Reviews of Adrift in Caledonia

In brief…

“A lovely, humorous, fluid book that anchors itself in the heart.”
The Times

Adrift in Caledonia is a beautiful entertainment, better than Bryson, as shrewdly observant as Theroux.”
The Scotsman

“Nick Thorpe had a wonderful idea and made it work… Adrift in Caledonia is a persuasive and illuminating declaration of love.”
The Herald (Rating: * * * * *)

“One of the best traveller’s tales I have come across in a long time.”
Scottish Review of Books

“Blending travelogue with memoir… presented with off beat, self-depreciating humour.”
Independent on Sunday

“His insight and humanity, together with an honest lack of certainty, make him a companionable guide.” 
Sunday Express

“Thorpe is a natural story-teller, with a wonderful gift for description.”
Scots Magazine

“An excellent read for the gnarled seadog and confirmed landlubber alike.”
Shetland Times

“Filled with poignant and dryly humorous snapshots of Scotland… a wonderful tribute to a nation fringed by the sea and to the wanderer’s impulse…”
Waterstone’s Scottish Book of the Month

“An amazing journey… never short on humour, but also gives a unique insight into the characters and lives of those who work and play on Scottish waters.”
Ottakars Scottish Book of the Month

“A lovely, lively read for lubbers.”
Saga Magazine

In full…

The Times
11 March 2006

Iain Finlayson

There are Scots who go down mightily to the sea in ships (Clyde-built, preferably), and there are Scots who hitch a ride on Clyde patrol boats such as MV Menno, “a large, rectangular biscuit tin fitted with a crane and a necklace of tyres” that, nevertheless, “commanded the sort of fierce loyalty you’d expect from the crew of an Elizabethan galleon”. Thorpe’s impulsive boat-hitching round Scotland, an island-hopping voyage of 2,500 miles, opened him to the enigmatic character of water, his own country and his own character. He has written a lovely, humorous, fluid book that anchors itself in the heart.

The Scotsman
4 March 2006

About a Buoy
There’s banter galore on a hitch-hiking trip around Scotland by boat – but it’s the internal journey that’s really gripping…

Reviewed by Tom Adair

Where it all began – where the urge was nurtured – is anyone’s guess: Nick Thorpe carries wanderlust like an ache, like a mutant gene. It is his muse, his curse, his fulfilment.

That’s how it feels as you follow his beautifully written, often amusing, thought-provoking tale of a buffeted journey around the ripped edges of Scotland’s coastline, and back to the place he describes as “home”: the maw of Edinburgh’s streets. Even there, though, Thorpe is self-consciously the Englishman abroad, a soul in amiable limbo, seeking meaning, craving belonging. It is there, in his own backyard, while strolling one Sunday afternoon along a towpath with Ali, his wife, that he has a flash of realisation: his local canal is more than a place – it is also a route, a means of exit. He hatches a plan to boat-hitch a ride from the Forth to the Clyde, to the western seaboard, and thence on a mini island odyssey, closing the loop in the Firth of Forth, 2,500 miles further on.

“Ali was gently pragmatic,” he writes. “What makes you think folk are going to invite a complete stranger on to their boat just because he happens to want a lift? What’s in it for them?” In Ali’s question you catch a hint of latent discouragement. After all, the death of her father has recently skittled her into grief. So what is Thorpe’s rush in her hour of need? He has a rendezvous, he tells us, with nostalgia, the chance of “a rare opportunity to revisit a west coast island with family and friends. This was a childhood holiday haunt …”

At five to nine on a brittle May morning, he kisses Ali and departs. It turns out she was wrong in her pessimism. Boat owners embrace Thorpe’s great adventure – despite his Englishness, his reticence (both of which he seems overly conscious of) – and provide a ready passage, plus copious anecdotes and banter, in return for the author’s labour and genial company. He listens sympathetically; he is thoughtful; he pulls his weight. His companions confide.

Much of Adrift in Caledonia is a compendium of their tales. There are 44 “chapters” filled with vital, nuggety paragraphs which distil these travellers’ tales, and weave them effortlessly, amusingly, into the tapestry of Thorpe’s continuing voyage. Frequent digression and cross-reference help sustain the book’s sense of energy, ameliorated by passages of reflection, which give the reader the illusion of a more intimate involvement in Thorpe’s other voyage – perhaps the one that matters most – his quest for life’s purpose.

He keeps his ruminations light, debunking or leavening them with pithy introspections: “I believe in the mystery of momentum” and “I believe in the buoyancy of the human soul” are among credos he encounters. He even tosses in Thoreau, as an epigraph: “Everyone must believe in something. I believe I’ll go canoeing.”

Thorpe opts for kayaking, to Fort William, later meeting up with Ali to conquer Loch Ness in a tourist motorboat. At every stage, his journey is mottled with conversation; this leg is conspicuously shorn of the usual companionable chat and you cannot but wonder how Ali is faring. Their relationship is the journey’s untold, unalluded to, mystery. Its ghost.

