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.

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