Silent, upon a peak in Darien


Darien: A Journey in Search of Empire      

by John McKendrick QC (Birlinn Publishers, 2016)

This review begins, I’m afraid, with an apology. The Law’s delay (to paraphrase the Bard) is one thing, but a year for a book review? My bad.

Unlike this review, however, news travels fast these days. Instantaneously in fact. But there’s so much of it that items are easily overlooked. Good quality news can be missed.

Take Scotland’s own John McKendrick QC, senior counsel at the Bar in England but also (more significantly) an Advocate at the Scottish Bar. Now I’m a little surprised John’s appointment last summer as Attorney General for the amazing Caribbean Island of Anguilla went somewhat unnoticed here at home – something I hope this little review might help remedy.

John’s sunshine and palm tree life as Attorney General can be viewed in all its glory on twitter @JohnMQC – easily the most transcendent twitter account you will ever come across, especially when it’s raining sideways back here in Blighty. John has the best job in the world, I tell myself, but even paradise has its problems from time to time, as Anguilla’s devastating storms reminded us. Those must have been difficult times for those charged with good administration, and no doubt the clear up work is ongoing: but having followed John on this, he deserves enormous credit for the way he has risen to those challenges – so if you’re reading this, John, I take my rain drenched hat off to you.

But back to the review and… what was I talking about again? Ah, news. Back in the seventeenth century news took days or weeks to arrive, even from elsewhere on these islands. But it took months to arrive from more distant shores. Such as the West Indies. Such as Darien.

Darien: a name to fire the imagination. Who, having read it, can ever forget Keats’ glorious poem, where he compares opening George Chapman’s translation of Homer to the experience of seeing the Pacific Ocean for the first time? Darien is like Xanadu, Avalon, Atlantis or El Dorado. It conjures a lost paradise, a place so perfect it can only exist in the imagination.

There is something really deep in the Scottish character, I think, that draws us toward Darien: this distant place of perfection which – much like the 1978 World Cup in Argentina  – was ours for the taking! Practical too: the idea of a great canal was in the minds of the colonists, even then. And yet how bitter the experience of that paradise proved to be.

Scotland’s doomed bid for Empire in modern day Panama is one of the defining moments in our history. Its story has been covered by a number of writers, perhaps most notably by the great John Prebble in his work The Darien Disaster. McKendrick’s, however, as the title of his work implies, is not only a superb history of the Darien Scheme, it is also the author’s own journey to Caledonia and the spine-tingling experience of standing where those brave Caledonians stood. Amazingly, there are still artefacts, the evidence of their presence long ago, fading like a lost lament.

This is a wonderful, haunting and beautifully written book.

Go on. It’s nearly Christmas.


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