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Authors: Sara Maitland

A Book of Silence

BOOK: A Book of Silence

‘In Maitland’s hands, silence turns out to be another entire, psycho-geographical world laid alongside the one we know and hear and yack about so much. “I learned to tell when it had been snowing in the night by the quality of silence”… her book is full of such moments, articulating the common but usually ignored and unexpressed experiences in our lives’

‘A healing book about the pleasures to be found alone and how solitude can set you free’

‘Refreshing, insightful, strangely touching and bound to make you want to haul yourself off that sofa in search of a life-affirming journey’

‘Extraordinary … Maitland is blazingly intelligent, and committed to rigorous, interrogative scholarship … a justified and valiant response to the widespread frenzy and mindlessness of 21st century life’
Sunday Business Post

‘[Sara Maitland] is right to think that silence is a deep need, ever less honoured in our lives’
Evening Standard

‘Fascinating … raises many interesting philosophical questions’
Sunday Times

‘An extraordinary book … in our noise-saturated culture’ Chosen by the Kew Bookshop in London in the
Independent on Sunday

‘Her artful book, mixing autobiography, travel writing, meditation and essay, describes her route away from urban brouhaha towards increased solitude … Her book demands to be taken on its own terms as the vision of a highly educated contemplative who is alert to Western culture’s distrust of loners’

‘Maitland is a bold adventurer and the rest of us, doubtless ill-equipped to deal with the emotional and intellectual challenge of self-sought solitude, are lucky she can give the condition of silence such an articulate voice’

‘By the end of her brave, honest, fascinating book, one respects her choice of lifestyle, the determination it has taken to bring it about and the sacrifices it has engendered’

‘Offering at once personal anecdotes, cultural diagnoses and soothing antidotes, these memoirs make for a timely and nourishing read’

‘The pursuit [of silence] is described with fervour and intelligence that make this book full of insights and explorations, oddities and quirks – about the natural world (some dazzling descriptive passages), about silence in several cultures, about the choice of where to live, about routines, satisfactions, happiness’

‘You can’t help warming to Sara Maitland … Maitland is a rottweiler of enthusiasm who pursues her ideas to the end, eloquently and learnedly, and nowhere more than in this, her latest work’
Irish Times

‘Her dedication to the cause is both inspiring and shocking … There are many beautiful meditative passages in her meditation on silence … [A] wonderful salutary book’
Sunday Telegraph


Sara Maitland



Granta Publications, 12 Addison Avenue, London W11 4QR

First published in Great Britain by Granta Books 2008
Paperback edition published by Granta Books 2009
This ebook edition published by Granta Books 2010

Copyright © Sara Maitland, 2008

The right of Sara Maitland to be identified as the author of this work has been asserted by her in accordance with the Copyright, Designs and Patents Act 1988.

Extract from ‘The Loneliness of the Long Distance Sailor’ by Frank Mulville on pp. 77–79 (
Yachting Monthly,
issue 132, May 1972. pp. 686–688) quoted by permission of Wendy Mulville.

Quote from ‘In Search of the Master’/’On Looking in Vain for the Hermit’ by Jia Dao by Jia Dao on p. 219 from
The Chinese Knight Errant
by James Liu (Routledge & Kegan Paul, 1967 1967, p. 263) used with permission of the Taylor and Francis Group.

Quote from ‘The Day they Took’ by Robert Drake on p. 86 (private publication, 1993) used with permission from the poet.

All rights reserved.

This ebook is copyright material and must not be copied, reproduced, transferred, distributed, leased, licensed or publicly performed or used in any way except as specifically permitted in writing by the publishers, as allowed under the terms and conditions under which it was purchased or as strictly permitted by applicable copyright law. Any unauthorised distribution or use of this text may be a direct infringement of the author’s and publisher’s rights, and those responsible may be liable in law accordingly.

ISBN 978 1 84708 291 6

Typeset by M Rules

For Janet Batsleer and John Russell
for reasons best buried in silence

Table of Contents

Title Page
1: Growing up in a Noisy World
2: Forty Days and Forty Nights
3: The Dark Side
4: Silence and the Gods
5: Silent Places
6: Desert Hermits
7: The Bliss of Solitude
8: Coming Home

Growing up in a Noisy World

t is early morning. It is a morning of extraordinary radiance – and unusually up here there is practically no wind. It is almost perfectly silent: some small birds are chirping occasionally and a little while ago a pair of crows flapped past making their raucous cough noises. It is the first day of October so the curlew and the oystercatchers have gone down to the seashore. In a little while one particular noise will happen – the two-carriage Glasgow-to-Stranraer train will bump by on the other side of the valley; and a second one may happen – Neil may rumble past on his quad bike after seeing to his sheep on the hill above the house; if he does he will wave and I will wave back. That is more or less it.

I am sitting on the front doorstep of my little house with a cup of coffee, looking down the valley at my extraordinary view of nothing. It is wonderful. Virginia Woolf famously taught us that every woman writer needs a room of her own. She didn’t know the half of it, in my opinion. I need a moor of my own. Or, as an exasperated but obviously sensitive friend commented when she came to see my latest lunacy, ‘Only you, Sara – twenty-mile views of absolutely nothing!’

