The Outermost House

Cannon Rock by Winslow Homer

In previous posts we've been discussing the oceans and islands of Ireland and Scotland, but there is a wealth of good writing about the sea from North America too -- such as The Outermost House by Henry Beston, first published in 1928.

Beston was born to a French and Irish family in Quincy, Massachusetts in 1888; he attended Harvard, and served in World War I as an ambulance driver (for the French army) and war correspondent (for the US Navy). Upon returning home, he worked as a magazine editor while also writing two books of fairy tales (The Firelight Fairy Book and The Starlight Wonder Book), and finding solace for wartime trauma through a love of birds and the natural world. In the 1920s, he built a tiny house on an isolated stretch of Cape Cod beach, then spent a year living alone there, observing the sea through four full seasons. He writes:

Henry Beston at the Fo'castle"My house stood by itself atop a dune, a little less than halfway south on Eastham bar. I drew the homemade plans for it myself and it was built for me by a neighbor and his carpenters. When I began to build, I had no notion whatever of using the house as a dwelling place. I simply wanted a place to come to in summer, one cozy enough to be visited in winter could I manage to get down. I called it the Fo'castle. It consisted of two rooms, a bedroom and a kitchen-living room, and its dimensions over all were but twenty feet by sixteen. A brick fireplace with its back to the wall between rooms heated up the larger space and took the chill off the bedroom, and I used a two-burner oil stove when cooking.

"My neighbor built well. The house, even as I hoped, proved compact and strong, and it was easy to run and easy to heat. The larger room was sheathed, and I painted the wainscoting and the window frames a kind of buff-fawn -- a good fo'castle color. The house showed, perhaps, an amateur enthusiasm for windows. I had ten. In my larger room I had seven; a pair to the east opening on the sea, a pair to the west commanding the marshes, a pair to the south, and a small 'look-see' in the door. Seven windows in one room perched on a hill of sand under and ocean sun -- the words suggest cross-light and glare; a fair misgiving, and one I countered by use of wooden shutters, originally meant for winter service but found necessary through the year. By arranging these I found I could have either the most sheltered and darkened of rooms or something rather like an inside out-of-doors. In my bedroom I had three windows -- one east, one west, and one north to the Nauset light....

"I had two oil lamps and various bottle candlesticks to read by, and a fireplace crammed maw-full of driftwood to keep me warm. I have no doubt that the fireplace heating arrangement sounds demented, but it worked, and my fire was more than a source of heat -- it was an elemental presence, a household god, and friend."

Northeaster by Winslow Homer

Lost on the Grand Banks by Winslow Homer

The Maine Coast by Winslow Homer

Beston began his year of solitude on the dunes almost by accident:

"My house completed, and tried and not found wanting by a first Cape Cod year, I went there to spend a fortnight in September. The fortnight ending, I lingered on, and as the year lengthened into autumn, the beauty and mystery of this earth and outer sea so possessed and held me that I could not go.

"The world is sick to its thin blood for lack of elemental things, for fire before the hands, for water welling from the earth, for air, for the dear earth itself underfoot. In my world of beach and dune these elemental presences lived and had their being, and under their arch there moved an incomparable pageant of nature and the year. The flux and reflux of the ocean, the incomings of waves, the gatherings of the birds, the pilgrimages of the peoples of the sea, winter and storm, the spendour of autumn and the holiness of spring -- all these were part of the great beach. The longer I stayed, the more eager I was to know this coast and to share its mysterious and elemental life; I found myself free to do so, I had no fear of living alone, I had something of a field naturalist's inclination; presently I made up my mind to remain and try living for a year on EasthamBeach."

I highly recommend this quietly beautiful, influential book, by an author now recognized as a pioneer of American nature writing.

The Outermost House by Henry Beston

The New Novel by Winslow Homer

The art today is by American painter and printmaker Winslow Homer (1836-1910). Born (like Beston) in Massachusetts, Homer began his career as self-taught illustrator for newspapers and magazines, including a stint as a war artist on the front lines of the American Civil War for Harper's Weekly. After studying oil painting in New York and France, he gave up illustration to focus on landscape painting full time. Retreating from urban life from the 1870s onward, Homer lived a series of fishing villages in New England and northern England, finally settling on the coast of Maine, while also travelling extensively to paint and fish in Key West, Cuba, the Carribean, and the Adirondack Mountains. To see more of his work go here.

The Mussel Gatherers by Winslow Homer

Summer Squall by Winslow Homer

Looking Out to Sea by Winslow Homer


One last selkie tale

Grey seal and pup, Lincolnshire. Photograph by Dan Kitwood.

From "The Selkie Wife's Daughter" by Jeannine Hall Gailey:

    I always wondered why she sang so strangely

    at the spinning wheel, why her eyes held all

    the mourning of the darkest sea. And why

Grey seal and pup, Yorkshire. Photograph by Steve Race.

    she held me away,

    as if afraid of my skin, why my feet and

    hands were webbed with translucent sea–skin.

Grey Seal

    I used to bring her armfuls of yellow

    water iris to almost

    see her smile. I wondered why father

Grey Seal and pup, Norfolk. Photograph by Friends of Horsey Seals.

    never let me swim out against the waves,

    never let her walk the shores alone....

Grey seal pup, Norfolk. Photograph by Friends of Horsey Seals.

To read the full poem, go here.

Seal mother tickling her pup. Photograph by Elmar Weiss.

Words: The poem extract above, inspired selkie legends is from  Becoming the Villainess by Jeannine Hall Gailey (Steel Toe Books, 2006), which I highly recommend. All rights reserved by the author. Pictures: The photographs above are by Dan Kitwood, Steve Race, Elmar Weiss, and Friends of Horsey Seals (Norfolk). All rights reserved by the photographers.


