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.

Sunday, 15 March 2015

The broch staircase

This wonderfully evocative photo (from the Shutterstone website) is of the staircase in the Carloway Broch on the Isle of Lewis, just over the Minch from here. My favourite thing about brochs is their double wall, with interior staircase circling up between them, playing both a structural and functional role.

In between the walls of Clachtoll broch there must have been a similar staircase, and one of the most exciting aspects of the excavation that will hopefully happen next year will be the exploration of this space. Even more exciting is the proposal, unveiled this week by archaeologists Graeme Cavers and Andy Heald of AOC Archaeology, to make sure we can use this staircase after the excavation, to climb up and out to look down into the broch.

This replaces the previous idea to build a metal spiral to a viewing platform inside the broch, which was consulted on last year to mixed opinions. That idea has been thrown out, and the new proposal is to give broch visitors access to the inside of the building, and ensure that the staircase is climbable from inside the broch.

What I love about this proposal is that we will be able to duck into the corballed staircase, just as the people who lived there would have done. Then we'll be able to climb the steps and emerge on the seaward side of the broch to look into the most intact parts of the building. If there is a chamber to the side of the stair (pretty likely), we'll be able to explore in there on the way, and I imagine it will be a magical, spooky, rounded space.

I am trying to get hold of  a decent reproduction of the drawings shown by Graeme and Andy when they visited this week, to give a sense of what is being proposed. If I do, I'll post it up here.

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?