Wednesday, 30 December 2015

Can walrus ivory teach us about value?

I was given polar bear patterned pyjama trousers by my brother this year, and they remind me that some indigenous people in the arctic have traditionally worn polar bear fur pants as an indication of their adulthood and hunting prowess. Although I don't like the idea of anyone hunting polar bears, I respect the rights of indigenous people who have always done so for survival. Polar bear pants have come to symbolise for me the fact that people have beliefs that I may not share, but do respect. Most importantly, polar bear pants are objects that are valuable not in a monetary sense, but due to their meaning to those who wear them.

Here's another object like that. This exquisite carving is made of 'morse' or walrus ivory (thanks to the ExploreNorth site for the image). It is a magical object, a weapon with sacred power to the person who made it. I am deeply interested in the way objects can have such value. It makes them non-tradeable, or at least not easily tradeable. You can't buy someone's sacred amulet; mere money can't replace its meaning.

Conversely, when the sacred value of an object is forgotten, it can be swapped for any other. It becomes merely a commodity. Most objects in modern western society are like this, and they are inherently unsatisfying. The loss of such values leads to a kind of greed that cannot be satisfied and such greed can be seen everywhere now. It's one of the tragedies of our modern condition. To a modern trader, the value of an object like this walrus carving would be simply that it is rare, and thus worth a lot of money.

When Pytheas made his epic journey in 320 BC, walrus were much more widespread in the North Atlantic than they are now. Their population was decimated by unscrupulous over-hunting by Europeans in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. Although we don't know how far south they lived or how abundant walrus were in the Iron Age, it is certain that the ivory from their tusks was prized. I believe that the reason Pytheas went so far north was because he was searching for the origin of this beautiful material.

What's my rationale? Well, it is reasonable to assume that Pytheas was looking for the northern origins of various materials. Amber and tin are almost certain, and perhaps we can add walrus ivory to that list. Just as Cartheginian control of Galicia made access to tin difficult, and thus Cornwall's supplies became important, it could well be that Phoenician control of North Africa threatened the trade in elephant ivory to the Greek colonies. The Greeks would undoubtedly have known that there were northern sources of an alternative ivory, and I like to think that Pytheas was in hot pursuit when he travelled to Ultima Thule.

Whether he was consciously searching for walrus ivory or not, he would almost certainly have come across walrus hunters. I wonder what their hunting rituals were like and how they viewed ivory. My guess is that they would have considered the killing of a walrus to be a profound, ritual event, of great danger to the hunter and resulting in a sacred substance of great mystical power.

However, trading along the long and complex routes that led to the Mediterranean could well have diluted that sacred value, so that walrus ivory, or morse, would be reduced to just a carving material exchangeable for similar things, like the tusks of elephants or certain kinds of wood. An ancient Greek would think about a walrus ivory carving in a completely different way from a north Atlantic walrus hunter. And of course, how we respond to an ivory carving today is different again. 

Monday, 21 December 2015

Happy Solstice

Tonight’s the longest night. I love knowing that for thousands of years people have celebrated this moment, when we begin our journey back around the sun, back towards another cycle of growth. Tonight’s the night to snuggle down by a fire, look back over one shoulder to review the year and contemplate the next one.

I wonder what Pytheas thought of our long dark northern winter nights, back in 320 BC, and how glad he would have been to know that the days were going to lengthen again.

Thanks to everyone who has made this such a brilliant year for me. Not least Creative Scotland, whose grant enabled me to take a big chunk of time away from paper campaigning to focus on my novel. And also a huge thanks to everyone who has helped me along the way to becoming a sailor.

It’s a wild day today, I’m glad I’m not out at sea on a boat.

Wishing you all a safe and peaceful solstice.

Friday, 18 December 2015

Retreat from hurry sickness

Modern life seems to be increasingly pressured, with ever more to do, at an ever accelerating pace.

Even polar bears seem to be suffering from the 'hurry sickness'. According to a recent study, thinning ice drifts faster than it used to, so polar bears must move further and faster each winter to find sufficient food.

To counter this trend, in early May next year I will be leading a creative writing retreat on the ultimate venue for relaxation: Tanera Mor, in the Summer Isles. To find out more see my website here and to make a booking see here or contact Lizzie on +44 (0)1854 622252 or by email.