Another selkie tale

''Dancing Seals,'' North Carolina, from The Telegraph, photographer unknown

Grey seal, Farne Island, photographed by Dan Kitwood


From "A Taste of the Sea" by essayist & novelist Scott Russell Sanders:

"A selkie takes a great risk in changing from a seal to a man, for he may not be able to change back again. No matter how carefully he hides his pelt, someone may find it. A child playing along the shore may take it for a plaything, a beachcomber may take it for a rug, a fisherman may sell it to the fur dealer, a woman intent on keeping him in her arms may lock it in a chest. Without that pelt, a selkie cannot return to the sea. Nor can he return if he has fallen in love with the woman who called him ashore to father her child.

"It is said that male selkies are the seducers, charming female humans with our fathomless dark eyes and our muscles sculpted from swimming. Although that may be true for others, it is not so for me. I did not choose to shed my skin and walk on two legs away from the ocean, any more than salmon choose to abandon saltwater for spawning and death in their native streams. I was summoned from the water by a maiden who wept seven tears into the cove where I floated, asleep and dreaming....

To read the rest of Sanders' short, evocative story, please go here. His new collection, The Way of the Imagination, is coming out this month from Counterpoint Press.  

(Previous selkie posts here.)

Grey Seal, Farne Islands, photographed by Jason Neilus

''Dancing in the rays,'' photographed by Dmitry Starorstenov

Seal family, Hopkins Isle, photographed by Peter Verhoog

Words: The text quoted above is from "A Taste of the Sea" by Scott Russell Sanders (Orion Magazine, May 19, 2020); the poem in the picture captions is "The Fisherman's Farevwell" by Scottish poet Robin Robertson (Poetry, January 2013); all rights reserved by the authors. Pictures: The photographs above are by Dan Kitwood, Jason Neilus, Dmitry Starorstenov, and Peter Verhoog; all rights reserved by the photographers.


Tunes for a Monday Morning

Gannets over St Kilda by Jill Harden (BBC)

The music today is from an extraordinary musical project: The Lost Songs of St Kilda.

The islands of St Kilda, at the westernmost edge of the Scottish Hebrides, were continuously inhabited for over two millenia until its last residents were officially evacuated in 1930. As Patrick Barkham writes in The Islander:

"St Kilda is the most famous island -- or islands -- in Britain. Hiort, as it is known in Gaelic, is an archipelago containing Hirta (in Gaelic, Hirte), Borerary (Boraraigh), Soay (Sòthaigh) and Dùn. It is the most peripheral of British isles, fifty miles west of the Outer Hebrides, a hundred miles from the Scottish mainland. Plenty of islands lost their people in the early 1900s, particularly the smaller islands of the Outer Hebrides -- Berneray, Mingulay, Sandray, Taransay, Scarp and Boreray -- but St Kilda has become the generic example of small-island extinction. A pinprick on any map, alone in the Atlantic, it is much more prominent in many mental cartographies, an object of obsession and longing -- 'as much a place of the imaginationas a physical reality', as Madeleine Bunting says in her tour of the Hebrides. St Kilda is Britain's only dual World Heritage site, protected for both its nature and its culture; and archaeologists, geologists, ecologists and historical anthropologists have poured over it, subjecting it to more than seven hundred books and scholarly articles. Its story is told and retold, polished and revised, mostly by outsiders like me, who wonder: Were the Hiortaich unique, or rather like us? And why, after so many generations of habitation, did they abandon the home they loved?"

Why, indeed. That's a question journalists and scholars have been asking since the evacuation, with complex and contradictory answers.

Inhabitants of St. Kilda

The Lost Songs of St Kilda is a collection of traditional tunes from the islands -- all of which would have been lost forever were it not for Trevor Morrison, who had learned them from his piano teacher, a St Kilda evacuee. Morrison made a home-recording of the songs, and after his death, in 2012, the recording eventually found its way to the offices of Decca Records. Decca then asked Sir James Macmillan and other Scottish composers to develop the St Kildan tunes, aided by the Scottish Festival Orchestral and additional musicians (including Julie Fowlis, from North Uist). The result is this very beautiful album: a tribute to a lost musical tradition and a vanished way of life.

Women & girls of St Kilda

Above, a short video about the project.

Below, the returning of the Lost Songs, after all these years, to the place where they were born.

Above, "Soay," a tune named after one of the smaller islands of St Kilda. The name is derived from Seyðoy, meaning the Island of the Sheep in Old Norse. The piece is performed by composer Sir James Macmillan on Hirta, the largest of the islands. (If you live in an area where this video won't play, you can access an audio-only version of the song here.)

Below, "Hirta," with film footage from the 1920s, and contemporary photographs. There are several theories about the orgins of the island's name, including its possible derivation from Hirt, the Norse word for shepherd, or from h-Iar-Tìr, a Scots Gaelic word meaning "westland." (An audio-only version of the song is here.)

To learn more about the Lost Songs project, go here.

I also recommend Hirta Songs (2014), a fine album of music by Aladsair Roberts and poetry by Robin Robertson. The piece below is "The Leaving of St Kilda."

And one more recommendation: Night Waking (2011), a novel by Sarah Moss that was partially inspired by St. Kilda's history. The story takes place on a fictional Scottish island, split between contemporary and Victorian narratives: darkly comic and mysterious by turns. It's the first in a sequence of interconnected novels, followed by Bodies of Light (set in Victorian Manchester and London) and Signs for Lost Children (set in Cornwall and Japan). I personally think Moss is one of the best writers working in Britain today.

Children of St Kilda

St Kilda islanders


The man who loved islands

Puffins on the Shiant Islands in the Outer Hebrides

For arm-chair explorations of the islands of Great Britain, I have one more recommendation for you: Islander: A Journey Around Our Archipelago by natural history writer Patrick Barkham. The structure of this quirky and engaging book was inspired by a D.H Lawrence story, "The Man Who Loved Islands" (1928). As Barkham explains:

Islander by Patrick Barkham"Lawrence's fictional hero, who is called Mr. Carthcart, buys a haven of gorse, blackthorn and granite, four miles in circumference, somewhere beyond the British mainland. For a while, he adores his island home, working alongside the thirty-odd people who are his tenants and employees. Soon, though, he realises one inescapable truth about small islands: living on a rock surrounded by the ocean is prohibitively expensive. His capital disappears in renovations. Projects fail. 'His' islanders quietly mock and exploit him.

