How can you not be a little captivated when the island of Inishglora makes its appearance on the page? It is here, so legend tells, that the children of Manannan Mac Lir, god of the sea ‘lie buried in thin soil’. And be honest: aren’t you intrigued by mention of ‘The Tale of Macc Da Tho’s Pig’? Suffice to say, rival tribes attend a feast, oak trees are pulled up by the roots, and the whole affair ends in a bloodbath.
Philip Marsden’s lovely book is full of such stories, dredged up from the rich tradition of ancient and medieval literature. They punctuate his account of a sea voyage (single-handed, for the most part) from Cornwall, up the Irish coast, and over to northwest Scotland – a place that has been percolating in Marsden’s memory for decades. Sailing aficionados need not be alarmed, however. There is much talk of halyards and sea-charts in the book, too: geology messes with magnet readings, tillers are gripped in choppy waters, and the roughest stretches of the journey sound terrifying. At times the coastline ‘looks like someone had taken a hammer to a slab of toffee.’ In such circumstances, ‘when the winds abeam and the seas are small, you become a willing hostage to the immediate.’ Practicalities trump the urge to meditate on history or the imaginative power of islands.
Best of all are the people Marsden encounters. Some are just plain gloomy: the old sea-dog in the pub who announces, menacingly, that ‘the shore is your enemy. Rather die in deep water than be battered to a corpse on the rocks.’ Some are resigned to their meagre lot: the stubbly chap in his isolated mobile home who thinks his surroundings are ‘bloody beautiful’. Must be hard in the winter, Marsden suggests. ‘Winters are bloody beautiful, too,’ comes the reply.
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