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March 29, 2012

A period of settled spring weather on Iona and the mind turns to boats and the sea. The Iolaire (Davie K’s Staffa boat) is back moored off the village like a promise and Mark is busy getting paint onto the B. Marie in preparation for the season.

As for me, I’m planning my various and more modest boat schemes. Having spent several years learning the tough truth of big boat ownership, I’ve sold the beloved ringnetter Amaranth (above) and feel liberated and relieved to see her go. It was a personally rich but horribly expensive exercise. There is a saying along the lines of  ‘the pleasure of boating is in inverse proportion to the size of the boat’. I’ve learned the truth of this and, my curiosity for big boats cured, I’m happy to contemplate my various wee boat projects.


Clovelly, who some of you will recognise as the sweet little peppermint green motor boat that I moor off the village, will not be in the water this year as she needs a lot of work to get her seaworthy. Next year ! For this year I am excited to have bought from Mark (Alternative Boat Hire fame) his old 19′ Shetland skiff -‘the Black Boat’. It’s not been in the water for a few years and a falling branch unfortunately punctured her hull so she is in need of a bit of love and attention. I’ll bring her up to the barn next week and start preparing her so that the bulk of the work will be done when Brendan, the boatbuilder, comes to put in a couple of new planks in May. This way, I hope to have her in the water for June.


The pleasure of this is that I can get out rowing ! Not all boats are equal and many row like a shoebox. The Black Boat, however,  has a long pedigree of sea rowing and is a treat -if maybe just a wee bit big for one (not very fit) person. She has a gorgeous hull shape and is a good seaboat. Two rowing -and she flies. I’m thinking of rigging a lug sail for her  for when I’ve rowed enough or when I’m feeling lazy.


Why rowing ? Apart from the obvious reason of tackling my ever increasing tummy, there are three overlapping thoughts that come to mind.

I was up in Findhorn a couple of days ago. I was born there and one of my very earliest memories is as a three year old going over to the Culbin Sands for a family picnic in my father’s little sailing dinghy, the Whaup. I remember the sunshine, the warm, enveloping safety of being with my family and the ecstatic excitement of being allowed and able to pull Whaup back and forth along the shallows by her painter. Even then, that alchemy of the tension of opposing elements (why a boat floats and does what it does !), the promise of untold adventure, the aesthetics of it all and the sheer romance of boating were feeding my imagination. I don’t come from a boaty background, unless you count my ancestor from Calgary on Mull who was grabbed by the Press-gangs in the late 1700’s, but I’ve always loved the sea. My father bought Whaup on moving to Findhorn in 1953 (he was the village headmaster) to allow him to take more active part in village life. Having been badly shot up in the war, he wasn’t good on his legs so this allowed him to be out and sociable. For various reasons I was an insecure and anxious wee boy. Maybe Whaup came to represent to me a combination of the security of my family (cradled within this little boat) and the possibility of adventure ?

There is of course the oft quoted passage from The Wind in the Willows.  ‘The River Bank’ describes Ratty and Mole going for a row on the river, enjoying a picnic and having various adventures. It’s a delightful piece of writing filled with the promise of spring, new friendship, gentle adventure and the arcane skill and pleasures of boat handling.

‘The rat stooped and un-fastened a rope and hauled on it; then lightly stepped into a little boat which the Mole had not observed. It was painted blue outside and white within, and was just the size for two animals; and the Mole’s whole heart went out to it at once, even though he did not yet fully understand its uses.’

A perfectly described and shiny moment, though for me the most poignant passage is in the chapter ‘The Piper at the Gates of Dawn’ in which Mole and Ratty encounter Pan. The sun having risen ‘Mole, with a strong pull on one oar,swung the boat round and let the full stream bear them down again whither it would, their quest now happily ended. ‘I feel strangely tired, Rat’, said the Mole, leaning wearily over his oars as the boat drifted. ‘…I feel as if I had been through something very exciting and rather terrible, and it was just over; and yet nothing particular has happened.’

A terribly beauty, afloat on the water as the sun rises, being carried safely by the stream, and a boat being the vehicle or the means to the mysterious. What rich symbolism. 

Lastly, there is the passage from the Prelude (Book 1: lines 372 – 427 -if you are interested) in which the narrator (Wordsworth) discoveres a skiff amongst the lake-side bushes and takes her out onto the lake in the quiet of the late evening. It’s an extraordinary piece of writing, capturing the physicality of rowing, the sense of trespass into unmediated Nature, and again, the sense of the rowing boat as the proper vehicle by which we leave civility (and security) behind in order to apprehend the immutable and mysterious.

‘There, in her mooring place, I left my Bark,

And, through the meadows howeward went, with grave

And serious thoughts; and after I had seen

That spectacle, for many days, my brain

Worked with a dim and undetermined  sense

Of unknown modes of being; in my thoughts

There was a darkness, call it solitude,

Or blank desertion, no familiar shapes

Of hourly objects, images of trees,

Of sea or sky, no colours of green fields;

But huge and mighty Forms that do not live

Like living men moved slowly through my mind

By day and were the trouble of my dreams.’

Fabulous stuff ! So, apart from helping me lose a bit of weight, rowing encourages me into the ever rich realms of metaphor and symbol.  And Iona, being the thin place that it is, is a particularly apt place to row.  And of course, one of the pleasures of rowing is simply to stop, take a breath, listen to the water dripping from the oars and let the world quietly settle around you.

Kathleen Raine writes:

‘For earth’s days and nights are breaking over me, / The tides and sands are running through me, / And I have only two hands and a heart to hold the desert and the sea. / What can I contain of it ? / It escapes and eludes me, /The tides wash me away, /The desert shifts under my feet.’

My personal answer to this conundrum is to be in a small boat on the sea.

Below is a shot of me on the bow of Clovelly, coming home by moonlight from Staffa.


3 Comments leave one →
  1. March 29, 2012 6:25 pm

    I love this post and your new boat as well! I feel like I would likely respond a bit like Mole to the gift of this mode of being/travel-an unfettered, whole-hearted love!

  2. Delyse Harrrower permalink
    April 13, 2013 9:05 pm

    Gradually meandering through your blogs, John. You really ought to get it all put in some order and write a book. Was interested to see the one from Katherine Raine. I think it was she who put her hand on the rowan tree and placed a curse on the house where Gavin Maxwell lived in Ring of Bright Water. When I read the books, I wanted to go and live there. One year- about 1974, I think, mum and I had a holiday up here and we found the place at the end of the road and hiked down the still rutted track to “Camusfearna”. Magic place. Delyse x

    • Iona Hostel permalink
      April 16, 2013 5:37 pm

      Hi Delyse,

      Not long back from JP’s funeral. A sad day and I’m glad I went with Christian. Really felt for Jane.

      Glad you’re enjoying the blog ! I’ve never been to Camusfearna and it sounds a lovely spot. Don’t think I’d go now as it sounds as though it’s become a part of the tourist route. Not sure how much of the atmosphere that you felt will still be around !

      Down with bronchitis. Yuck.

      Best wishes,


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