Three reasons for coming?

1. It is immediately before the Ullapool Book Festival, so you can combine your love of reading and writing in one trip to the Northwest. The Ullapool Book Festival is without doubt the friendliest literary event of the year and always has a brilliant line-up of the best of Scottish writers.
2. It's cheaper than most other tutored retreats, like Arvon weeks or the retreats at the wonderful Moniack Mhor writing centre. Plus you get six nights instead of five.
3. It's on an island! Once we putter off from the jetty, near Achiltibuie, we really are away from it all, with just seals, eider ducks and the occasional porpoise for company.

If you register before the end of January, prices are reduced, so if you're tempted, book now!

Saturday, 12 December 2015

Amber - tears of trees

I have an amber bear, a bit like this ancient amulet, which may be as much as 3500 years old. Mine is a relatively new thing, I guess, though I have no real way of knowing. It came from Krakow, Poland. Whenever it was made, the amber itself is millions of years old. It's one of my most precious possessions.

My amber bear has made its way into my Iron Age novel. Back in 320 BC, when Pytheas was making his epic journey, amber was viewed as a magical material. It is still believed to have healing powers, but back then it was used in religious ceremonies and rituals because of its extraordinary properties. It appears like a gemstone, yet it is warm to the touch, like plastic, it glows and will melt in a candle flame. When rubbed, it creates static electricity; you can lift cloth with it, and even create sparks. No wonder it seemed to have magical powers to the ancients.

Amber is not found in the Mediterranean, so the Greek supply of 'electrum', as they called it, came from northern Europe. In the Bronze and Iron Age it was plentiful on the coast of Jutland, across the North Sea from Britain, and on the shores of the Baltic sea, which is where Pytheas' quest took him.

There are many wonderful stories about amber's origins. Some believed it to be the droppings of magical lynxes. Others believed it to be the tears of a goddess who fell in love with a mortal fisherman.

The Greek story is that it is the tears of the Heliades, the daughters of the sun god, Helios. When their brother, Phaethom, stole his father's chariot and tried to ride it through the sky, he lost control of the horses and set fire to the firmament. Zeus tossed him down from the heavens into the river Eridanus, where he drowned, and when his sisters came weeping there, they were turned into poplars. Their tears continued to pour, as resin, which solidified into amber.

I wonder if Pytheas believed this tale. Was he seeking the river Eridanus, on the banks of which he would find the magical weeping trees of the Heliades? Or was he, as a hard-headed scientist, trying to debunk the old myth and return with a more factual account of gems washing up on the North Sea beaches?

Whatever Pytheas believed, he would surely have been amazed to learn the truth, that Baltic amber is up to 50 million years old, and is, genuinely, the 'tears of trees', being fossil resin of ancient (and now extinct) conifers. I like to think he had an amber bear in his pocket, while he pondered its mysteries.

Friday, 4 December 2015

Here are my wellies

Here are my wellies, standing in solidarity with the shoes in Paris, protesting lack of action on climate change by our government, and expressing my outrage at the bombing of an oil field by UK planes in Syria.

I'm also posting these wellies because life would be unbearable without them. It's currently lashing with rain, and the croft paths are all sodden and muddy after what feels like the wettest and windiest year I've ever known. Back in the Iron Age they had no wellies. How did they survive?

But seriously, I am almost speechless with rage at the crass cynicism of our prime minister David Cameron, who on Monday asked leaders at the conference of the parties to the UN Climate Change Convention, what  they would say to their grandchildren if they fail to tackle climate change. Presumably he was rehearsing his own lines, given that he was right then planning to fly jets to Syria to set an oil field alight, causing who can guess what level of carbon emissions.

So here I stand, stamping my feet with fury.

Soon I shall go back out into the rain, to scuff about and maybe kick something, think about polar bears, growl a bit and try to find somewhere positive to channel this angry energy. Suggestions welcome.

Sunday, 1 November 2015

Polar Bears and Paris

The politics of polar bears and climate change is getting interesting. They are undoubtedly the 'poster bears' of the stop climate chaos campaign. But they are also the subject of political developments in the lead up to the UN Climate Change Convention meeting in Paris.

