§ CHAPTER FOUR
John the Almsgiver—Tin Isles—Falmouth—Eda Frandsen—fellow crew members—Scilly Isles—night sailing—Dark Age argonauts—Isle of Man—heaving-to—pilots and anchorages—Peel and St Patrick’s Isle—navigation—wics—Atlantic lands—Irish Sea and Solway Firth—North Channel—Vikings—a blast—Crinan and Dunadd—Corryvreckan—trade and intellect—Tobermory—Inverie and Old Forge Inn—parting
THERE IS AN unlikely story, preserved in an Eastern Mediterranean hagiography from the time of King Rædwald, that tells of a sea voyage from those parts to the Atlantic west coast. John the Almsgiver, patriarch of Alexandria, took pity on a sea captain who, through ill luck and the ‘sinful acquisition of money’, had fallen on hard times. John gave him five pounds of gold with which he bought a cargo; but his ship was wrecked off the great lighthouse, Pharos. The captain again applied to the patriarch and, admonishing the man to be more careful with his and God’s money, John gave him ten pounds to purchase another cargo. Again, his ship was wrecked. You would have thought that each man would have learned his lesson; but the patriarch, trusting in God, now gave the captain a swift-sailing vessel belonging to the Holy Church and carrying twenty thousand bushels of corn. After many days’ sailing, during which violent winds beset the ship, the captain lost his way and landed in the ‘Islands’ [sic] of Britain at the edge of the world. Here, it seems, the people were in the grip of a terrible famine. The captain, with enlightened self-interest, took a shipment of tin from them in return for his corn and then, returning to the Mediterranean and stopping off at an African port, found that his cargo now consisted of the finest silver. This tale of the power of the Christian god in protecting his chosen sons from the perils of fate and ensuring that the patriarch’s precious assets and trust had been wisely invested, almost prefigures Calvinism in its depiction of the salvation of the elect.
Whatever one thinks of such stories its credibility, or at least the non-miraculous part of it, rests on a supposition that the famine-afflicted land must have been the south-west peninsula of West Wealas—Cornwall—which was rich in deposits of tin ore; and that Alexandrians knew of it. Britain and Ireland were famed prehistorically for their deposits of gold, silver, copper and tin, the latter two metals highly valued as the constituents of the alloy bronze. That reputation evidently survived into the Early Medieval period and provided one incentive for entrepreneurial, or lucky, merchants to come to these parts even after the collapse of the Western Empire. Other texts show that the Atlantic lands were also famous for furs and hunting dogs, for salt deposits and for the slaves produced by decades of conflict between warring tribes. Adomnán, Colmcille’s hagiographer, told a story of Gaulish40 sea captains arriving at the caput regionis, probably Dunadd, as if it was the sort of thing that was expected to happen now and then; and Bede recounts the famous arrival on Iona of a bishop, Arculf, who had been to the Holy Land. His Ionan host (no less than Abbot Adomnán himself) wrote an account drawn from his interviews with Arculf, called de locis sanctis—‘On the holy places’. In the 690s he took a copy as a gift to the scholarly King Aldfrith of Northumbria; it was much copied and adapted (by Bede among others) and the work survives in several manuscripts.
Many an Irish or English monk travelled to and from the Continent in the seventh and eighth centuries when the universal language and culture of the Christian Church fomented an intellectual network across Western Europe in the face of barbarian invasion and economic collapse just as, to the east, Islam was building the first caliphate. In recent decades archaeologists have been busy retrieving the material evidence for these contacts in the ephemera of pottery sherds, metalwork and glass fragments and in the material transmission of ideas—of art and inscription, technology and literature.
In April 2014, in Falmouth harbour, Sarah and I stepped aboard Eda Frandsen, a fifty-five-foot 1930s Danish gaff cutter, for a voyage across the same waters that Arculf and many other Dark Age argonauts had sailed a millennium and a half ago. Our destination was Mallaig, on the north-west coast of Scotland, where Eda is based for the summer season cruising the Hebrides. Our route lay in the hands of the wind and tides and of skipper James Mackenzie.
The gaff cutter is one of the most beautiful sailing boats, adapted to the rigours of offshore fishing but sufficiently light-footed for the demands of coastal waters. Eda has a single mast stepped amidships bearing a gaff mainsail: that is, its upper edge is held stiff by a boom, the gaff, which juts out behind the mast at an angle of about forty-five degrees. Forward, she carries jib, foresail and staysail, while the gaff can be extended with its own distinctive triangular topsail. Eda’s gaff was an earthy, deep orangey-brown weather-bleached and patched canvas; the other sails a rich clotted cream. When we boarded her she was in harbour trim, the gaff lashed to the main boom, the other sails in their seagoing bags. The sky was a crisp blue flecked with white cloud, the waters of the harbour ruffled only by a light wind. Eda rocked very easily on her mooring with a seductive creaking of ropes and the even more reassuring sound of a kettle boiling. The welcome provided by the standing crew—James, mate Melissa Williams and cook Chlöe Gillat—was all good cheer, tea and scones with fresh cream and jam. We introduced ourselves to the rest of the crew: Paul Rowan, a local who sails whenever he can (and oddly enough an old shipmate of Tony Wilmott, the excavator of Birdoswald); Georgia Witchell, who skippers her own boat in these parts; Rolf Winzeler, a Swiss border guard and square-rigger enthusiast; Frank Herrity, a retired psychiatric nurse; and Alexandra (Alex) Goodman, another local sailor who runs a small inshore boat.
We stowed our gear forward in a space on the port side just large enough for two tight bunks and a double locker where the bluff curve of the bows sweeps in from amidships. My space on the top bunk was about the same size as my one-man tent: sufficiently snug that I banged my knees on the deck planks overhead whenever I turned over. It had a small electric light for reading, although I don’t suppose I ever read more than about half a page before falling asleep in the entire nine-day voyage.
