Northwords Now Issue 34

The FREE literary magazine of the North

The Sea is a Time Machine

by Mandy Haggith

Pytheas of Massalia: Ancient Greek navigator, explorer of the north and geographer. Gouache by Vawdrey Taylor.
Pytheas of Massalia: Ancient Greek navigator, explorer of the north and geographer. Gouache by Vawdrey Taylor.

For the past five years I have been, imaginatively, in the Iron Age, researching and writing a historical novel trilogy set around 320 BC. I have learned that the sea is the easiest place to let my mind wander without interference from the pesky present. Out on the waves, I have found a time machine.

320 BC is not an arbitrary date: it is when a Mediterranean explorer, Pytheas of Massalia (from modern day Marseilles, back then a Greek colony), probably set foot in Assynt, where I live, on the northwest coast of Scotland. He visited during an amazing voyage that included circumnavigating Britain, venturing as far north as Iceland and the pack ice and across the North Sea to the Baltic. A few years ago, I was working for an archaeological dig that was excavating a broch, a tall, Iron Age cooling-tower-shaped building, which may well have been standing when Pytheas sailed in. As I read Barry Cunliffe’s brilliant account in The Extraordinary Voyage of Pytheas the Greek I began to imagine the people that Pytheas would have encountered here. What sort of culture clash, I wondered, would have existed between a Greek scientist and his Celtic hosts? The seed of a novel was sown.

Pytheas was also a writer and wrote a book about his voyage, On the Ocean. One copy burned in the library at Alexandria and all the others seem to have had similar fates. We live in hope that the full manuscript will materialise somewhere but, so far, it seems that the book is lost. All we have are fragments from Greek and Roman geographers and historians who quoted Pytheas: some refer to him with admiration and respect for his scientific rigour and fascinating discoveries; others deride him as a fantasist. It seems that many of his adventures were, literally, incredible.

Most of the fragments are accounts of his ocean passages that were so outrageous and new to his Mediterranean readers that many took him to be making them up. He was mocked for his tales of great creatures rising out of the sea spouting fumes, islands where the land flows, smoking and burning, into the water, a place where the ocean becomes slushy and semi-frozen, not to mention locations with tidal ranges of many metres. To us, these details point not to a fabulist but to someone undertaking an extraordinary voyage for his time – daunting even to a modern sailor – up beyond the tidal islands of Britain to Iceland and the southern edge of the polar ice pack, encountering great whales along the way. I can vouch for the humbling strangeness of the blow of a bow-head whale among ice floes. I just hope the awe and thrill he experienced compensated for the lack of credulity of his readers.

Yet from a modern perspective, Pytheas seems like a pretty hard-headed person. While he travelled, he took sun declination measurements with a measuring stick, called a gnomon. He would have had to make landfall to carry these out, and needed a light-enough day, at noon, for his gnomon to cast a shadow. Fortunately, we have access to his records from one of the quoted fragments of his book and we can use this data to deduce latitudes. This is how we know he came to Assynt on his way up the Scottish west coast.

As well as exploring parts of the world previously unknown to Mediterraneans, Pytheas had specific missions: to identify sources of tin, amber and, probably, walrus ivory. After finding tin in Cornwall, and before his search for amber took him to the Baltic, he travelled way up beyond the northernmost reaches of Scotland. We don’t quite know why, but I like to think he was searching for walruses.

It didn’t take me long to realise that to write about Pytheas I needed to understand better where he travelled. I began with a trip on an ice-breaker up into the Arctic, including time spent in the vast Greenland pack ice and a couple of weeks sailing around Svalbard. That got my partner Bill and I hooked on sailing and, on our return, we bought our first sailing boat and set about qualifying as skippers. We were soon completely addicted and upgraded from our tiny boat to a more ocean-worthy yacht, though still small by most sailors’ standards, and renamed her Each Mara (Gaelic for walrus). This is how I discovered the time machine.

