Works of poetry and prose

‘This pursuit of the optimal way-speed was, I came to realise, in keeping with all that Ian does. In action and speech, he is formidably exact. He exemplifies what Robert Lowell once called ‘the grace of accuracy’, and his poetry too, is distinguished by its precision. Minimalist but not gnomic, it extends his commitments both to exactitude and communication. There is no surfeit to it. His poems are short and taut as well-set sails. Poetry represents to him not a form of suggestive vagueness, but a medium which permits him to to speak in ways otherwise unavailable.’

Robert Macfarlane, The Old Ways, Hamish Hamilton and Penguin, 2012-13

  In spring 2016 Saraband, Glasgow published a new and selected poems

'Ian Stephen's poems are finely wrought and stripped of embellishment. His gift to us is a poetry as taut as a sheet in a gale.' – Pete Hay, poet and essayist, University of Tasmania, Hobart, Australia

'This collection of sea poems is a lovely book to handle, beautifully designed and typeset by Gerry Cambridge, with understated images by Christine Morrison. The poems are salty and fishy, dense with sea-faring terminology, as condensed and precise as an almanac, but chatty too, like harbour banter, and as wise as you’d expect from an offshore yachtmaster.                            Mandy Haggith

Pick of 2016 Scottish Review of Books

'I have quietly followed and admired Ian Stephen’s poetry for a number of years now, but with the arrival of the beautifully produced Maritime: New and Selected Poems, I feel like I should raise me voice. For me, Stephen’s work is inseverably connected to the sea and this latest volume collects much of his work on pelagic themes, from his first collection in 1983 through to the present day. The effect of having some of the choicer poems from all of Stephen’s books brought together like this is to highlight the sheer precision, scrupulousness and craftsmanship of his work. These are sea-worthy, hardwearing poems but they are not in any way impermeable and watertight to the reader; in fact they seem to accept that people are fluid entities, prone to behaving like shoals of fish or the tides, flowing and ebbing away...'                

Richie Macaffery, Northwords Now

Recent poetry  publications include:

The Island Review, Transnational Literature (Australia), Poetry Salzburg Review, Stand, The Rialto, CafeVoices (Maine)

A new broadsheet, 'Fencelines', with a photograph by Colin Myers,  is due from David Miller's Kater Murr's Press in 2021.

Non Fiction

Since his Creative Award of 2002, Ian has been exploring the relationship between inherited narratives and the maritime landscapes they inhabit. His method is to navigate the geography of their settings. This  led to the publication of Waypoints – seascapes and stories of Scotland's West Coast by Adlard Coles Nautical in 2017. This first work of non fiction was shortlisted for the Saltire Scottish non-fiction book of the year  award. It was published in paperback in 2018 and is available if bookshops or direct from Bloomsbury.

This is due to be followed by Transits, which will expand the range of geography to include a voyage from the Baltic across the North Sea to Stornoway and further explorations of the offshore territories of St Kilda and Flannan Isles. All these journeys were made in the Robert Clark sloop El Vigo, built in Vigo, Spain in 1961.

 El Vigo (Astilleros Lagos)

Waypoints  is also a  history of the author's love affairs, with boats. Sea-routes from the Clyde to Orkney are explored in vessels which are sometimes traditional and sometimes of near-contemporary design – like the stories told along the way.

Boats are containers to keep one thing out, another thing in.

A waterproof vessel has to contain an absence of water.

If the inside and outside are exchanged – you're sunk.


stories over waters – Baltic to Atlantic

is approaching completion at Spring 2021

At a time when travels are restricted,  a sailor considers it might be time to try to make some sense of previous experiences and stories encountered along the ways.

'I am impressed not only by the power of much of the writing but also Ian's superb knowledge of land, sea and the topographical interface of oral tradition and the landscapes and voyages from which that tradition emerges. This is expressed both directly in his descriptions of journeying and implicitly in the often exquisite poems that punctuate the narrative. The traditional stories are also beautifully handled.'

Tom Lowenstein, poet and author of Ancient Land, Sacred Whale (Bloomsbury, Farrar Strouss and Giroux, Harvill Press). Now available in Penguin.

 intended and actual routes

A Book of Death and Fish

is the title of Ian's first novel, published by Saraband, in October 2014.

interview with Robert MacFarlane, Faclan 

see video on Saraband publishers website:

A North American response

 “At 574 pages, poet Ian Stephen’s debut novel, A Book of Death and Fish, is not a work to be finished in a single go, but it is one you will want to. Wholly original, it nonetheless strangely calls to mind, for this North American reader at least, writers as different as Herman Melville, Mark Twain and Alistair MacLeod. Like Moby-Dick, A Book of Death and Fish combines compelling narrative with densely detailed but no less compelling chapters devoted to such mundane matters as building a boat, repairing a chimney and selecting roofing slates. (As in Melville, no metaphysics without physics.) The great lesson Twain learned from his time piloting steamboats was that the Mississippi was too changeable to be learned once and for all but had to be read, experienced and navigated anew on every trip, much as Stephen’s main character, Peter, has to, no less in his life in general than in trying to reach land during a storm. Perhaps it’s the fiction of Alistair MacLeod that Stephen’s novel most calls to mind; set in Stornoway on the Isle of Lewis, rather than MacLeod’s Cape Breton, A Book of Death and Fish shares a similarly rugged landscape and stoic yet lyrical simplicity. MacLeod’s recent death makes Stephen’s novel all the more welcome. This novel about Peter is also about island life—or rather about life, past and present, on the island and how, like Peter, the island community both endures and evolves, existing apart from the mainland and the larger world but interacting with both.”

