Review of Shadowlands by Matthew Green

In this book Matthew Green charts the decline and eventual abandonment of eight British settlements; a diverse selection ranging from the Stone Age settlement of Skara Brae in the Orkneys, through several Medieval villages and cities and up to the twentieth century, to an area emptied of its inhabitants during the Second World War and a village that was abandoned when the valley it inhabited was flooded to create a reservoir – although in that case ‘abandoned’ is the wrong word, since that particular story is a harrowing tale of folk driven from their homes at the diktat of decision makers far away, not even of their own country.

In each chapter he tells the story of the decline of the settlement drawing upon written records for all but the oldest, Skara Brae, for which he relies upon archaeological evidence, and some of the more recent, for which he uses a mixture of eye-witness accounts and the testimonies of those who had heard their stories at first hand. Of all the stories here, that of Dunwich is probably the most famous, with its myths of bells from long-drowned churches being heard far out under the waves, although the popular description of Dunwich as a ‘drowned city’ is inaccurate, as it fell away into the sea as the cliffs beneath it were eroded away. But much is known of Dunwich, with many extant records and maps of the city, enabling Matthew to chart its decline and eventual end in some detail.

Hirta is the biggest island of the St Kilda archipelago and was occupied for at least two thousand years until 1930, when the final thirty six islanders voted to leave. By then, most of the families and younger residents had left for the mainland, and their traditional way of life had become unsustainable. Until a couple of hundred years ago the islanders were virtually cut off from the rest of Scotland, due to the distance and the difficulty of making a landing at the island. Existing almost exclusively on a diet of seabirds (remarkably, they were apparently lousy fishermen!), the islanders lived a remarkably difficult life and it is no surprise that as they were exposed more and more to the outside world, more and more of the islanders opted to leave for a better life.

I found I was drawn deep into these stories not just because I found them so fascinating, but also because of Matthew’s skilful and easy style. A very well researched and beautifully presented book, I’d definitely give it five stars out of five.

14 thoughts on “Review of Shadowlands by Matthew Green

  1. Wow, a steady diet of herring gulls or gannets, tern & tern about, I’d say AUK! and head for the mainland, too. Sounds like a somewhat melancholy but fascinating topic. I know it was a different town and legend, but this mention of Dunwich is prompting me to dig out a recording of Debussy’s “Engulfed Cathedral,” it would be a perfect soundtrack for that chapter.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Gannets, fulmars and puffins, I think. Doesn’t really appeal, does it?

      I don’t know that Debussy piece, I’m sure I should give it a listen. Or at the very least find out what it refers to.


  2. This book’s just gone on to my reading list, primarily for the story of Hirta. I recognized the reference to St. Kilda, thanks to a post I wrote for St. Patrick’s Day. I included some wonderful photos of some women there, and have done some exploring of the culture since — but not much, and I think Shadowlands would be a great read. Of course there are other stories in the book that probably will turn out to be equally compelling.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. I’ve seen those photos – I looked at a couple of websites after reading the book, just to fill in some gaps, although Matthew has included most of the information I was able to find.

      And the other stories are definitely as compelling. He writes a good one!

      Liked by 1 person

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