Opposite us to starboard, on the other side of the forward gangway and hatch and the anchor locker set tight in the bows, lay another two bunks. Beneath the gangway and aft of our bunks were the two heads with loos and shower combined so that the effect was something like astronauts must experience on space-station duties. After a day or so I found that, even in a moderate swell, I was able to wedge my head against the ceiling, rotate about a point and shut myself in, conducting the necessaries without crashing against the walls. There was no great privacy about toilet operations: the pump that flushed them into a tank was electric, and noisy; in the middle of the night you won no friends at all.
Aft of the heads lay the saloon: just large enough for the ten of us to sit lined up five on either side with our backs against padded benches and our knees pressed against the table—all hidden lockers, fridges and fold-out extensions, so that once we were all seated there was no escape, no musical chairs. Everything was varnished wooden perfection. The table was mounted around the mainmast and glass-and-cup holders circumnavigated it in a nautically efficient way—nothing could fall out of its place except in a really big blow. Plates and cutlery were similarly confined behind bungee cords and retaining battens. At night the saloon was lit by an electric lantern, slung from the ceiling alongside an ocean-going stuffed toy parrot. Forward of the saloon to starboard, the matching space to the heads, was the galley: a small miracle of efficiency—Chlöe’s preserve except during washing-up duties. I have lived in some small spaces, but I couldn’t even stand upright in the galley, let alone turn around. At the rear of the saloon was the foot of the main gangway and hatch; either side and aft of that were more bunks for the guest crew.
We made a short crossing of the harbour on Saturday evening, anchoring off St Just in Carrick Roads as the sun dipped low and set a little north of west. Falmouth harbour and the Roads are whiskered with green woods below lush pastures—dairy country. But not far away are the remains of the mines that drew merchants here from across Europe when Britain was known as the Tin Islands. We had our safety briefing (don’t fall off the boat or get clouted by the main boom) and James talked us through some of our route options, asking if we had any thoughts on places we would like to see. I had a list: a gazetteer of Dark Age emporia, royal and monastic sites whose archaeology I knew; some of which, like Dunadd, we had recently visited. But I knew, as the realistic pilgrims and merchants of those centuries knew, that such voyages are essentially opportunistic and in experiencing for myself the vagaries, happy chances and capricious fates that rule the lives of voyagers at sea, I surrendered my fortunes to the joint enterprise. I gave the skipper the list anyway.
On Easter Sunday we sailed for the Scillies: due south until we weathered the rocks known as the Manacles (Carn du in Cornish)—the site of many a wreck—at a healthy distance; then south-west to round Black Head before the loom of the Lizard’s green cliffs appeared to starboard. In good weather the Scillies are a day’s sail from Falmouth. By good weather I mean good sailing weather; not so good, perhaps, for those who need a little time to find their sea legs. We lost a few below deck on a very lumpy Channel that bore traces of contrary Atlantic winds and the opposing northerly that set in behind us. It was a blast. I had last seen Falmouth in 2005 when, during the bicentenary commemoration of the Battle of Trafalgar, I crewed on the square-rigged barque Lord Nelson from Cadiz, carrying a copy of Admiral Collingwood’s immortal dispatch with its dramatically poignant account of Nelson’s death and the defeat of the combined French and Spanish fleet. From square-rigger to gaff cutter is a huge drop in scale—Eda’s freeboard at the taffrail is not much more than eighteen inches—but being so close to the water, and on such a weatherly and beautiful boat, was perfectly exhilarating; like swapping a Land Rover for a toboggan.
I was given the helm for the two-hour passage around the Lizard and Wolf Rock and the dimly viewed Land’s End, grey skies pressing down overhead and white horses galloping along the Channel before and behind us. With the wind at a steady force six, we knocked along at a very respectable eight knots and made landfall late in the afternoon—a twelve-hour, sixty-mile passage. We anchored in the tight, rocky bay of Porth Cressan off St Mary’s, the perfect shelter in a northerly wind. It was raining and the process of stripping off layers of waterproof clothing in the confines below decks farcical. It had been a tiring first day; we were cold. But the craic was good and a beef stew with mashed potatoes restored us. Some miraculous chocolate confection followed and we shared a bottle of wine and a dram. Only Sarah had not sailed much before; the others were all sea-dogs. Melissa crewed on the Clipper Round the World race and survived a dismasting in the Pacific, so she has seen a thing or two. James is a veteran of Atlantic crossings; he is also a boat builder and a thoroughgoing seaman, who loves getting the most out of his boat and whose veins run with salt. That first night we slept right through, barely noticing a considerate but not very discreet operation when skipper and mate weighed anchor and motored Eda round to Hugh Town as the wind veered easterly. We woke with a view of the Scillies’ main harbour and of the archipelago of small islands to north and west that bring thousands of tourists here in the summer for an easy-going, nostalgic holiday. Small boats filled the grey bay, pricked with fluorescent orange buoys and alive with the sound of clanking halyards and cries of seabirds out on the scrounge.
In the early Roman period the islands were still a single land mass; rising sea levels created the islet landscape we see now. A sense of detachment from the real world is palpable. The Scillies have, charmingly, not caught up with the twenty-first century. Their natives ride bicycles. We saw a woman driving a 2CV with an article of furniture poking through the roof. The pace is slow, the scale intimate. Red telephone boxes look as though they might be used occasionally. Cornish, a dialect of Brythonic, seems to have died out here late in the Medieval period.
