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Robert Macfarlane (writer)

Robert Macfarlane (born 15 August 1976) is a British writer.

Robert Macfarlane
Born (1976-08-15) 15 August 1976 (age 42)
EducationPembroke College, Cambridge, and Magdalen College, Oxford.
OccupationTravel writer
Notable work
Mountains of the Mind; The Wild Places; The Old Ways; Landmarks


Early lifeEdit

Macfarlane was born in Oxford [1] and attended Nottingham High School. He was educated at Pembroke College, Cambridge, and Magdalen College, Oxford. He began his PhD at Emmanuel College, Cambridge, in 2000, and in 2001 was elected a Fellow of the College. In 2012 he was made a Fellow of the Royal Society of Literature. He is a founding Trustee of the charity Action For Conservation.


In collaboration with the director Jen Peedom, the cinematographer Renan Ozturk and the composer Richard Tognetti, Macfarlane worked on the film Mountain,[2] which premiered with a live performance from the Australian Chamber Orchestra at the Sydney Opera House in June 2017. Macfarlane's script was voiced by Willem Dafoe. Mountain has gone on to become one of the highest-grossing Australian feature documentaries of all time.[3]


Macfarlane's first book, Mountains of the Mind, was published in 2003 and won the Guardian First Book Award, the Somerset Maugham Award, and the Sunday Times Young Writer of the Year Award. It was shortlisted for the Boardman Tasker Prize for Mountain Literature and the John Llewellyn Rhys Prize. It is an account of the development of Western attitudes to mountains and precipitous landscapes, and takes its title from a line by the poet Gerard Manley Hopkins. Macfarlane's book combines history with first-person narrative. He considers why people are drawn to mountains despite their obvious dangers, and examines the powerful and sometimes fatal hold that mountains can come to have over the imagination. The book's heroes include the mountaineer George Mallory, and its influences include the writing of Simon Schama and Francis Spufford.[4]

The Wild Places was published in September 2007. In it Macfarlane embarks on a series of journeys in search of the wildness that remains in Britain and Ireland.[5] The book explores wildness both geographically and intellectually, testing different ideas of the wild against different landscapes, and describes Macfarlane's explorations of forests, moors, salt marshes, mudflats, islands, sea-caves and city fringes. A condensed version of the book was broadcast as Book of the Week on BBC Radio 4 in September 2007.[6] In November 2007, the book won the Boardman Tasker Prize for Mountain Literature, and in June 2008 it won the Scottish Arts Council Non-Fiction Book of the Year Award. In November 2008, it was joint winner of the Grand Prize at the Banff Mountain Festival, North America's equivalent of the Boardman Tasker Prize.[7] It became a best-seller in Britain and The Netherlands, and went on to be shortlisted for six further prizes, including the Dolman Best Travel Book Award, the Sunday Times Young Writer of the Year Award, the John Llewellyn Rhys Prize, and North America's Orion Book Award, a prize founded "to recognize books that deepen our connection to the natural world, present new ideas about our relationship with nature, and achieve excellence in writing."[8]

The Old Ways: A Journey On Foot, the third in the 'loose trilogy of books about landscape and the human heart' begun by Mountains of the Mind and The Wild Places, was published in June 2012 by Hamish Hamilton/Penguin UK, and in October 2012 by Viking/Penguin US. It was acclaimed as a ‘tour de force’ by William Dalrymple in The Observer.[9] The book describes the years Macfarlane spent following 'old ways' (pilgrimage paths, sea-roads, prehistoric trackways, ancient rights of way) in south-east England, north-west Scotland, Spain, Sichuan and Palestine. Its guiding spirit is the early twentieth century writer and poet, Edward Thomas, and its chief subject is the reciprocal shaping of people and place.

The Old Ways entered the Sunday Times Bestseller Chart for non-fiction at number three, and stayed in the top ten for a total of half-a-year as hardback and paperback. It was chosen 18 times as a Book of the Year for 2012 by, among others, John Banville,[10] Philip Pullman,[11] Jan Morris, John Gray, Antony Beevor, and Dan Stevens. In the UK it was joint winner of the Dolman Prize for Travel Writing, was shortlisted for The Samuel Johnson Prize (the ‘non-fiction Booker’),[12] the Jan Michalski Prize for World Literature, the Duff-Cooper Prize for Non-Fiction, the Warwick Prize for Writing, the Waterstones Book of the Year Award,[13] and three other prizes. In the US it was shortlisted for the Orion Book Award. An abridged version was broadcast as Book of the Week on Radio 4 in June 2012.