"Our hero's solution is to downsize. He takes his most fanciful carpenter, and a widow and her daughter to keep house for him, to a smaller island. For a while he finds peace, and compiles a list of every flower in this tiny place. Things take a typically Lawrentian turn, however, for our island idealist sleeps with the widow's daughter, Flora. She has a child, and the man who loves islands realises that he has sabotaged his quest for peace. So he removed himself once more to a concrete hut on a bleak island-rock on which he no longer does anything but dream, living alongside a cat, and then alone. He sleeps, hallucinates and, eventually, goes mad and dies.

"It is a simple story of disillusionment and, like the best kind of fable, niggles away at the reader."

Herm in the Channel Islands, once owned by Compton Mackenzie

Channel Island seal

Jethou in the Channel Islands  one of the islands once owned by Compton Mackenzie

Digging into the history of the story, Barkham learns that Lawrence based its details on real life. He writes:

Compton Mackenzie"The man who loved islands, Mr. Carthcart, was a real man, a friend, fellow writer and rival. Compton Mackenzie is barely known outside Scotland these days and is not much remembered within it. The name rings a bell for those who have watched the film or read the book Whiskey Galore -- his 1947 tale of fictional islanders salvaging thousands of bottles of whiskey from a wartime shipwreck -- but I wonder why he is not better known. He was admired by Henry James, Virginia Woolf, F. Scott Fitzgerald and George Orwell. He averaged more than a book each year of his long life, an unceasing flow of four million published words, including ten -- ten! -- volumes of autobiography he penned in his eighties. He also played a major role in many of the great events of the 20th century -- he was a brilliant spy in the First World War, an inventor of bureaucracy, a founding father of the Scottish National Party (despite being born in England), a pioneer of music journalism, and an early entertainer on BBC radio and television. Here was a feted author and brilliant raconteur, a handsome if rather bird-like man with a mop of black hair that his friend Eric Linklater once likened to a raven shot on its nest. Sir Compton Mackenzie was clever, witty, well connected and celebrated in his lifetime. Now, less than five decades after his death, he is vitually forgotten. Are islands something to do with it?

Kisimul Castle on Isle of Barra in Outer Hebrides

Hebridean seal

"The island-infatuation of idealist, extravagant, egotistical, foolish and tragic Mr. Carthcart -- or Compton Mackenzie -- fascinated me. Why did Lawrence write so unsparingly about a friend? What became of their friendship? And how did Mackenzie's life on small islands actually unfold? I also ponder the universal truths in Lawrence's brief exploration of small-island life. His story reveals the lure of islands for idealists, the clash between dreams and financial reality, and the tension between the individual's need for liberty and his or her need for society. In Lawrence's view, the past is unusually present on small islands. They are dangerously seductive places for people seeking to escape the mainstream who swiftly discover they cannot escape themselves."

Compton Mackenzie's home of the Isle of Barra

St Barr's Church on the Isle of Barra and Sir Compton Mazkenzie with his wife, Faith.

Hebridean seal

Wondering if Lawrence was correct, Barkham travels to eleven islands throughout the British archipelago. Moving, like Carthcart and Mackenzie, from large islands to those that are smaller and smaller, he seeks to understand the dream and the reality of island life, historically and today.

The story of Compton Mackenzie is colourful, loopy, and fascinating, and Barkham tells it well. If you, too, love islands and odd corners of literary history, I recommend Islander. It is a delight.

The Shiant Islands

Atlantic Puffins on the Shiants

Puffins

Words: The passage quoted above is from the introduction to Islander by Patrick Barkham (Granta Books, 2017). All rights reserved by the author.

Pictures: Herm and Jethou in the Channel Islands, owned by Mackenzie in the 1920s; the Isle of Barra in the Outer Hebrides, where he lived from the 1930s onward (and on which he is buried); and the Shiant Islands (near the Isle of Lewis), which he owned from 1925-1937. The Shiants are an important breeding place for Atlantic Puffins and other seabirds.


On the Isle of Jura

George Orwell's desk on Jura

Three years ago when Howard and I travelled up to the west coast of Scotland and the Isle of Skye, I took Madeleine Bunting's Love of Country: A Hebridean Journey to read on the long train ride north, and found it to be a perfect introduction to the landscape and culture I would soon be immersed in. Bunting's book is lighter in tone and scope than those previously discussed (Philip Marsden's The Summer Isles and David Grange's The Frayed Atlantic Edge), but I don't mean that in a pejorative sense. If her book has more of a travelogue quality, it's nonethess informative, perceptive, and engaging, providing a good overview of an archipelago rich in history and story.

Like Marsden and Grange, Bunting writes about the western islands from an outsider's perspective, following the footsteps of authors who've been drawn to these wild shores for generations. In her chapter on the Isle of Jura, example, she visits Barnhill, the ramshackle farmhouse where George Orwell retreated to write his dystopian classic, Nineteen Eighty-Four. In Orwell's day, Bunting tells us,

"there was no daily postal service, no telephone and no electricity at Barnhill. The nearest shop was a twenty-five mile round trip, the nearest doctor was on Islay. Orwell was delighted: the place was 'extremely unget-at-able' he declared. He had fled the telephone, the requests for journalism and the busy chatter of London life, he explained in letters. Love of Country by Madeleine Bunting His recurrent fear of assassination since his time in Barcelona in 1936-7 abated, although he still kept a gun at hand. But he wanted his friends to visit and gave detailed instructions for the forty-eight-hour journey from London, with train and ferry times. What resulted were some tense ménages with assorted friends and relatives, which [his sister] Avril was left to deal with when Orwell retreated to his room with his typewriter. One visitor, a young student, David Holbrook, reminisced, 'I wanted to talk to him about life, about politics, Spain and that sort of thing, but he was wheezing away about an Arctic tern.'  

