Saturday, 31 January 2015


Have human beings always been greedy? Was there ever a time when, like most normal animals, we consumed just as much as we need without trying to hoard ever more stuff and fill our lives with things surplus to our requirements?

Back in the iron age, most people had much less opportunity to indulge their greedy urges, and yet there are plenty of signs that even back then, the deadly sin was at work. People had begun to treat objects as commodities and no doubt some were accumulating more of them than others. Ancient trade in material objects has left traces showing that amber from the Baltic found its way to the Atlantic coast, tin was moving from the mines in Cornwall all around Europe and even walrus ivory from the arctic ended up in Mediterranean ports.

In my present day life I'm interested in excessive consumption, and how we can try to persuade people to do less of it, because the disproportionate use of resources by the wealthiest 20% of us is causing the vast bulk of the negative social and environmental impacts that threaten life as we know it on this planet. I'm in the process, along with a few colleagues, of setting up a new organisation, likely to be called LESS, to promote resource efficiency and using less stuff.

Greed is also a core theme in the novel I'm currently writing. I'm intrigued by how looking at it through an iron age lens might help to crystalise how over-consumption might have got started. By exploring a time when most people had much less stuff than now, can we understand how greed works?

At its heart, trade in commodities relies on their interchangability. I can swap a bundle of one kind of stuff (wood, say) for a handful of some other kind of stuff (silver, perhaps). Somehow, the value of the former is deemed to be equivalent to the latter, for both people involved in the exchange. The person who gets the silver can then go on to exchange it for something else. That's how money works. But this is a peculiarly narrow kind of 'value'.

Many of the objects we value most are special to us because we know their makers. I'm thinking of the cushion cover made by Maggie, Fergus's pots, the glass painted by Dorell. Alternatively they are gifted to us by a loved one - the teddies given to me by my grandparents, the pen which was a gift from my Dad, the amber bear from Bill. Their value means that they are simply not interchangeable with anything else. They are unique. They are, to use a powerful word, sacred.

Anything, potentially, can have that sacred value. We know a lot of early trade took the form of ritual exchanges that probably involved honouring this characteristic of the objects being swapped.

To make something into a tradable commodity requires its sacred nature to be obliterated. Silver coins are not valuable because of the person who made them; they are reduced to their depersonalised, secular value.

Anything can lose its sacred value, even people. It is interesting to note that as trade began to flourish along the Atlantic seaboard, one of the tradeable commodities that it included was slaves. If you can trade a person, you can trade anything, and truly value nothing.

Wednesday, 21 January 2015

On the ocean, off the ocean

We took our boat Happy Daze out of the sea today. We left her in until November, and had some fabulous sailing early that month, but intended for her to be lifted out to spend the winter on hard standing. But we needed a calm day for the harbour staff to be able to lift her out, and basically there hasn't been one since November. Until today! So out she came, at dawn this morning.

In Pytheas' day, back in the Iron Age, they would have just hauled their boats up the beach after a high tide. No cranes, no hydrolic lifts. Around the shore here you can still see the dimples in the ground, known as nousts, where boats have been sheltered for centuries past. I walked down to one of them a couple of days back, at Camus na Fraoich (Bay of Heather) and watched the sea pulsing.

Sometimes it is hard to imagine how life may have been more than two thousand years ago. We know that the shore was important, and symbolic, but what did the people who lived here back then believe about it? Did they worship the sea? Did they fear it more or less than we do? They would have known it far better, I guess, and some of them at least must have had vast knowledge of how to navigate across it in order to take Pytheas on his journey.

I say 'take Pytheas', because it seems highly unlikely that he was sailing his own boat on his journey. Although he was an experienced mariner and had sailed extensively in the Mediterranean, there can be no way that a boat and crew used to working those waters could have coped with the high seas of the Bay of Biscay and North Atlantic and the huge tides and currents of these shores. So I assume that he travelled with boats that regularly plied these waters, hitching lifts or somehow persuading ships to give him passage. What kind of vessels were they, I wonder, and what purposes were they travelling for?

