In Ancient Wakes
C.C. O'Hanlon charts a course back in time, sailing round the history of Britain's celtic coastlines.
It is not down in any map; true places never are.
Herman Melville, Moby-Dick
Muckle Flugga: 60° 51.3’N, 00° 53’W
Sunset in summer, in the high latitudes of the Shetland Isles, is an uncertain hour the locals call “Simmer Dim”. The sun touches the horizon at around 11pm, and as its lower edge is drawn into the bleak, gunmetal oiliness of the North Atlantic swell, the pale umber cast across the high seaward cliffs begins to recede into shadow.
The light dims, but if the moon is full, the stubborn gloaming refuses to surrender to darkness. A couple of hours later, the sun will rise again, although on many days it will creep above the horizon unseen, shrouded by leaden stratus clouds that descend with the deep depressions that track north-eastwards across the Atlantic to rile the fast, south-going current of the North Atlantic Drift.
We had set off three days earlier from Castle Bay, on Eilean Barraigh (Barra Island), in the Scottish Western Isles – my friend, Michael Moulin, and I, aboard a fragile 7.5-metre yacht more suited to inshore day sailing than the long sea passages that were necessary to get as far as the Western Isles, let alone the Shetlands. We had weighed anchor at dusk and drifted from the lee of the high stone walls of Caisteal Chiosmuil (Kisimul Castle), the 600-year-old water-bound redoubt of the Clan MacNeill that rises from a reef in the middle of the bay. Then we reached under full sail through the narrow, rock-strewn channel between Barraigh and the southern island of Vatersay to the white-capped swells of the Atlantic, before bearing away north-west towards St Kilda, the grim shark tooth of barren, uninhabited peaks and rocky skerries that forms the westernmost island group of Britain.
Our course was plotted in the wake of Viking longships that made their escape through these waters from raiding parties to Ireland and the west coasts of England, Wales and Scotland a thousand years ago. They ran for the safety of the open sea on homeward voyages that would take them either north-east to the wide channel between the Orkneys and Sheltands then east to the Jutland Peninsula and the Baltic Sea or, like us, even further north, past the small, rugged islands of Sula Sgeir and Rona – more isolated even than St. Kilda – to a landfall on Unst, the most northern of the Shetland Isles, before rounding an outcrop called the Outer Stacks and laying a course to the fractured coast north-west of modern-day Stavanger, in Norway, where long, witch-finger fjords had been cleaved between high, sheer walls of rock by the stormy Norwegian Sea. Sailing deep within them, across sheltered waters as still and dark as molasses, the Norsemen would at last reach home – small, fortified settlements built close by the shore on rich grasslands coloured with star hyacinth and purple heather and backed by sloping stands of pine, spruce and juniper.
We had made our landfall off Gloup Holm, a small island off the north-west corner of Yell, one of the larger Shetland Isles. We had drifted a little further eastwards than we had planned. Two nights before, we had been forced to reef – and later, to hand – our sails in a rising south-westerly wind that veered westerly as we rounded St Kilda and became a severe gale. The steep following seas gained height and power as they rolled in without obstruction from the Atlantic and crossed the continental shelf. Solid water tumbled over the yacht’s transom into the open cockpit, sweeping us from our seats. Steering by hand became too dangerous. We lashed the tiller to leeward and let the boat drift a-hull as we took refuge in the cabin. More than once, a breaking crest tipped the yacht onto its gunwales, laying its mast in the water. We held our breaths as the hull shuddered, then plunged, as if in slow motion, down four storeys through the wave’s foam-streaked, perpendicular face. Only in the eerie, momentary windlessness of the trough did the righting moment of the vessel’s lead keel assert itself to lever the rigging from the sea.
Now the wind had dropped. The grim scud had dissipated and the swell, tinged a muddy brown by the churned-up detritus of the sea bottom and run-off from the shore, was a long, gently undulating lope. In a dying breeze, we closed the cliffs of Herma Ness to round the rocky outcrops of Muckle Flugga and the Outer Stacks. Atlantic puffins, clown-like birds with unlikely white and black heads, orange and black striped beaks and squat, rotund black bodies that even penguins would find ungainly, bobbed at the edge of deeply serrated skerries atop which other puffins protected their nests from predatory gannets and guillemots, each nest containing just one precious egg.
