The Summer Isles: a book review

by frankbeswick

The Summer Isles,by Philip Marsden, makes an excellent and compelling read.

The Summer Isles, subtitled a Voyage of the Imagination, is an account of a nostalgic boat trip from the author's home in Cornwall, in South West England, in honour of a promise that he made to a deceased aunt many years ago. The book is an eye-opener about the challenges faced by even a master of the yachtsman's craft when dealing with the wild waters that lie on the west coasts of Britain and Ireland. But the book is the work of a well-read scholar and writer, so the journey is partly a voyage through the culture, myth and history of Ireland and Scotland.

Photo courtesy of JonKline,of Pixabay

The Beginning

The Summer Isles are a small, now uninhabited archipelago a day or two's sailing north  of the Isle of Skye, east of the Isle of Lewis  and north west of the northern town of Ullapool. They were the location where Sir Frank Fraser Darling spent a year so so trying to prove that an island farm was still humanly and economically viable in the 1940s, and they are visible from the wild lands of Assynt. It was from his teenage visits to his aunt and uncle, a couple who liked to dwell in wilderness of Assynt, that the author first saw the Summer Isles misty in the hazy distance. For him and his beloved aunt Brigit they became in a way islands of myth and imagination, places to which they would at one future time go. This is the genesis in the author's mind of the idea that islands are mythopeic locations, where the human imagination  flourishes unfettered.    

But Brigit was never to visit the isles. An enthusiastic mountain walker she one day set off alone to ascend Ben More Assynt [Big Mountain of Assynt] and never returned. Searchers found her body at the base of a gully, down which she had fallen. So the author's journey to the Summer Isles was a long-overdue act of posthumous promise keeping.

The second root of the journey lay in the author's nautical  background. From his early years he had gained experience with yachts, and this was to be essential to his success on the voyage,for the waters in which he was voyaging are dangerous and require skill. At all times in the book Marsden reveals his extensive knowledge of seamanship, and this contributes much to the high quality of the book.   

The third root from which the book springs is the author's high level of scholarship. He is clearly a man who has read widely and deeply in the fields of myth, folklore and history. His mythical interests determined his route. Rather than take the simple route from the south coast of Cornwall up the safe Irish Sea he chose the dangerous route of going up the rocky islet-strewn coast of Western Ireland  and then the dangerous seas of Western Scotland. The extra distance involved extended the journey time, already lengthened by his need to stop and research places and people en route. This meant that he commenced earlier in Spring than most yachtsmen would and extended his yachting in stormy Scottish waters later than many would deem safe. 

This book should be essential reading for anyone who is tempted to take a sailing boat out lightly. At every point in this book, which is as much an adventure story as it is a cultural exploration  and a personal odyssey,  we  are reminded of the dangers of the sea, and especially of seas around the area where the Western Atlantic fringes upon the British Isles.  I am reminded of Nicholas Monsarrat's novel, the Cruel Sea, where he says that the only enemy is the sea, for it is insensitive to human pain and death.   

Irish Waters 1

The tension commences early when Marsden tells of a yachtsman who was forced to turn back by the mountainous swells that he encountered on rounding the south west tip of Ireland, but he was fortunate in this respect, for he did not meet the worst of them. But he at all times in this section emphasises the difficulties that he faced in threading  the narrow channels littered with rocks that were strewn along his route. Readers who love seamanship will enjoy these passages.

The  author  did not even dream of nearing,let alone landing on the precipitous fang of Skellig Michael that juts uncompromisingly from the ocean west of Kerry, but instead made for Dingle, where his yacht was accompanied by Fungi the Dolphin, who has adopted the  harbour as his very own theatre. At Dingle he moored and took a ferry to the now deserted Blasket Isles, that produced a great, but short-lived literary tradition. The whole Irish leg was characterised by meetings with interesting characters, some of whom occasionally accompanied him for part of his voyage.

From Dingle he advanced to the Shannon, where he moored for a while and then skirted the  awesome Cliffs of Moher as he went to the Aran Isles, where he moored and explored the culture of this famed archipelago. The trip until then was characterised by open water, but going north of Aran he began to run into the fragmented islands and rocks that lie off Slyne Head, Connemara  and lovely County Mayo, my wife's ancestral county. Here in this dangerous seaway he had to rely on charts and the pilot book to avoid running onto rocks. He skirted the dangerous headland of Achil Head on Achil Island, on the beach  beneath which I camped so many years ago. Memories!

