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.

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.