Sixty metres above the rookeries, on a lump of black rock too small to be called an island, loomed the Muckle Flugga lighthouse – a whitewashed stone tower, the only man-made structure on that line of longitude between the top of the British Isles and the North Pole. It was built in 1858 by David Stevenson and his brother, Thomas, father of the writer, Robert Louis Stevenson, who visited the light with his father and later, it is said, used a map of the tree-less island of Unst, off which Muckle Flugga lies, as inspiration for his novel, Treasure Island.
Lymington Quay: 50° 45.2’N, 1° 31.7’W
Every summer, in every boatyard along the south coast of England, there was at least one crew preparing a yacht for a trans-Atlantic crossing. Most wouldn’t be ready in time – some never would be – but those who managed to work through their endless lists of yardwork, everything from replacing running rigging and reinforcing sails to checking rudder posts, pintles and gudgeons and antifouling the hulls, might finally cast off in early autumn and make for the warm waters below the 35th parallel.
The usual track was south-west, passing well offshore of the fearsome reefs and tidal races around Ile D’Ouessant, at the south-western corner of the English Channel, to cross the unpredictable maw of the Bay of Biscay to Cape Finisterre (in English, “the end of the world”). From there, they would make either for Gibraltar, at the entrance to the Mediterranean, or, more likely, the volcanic Canary Islands, off the coast of southern Morocco, where, like Christopher Columbus’s exploratory fleet 500 years before them, they would rest, make repairs and reprovision while they waited for the North Atlantic hurricane season to abate. Sometime in November, they would set off south-west again towards the Cap Verde Islands, standing well off the African coast.
After drifting through the humid calms and sudden rain squalls of the Horse Latitudes (a region between the 35th and 30th parallels dominated by a sub-tropical high and so named because, according to tradition, ships often lay becalmed for weeks there and their crews, fearful of running out of water and victuals and, worse, becoming afflicted by scurvy, threw cargoes of hungry horses and cattle overboard) they would pick up the north-easterly trade winds and, at last, alter course westwards, freeing their sails. A relentless wind off the starboard quarter and an easy following sea would carry them on an even keel all the way across the Atlantic to whatever islands in the Caribbean they might be bound.
I had lived and worked on the sea for half a decade. I had crossed the Atlantic twice, both times from west to east on a northerly route that took advantage of the Gulf Stream and the prevailing westerlies but was always hard, cold sailing, and never without a gale springing up within one of the low-pressure systems that followed one after the other with tedious frequency across the Atlantic’s higher latitudes. Once, during a leaden English winter, while I was helping a friend rebuild a 50-year-old Hillyard cutter in a cluttered boatyard on the Lymington River, relaying and caulking its timber decks in the few hours of rain-less daylight, I thought about sailing with him on the long, warm-water voyage to the southern Caribbean that he had planned for the following autumn.
And yet I knew somehow that I wouldn’t. There were no clear skies, fair winds or landfalls on palm-fringed cays in the voyages I made in my imagination; instead, the coasts were tree-less, steep and rock-strewn, beset by fast-running tidal streams and angry seas the same colour as the slate-grey skies. I daydreamed of high latitudes, of retracing routes once sailed by Norse longships, Phoenician and Celtic traders (the Veneti, a Celtic maritime tribe, ferried tin mined in Cornwall to the Gallic mainland), imperial Roman battle fleets and even the leather-hulled curraghs of fifth-century Christian monks. A trade-wind passage was dull compared with the demands of navigating the treacherous jigsaw of reefs, skerries and precipitous islands and the constantly changing weather conditions to the west and north of Wales, Ireland and Scotland, where tidal races tripped over jagged shoals faster than a small yacht could sail.
But there was more. In the north, every headland, channel, loch and narrows was haunted by legends – and a few, by dark superstition.
“Maybe one day you’ll fetch up in Ultima Thule,” my father would tell me. It was he who first told me about Pytheas of Massalia, a Greek who, in 330BC, set out from what is today the Mediterranean coast of France on one of the first recorded voyages to the far north Atlantic. In his book, About the Ocean, which has been lost for more than a millennium but is quoted in other ancient texts, Pytheas described landfalls on the British Isles and possibly Ireland, after which he voyaged northwards for six days to Ultima Thule, which he described as being at the edge of the known world – just a day’s sail from what he called the Cronian (or Frozen) Sea – where the nights were very short and in the gelid mists, the earth, sea and air became indistinguishable from each other. The exact position of Thule was lost with Pytheas’s work and although, over the centuries, famed explorers such as Columbus, Sir Richard Francis Burton and Fridtjof Nansen claimed to have found it on coasts as distant as north-west Norway, Iceland and the Shetland Isles, it’s unlikely any of them did. As the contemporary author and Thule researcher, Joanna Kavenna, has written: “Ultima Thule was a land beyond the reach of humans, a place entwined with the outlandish – unipeds, the seven sleepers, a great whirlpool at the Pole, the ocean’s navel.”