As the journey continues, you feel you are with Thorpe. His gift of description is beautifully worked. He evokes sea and landscape with deft economy, capturing people – Captain Calamity in Shetland, Nick, a puffer captain, or Shane, a scampish bosun – even more sharply in one or two pen-strokes.

He gives us several great set-piece chapters – on Jean de la Lune, a square-rigged sailing brig, en route to Tobermory and Mingulay; or aboard a curragh chasing Columba’s voyage to Iona; and sharpest of all, a stint with the Findhorn Foundation in Morayshire – shades of wind chimes, saffron and murmurous meditation and a low-flying Nimrod – each laden with real life lived.

It might be tempting to list the motley forms of transport on which he bobs and skims and steams and rows triumphantly to his conclusion, or scribble the litany of ports into which he sallies. Far more interesting are the changes Thorpe detects in himself, the cumulative decencies he encounters, the sense of perspective he gains, and the beautiful sense of place and of belonging so readily evident. As travelogues go, Adrift in Caledonia, is a beautiful entertainment, better than Bryson, as shrewdly observant as Theroux.

The Herald
Saturday 4 March, 2006

Sam Phipps
Star rating: * * * * *

How the Union Canal unlocked a Sassenach chancer’s heart

NICK Thorpe had a wonderful idea and made it work: to hitch boat rides from his home in the Edinburgh suburb of Polwarth out west to Glasgow, around the Hebrides, up the Caledonian Canal, as far north as Shetland and back down via the Orkneys and the east coast. In those stark terms, the notion is tantalising and romantic enough but he fulfils, even exceeds, its promise.

For years he had taken the same stroll along the Union Canal, frustrated that the route was blocked only a few miles along, at Wester Hailes. Then, a while back, he was delighted to discover it had been opened up right to Falkirk. Why not use this as the starting point for a zigzag voyage around his adopted homeland? A self-confessed “Sassenach chancer”, Thorpe made his own luck.

In travel writing, the author tends to be too visible or not visible enough. Thorpe is refreshingly candid about himself, without ever getting in the way. That’s to say he admits to a certain seriousness of purpose; he is not ashamed to touch on the inner journey or his struggles with faith, in its broadest sense. But you are struck on every page of Adrift in Caledonia (Little, Brown £12.99, *****) by his lightness of touch and his way with observation.

This is essentially a book of encounters, with everyone from the Clyde riverman – who has pulled countless survivors (and bodies) from the river – to Faslane submariners, Findhorn gardeners, boatbuilders, dreamers, struggling fishermen and their wives, holiday yachting folk, Captain Calamity (of tabloid infamy), a retired lighthousekeeper and many others. Loosely connected by water, they speak for themselves and so reflect various aspects of Scotland, past and present.

It was certainly a bonus for me that Thorpe opens the book with a familiar place and familiar faces: Bill and Sandra Purves and other improbable characters from the Edinburgh Canal Society, whose enthusiasm for boating conquers every obstacle, including capsizing. “Floating like an effing sieve!” Bill mutters as the first launch of the season hits trouble. This first portrait is spot on, which was extremely reassuring for the rest.

Already the value of such memorialising is clear. Colin Macleod, the inspirational figure who ran the Galgael Trust – the traditional boatbuilding project for homeless people and drug abusers in Govan – has died since the author’s stint with him.

A third of the way into the book, at Crinan, Thorpe introduces a satisfyingly personal and slightly elegiac strand into the narrative. This was where he came as an eight-year-old boy on his first visit to Scotland with his family, and for repeated summers thereafter, staying on a “rugged little scrap of land” called Macaskin. After the Home Counties bastion of Surbiton, where he grew up, this was an impossibly wild and exciting place. With them would be Chris, not a real uncle but a significant adult in his life and an evangelical vicar to boot

Meeting Chris again on this hallowed patch brings mixed feelings. “I missed the passion and certainty, but over the years it had become claustrophobic, like a nuclear submarine requiring the exiling of doubt in order to focus on the urgency of Armageddon.” It’s a neat echo of his scary visit to Faslane, where his tour of a giant vessel brings him into contact with an amiable crew whose job is to threaten annihilation.

And on a steam puffer around Jura, Thorpe muses on St Cormac, whom he finds a more angst-ridden and sympathetic character than Columba. “There were moments when St Columba reminded me of the sort of former traveller who, having enjoyed his rebellious phase on the hippy trail, is now in a position to be faintly patronising about yours.” He likens him to “an Uncle Chris dutifully nudging drifters homeward…”

Later, he rows a coracle with a ragbag chapter of “monks” on an adventure-cum-pilgrimage to lona for various Christians. Thorpe’s description of their leader, Donald McCallum, whose evangelism vies with his nautical incompetence, is very funny and gently mocking.

As for impressive seafaring experience in the old style, there is theJean de la Lune, a two-masted 100ft brigantine on which Thorpe earns his passage around the Hebrides by scrubbing pans and hauling sails. He is bossed around by a 17-year-old Irish bosun, Shane, who asks Thorpe first of all if he drinks. To the reply of “occasionally”, Shane says: “What’s the fecking point of that?”

