stories over waters –
Baltic to Atlantic
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.
The port of departure is a developing harbour in the Outer Hebrides. Stornoway is seen as a place which is not ‘isolated’ but which has always been subject to huge changes in trade, industry and political alliances. An islander who happens to be from a line of storytellers, looks back on the travels which took him far from that home.Voyages are recalled, alternating with accounts of conversations ashore. Inherited narratives, linked to the sighted places, are retold and compared.
Ian Stephen, author of the ‘wildly original’ (Kirsty Gunn) novel ‘A Book of Death and Fish’ and the Saltire shortlisted ‘Waypoints’ (‘movingly and saltily real’ , Adam Nicolson) draws his previous tracks along established sea-routes :
Baltic waterways and islands
The Celtic Searoute from Brittany to the Outer Hebrides
The routes of international fishing fleets and emigrant ships as far as Rockall
A Canadian journey as the last stop on the North Atlantic ‘stepping stones’ route
Comparisons suggests that boundaries still shift and so do alliances and trade. Yet the inherited narratives still told along the routes reveal a range of shared concerns.
Do our stories connect us when our ideas of nationhood, sovereignty and independence are like turbulent waters?
‘I loved Waypoints. It is a really beautiful book, above all in its conception, the marriage of telling and sailing, voyages as stories and stories as voyages, something which of course has its Odyssean beginnings, but movingly and saltily real. Metaphors swim in (Stephen’s) wake. Completely effortlessly so that the book at times seems woven like a sail, or scarfed and clenched like a hull, or tied together like a course across a sea —life as ship as sail as journey as a man's life. And the other dimension of it all that I loved is the sense of crowdsourcing in it, drawing like Homer or the Kalevala on deep wells of communal understanding which find their mouths in each new generation, modulating with the ages but still with some kind of artery going down into the past. It is like the Minch speaking.’
Adam Nicolson (author of Sea Room and The Mighty Dead – Why Homer Matters
Here are two recent reviews of the paperback edition:
shortlisted Saltire awards 2017
‘…a deep respect for the peoples and environments he encounters. And accompanying this is a poetic sensibility that is evident in some beautifully lyrical moments of prose and not least in his preoccupation with and dedication to inherited narratives informing the seas, the shores and landscapes through which he travels.’ Tom Lowenstein
Amy Ryan image of El Vigo beating, east coast of Lewis, taken from the deck of the Contessa 32 Roaring Meg. Amy is a grand-daughter of a former owner of El Vigo and therein lies many a story.
Transits is the working title of a second book which alternates factual accounts of voyaging with my retelling of a folk-tale set in the geography observed. This time the book is also a portrait of the author's relationship with the sloop El Vigo .
is the working title of my current writing project, funded by an Open Project Award from Creative Scotland.
In one sense my secnd novel will be a free-standing work but it will also fall in place as part of a planned trilogy. Readers of A Book of Death and Fish (Saraband) will recognise, at times, the voice of the wayward storyteller, Peter MacAulay.
My first novel, available in hbk, pbk and e book
'Ian Stephen’s vast and intricate novel (Saraband) hooked me in from its first paragraph –it is a Waterland for the Outer Hebrides, and seems to me a major moment in the modern literature of those islands.' Guardian Books of the Year 2014
'I think it’s a landmark in Scottish literature and in contemporary fiction.' Robert Macfarlane (in filmed interview, Saraband publishers website)
'...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. Candia McWilliam, in The Herald, Books of the Year, 2014
Ian Stephen and Christine Morrison (Stephen | Morrison) presented their collaborative work at the Australian Wooden Boat Festival, Tasmania 6 - 9 Feb, 2015. Christine also took part in a group exhibition of artists' responses to poetry. See www.stephenmorrison.org and The Island Review on line journal:
'Christine Morrison’s paintings emerged from the Stephen|Morrison residency in Tasmania. Containing hand ground earth pigment, these, in their rough ochres and reds, evoke the blood running in the earth and the brutalities visited on the Aboriginal people further echoed in Stephen’s accompanying poem Ash in the figure of the spiny anteater, the echidna. There are images of grain silos in Saskatchewan taken whilst driving: huge structures acting as landmarks that become lighthouses or waypoints by which someone might navigate across the flat immensities of the Canadian prairie landscape. Others - grainy washed-out, photogravure images of Sule Skerry, Fair Isle, Boreray, Sula Sgeir, all taken at sea level - give the land forms an eerie otherworldliness, like mythical lands, Ultima Thule or those encountered by wandering Celtic monks in the Voyage of St Brendan and are accompanied by a traditional tale particular to that island. Something of an artistic aesthetic appears in Waypoints, as Stephen’s describes how boats go through their various incarnations and restorations, (often individualised by the tastes of their different owners) and how the essential shape (which will also have minor variations depending on location and function) is re-formed and re-fashioned just as tales are with their localised variations thus becoming a ‘living thing’. In this constant re-forming and re-telling, individuals and communities become bound together, a common culture to be handed on to yet more change.'
Commonwealth Poets United
Ian represented Scotland in Canada as part of the Scottish Poetry Library's exchange of 6 Scottish poets with 6 poets from Commonwealth countries.
Christine was funded to travel with Ian and make work in response, thanks to Creative Scotland – a comparison between a 3 night voyage to Shetland and a 3 night train journey over the prairies.
We were hosted by Louise Halfe, a poet laureate of Saskatchewan and 2021 Canada's parliamentary poet laureate and then Louise and her husband, Peter, visited the Isle of Lewis.
The exchange has fed into comparison of Hebridean and indigenous North American stories in Ian's current non-fiction work, Sea-States.
old grain elevator (exterior)