need to lie down in a darkened room!

      Have a whacky weekend, bill!

      Ann :)

    • billybuc profile image

      Bill Holland 

      2 years ago from Olympia, WA

      The photos are wonderful, of course, and I drink them in since I'll most likely never see that part of the world in person, but thank you for the introduction to Macfarlane....anyone dedicated to language and the mystery of words is a mate of mine. :) Thank you Ann! Wishing you a spectacularly satisfying Saturday.


    • annart profile imageAUTHOR

      Ann Carr 

      2 years ago from SW England

      Thanks, Flourish. Glad you enjoyed this.

      Yes, I always enjoy hearing dialect and other unusual terms in speech. I make a note of them whenever I can!


    • annart profile imageAUTHOR

      Ann Carr 

      2 years ago from SW England

      Hi Jackie! I don't know why I forgot about autobiography! I think perhaps one reason many are not 'in it' is the internet, maybe.

      Thanks for popping by.


    • FlourishAnyway profile image


      2 years ago from USA

      I love language and every once in awhile will run into someone who uses the less common words that I enjoy in their speech. I enjoyed these unusual terms you introduced here from the book.

    • Jackie Lynnley profile image

      Jackie Lynnley 

      2 years ago from the beautiful south

      Very interesting Ann. You didn't have people in your choices of non-fiction, which I prefer so I chose other.

      I would say I am in the world and see it. I have known some interesting people though who were on the world and seemed to see beyond it but I would agree many are on it and miss so much!

    • annart profile imageAUTHOR

      Ann Carr 

      2 years ago from SW England

      Hello, Glenis! Thanks for being the first at my door. I've always been fascinated by words and I just love this idea of the word hoard.

      I think the specifics of all these words mean that it has to be under a hedge but there's nothing to stop you using it for your mouse!

      Have a great weekend!


    • Glenis Rix profile image


      2 years ago from UK

      A fascinating subject Ann, and what beautiful pictures. I think I have a smeuse in the gravel under my gates, where we have seen a mouse scurrying through a couple of times. Or does the word only refer to places under hedges?


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