Landmarks, a book that celebrates and defends the language of landscape, was published in the UK in March 2015. A version of its first chapter, published in The Guardian as 'The Word-Hoard', went viral, and the book became a Sunday Times number one bestseller. It was chosen fifteen times worldwide as a Book of the Year, and was shortlisted for The Samuel Johnson Prize for non-fiction. Landmarks is described on the cover as 'a field guide to the literature of nature, and a vast glossary collecting thousands of the remarkable terms used in dozens of the languages and dialects of Britain and Ireland to describe and denote aspects of terrain, weather, and nature'. Entries in the nine glossaries include:

  • ammil (south-west English dialect for the 'vast glitter and gleam of sunlight on hoarfrost'),[14]
  • zwer (Exmoor dialect for 'the noise made by a covey of partridges rising in flight'),[14]
  • summer geese (a Yorkshire term for 'the steam that lifts from moorland when hot sun shines after hard rain'),
  • crizzle (Northamptonshire dialect for 'the sound and action of open water as it freezes', and
  • klett (Shetlandic for 'an earth-fast boulder on the shoreline'.

Each of the book's chapters explores the landscapes and style of a writer or writers, as Macfarlane travels to meet farmers, sailors, walkers, glossarians, artists, poets and others who have developed intense and committing relationships with their chosen places. The chapter of the book concerning Nan Shepherd and the Cairngorm mountains has been adapted for television by BBC4 and BBC Scotland. Macfarlane's detailed writing style, and his frequent references to dialect vocabulary, was satirised in a February 2016 edition of Private Eye by Craig Brown in the magazine's regular "Diary" feature. Landmarks was published in the US in August 2016. It was described by Tom Shippey in The Wall Street Journal as a book that 'teaches us to love our world, even the parts of it that we have neglected. Mr Macfarlane is the great nature writer, and nature poet, of this generation.'

In May 2016 Macfarlane published a short book, The Gifts of Reading, about gifts, stories and the unexpected consequences of generosity. All work for the book was given for free, and all moneys raised were donated to MOAS, the Migrant Offshore Aid Station.

His collaboration with the artist Jackie Morris on a large-format book for children called The Lost Words: A Spell Book, was published in 2017.[15]

Macfarlane is presently finishing Underland, a book about underworlds real and imagined, the Anthropocene and deep time, due to be published in the spring of 2019; and a book about troubled landscapes called Eerie, Unsettled.


Macfarlane is seen as the influential inheritor of a tradition of writing about landscape, place, travel and nature which includes John Muir, Richard Jefferies and Edward Thomas, as well as contemporary figures such as John McPhee, Rebecca Solnit, Annie Dillard, Barry Lopez and his friend Roger Deakin. He is associated with other walker-writers including Patrick Leigh Fermor, Nan Shepherd and Laurie Lee, and seen as one of a number of recent British writers who have provoked a new critical and popular interest in writing about landscape.[16] Edward Thomas, in particular, prompted Macfarlane's interest in the impact of British country paths and lanes on British writers.[17]

Macfarlane's interests in topography, ecology and the environment have been explored in his books but also through newspaper and magazine essays, notably his Common Ground series which was published in The Guardian in 2005.[18] He has also published many reportage and travel essays in magazines, especially Granta and Archipelago, as well as numerous introductory essays to re-issues of lost and neglected classics of landscape and nature writing from the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, notably J. A. Baker ("The Peregrine") and Nan Shepherd ("The Living Mountain" and "In The Cairngorms").

His work has been widely adapted for television, film and radio. Macfarlane presented "The Wild Places of Essex", an episode of the BBC Two Natural World series broadcast in February 2010; the film later won a Wildscreen Award.[19] He is the patron of the Outdoor Swimming Society, the Outlandia Project, ONCA (One Network for Conservation and the Arts), and Gateway To Nature, a Lottery-funded mental-health initiative designed to improve access to nature for vulnerable groups and individuals. .


All Macfarlane's books have been jacketed with original work by the artist Stanley Donwood, known for his close association with the band Radiohead. Macfarlane also collaborated with Donwood and writer Dan Richards on Holloway, published in an edition of 277 by Quive-Smith Press in 2012,[20] and a trade edition by Faber & Faber in May 2013, which became a Sunday Times best-seller. "Holloway" was adapted into a short film shot on Super-8 by the film-maker Adam Scovell.