I would have liked to make it to St Helen’s, almost the most northerly of the islands and right on the fringes of this semi-submerged Atlantis. An Early Christian oratory stood there, with a seventh- or eighth-century chapel and a cluster of monks’ cells associated with St Elidius. It is the very ideal of the desert island, the perfect location for a contemplative life on the edge of the world. Intriguingly, the chapel is reported to have contained an altar similar in construction to that at St Ninian’s Point on Bute, where we had camped the previous autumn. After Rome’s withdrawal the islands were busy with maritime traffic, from the Mediterranean and especially from Francia. Tin ingots have been found here and although several of the islands have saintly connections (not least St Samson, which we could see across the harbour from Hugh Town), many of the material remains are distinctly secular, even domestic: E-ware41 cooking vessels, for example, of the sort found at Dunadd and many other sites along the Irish seaboard. The most recent review of evidence for Continental trade with the Atlantic West, by Ewan Campbell, suggests that the Scillies were an important stopping-off point for European merchants on their way up the Bristol Channel and the Irish Sea; that the natives actively encouraged them by providing shelter and accommodation. Merchants may have stationed themselves here during the summer months. Looking at the charts of these waters it is easy to see how central the Scillies were to the shipping lanes, especially in an era when passages were made by short hops rather than long ocean-going routes out of sight of land. But even if the Scillies were busy in the Dark Ages, those monks seeking solitude and the contemplative life had fifty or so of the now-uninhabited islands set in the shallow, sandy jade waters of the Atlantic’s eastern edge to choose from.
The tides were against both a visit to St Helen’s and my plan of exploring St Mary’s for its prehistoric field systems, cairns and Dark Age settlements. It was as much as we could manage to visit the small, crammed museum, stroll among the four-square granite houses, taking in the succulent and semi-tropical plants flourishing in the mild Oceanic climate (in Northumberland spring buds were only just appearing) and join a couple of our fellow crew members for a coffee, before Melissa whisked us away in Eda’s dinghy to her anchorage. After that first full day’s passage since her winter makeover, skipper and mate had shaken a few things down on board: tightened lashings, checked blocks and bitts and generally given Eda a pit stop before the next leg. Even shorn of her sails she made a striking silhouette against a sky that had begun to brighten after the rain and murk. Her prow is high, in common with fishing boats all over the world; her bowsprit long to give maximum sail area for the single mast. Tourist ferries came and went past us as we readied for sea, with envious looks from those dreaming vicarious dreams of blue-water sailing ahead.
The skipper had plans for a two-day passage to the Isle of Man that meant sailing watch-on-watch overnight. We caught the afternoon tide on Monday and cruised north on a desultory breeze coming over the starboard beam. We were formed into two watches: me, Sarah and Rolf in Melissa’s watch; Paul, Frank and Alex under Georgia’s supervisory eye. From the helm, an idiosyncratic arrangement like a cowboy saddle with the wheel before it, you could see the skipper below with his charts and AIS system—satnav for sailors—tracking tides and other shipping and calculating our speed through the water and over the ground. Unless there was an emergency or a need to heave-to to gain or lose canvas, the watch on deck sat four-hour shifts on and off around the clock. In line with the traditional double-watch system, two watches of two hours each (the so-called ‘dog-watches’) began at noon, so that every twenty-four hours the shift pattern alternated. It meant that nobody got the midnight or four a.m. shift two days running. Even so, with only four hours off, the body had to get to grips with the rhythms of the shift pattern pretty quickly.
Sarah was not wholly gracious the first time she was tumbled out of her bunk at midnight; but at least, that first night, the sea was calm. It was not so easy in anything like a rough sea, piling onto a deck sloping at thirty degrees with waves washing through the gunwhales. Getting clothed took a good fifteen minutes in the dark and longer in poor weather: thermals, lined trousers, warm fleece; then oilskins and wellies, lifejacket and harness, all clips and trailing belts, clumsy cold fingers and heads banging against bulkheads. Then a very hurried cup of hot tea gulped down; and maybe a biscuit or a bun. You stumbled up on deck in the pitch black, disoriented and grumpy, grabbed something solid to stabilise yourself against the boat’s corkscrew pitch and yaw, clipped the safety harness onto one of the jack stays that ran aft along the deck, and went to relieve the knackered watch huddled around the wheel or sitting backs to the taffrail with senses overwhelmed. Anyone going overboard in these conditions was unlikely to be found very quickly. But it is surprising how soon one gets used to it; how quickly the routine assumes an ever-present reality that has no future and no past. You exist entirely in the moment. Minutes at the wheel become hours; the odd conversation breaks out now and then, or the skipper pokes his head up to see how the wind has changed; a reef might be taken in at three in the morning; an adjustment to the bearing for a fishing fleet to be avoided; then a change to our course of 010 degrees as we headed into the black expanse of the Atlantic, Cornwall now far to the south-east, the coast of County Cork eighty miles off to the north-west. The sea is a giant; we were mere nothings in a horizon of endless night and limitless, lightless depths.
I don’t know any other Swiss border guards, but I imagine them to be quite a straight-laced lot. Not so Rolf, a man with a face like a bearded teddy bear who relished every single moment at sea in the companionship of others. I hardly ever caught him without a smile. He was handy on a rope, so that he and I often formed the sweating partnership on sheet or halyard, hauling while others tailed the rope tight against its belaying pin. Not that there was any gender division on the boat: Melissa was an extremely handy and powerful girl, tough and strong, endlessly patient and unconsciously witty. Sarah, a nurse, is not shy when it comes to shifting heavy weights. We made a good team.
In the dead of night, in those moments after going below from such a watch, shedding all the wet gear and climbing into the bunk in an adrenalin daze, the gurgle of water against the hull, inches from my head, the occasional slamming of the bows into the surf and the clanking of block or anchor chain: these were lullabies, seductive, pulling mind and body down into the arms of sleep.
