Saturday, 28 February 2015


We recently had monster tides, and windy weather with them. Our dinghy is tied up in a corner of the croft we call Kelvin Grove. You have to abseil down the crag into it, but at the bottom is an ancient boat haul-out behind a built up stone wall, where vessels have been sheltered from storms for centuries. An old Kelvin engine lies rusting in there from an old boat, the rest of which has been eaten by the sea. It's a huge, heavy thing, and handy for tying boats to. But the recent tide and wind pulled it right over. We are lucky not to have lost the boat.

When Pytheas travelled here, we know one of the things that fascinated him were tides, and the stories he told of the changing water heights around the Atlantic coastline were met with some doubts by his peers in the Mediterranean, which has tiny tides of barely 40 centimetres. These are easily hidden by weather, atmospheric pressure and waves, and don't cause much problem to boats tied up on shore. But when the tidal range is 5 metres or more, as they are here, you need skill and forethought to make sure boats remain safe around the clock.

I love tides, the twice-daily rhythm of ebb and flow. After 15 years of living on a tidal shore, I still marvel at that dance of the sea back and forth, and I still experience a frisson of fear at low tide, when all the rocks are exposed. Will it come back? There is an emotional rhythm that echoes this push and pull, and for me, grim moods are like the tide at its lowest. Its rhythm is one of many natural cycles: night and day, the waxing and waning of the moon, our menstrual cycles, and the seasons turning around the year.

One of the things that must have perplexed Pytheas is the way that the biggest tides, the springs, happen twice monthly at the new and full moons. Except they don't. They happen a few days after the moon changes.

Similarly, although we've passed the middle of the winter, and the days are lengthening, I feel like we're only now reaching the deepest and darkest part of the year. But it will turn. It always turns.

Saturday, 21 February 2015

Did Pytheas Visit Clachtoll Broch?

When Pytheas travelled up the west coast of Britain, around 320 years BC, he must have visited the local people. What kind of buildings were they living in? In particular, when he came to Assynt, (which I assume he did, as I have blogged about before), had the broch at Clachtoll been built?

This is not just an idle question. The historical novel I am writing needs settings that are plausible. I am making all the people up, except Pytheas, but I want their environment, the objects they use, their livestyles and even their beliefs to be based on sound archaeological evidence. When Pytheas arrived here in Assynt, he for certain was not offered a cup of tea in a crofthouse. He may have been offered some mead in a ceramic cup with a thumb print, given a dinner of bannocks and fish and then offered a bed for the night. But did that all happen in a roundhouse a few feet high, or did he dine and sleep in a double-walled, round, cooling-tower shaped broch, possibly 14 metres tall?
Artist impression of a broch, from Archaeology Hebrides.

I confess to desperately hoping Pytheas stayed in the broch. This is not without grounds. When some conservation work was carried out on the broch in 2011, we discovered that the broch had collapsed, pretty suddenly, probably involving fire, and carbon dating of charcoal remains of an interior wattle floor revealed that this collapse happened sometime between 153 BC and 55 AD (see the dig diary posts from that excavation for more information). If the earlier date is correct, and the broch fell out of use in the second century BC, it is entirely plausible that it was already standing a century and a half earlier. Similar buildings in the outer hebrides have been dated to between 500 BC and  0 BC (See the Archaeology Hebrides site for more information).

Next year, there could well be a full excavation of Clachtoll broch's interior. Because it collapsed so early and as far as we can tell has not been tampered with since, we expect that under the 1500 or so tonnes of rubble inside, there will be unique assemblages of material dating back to Iron Age. This will give us evidence of the people who lived in the broch. It may well also reveal how and when it was built. Meanwhile I write my novel, and I try to make an informed guess. It'll be just my luck if I'm proved wrong by the archaeologists sometime in 2017!

Whether the excavation happens is at the whim of grant funders. If it does, there is still time to influence what exactly will happen at Clachtoll broch after the archaeologists have emptied the interior of rubble and explored the floor. Previous ideas included creation of a metal structure indicating how tall it may have been when it was standing. But this idea has been thrown out, and the archaeology team have gone back to the drawing board. Their new plans include providing access between the two walls of the broch. There is an opportunity to hear more and give feedback on the latest ideas on Monday 9 March 2015, at 7.30 in Stoer Hall.

Saturday, 14 February 2015

Has owning anything to do with love?

Even when it's grey, it's stunning. And much of it is timeless, although of course people have left their mark. That old ruined pile on the shore of Loch Assynt, for example, was built by MacLeods hundreds of years ago, when they no doubt felt they owned it all.The mountain on the right belongs these days to the John Muir Trust and the shore on the left belongs to the local community. Some of the land in the foreground is in private individuals' hands.

