Saturday, 28 February 2015


We recently had monster tides, and windy weather with them. Our dinghy is tied up in a corner of the croft we call Kelvin Grove. You have to abseil down the crag into it, but at the bottom is an ancient boat haul-out behind a built up stone wall, where vessels have been sheltered from storms for centuries. An old Kelvin engine lies rusting in there from an old boat, the rest of which has been eaten by the sea. It's a huge, heavy thing, and handy for tying boats to. But the recent tide and wind pulled it right over. We are lucky not to have lost the boat.

When Pytheas travelled here, we know one of the things that fascinated him were tides, and the stories he told of the changing water heights around the Atlantic coastline were met with some doubts by his peers in the Mediterranean, which has tiny tides of barely 40 centimetres. These are easily hidden by weather, atmospheric pressure and waves, and don't cause much problem to boats tied up on shore. But when the tidal range is 5 metres or more, as they are here, you need skill and forethought to make sure boats remain safe around the clock.

I love tides, the twice-daily rhythm of ebb and flow. After 15 years of living on a tidal shore, I still marvel at that dance of the sea back and forth, and I still experience a frisson of fear at low tide, when all the rocks are exposed. Will it come back? There is an emotional rhythm that echoes this push and pull, and for me, grim moods are like the tide at its lowest. Its rhythm is one of many natural cycles: night and day, the waxing and waning of the moon, our menstrual cycles, and the seasons turning around the year.

One of the things that must have perplexed Pytheas is the way that the biggest tides, the springs, happen twice monthly at the new and full moons. Except they don't. They happen a few days after the moon changes.

Similarly, although we've passed the middle of the winter, and the days are lengthening, I feel like we're only now reaching the deepest and darkest part of the year. But it will turn. It always turns.

Saturday, 21 February 2015

Did Pytheas Visit Clachtoll Broch?

When Pytheas travelled up the west coast of Britain, around 320 years BC, he must have visited the local people. What kind of buildings were they living in? In particular, when he came to Assynt, (which I assume he did, as I have blogged about before), had the broch at Clachtoll been built?

This is not just an idle question. The historical novel I am writing needs settings that are plausible. I am making all the people up, except Pytheas, but I want their environment, the objects they use, their livestyles and even their beliefs to be based on sound archaeological evidence. When Pytheas arrived here in Assynt, he for certain was not offered a cup of tea in a crofthouse. He may have been offered some mead in a ceramic cup with a thumb print, given a dinner of bannocks and fish and then offered a bed for the night. But did that all happen in a roundhouse a few feet high, or did he dine and sleep in a double-walled, round, cooling-tower shaped broch, possibly 14 metres tall?
Artist impression of a broch, from Archaeology Hebrides.

I confess to desperately hoping Pytheas stayed in the broch. This is not without grounds. When some conservation work was carried out on the broch in 2011, we discovered that the broch had collapsed, pretty suddenly, probably involving fire, and carbon dating of charcoal remains of an interior wattle floor revealed that this collapse happened sometime between 153 BC and 55 AD (see the dig diary posts from that excavation for more information). If the earlier date is correct, and the broch fell out of use in the second century BC, it is entirely plausible that it was already standing a century and a half earlier. Similar buildings in the outer hebrides have been dated to between 500 BC and  0 BC (See the Archaeology Hebrides site for more information).

Next year, there could well be a full excavation of Clachtoll broch's interior. Because it collapsed so early and as far as we can tell has not been tampered with since, we expect that under the 1500 or so tonnes of rubble inside, there will be unique assemblages of material dating back to Iron Age. This will give us evidence of the people who lived in the broch. It may well also reveal how and when it was built. Meanwhile I write my novel, and I try to make an informed guess. It'll be just my luck if I'm proved wrong by the archaeologists sometime in 2017!