Still, the iron-bound coasts and windswept seas that had to be negotiated even to have a chance of reaching it were the birthplace of many of our best-remembered legends, first told in millennia-old languages that still endure.
Barmouth Harbour: 52° 48.3’N, 4°44.4’N
Whoever spends a night on Cader Idris will wake up either a madman or a poet – or so it’s said. Given what’s known of modern Welsh poets, how does anyone tell the difference?
Legends swathe “the Cader” (which means “the seat”) as densely as the fog that often obscures Pen Y Gadair, its 893-metre peak. Depending on whom you ask, the southernmost mountain of North Wales’s Snowdonia range is named after either a giant, who kicked three enormous boulders down its slopes, or King Arthur, who is said to have founded his kingdom there, overlooking the black waters of Llyn Cau, a bottomless lake.
For us, the mountain was nothing more than a good landmark for a compass bearing as we fixed our position in Cardigan Bay. We had sailed out with the first of the ebb from the tidal harbour of Barmouth, at the mouth of the Mawddach River in the east of the bay, with the intention of making north-north-westwards across St Patrick’s Causeway, a shallow reef of sand, rock and scree that extends nine nautical miles into the bay, before steering north-west by west towards Bardsey Sound between a long island, Ynys Enlli – first named Bardsey, “the island of the bards’, by Vikings who associated it with Christian mysticism – and the Lleyn Peninsula. There wasn’t much time. The spring tide was ebbing, the wind was freshening from the south-west and we wanted to clear the causeway’s dangerous shallows while there was still enough water over them.
Like the Cader, the causeway is the subject of disparate myths. For Christians with a fondness for the miraculous, it was the pathway St Patrick walked to Ireland, 85 miles to the west. To the pagan Welsh, it was the remnants of an ancient low-lying kingdom, Cantre’r Gwaelod, ruled by a Celtic king, Gwyddno Garanhir, which was flooded and submerged when a watchman failed to notice that one of its dykes had been breached. All its inhabitants, except a commoner and a young princess, were lost. The locals swear that when the sea is calm, you can still hear the watchtower bells ringing underwater.
The sea is rarely calm along this coast. Unprotected from Atlantic depressions that slow and deepen as they encounter the Snowdonia mountains, the weather can be windy, cold and wet even in summer. Worse, the water is littered with shoals and bars that combine with an unusual tidal range – over four metres difference between mean high and low water during springs – and fast-moving tidal streams to create some of the most hazardous pilotage in Europe. The locals give the worst stretches colourful names, like The Tripods, an area of seething overfalls off the north-east corner of Ynys Enlli – confused, breaking seas caused by a rush of tide over irregular soundings, like the “standing” waves that churn over large rocks in river rapids. Close by is an open bay named Hell’s Mouth.
We almost lost the boat in The Tripods. We carried a fair wind into Bardsey Sound where bravado tempted me to skirt too close to the overfalls. The wind died. Foaming white claws grabbed at the hull and began dragging it towards the lee shore. I pushed the helm a-lee in the hope of turning the boat seaward and filling the sails with three or four knots of breeze as the tidal stream swept the boat sideways. It wouldn’t respond. Spiralling eddies tugged at the rudder, and short, slab-faced waves broke over the decks, filling the cockpit faster than its drains could empty it. What little breeze the sails managed to catch was shaken from them by the hull’s violent pitching and rolling. The low, grey-green cliffs loomed close above like stone-faced thugs.
Then a stray gust filled the flogging mainsail. The sheets cracked in their blocks as they took the strain. The boat dug its gunwales into the sea and it began to gather way, burying the slender foredeck under green water as it ploughed through the breaking waves. It was only when we were less than a mile from the edge of the overfalls, running north in clear wind towards Caeranrvon, with Ynys Enlli falling astern, did I realise that I still holding my breath. The hand with which I clutched the tiller had cramped with fear.
“Ah, Myrddin’s curse,” an old fisherman I met the next morning on the Caernarvon town quay said when I had told him about our misadventure.