Yet, as Norman MacCaig so beautifully questioned in his poem, 'A Man in Assynt', when a millionaire buys the title to a piece of land like this, he or she doesn't get exclusive ownership of it. The landscape as a whole belongs to all of us or indeed, to each one of us individually. In any particular moment, as we take our place within it and feel its wonder, it can feel like a personal possession, and surely we are right to treasure this place like a precious heirloom, to be possessed by it. 

I wonder how the people of the Iron Age considered ownership, and how different their concept of their relationship to the land was from the way we think of it now?

In that great poem, MacCaig asks, 'Has owning anything to do with love?' On Valentines Day, that seems an appropriate question to share. I'm still no closer to the answer than 'everything and nothing'.

Thanks to Bill Ritchie for the photo, and the land, and the love. 

Sunday, 8 February 2015


I have spent the past week on retreat at the wonderful Moniack Mhor writing centre, working on my Iron Age novel. It is in three parts. The middle part centres on Pytheas ‘the Greek’, and I decided to focus on him for the week. I am getting used to imagining how life was several hundred years BC but for this last week I’ve had the added challenge of pretending to be a man.

He is a fascinating character and the more I learn and reflect, the more astonishing his journey seems. His home was Massalia (modern day Marseilles), which was at the western end of the Greek empire (hence his moniker, ‘the Greek’). He travelled from there to the Bay of Biscay (possibly around Spain or maybe down the Garonne River), then up the French coastline to the island of Alba (Britain). He clearly also went significantly further north, probably to Iceland and as far east as the Danish coastline. Here's a map (from here) that suggests his route.
He must have been an intrepid and hardy guy. I guess he was driven by insatiable curiosity and I like to imagine he was charismatic, as many great explorers need to be in order to inspire strangers to help them and to talk themselves out of difficulties. What were his faults, I wonder? Was he bossy? Did he snore? We can never know what he believed or how he thought, but from the fragments of his book, On the Ocean, we know he was a highly methodical scientist, and kept good records.

Pytheas is credited with being the first person from the Mediterranean to circumnavigate Alba and thereby confirm that it is a big island. He even estimated the length of the coastline, to an extraordinary level of accuracy. He treated it as a big triangle with the point in the north, and reckoned that the western seaboard was 20,000 stadia long, the eastern coast was 15,000 stadia and the south coast was 7,500, a total of 42,500 stadia. A stadium is 184 metres, so this works out as 7820 km. The actual length is about 7580, so he’s only 3% out. Not bad for someone travelling without the benefit of GPS!

How on earth did he manage this impressive estimate? We don’t really know. It could be that he kept excellent records of sailing times and had a reasonable sense of speed achieved. It could well be that he tapped into local knowledge of port-to-port distances and tallied them up. We don’t have any contemporary records of how the people of this island made such measurements but the skippers of trading ships plying the coastline would have had a good idea of the distances involved.

I love the idea of Pytheas getting out his quill and ink block and scratching down a record of the distances he was travelling, along with his sun declination measurements and notes about the tides and currents. I wonder what other observations were in his log. Did he scribble about the weather? Did birds and wildlife or people get recorded? Did he ever jot down a poem in the margin?

Saturday, 31 January 2015


Have human beings always been greedy? Was there ever a time when, like most normal animals, we consumed just as much as we need without trying to hoard ever more stuff and fill our lives with things surplus to our requirements?

Back in the iron age, most people had much less opportunity to indulge their greedy urges, and yet there are plenty of signs that even back then, the deadly sin was at work. People had begun to treat objects as commodities and no doubt some were accumulating more of them than others. Ancient trade in material objects has left traces showing that amber from the Baltic found its way to the Atlantic coast, tin was moving from the mines in Cornwall all around Europe and even walrus ivory from the arctic ended up in Mediterranean ports.

In my present day life I'm interested in excessive consumption, and how we can try to persuade people to do less of it, because the disproportionate use of resources by the wealthiest 20% of us is causing the vast bulk of the negative social and environmental impacts that threaten life as we know it on this planet. I'm in the process, along with a few colleagues, of setting up a new organisation, likely to be called LESS, to promote resource efficiency and using less stuff.

Greed is also a core theme in the novel I'm currently writing. I'm intrigued by how looking at it through an iron age lens might help to crystalise how over-consumption might have got started. By exploring a time when most people had much less stuff than now, can we understand how greed works?

At its heart, trade in commodities relies on their interchangability. I can swap a bundle of one kind of stuff (wood, say) for a handful of some other kind of stuff (silver, perhaps). Somehow, the value of the former is deemed to be equivalent to the latter, for both people involved in the exchange. The person who gets the silver can then go on to exchange it for something else. That's how money works. But this is a peculiarly narrow kind of 'value'.

Many of the objects we value most are special to us because we know their makers. I'm thinking of the cushion cover made by Maggie, Fergus's pots, the glass painted by Dorell. Alternatively they are gifted to us by a loved one - the teddies given to me by my grandparents, the pen which was a gift from my Dad, the amber bear from Bill. Their value means that they are simply not interchangeable with anything else. They are unique. They are, to use a powerful word, sacred.