There are five countries with polar bears: Russia, Greenland, Norway, Canada and the United States. They are known as the 'Range States', and for decades they have been negotiating about what actions they need to take, individually and together, to protect our furry friends. The result was the 1973 Agreement on the Conservation of Polar Bears, and subsequent Circumpolar Action Plans, which are signed up to by all five countries.

In 1973 the reason the range states got together was because polar bears were threatened by over-hunting. But as the years have gone by this has changed. Hunting is no longer out of control and the range states have now finally and formally recognised that climate change is the primary and overwhelming threat to the future of the bears, and with them, much of the rest of the polar ecosystem. They also recognise a range of other threats, namely: 'contaminants and pollution, human-caused mortality, shipping, resource and energy exploration and development, tourism and disease'. Crucially, they are committed to action to reduce those threats.

The range states met recently in Greenland and agreed their action plan, which states in no uncertain terms the need to tackle carbon emissions. The following is a quote from the meeting documents: 'The vision of the CAP is to secure the long-term persistence of polar bears in the wild that represent the genetic, behavioral, and ecological diversity of the species.  This vision cannot be achieved without adequate mitigation of greenhouse gas emissions by the global community.'

Polar bear scientists (see this report) seem to be optimistic that there has been a real change in direction by this political body. It is pretty momentous to see Canada and the United States signing up to a strong statement about the threat of climate change and the need to communicate and legislate to tackle greenhouse gas impacts. If this is an indication of the direction of travel of politicians in these countries, then perhaps we can be optimistic about seeing real results from the Climate Change conference in Paris later this month. 

And meanwhile, it's Polar Bear week, so what better way to spend it than watching the Polar Bear Cam as the bears go out onto the newly forming ice in northern Canada? While you're at it, you can make your own climate change pledge and sign the polar bear petition. I have no idea if it'll help strengthen the political will to tackle carbon emissions, but it can't hurt.

(Thanks to KT Miller and Polar Bears International for use of the image).

Saturday, 31 October 2015

How did Pytheas not get lost?
Tidying up the boat for the winter, we've packed up all the pilotage books, maps and guides, and brought them home to keep them dry. This, and a comment made by a recent visitor, make me reflect on how on earth Pytheas found his way around these isles more than two thousand years ago.

The visitor, when I said we'd been at sea for about 90 days this summer, expressed amazement at how we manage to avoid rocks and navigate around the coast. I told her that, in addition to Bill, who with decades of lobster hunting experience seems to have his own unique underwater sensors, we have a stack of charts and pilotage books. The Clyde Cruising Club, in particular, produce brilliant books detailing thousands of harbours and anchorages, with detailed maps and directions and all kinds of useful information about hazards.

We also have a depth sounder, which helps, although I still trust my plumbline  more than I do the electronics. I always think of Pytheas as I dangle the bit of lead on a string down into shallows, as this technology without doubt goes all the way back to the iron age and beyond.

But Pytheas didn't have pilotage books. Or did he? Incredibly, even as far back as the sixth century BC there was a written guide to mariners in the Mediterranean, called a 'periplus', containing detailed sailing directions to Massalia (where Pytheas lived). And there were even written accounts of journeying out into the Atlantic, one by a Carthaginian called Himilco, who possibly sailed far west (conceivably even to the Sargasso sea) in the fifth century BC. Pytheas' own book, On the Ocean, was widely quoted and used as a source of travel information, not least by Rufus Avienus, the Roman author of Ora Maritima, a collection of sea lore tracing a journey from a northern part of the Atlantic coast back into the Mediterranean.

Avienus wrote his account in the form of a poem. The pilotage books we use today are staunchly prosaic, but I like to think that back in Pytheas' day, a great deal of navigation information would have been in the form of poetry. Most coastal lore and sailing directions would have been passed on orally, probably from generation to generation of navigators, and therefore it was probably full of songs, rhymes and good stories to help it be as memorable as possible. Just as indigenous Australians have 'song lines' to enable them to find their way vast distances across the outback, I imagine sea captains of Pytheas' day could well have sung their way around dangerous headlands and told their children folk tales to help them to remember sea hazards like rocks and strong currents.