During that first full night at sea we passed through the ranks of north Cornwall’s fishing fleet, their navigation lights a shifting constellation. Tuesday 23 April dawned with Eda motoring, appropriately, through St George’s Channel in a milky flat calm. We were on watch from eight a.m., our breakfast eaten on deck. The sea was for the most part as empty as the sky. Puffins, guillemots and shearwaters, an adventurous warbler far from land and a curious seal were our only companions. A few promising gusts of wind died without a whimper; the jib hung limp and the skipper, bored, had us sewing whips onto a new set of reefs for the mainsail. Chlöe brought tea and biscuits on deck, looked around at the blank canvas (she is an artist, among other things) and disappeared below. The galley skylight opened and interesting smells wafted aft, torturing us. The skipper, still bored, went below and cleaned the heads—not many skippers take that unenviable chore on. Then he bled the radiators; he was really bored. At twelve our watch passed seamlessly into the hands of the starboard crew as we drew level with the Smalls lighthouse on its isolated rock twenty miles or so off St David’s in Pembrokeshire. Wales’s patron saint, unlike England’s (St George was a Palestinian), was born in the country that venerates him, around the year 500. An opponent of the prevailing Pelagian heresy (see note 42), he founded monasteries, became archbishop by popular acclaim and established a hard-line ascetic rule. He is an exemplar of the pure virtues of the Desert Fathers, coming from quite a different tradition to George, a martyred Roman soldier of the late third century in the decades of persecution before Christianity was officially tolerated.
Some time during the second dog-watch, an east-south-east breeze first teased and then caressed the mainsail, which rippled with pleasure like a cat being stroked. James, still bored, had us hoist a staysail and rigged it with the boat’s spare boom to starboard while the mainsail was braced to port, like a goose wing, and in this unlikely rig we pootled along at three knots, with a knot of tide helping us along. By the time we came back on watch at eight it was about dark; the wind had got up and the sky was a duvet of cloud.
Those next two watches, separated by fitful dozing, fully clothed, on the bunk, were so intense—black sea all around, waves piling up under the stern propelling us north at a crazy speed; anxious looks at the sails in case we carried too much canvas; porpoises zipping beside and beneath the bows and cutting the surface like tracer fire; no stars visible so that steering was by the seat of the pants, responding only to the swinging compass needle and the feel of wheel against current—that later, pooling the watch’s collective memory, we could remember practically nothing except the blur and buzz. The only other time that has happened to me was during the first week on Corsica’s alpine GR20 trail, whose narrative is fragmented, discontinuous, images lying curled and chaotic on the cutting-room floor of memory.
We gybed across Cardigan Bay all night, taking short turns on the wheel and watching and feeling the boat’s excitement as the wind rose again: a rocky night, cold, wet and sensationally alive. James came on deck at some unremembered time and we took the topsail in to ease Eda’s frantic capers. The odd celestial sparkle appeared, tantalising us, and I remember staring manically at the Pole Star for an hour or so while I was at the helm, trying to keep it in an eyeline triangle between the tip of the mainmast and the starboard shrouds, ignoring the compass’s lurching and letting the wheel pass through my hands almost without conscious thought. Steering is a pure art, subliminal. And the relationship between helmsman or walker and Polaris is as old as the ages of man. The empirical cycles of day, month, season and year are rocks to which we moor ourselves gratefully; and at times it seems as though we can still hold the hands of those who have gone before in an unbroken chain of cultural adventure. At midnight we slunk below with Bardsey Island, off the tip of the Llŷn peninsula, twenty or thirty miles away to the north-east.
At four, with no sign of dawn yet, we were back on deck, all clumsy from the motion: Eda still heading more or less dead north with the lights of Holyhead to starboard and a succession of dazzling firework-display light shows from car ferries crossing to and fro before us. Dublin lay thirty miles or so to the west—a purple glow on the horizon. Now the tide was with us we cruised over the ground, some three hundred feet beneath, at almost nine knots, ten miles every hour. A short orange burst of low sun at dawn to the west, then the cloud closed in again and we careered on. With first light it became a little easier to steer and to move about on deck; just before we were due to go below, the off-watch emerged (we had hardly seen them in two days) and for forty minutes nine of us cluttered the decks hauling on ropes: we hove-to and swapped the large jib for a smaller sail so that Eda would not plunge her forefoot down so much, wasting the wind and making her helm sluggish. James was the all-seeing, all-thinking conductor, barking orders when someone was about to come a cropper but always patient and always wanting us to understand why we were doing what we were doing.
Heaving-to is one of those counter-intuitive seagoing manoeuvres that landlubbers (among whom I count myself) find it hard to credit, even when they see it for themselves. The vessel is steered dead into the eye of the wind: there is a tremendous cracking and flapping of sails, sheets, stays and halyards and it feels as if something must tear loose, or snap—the racket is terrific. The rudder is turned fully to one side and lashed in that position; the boat bounces up and down on the spot, giving the crew time to get sails in, haul the boom amidships (four of us on the mainsheet, wellies slipping on the tilted deck and water washing around us as we braced ourselves against the port gunwale) and take a reef in the mainsail. Apart from sail-changing, this is the standard procedure if somebody goes overboard: it’s the marine equivalent of pulling onto the hard shoulder. The decks were slippery and we suffered a few comedy falls; no one was hurt, though, and no one got whacked on the head by the boom swinging across the deck as Edaresumed her course. At half-past eight we went below for a sausage-and-bacon butty and mugs of hot, sweet, reviving tea. At midday, just as we came on deck again, the skipper spotted the faint murky outline of the Calf of Man, dead ahead: we had made our landfall.
The mole at Peel harbour, halfway up the west coast of Man and our mooring for the night, juts out from the north end of St Patrick’s isle—almost an island, it is connected to Man by a narrow, sandy isthmus and a modern promenade and road. Patrick may never have visited the place, but a monastery once stood beneath the site of the medieval castle and St German’s cathedral which stands inside it. Germanus is well known in the literature—he was sent from Gaul to rid Britain of the Pelagian heresy42 in the fifth century. Man’s patron saint, Maughold, is said to have been converted by Patrick. The church that bears his name, on the north-east coast near Ramsey, was probably the core of the island’s principal monastery. It is no coincidence that harbour and monastic site are so closely associated. Monks and traders, raiders and royal fleets found the same places convenient and congenial; and where economics and patronage meet in the world, power follows.
