True North

True North: Travels in Arctic Europe is a charming and intelligent travel account of one man's fascination with 'the North': once the boundaries of a known world. A world being freshly discovered as shifts in climate open it once more to exploitation - of travel, of transport and of resources - a change that may arrest the slow depopulation of many of the places Gavin Francis visits.

He starts in Shetland (together with Orkney) two highly independent sets of people off the north coast of Scotland (who are decidedly not Scottish) who, however, remain dependent on living in a wider whole (of the United Kingdom). Like the Faroese islanders, fiercely themselves, yet dependent on Denmark for subsidy and opportunities for higher education and employment opportunity. Only Iceland has broken this pattern, having the critical mass for independence, though one now challenged by financial crisis and hoped for European Union membership.

One aspect that I had only barely realized of this history was the intrepid travels of Irish monks in the sixth and seventh centuries. I knew of their penetration around the coast of the UK and into Europe but not northwards to the Faroes, Iceland and possibly beyond. St Brendan's voyage, the account of which is part history, part legend, part myth. It was, however, an extraordinary achievement in an open wooden boat with a keel of leather. A testimony to both faith and curiosity. Amongst the wonders they did see, and described beautifully, was an encounter with an iceberg - a water rooted tower of ice moving with apparent permanency. The legend does suggest that he did find his way to the Americas, centuries before the Vikings.

I found myself contemplating what difference that discovery might have made (either Irish or Viking) if sustained - not an invasion of guns and germs and satisfied religion - but a slower absorption of the gift for holiness or a gift for rugged adventure and the honours of war and trade (or both). Not a United States of America but the growth of something yet different (after all the Vikings were the catalyst for the formation of a proto-Russian state)? A happy fantasy of alternate history...

It is touched on, very lightly, by George Mackay Brown, that fine Orkney writer, in his novel, Vinland, where the young central character experiences the offer of a life between 'Native American' and Viking only to see it collapse in the inability to genuinely embrace the other, the fear of the new drowning out the wonder.

This a book full of gentle wonders - of natural description, people encountered, legends re-told: an admission to 'the North'!


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