Authors: Robert Macfarlane
Eventually, reluctantly, nearly two miles offshore, with the tide approaching its turn and our worries at last starting to rise through our calm – black mud through sand – we began a long slow arc back towards the coastline and the path of the Broomway, away from the outermost point. There was the return of bearings, the approach to land, a settling to recognizability. As we returned to shore, we laid plans to walk the Broomway again, later in the year, this time at night.
Mud-caked and silly with the sun and the miles, a pair of Mesolithic tramps, we left the sand where it met the causeway near Wakering Stairs. There at the causeway’s frayed end, on the brink of the Black Grounds, were the marker poles, and there – perched on the top of their stand of eelgrass – were my faithful trainers, still waiting for me. I put them on and we walked out of Doggerland, or whichever country it was that we had discovered that day, off the mirror and onto the sea wall. For days afterwards I felt calm, level, shining, sand flat.
Water – South
Our cockle-shell — The sea roads — Land bias — Poetic logbooks — Raiders &
— Dream islands — Boulder ballast — Sea stories &
astar mara —
A Stornoway crow’s nest — ‘The way one phrase talks to another’ — The Hoil — In pursuit of the optimal — The Blue Men of the Minch — Shapes standing clear — Tide-turn — A riffle of puffins — Phosphorescence — Mafic glass — Islomania & the limits of knowledge — Surfing — A story-boat — The congress of substances — A voyage north.
The boat we sailed south down the sea roads was a century-old cockle-shell. I first saw her moored up alongside three other craft in Stornoway harbour on the Isle of Lewis in the Outer Hebrides. Nearest the quay was a rusting old fishing trawler, long since retired, its hulk secured by arm-thick hawsers. Moored against the trawler’s side was an ocean-going yacht, toothpaste white, fifty feet long. Moored to the yacht’s side was a thirty-three-foot cruiser with weathered teak deck-boards and a sharp bow point. And moored to the side of the cruiser was our little boat, her single mast unstepped, her terracotta sail folded in drapes along her
, and from stem to stern measuring shorter than three men lying head to toe.
She looked like a dinghy or a dory, but she was
a lug-rigged open boat whose clinker hull was of Scottish larch. Her sides rode two feet above the water, she was two years short of her century, and two of us were going to sail her south through the Minch, the deep-water sea channel that separates Skye and the Outer Hebrides from the Scottish mainland. We would make first for the Shiant Islands, a mostly dolerite archipelago in the heart of the Minch, and then, wind and weather allowing, on further south to Harris and Uist, keeping to the routes of the sea roads – the
in Gaelic – up and down which people, goods, gods, ideas and stories have moved for nearly ten millennia.
To my sea-fearful eye,
was barely big enough to take a turn around the harbour, let alone head out into the fierce tidal waters of the Minch. We had no engine (instead, a pair of oars); we had no GPS (instead, a hand-held walker’s compass); we had two people crewing a boat designed for a crew of four (and one of those two, being me, was an incompetent). It was to be the most basic form of sailing: a hull to hold the waves at bay and a sail to hold the wind for way.
In Old English the
(the whale’s way), the
(the swan’s way); in Norse the
; in Gaelic
; in English the ocean roads, the sea lanes. There are thousands of them, and they include the
Rathad chun a’ Bhaltaic
– the Road to the Baltic – that runs from Cape Wrath towards Russia by way of the Orkneys; the Brancaster Roads off the north Norfolk coast; and ‘The Road’, the channel that divides the islands of St Mary’s and Tresco in the Scillies.
We think of paths as existing only on land, but the sea has its paths too, though water refuses to take and hold marks. Sections of the Icknield Way may have been first trodden into the chalk 5,000 years ago, but the sea will not record a journey made on it half an hour previously. Sea roads are dissolving paths whose passage leaves no trace beyond a wake, a brief turbulence astern. They survive as convention, tradition, as a sequence of coordinates, as a series of waymarks, as dotted lines on charts, and as stories and songs.
‘… as by Line upon the Ocean [we] go,
’ wrote John Dryden of English navigators in the 1660s, ‘Whose paths shall be as familiar as the Land.’ Along these sea paths for thousands of years have travelled ships, boats, people, objects and language: letters, folk tales, sea songs, shanties, poems, rumours, slang, jokes and visions. The sandy silt of the Broomway had been a transitional path, taking me half off land and half onto water. Now I had come to the Outer Hebrides to meet a man who knew the sea roads about as well as anyone living, and to sail these true waterways with him.
What you should first realize, to understand the sea roads, is how close the ocean brings far-apart places. In a pre-modern world, before cars and planes, the boat was the fastest means of long-distance travel. It is still surprisingly swift. Sailing a small craft in reasonable conditions, catching the right tides and the right winds, you can get from the Outer Hebrides to Orkney in a day, and you can reach the Faeroes in two or three. Estimates of the distances covered in a good sailing day by Viking ships range from 90 to 150 nautical miles, meaning that the trip from Bergen in Norway to the Shetlands could be done in two days, and Iceland could be reached in a week. A short commute to work, then, for first-millennial raiders: violence spread quickly over the water.
The second thing to know about sea roads is that they are not arbitrary. There are optimal routes to sail across open sea, as there are optimal routes to walk across open land. Sea roads are determined by the shape of the coastline (they bend out to avoid headlands, they dip towards significant ports, archipelagos and
guards) as well as by marine phenomena.
Surface currents, tidal streams
and prevailing winds all offer limits and opportunities for sea travel between certain places.