"Orwell's letters portray Barnhill as a powerful emotional counterbalance to his pervasive pessimism in those years. After an autumn spent in bed in the damp house in 1947, he was taken to a Lanarkshire sanatorium for treatment [for tuberculosis] and he wrote to a friend, 'Not much use worrying about Palestine or anything else. This stupid war is coming off in about 10-20 years and this country will be blown off the map whatever else happens. The only hope is to have a home with a few animals in some place not worth a bomb. If the show does start and is as bad as one fears, it could be fairly easy to be self-supporting on the island provided one wasn't looted.' His comments owed much to that mid-20th-century British conception of islands, and the Hebrides in particular, as salvific, the last refuge. 'When one considers how things have gone since 1930 or thereabouts, it is not easy to believe in the survival of civilization,' he wrote. The first title he had considered for Nineteen Eighty-Four was The Last Man in Europe. On stormy nights in Barnhill, his sense of foreboding may have led him to think he was writing about himself....

Orwell at Work  photographed by Vernon Richards

Barnhill on the island of Jura

"Jura's remoteness was Orwell's only explanation for his decision to move there. But given his deep love of the English countryside, it was an intriguing choice. There were plenty of remote houses in England where the farming and gardening might have been more productive. Jura was a landscape unlike any other he had lived in, and it enabled him to produce a novel which was quite unlike anything else he had ever written, and at a speed, despite his illness, which he had never managed before.

"Barnhill gave him the vantage point from which to create its opposite in Nineteen Eighty-Four. The character Julia offers the one glimmer of hope in the book; her unabashed love of sex was 'above all what he [Winston] wanted to hear' because it was 'not merely the love of one person but the animal instinct'. Living at Barnhill gave Orwell an experience akin to Julia's 'animal instinct', of a deeply experiential, instinctive world away from abstractions.

"In Nineteen Eighty-Four Orwell describes people who can no longer understand freedom or truth because history has been corrupted, repeatedly rewritten in the 'Records Department', and in the process their identity and that of England has been erased. Freedom is no longer imaginable because there is no language to describe it; as the state functionary Syme says, 'Don't you see that the whole aim of Newspeak is to narrow the range of thought? In the end we shall make thoughtcrime literally impossible, because there will be no words in which to express it.' At one point, Orwell's character Winston Smith can no longer remember his parents. He asks himself, 'Did his parents live in England? England was its name, he thought, or Britain.'

Orwell and goat

"Orwell was writing these lines when living amongst a Gaelic community; the neighbouring crofters with whom he shared the tasks of harvesting would never have been allowed to forget their parents, or where they had lived, given the Gaelic emphasis on genealogy and place. Did Jura and its losses -- of language and history -- creep into the background texture of Nineteen Eighty-Four, providing small details in the vision of how identity -- and thus freedom -- were lost?

"Literary critics of Orwell's work tend to regard Jura as incidental, no more than a backdrop, and their focus has been on Orwell, the man. Their references to Jura have often been simply comments on its remoteness. But Orwell had an acute sense of place; he understood how it expressed history and generated identity. He used vivid evocations of both city and countryside to express his most important political ideas in books such as Keep the Aspidistra Flying, Coming Up for Air, and Down and Out in Paris and London. This Atlantic edge of Britain has been a battleground for different interpretations of freedom, and how history and identity create the conditions for them, as I was to discover several times on my journeys. What Orwell found on Jura were reminders of those freedoms which had been lost in urban Britain, and which sustained and inspired him."

George Orwell at Barnhill.

Bunting's book is full of vivid snapshots like this of people, places and stories throughout the Hebrides. She's a fine raconteur and a good traveling companion for readers who prefer some gentle island-hopping to vigorous journeys by sailboat or kayak, or as a follow-up to such epic adventures.

For more on Orwell and other writers on islands, follow the links in this previous post.

Small Isles Bay  Jura  photograph by William Herron

Words: The passage above is from Love of Country by Madeleine Bunting (Granta Books, 2016). All rights reserved by the author.

Pictures: George Orwell on the Isle of Jura in the 1940s.


A figment of fog

photograph by David Grange

photograph by David Gange

Following on from yesterday's post...

Here's one more selection from David Gange's excellent book The Frayed Atlantic Edge , weaving history, literary reflections, and vivid descriptions of the natural world into the story of a year-long journey down the coast of Britain and Ireland by kayak. In the following passage, the author is heading to the Isle of Skye in the Scottish Hebrides:

''A folk history of the wests coasts of Great Britain and Ireland like no other.''"The long, dark night I spent between knuckles of knock and lochan on the edge of the Inner Sound was intensely atmospheric. I hunkered down against a thin smurr of rain, sometimes caught in moonlight, with the thick smell of sodden peat eclipsing the salt of sea just feet away. And I read about the most celebrated boats to have plied this water. The book I read, Alasdair mac Mhaighstir Alasdair's The Birlinn of Clanranald, is one of the great Gaelic seafaring epics: an Iliad in which the Troy to be stormed is this Hebridean sea itself. Written in the 1750s, it's set at a time before Culloden, when islanders still wore kilts and chain shirts: its symbols often seem to belong to the 15th and 18th centuries simultaneously. The author was a Jacobite who commanded fifty men and tutored Prince Charlie. When Hanover triumphed at Culloden he left the mainland for the Hebrides to escape recrimination for the scathing verse he'd aimed at the new royals. His world remained that of the seafaring clans MacDonald and Clanranald: the north of Ireland, Argyll, Islay, Uist, Canna and Skye.

