From India to the Isle of Mull

6 Jun 2012 in Ian Stephen Blog

It’s hot by Scottish standards. The yachts navigating the sound of Mull and the Firth of Lorne have been looking listless. Some have mainsail only up so it’s likely that the diesel-driven horses are pushing the boat. Others don’t seem to be in a hurry. That’s cruising. The passage plan is revised according to conditions. You can predict tides with more accuracy than wind. Some people, on passage, will be content to run on the tide and accept that they will not achieve many miles today.

I’m reading a thick pack of lies. It’s called a novel. This one is thicker than most so it might contain more lies. More people who are not real. It’s called “A Suitable Boy” and Vikram Seth is taking me back to India even though I’ve never been there. Well you can’t just work a few tides and get there, when you clear The Sound.

There’s a reason why I say I’m back in India. A year last boxing-day I received a phone-call from my oldest son. He and his girlfriend traveled together, through India for a period of several months. He had been there before but with a kayak. The purpose of that first journey, as I understand it, was to cope with the challenge of interesting rivers. It’s what they call an extreme sport. The purpose of his second visit, as I understand it, was to look and experience what they met, as a couple travelling and colliding with cultures very different to those of the Outer Hebrides or of Devon.

I was held, rooted to my chair by Sean’s commentary. He simply described what he saw and felt, from a public phone which had no screen around it. How children were coming up close and gazing into his eyes. There is no culture of privacy, no taboo at that intent staring. Fingers would reach out and pull at the twisted strands of ginger hair we call dreadlocks. Sean said he was seeing some people resting. A woman was lying in her sari. This would also be her blanket, her shelter. It was probably the only thing she possessed. The observations were relayed immediately to the Outer Hebrides. The father was learning through the son’s eyes.

But Seth’s characters matter to me a lot, even if they’re not real people. I can’t enter the minds of the real children or the woman described by Sean, nor those of the people studying him and the people he was studying. But Vikram Seth has allowed me to be intimate with a steady stream of minds. Some live in a fictional city and some in the non-fictional city of Calcutta. And some live in villages. I’ve just realized that the traveller’s narrative and the fiction have something in common. I’m completely dependent on the consciousness of the person who is reporting what they perceive or imagine or both. Both are aiming for nothing less than truth.

It’s only this morning I was telling lies to the innocent. Storytelling to the first three Secondary years in Tobermory High School, one class after another. I asked a few questions, in between the yarns. I asked what books they were reading. A futuristic trilogy was described by many. “The Hunger Games” by Suzanne Collins has been top of the Amazon children’s best seller list for some time now. People have to play daring mind-games to obtain food. So it was not too big a leap to build pictures of imagined islands – to help the pupils map them, their personal map from their own imaginations.

There were the bronze cliffs, high and deep as the basalt cliffs of Fingals Cave, but on the floating island where Aeolus lives in peace and plenty in the bosom of his extended family. I explained how The Odyssey came to life for me in the rugged translation of Robert Fagles. It could well be that episodes began as spoken stories before they were formed into the ringing language of Homer. So we were simply returning to that.

Then we imagined the bronze pillars which support the island of the women somewhere out to the west of Ireland. The line of thought reminds me of another island you can only find sometimes, the one in Orkney which appears out of haar. It hosts the summer home of a daughter, lost to the sea but who has made a good living for herself and her child, with her tall Finman. Even though he’s a bit short of words and his fingers are nearly joined in a web.

We looked under the water, the way the widespan sonar equipment does, aboard the research-vessel the class had visited just before coming back for the stories. I told the North Uist version of the selkie story. It’s inevitable that the seal-wife will find her skin again and that her nature will make it impossible to stay on land afterwards. So she leaves her children and dives down out of our normal sight.

Departing Oban (© Ian Stephen)

Then I had a request. The girl-guides in the class had been along to an Tobar the night before. They had heard me tell the strange Irish story of the hook, the knife and the axe. It shares the imagery of three huge waves, with many other stories, from Brittany to Iceland. But it’s not only meteorological conditions meeting geological ones. Water forced, under pressure to swell its way through gaps or over bulges in the sea-bed.

If this story is also a lie – and it is seriously weird in places – then it had enough resonance for these young people to want to hear it again.

I think now there’s a lot of truth in this tale and in the selkie story and in the geography of floating or lost islands. The reason we’re drawn into these impossible stories is because the characters in them ring true – the way they behave – even if they are half seal and half human. You wouldn’t be moved by the ending if you didn’t recognize something in the seal-wife who has to return to her home environment. Her first home. And she does leave the best of fish on the rocks for her children.

This visit to Mull had the purpose of linking with the visit of the research ship as part of Oban’s Festival of the Sea. Dr John Howe gave a passionate talk on seabed mapping accompanied by a spectacular 3d imaging show. I hope the stories took us to equally scientific scrutiny of our relationship with the sea. But the science is human psychology.

For more information about Ian visit his website at

© Ian Stephen, 2012