Thursday, 18 June 2015

In the Iron Age

The novel, and sailing, are currently all-consuming. Just in case anyone is wondering why I'm not saying much here. I'll be back later in the summer...

Saturday, 25 April 2015

Preparing to die

It has been an odd period recently. A funeral. An ancient ceremonial walk. A cave. A camp. Huge tides.

Last weekend we were at one of my favourite places: Kilbride, on Skye. We walked down to the stony shore where for a thousand years people gathered cobbles and pebbles to take up to An Ard Achadh (High Pasture). There is every imaginable kind of stone on that beach. I borrowed three: a round, grey skull-like pebble, another greenish and triangular, and a white, square piece of quartzite. I carried them up the stream, over the boggy watershed, wondering what it would have been like to have a whole creel of stones on my back.

At High Pasture I placed them in the spot we decided to use as a fireplace, and then we clambered down into the cave. It’s one of the most beautiful places I know. Pure magic: dark but dazzling, pristine yet mysterious.

Back when the place was used for ceremonies, thousands of stones were heated in a fire and used to heat water, then, when they had cracked, tossed aside. The accumulated stones formed a huge burned mound. It is interesting that they used the stones from the beach, not the limestone found at that spot.

I imagine what was going on was a kind of ritual cleansing before the people went down into the cave. Perhaps bringing stones from one liminal place (the shore where sea meets land) helped to strengthen their ability to cross between our daylight world and the underworld of the cave, between life and whatever comes before it and whatever comes after.

I heard today of the death of Marjorie, my Godfather’s mother, at the amazing age of 106. A celebration is surely in order for such a life. But last week, we were at the funeral of Bill’s brother, and the week before, there was the funeral of a neighbour, who died tragically young.

It felt good to light a fire at High Pasture and to sleep there, with the music of the stream as it vanishes down into its subterranean channel. It seemed right to create a small ritual and to dwell on questions that have surely not changed at all in the intervening millennia, about how we all cross from being into non-being.

So, I am thinking a lot about the end of life and finding myself preparing to die. Not because I have any intention of doing so just at the moment, but because I feel so strongly that any day could be the last and I must live it to the full, treasuring every minute. I’m grabbing every marvellous opportunity for a thrill, like going down a cave or cruising out on the ocean, and I’m making time to listen to that special piece of music, choosing a really important book to read, making contact with the people I love.

Plus I’m trying to tidy up a bit, because I don’t want my loved ones to have to wade their way all through my filing cabinet in search of the papers that actually matter. Along with metaphysical wonderings, I have the very mundane realisation that I don’t want to leave an administrative mess behind me. So, before any further musings on the afterlife, it’s time to chuck out some more paperwork and get on with the accounts. Then watch out for the next adventure.

Saturday, 11 April 2015

Are you afraid of death or afraid of chaos?

When I was a creative writing student at Glasgow University, a decade ago, one of our most memorable workshops was with Janice Galloway. I remember her saying something along the following lines.

There are two kinds of writers: those who are afraid of death and those who are afraid of chaos. If you are one of those who is afraid of chaos, the first draft is painful, because it's always utterly chaotic. Revision, on the other hand, is where all the pleasure is, as order is imposed and the horrible mess is cleared up. Many of such writers edit as they go along, not being able to bear living with the shambles of first draft writing.

For writers who are afraid of death, the reverse is true: the first draft is a joyful outpouring as the story comes to life, but revision is awful, because there is always the risk that this living thing will be murdered by an injudicious cut, or disfigured by a badly executed edit. These writers normally let the whole thing splurge out onto the page then put off the revision process as long as possible and agonise over it.

I am the latter kind of writer. I wish I was the former. I have (slowly, it has to be said), gushed forth a first draft of the next novel and over the past few months I have been typing it up and getting closer and closer to the day when I will have to declare the drafting process complete. It will then be time to begin the agonising revision process. All the fun will be over. 

Fortunately there is still research to do. In the process of typing, I have revealed gaps and cracks that need to be filled: the ingredients of a good poultice to ease an arthritic joint, for example. I need to learn some more ancient Greek (my character Pytheas spoke it, presumably, so I'd better know what he said at crucial moments). I know this is a marvellous way of procrastinating, but I have to do something to avoid taking the surgical scalpel to the foetal text...

Thursday, 9 April 2015


Our new boat is in the water now and we're enjoying life aboard. I dropped my favourite bucket overboard yesterday - a lovely blue rubber one, unbreakable, supposed to last me a lifetime. Being rubber, it sank. I hoped I might be able to get it at low tide, but there is 4 metres of water under us even at low water.

We have a depth sounder on this boat, and we have had long debates about whether to callibrate it to show depth from the bottom of the keel, or from the surface. It will be interesting to have an instrument for measuring how close we are to going aground, although I don't know whether I'll really trust it.

Up until now I've used a plumb line. I trust a lump of lead and a piece of string more than an electronic screen wired to a gadget somewhere I can't see it on the bottom of the boat.

People smile at me wryly when I advocate using the lead to measure depth. There is a culture of gadgetry in sailing that means many people have cast aside old-fashioned things. But some sailers nod knowingly - a bit of string and a lump of lead can't go wrong and need no electricity.

When Pytheas was at sea of course, there was no option but to plumb the depths. That's all the justification I need.

