Jonathan Meades: Off Kilter in the Outer Hebrides

Posted by on Feb 9, 2010 in Islands, TV and Film | 7 Comments
Jonathan Meades has been a favourite commentator of mine for some years. Despite his predilection for the tackling of esoteric and often unfamiliar subject matter, a combination of insightful criticism and beautiful cinematography make his television programmes a joy to watch. It was a delight to see the great man bring his rose-tinted spectacles and considerable vocabulary to bear on a subject close to my own heart in a programme entitled ‘Off Kilter’
He started with a irreproachable but cutting demolition of all the twee and sentimental things that are commonly held to represent Scottishness: tartan and bagpipes; tribal patriotism; the roots racket with its attendant glorification of the ‘good old days’ of poverty, overcrowding and feudalism. The latter portion of his programme was spent on the Long Isle of Lewis and Harris where he was captivated by the elemental beauty of the landscape and was, I think, at his Meadsian best when describing its built environment.
 The Butt View Stores, so called because its position on the west coast of Lewis affords it a fine view of the equally amusingly named Butt of Lewis
Partly for the benefit of those who are unfamiliar with Meades, but mostly to satisfy my own curiosity, I have transcribed a passage below. Rendering his uniquely verbose rhetoric presented an amusing educational opportunity, liberally spattered as it was with words that I had not yet ushered into my own vocabulary. In some instances I had to make repeated attempts to convert an unfamiliar sound into a procession of letters interpretable by Google. Rather than smugly parade my newfound knowledge I have elected to come clean about my recent ignorance by providing below the definitions I was forced to look up in the course of the transcription.
‘This is perhaps the only place in the world whose townships and villagescapes, urbanism and landscapes, are wholly infected by the Calvinist mentality; that is by a blindness to prettification, by an aesthetic bereavement so absolute that it is a sort of insouciant anti-aesthetic. In a way the everyday buildings are the very contrary of Mathieson’s (Stornoway Castle). They suggest that to complete with this most magnificent terrain would be both hubristic and certain failure, so they simply didn’t bother to compete. The unsurpassible strangeness of the island resides in the chasmic gulf between the naturally evolved and the negligently created, between scarp and scrap, between the sublime and the substandard……….. The island shackscape is the apogee of the Northern Hebridean anti-aesthetic. Members of the National Trust and of kindred bastions of insipid taste will no doubt fail to acknowledge the beauty of what is here; these scapes are beautiful in the way that a lupus is beautiful, or mould on fruit, or decaying meat or scar tissue, or amputations, or diseases of the skin, or anatomical freaks.’
insouciant – marked by blithe unconcern, nonchalant
apogee – highest point, culmination
lupus – any of several forms of ulcerative skin disease
This was one of very few gems that make paying for a TV license worthwhile. Why oh why was the first episode withdrawn prematurely from the iplayer before I was able to fertilise my mind with what was surely another rare counterstrike against the dumbed down populist drivel that makes up the majority of the contemporary televisual output?
The third and final part of ‘Off Kilter’ is broadcast on BBC4 tomorrow (Wednesday).


  1. Toby
    February 9, 2010

    Damn I missed that program, would have liked to have seen it.

    Co-dhiu, it sounds all too fussy for a Leodhasach like me :o)

  2. Gavin Macfie
    February 9, 2010

    It's still on iplayer. Even better, episode 1 is on youtube

  3. Donald
    February 9, 2010

    A colleague of mine saw this and most Leòdhasachs I know were a bit insulted by the London-centric small toan attitude.

  4. mcalisterium
    February 10, 2010

    Certainly thought provoking. Much of what he says is true. I particularly liked the visual gag with the tree branch. Though I did stuggle a bit with an Englishman referring to William Wallace as 'murderous', a rather dismissive and unfair description.

    I'm only halfway through though, I'll finish watching tonight. Thanks for bringing it to my attention.

  5. Gavin Macfie
    February 10, 2010

    Did you watch it yourself Donald? I think that the quality of his observation is such that he always stops short of insult.

    He made some observations on Gaelic. He was positive about the language and about its promotion while taking a playful swipe at those who co-ordinate such promotion from afar.

  6. Stephen
    February 10, 2010

    I actually enjoyed his description of The Wallace as a 'murderous medieval terrorist' :)

    The fact that our country (Scotland) was at one point championed by such an outlaw in the face of a powerful neighbour intent on controlling our affairs, allows me to empathise with other demonised groups, like the Taliban in Afghanistan.

    As a nation I think we have a very

  7. Craig W
    February 12, 2010

    You can watch it (and other episodes) on Youtube.

    No need for a TV license :)


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