Birlinn"The birlinn was bigger than the sixareens of Shetland, comprising twelve to eighteen oars and a square sail. Although clinker-built in the Norse tradition, it was a further step removed from Norway, not double-ended but with a flat sterm to permit a steering oar or a rudder. Sailing seas north from Ireland, birlinns became a currency of leige and lordship: the number of galleys a clan could muster defined its prestige. The birlinn is therefore immortalised on clan crests and the walls of coastal chapels such as Rodel (Harris) and Rob Donn's Balnakeil. The birlinn is therefore immortalised on clan crests and the walls of coastal chapels such as Rodel (Harris) and Rob Donn's Balnakeil. Just as the culture of Sutton Hoo dragged boats up hills for symbolic burials, the societies of these islands brought the sea ashore, placing symbolic ships at the centre of their towns, castles and churches. In this way, the birlinn became an icon of the Atlantic ties that bound Ireland, Man, Argyll and the Hebrides. It recalls cultural formations, such as the Lordship of the Isles, that show Scotland -- like England, Wales, Ireland and Britain -- to be an idea moving through these islamds only a little slower than a ship at sea. Before these nations, each only really united by modern legal codes, there were, for millenia, loose confederations of multilingual, multi-ethnic interest groups.

photograph by David Grange

photograph by David Grange

"Tradition holds that, seeking inspiration for The Birlinn of Clanranald while he was baillie of the isle of Canna, Alasdair lay beneath an unturned vessel on a Hebridean shore. Entombing himself in darkness, with only the smell of the boat for company, was a strategy to spark imagination. The principle became an idée fixe among Atlantic aficionados. Ludwig Wittgenstein, for instance, channelled Alasdair when he claimed to 'only think clearly in the dark' and, in 1948, fled the street lamps of south-east England for waters the birlinns had travelled: he noted, with approval, that the Irish Atlantic he found was 'one of the last pools of darkness in Europe'. Seamus Heaney, at his most elemental and earthy, wrote himself into this proud tradition. Flight  photograph by David GrangeThe final lines of 'North' are set on a long strand with only the 'secular powers of the Atlantic thundering'. The sea inspires reverie that sends the poet spiralling back centuries to see the water as the road of Norsemen. The 'swimming tongue' of a historic longship speaks to Heaney and invokes the poetic darkside:

   ‘Lie down
   in the word-hoard, burrow   
   the coil and glea
   of your furrowed brain.
 
   Compose in darkness.   
   Expect aurora borealis   
   in the long foray
   but no cascade of light.
 
   Keep your eye clear
   as the bleb of the icicle,
   trust the feel of what nubbed treasure   
   your hands have known.’


"It is perhaps surprising that the poetic fiction born of Alasdair's self-imposed enclosure contains such detailed description of the birlinn's structure and the actions of its crew. It is the best evidence we have for the facts of what this vessel was. No examples of the boat -- even wrecked -- survive: in 1493, When James IV absorbed the Lordship of the Isles under the Scottish Crown he demanded that all birlinns be burned to end the power of the sea lords.

photograph by David Grange

photograph by David Grange

"Alasdair's birlinn moves through a Hebridean sea that's as cunning and wise as human or animal. It's an old manwith streaming grey hair and a creature with gaping jaws and matted pelt. As a respected foe, the sea's will is pitched against the desires of the boatmen. It responds to being struck with oars until, eventually, it submits to human strength. The boat is also alive, crying out like a person and whinnying like a mare, treading waves not with planks and thwarts but shoulders and thighs. Boat and boatmen are one: the sweat on the sailors' brows is the brine foaming around the bow. And the boat becomes their homeland as they climb creaking mast and ropes 'as quickly as May squirrels on the trees of a dense forest'. At sea all distinctions between animate and inanimate, sentient and insensible, human and animal, flounder. In these verses, as in much writing on its waters, the Minch is layered with metaphor; the inter-island seas are known like friends and rivals; waves and tides are feared or loved like animals of hill and forest. Here is humanity engaged in the quest for mastery over nature: for separation from the seething conflicts of the bestial, elemental world. But to Alasdair's protagonists, before the age of steam and steel, that quest still seemed impossible; dividing lines, distinctions and disentanglements can rarely survive a single line of verse.

Western-isles-385

Western-isles-383

"Next morning, I prepared my own encounter with the grey-haired sea in mist that made me alert to animal encounters. Before I even hit the water, a brute of a dog otter surfaced on its back, scarred snout and crab catch raised above the waves. It didn't bother to acknowledge my presence but rolled like a thing uncoiling, then lolloped noiselessly into brown remains of bracken. It took seconds from its departure for its passing to feel mythic, and moments later I was moving through cold smoke-like rain towards a lunchtime landing beneath the Rona lighthouse.

"This night in the fog had established the tone for the month. As I crossed the Inner Sound and kayaked each long finger of Skye's western edge I breathed mist, drifted through sweeping rain, and saw the island only as shape-shifting cliffs that loomed, suddenly, from saturated skies. Headlands were bands of thick dark haze, and I found I could judge my distance from them not by their size but by the degree to which they blackened the otherwise featureless pall of grey.

photograph by David Grange

"The otter felt like an appropriate sigil of this place because it has long been treated as hybrid and unknowable. Like the barnacle goose, otters were a conumndrum for the monkish administration of Lent: both seemed more fish than bird or mammal. Some Carthusian monks were forbidden meat all year round. Instead, they ate otter. In Norse and Celtic story otters, particularly otter kings, change form and grant wishes, but only in the unlikely event of their capture: the animal's fluidity gives it the character in water of intangible smoke in air. The otter is its element: 'ninety per cent water', to the poet Kenneth Steven, and 'ten per cent god'. But they are also friendly 'water dogs'. They brought St Brendan fish and firewood; they warmed and dried the feet of St Cuthbert when he finished his nightly vigils waist-deep in sea. In the work of the great poet-naturalist Colin Simm the otter is a boat that's 'all rudder'; it is Mesolithic, belonging in an ice melt 'a few thousand years back' when elver-silvered rivers still thronged the landscape. Simms has written hundreds of closely observed otter poems, and in many, floods are the creature's medium. Water sweeps land when, in acts of drainage and deforestation, 'a balance of centuries to the balance-sheet yields'. When otters twist and tumble through redrowned vales a historic ordering of water, earth and animal is reprised in a beautiful unplanned catastrophe of rewilding.

photograph by David Grange

photograph by David Grange

"As poets make otters into ribbons of water, so they make Skye a figment of fog, a realm subject not to divine or human law but to 'amorphous rules of light.' When Richard Hugo, poet of the Pacific Northwest, came to live on Skye he wrote that the shifting mists alter the colour of the island a hundred times a day and 'never stop changing the distance to the pier from your front door'. Skye's epithets -- to the Norse, Island of Cloud; Misty Isle to the Gaels -- are aerial and never earthy. The prevalent sou'westerlies are 'the grey wind' that scoops the otherworld of the sea ashore. This island is the grand centrepiece of the Hebridian world, straddling the Minch both north-south and east-west. Smaller than the land mass of Lewis and Harris, its coastline is far longer: its gangly peninsulas intercept fog-bound vessels on a hundred different inter-island routes.