Here he delves into history  and folklore of islands such as Inishboffin  [White Bull Island] and Inishturk [Wild Pig Island] and hears legends of the Sidhe [the Fairy Folk.] There are people who still believe in them and others who are unsure, but play safe. He hears the story of the great storm of 1927, which killed many fishermen and ruined the fishery on Inishboffin. He was later to drop anchor off Inishkea south, off the Mullet Peninsula, which lost so many men in 1927 that it and Inishkea North had to be evacuated in 1932. He paid a poignant visit to the ruined cottages on the northern isle, now filling up with sand. On this isle, now a national nature reserve, he visited an archaeological site where monks had produced purple dye by boiling whelk shells for use in their scriptoria, which produced the magnificent illuminated manuscripts that we still treasure today. How unjust are those who belittle the Irish!  


Irish Waters 2

Donegal and Northward

Donegal Bay proved to be a wide and lonely expanse of sea dominated by the  Mayo coastline to the south and the view of the distant precipices of Slieve League, Europe's highest sea cliffs, to the east.Here was dangerous water with Atlantic swells from the west meeting the swirling gusts and currents and eddies that bedevil cliffs.Having negotiated the narrow channels past the isle of Aran More [Big Aran]  he was guided into Burtonport at night by a friend whom he had radioed to take him through the tight entrance to the harbour. At Burtonport he made temporary  repairs and took the ferry to Tory Island. This island is famed in Irish myth as the home of Balor, the giant with an eye that burned to death anyone on whom he turned it.The isle still has an islander elected as king who performs some social functions. There is a good book about the political struggle of a Catholic priest, Diarmuid O' Peicin. to gain justice for his parishioners from the neglectful Irish state [see below.]

Thereafter Marsden turned eastward,skirting magnificent Lough Swilly and the Inishowen Peninsula,the northernmost point of Ireland, before turning into  Lough Foyle to have some  repairs done. He stayed for as long as necessary, for delays had cost him time and as midsummer was past the days were becoming shorter and the weather worsening. He said farewell to Erin and turned his bow north east to Islay,the most southerly of the Scottish Isles.The last lap of the journey was beginning.

Scottish Waters

After a brief stop in Islay where our somewhat tardy voyager sampled some of the delights of this isle renowned for its whisky, he set off on a potentially hazardous leg of the voyage because eschewing the windy west shores of Jura, which lie on the Minch, the waters between  the Inner and Outer Hebrides, he took the narrow straits north past Jura and Mull. These took him near to the fearsome tide rips and swirling currents of the Bay of Corrievreckan. Here is a stretch of turbulent water,of overfalls where the sea turns chaotically choppy, and a whirlpool second in size to Norway's infamous maelstrom. Corrievreckan lies between Jura and Mull, and Marsden  planned to avoid it, but some way from the bay he ran into an overfall.There was nothing to do but to sail on through a phenomenon that the  admiralty pilot book describes as best avoided,but there were a few moments of terror when he thought that Corrievreckan's waters extended further out than he had thought. Then he passed through and the terror subsided.

He stopped at two more isles, Skye, where he moored at Portree and did some walking in the strange landscape of Quraing, with its jagged pinnacles; and then he moored  for a final visit to Canna, where John Lorne Campbell had established a famous library of Gaelic culture. Marsden had visited Campbell's widow some years before and found her a wonderful woman, but now he came in her memory, for she was long  departed.  . 

It was now time for the final dash to the Summer Isles. Marsden drove northward and the Summer Isles hove into view, but as he approached Tanera More, the largest of these isles and the only one with a usable harbour the seas were becoming mountainous and the seasons were turning against him.Landing would have been suicidal. But he knew that he had kept his word to his aunt. He had made the voyage. But there was an upside to his not landing, for the Summer Isles remained for him islands of the imagination. He does not describe the journey home, but I presume that he made his way home to Cornwall via the safer and shorter route down the Irish Sea, a route safer and shorter than the journey that he had taken.

