Travellers’ narratives Part 2 – some books

3 May 2012 in General, Ian Stephen Blog

It was a dirty day outside. I could see line squalls pacing across the harbour. A rope parted on my own moored vessel but no damage was done. I heard the ferry held off for hours till a lull let her dock safely. I remembered that my current job description is Reader in Residence. I was preparing for the first in a series of open public events in Stornoway Library and I had some reading to do.

The plan was to use a seminal traditional story (transcribed by one Donald Morrison, cooper by trade) as a starting point. Then explore how the theme of crossing open water is echoed in other books. I borrowed two titles from a themed display, on stands you meet as you enter the library. Kevin Patterson’s The Water In Between and Richard Deakin’s Waterlog. Patterson’s book took a hold of me and other correspondence and accounts which had seemed so important were set aside.

It’s an account of a voyage in open ocean – the Pacific in this case – undertaken for traditional reasons. The author had been unlucky in love. So has his companion who happily does know how to sail and navigate. By the end of the adventure so does Patterson. But his urgent impulse to sail his small ship home to Western Canada is at least equal to the restless desire that made him leave it.

At another level, this gripping read is also an analysis of travel writing, not only journeys by sea. He writes well on Theroux and Chatwin. But he can turn the same wry and sharp wit on his own quests.

Deakin’s book is a different type of journey. It follows a concept – suggested by a John Cheever story which also resulted in the movie The Swimmer (starring Burt Lancaster). But this is a swimmer’s journey through Britain rather than the 8 miles home from a party on Long Island. (That’s the other Long Island, the one across the pond.)

Of course he can’t swim from one length of the joined-up countries to the other. It’s more an investigation into the localized places where there is swimming without chlorine. There’s a fair bit of wit and Deakin approaches swimming the way some would poaching. He has a war of words with the gamekeepers who would keep exclusive chalk stream waters for the trout and their pursuers. He finds eccentric clubs of people who hold to traditions of leaping into cold or partly-heated waters but all in the outdoors, in salt or fresh water. He even attempts to find a fabled pool in underground caverns. And there is a build-up towards the goal of swimming the Corrievreckan gulf. That’s where Orwell nearly drowned, almost carried into the dangerous area in a small boat. That would have left 1984 unfinished.

A young man called Bill Dunn helped Orwell run the small farm on Jura. He went on to marry Orwell’s sister. He also swam the Gulf of Corrievreckan, despite losing a leg during the war. Deakin failed to find the right conditions for that swim and it’s not easy to see how it would be crucial to this book anyway. It’s really a devotee’s hymn to surviving untamed places and activities and noncomformists, in a merrier England and a small section of Wales.

When it came to the night of the event in Stornoway Library, we did indeed begin many journeys as participants described books which were suggested by Morrison’s account of a crossing to St Kilda, when a gannet’s beak pierced the hull of an open boat. We made skeletal versions of the stories as a short series of text messages. Because that’s what a story is – a clear backbone with the flesh fixed to the frame.
 Here are versions from one group:

Open boat sails from Harris to St.Kilda

Good weather with Factor’s wife onboard

Sea full of herring sky full of gannets
A huge THUMP stuns boat
Half way there

Gannet beak breaches hull
Crew leave dead bird stuck in boat
Wind picks up coming in fast
Islanders catch boat and see beak WOW!

and the story in a still shorter form:

Boat Bird Beak Bloody Hell Beach

St.Kildans welcome boat kept afloat by a gannet’s beak

Then one person made the excellent suggestion of extending our planned reading to the inner terrain of journeys in the mind. She proposed Janice Galloway’s The Trick is To Keep Breathing as our next adventure and volunteered to introduce it next meeting on.

But I’d like to end by referring to another approach to documenting adventures. Three experienced sea kayakers have gathered their experience and that of other members of a close community into a seminal guide-book. The Outer Hebrides is subtitled “Sea Kayaking around the Isles and St Kilda” and is by Mike Sullivan, Robert Emmott and Tim Pickering. It was first published in 2010 by Pesda Press. (

This book differs from all of the above in that has a very clear and specific purpose. It’s a pilot book for those who use the most practical and elegant small craft of all – the kayak. These slim vessels enable people to go where no other mariner could go in any other type of vessel. So the details of tested routes along the coastline of the whole span of the Outer Hebrides are shared in crisp detail. A clear outline of a chart detail is backed up with a tight explanation of the route – the gains and the dangers.

Many years of combined experience have also yielded a strong stock of sharp photographs. Some of these have a practical purpose in showing the look of the land which is symbolized on the chart. But some are like a lyrical counterpoint to the text.
There are also stories of water-breaking crossings; a description of the basking shark; a summary of practical pieces of safety advice and other well-written examples of sea-kyaking lore which make the book of interest to those who are not planning to paddle anywhere at all.

This is an exemplary publication – a well-made, well laid-out durable manual and more.

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© Ian Stephen, 2012