"Skye's geography has long been mystified: it is '60 miles long', according to the mountaineer W.H. Murray, 'but what might be its breadth is beyond the ingenuity of man to state'. This is perhaps why Skye is the most the most zoomorphic of landscapes: an animal island. When factual delineation falters on its ragged edges, diverse living things scuttle in."

photograph by David Grange

Skye-55 (1)

Seal...or selkie? Photograph by David Gange

The passage quoted is from The Frayed Atlantic Edge: A Historian's Journey from Shetland to the Channel by David Gange (William Collins, 2019).  The photographs are also by Gange; visit the Frayed Edge of the Atlantic website to see more. All rights to the text and photographs above reserved by the author/photographer.


More tales from the sea

The sandstone stacks of Northmavine (Shetland Mainland), photograph by David Gange

Shetland coast, photograph by David Gange

Having sailed up the west coasts of Ireland and Scotland in Philip Marsden's The Summer Isles, I'm now kayaking down the same coasts in David Grange's engrossing book, The Frayed Atlantic Edge -- starting in the far north of Shetland this time, and ending up down south in Cornwall.

During a period when physical journeys are hard-to-impossible due to health concerns and travel restrictions, this is arm-chair traveling at its best: mixing robust adventure with reflections on the history, culture and literature of the coastal lands and islands of the Celtic fringe. What is the difference between the two books? Marsden delves more deeply into myth, folklore, and the ancient texts of the regions he travels through, whereas Gange responds to the landscape around him as an historian -- but both books are well worth your time. They compliment rather than compete with each other.

Shetland puffin, photograph by David Gange

The following passage from The Frayed Atlantic Edge will give you a taste of the book. Gange writes:

Frayed Edge of the Atlantic by David Gange"This journey involved arriving, dripping and bedraggled, in dozens of coastal communities. When I set out, I hadn't imagined just how generous the people whose homes and workplaces I dampened would be: without such openness, particularly evident on small islands, this project would never have gotten far. I learned as much through long evenings of discussion as through the other three resources on which the book is based: libraries, archives and the observation of land and sea from the kayak. It wasn't just the spectacles of sea cliffs, nor the drama of ocean weather, but also those social occasions that meant I ended the journey with greatly intensified enthusiasm for scattered Atlantic islands like Foula, Barraigh and Thorai. 

"Such conversations worked to strengthen the conviction I set out with: that British and Irish histories are usually written inside out, perpetuating the misconception that today's land-bound geographies have existed forever. Despite the efforts of authors such as Barry Cunliffe, whose Facing the Ocean: The Atlantic and Its Peoples, 8000 BC to AD 1500 (2001) inspired much debate among historians, the significance of coasts is consistently underestimated, and the potential of small boats as tools to make sense of their histories is rarely explored. 

Orkney in August, photograph by David Gange

Orkney dwelling, photograph by David Gange

"This book sets out to put some of that imbalance right, showing not only that Atlantic geographies have been crucial to British and Irish life but that they continue to be so. It is structured by region, because part of its purpose is to show how similar ingredients of wind, wave and rock have been transformed into entirely different island and coastal cultures by the divergent processes of history. The chapters were written in order, while I travelled, so my process of learning runs parallel to the reader's experience of moving through the book: burrowing gradually deeper into the many ways that the shorelines are significant. This allows the narrative to follow a trajectory in which the opening chapters evoke the act of kayaking, establishing sounds, smells, sights and stories of the venerable tradition of travelling at sea level. Only gradually does the balance shift towards historical research, literary criticism and argument, revealing the implications of new perspectives picked up through slow travel.

Inner Hebrides, photograph by David Gange

Seal colony in the Inner Hebrides, photograph by David Gange

Skye, photograph by David Gange

"The final section, 'The View from the Sea', completes the transition. It switches to a different register as it unpicks historical significance from the chapters. It argues that the whole shape of British history is transformed by granting Atlantic coasts and islands a central rather than marginal role. The implications of key historical moments are problematised or reversed. The so-called Enlightenment, for instance, might best be interpreted as the triumph of a few cities -- Dublin, Edinburgh, London, Birmingham -- at the expense of other regions. For coastal communities it was the beginning, and the cause, of a lengthy dark age. In contrast, much of what were once referred to as Dark Ages had been eras of great coastal strength and enlightenment, when the intellectual traditions of the Irish Atlantic were the most advanced in Europe. Such reversals abound. The widely celebrated Education Acts of 1870 and 1872 were unmitigated disasters for many coastal zones, while the grim economic recession of the 1970s saw an island renaissance unprecedented for two centuries. All British history looks different when inland cities are made remote by seeing them from Atlantic shorelines, and the most powerful element of a year's journey by kayak was immersion in that changed perspective....

Donegal to Galway, photograph by David Gange

Kayak on the west Irish coast, photograph by David Gange

Coastal lambs, photograph by David Gange

"Just as the most significant history often happens on the edge of the islands, the most interesting phenomena regularly occur in the margins between disciplines. Exploring past lives on coasts meant reaching for ideas from geologists, ecologists, naturalists, geographers, anthropologists, artists, poets, novelists or musicians more often than historians. Seabirds, fish and species of seaweed play roles as significant in this book as politicians or their institutions; they has as great an effect on past shoreline lives, and the importance of island pasts today almost always relate both to ecology and community. Talking to naturalists, ecologists, archaeologists and artists was a highlight of researching this book and I'd love to think that such lines of communication might one day be wedged more permanently open."

So would I. 

Munster coast, photograph by David Gange

The photographs here were taken by the author journey during his long, daunting, and fascinating journey. To see more, visit the Frayed Edge of the Atlantic website.

