Saturday, 12 September 2015


Bottlenose dolphin off Scotland. © Marine Connection
Before Pytheas set out from Massalia on his way to these northern waters in 320BC, I wonder if he made an offering at the temple of Apollo? I feel sure he would have appealed to Apollo for good fortune and safety on his journey as many sailors did. His name suggests a link as well: the Oracle of Delphi, the priestess of Apollo's temple, was called Pythia.

One of the main symbols of Apollo was the dolphin, because he changed himself into one in order to escape the island, Delos, where he was born (see here) and then leaped onto a boat and guided it to a safe harbour. So Greek sailors believed that dolphins swimming alongside a boat were bringing good will and wishing them safe passage. It's easy to understand why.

On our first sea trip this year in our new boat, Each Mara, from Inverness Marina to the mouth of the Caledonian Canal, we were accompanied by dolphins. It felt like a good omen, as my aim was to spend a lot of time aboard writing about Pytheas' travels. I was sure Pytheas would have been pleased!

Many times over the summer we encountered pods of dolphins in the Minch and the Inner Sound. It is invariably exciting to see them. Often they have come when the weather has been dire, after hours of rain, or when it has not windy enough to make good progress, or in rough seas. They never fail to lift our spirits as they surface with a friendly 'pff', and then course past the boat.

What do they think we are, in our slow-moving vessel? They play around the boat, racing past us, leaping across the bow, diving under the keel and surfacing with a head-turn and what seems like a wink. Sometimes we've seen a pod of dolphins passing and they have changed direction to come and investigate us, as if inviting us to join them on their journey.

They are humbling to encounter, because they move so much more swiftly than we do, with such utter grace and elegance. Plus of course, they need no oilies to withstand the wet and cold and they don't care at all if it rains!

And if they are, indeed, responsible for safety out there on the ocean, I'm very grateful to them for taking care of us. And if not, well, I'm still grateful to them just for being there.

[Thanks also to for use of the photo].

Saturday, 5 September 2015

Weather forecasts

Image result for raincloud iconI am back onshore for a while, having spent a lot of the summer so far on board Each Mara, our trusty boat, exploring the shores, anchorages and seas of the Hebrides and the north west coast here. It has been great to become familiar with the 'lie of the land' from the perspective of someone traveling around by boat. Places that seem far apart from a road-user perspective are surprisingly close by sea (North Skye and Gairloch, for example). And vice versa (Gairloch and Poolewe). And a place that is a doddle to get to one day can be impossible to reach the next. A three-day struggle beating into a wind to get from A to B can be an easy morning's passage running with a good breeze behind you, a favourable tide and a reasonable sea. It all depends on the wind.

Hence weather forecasts are essential. Sharing long-term forecasts with other sailors and harbour users is a large part of our social interaction. Tuning into the inshore forecast on the VHF radio every three hours has become as much of a ritual as making tea. And attempting to download the more locally specific forecasts from the Met Office by mobile phone is a full-blown obsession. The inshore forecast is for a 24 hour period and for a large area, and, for example, if it says the wind will be 'variable 3-4' it doesn't give much of a clue as to whether B will be reachable from A, where the more specific forecasts for both A and B may at least let us know from which point of the compass the wind may be expected.

I would like to be able to say that I have spent the entirety of the past two months living an Iron Age lifestyle, out on the sea, and writing my novel set there. I have done a lot of that, but it has been intruded upon by certain features of 21st century life, none more so than weather forecasts.

Of course, in 320BC, Pytheas traveled without any forecasts at all, other than the finger-in-the-air guesses of local people, and although they had huge experience and knowledge of how to read the sky and the sea, they would have been going on guesswork and hope a lot of the time.

And we still are. The forecasts are unreliable, especially more than 48 hours ahead, and this summer I've been frustrated over and over again by making plans based on forecast winds that haven't happened, or staying put to avoid gales that haven't blown, or setting out to discover that the wind is far stronger than predicted and in an entirely different direction.

It's not that anyone's lying (I hope). It's just that the weather is inherently unpredictable, especially in a land- and sea-scape as complex as this one. And in a funny kind of way, frustrating though it might be on a day-to-day basis not to know what the wind will bring, I'm glad that we can't forecast it accurately. It's bigger than we are, certainly bigger and more complex than our models, and I'm strangely comforted to know that there is still chaos and mystery out there, beyond our control.

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?