Robert Morace, Professor of English, Daemen College , Amherst, New York

A similar comparison was made by Candia McWilliams in The Herald Books of the Year, 2014:

"A Book Of Death And Fish by Ian Stephen (Saraband, £18.99) may well take its place beside Moby-Dick, asking of you something as much and giving in proportion - which is to say incalculably much, and that long after you have finished it, over and over. It will, I suspect, be one of those books I will not put down all my days: island life, life at sea, being en-islanded, the isolation of failed understanding, of loss, of identity, even of nationhood - and of tank warfare - of addiction and of much else, all broached in a daring remade language that teaches you how to read it."

A Book of Death and Fish

by Ian Stephen

An amazing book following the self-told story of a young man growing up in the Hebrides in the 1960s through to his death in the new millennium. Don’t be put off by the dialect, you’ll soon get your ear in and be reading it fluently. Don’t worry about the free-flowing style – it quickly seems natural. Don’t be put off by the fish, they are only part of the story. Remember it is a novel!

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We couldn’t look out to sea but it was never very far away. Stornoway was still a herring port. I would be sent to the corner shop to buy a score. A different fish from the ones you saw swinging over, in dripping baskets. But the same species. They came from a firkin. That sounded like one of the measures laid out, black on pale blue, on the back of our school jotters. You had to know how many chains were to the furlong. Down the hoil, some cove off a boat would let me gather one for every digit I could hold out. I think I said that, instead of finger, because it’s like a cubit, which maybe wasn’t on the jotters, but it was in the Bible. The fry was taken from spillage from the crans, swung ashore in creels filled from the hold. We’d go back to the Terraces with handfuls, held out ahead. We’d leave behind, drying on the concrete, the cuddies we’d caught. These were small fry of lythe, saithe, cod and whiting.


The Crow Road by Iain Banks

H is for Hawk by Helen MacDonald

A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man by James Joyce

 Western Isles Folk Tales

The Press and Journal         Seanaid Macrae, 27th Dec

Cleverly incorporating a subtle geography lesson, this delightful collection of tales takes us from Barra in the south to the north of Lewis, with each new section of the journey introduced with a simply drawn map of the area and illustrations by Christine Morrison.

There are around 50 tales included covering a surprisingly varied amount of topics ranging from fishing boats and marriages to murders and clan feuds – “The Crop-Headed Freckled Lass” was one which, for me, was reminiscent of a Hans Christian Anderson-style story.

Some have a moral edge and others seem founded on superstition. They range in length from just a couple of paragraphs to a few pages long which makes for convenient reading, particularly for those with a busy lifestyle.

Ian also provides the sources of the tales, some of whom may be familiar to readers who are natives of the Isles, which will be useful for those wishing to research further.

A transatlantic response from Canadian storyteller Dawn Macfarlane

 ‘brilliant and compelling historical artistry in word and illustration!’

 Oxford Poets 2013 – a sequence of Ian's recent maritime poems was included in the 2013 Oxford Poets anthology. Oxford Poets is now an imprint of Carcanet Press. It is a continuation of the Oxford University Press which had a distinguished history in publishing poets from many countries including the Russian, Joseph Brodsky. The editors chose a group of work which includes all the poems written during the 2011 Cape Farewell voyage to St Kilda, the Monachs and Taransay.  You can view examples, with photographs, in the Samples section of Cape Farewell's Scottish Islands Exhibition website. 

Fathoms and Metres is an audio CD of traditional maritime stories, produced by an Tobar, Isle of Mull  as part of   Is a thing lost if you know where it is? – a multi-arts project which linked  Scotland's  island arts-centres. It includes musical contributions from Norman Chalmers, Gordon Maclean and Julie Fowlis. A recording made live at St Kilda, during a Cape farewell voyage, is included. 

See review:

With musical contributions from Peter Urpeth (piano) Maggie Nicols (voice improvisation,

Julie Fowlis (whistle) and Norman Chalmers (flute and Gordon Maclean (various instruments).

Available from an Tobar, an Lanntair,  and The Scottish Storytelling Centre

Adrift, new and selected poems in English with Czech translations.(Periplum, Olomouc, 2007)

 drawings by David Connearn

Adrift offers a cross section of Ian Stephen’s nearly three decades’ worth of poetic and dramatic work. His poetry is dynamic and succinct, to the point where I have been tempted to reproduce here, poems in their entireties. His work has its spiritual home in the Hebrides and their surrounding waters. For Stephen, the sea and shore are vibrant, active; landscape is not background, it is interwoven with the author’s own personality. Stephen expresses himself in terms alternately flowing and lyrical, or imagistic and disaffected. He deals as readily with questions of aesthetic as he does with the grimy trivialities of the everyday. The result is, either way, voiced with economy and pathos.