Sitting here in the cockpit of Each Mara, the sea stretches off into space, dissolving into sky at the horizon. Here, if time is meaningful at all, it is cyclical, following the twice-daily, moon-honouring rhythm of the tides. Water eddies and flows in its dance with wind and swell. The ballet of terns, gannets and guillemots, moves to annual patterns. We tend to think of time passing from the past behind us through the present, here, and out to the future ahead, but such a simple, linear model seems inadequate in this vast, three-dimensional space. The sea, paradoxically, appears to be on the one hand in perpetual change yet, on the other hand, exactly the same as it has always been.

What out here shows that this is the twenty-first century? There are things on the boat that give it away: our ropes are mostly nylon, not heather or nettle or hemp; the stanchions are steel and the mast aluminium, not wood. Yet the process of sailing is basically just as it would have been in Pytheas’ day: the winds are still Iron Age winds, the waves and the tides are as varied and as reliable as they always have been and always will be.  Surely this uneasy mix of regularity and unpredictability enthralled and frustrated Pytheas just as much as it does me.

This morning it is calm, the sea a glassy shimmer. The rocky Shiants jut from the sheen like teeth of a rearing sea-giant. The surface is dotted with sea birds and sliced open by rolling sickles of porpoises and curving fin-lifts of dolphins rising to breathe. We trickle northwards with the tide, at one knot.

For Pytheas and the hunters, fishers, traders and travellers of his time, indeed for all of human time until the last century, the only options on such a day would be to row or drift. On a beautiful morning like this, it doesn’t seem so bad, but when there’s a big swell left by a wind that tempted you out then dropped away, it can seem very different. The tidal streams can be strong in these waters, rocks can approach with alarming speed and rowing against a tide in a big swell is at best hard and at worst impossible.

Conversely when the wind becomes too strong, the sea shows no mercy to those who have failed to make their way to shelter. It is not surprising that our shores are littered with shipwrecks.

These days of course we have the advantage of an engine, although it is a mixed blessing – noisy and polluting although sometimes admittedly helpful. Bill and I take turn about as skipper. Whoever’s turn it is has the power to choose if or when the engine goes on or off. Sometimes, for safety’s sake, it simply must be fired up, but I am always reluctant to use it just for convenience, because Pytheas never had that option. Not using the ‘iron sail’ is part of experiencing the sea as it would have been. It’s also quieter. Many a day I have bribed my crew into acquiescence with a ginger (or even chocolate) biscuit when the wind does what the forecast describes as ‘becoming variable 3 or less’. We joke that this means ‘becalming’, not ‘becoming’. ‘Variable 3 or less’ can seem to be a Met Office euphemism for ‘not a zephyr’. The boat speed drops to zero. The Iron Age looms into the present.

The weather forecast is a moot point, of course. On board we have VHF radio with four new forecasts every 24 hours, electronic gadgets that tell us exactly where we are to within 3 metres accuracy, a depth sounder, a log that tracks our every move, a plotter and a coastguard on call in case of distress.  I’m not a luddite, exactly, but despite all the gadgetry, I never sail without a paper chart. I take bearings off headlands, inscribe marks in pencil to show our progress, and when we are planning to anchor I sound the depths with a lump of lead on a string, especially when I want to forget the present.  

Using these old ways, I long for what there would have been in abundance in Pytheas’ time but which has been almost entirely eradicated by modern fossil-fuel-powered, electronically-navigated marine traffic: sea lore. The old sailors would have known so much more than we do about how to read the sea, what the behaviour of birds and other sea-life could reveal, ways of recognising coastal and island features to stay safe without recourse to charts or compasses, let alone radar and GPS. In my own way, I’ve sought the wisdom of elders; friends with lifetimes’ experience of the sea have been generous in sharing advice with rookie sailors, and there are books galore. But I imagine songs to sing to guide a boat across shoal ground, cautionary tales of tides and storms, rhymes and jokes to make key facts unforgettable. So much of this, like Pytheas’ book, is lost.

As I pore over charts and pilotage books, planning our voyage, I wonder how Pytheas carried the information he had and what notes he took towards On the Ocean.  I scribble with my fountain pen in my notebook, imagining him scratching on vellum or parchment with a quill dipped in oak gall ink, or simply memorising huge amounts of what he learned. Would he have written down his gnomon measurements in his equivalent of my log book? There were documents that he must have had access to, such as the periplus* of navigational directions for the Mediterranean, and I wonder if he planned to author a similar guidebook to the Atlantic shores and islands he visited. Perhaps his book contained much of this; we may never know.

