Martyn Murray was finding modern life suffocating. Following years of soul searching, his father’s death triggered him into opening the old logbooks and charts to retrace the sailing trips they had once shared together. He determined to revisit those waters and bring home the freedom of the seas. After restoring an old ketch, he set off from Ireland, sailed to Scotland and spent his summer in Scotland’s Western Isles. His one goal was to reach St Kilda – the remotest part of the British Isles. What he came up against was far more testing and turbulent than the tides and gales of the North Atlantic.
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“What an exhilarating experience, reading those pages! It's what we need and what many of the younger generation know they need but they don't know where to find it.” —Dervla Murphy
"A terrific read, full of adventure and learning" —Sam Llewellyn
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A wonderfully heart-warming tale, looking at the bonds of family and freedom of adventure; a true treat for anyone who loves sailing, Scotland, or just a good story. —Sailing Today
In Scotland, whisky is a sacred drink. Amber as the life oozing from an old Caledonian pine, acrid as the smoke drifting down a ghost-filled glen, subtle as the twilight on a Hebridean shore. One swallow warms your heart like the first kiss on a long winter’s night; two swallows still the raging torrents of your mind as mountain waters in the slow deeps of a highland pool where gravid salmon lie; three swallows awaken your imprisoned soul and a longing for the old way, the merry way, and the chance to live free. Raising your glass is a custom older than the nation. It summons a bygone glory, seals a lifelong pact and etches forever a shared moment on the long journey home. The last thing my father said to me was: ‘Come on over Martyn…we’ll have a dram together.’
I packed my bags and drove over the next morning, but Dad had gone on ahead of me. So I raised my glass alone that night and as I took the third swallow a conversation began. Sailing was our shared passion, our common language. It was what we yearned for when trapped in a dull meeting or stuck in frustrated traffic. Our family boat, Primrose, bore no resemblance to the designer craft that pack marinas today; she was a working Cornish vessel from the 1890s, a wooden-planked, heavy-beamed, deep-keeled, gaff-rigged cutter with a tree trunk for a mast. She carried a press of tanned canvas in a stiff breeze, leaning sedately with the weight of wind yet lifting to the surge of sea, bowsprit thrust forward over the waves. In my imagination her character matched those of my father and mother: like my father, load-bearing and warm hearted, dependable as Scottish oak; and like my mother, brave as the first English primrose and sunny as the spring itself. My brothers and I relished the daily fare of maritime adventure, one day exploring islands or anchorages, the next hunting for lobsters and shellfish, and the next inhaling the curiosity of seaside shops with their racks of comics and trays of sweets. It introduced a wild but disciplined freedom to our urban lives which I didn’t stop to think about at the time.
Glass in hand I walked over to the bookcase in the hall. One of the shelves was packed with my father’s favourite sailing books. I chose half-a-dozen and took them up to bed. They sported pipe cleaners as page markers that smelt of tobacco and margins that were filled with handwritten notes in his familiar tight longhand that few could read, save my mother and the pharmacist who had received countless scrawled prescriptions from his surgery. I stayed up late that night engrossed by the world of sailing in a bygone age. Time passed in a quiet routine: by day I went for long walks and chatted to Mum, in the evenings I went to bed early and read about sailing. On one of those evenings, I began to realise that something in those books was speaking to me. Dissatisfaction with my life had whispered in my ear for years and recently had grown to a shout. I’d taken time off from work to push out in different directions but it hadn’t helped. In fact the more I tried to deal with it, the worse it had become. I felt trapped in my adult skin. Somewhere I had taken a wrong turn.
I kept coming back to one book, Dream Ships by Maurice Griffiths. It had a blue woven cover and well-thumbed pages filled with descriptions of the author’s favourite small craft illustrated by sketches of their construction, deck layouts and accommodation. I marvelled at their swept lines and cosy cabins, imagined myself hauling up the sails, making voyages to distant lands and tying up at the quay in a foreign harbour. An idea began to form, strengthening as each day went by, of finding my own dream boat, bringing her home to Scotland and keeping her on a mooring in the west – in my father’s country – and if the chance should come, of making a voyage to St. Kilda, that tight cluster of rocky isles lying far out in the Atlantic Ocean beyond the sheltering wall of the Hebrides, where the roar of surf mingles with the seabirds’ cry, the sea mist rises to the falling smirr, and what lies beyond enters freely within. I stayed for three weeks and by the time I left, I knew exactly what I wanted. It was the sweetest dram I’ve ever had.