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Top marks for Philip Marsden for writing a great travel book, he bravely sailed an old wooden yacht from his home port in Cornwall up the Irish Sea braving the full force of the Atlantic on the western side of Ireland on his way to the Summer Isles of Scotland. Visiting varied harbours on the way telling of the different characters he met and weaving the past and the present skilfully together. He admits he is a novice sailor and describes his thoughts on the dangers and stress he endures so well, I too did a lot of sailing in these waters so understand his descriptions from first hand. I wish he had told us more of the Summer Isles than Ireland but that is nit picking, I urge anyone who loves the sea, sailing and a jolly good travel book to buy, beg, borrow or steal to get this book !
The Summer Isles ticks all the boxes for a good winter read, tucked up in the safety and warmth of home. The author has written what is already regarded as a classic tale of adventure – combining graphic descriptions of the physical challenges of a largely single-handed voyage by sail around the wild west shores of Ireland and Scotland – with the insight of a Gaelic scholar adept at describing the mystical characteristics of the harbours and headlands that he so adroitly navigated on a voyage that was as much about finding himself as it was about finding his way.
Readers will be driven to compare his account with Tim Robinson's books on Ireland's western shores and islands. The comparison in terms of writing skills and sustained interest in a broad range of subjects is indeed valid. But whereas Tim Robinson focuses on rocks, bogs and landscapes, Philip Marsden's story turns towards the less definable seas off our shores. At times he finds himself beating into the jaws of gales in fights for survival in some of Europe's most unforgiving seascapes.
Narrowly escaping being sucked into a giant whirlpool off Scottish shores he presses on towards his nostalgic Summer Isles, not sure at times whether the goal really does justify the risks of mental and physical breakdown that they pose in one of the worst summer's on record.
But what Robinson and Marsden do share in their masterly narratives, is a deep and intense interest in the culture, history and mystery of these wild Atlantic shores. Not many of us have the means or skills to drop our anchor in the crystal clear waters of the Inishkeas or to meet there with such engaging characters as Brion who had spent the winter there in solitary meditation. Philip Marsden had the means in his beautiful wooden boat, and he acquired many of the skills along his stormy route. It is a privilege to share his epic journey through these lovingly crafted pages.
I really enjoyed this account of Marsden’s solo sail up the west coast of Ireland and across to the Hebrides. The people he met en route and his memories and thoughts as he progressed were fascinating. I chose the book partly because of the title as I have fond memories of being on the Summer Isles with my pregnant wife and one year old daughter in the heat of the summer of 1976. I was mightily impressed by the author’s knowledge and scholarly learning although I confess to being confused by many of the myths he mixed with history. Recommended for sailors, Celts and lovers of the islands off our shores.