Whether enacting a muted engagement with natural beauty, or employing the common idiom, this is a poet attuned to the old injunction to ‘Know Thyself’, or as he might admit with less ceremony, ‘I bide within limited parallels/shuffle a few meridians.’

 Stephen Lackaye, The  Edinburgh Review

It’s About This, a poem log of a winter voyage to the StAnza Festival.                                  (Daemon, Glasgow, 2004)


 (a poem-log sent from the yacht El Vigo to StAnza festival)

 It's your track record,

how she leans to the cloth she carries,

how her forward sections dip

and the bounce of recovery.

The swither of that, if any,

in small turbulence astern.

It's the hiss of the line of bubbles.

the one you're not often going to see

in the clutter of several waters

but you have to get the sniff of it.

This poem has now been set to music by the singer Kirsty Law.

Mackerel and Creamola, a collection of short stories with recipe-poems and children's drawings, is a rich portrayal of contemporary life in the Hebrides, drawing on the author's deep knowledge of sea lore. With a forward by Gerry Cambridge, recipes by Donald Urquhart, and an audio CD.  (pocketbooks/Polygon, Edinburgh, 2001) Contributor and co-editor for other titles in pocketbooks/Polygon series.

Green Waters, with Ian Hamilton Finlay and Graham Rich.  (pocketbooks/Polygon, Edinburgh, 1998)

Both titles are now out of print. Ian hopes to produce an updated collection of short stories as a future project.

PROVIDENCE II, poems and photographs.  (The Windfall Press, 1994)

'His main subjects - seas, winds, tides, shorelines and horizons - are expressed in precisely observed details of shape, colour, texture and movement that capture the spirit of a place as well as the topography in poem after poem, until voyaging becomes fact and metaphor in Stephen's work, a way of life and a way of interpreting life.' - James Aitchieson, The Herald

Morning Star Publications, many collaborations with Alec Finlay, from 1991.  (Held in many public and private collections, including National Library of Scotland and Museum of Modern Art, New York.)

Siud an t-Eilean (editor) anthology of poems and photographs.  (Acair, Stornoway, 1993)

Varying States of Grace 
(Polygon, Edinburgh, 1989)

 '...from small, perfectly reconstructed moments of island life to longer, loosely textured meditations on European politics, from stories of family to songs of romantic adventure, the care and compassion of Stephen's eye find a state of grace in every situation, his unerring but quiet technique marking out their variations.' The Scotsman  

Malin, Hebrides, Minches collaboration with the photographer Sam Maynard.
Poems and photos published internationally and exhibited at The Third Eye Centre, Glasgow. Associated performances with Sean O' Rourke (JSD band, Alba, The Keltz) and Savourna Stevenson. (Dangaroo Press, Denmark, 1983)

 with Sam Maynard

'Your poems are like washed pebbles on a beach.' –                                                   E P Thompson

The weather feeling of the poetry is very truly matched by the photographs – altogether good lifting signals being transmitted….. '                                                                    – Seamus Heaney, letter to Dangaroo Press

'Stephen writes well of the bare, islanded north and its sea-scapes, its loneliness and stark, sporadic collisions with geopolitical industrial-technological realities, of the view from the top of the world.'             – David McDuff in Stand.

Poems from Small Islands  

Venue:  Charlotte Square Gardens

Running time:  60mins

Performers:  Robyn Marsack, Miriam Gamble, Adrian Grima, Maria Rosa Liabres Ripoli, Jenan Selcuk, Ian Stephen

On the evening of Sunday 14th August, the small Peppers Theatre stage was packed with poets – not the usual one or two writers and a presenter; here were five international poets from Belfast, Malta, Majorca, Cyprus and the Isle of Lewis. Introducing the event was Robyn Marsack, director of the Scottish Poetry Library.

In co-operation with the SPL,  Literature Across Frontiers (LAF) arranged a writers’ workshop recently at Crear, Tarbert, Argyll, bringing together these poets from islands around Europe. This was apparently an inspiring and educational collaboration, learning about language with the aim to translate selected poems - say, from English into Turkish. The workshop and subsequent poetry readings in Crear were part of the "Year of Scottish Islands Culture" series of events.

"Crear, space to create, is an inspirational working space with accommodation on the west coast of Scotland, connecting individuals and organisations across the arts worldwide through innovative residencies."

The poets in turn read their own poem followed by the translation by another poet into their language;  for instance Northern Irish writer, Miriam Gamble’s witty and romantic “Semi-colon”, was translated into Catalan by Maria Rosa Llabres Ripoli. 

An atmospheric narrative about the wild rugged Icelandic landscape, “Ridge above Lake Myvatn” was first read in English by Ian Stephen (with lively Hebridean storytelling skill) and then repeated in the translated version in Maltese by Adrian Grima.

Reading poetry requires fine expression over every syllable, each word and stanza, with flowing pace and rhythm.  Adrian, Miriam and Ian have a rich quality of voice and performed their work with style…