Early Medieval sailors suffered the disadvantages of their technologies: the square-rigged vessel with a shallow keel cannot very well sail up-wind—much of any windward advantage gained is negated by leeway; but it can be drawn up on beaches or sailed up shallow creeks when larger seagoing craft with greater draught cannot. And oars give the shallow-draughted coaster the ability to make progress up rivers or lochs, or when there is no wind. In those opportunistic centuries before trade was once more regularised and controlled, coastal trading seems to have been an ad-hoc affair; but not without its own unwritten rules. Navigational and geographical realities constrained the number of good landing sites. Often kings gave special privileges to locations close to their centres of power in return for first pick of the goodies. Sometimes, foreigners were kept at a distance so that their bona fides could be checked before they were allowed entry to royal township or stronghold. On the Continent, famous trading sites, merchant towns in effect, grew up at places such as Quentovic on the River Canche in Picardy; at Dorestadt on the Rhine; at Dalkey Island off Dublin.
I have, over the years, compiled a map of sites where wics—coastal beaches with Early Medieval names that denote trading sites, markets or fairs—were sited around Britain’s coasts (the Gaelic equivalent may be porth or strand). North from the Scillies the north coast of Cornwall is not particularly friendly, but at Tintagel there was a royal and perhaps monastic site with a small harbour from as early as the fifth century which has yielded significant amounts of imported Mediterranean pottery. With a westerly wind it might just be made in a long single day’s passage from the Scillies. Directly north from Tintagel, Lundy Island has a beach, but is otherwise an unpromising port of call; on the other side of the Bristol Channel, though, on the south-west tip of Pembrokeshire, lie Milford Haven and several other appealing beach sites, including Watwick Bay, Musselwick Sands, Gateholm and Caldey Island (whence St Samson left on his travels after falling out with a drunken abbot). A few other islands off that coast offer good landing sites, too. Cardigan Bay has no wic names to tell of beach markets, but there are many early church sites, and plenty of sandy strands to land on. They may not have been popular with traders, though: the great inlet, easy to enter on a westerly, is difficult to leave on anything but an easterly. So from Pembroke onward northern travel must often have meant a long haul across to Dublin Bay or Dalkey Island just outside it; or to Holyhead, which had a famous early monastery and was a centre for British resistance against first Romans and then the Anglian warlords of North Britain.
One other Dark Age site might have provided a slightly shorter leg: Bardsey Island, off the tip of the Llŷn peninsula, was originally Ynys Enlli (the ‘Island in the currents’), otherwise known as the Island of twenty thousand saints. Vicious currents and tidal races will defeat the unwary, but there is a good harbour sheltered from westerlies on the east side (as I found out later in the year), with relatively easy access both to the mainland and back out to sea. St Cadfan built a monastery here early in the sixth century, and the island was a pilgrimage destination until recent times. In legend it is one of many places where ‘King’ Arthur was buried. East of Anglesey, in an otherwise unpromisingly embayed location, there seems to have been an important trading beach at Meols on the tip of the Wirral. Although the site itself has either been buried by sand or washed away, many thousands of finds have been retrieved from here over the centuries, including a very rare and important pilgrim’s flask that came from St Menas’s shrine (Menas was another martyred Roman soldier) near Alexandria. Whether it was bought as a trinket, an important relic carrying holy water or oil, or whether it was brought back by a pilgrim to the Holy Land, we cannot say. Meols is perhaps an unlikely site: the key might be its location at the mouth of the River Dee, which gave access deep inland to Chester, the brine spring wics of its hinterland and the famous British monastery at Bangor-is-y-Coed (of painful memory).
From Bardsey it is a relatively straightforward passage to Man where, depending on wind and tide, there are ports either to the west or east, although Peel is one of only a few landing sites on the rugged west coast. So the early sailor or pilot of a curragh was able to hop from one harbour to another, each one more or less accessible in a good day’s sailing or rowing, unless the fates intervened. Generally, such voyages as were made by saints and traders were confined to the summer months, April to October, perhaps; but the Irish Sea is notoriously fickle, subject to extreme tidal currents and to the short, choppy cross-seas that can undo all types of craft.
Man was a valuable and much fought-over kingdom from at least the seventh century, when Edwin of Northumbria conquered it by a naval assault. At other times it was subject to the kings of Gwynedd, its cultural heritage largely that of the Britons. It was conquered by Vikings around 900; still, there was sufficient Irish influence here for the Manx language to be a variety of Gaelic. Rivers aside, there are few Brythonic place names. Manx language declined to the point, in 1974, where the last native speaker, ‘Ned’ Mandrell died. It is now being revived, but English is the lingua franca. The accent is like a soft Cumbrian.
Peel was a cosy huddle of coloured houses, narrow streets rising up the hill from the broad sweep of pretty bay and harbour and river mouth crowded with boats and smokeries, only spoiled by the ill-sited power station that glowers down on it. The hills behind were emerald with dewy pasture, etched by drystone walls and the slick grey tarmac of narrow sine-wave lanes. Harbour facilities included a shower block, and the chance of a much-needed change into fresh clothes. Eda berthed too late for us to get a key; but Sarah, earning many Brownie points from her shipmates, slithered through a small high window in the ladies’ facilities and opened the door for us all to get in.
After a sensational supper of roast lamb, and feeling clean and fragrant enough to join polite society, we left Eda riding at her mooring and went for a beer in a small pub that might have served as the set for a 1970s TV show. It was our first drink since the Scillies. We met a friend of Georgia’s, a member of the RNLI crew here (I remember thinking that she was a little rash in accepting an offer of a ride round the TT course on his bike in the morning). Apart from two-wheeled latter-day invaders and tax exiles, Man keeps to itself and life’s pace is slower than on the mainland. A long, hearty session would have been an excellent way to end this leg of the journey; but after a single pint we were all so tired that we drifted back to the boat and crashed, now surrounded by a bristling fleet of small trawlers. The day’s brooding clouds were gone. The sky, as Rolf put it, had been polished: spring constellations shone bright and the harbour lights, fragmented by the water’s rippling surface, seemed to bounce them back.