Anything, potentially, can have that sacred value. We know a lot of early trade took the form of ritual exchanges that probably involved honouring this characteristic of the objects being swapped.

To make something into a tradable commodity requires its sacred nature to be obliterated. Silver coins are not valuable because of the person who made them; they are reduced to their depersonalised, secular value.

Anything can lose its sacred value, even people. It is interesting to note that as trade began to flourish along the Atlantic seaboard, one of the tradeable commodities that it included was slaves. If you can trade a person, you can trade anything, and truly value nothing.

Wednesday, 21 January 2015

On the ocean, off the ocean

We took our boat Happy Daze out of the sea today. We left her in until November, and had some fabulous sailing early that month, but intended for her to be lifted out to spend the winter on hard standing. But we needed a calm day for the harbour staff to be able to lift her out, and basically there hasn't been one since November. Until today! So out she came, at dawn this morning.

In Pytheas' day, back in the Iron Age, they would have just hauled their boats up the beach after a high tide. No cranes, no hydrolic lifts. Around the shore here you can still see the dimples in the ground, known as nousts, where boats have been sheltered for centuries past. I walked down to one of them a couple of days back, at Camus na Fraoich (Bay of Heather) and watched the sea pulsing.

Sometimes it is hard to imagine how life may have been more than two thousand years ago. We know that the shore was important, and symbolic, but what did the people who lived here back then believe about it? Did they worship the sea? Did they fear it more or less than we do? They would have known it far better, I guess, and some of them at least must have had vast knowledge of how to navigate across it in order to take Pytheas on his journey.

I say 'take Pytheas', because it seems highly unlikely that he was sailing his own boat on his journey. Although he was an experienced mariner and had sailed extensively in the Mediterranean, there can be no way that a boat and crew used to working those waters could have coped with the high seas of the Bay of Biscay and North Atlantic and the huge tides and currents of these shores. So I assume that he travelled with boats that regularly plied these waters, hitching lifts or somehow persuading ships to give him passage. What kind of vessels were they, I wonder, and what purposes were they travelling for?

There are so many mysteries and so much different now from then. But the sea itself, that hasn't changed so much. Out on the water, I find it much easier to imaging the Iron Age. The currents and winds probably follow much the same patterns now as then. Most of the sea life has been around much longer than we have, although it was probably more abundant then than now. And the sounds and smells of the ocean are exactly as Pytheas would have experienced. I like knowing that I can watch the ripples, and make that connection back to his time.

Saturday, 17 January 2015

On the Ocean

The Book of the Sea, by Lotte Glob
It's no weather for sailing at the moment, but I've been gathering seaweed today, so this seems like a day to muse on the ocean. The hurricane last week threw bladderwrack in huge quantities up onto the shore and it has been well rainwashed since, so today I went down and filled numerous sacks with good stuff for the garden. It will have plenty of time to rot down by spring and will feed the veggies and fruit later this year. It's always a deeply satisfying, filthy job to do on a sunny winter's afternoon and the shore of the sea-loch is a wonderful place.

On the Ocean is the title of a missing book written 300 or so years BC by a traveller called Pytheas. The book, we believe, described the amazing journey he made from his home in the Mediterranean to 'Ultima Thule' wherever that mysterious northern place might be. There are no copies left of this book, but it was widely quoted by other Greek and later Roman writers, many of whom found his claims unbelievable: monstrous animals that spouted fumes (whales, presumably), tidal ranges of 5 metres or more (as they do here), a land that burns and flows into the sea (Iceland perhaps?) and the sea becoming slushy (the edge of the arctic pack ice).

Pytheas was, as well as an adventurer, a scientist and he took sun declination measurements that allow us to know some of the latitudes where he made landfall. One of them is right at this latitude, 58 degrees north. Professor of Archaeology at Oxford, Barry Cunliffe, who wrote the best book about Pytheas (The Extraordinary Voyage of Pytheas the Greek), has told me that my theory that the ancient traveller came to Assynt 'could well be right', but on the other hand he may have gone to Lewis. Or both. We will never know for sure.

The wonderful thing about writing historical fiction is that I am allowed, in situations of uncertainty like this, to make it up! So I have. So the arrival of the adventurous scientist from the Greek empire on the Iron Age coast of Assynt is the trigger event at the start of my new novel.

Last year I was given the book shown in the pictures here. It's Lotte Glob's ceramic 'Book of the Sea'. I've loved Lotte's work for years, especially her stone books, and this piece has a powerful magic about it. Its pages, just like Pytheas' own book, hold their secrets tightly. Lotte also lives on a coastal croft and she too gathers seaweed from the shore to nourish her fruit trees. This book is one of my most treasured possessions, full of mystery.