‘What sort of culture clash, I wondered, would have existed between a Greek scientist and his Celtic hosts? The seed of a novel was sown.’
The Amber Seeker
By Mandy Haggith
Published by Saraband
The Amber Seeker is the second of a trilogy of historical novels, set in the Iron Age, around 320 BC, and it was mostly written at sea. It is inspired by a Mediterranean explorer, Pytheas of Massalia (from modern day Marseilles, back then a Greek colony), who probably set foot in Assynt, where I live, on the northwest coast of Scotland, during an amazing voyage that included circumnavigating Britain, venturing as far north as Iceland and the pack ice and across the North Sea to the Baltic.
A few years ago, I was working for an archaeological dig that was excavating a broch, a tall, Iron Age cooling-tower shaped building, which may well have been standing when Pytheas sailed in. As I read Barry Cunliffe’s brilliant account in The Extraordinary Voyage of Pytheas the Greek I began to imagine the people that Pytheas would have encountered here. What sort of culture clash, I wondered, would have existed between a Greek scientist and his Celtic hosts? The seed of a novel was sown.
Pytheas was also a writer and wrote a book about his voyage, On the Ocean. One copy burned in the library at Alexandria and all the others seem also to have been lost. All we have are fragments from Greek and Roman geographers and historians who quoted Pytheas: some refer to him with admiration and respect for his scientific rigour and fascinating discoveries; others deride him as a fantasist. It seems that many of his adventures were, literally, incredible.
Most of the fragments are accounts of his ocean passages that were so outrageous and new to his Mediterranean readers that many took him to be making them up. He was mocked for his tales of great creatures rising out of the sea spouting fumes; islands where the land flows, smoking and burning, into the water; a place where the ocean becomes slushy and semi-frozen; not to mention locations with tidal ranges of many metres. To us, these details point not to a fabulist but to someone undertaking an extraordinary voyage for his time – daunting even to a modern sailor – up beyond the tidal islands of Britain to Iceland and the southern edge of the polar ice pack, encountering great whales along the way. I can vouch for the humbling strangeness of the blow of a bow-head whale among ice floes. I just hope the awe and thrill he experienced compensated for the lack of credulity of his readers.
To write about Pytheas I needed to understand better where he travelled. I began with a trip on an ice-breaker up into the Arctic, including time spent in the vast Greenland pack ice and a couple of weeks sailing around Svalbard. That got me hooked on sailing, so I set about qualifying as a skipper, bought a boat and discovered that it is a kind of time machine. The sea, paradoxically, appears to be, on the one hand, in perpetual change yet, on the other hand, exactly the same as it has always been. Although there is nylon, steel and aluminium onboard, the process of sailing is basically just as it would have been in Pytheas’ day: the winds are still Iron Age winds, the waves and the tides are as varied and as reliable then as now, the landscape, once you’re a mile off shore and the buildings mere dots, could be from anytime. Out on the ocean, twentieth century concerns sink away and the Iron Age looms into the present.
I therefore found the boat to be a perfect writing retreat. As I scribbled with my fountain pen in my notebook, I imagined Pytheas scratching observations for his book on vellum or parchment with a quill dipped in oak gall ink. Anchorages are usually devoid of mobile phone signals or other distractions, so I spent many happy hours swinging at anchor, allowing the story to ripple out onto the page, the boat populated with a crew of fictional characters. Out at sea, I have found an ease in sliding between past and present. Then and now are easily accommodated in the vastness of the ocean.
The Amber Seeker by Mandy Haggith is published by Saraband, priced £8.99