There are so many mysteries and so much different now from then. But the sea itself, that hasn't changed so much. Out on the water, I find it much easier to imaging the Iron Age. The currents and winds probably follow much the same patterns now as then. Most of the sea life has been around much longer than we have, although it was probably more abundant then than now. And the sounds and smells of the ocean are exactly as Pytheas would have experienced. I like knowing that I can watch the ripples, and make that connection back to his time.

Saturday, 17 January 2015

On the Ocean

The Book of the Sea, by Lotte Glob
It's no weather for sailing at the moment, but I've been gathering seaweed today, so this seems like a day to muse on the ocean. The hurricane last week threw bladderwrack in huge quantities up onto the shore and it has been well rainwashed since, so today I went down and filled numerous sacks with good stuff for the garden. It will have plenty of time to rot down by spring and will feed the veggies and fruit later this year. It's always a deeply satisfying, filthy job to do on a sunny winter's afternoon and the shore of the sea-loch is a wonderful place.

On the Ocean is the title of a missing book written 300 or so years BC by a traveller called Pytheas. The book, we believe, described the amazing journey he made from his home in the Mediterranean to 'Ultima Thule' wherever that mysterious northern place might be. There are no copies left of this book, but it was widely quoted by other Greek and later Roman writers, many of whom found his claims unbelievable: monstrous animals that spouted fumes (whales, presumably), tidal ranges of 5 metres or more (as they do here), a land that burns and flows into the sea (Iceland perhaps?) and the sea becoming slushy (the edge of the arctic pack ice).

Pytheas was, as well as an adventurer, a scientist and he took sun declination measurements that allow us to know some of the latitudes where he made landfall. One of them is right at this latitude, 58 degrees north. Professor of Archaeology at Oxford, Barry Cunliffe, who wrote the best book about Pytheas (The Extraordinary Voyage of Pytheas the Greek), has told me that my theory that the ancient traveller came to Assynt 'could well be right', but on the other hand he may have gone to Lewis. Or both. We will never know for sure.

The wonderful thing about writing historical fiction is that I am allowed, in situations of uncertainty like this, to make it up! So I have. So the arrival of the adventurous scientist from the Greek empire on the Iron Age coast of Assynt is the trigger event at the start of my new novel.

Last year I was given the book shown in the pictures here. It's Lotte Glob's ceramic 'Book of the Sea'. I've loved Lotte's work for years, especially her stone books, and this piece has a powerful magic about it. Its pages, just like Pytheas' own book, hold their secrets tightly. Lotte also lives on a coastal croft and she too gathers seaweed from the shore to nourish her fruit trees. This book is one of my most treasured possessions, full of mystery.

Monday, 5 January 2015

Clachtoll split rock

My next novel is set in the Iron Age, and quite a lot of it happens in Assynt, centering around the broch. Recently I've been trying to write a section that involves a ceremony on Split Rock (pictured) and today, I needed to go there to check out exactly where various actions might have taken place. It's a hard life, being a novelist :-)

There is some debate about whether this split rock or a nearby blow hole is where Clachtoll gets its name from (Clach is rock in Gaelic, and toll is an anglicisattion of tuill, hole). It is spectacular geology, right on the edge of the three billion year old gneiss and the one million year old sandstone, which is tilted at a dramatic 30 degree angle, causing the distinctive slope of the rock. 

Up on the highest pinacle, which is seriously exposed on a windy day like today, there is vitrified stone, which has burned to melting point and then resolidified. This was probably done in the Iron Age and it is therefore going in my novel!

There is no agreement at all about what may have caused the fire. Was it done to make fortification of some sort? There are similar vitrified stones in other locations that are interpreted as forts. Or was it a beacon? Or a pyre? It's unlikely that the debate will be resolved one way or the other any time soon, , so I feel at liberty to make it up. That's the beauty of historical fiction: you can go as far as you can on the basis of the archaeological or historical data and when that runs out, imagination can kick in.

We know from many sites around the coast that there was a lot of interest during the Iron Age in the liminal (edge) zone of the shore and of other liminal zones, like caves marking the boundary between our world and the underworld. There are few more dramatic edge-zones than the craggy shore of Assynt, and I feel sure some pretty spectacular events must have happened out on the split rock in years gone by.