So I reckon Pytheas found his way by joining the voyages of experienced seamen and women who held their pilotage know-how in their heads as songs and poems. Anyone for some poetic versions of the Clyde Cruising Club books, or a setting of Reeds Almanac to some rousing tunes?

Wednesday, 28 October 2015

Starting to think about hibernation

It's a beautiful season. Yesterday it was sunny and glorious and we took the boat out for our last sail of the year. Although we set off and arrived back in harbour to calm, blue conditions, out on the loch the wind was fierce. We had to reef, then reef again, and even so the gusts were blasting us over at nearly 40 degrees. The east wind is funnelled through the mountains here and it arrives in lumps that are erratic and full of crazy energy. It really is as if the mountains are throwing fistfuls of air at us. The contrast between the moments of calm and flurries of wind are exhilerating, and a bit scary.

The trees are responding here too. Docile one moment, when a gust comes they are dancing and hurling their leaves around with gusto. The birches have been golden for weeks, and the aspen stands are turning, one after another, great flames through the woods. Now the hazels are starting to turn as well. It won't be long before the leaves are all on the woodland floor and the year will be ended.

I await the first frost. That's the official start of winter here on the croft. It'll last until the first primrose, and it is always long, the longest season of the year.

Life will change. We're settled into the Great Hall in the woods. No more nights at the caravan at the shore or on the boat until springtime. A fire will be lit at dusk or earlier if it's overcast and no sunshine heats the shed we're in. We'll begin the game of trying to get up and walk up to the top of the hill to beat the sun getting up over the horizon. Our diet will change to porridge and parsnips and winter greens, dry beans soaked on the stove overnight. We'll sprout beansprouts to replace the salads from the garden. There will be long evenings for reading. Perhaps I'll get the knitting out.

The season's changing. That's good. I like hibernation. It reminds me of what the bears will be doing. We are animals. We should behave differently in winter.

One of my bugbears with modern society is how life is expected to be the same all year round. Children go to school for the same hours in the winter as in the summer. A 9-to-5 working day takes no account of the seasonal variations. Supermarkets carry almost identical food stock for 12 months of the year. I'm sure it's not good for us, physically or emotionally.

I exort everyone to vary their lifestyle to reflect the season, to move furniture around or somehow make a change to our environment, so we know we're in our winter den.