Seal on the Munster coast, photograph by David Gange

Photograph by David Gange

The passage above is from The Frayed Atlantic Edge: A Historian's Journey from Shetland to the Channel by David Gange (William Collins, 2019). All rights to the text and photographs reserved by the author.


The unwritten landscape

Loch Snizort on the Isle of Skye, south-east of Lewis in the Inner Eebrides

I'm still following the thread that began with a discussion of Philip Marsden's The Summer Isles (about the wild western coasts of Ireland and Scotland), then continued on through selkie tales and otter brides and other stories of the Celtic fringe. Today we're up in the Hebrides, on the Isle of Lewis (in the text) and the nearby Isle of Skye (in the pictures)....

In the following passage, Alice Starmore describes the relationship between language and place, and how fragile that relationship is in a rapidly changing world. It's from her beautiful essay "Isabella's Crag: Language, Landscape, and Life on the Lewis Moor":

"Although too insignificant to be named on any map, Creagan Iseabal Mhartainn [Isabella's Crag] is a towering feature of the 'unwritten landscape' -- a rich vocabulary of geographical co-ordinates known, loved and spoken of by generations of the families who spent their summers in the crag's vicinity. Today, I count only a half a dozen people, myself included, who could name that crag and guide you to it. The youngest of us is sixty, so the future of the unwritten language is far shorter than its past: the acumulation of knowledge and respect that engendered it is now de-valued and close to being forgotten, like Isabella herself, for not even the half-dozen knows who she was or when she lived. Yet her modest crag stands as a paradigm for the whole Lewis moor: for its past, present and possible future.

Trees in the ruins of a blackhouse.

"Over my whole career, my greatest and most consistent artistic inspiration has stemmed from the childhood summers I spent on the Lewis moor during the 1950s and 1960s. For six weeks of each year of my childhood, my family moved from our usual home to the àirigh of our ancestral geàrraidh (pasture) on the moor just south of Stornoway. I belong to the very last Hebridean generation to take part in this traditional form of transhumance, for the practice had died out by the end of the 1960s.

"For centuries, the custom of transhumance in Lewis was an essential part of life in crofting villages, as arable land was limited. In order to provide enough fodder for the cattle to survive the winter and early spring, it was necessary to take them away to moorland pastures for the summer months so the village pastures could be harvested for winter feed.

An old croft house on Skye

"This was especially necessary in the Eye Peninsula, also known as the Point, where my family comes from. Point was a well-populated crofting area with virtually no hill grazing in the immediate district due to its peninsular situation. The summer hill grazing was on the far side of Stornoway, which involved a long march with the cattle through the town and then over hill and burn to the àirigh.

"In my parents' youth, the men, women and children and animals walked the many miles to their summer pastures, carrying all their essential foodstuffs, clothing and utensils. This was known as An Iomraich (The Flitting).

Blackhouse door

Spinning wheel

Crofting tools

"By the time I was a child, only the cattle and herders came on foot while we loaded all our chattels, including all domestic pets, in a small lorry hired for the day. We children perched on the top of the load like latter-day dustbowl Okies and headed off to glorious freedom and the joyful company of our little summer community.

"Each village tended to have its own geàrraidh and quite often they were named after the crofting village, such as Geàrraidh Shiadair (Shulishader's Pasture). Others were named after the original long-gone owner of the first àirigh. For example, Àirigh an t-Sagairt (the Priest's Sheiling) was still known long after priests had departed these Presbyterian shores. Many more were named after a feature of the landscape, such as Àirigh a' Chreagain (the Sheilings at the Crag), or sometimes even a measure of distance such as Àirigh Fad As (the Faraway Sheiling).

Ladder to the orchard

 "Place names were of great importance to us; as well as having a romance all of their own, they were a means of communicating where we were going or where we had been on our wanderings. My father would describe the journeys of his 1920s boyhood from Bayble in Point to the very furthest grazing at Loch Dubh nan Stearnag (the Black Loch of the Terns) in the heart of the Lewis moor. After walking twelve miles, they stopped to rest overnight at Àirigh na Beiste (the Animal Sheiling) before going through Àirigh Leitir (the Sheilings on the Slope) and then on to their own pasture called Àirigh Sgridhe at the foot of the Beinn a' Sgridhe in the Barvas Hills.

"My father's journey was epic by Lewis standards, and the pastures he passed through to get there were equivalent to the main towns on a road map. But the unwritten landscape held a treasury of terms with which to describe our journeys. My father could name every little feature he stopped at or passed by. Likewise, we children could tell our parents exactly where we were going, or where we had been."

Cows above Loch Snizort

"Knowing the landscape gave us the freedom of it. Our parents could get on with their day and trust that we would not get lost or drown in the vast network of lochs, burns and bogs that were all ours to explore....We lived on the border between micro and macro -- our detailed observations were balanced against the broad sweep of the open moor. Constant unsupervised exploration, with no time restrictions, allowed our imaginations to run free. We observed facts of nature, but it was also easy to believe in kelpies and shape-shifters when walking the moor in the late evening."

Thistle

Outdoor life on the summer pasture, notes Starmore,

"contributed to an intimate knowledge of the place, its  history, and all the life within it. Though as a small child I was free of the cares of adults, it was obvious that everyone was very happy on the moor, and as the time approached to return home it was difficult not to be sad. Latterly, there were just three families on our pasture and none of us wanted to be the first or last to leave. We therefore tried to co-ordinate our flitting so that we would all leave on the same day. Alexina, the sky reader, gave voice to all our feelings about the geàrraidh when she admitted one day, when we were packing up to go, that she was extremely sad at the thought of 'fágáil an geàrraidh na aonar' (leaving the pasture in loneliness).

"To us it had a spirit, a heart and soul, just as we had ourselves."