The next morning, after a long, deep sleep with no watch on deck to interrupt it, I woke at seven-thirty and was out on deck soon after. The fishing fleet departing before first light had been ghostly quiet; now the morning was brilliant, and sitting on deck with a cuppa, taking pictures of the bay, I got chatting to a couple of local men perched on the harbour wall who had admired Eda and wanted a closer look. Slowly the boat came to life while the irresistible whiff of Chlöe’s Scotch pancakes wafted up through the galley skylight. The skipper briefed us on options for the next leg: a possible all-night transit through the North Channel to carry us clear of the Mull of Kintyre and Rathlin Island on a north-running tide; the winds persisting in unusual easterlies; possible anchorages along the Sound of Jura and beyond.
Sarah, Rolf and I walked up Corrin Hill behind the castle: immense, invigorating panoramas along the rocky coast and out to sea, although Ireland was invisible behind a low bank of cloud that may just have been sea fret. The view down on the town and St Patrick’s Isle was breathtaking, with the green sea beyond in late April’s brilliant light and Eda’s slim, nut-brown hull and mast tiny and fragile-looking against the harbour wall. Late morning begged for a coffee in the sunshine at a café on the promenade. Then Sarah headed for the beach, Rolf for the lifeboat museum and I for an exploration of the castle, with its ruined medieval cathedral and St Patrick’s church. It seems that wherever a sailing boat finds a comfortable anchorage or mooring, there will be the site of an Early Christian shrine, a hermit’s cell, perhaps a burial ground and church or a fully developed monastery.
The walls of the castle, probably belonging to the fifteenth century but owing their origins to the Anglo-Scottish wars of Edward I, enclose the whole of St Patrick’s Isle within its rocky natural defences. Inside, the stone remains of St Patrick’s church and its ninth- or tenth-century watchtower occupy a central, elevated platform, surrounded by a bank which may have defined a monastic vallum. It probably replaced an earlier wooden structure on the same spot. St German’s cathedral was first constructed in the twelfth century when it became the seat for a bishop, although its dedication may be original and pre-date the island’s ascription to Patrick.
The Dark Age world and mindset were not nearly so small as we might suppose. Links with Rome, Jerusalem and Byzantium were never entirely severed; the sea was the means and memory of transmission. Royal, secular powers liked to control the flow of trade even if they did not initiate it; ecclesiastical establishments first enjoyed the liturgical fruits of exotica—oil and wine, perhaps; then trinkets and relics; glass, pottery, books and letters. Sometimes a precious bundle of papyrus might make it all the way to these maritime lands from Egypt. In return, tin, slaves, furs, hounds, precious purple dye and other regional produce would turn up in the markets of Marseille, Alexandria or Ostia.
Until about 650 the Atlantic lands of Britain and Ireland were the absorbers of energy from the fissile politics and trade of the post-imperial Mediterranean world; after that, their intellectual energy and literary brilliance fanned Europe’s cultural embers and left a legacy not just of enchanting monuments but also of a culture of learning and craft—the culture of the Lindisfarne Gospels, the Books of Durrow and Kells and the enormous, abiding political influence of Iona and Northumbria in fashioning a new sort of rational state from the raw material of tribal petty kingship. For all the pottery, glasswork and trade in objects and goods implied by the archaeology, the main freight in these centuries may have been people, information, learning and cultural energy—a cargo of thought.
Lunch was a hot, juicy, distinctly indigenous kipper bap from the stall on the harbour wall—followed by a wander into town where we browsed a second-hand bookshop and bumped into clusters of shipmates enjoying their time off. We slipped our moorings at half-past three in the afternoon of a glorious clear, sunny day and cruised north-west with the descending slingshot arc of the sun ahead to port. The sea was milky flat, gelatinous almost, with not a breath of the promised easterly wind, so we chugged along on the engines as the sun, bursting into an egg-yolk orange disc of pure energy, brazed the rim of the horizon with its brilliance and slowly set, leaving a purple-orange glow to savour for the first hours of the evening watch. The silhouette of the Rhinns of Galloway framed the view ahead to starboard. On the Rhinns themselves, and along the coast of the Solway Firth, the remains of Early Medieval settlements abound: famous Latin-inscribed stones at Kirkmadrine; the British and Anglo-Saxon monastery at Whithorn, where large quantities of Frankish and Mediterranean imports have been found; Mote of Mark—a small coastal fort where once a craftsman in fine metals plied his trade; Ruthwell, where one of the great high Northumbrian crosses still stands. These were the lands and the sea-kingdom of the British of Rheged.
Where Galloway comes closest to the Irish coast—and the North Channel is a mere twenty miles wide (narrower still where Kintyre opposes Rathlin), the villages and small towns are paradoxically among the more remote of Scottish communities. And yet, for the Early Medieval period and beyond, the Irish Sea basin is best looked at from the water, as a cultural and trading core united, not divided by the sea. Contacts, political and religious links, economic ties were lasting, sustained and penetrating. On the west side, the monasteries and royal centres of Strangford Lough, Down and Antrim looked not just to the competing kingdoms of ancient Ulster for allies and rivals, but also to the Gaelic Scots of Argyll and the Britons of Clyde and Solway Firth. By the beginning of the seventh century their fortunes were also entwined with those of the kings of Northumbria, whose Idings and Yffings were Britain’s most powerful and stable ruling dynasties for a hundred years before Bede.
We sneaked through the North Channel at dead of night, the pulsing beacons of Rathlin and Sanda marking the reassuring bounds of deep water on either side. Later, Rolf and I couldn’t remember how much of that passage was under sail or powered: at one point we were dashing along on the tide at six knots with a steady wind on the starboard beam; at other times it seemed that the wind dropped off and Eda ran on her diesel engine. It was a night of intense watches, looking out for super-lit ferries crossing between Cairnryan and Larne; for smaller fishing vessels with their distinctive patterns of navigation lights drifting in and out of visibility ahead and to either side; then the immense loom of the Mull of Kintyre with its thousand-foot cliffs, absolutely dark and featureless and with seemingly not a soul living there, defined like a black hole by the absence of all light.
