Northern navigation

Author ponders meaning of home in journey along the 60th parallel


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The imaginary line that invisibly and arbitrarily tethers Scotland’s Shetland Islands — where Malachy Tallack grew up — to Greenland, Canada, Alaska, Russia, Finland, Sweden and Norway also unleashed his youthful imagination.

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Hey there, time traveller!
This article was published 27/08/2016 (2287 days ago), so information in it may no longer be current.

The imaginary line that invisibly and arbitrarily tethers Scotland’s Shetland Islands — where Malachy Tallack grew up — to Greenland, Canada, Alaska, Russia, Finland, Sweden and Norway also unleashed his youthful imagination.

As an adult, he circles the world along the 60th parallel north, from the Shetland Archipelago and back again. The creative result is his first monograph, a graceful account of northern peoples’ relationship to their environment, and a thoughtful consideration on the meaning of home. Beyond his curiosity and restlessness, Tallack is seeking a better understanding of his fragile connection to Shetland.

Sixty Degrees North has been shortlisted for a 2016 Saltire Society Literary Award (Scotland’s foremost writing honour) for a debut book. Tallack received the 2014 New Writers Award from the Scottish Book Trust for narrative non-fiction. His articles, concerning mostly nature and Scottish politics, have appeared in British publications including the Guardian, New Statesman and Shetland Life.

Will Morrow / The Associated Press files

Tallack nimbly recounts his journey westward “with the sun and with the seasons, to Greenland in spring, North America in summer, Russia in autumn and the Nordic countries in winter.” What Manitoban cannot appreciate the “slap of frozen air against the face; the sharp gasp, deep in the lungs; the sting of pleasure that puckers the skin?”

Each nation is featured as a separate chapter, but Russia boasts two. A cluster of glossy colour photos “freeze-frames” an image of each country.

These places share remoteness, climate, wildlife (everywhere Tallack sees ravens, “the great circumpolar bird, the avian natives of the north”) and the “immense boreal forest, of taiga and muskeg, (that) stretches across northern Canada and Alaska, then on through Siberia, the Urals and into Scandinavia, tying the top of the planet together.”

Relevant to Canadians are common national realities, like the choice between wilderness and development, and the ramifications of colonization on indigenous cultures and people.

Countries of the 60th parallel north also reflect a range of possibilities. Take private land ownership. In Greenland, there is none. Many parts of Shetland’s interior remain common ground, with grazing and peat-cutting rights held collectively. In Finland, “the legal emphasis is not on the public to respect the sanctity of ownership, but on those with land to respect other people’s right to use it.”

Tallack writes cinematically. Broad histories are addressed and landscapes roll by. Then he focuses on detail, like salmon fishing in Alaska’s Kenai River, Siberia’s Gulags or the prehistoric Royal Mounds of Gamla Uppsala, Sweden.

Occasionally, a scene will elicit memories from Tallack’s past or he will pull back to a different scene altogether, disclosing more of his background with Shetland. This is, after all, a personal quest. In the travel story, too, Tallack is not merely narrator. His experiences give rise to opinion.

The cast features local people. In Fort Smith, N.W.T., there is Tallack’s driver (on the subject of bear attacks), a Danish-born, longtime resident (on the community’s evolution), a Dene Suline elder (on the Dene peoples’ accord with the land and on residential schools) and an expert on pelicans.

Supporting cast members are the authorities Tallack references (“Carl Jung believed…”; “Susan Kollin has written…”; “…in what Robert Macfarlane calls…”). Regrettably, there is no notes section or bibliography for the inspired reader to enquire further. Authors of similar narratives to Tallack’s — such as Macfarlane and Rebecca Solnit — include such aides.

If a circle symbolizes wholeness and completion, what Tallack encounters instead is “a tangled, knotted thread that looped this way and that around the world.”

Ultimately, his travels confirm for him that home — really, a belonging — comes from an active engagement with community and a sincere commitment to it.

Gail Perry is a Winnipeg writer and long-distance walker who has yet to cross this kind of imaginary line.

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