A FEW hours drive from Edinburgh is a “forgotten corner of Scotland”; the town of Gatehouse of Fleet, where people say they are ignored by the nation’s civic centre.

In Ullapool and villages in the north-west, there’s a sense of alienation; places where poet Norman MacCaig’s description of Westminster as a “remote and ignorant government” could hold for Holyrood too.

So found James McEnaney when he spent 10 days in spring 2018 travelling around Scotland on his motorbike and speaking to people from Dumfries and Galloway to Skye, from the Orkneys to the Moray coast, the north-east to the central belt. McEnaney recounts the trip in A Scottish Journey: Personal Reflections of Modern Scotland, recently published by Luath Press.

The National:

Author James McEnaney

He was inspired by a similar journey made by poet and translator Edwin Muir in the 1930s, a time when Scotland was recovering from the effects of the Great Depression. McEnaney thought making his own journey through a country dealing with a decade of Westminster austerity would be worth pursuing.

Confined by a two-week holiday from his full-time lecturing job, he set out just as the “Beast from the East” brought freezing weather conditions.

“I’m not in a position to be able to chuck my job on a whim to go off and write a book,” says McEnaney, who speaks with The National between classes.

“It had to be done during that time. On the second day, the snow was coming down so hard I thought I might have to stop. It began coming down even harder just before the turn-off to Stewarton, where my in-laws live, so I was able to take shelter with them.”

The bike was key to his Scottish journey, McEnaney says.

“With the motorbike, when things happen, you just have to deal with it,” he says. “One of the things you also notice on the motorbike is that people are more likely to speak with you, they recognise you’re a bit vulnerable.”

Talking with people was central to the book, which McEnaney describes as a “bundle of impressions” rather than some state of the nation study or earnest polemic.

“This a collection of snapshots made into something like the Scotland that I saw on a particular trip taken in a particular way,” he says. “If I’d done that trip in a car, or at a different time, it would have been completely different. If someone else had done that trip in exactly the same way as I did, it would be completely different too. That was really the point.”

McEnaney wrote A Scottish Journey just a fortnight or so after the icy trip, which included journeying to Wyre, the Orkney island where Muir spent his boyhood.

At the turn of the 20th century, when the family farm went under, the Muirs moved to Glasgow, where, in tragic succession, his father, two brothers and his mother died within a few years. Muir’s life as a young man sounds bleak: having lost his home and much of his family, he worked in a factory that turned animal bones into charcoal.

“Unsurprisingly, that all had a massive impact on his work, and a theme that comes through a lot of his poetry is the loss of Eden, the loss of Paradise,” says McEnaney. “So I went to Wyre because I wanted to see where it all started, to stand there and see how it felt. And I’m glad I did, I completely fell in love with Orkney and I want to go back.”

Writing the book so quickly after the trip was intentional, he says.

“I wanted to keep it as an honest reflection on what I saw at the time,” he says. “If I wrote it again now, there are bits that I would change. People’s reactions to things like local democracy has informed and changed my view to some extent.”

He continues: “I wasn’t completely sure before my trip, but now I am convinced that local democracy actually doesn’t exist in Scotland.”

Many told McEnaney they felt disempowered; that “democracy felt far away”. McEnaney quotes National columnist and land reform campaigner Lesley Riddoch in the closing pages of A Scottish Journey: “Across Europe the average council serves 14,000 people – in Scotland it’s roughly 170,000. In Germany the average council is 15 square kilometres in size – in Scotland it’s 990 square kilometres.”

McEnaney adds: “These local authorities are regional bodies that are too big and bear little relation to people’s lives. They are examples of power being held at a distance from people rather than power being placed at local level.

“I live in East Dunbartonshire, but no-one has an ‘East Dunbartonshire identity’ because it isn’t real. That can be applied to the whole country.”

McEnaney says an independent Scotland would have to “unequivocally address” the issue or risk perpetuating the socio-economic problems many hope independence has the potential to solve.

“Whereas before the Scottish Parliament was maybe thought of as the end of a process, now I realise that it has to be the first step in achieving a redistribution of power,” says McEnaney.

“Until we fix that we’re a long way from what we thought the Scottish Parliament was going to do, of bringing power closer to people. Of course, it has for some, but not for everybody.”

In the final paragraphs of the book, McEnaney explores the two predominant impressions he took from his journey: the post-industrial “emptiness” which Muir also witnessed eight decades ago, and a sense of “anticipation”.

He writes: “Despite the inequality, alienation and frustration apparent all over the country there is also a sense of momentum, a feeling that change is coming … Even amidst a battleground of entrenched political division, Scotland, against all the odds, feels ready to build a future.”

A Scottish Journey: Personal Impressions of Modern Scotland is published by Luath Press www.ascottishjourney.co.uk