Sheep by the loch

A sheep trots after the herd

For those of us writers and illustrators drawn to pastoral works of fantasy, set in magical lands full of rolling fields and farms, great swathes of ancient woodland and fishing villages nestled by the sea (Ursula Le Guin's Earthsea Cycle, Patricia McKillip's Riddle-Master Trilogy, Diana Wynne Jones' Dalemark Quartet, Lloyd Alexander's Chronicles of Pyrdain, etc.), it is both inspiring and instructive to read about historical and contemporary life in the remote regions of the world we inhabit, and the ways that landscape, language, and folk tradition shape the people and the stories that emerge from them.

Many writers live far from such rural spaces themselves. Can we conjure pastoral landscapes and people convincingly from writing rooms in modern cities or the suburbs, out of lives mediated by computer screens, not wind and rain and the cycles of the wild earth? I believe we can. That is what imagination and the writing craft are for. We're not social realists, we're fantasists. We tell the truth, like poets, but we tell it slant -- we clothe it in symbol, archetype, and metaphor. But if we are to write or illustrate fantasy well we must do the work of understanding the classic tropes we use as best we can. Through reading. Through research. Through curiosity and sensitivity about lives and traditions far different than our own. Through building a relationship to the wild wherever we are. Know the place and the land on which you are rooted, and then move outward from there.

The long road home

Disappearing into Faerie

Words: The passage above is from "Isabella's Crag" by Alice Starmore (EarthLines magazine, May 2012); highly recommended. All rights reserved by the author. Pictures: The Isle of Skye (2017), south-east of Lewis in the Inner Hebrides. The final photograph, of Howard and me, was taken Ellen Kushner. You can see Alice Starmore's photographs of the Lewis moor here, from her lovely exhibition "Mamba."


Myth & Moor news

Illustration by Milo Winter

Myth & Moor has been nominated for the 2020 World Fantasy Award, which is lovely news to wake up to.

It's up against some very stiff competition in the awkwardly-named "Non-professional" category, which is the catch-all category for everything that doesn't fit in any of the others (Best Novel, Best Short Story, Best Anthology, etc.), such as small press magazines, podcasts, and not-for-profit publications like Myth & Moor. This is Myth & Moor's second nomination, and I'm deeply grateful to the 2020 panel of judges for this honour.

My congratulations to all of the other nominees in every category -- including my good friend and Chagford neighbour Wendy Froud, who is up for Best Artist. Two nominations from one small Dartmoor village! Or possibly three, if you count Kathleen Jennings, also in the Artist category. Yes, I know, she's actually from Australia, but she's spent so much time in Chagford over the years that we consider her part of our community too.

The winners will be announced at the World Fantasy Convention in late October -- which was due to be held Salt Lake City this year, but has been moved online due to the pandemic.

Illustration by Chris Dunn

The illustrations above are by American book artist Milo Winter(1888-1956) and British book artist Chris Dunn. And speaking of Kathleen Jennings, who is also a writer: Do not miss her new novel, Flyaway, which is absolutely stunning.


Myth & Moor update

Sleeping Beauty by Honor Appleton

I must apologize once again for the lack of Myth & Moor posts last week. Howard and I are still getting hit by waves of post-viral illness and fatigue from the virus he brought home from Spain back in February. We still don't know if it was Covid-19, or another virus with similar persistence; we couldn't get tested back when we first had it, and the antibody tests we took recently were inconclusive. All we can do now is take it slow: work when we can, rest when we must, take care of each other and try not to worry.

The Fairy Tales of Hans Christian Andersen illustrated by Helen StrattonSince energy is in limited supply, we are rationing it carefully. Last week, Howard took care of family matters and household chores so I could focus on delivering the keynote speech for the Francelia Butler Children's Literature Conference at Hollins University in Virginia (via Zoom), followed by a week of visiting online classes for Hollins' Children's Literature and Book Illustration MA program -- which was a lovely experience. The speech will be on YouTube at some point, and I'll let you know when it's up. 

This week, it's my turn to support Howard so that he can focus on upcoming theatre work: a single-day around-the-world tour of his online theatre show, Theatre is Dead!; and preparations for a five-week run of Punch & Judy at the Teignmouth and Exmouth seasides starting next week. We're happy and relieved that P & J is going ahead, since so much other theatre work has been lost due to the pandemic -- but he has a lot of organizing to do to make sure the puppetry pitches are socially-distanced and safe.  

I'm planning to be back on Myth & Moor more regularly this week ... but post-viral recovery is unpredictable, even without an underlying health condition, so if I suddenly disappear again, well, you'll know why. I'm grateful to all of you who have been supporting Myth & Moor through all of these ups and downs ... and I'm just plain overwhelmed by the support for our first Bumblehill Press publication, The Color of Angels. It's enormously encouraging. Lunar and I are working on getting more publications up for you very soon. It seems to me that myth, art, and story are more important now than ever.

I very much hope that you are all doing well during these uncertain times. Thank you for being part of the Mythic Arts community. And please stay safe.

Nurse Tilly on the job.

The art above is by Honor Appleton (1879-1951) and Helen Stratton (1867-1961).


Tunes for a Monday Morning

Dawn chorus

At a time when the daily news is so discordant, I find myself turning to voices in harmony to remind me that's there is also so much good in people, joining together to make the kind of beauty that no one voice can make alone. The videos today come from the long-running Tiny Desk Concert series, recorded in the office of National Public Radio in Washington DC (prior to the pandemic).

Above: Three songs by the American bluegrass & roots trio I'm With Her (Sara Watkins, Sarah Jarosz, and Aoife O'Donovan). The songs are "See You Around," "Game to Lose" and "Overland."

Below: Three songs by the American folk quartet Darlingside (Don Mitchell, Auyon Mukharji, Harris Paseltiner, and David Senft). The songs are "The God of Loss," "The Best of the Best of Times," and "Extralife."

Below: Four songs by the Soweto Gospel Choir (formed by David Mulovhedzi and Beverly Bryer), who sing in a mix of South African languages and English. The songs are "Seteng Sediba," "Emarabeni," "Emlanjeni/Yelele" and "Kae le Kae."

"Our songs travel the earth. We sing to one another. Not a single note is ever lost and no song is original. They all come from the same place and go back to a time when only the stones howled."  - Louise Erdrich (The Master Butchers Singing Club)

Bird song