Whether the excavation happens is at the whim of grant funders. If it does, there is still time to influence what exactly will happen at Clachtoll broch after the archaeologists have emptied the interior of rubble and explored the floor. Previous ideas included creation of a metal structure indicating how tall it may have been when it was standing. But this idea has been thrown out, and the archaeology team have gone back to the drawing board. Their new plans include providing access between the two walls of the broch. There is an opportunity to hear more and give feedback on the latest ideas on Monday 9 March 2015, at 7.30 in Stoer Hall.

Saturday, 14 February 2015

Has owning anything to do with love?

Even when it's grey, it's stunning. And much of it is timeless, although of course people have left their mark. That old ruined pile on the shore of Loch Assynt, for example, was built by MacLeods hundreds of years ago, when they no doubt felt they owned it all.The mountain on the right belongs these days to the John Muir Trust and the shore on the left belongs to the local community. Some of the land in the foreground is in private individuals' hands.

Yet, as Norman MacCaig so beautifully questioned in his poem, 'A Man in Assynt', when a millionaire buys the title to a piece of land like this, he or she doesn't get exclusive ownership of it. The landscape as a whole belongs to all of us or indeed, to each one of us individually. In any particular moment, as we take our place within it and feel its wonder, it can feel like a personal possession, and surely we are right to treasure this place like a precious heirloom, to be possessed by it. 

I wonder how the people of the Iron Age considered ownership, and how different their concept of their relationship to the land was from the way we think of it now?

In that great poem, MacCaig asks, 'Has owning anything to do with love?' On Valentines Day, that seems an appropriate question to share. I'm still no closer to the answer than 'everything and nothing'.

Thanks to Bill Ritchie for the photo, and the land, and the love. 

Sunday, 8 February 2015


I have spent the past week on retreat at the wonderful Moniack Mhor writing centre, working on my Iron Age novel. It is in three parts. The middle part centres on Pytheas ‘the Greek’, and I decided to focus on him for the week. I am getting used to imagining how life was several hundred years BC but for this last week I’ve had the added challenge of pretending to be a man.

He is a fascinating character and the more I learn and reflect, the more astonishing his journey seems. His home was Massalia (modern day Marseilles), which was at the western end of the Greek empire (hence his moniker, ‘the Greek’). He travelled from there to the Bay of Biscay (possibly around Spain or maybe down the Garonne River), then up the French coastline to the island of Alba (Britain). He clearly also went significantly further north, probably to Iceland and as far east as the Danish coastline. Here's a map (from here) that suggests his route.
He must have been an intrepid and hardy guy. I guess he was driven by insatiable curiosity and I like to imagine he was charismatic, as many great explorers need to be in order to inspire strangers to help them and to talk themselves out of difficulties. What were his faults, I wonder? Was he bossy? Did he snore? We can never know what he believed or how he thought, but from the fragments of his book, On the Ocean, we know he was a highly methodical scientist, and kept good records.

Pytheas is credited with being the first person from the Mediterranean to circumnavigate Alba and thereby confirm that it is a big island. He even estimated the length of the coastline, to an extraordinary level of accuracy. He treated it as a big triangle with the point in the north, and reckoned that the western seaboard was 20,000 stadia long, the eastern coast was 15,000 stadia and the south coast was 7,500, a total of 42,500 stadia. A stadium is 184 metres, so this works out as 7820 km. The actual length is about 7580, so he’s only 3% out. Not bad for someone travelling without the benefit of GPS!

How on earth did he manage this impressive estimate? We don’t really know. It could be that he kept excellent records of sailing times and had a reasonable sense of speed achieved. It could well be that he tapped into local knowledge of port-to-port distances and tallied them up. We don’t have any contemporary records of how the people of this island made such measurements but the skippers of trading ships plying the coastline would have had a good idea of the distances involved.

I love the idea of Pytheas getting out his quill and ink block and scratching down a record of the distances he was travelling, along with his sun declination measurements and notes about the tides and currents. I wonder what other observations were in his log. Did he scribble about the weather? Did birds and wildlife or people get recorded? Did he ever jot down a poem in the margin?