In June 2012, Macfarlane wrote the libretto to a ‘jazz opera’ called Untrue Island, composed by the double-bassist Arnie Somogyi, and performed in a former nuclear weapons storage site on Orford Ness in Suffolk.[21]

He also worked with the natural history sound-recordist Chris Watson to produce a performance of 'Sea-Road', released on vinyl by Rivertones/CBTR.[22]

The chapter of The Old Ways entitled ‘Silt’, describing a walk along the off-shore tidal path known as The Broomway, was in March 2013 published as a stand-alone micro e-book. It was also the subject of an exhibition of photographs by David Quentin, and two sound-works ("Silt" and "The Grey Sink") by The Pale Horse, released on vinyl by Brainlove Records.[23]

His work has been involved with the music of contemporary musicians including Johnny Flynn,[24] Frank Turner and The Memory Band. In 2015 he authored the liner notes to Grasscut's third album Everyone Was A Bird.[25]

Awards and honoursEdit



  • Mountains of the Mind: A History of a Fascination. London and New York: Granta Books and Pantheon Books. 2003. ISBN 0375421807.
  • The Wild Places. London and New York: Granta Books and Penguin Books. 2007. ISBN 9780143113935.
  • Original Copy. Oxford: Oxford University Press. 2007. ISBN 9780199296507.
  • The Old Ways: A Journey on Foot. London and New York: Penguin Hamish Hamilton and Viking. 2012. ISBN 9780670025114.
  • Holloway. London: Faber & Faber. 2013.
  • Landmarks. London and New York: Penguin Hamish Hamilton and Viking. 2015.
  • The Gifts of Reading. London: Penguin UK. 2016.
  • The Lost Words. Hamish Hamilton. 2017.

See alsoEdit


  1. ^ "Robert Macfarlane wins book award". BBC. December 2003. Retrieved 31 December 2008.
  2. ^ Mountain The Guardian
  3. ^
  4. ^ "O Altitudo!: An Interview with Robert Macfarlane". Retrieved 2015-05-15.
  5. ^ Macfarlane, Robert (2007). The Wild Places. Granta Books. p. 340. ISBN 1862079412.
  6. ^ BBC Radio 4 schedule for 3 September 2007 Retrieved 2 October 2007.
  7. ^ "2008 Book Awards". The Banff Centre. Retrieved 31 December 2008.
  8. ^
  9. ^ Dalrymple, William (10 June 2012). "The Old Ways: A Journey on Foot by Robert Macfarlane – review". The Guardian. London.
  10. ^ "Books of the year 2012". The Guardian. London. 25 November 2012.
  11. ^ Blackwell's Books of the Year: Guest Choices - Philip Pullman (1 of 2). YouTube. 22 November 2012. Retrieved 2015-05-15.
  12. ^ "Shortlist for 2012 Samuel Johnson Prize announced - Samuel Johnson Prize". Retrieved 2015-05-15.
  13. ^ "Waterstones Book of the Year shortlist announced..." Archived from the original on 27 December 2012.
  14. ^ a b Macfarlane, Robert. "Landspeak". Orion. Retrieved 2015-05-15. Consider ammil, a Devon term meaning “the sparkle of morning sunlight through hoar-frost,” a beautifully exact word for a fugitive phenomenon I have several times seen but never before been able to name....On Exmoor, zwer is the onomatopoeic term for the sound made by a covey of partridges taking flight.
  15. ^ Jackie Morris
  16. ^ Boyd Tonkin (18 July 2008). "Call of the wild: Britain's nature writers". London: The Independent. Retrieved 31 December 2008.
  17. ^ Billy Mills, Poster poems: Pathways, The Guardian, 3 April 2015.
  18. ^ "Common ground". The Guardian. London. 21 July 2008. Retrieved 22 May 2010.
  19. ^ Natural World Retrieved 14 February 2010
  20. ^
  21. ^ MacFarlane, Robert (8 July 2012). "Robert Macfarlane's Untrue Island: the voices of Orford Ness". The Guardian. London.
  22. ^ "The Quietus - News - LISTEN: New Caught By The River 12". The Quietus.
  23. ^ "SILT - an exhibition of photographs by David Quentin and text by Robert Macfarlane".
  24. ^ "Interview: Johnny Flynn on the lure of the great outdoors". THE GIRL OUTDOORS.
  25. ^ Macfarlane, Robert. "Everyone Was A Bird". Caught by the River. Caught by the River. Retrieved 6 November 2015.
  26. ^ John Ezard (5 December 2003). "Mountain man wins Guardian book prize". The Guardian. London. Retrieved 6 November 2012.
  27. ^ Alison Flood (5 October 2012). "Six books to 'change our view of the world' on shortlist for non-fiction prize". The Guardian. London. Retrieved 5 October 2012.
  28. ^ "Edition 2013". Jan Michalski Foundation. Retrieved 14 September 2013.
  29. ^ "2013 winner". Archived from the original on 25 December 2014. Retrieved 24 December 2014.
  30. ^ "The 2015 Shortlist". The Samuel Johnson Prize. 11 October 2015. Retrieved November 3, 2015.

External linksEdit