Monday, 30 March 2015


Here's our lovely new boat, but what should we paint the red and the white bits with?
It’s the time of year when we boat owners are painting our hulls and keels with anti-foul paint. It may look good once it’s on, but it’s awful stuff, intended to be life-threatening so as to put off any marine life that might otherwise look on the underside of a boat as a potential house site. The instructions on the tin say that it is threatening to the marine environment, but that is exactly where it is intended to be used. They say we should wear masks, goggles, disposable gloves and protective clothing when using it. This stuff is dangerous. It should probably be banned.

Back in the Iron Age, I imagine just like now, the boat people would get busy in spring preparing their vessels for the summer sailing season. No doubt they would be scraping away at the barnacles and mussels and weeds that were trying to get a foothold on their keels. The wooden and hide boats were presumably painted with pine pitch or other foul-smelling oils and caulked to try to keep them waterproof.

All around the coasts there are nousts, boat shelter hollows in the ground just above the high water mark, and some of them are very ancient indeed. I imagine these places as the Iron Age equivalent of modern day marinas, where people hauled their boats out to protect them from winter storms and no doubt to do maintenance on them in spring before launching again.

There is a friendly craic among people with boats. There is so much to admire, and so much to compare, as everyone has their own quirky way of resolving the many challenges of keeping afloat, traveling when, where and how you want to, staying put when you don’t want to go anywhere, getting between shore and sea, avoiding the worst of bad weather, making the most of good weather and being as comfortable as possible whatever the weather. Stories of adventures at sea need to be told, and plans discussed for future journeys. There is no end to the potential for conversation about these matters.

And just at the moment, one of the hot topics is how to stop the wildlife moving in on the bottom of the boat: what toxic blend to smear all over the hull, how thickly, how often and at what cost. I dread to think what the cumulative impact of all these paints is on the world’s marine life.

What do Greenpeace’s boat maintenance people use for the Rainbow Warrior and their other campaign ships? Should we just let our boats grow green beards? And was there anything at all stopping the mussels from taking up residence on the bottom of the boat that Pytheas was sailing in, two thousand years ago?

Saturday, 28 March 2015

Taking Inspiration from a Head of Stone

Some objects are spookily fascinating. There is a stone head in the National Museum of Scotland on Chambers Street in Edinburgh. (I can't find a picture of it - if anyone knows of one, please let me know! The picture here is of a vaguely similar one from Ireland).

The stone has three faces, and a dent in the top of the head. It was found somewhere around here. It arrived at the museum from 'Lairg', but the whole of North West Sutherland has Lairg as our postal address, so it could have come from anywhere up here. Being stone it is impossible to date, but by association with other stone heads it is probably Iron Age.

Around the time Pytheas visited here, people had a strange fascination with heads. See this article, for example. I seem to have inherited that fascination although I hasten to add that I don't make a habit of cutting people's heads off and posting them on stakes around the boundary of the croft, as some Celtic warriors were reputed to do.

One of the faces on the Lairg stone seems to have a moustache. I think he was probably up to no good. I call him The Master. I think the other two faces are The Sage and The Boy, making three generations of stone man. I wonder what on earth the people back then believed. I wonder who carved it. I write these wonderings into stories and weave them into my novel.

When I'm in Edinburgh I sometimes go and stare at that head. It is in a glass case in among a host of other strange, ceremonial objects from our distant past. I wish it were outside, gathering moss, or in a cave, with a drip of water falling into the hollow on the top of its head, or in a temple, with libations to the gods being poured into it. But perhaps it is safer in a glass case, where no sacrificial blood is shed.

Friday, 20 March 2015

Predictable but still mysterious

Archilochos, ancient Greek poet, said of the solar eclipse: 'Nothing there is beyond hope, nothing that can be sworn impossible, nothing wonderful, since Zeus, father of the Olympians, made night from mid-day, hiding the light of the shining Sun, and sore fear came upon men.'

The Greek scientist, Thales of Miletus, is known to have made accurate predictions of solar eclipses in the sixth century BC (see here). Given Pytheas' interests in astronomy and his measurements of sun declinations, I imagine it is plausible that he had the tools and know-how to make these predictions himself, or at the very least he would have mixed in circles with others who could.

I wonder whether the Iron Age people who Pytheas met in this region knew sufficient about the movements of the earth, sun and moon to be able to predict a solar eclipse? And would being able to predict it make it any the less mysterious and awe-inspiring?

This morning, it was cloudy enough to make looking at the sun possible, but not so cloudy that you couldn't clearly see the moon covering the bright disc - first to a C-shaped crescent, then just a tiny smile in the sky, and then as the sun slipped westwards, a right-handed crescent. Even knowing exactly what is happening, the gloom is weird. What made it particularly eerie to me was the way the robin stopped singing, and the thrush, and after a morning with the woods full of birdsong, all that was left were a few timid cheeps from tits, the sound they make on a dark winter's morning.

I walked into the woods and met three hinds. Two of the deer padded away but the third remained, standing, as I walked up to her. She looked at me in a bemused way, as if to say, 'What's going on? What is this mysterious darkness? Why has it all gone quiet?' I got so close I could almost reach out and touch her. The normal patterns of nature were set aside for a while. The big dials in the sky tuned in to something wonderful. When the moon covers the sun, surely the only appropriate feeling is awe.

When Thales predicted the eclipse of 585 BC, it was said to bring a five-year war between Lydia and Media to an end. If only the alignment of planetary bodies today were enough for people in conflict to put down their weapons.