How did Pytheas make his voyage? It is highly unlikely that a Mediterranean vessel could cope with the sea conditions of the northern ocean and much more probable that Pytheas was a passenger on local boats. There can be no doubt that he would have encountered a sophisticated maritime society. There are more than 1,000 brochs and roundhouses located around the Iron Age Scottish coastline and on the Western and Northern isles, and the archaeological finds from these testify to people who travelled and traded by sea, sharing a seafaring culture. Most likely they sent hunting expeditions up north, for walrus ivory perhaps. They certainly traded across to the Baltic, and would have been able to help Pytheas with his search for the source of amber. So I posit that he would have voyaged on trading boats plying the islands and coasts, possibly carrying itinerant metal smiths or other skilled passengers, swapping and bartering commodities like gems, precious metals, skins and probably also slaves.

The Iron Age seems to be a period when individuals began to have significant wealth and status, and conspicuous consumption, fuelled by greed, soon became an important theme of my book. I’m intrigued by our compulsion for ever more stuff and have been exploring in the novel how this, perhaps, began. The sea is a place where it seems possible to feel no greed – there is a joy in surviving for weeks on the minimalist contents of a boat - yet in another of those fascinating paradoxes, it is also the venue of almost unbelievably greedy exploitation of whales, fish, oil and other marine resources.

I have spent considerable time afloat pondering how things become commodities. It seems to me that if an object is valued for its own sake, then it is, in a way, sacred. The process of swapping one such entity for another requires a kind of ritual exchange. For a piece of engraved ivory to be used to buy a sword, or a slave, the significance of the tusk and the bronze or person must be deemed equivalent. If you know the people who made something, or if you made it yourself, it has an inherent sentimental value greater than that of something made by a stranger. For trade to be able to happen on any scale, it is necessary for this sacred value to be removed, or ignored, so that objects can become interchangeable. This was the job of the Iron Age traders with whom Pytheas was travelling.

Pondering such issues, and in particular how they apply to the trading of slaves, leads to thoughts of the value of a life:  each of which is a unique flame, with all of its particular richness and experience. And yet, out on the vast and incomparably powerful ocean, older than the oldest rocks on earth, containing 99% of the living habitat of the planet, an individual human life is a mere spark, trivially extinguishable. It is almost impossible, and certainly foolish, to feel arrogant at sea. Any human is just a little fleeting, inconsequential thing. And yet, as self-importance fades away, the sea offers us such vivid sensuous moments that it can seem that life has never felt so vital.

While at sea, I have also been grieving; my mother died last year and never got to read the book that would have interested her so much. The ocean, I discover, is a good place to mourn a loved one, and this is partly because grief requires a kind of time travel. You have to allow yourself to reinhabit your past, to experience again those significant moments shared with the person you have lost, and a seascape is a better place than any for such time-skipping. Perhaps it is the waves, or the salty tear-taste, or the weeping and keening of the sea creatures. Whatever the cause, the effect is an ease in sliding between past and present. Then and now are easily accommodated in the vastness of the ocean.

So it should be no surprise that the future is also lurking out there, offshore, and that the ocean time machine goes onwards as well as back. At a recent conference, called Expressing the Earth, I led a workshop in which the participants used the sea’s help to grope their way back in time. Some went back a generation or so, some several hundreds or thousands of years. The past rippled out. Then I asked each person to let the sea hurl them forwards by the same period, as if riding a wave of time from its trough to its crest, allowing the tide of time to echo its ebb into history with a forward-looking flood. The result was extraordinary: voices from the future spoke of catastrophic change and of hope, of poison and of cleansing, of greed-driven destruction and of communities rebuilt. All the visions had one thing in common: life continuing on.

And of this we can be certain: just as the sea was where we came from, whatever we do, the sea will continue on, long, long after we are gone.

The Walrus Mutterer, the first volume of The Stone Stories trilogy will be published by Saraband in early 2018.


*A periplus is a hand-written document listing ports and coastal landmarks, in order and with approximate distances between them, that a ship’s captain could expect to find along a shore