In April 2022, Birlinn (named after a kind of boat commonly used in the West of Scotland) published a repackaged edition of Robin Lloyd-Jones’ 1989 book, Argonauts of the Western Isles, newly titled as Argonauts of the Scottish Isles. That this book has been around on people’s bookshelves and in their imaginations for more than thirty years is testament to the enduring fascination people have with islands, the sea and exploration.
We tempted Robin out of his Autumn Voices retirement to reflect on this book, and his deep love of the water and sea-kayaking which prompted him to write it.
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At 4 a.m. the sun filters through my bedroom window and wakes me. I listen to the Clyde lapping at the lawn and the seabirds calling. I slide my kayak over the dewy grass into the pink dawn water. It glides across the glassy surface. Then, drifting, I hear the plop, plop of fish and watch the sun rise. An hour later I am enjoying mackerel and seatrout for breakfast, straight from the sea, cooked over a driftwood fire. As I watch the tide-exposed sands striping Craigendoran Bay with bars of gold, I think of the bigger waters beyond the estuary – for the images which surge into my mind and flood my dreams belong to the long summer days kayaking the West Coast of Scotland.
The very first time I experienced an Atlantic swell rolling beneath my kayak and became part of its rhythm I knew I would be returning again and again to those moving hills of water and their deep green valleys. In a fibre-glass shell, inches from the water, there is an intimacy with the sea I have experienced in no other craft: every wave individual, every motion communicated, Man and sea with a minimum of technology between. I learned to handle the double-bladed paddle, study the ocean’s moods and rhythms as if she were a lover; there are few places a kayak cannot go.
Except for the rare days of absolute calm, only a kayak can enter MacKinnon’s Cave on Staffa. We battled through the surf into cathedral gloom, basalt columns arching and soaring above us. Fifty yards into the cave it is darker, narrower. Deep, black clefts groan and sigh, panting like the Minotaur. Suddenly a giant swell blots out the entrance. We rise up and up till it explodes around us, booming and echoing. Then, with waterfalls cascading from every ledge, it rushes out again.
And I remember the tranquil moments: warm nights with the moon laying a silver trail before us, the black silhouette of an island and the scent of wildland wafted on a breeze. On calm days fleets of translucent jellyfish hang like ships in outer space, or one’s own zeppelin shadow flits over sandy lagoons and seaweed forests. But, for me, the miles never seem to pass so quickly as when hugging a rocky coastline, following sea-etched ramparts, every yard a marvel of grain and texture and delicate lichens.
A slim, silent kayak creates a minimum of disturbance to marine life. I have glided, unnoticed, close to a feeding otter; porpoises and dolphins have played around us. A kayak can ease amongst a colony of seals without causing alarm, and, if you take a breath and roll upside-down, you can enter their world as they twist and turn around you, so graceful in their proper element.
The birds are different, though. Unused to trespassers near their lonely island cliffs and rocky outcrops, they rise in clouds at our approach. Herring gulls, common gulls and the black-backed ones, cormorants, fulmars, puffins and terns – they circle us, shrieking and swooping, banking into blizzards of white underwing.
Paradise Bay, guarded by rocks and a narrow entrance, is accessible only by kayak. It has no other name than the one I gave it. There, in a flower-studded meadow, beside the curving bows of my kayak, I have slept under an orange moon while an otter played in the bay.
Sea kayaking offers many adventures and challenges. For me, far more important than conquest is connection. My aim in mastering the elements and the currents is to have a closer connection with this wonderful marine environment. After taking up meditation my ability as a kayaker dramatically improved. No longer did I see the ocean and the elements as something to be battled against with a clenched jaw and white knuckles. Instead, I felt a sense of oneness with the ocean. I relaxed and, as a result, became a better paddler.
In the summer of 2020, aged 86, I launched my kayak for the last time. My connection with Scottish waters and the marine environment, however, has not diminished. As one door closes another opens.
One of the greatest glories of the British landscape is the Scottish coastline. Because of its highly indented character and multitude of islands, Scotland possesses approximately seventy per cent of Britain’s total coastline, a great deal of it consisting of spectacular cliffs and stacks, waterfalls, caves, beautiful sandy bays, wooded shores, exquisite seashells, an abundance of bird life, colonies of seals and much else besides. Exploring even a fraction of this on foot opens up endless sources of delight through beachcombing, glunting (collecting sea glass), sketching, painting, photography or just being there and soaking it up.
As Jay Griffiths says in Wild: ‘The human mind developed in wilderness and needs it still.’
The majority of the so-called civilised world has lost touch with nature, the wilderness and wildness, is alienated from its roots and cut off from the means of fulfilling deep psychological needs.
You can buy this fabulous book through all good independent bookshops, online, and directly from the publisher, Birlinn.
Our monthly flash theme for July is the water!
It’s July! You’re probably wondering where summer is as we’ve not had very much of it so far, but we’re staying optimistic and thinking about some of the creative opportunities (and perils!) of the season.
This month, we’ve turned our thoughts to beaches, water activities, and life on (or in, or near) the ocean waves. We have some content coming up on our website this month from people who have strong relationships with waterways and the sea, and we’d love to hear from you too in our monthly flash competition. If you’re aged 60+ and a sailor, watersports devotee, keen swimmer, gongoozler, beachcomber or marine life enthusiast, send us your flash entries on those subjects!
If you’re a seascape painter or photographer, send us an image of your paintings and we’ll put them on the Autumn Voices website.
We also have romance on our minds, so we’d also welcome flash entries on the subject of love and romance in later life!
Entries will be accepted until midnight on July 31st, and can take the form of a poem, short story or flash memoir as well as photographs and other images, where asked for. You can also accompany text entries with images. The winning entry will be chosen by the Autumn Voices staff team, and the winner will receive a copy of Argonauts of the Scottish Isles by Robin Lloyd-Jones.