The Summer Isles: A Voyage of the Imagination by Philip Marsden (Granta Publications, 2019; $13)
Most American sailors don’t cruise the west coasts of Ireland and Scotland, even if they cross the Atlantic. That’s a good reason to read Philip Marsden’s The Summer Isles. Though not a book about cruising, per se, it is a sailing adventure that brings this region to life. Marsden is an accomplished travel writer who sets out to rediscover a place that is associated with his youth, with an aunt who passed away, and with his attraction to islands as the “otherworld”—a pre-christian concept of the afterlife, the realm of the dead and deities.
Marsden had plenty of daysailing experience but no long-distance cruising, and to travel this remote and often harsh region by boat singlehanded was not the easiest way to go—but he says that looking for imaginary places isn’t meant to be easy. He has a goal to reach: a small collection of islands at the very top of the Scottish west coast, named for the summer months when the locals used to take their sheep across to graze there. “If I’ve learned anything from my years of traveling, it is that a journey’s trickiness is what makes it most rewarding.”
Marsden’s voyage includes plenty of adverse weather, as well as stories of navigating tricky passages and anchorages. He is fascinated by the Irish and Scottish languages, poetry, and legends, and his inclusion of these add a kind of mythical incantation to this story. Considering that many sailors are attracted to a far horizon like this, Marsden’s book is a welcome antidote to COVID-19 isolation.