The existence of the ancient seaways, and their crucial role in shaping prehistory, were only recognized in the early twentieth century. Until then, pre-historians and historical geographers had demonstrated a ‘land bias’; a perceptive error brought about by an over-reliance on Roman sources that tended to concentrate on the movement of troops, goods and ideas on foot and across countries. Certainly, the Roman Empire’s road network transformed internal mobility in Europe and, unmistakably, Roman roads were the key to uniting the empire’s dispersed territories, as well as generating its military and economic power. ‘The sea divides and the land unites,’ ran the Roman truism. But for millennia prior to the rise of Rome’s empire, the reverse had been true. The classical sources misled subsequent historians – allied with the fact that the sea erases all records of its traverses, whereas the land preserves them.
It was the emergence of prehistoric archaeology
as a defined discipline that revealed the significance of the sea roads.
An early breakthrough was made
in 1912 by a man called Osbert Crawford, who noticed that the distribution of Bronze Age gold
of Irish origin suggested they had been transported by sea, and by what he called ‘
roads’: overland routes used by early sailors who did not want to risk rounding stormy promontories – the boot of Cornwall, say, or St David’s Head on the Welsh peninsula – and so unloaded their goods on one shore before portaging them to the opposite shore, where they loaded them into a different vessel. Advances quickly followed Crawford’s breakthrough. During and shortly after the First World War, using distribution patterns of artefacts and technologies in Ireland, western and northern Britain, and the Atlantic shores of Spain and France, researchers began to reconstruct rudimentary maps of what became known as the Western Seaways.
The work was painstaking, but what it proved was astonishing: that there had been maritime traffic along the sea roads dating back at least to the Mesolithic, and intense activity for the three millennia before Rome built its roads.
In 1932, Cyril Fox published
a famous map showing a major seaway running from the Orkneys across the top of Scotland (the Pentland Firth), round the
of Cape Wrath, down through the Minch, on south through the Irish Sea, around Wales and the Cornish peninsula, then heading south across the wide mouth of the Channel to Brittany, the Bay of Biscay and eventually north-western Spain. Off this main track came byways, tributaries and trans-peninsular routes.
More research followed, more mapping, and a web of short-haul journeys also emerged into view: an intricately laced network binding the coastal frontage of northern and western Europe. Fox described a shared Atlantic character belonging to the cultures of these conjoined seaboards, and conjured up a vision of prehistoric seas teeming with Neolithic argonauts afloat on their hide-hulled boats, moving by oar and sail, sometimes over great distances. There is proof, for instance, that around 5,000 years ago someone set sail northwards from Orkney – enticed perhaps by jetsam washing in from the north or by the northwards flights of birds towards the ends of days – and reached Shetland.
We can only surmise the navigational and boat-building technologies that permitted the earliest sailors of the sea roads to find their ways out and back. We have even less idea of why they travelled.
In his superb work on Atlantic cultures
Facing the Ocean
, Barry Cunliffe speculates that the ‘restlessness of the ocean’ might itself have been a prompt to travel, and more pragmatically points out that the pursuit of migrating fish and the uneven distribution of elite resources would have stimulated a need for reliable sea travel.
The first sea-road mariners
would have used natural navigation techniques: the direction of flight at dusk of land-roosting birds like fulmars, petrels or gannets; the Pole Star or the North Star, the fixed point of the celestial panorama about which all other stars appeared to rotate; the sighting of orographic clouds that signalled the existence of land over the horizon; the detection of swell patterns. Such methods would have allowed early navigators to keep close to a desired track, and would have contributed over time to a shared memory map of the coastline and the best sea routes, kept and passed on as story and drawing.
Such knowledge became codified over time in the form of rudimentary charts and
, and then as route books in which sea paths were recorded as narratives and poems: the catalogue of ships in the
is a pilot’s mnemonic, for instance, as is the
). Word-maps of sea routes occur in skaldic poetry, and are also folded into the Icelandic sagas (some of which offer directions for sailing from Norway to Iceland, with details of way stations, sighting points and other key
, or landmarks), as well as into more functional medieval Icelandic texts such as the extraordinary fourteenth-century
The Book of Settlements
) whose hundred chapters and five parts tell the story of the takeover of Iceland by the Vikings, and include guides to the
– the western roads of the Atlantic that led from Norway to the Orkneys, Scotland, the Hebrides and Ireland, as well as to the Faeroes, Iceland and Greenland. All of these documents are, in Kenneth White’s resonant phrase, ‘
, full of salt, wind and waves’, and they eventually developed into the pilot books known variously as
(the latter offering directions for coastwise rather than trans-oceanic passage crossings, whereby progress was measured by marking off headlands).
The discovery of the sea roads necessitated a radical re-imagining of the history of Europe. Try it yourself, now. Invert the mental map you hold of Britain, Ireland and western Europe. Turn it inside out. Blank out the land interiors of these countries – consider them featureless, as you might previously have considered the sea. Instead, populate the western and northern waters with paths and tracks: a travel system that joins port to port, island to island, headland to headland, river mouth to river mouth. The sea has become the land, in that it is now the usual medium of transit: not barrier but corridor.
Once you have carried out this thought-experiment, this photo-negative flip, many consequences follow. One is centrifugal. Matter and culture spin to the edges. The centre is emptied and the margins become central. The Atlantic fringe of Europe is no longer the brink of ‘the Old World’, but rather the interface with the New. The coastal settlements are places of departure and arrival, thriving crossroads: the Orcadian archipelago is not remote but a focal point, standing at the heart of a trade and pilgrimage network.