Friday, 16 October 2015

Ten bear poems

I am not the only writer for whom bears are their muse, and I'm not thinking here of nursery rhymes, doggerel or poems for children about teddy bears, but grown-up poems about real life, if sometimes somewhat mythical, bears.
  1. Top of the list is Galway Kinnell's 'The Bear' from his 1968 collection Body Rags (and also in his Selected Poems). This is a strange and wonderful telling of a winter hunt of a bear, wounding the animal, following the trail of blood and climaxing when the hunter reaches the bear and kills him. 'I... tear him down his whole length/ and open him and climb in / and close him up after me, against the wind / and sleep.'  And thus there is a 'parabola of bear-transcendence' in which the poet becomes the bear. Extraordinary and totemic. 
  2. There's an echo of the same idea in Margaret Atwood's 'Bear Lament.' in her 2007 collection The Door. 'You once believed if you could only / crawl inside a bear, its fat and fur, / lick with its stubby tongue, take on / its ancient shape, its big paw /big paw big paw big paw / heavy-footed plod that keeps / the worldwide earthwork solid, this would // save you, in a crisis.' This idea of the bear as holding the earth together is so important, the recognition that it is a keystone of our ecosystems and that without them, we are threatened. The poem ends with the cry 'Oh bear, what now? And will the ground still hold? And how much longer?'
  3. Which of Ted Hughes' bear poems to choose? It has to be 'The Bear', from the 1967 collection Wodwo. 'In the huge, wide-open, sleeping-eye of the mountain / The bear is the gleam in the pupil / Ready to awake / And instantly focus.' Here is the bear as our guide from this life into death, or into another life.
  4. Much more recent is the wonderful 2012 collection Ice by Gillian Clarke, throughout which a polar bear is the presiding spirit. Forget some of the trite use of Ursus Maritimus as the 'poster bear' of climate change, here is the real thing, vulnerable and powerful. In the opening poem, 'Polar', she says,  ' I want him alive. / I want him fierce / with belly and breath and  growl and beating heart, / I want him dangerous...'
  5. J O Morgan's In Casting Off (published by Happenstance this year), is another collection with the presence of a white bear hovering in the margins of many poems. It makes itself known, splendidly, fishing in 'Dividing Line', when a leaping salmon caught by a bear 'ceases at once to be shape - becomes fish. // Its sideways thrash about the claws / that have punctured its course, that have drawn it / clear from its universe of water.... The blood / of the fish / becoming / the blood / of the bear.'
  6.  Mary Oliver's 'Truro Bear' (from The Truro Bear and other Adventures, 2008) is a possible bear, seen in the woods by people, 'three or four, / or two, or one.' She hasn't seen it herself, but she's watching out, and 'everywhere I look on the scratchy hillsides / shadows seem to grow shoulders.' Oh, I so know what that is like!
  7. There are lots of bears in Chrissy Williams' 2013 pamphlet Flying into the Bear, and some favourite lines. 'Everyone could use a  bear sometimes, everyone could use a wild bear..' So, to choose just one, it's 'The Invisible Bear', the one you fly into if you lie back at night and look up into the sky. 'There's not much comfort in a bear you can see through, but then / in times of not much comfort, reach out for what you can.'
  8. 'Eliza and the Bear' is the long title poem by Eleanor Rees' 2009 collection. It begins, 'I did not know my lover was a bear', and goes on from there...
  9. I have to include Kevin Cadwallender's Bear and the Elementals, which is online here, and consists entirely of bear poems, my favourite of which is, I think, 'Bear Somnus'. 'In the roll and scratch and snore / of winter, a dream enters .. death calls too, reminding / Bear that sleep is its cousin / and dreams are messengers.' 
  10. Finally, am I allowed to include one of mine? It's in my 2007 collection Castings, which you can get here, and given the time of year, its a seasonally appropriate autumn 'Polar Bear', hanging out in the multi-coloured woods near Churchill, Canada.

    Low-angled sun gleams
    through claret leaves
    and caribou lichens pale green
    in the first skiff of snow.

    A frozen hare watches
    the flight of a falcon
    and spruce fingers point
    where the winds will blow.

    Tamarack needles flutter
    and flurries of snow buntings dart
    over flaming jade, bronze
    and copper-leaved willow.

    Photographers get set to lie
    to freeze-frame your world
    starched, ice-bleached arctic
    whitewashing your rainbow.

    Here you lie in the forest
    a snoozing sumo wrestler
    under trees barely able to hold
    up the sky, so heavy with snow.

     So, which bear poems would you include in the list?

Thursday, 15 October 2015

Tiny bird, enormous trust

A goldcrest flitted into my writing turret while I was scribbling. It panicked, battered itself on the windows trying to find a way out, then hid behind the chest of drawers. After a while it fluttered around again, once more struggling to find an exit. Eventually it gave up and let me pick it up.

I held it in my hand. It weighed nothing at all. Apparantly a fat one might get to about 5 grammes.

I was humbled. It didn't struggle or scratch as I took it outside. Did it know I wished it no harm, only freedom? Or was it just semi-concussed?

It was still, utterly acquiescent as I carried it out into the cool air outside. It stumbled off my hand onto the decking and sat there, opening and closing its beak in silent speech. One leg was twisted under it and it was cobwebby from the corner of my shed. I was worried that I had hurt it, and crouched nearby, watching.

A breeze caught it and it was so light, little thing, that it lifted like a leaf. Then its wings trilled a beat and it landed itself back on the deck. Its leg was sorted out and it hopped a bit, closing its beak, looking as if it was coming to. Eventually it flew experimentally, successfully, into the nearest birch and sat clutching a twig, nodding as if satisfied that its adventure had reached a satisfactory conclusion. Then it fell to tapping and nibbling, hunting its usual prey.

Did it come into my writing room to show me how wonderful the world is? To remind me to stop, look and marvel? To tell me I am just one other animal in a forest of kindred animals?


tiny in my hand
- your trust is as huge
as the birch tree

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?