“The English call him Merlin. Legend has it that he’s buried on the island in a castle of glass, along with King Arthur, whose body the old prophet brought there after he was killed at the battle of Camlann. To those who believe it, Ynys Enlli is the Isle of Avalon.”
“Not of the Twenty Thousand Saints?” I asked him. The Welsh monk St Cadfan founded a monastery on Ynys Enlli in AD546 and its renown as a place of pilgrimage in the Dark Ages – Welsh bards referred to it as “the holy place of burial for all the bravest and best in the land” – drew so many pilgrims, many of whom died there, that it became known as the Island of Twenty Thousand Saints.
The old fisherman shrugged and smiled. “Ah well, it’s like Merlin and Arthur, I suppose. The saints’ remains have never been found either.”
Caernarvon: 53° 08’N, 04° 16’W
In the dead of night, it was hard to make out the blinking lights of navigational buoys marking the serpentine channel through the sandbar at the mouth of the Menai Straits. Off the starboard bow, there was the mainland, and the fizz of neon shop signs, halogen street lamps glowing orange, and headlights rising and dipping as cars wound along the main coastal road; there were also the bright spotlights illuminating the crumbling walls of Caernarvon Castle. Off the port bow, on the low shores of the Isle of Anglesey, were more streetlamps and a checkerboard of lighted house windows. There was nothing to do but trust the flooding tide to lift our keel over the shifting sands and carry us into the deeper water within the straits.
We avoided grounding and eventually anchored off a timber public jetty not far past the town. We had intended to sail all the way through the straits on the last few hours of the flood but that would have meant negotiating the reefs in the unlit narrows beyond the Menai Bridge in the dark, a manoeuvre that requires keeping within an oar-length of the eastern shore and regaining the buoyed main channel to Bangor just before the tide begins to ebb. However, piloting the uncertain channel through the Caernarvon bar “by touch” at night, on top of nearly losing my boat in The Tripods in daylight, had sapped whatever nerve I had left.
On the shore opposite where we lay at anchor was the Anglesey village of Tal-y-Foel. From Tal-y-Foel northwards along the same shore to Mol-y-Don, close by the improbably named village of Llanfairpwllgwyngyllgogerychwyrndrobwllllantysiliogogogoch (it means “The church of St Mary in the hollow of white hazel trees near the rapid whirlpool by St Tysilio’s of the red cave), the inexorable drive westwards of the Roman invasion of the British Isles during the first century AD was almost held to a stand-off by local warriors. In AD61, Gaius Suetonius Paullinus, the brutal Roman commander who would later defeat the famed Celtic queen Boadicea, had decided to eradicate the Druids by overrunning their spiritual home, Insulis Mona – the Roman name for the Island of Anglesey (first named, again, by the Vikings) – and so undermine the resistance of the last undefeated Celtic tribes. At the same time, he could seize control of valuable grain stores to victual his army and of copper mines that would provide the raw material for new armaments.
It was never going to be an easy task. Even Rome’s ingenious military engineers could not bridge the fast-flowing tidal waters between the mainland and the island, and the Celts had proven themselves to be skilled if undisciplined guerilla fighters. Led by Druid priests, who invoked dark, animistic forces to come to their aid, as thousands of Celtic warriors arrayed themselves along the Anglesey shore. Naked, their skin dyed blue from woad, they screamed taunts at the Roman legions across the straits and beat their swords and spears against wooden shields. Their women danced between them, lighting bonfires from burning torches that they waved like battle standards.
If the intention was to strike fear into the enemy, it worked – for a short while. The Roman line was gripped by a wave of panic and, perhaps for the first time in the Empire’s history, an entire legion flinched. But Paullinus rode among them, rousing them to the fight, and as the tide slackened, his infantry crossed the water in boats – his cavalry swam with their horses – under cover of a barrage of fireballs, iron ingots and rocks catapulted onto the opposition from huge “ballistae”, the Romans’ deadly prototype of field artillery. The battle-hardened centurions slaughtered the Celtic warriors, then took to massacring their families. The Druids and their acolytes were burned alive in their sacred oak groves.
Undaunted, the Anglesey Druids, the last remaining in Britain, along with the Celtic tribesmen who venerated them, rose again 17 years later. This time they faced legions led by Gnaeus Julius Agricola, who had been among Paullinus’s officers. Agricola resolved to eradicate the troublesome Druids once and for all and to subjugate this last pocket of Celtic resistance. His men, like Paullinus’s, crossed the straits by boat and staged a bloody rampage that finally wiped out the Druidic priesthood forever and broke the back of the Celtic resistance.
