The Summer Isles by Philip Marsden

Review by Peter Reason, 17 October 2019

The Summer Isles is an account of a single-handed voyage from the south coast of England round the west of Ireland and on to the northwest of Scotland in a small wooden sailing boat. I must declare a personal interest, as Philip Marsden’s voyage followed a course similar to my own voyage of a few years ago, and he wrote a kind comment after reading the manuscript of my account, In Search of Grace.

All such voyages are an excuse for an adventure, yet they often carry with them an underlying inquiry that gives them a deeper meaning; which comes first, the quest for adventure or the deeper meaning, is always a moot question. David Gange journeyed by sea kayak from the far north of Shetland down the west coasts of the British Isles exploring the history of the coastal communities. It is impossible to tell from reading The Frayed Atlantic Edge which of his identities is dominant—the kayaker or the historian—and neither does it matter. I described my own voyage as an ecological pilgrimage exploring the human place on the planet, but it was clear I also loved identifying as a single-handed sailor.

Marsden explores the several reasons for setting out on his adventure both in the title of his book and in the first chapter. He appears ambivalent about the sea. As he sails along the coast of Cornwall on a preliminary outing, he anticipates with some anxiety his forthcoming voyage, ‘What, in God’s name, have I taken on?’  A little later, as he watches the waves roll into the distance, ‘their backs glittering like jewels,’ he provides at least part of an answer: ‘It is for such moments that all the labour of boats is worth it, that everything is worth it.’ It is a question and response familiar to any sailor of small boats offshore.

There are, however, two other purposes for his voyage. One is to fulfil a promise to his Aunt Bridget, with whom he roamed the mountains of northern Scotland prior to her untimely death from a fall, to visit the Summer Isles, an archipelago on the northwest coast of Scotland. The other is to explore ‘the otherworld’, a magical place that exists in the Celtic imagination, lying underneath the everyday. This is where, alongside the real islands of the western coasts, are ‘fictious’ islands such as Tír na nÓg and Tí na mBeo, the most famous of which is Hy-Brazil, which exist in ‘the borderlands of what is real and what is imagined’. These otherworld islands are sometimes there, sometimes not; they are the stuff of dreams and imagination: ‘Places are never just places: they are story and myth and belief’.  Marsden tells us that such stories have fascinated him all his life: ‘The otherworld… has always occupied a certain place in the collective unconscious, and drawn a certain type to its shores. I should know. For most of my life, it’s where I have chosen to live.’

He buys an old wooden boat, Tsambika, prepares her for the long voyage, and sets off in early spring. He has previously never skippered a boat ‘anywhere I couldn’t reach by lunchtime,’ although boats and sailing have been part of his life since his grandfather taught him to sail. Two nicely drawn maps show the places he visits, some well-known like the Blasket Islands off the Dingle peninsula and the ‘small isles’ of the Inner Hebrides; others less well known and only accessible by boat, such as the Inishkeas in County Mayo and Inishkeel in Donegal. (As I followed his journey, I discovered that the latter island is not even mentioned in the Irish Cruising Guide). There is enough about sailing and life on board to locate this as an account of a sailing voyage; the reader gets close to his experience, his anxiety and his choices. But this is not a book with a primary focus on the sailing: it is more, as the subtitle tells, a voyage of the imagination.

Wherever Marsden can he goes ashore to explore the ruins of villages and religious sites and reflects on their history; and he tracks down storytellers, mythologists, singers and others, to talk with them about the real and imaginary stories of the land. Among those he meets are Danny Sheehy, poet and boatbuilder in Dingle, who blesses the boat as he leaves; Rory Roscommon, currach-builder, on Inis Meáin; Pascal Whelan on Omey, John Purser, crofter, poet and musicologist, on Skye; there are many more. He weaves their stories in with his own accounts of Irish and Scottish mythology.

A passage that particularly engaged me, and which places the quest for the otherworld into context, explores the influence of nostalgia on our lives. He quotes from the pioneering naturalist Frank Fraser Darling, writing in Island Farm in the 1930s, wondering if the sense of nostalgia grows with age: ‘How far does it make a man creative or does it become a token of his defeat?’ As I read The Summer Isles, I do find myself wondering to what extent the pursuit of the otherworld is an escape from the challenges of the contemporary life. Surely, Marsden responds, ‘all belief systems retain a vision of a lost perfection’ and the islands of the otherworld ‘all offered hints of a vanished and noble past’. While nostalgia at its most basic is an elevation of the past, Marsden reaches for a deeper meaning: nostalgia as a sudden transcendence, reaching to ‘the exhilarating sense that all time exists behind the screen of the physical world.’ Our greatest art, he contends, ‘owe a little to that capacity of longing.’ Maybe one of the challenges of our time is our obsession with material ‘stuff’ at the expense of cultivating the imagination.

After essential repairs in Lough Foyle on the north coast of Ireland Marsden crosses to Islay on the west coast of Scotland. The voyage stretches out into the autumn. Keen to reach his destination, he covers the Scottish islands less well than the Irish ones, although he visits Jura, Canna and Skye. The weather is difficult for a small boat, ‘an endless troupe of gales waiting to come onstage and perform their little routine’. There is one mention of the unease of climate change, the ‘planetary anxiety… that the whole system is more charged, poised on the edge of uncontrolled violence’—and surely there is an opportunity missed here, to link the old stories and human imagination to the existential crisis of our times?

The Summer Isles is well-researched and informed; the writing throughout is elegant and engaging; Marsden carries the reader with him at sea, on actual islands, and in the imagination. It will appeal to all who enjoy a travel story, whether at sea or not; and maybe in particular to those who love the western coasts and are fascinated by the pursuit of mythical lands and stories.

Peter Reason is a writer who links the tradition of travel and nature writing with the ecological predicament of our time. His most recent publication is On Presence: Essays | Drawings, with artist Sarah Gillespie http://peterreason.eu/OnPresence.htmlHis writing includes In Search of Grace: An Ecological Pilgrimage (Earth Books, 2017) and Spindrift: A Wilderness Pilgrimage at Sea (Vala Publications and Jessica Kingsley, 2014). Find Peter at www.peterreason.eu  and on Twitter @peterreason.

Philip Marsden, The Summer Isles (Granta, 2019). 978-1783782994, 352 pp., hardback.

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