Academic Writing and Geography Narrated

by Fiona Ferbrache

The ruins of Erskine Beveridge, is Fraser MacDonald’s (2013) narrative essay available as an early view article in Transactions. It tells the story of a house – Taigh Mòr, built by Erskine Beveridge on an intertidal island in the Outer Hebrides – and its inhabitants – the Beveridge family, who used the property as a summer retreat. It is also a first class piece of geographical writing.

Ruined_house_-_geograph.org.uk_-_1428145

House ruins (Source: Wikimedia Commons: Graham Horn)

MacDonald’s narrative non-fiction is unusual in style and form, and may at first appear unconventional for some geographers. This is not a style that appears frequently in published journals of our discipline, but may be situated within a renewed interest in literary geographies, including geographies of storytelling, and bio-geo-geography (see for example Lorimer and Wylie). In another way, the text reminded me of the personalised and enquiring travels made and recounted by Robert Macfarlane in The Old Ways. The style and methods are not dissimilar.

MacDonald’s aim in this piece is to “maintain a primary commitment to storytelling as an exemplar of geographical writing” (p.2). Yet, it goes further than this as it is inherently about (historical) geography. The deteriorating Taigh Mòr is situated at the centre of the tale, around which the lives of its inhabitants are explored and retold. The work touches at least three geographical themes: ruins, spaces of science and antiquarian knowledge, and fieldwork. The methods underpinning the ‘fieldwork’ included walking, interviewing, synthesising published sources, interpreting material remains in the landscape, and triangulating observations against other archives. Thus, the rich text is descriptive and analytical as it probes, explores and lays a thread for the reader to follow.

MacDonald argues that geographers “have some way to go before matters of form and style receive the same sort of attention currently given to methodology” (p.2). For young geographers, this commitment to storytelling, as an exemplar of geographical writing, will hopefully inspire creativity and originality, beyond geography’s more familiar writing conventions.

books_icon  MacDonald, F. 2013 The ruins of Erskine Beveridge. Transactions of the Institute of British Geographers.  DOI: 10.1111/tran.12042

books_icon  Lorimer, H. 2003 Telling small stories: spaces of knowledge and the practice of geography. Transactions of the Institute of British Geographers 28, pp.197-217

books_icon  Wiley, J. 2009 Landscape, absence and the geographies of love. Transactions of the Institute of British Geographers 34, pp.275-289

60-world2  Stylish Academic Writing – a guide

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