We set sail from Caernarvon early the next morning. The waters, stained a coppery brown by tannin, were mirror-like and still, and reflected the shadowy boughs of gnarled old oaks that overhung the shore. Drifting northwards on the flood tide to the Menai Bridge, I sat cross-legged on the cabin-top and tried to identify the few, stark memorials of the Druids’ last stand on a 1950s Ordnance Survey map: a rise called Bryn-y-Beddau, the “Hill of Graves” where the Celts buried their dead, “the Field of The Long Battle” and “the Field of Bitter Lamentation” outside the village of Llanidan, and Plas Goch, “the red place”. In the windless silence, it was easy to imagine it as an island of restless ghosts.
The Skelligs: 51° 4’'N, 10° 3’'W
We plotted a course north from the Skellig Islands, seven nautical miles off the coast of County Kerry, to Achill Head, the westernmost island extremity of County Mayo. It spanned more than 140 nautical miles of open ocean across the wide gulf of the Irish west coast. Off Achill Head, we would alter course again and with luck, carry the prevailing south-westerly wind all the way to Eilean Barraigh, in the Western Isles of Scotland, the so-called Outer Hebrides.
Skellig Michael, or Great Skellig (from the Gaelic “sceilig” or “sea rock”), the largest of the two Skellig Islands, is a forbidding spire of slate-grey rock that thrusts 215 metres straight out of the Atlantic. It looked like the peak of an underwater alp, materialising out of a grey sea mist to loom less than a mile ahead of us as we headed a south-going tidal stream in a light breeze. As we closed it cautiously, we could just make out some of the 670 steps carved into its face to form what the writer Geoffrey Moorhouse once described as “a stairway to heaven”. The steps actually lead to the remains of an abbey established in AD560 by St Fionan, a follower of St Brendan, with whom, legend has it, Fionan sailed from the Aran Islands, further north, all the way across the North Atlantic to Nova Scotia in an open, leather-hulled curragh. It was on the peak of Skellig Michael where, a reference from the third century recalls, Daire Domhain, the legendary “King of the World”, rested before an epic battle of a year and a day against the giant, Finn McCool (Fionn mac Cumhal), and the Fianna, a band of noble, bardic warriors. It was here too that St Patrick, aided by an apparition of the archangel St Michael, banished the last venomous snakes from Ireland for all time.
Skellig Michael’s desolate grey slopes are pocked with crude, igloo-like hovels – the rough-hewn stone walls are nearly a metre thick – and small cells carved into almost sheer rock faces. There, for 600 years, hermitic monks managed to eke out a hard-scrabble existence comprising prayer, scholarship and the routine chores of survival.
We ghosted between the ragged peaks of Great and Small Skellig, stood out to sea. Another few hours brought the coast of County Galway abeam, a green-black smear low on the eastern horizon. Here, with a simple running fix plotted on a chart in pencil, I closed the circle of a voyage that had began in the 1850s, when both my paternal great-great-grandparents and their families sailed from these shores to Portland in Victoria. None was a seafarer, and the long voyages they made aboard three-masted sailing ships, south through the Atlantic and east about the Cape of Good Hope to run hard before the relentless gales and high seas of the Roaring Forties, were likely the first time any of them had ever ventured on the ocean. Up to their eyes in debt as tenants on small, rural lease holdings, near inland villages where their descendants still live today, they must have clung to the hope that their new lives as free settlers – as goldminers, farmers, graziers and policemen – in what was, not long before, just a far-flung English penal colony, would be better than the ones they had left behind.
My reasons for returning – and for sailing even further northwards, to islands long abandoned by whole communities that, after several generations, were finally defeated by the isolation and hardship of these unsheltered, gale-lashed shores – were less clear. My voyage was a voyage of hope and discovery, not to new lands, but to lands so old that it was as if there was never a time in which they had been unknown, unexplored. And somewhere between one distant landfall and the next, there was a vague chance the past might help me to decipher an incomprehensible present.
C.C. O'Hanlon is something of a 'wild' polymath. Tech'-entrepreneur-turned-internet-apostate, photographer, small press publisher, sea-steader, map collector and ceaseless traveller, his occasional writings have been published in The New York Times, Griffith Review, and elsewhere.