The evolution of the sailing boat to something near perfection in the last days of the age of sail is the record of a deep, deep past of human travel, knowledge and engineering apprenticeship in these waters, going back four thousand and more years. Sometimes one feels the embrace of all those sailors as comrades, tied by a unity of relationship to the sea. At other times there is loneliness in the knowledge that it can take you at any time; that fate can intervene in any passage in spite of all our modern navigational aids, the familiarity of the waters and reliable weather forecasts. It is possible to be intimidated by the sea, especially when it grows very big; but there is something humbling and comforting in the idea that humans are only ever indulged by the earth’s oceans; the sea is never our servant.
Rathlin Island, to port: three lights of its own, such are its dangers. Anciently, it had a monastery and it bears the unhappy history of being the first Irish church to be raided and plundered by Viking pirates in 795, just two years after Lindisfarne suffered the same fate. Contemporaries saw these visitations by heathen seafarers, during which their churches were burned, their shrines violated, their crosses overthrown, as acts of divine retribution for sins unconfessed or unaddressed. The Viking sailors who braved the northern seas were looking for cash and portable wealth so that they might go back to their homelands and afford brides in a polygamous society in which access to marriageable women had become increasingly an exclusive of the elite. The monks and nuns of the coastal foundations were easy prey, their divine protection withdrawn or simply inadequate. The raids precipitated a quarter of a millennium of conflict between the Atlantic peoples and the militarily brilliant Scandinavian raiders; depending on your point of view, the Viking legacy was either disastrous or a rich addition to the cultural exuberance of medieval Europe.
Here is my diary entry for Friday 25 April:
None of our watch can believe we have had four hours’ sleep when we’re dragged out of our bunks at 7.45. The winds have been variable all night; as we go on watch they are light and easterly but the engine is off. We see the cliffs of Antrim to SW; Rathlin Island on the beam; Islay forward to port; the Paps of Jura faintly ahead & Kintyre to starboard. We work our way up the coast making as much N and E as possible.
Within ten mins of us going on watch the wind has risen to a stiff 4/5; we are steering stiff & with a heavy forefoot & it’s time to drop topsail, jib and reef the mainsail. So the off-watch is dragged back up; we heave-to in rocky waves, having been on a fast reach with the lee rail well under water… she’s happier & quicker with less canvas… And then 20 mins later, as we watch windfarms spinning on Kintyre, the wind drops dead, there’s no steerage, and we have to run the motor.
And so it went all day. By the second dog-watch I was steering us through the narrowing Sound of Jura past the Point of Knap, and Kilmory, where Sarah and I had stumbled upon that blissfully sheltered chapel full of early sculpture during an autumn squall; Edawas just the right side of luffing and made her north-easting towards Crinan without getting too close to either shore, rails under water, riding the edge of a perfect wind along the ancient reptilian metamorphic scenery of the Tayvallich peninsula and the east coast of Jura. The skipper pointed out the cottage at Barnhill where Orwell wrote Nineteen Eighty-Four after the end of the war. It was exhilarating sailing, utterly absorbing of mind and body and lived entirely in the moment.
So to Crinan: a quiet overnight anchorage off the mouth of the canal that connects our Sound with Loch Fyne and the Sound of Bute. I took the chance of a restful evening off-watch to try my hand at some fishing, while the skipper deployed a couple of creels. Neither of us had any luck; but a chicken casserole, the setting—knobbly rocks, a quiet cove, gentle fading light, a few time-expired vessels at their moorings; a hotel clinging to the shore below dense woodland; mountains beyond and a sturdy fortified tower-house, Duntrune Castle, standing on the point—all those, and a late dram on deck after sunset, compensated. Dunadd, oddly, lay invisible beyond the bog of Mòine Mhòr, hidden by a one-hundred-and-fifty-foot-high spit on the north side of the bay through which the River Add drains. It was a pity not to be able to see the fortress from the sea; and I wondered how the sailor was welcomed to the ancestral seat of the Dál Riatan kings in the days of the curragh.
We found out next morning as we motored off our anchorage past Ardnoe point, back across the mouth of Loch Craignish and out into the Sound of Jura. One of the great tidal races in the world was running at full tilt: to port it looked as though we must be approaching the foot of a weir: a wall of water, a standing wave, seemed to tumble over some invisible subaqueous dam, boiling the sea around us. Dashing from the Atlantic into the Sound, the tides have to squeeze into a narrow gap, less than a mile wide, between the northern tip of Jura and the island of Scarba. Through the Gulf of Corryvreckan, the ‘cauldron of the freckled seas’, these waters ebb and flow twice a day, forming a great natural wonder—a whirlpool notorious among sailors and marvellous to visitors watching from the safety of the shore or the deck of a powerful boat. We kept a discreet distance. Sarah promises to swim it some time (at slack water).
Now I understood how complete was Dunadd’s location in Kilmartin Glen, protected by an expanse of bog, the ancestral legacy of megalithic burial monuments and its own impressive ramparts, and by the potent magic of a great swirling circle of mysterious currents,43 guarded in legendary days by the hag goddess Cailleach Bheur, who washed her plaid there. Any unwitting approach through the gulf by attackers or inexperienced sailors would lead to death; its safe passage must have been a sign of the indulgence of the king in his seat in the great mead hall at Dunadd. It is said that the roar of the whirlpool can be heard ten miles away.