It isn’t ‘nothing’, actually – it is cloud formations, and the different ways reed, rough grass, heather and bracken move in the wind, and the changing colours, not just through the year but through the day as the sun and the clouds alternate and shift – but in another sense she is right, and it is the huge nothing that pulls me into itself. I look at it, and with fewer things to look at I see better. I listen to
nothing and its silent tunes and rhythms sound harmonic. The irregular line of the hill, with the telegraph and electricity poles striding over it, holds the silence as though in a bowl and below me I can see occasional, and apparently unrelated, strips of silver, which are in fact the small river meandering down the valley.

I am feeling a bit smug this morning because yesterday I got my completion certificate. When you build a new house you start out with planning permission and building warrant, and at the end of it all an inspector comes to see if you have done what you said you would do and check that your house is compliant with building regulations and standards. Mine is; it is finished, completed, certified. All done and dusted. Last night I paid off my builder, and we had a drink and ended a year-long relationship of bizarre intensity, both painful and delightful. Now I am sitting and regathering my silence, which is what I came here for in the first place.

Three minutes ago – it is pure gift, something you cannot ask for or anticipate – a hen harrier came hunting down the burn, not twenty metres from the door. Not many people have a hen harrier in the garden. Hen harriers are fairly rare in the UK, with slightly over a hundred breeding couples mostly in the Scottish Highlands. They are slightly smaller and much lighter than buzzards, and inhabit desolate terrain. Male hen harriers, seen from below, look like ghosts – pure white except for their grey heads but with very distinct black wing tips. They hunt low and glide with their wings held in a shallow V; powerful hunters, beautiful, free. I do not see them very often, but the first time I came to the ruined shepherd’s house, which is now, today, my new home, there was a pair sitting on the drystone dyke. They speak to me of the great silence of the hills; they welcome me into that silence.

The silent bird goes off about his own silent business, just clearing the rise to the west and vanishing as suddenly as he came. Briefly I feel that he has come this morning to welcome me and I experience a moment of fierce joy, but it rumbles gently down into a more solid contentment. There are lots of things that I ought to be getting on with, but I light a cigarette and go on sitting on my doorstep. It
is surprisingly warm for October. We had the first frost last week, light-fingered on the car windscreen. I think about how beautiful it is, and how happy I am. Then I think how strange it is – how strange that I should be so happy sitting up here in the silent golden morning with nothing in my diary for the next fortnight, and no one coming and me going nowhere except perhaps into the hills or down the coast to walk, and to Mass on Sundays. I find myself trying to think through the story of how I come to be here and why I want to be here. And it

I have lived a very noisy life.

As a matter of fact we all live very noisy lives. ‘Noise pollution’ has settled down into the ecological agenda nearly as firmly as all the other forms of pollution that threaten our well-being and safety. But for everyone who complains about RAF low-flying training exercises, ceaseless background music in public places, intolerably loud neighbours and drunken brawling on the streets, there are hundreds who know they
a mobile phone, who choose to have incessant sound pumping into their environment, their homes and their ears, and who feel uncomfortable or scared when they have to confront real silence. ‘Communication’ (which always means talk) is the
sine qua non
of ‘good relationships’. ‘Alone’ and ‘lonely’ have become almost synonymous; worse, perhaps, ‘silent’ and ‘bored’ seem to be moving closer together too. Children disappear behind a wall of noise, their own TVs and computers in their own rooms; smoking carriages on trains have morphed into ‘quiet zones’ but even the people sitting in them have music plugged directly into their ears.

We all imagine that we want peace and quiet, that we value privacy and that the solitary and silent person is somehow more ‘authentic’ than the same person in a social crowd, but we seldom seek opportunities to enjoy it. We romanticise silence on the one hand and on the other feel that it is terrifying, dangerous to our mental health, a threat to our liberties and something to be avoided at all costs.

My life has also been noisy in a more specific way.

Because of an odd conjunction of class, history and my parents’ personal choices I had an unusually noisy childhood. I was born in 1950, the second child and oldest girl in a family of six; the first five of us were born within six and a half years of each other. If you asked my mother why she had so many children, she would say it was because she loved babies, but if you asked my father he would say something rather different: ‘Two sets of tennis, two tables of bridge and a Scottish reel set in your own house.’ We grew up in London, and in an enormous early-Victorian mansion house (my father’s childhood home) in south-west Scotland. My parents adored each other. I think they adored us, though in a slightly collectivised way. They were deeply sociable and the house was constantly filled not just by all of us, but by their friends and our friends; my mother’s father lived with us for a while; there was a nanny and later an au pair girl. What was perhaps unusual for the time was that they were very directly engaged as parents; there was none of that ‘seen and not heard’ nursery life for us. We were blatantly encouraged to be highly articulate, contentious, witty, and to hold all authority except theirs in a certain degree of contempt. I am appalled now when I think back to the degree of verbal teasing that was not just permitted but participated in: simple rudeness was not encouraged, but sophisticated verbal battering, reducing people to tears, slamming doors, screaming fights and boisterous, indeed rough, play was fine. (You don’t grow out of these things – my son’s partner has since told me her first encounter with us as a group was one of the most scary experiences of her life – she could not believe that people could talk so loudly, so argumentatively and so rudely without it coming to serious fisticuffs.) We were immensely active and corporate; introspection, solitude, silence, or any withdrawal from the herd was not allowed. Within the magical space they had created for us, however, we were given an enormous amount of physical freedom – to play, to roam, to have fights and adventures.

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