A Wonder-Voyage

15 May 2012 // Books //Events //Miscellany

On May 25th, we’re throwing open the doors on the first Caught by the River Variety Show, a celebration of five years online and on the bankside. The line up is phenomenal. It features talks and readings from the likes of Chris Yates, Tim Burgess, Diagrams, Richard King, Michael Smith amongst many others. To add to that, we’ve got an utterly unique collaboration between one of the first writers we enthused about back when the site was just a few posts on a very basic Blogger site and a genius sound recordist we got to know soon afterwards. Rather than me attempt to describe it, here’s the writer – Robert Macfarlane – explaining just how his collaboration with the mighty Chris Watson will work in the Purcell Rooms in a couple of weeks. Hopefully see you there.

Two Augusts ago, I joined a crew of five sailing an old open boat from the Isle of Lewis, in the Outer Hebrides, to the remote skerry-island of Sula Sgeir, which lies forty miles due north of the northernmost-point of Lewis – far out into the Atlantic.

Sula Sgeir’s form is geological-brutalist. It is a jaggy black peak of gneiss, the topmost summit of a submarine mountain, and it is home to ten thousand gannets and (until recently) the only albatross in the North Atlantic. The sea has bored clean through the southern part of the island to form a series of caves and tunnels. In big Atlantic storms, the waves break over its summit.

The boat we sailed to Sula Sgeir was called Jubilee, she was seventy-five years old, and she was a sgoth Niseach: a class of Lewisian working boat, lug-rigged, clinker-built, double-ended and open, designed for sturdy seaworthiness up there off the Butt of Lewis where the Atlantic currents meet the currents of The Minch. She was skippered on our voyage by Ian Stephen – sailor, poet, story-teller and life-long follower of the sea-roads – and under Ian’s safe steerage we sailed her overnight to Sula Sgeir, up through an ocean of phosphorescence and stars, at last reaching the skerry at dawn.

The story of that unforgettable journey is told in full in a book called The Old Ways. A year or so ago, though, I was fortunate enough to be put in touch by Jeff Barrett with Chris Watson – the sound-artist, natural-history sound recordist, and Caught by the River favourite. Jeff had it in mind that a collaboration might develop, and so it has. At the Caught by the River Variety Show at the Southbank on May 25th, Chris and I will be performing a sound-story of that voyage – the text spoken by me over a bedding track, with Chris drawing on his extraordinary sound archive to respond to and improvise out of the words themselves. Our aim is nothing more or less ambitious than to evoke the profound and abiding strangeness of sailing that old boat up that ancient sea-way into that vast ocean to that lonely island – and to carry our listeners with us.

What you will hear, therefore, might best be imagined as a dream-voyage or wonder-journey – what in Gaelic is called an immrama – and in this sense precedents for it might be found in very early Celtic sea-stories: the lyric accounts of Mael Duin or St Brendan, say, sailing their hide-hulled boats westwards and northwards, out of the verifiable and into the miraculous.

The Old Ways is published by Hamish Hamilton, on 6 June.

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