A friend of mine likes to send me souvenirs from his travels. We share a love of odd postcards, and occasionally I find in my letterbox a picture of a curiously empty parking lot or an industrial unit on the outskirts of a town. We also have a mutual affection for Turkish coffee and the subtle variations in the way in which it’s roasted and served in different parts of the Balkans, North Africa and the Middle East, so my post sometimes carries the strong, aromatic scent of a new discovery, though the rich, cardamom-flavoured variety he once sent me from a Palestinian shop in Jerusalem remains unsurpassed to this day. So when a slim padded envelope arrived from him last year I was expecting something similar – a memento from the road. Instead the envelope contained a gift that sent me on a journey.
I’m continually amazed by how many remarkable writers can pass you by, even when you think you read a lot. My friend had sent me a copy of The Cone-Gatherers (1955) by Robin Jenkins. I’d never heard of him, but I later discovered that in his long life (1912–2005) he’d written thirty novels and two short-story collections. His books have also appeared on the school syllabus in his native Scotland, and the Robin Jenkins Award was established to recognize exceptional works of environmental literature. But I didn’t know any of this when I sat down to read the book.
The Cone-Gatherers is set on a Scottish estate beside a sea loch during the Second World War. While her husband is away fighting, Lady Runcie-Campbell is in sole charge of the estate, and she has grudgingly allowed two brothers to work in her woodland following an appeal by a forestry officer on the grounds of patriotism. The two brothers, Calum and Neil, have been given the job of harvesting the cones of the trees for seed, and it is in the woods of this extensive estate – actually in the trees themselves – that we first meet them. Calum is 31, a hunchback a
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