This revelation got me thinking, in conversation with James McKenzie, about Dark Age navigation. We agreed that smaller vessels must have hopped along the coasts of the Irish Sea and Scottish archipelago in series of day-sails. I speculated that pilot knowledge must have been critical to a safe passage, and James showed me his pilotage notes for these waters, where the inexperienced or unwary sailor is as like as not going to come a cropper. We looked out the charts for our passage from Falmouth and pointed at likely places where boats negotiating these waters from Francia or the Mediterranean might land and pick up pilots to take them onward. Unsurprisingly, perhaps, it came to us that the Scillies were a key setting-off point—a cluster of safe anchorages and trading settlements where information and expertise might be sought in exchange for small, interesting or high-value goods. Many of the other places where such voyages might call were those that were, historically, the sites of early churches and monasteries, royal palaces or places where markets took place regularly or intermittently over the centuries of the Early Medieval period: Tintagel, Whithorn, Meols, Caldey Island, Peel and so on. In some cases these were neutral locations; in others, royal prerogative ruled and, given the large amount of human traffic evidenced by the travels of the early saints, no doubt the churches fostered their own nautical expertise. From the sixty or so accounts of sea journeys recorded in the life of St Colmcille, it’s clear that the monks of Iona were their own pilots; might they have offered their services to traders and to ecclesiastical travellers like Arculf?
Adomnán called the Corryvreckan Charybdis Brecani, referring to the whirlpool which forms in the Strait of Messina between Sicily and Calabria. In a small tale of prophecy, he tells how Colmcille had a vision of a monk, Colmán mac Beogni who, on his way to Iona from Rathlin, was in danger of being sunk by the whirlpool and who raised his hands in prayer to quell the terrible and turbulent seas. In an animist world, albeit a Christianised one, the forces of nature loomed large in the physical and spiritual lives of generations of intrepid travellers. The most adventurous of them all, St Brendan, sailed far beyond landmark and pilotage to explore even more exotic worlds and wonders in his search for the ultimate in peregrinatio—the journey abroad for Christ.
If the Western seaways of the Dark Ages were busy with boats, traders, raiders and travellers, the effects of their networking on economy, religion and culture went beyond a coastal periphery. In Ireland goods were carried deep inland along the lines of major river systems; where kings’ influence spread, so did their lines of patronage and the gifts and perquisites with which they maintained their networks of kin affiliations. But it is difficult to directly comprehend the effects of this traffic, even in the artefactual record. The missionary wanderings of early monks are often described with approbation; even so, the missions of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries and the fanaticism of our own times are a warning of the social and cultural devastation that zeal carries in its baggage. It seems to me that the explosion of monastic enthusiasm, particularly in the Ireland of the sixth and seventh centuries, cemented existing tribal structures rather than overthrew them; that it gave new opportunities and impetus for elites to explore and exploit cultural niches as an alternative to economically and socially unproductive warfare. Pre-Christian belief in a suite of gods and mediating ancestors was probably not replaced by a solid, universal belief in a single, all-powerful God; rather, I think, a new version of animism was socially negotiated. The church understood that integrating existing sentiments with its tidings of Good News (the Gospels) worked. The message of simplicity, generosity and asceticism might even have benefited a population of rural poor (although I am sceptical). But there is little doubting the intellectual revolution which took place in ideas of kingship and statehood during the sixth and seventh centuries. It fostered a rational, self-aware theory of a state that might survive the death of the person of the king; a sustainable and hugely influential model.
A more inadvertent effect of international seafaring and commerce, repeated with equally regrettable consequences by the mercantile empires of the great European states from about 1600 onwards, was the introduction of diseases to societies with no immunity. There is a broad consensus that the end of the trade in goods from the East Mediterranean, which can be dated to the middle of the sixth century, resulted from the arrival of a great plague, mentioned in contemporary sources and originating in the port cities of Constantinople and the Levant in the reign of the Emperor Justinian. That plague had devastating effects on Atlantic Britain too: among its suspected casualties was Maelgwyn of Gwynedd, the greatest of the five tyrants of Gildas’s ‘complaint’ epistle. When trade resumed towards the end of that century, its horizons were more limited: Western Gaul became the principal Atlantic source of trade in ideas and objects.
On the evening of the day in which we sailed out of Crinan, we ghosted into Tobermory Bay, all brightly coloured houses, crowded jetties (we had to appropriate, with all due permissions, the lifeboat mooring) and drunks—it being the weekend of the Mull Music Festival. Bemused, we strolled along the promenade and front street and up steep, narrow lanes for a view back down onto the harbour, picking our way past clumps of revellers spilling into the road. The creamy light of evening, the reds, blues and yellows of the buildings with a backdrop of dark grey cloud, was an acrylic palette to set against the green waters of the Sound of Mull. No wonder artists and photographers flock to this place. We managed to get a shower despite the competition, sank pints of beer from plastic glasses sitting on the pavement outside a pub (there was no room inside) and tried a dram of whisky from the Tobermory Distillery stall on the front. Then, like outback recluses, we retreated to the safety and cosy fug of Eda’s saloon for a relaxing evening; and for the first time, I remember, we felt the painful contemplation of journey’s end: goodbyes and partings.
Our last full day’s sailing, in pearlescent sunshine and light breezes, took us past Ardnamurchan Point and the seductive island jewels of Rhum, Eigg and Muck, drawing us on towards the Cuillin ridge on Skye—awesome and compelling, a noble scar and haunt of legendary heroes. Our final anchorage was Inverie where we landed from the dinghy, after a farewell supper, for a beer in the Old Forge, mainland Britain’s remotest pub (it is not connected by road: drinkers must walk or sail and earn their dram the hard way). A long, long sunset on deck, bathing in golds and greens among the glistening tumble-burn mountains of Knoydart. We cruised into the port of Mallaig the next morning: Mallaig, where Britain’s railway system runs out.
Unable, really, to articulate our feelings, those of us who were leaving, abandoning Eda to her summer sailing, watched silently as the Highlands passed us by on either side, the rush of the swift-falling glens silent beyond the clatter of the train and our own internal peregrinations.