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The Summer Isles

The Summer IslesA Voyage of the Imagination

By Philip Marsden.

Published 3 October 2019 in hardcover by Granta Books
338 pages
ISBN 978 1 78378 299 4
eISBN 978 1 78378 301 4.

The Summer Isles are a small group of islands off the northwest coast of Scotland. The author was captivated by these islands as a young man when he and his aunt climbed hills where she lived and looked down upon them in the distance. He had always wanted to visit. Long after his aunt’s untimely death, he sets out to sail there solo in his wooden sloop in memory of her. He navigates from Cornwall around the west coast of Ireland and Inner Hebrides.

Eloquently spoken, full of lore balanced with fact, honest about both trepidation and joy, inquisitive about the history of places and people, it was a beautiful journey alongside the author visiting some of the most magical places on earth: in the West of Ireland and Scotland.

In a classic wooden vessel, single handing for the most part up the treacherous west coast of Ireland, the author takes us island hopping, the way it should always be done but seldom is. Most visitors stop someplace in Cork, then one hop to Kerry, finally one stop in the west before hightailing it to Scotland or around the top to complete the circle. Not Marsden, he goes from island to island, decoding the mystery in every place, whether it is natural or manmade, or simply a tale told by a man or woman in the know. He collects people, myths, legends and stories along the way, rich accounts of times past and present, and life lived on the edge.

He appreciates that although he is vulnerable in his boat on a lee shore, they were more vulnerable on the sea in currachs and small punts, battling the elements of the storm-tossed Atlantic waters, eking out existence on a spec in the ocean, until many couldn’t tolerate island life anymore.

But he also encounters those who have returned to escape an unnatural world. He tells of the bravery of a new generation seeking solace in the minutia of nature. All this I too have witnessed.

He’s visited all our favourite places, noted the treasures we’ve too discovered, and told about it in quiet understated tones that resonated loudly in my heart. What’s more, he came with a knowledge of the language and could see the importance of place names. The encounters, though brief, were poignant, and his understanding was full of insight. He contemplates mythical places like Hy-Brazil and Tír na nÓg, and their role in Celtic traditions. But he also learns about real people who lived along these often-treacherous shores. Traveling in the wakes of adventurers, saints, poets, and monks, he expresses thoughts as ancient as time and explores places that exist perhaps only in the mind. Though I’ve studied much about the west, I learned much more from this book. One cannot help being captivated by this place, and one won’t escape being captivated by Marsden’s description of it.

It’s not often I savour every word, and sometimes put a book aside to contemplate a passage. I did that often with this one. It is travel writing at its best. I didn’t want it to end yet I couldn’t wait to finish it. I think it is one book I will re-read. Although I think sailors will relate best, it is not too technical for non-sailors to absorb.

Thank you, Philip, for reinforcing both imagination and reality. I look forward to once again getting out there, being mesmerised by the land and sea, and exploring the places I’ve cherished and those I have missed. This is the book I wish I had written.

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