This was an enjoyable book enhanced by the provision of two good, well-drawn maps that enable you to follow the route with ease.There are, however, few photographs. I commend this book to you readers in the confidence that you will enjoy it. 

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Updated: 12/23/2019, frankbeswick
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frankbeswick on 11/18/2019

I do not know of anyone else who has taken that particular route from Cornwall to the Summer Isles via the West of Ireland on a yacht.

WriterArtist on 11/18/2019

I have always wondered how travelers undertake lone journeys, why don't they venture in an unknown territory with a friend or an expert. At the same time, I feel they are quite brave and the ruthless wanderlust make them do such things. The article especially becomes an enjoyable read as the author undertakes an unbeaten path to fulfill his promise to his Aunt.

frankbeswick on 11/15/2019

Dear Mira,

The names that I have given are mainly in Celtic languages, still minority tongues in the British Isles.These are Welsh and Cornish, and the several kinds of Gaelic [the three dialects of Irish, Scottish and Manx.] Fair Isle, a lonely Scottish island, still uses occasional words of Norn, a Scandinavian language.

The names that I quoted were in Irish and Scots Gaelic. Ben [mountain] more [big] in Gaelic, which would be Pen Mawr [pronounced mower, with ow as in how] in Welsh. Aran may derive from ard [high/high place.] In Cornwall we have the Lizard Peninsula, which means Lis [place] ard [high.] Lis in Cornish is llys in Welsh. To pronounce ll in Welsh say cl. Portree means the port of the king. Corrie can be a circular head of a glaciated valley in Gaelic, but it would be cwm [coom] in Welsh and combe [pronounced coombe] in dialects of English with Celtic influence. A skellig is a jagged rock in the sea [skerry in western English dialects.] Don't worry much about English dialects, they are almost extinct, though they influence place names.

I cannot translate all place names, but Mayo,my wife's ancestral county, is in Gaelic Maigh Eo, the plain [maigh, pronounced may] eo, pronounced yo, [yew tree] hence the plains of the yew trees, which no longer grow there.

Uillean is pronounced illian.

Cornish is said to be related to Welsh, but I have noted affinities to Gaelic in it. For example, yr [er] is the Welsh for the,while an is Gaelic and Cornish for the.

As for the weather, Mira, the mists seem attractive, but at the moment the weather is not good, with some flooding and heavy rain.

Mira on 11/15/2019

I enjoyed the names in this piece. There's a sonority to them which makes me recall voices from various parts of the British Isles and from Ireland in documentaries on TV :) I hope that I'll be able to travel around the UK and Ireland in the future, as they all seem like enchanted places to me for some reason. Maybe the weather, with all those mists, has something to do with it :)

frankbeswick on 11/13/2019

Marsden started his voyage from Fowey [pronounced Foy.] One of my earlier articles, Walking the South Cornish Coast, was set around Fowey.

frankbeswick on 11/13/2019

Derdriu, South Cornwall is where the author lives, so that is where he started his voyage. The detour along the west coast of of Ireland was for interest, but you may be right that it is the route that the author's aunt would have chosen.But yes, South Cornwall seas are also dangerous.

Bodies and possessions of fallen climbers are recovered and handed over to the families of the deceased. Burial where they lie is not permitted.

frankbeswick on 11/13/2019

I suspect, BSG, that the western Irish route was more interesting than the Irish Sea route and provided more writing material.

blackspanielgallery on 11/13/2019

Was there a reason to take the longer, more perilous route?

DerdriuMarriner on 11/13/2019

frankbeswick, Thank you for the photos, practicalities and products.
Does the author explain why he chose the less traveled, more difficult, most dangerous route along the western Ireland and Scotland coastlines over the safer, simpler route along coastal south Cornwall and over the Irish Sea? Perhaps it's the route that his aunt would have preferred. But at the same time is southern Cornwall not where it historically has been easy for boats and ships to falter, impale on rocks or sink?
This is perhaps a bit morbid, but prompted by reading about the 21st-century concerns of Chinese and Nepalis over fallen climbers, possessions and trash in the Himalayas. Is a marker left when a fallen climber, such as Philip Marsden's Aunt Brigit, is retrieved or would he/she be buried there with memorial plaque/tombstone? Would possessions and trash from fallen and surviving trekkers be left in place or periodically removed?

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