Whether it’s in a vast new trawler headed for Shetland or a kayak en route to Fort William, Thorpe is always alive to his surroundings, always keen to learn. He can go on wondering if he will ever actually “belong” in Scotland but Adrift in Caledonia is a persuasive and illuminating declaration of love.

Scottish Review of Books
Vol 2 Number 1 2006
by Hamish Haswell-Smith

The sub-title – ‘Boat Hitching for the Unenlightened’ – sums it up. Nick Thorpe had the ingenious idea of hitch-hiking round Scotland by water. But when dealing with the sailing fraternity in all its various guises, this is not as simple as it sounds. For a travel writer it’s not just the places that matter but the story-line giving continuity to the descriptions, which is why there is little point in using anything as mundane as road transport. On his journey Thorpe met up with, sometimes by chance, more often by design, a wealth of intriguing situations which make this book one of the best traveller’s tales I have come across in a long time.

There cannot be many who have travelled around Scotland in such a diverse collection of craft: canal boat, Irish curragh, puffer, square rigged sailing ship, submarine, trawler, kayak, a few private yachts, and a varied assortment of work boats including the Northern lighthouse Board’s maintenance ship. To achieve this must require a very subtle and convincing line of spiel and something akin to contrived serendipity if that is possible. The author admits that no matter how immersed he was in communal life, “a part of me would always need to escape. It was like holding one’s breath underwater”. This would explain why one of his earlier exotic adventures was journeying from South America to mid-Pacific Easter Island in a reed-boat.

His plan to circumnavigate Scotland by water was dictated to some extent by circumstances. Consequently he missed out the area north of the Great Glen, but he did get to the Outer Hebrides and he certainly covered the Northern Isles in more detail. Travelling by canal from his home in Edinburgh he eventually reached Faslane on the Clyde. “In retrospect, trying to thumb a lift from a Trident submarine was a little optimistic,” he admits – yet he gained access to the base and was even allowed to view the ominous red button, later he joined a boatload of dysfunctional ‘monks’ rowing a curragh to lona. ‘“Keep yer hoods up!… It keeps the midgies aff!” Pete, a monk, whispers. After an interlude at Fort William where he has a ride in a Russian-controlled yellow submarine dressed in a “gorilla” suit, he floats his way in a relatively civilised manner through the Caledonian Canal. After that it is a question of getting to, and getting back from, Orkney, Shetland and Fair Isle before heading for home down the east coast and across the Forth to Edinburgh.

At times, considering the many mishaps that took place, he came to believe he must be a Jonah. No wind and an engine failure in a small yacht near rocks in the Moray Firth. A beautiful brand-new million-pound carpet-slippered trawler stopped on its inaugural voyage by a shark jamming its vacuum tube. The puffer dragging its anchor in Tayvallich’s restricted harbour. The trimaran in Shetland – “I was just thinking it was about time to tack,” said the owner as it hit a rock.

No less interesting than the differing modes of transport are the collection of characters met on the way: Shane the young Irish bosun in bright orange wellies, George the Clyde Riverman, Donald the monk with a bucket of Mars Bars, John and Jemma on the Jean de la Luner Captain Calamity in Shetland, Machig the Buddhist nun at the Findhorn Foundation escaping from the rat-race. And there are many throw-away gems of wisdom which suddenly make you stop and think. As Captain Calamity said: “If you don’t know what you can’t do then you can do absolutely anything.”

A travel-writer today must above all else be able to portray the places that he is visiting without having to resort to long Dickens-style descriptions. Thorpe captures the whole essence of our inimitable scenery in short pithy phrases of almost poetic quality. Luckily he was favoured with one of our rare long hot summers, days in which “the basking seals seemed to be curling up at the ends like old sandwiches”

Nick Thorpe is one of the growing band of Englishmen who have adopted and cherish Scotland as their home, a pioneer in a land which was itself once peopled with pioneers. He shows a deep understanding of the Scottish psyche and gives many interesting insights into our view of life. He feels that Scots and Americans have a lot in common – both of them impatient with the English tendency to beat around the bush. But, more to the point, he appears to follow the precept of Donald the monk: “If you go to a place which has accepted you, it’s a bad idea to start saying this is how we do it somewhere else.”

Shetland Times
17 February 2006

Jim Tait

“WATER is sometimes sharp and sometimes strong, sometimes acid and sometimes bitter, sometimes sweet and sometimes thick or thin, sometimes it is seen bringing hurt or pestilence, sometimes health-giving, sometimes poisonous . . . In time and with water, everything changes.”

The words of Leonardo da Vinci introduce Nick Thorpe’s story of his trip round a large chunk of Scotland by sea, and a marvellous story it is too.

The ever-changing voyage begins on the Union Canal, not so far from his Edinburgh flat, where Thorpe hitches the first of his many lifts on a canal boat bound for Linlithgow.

From there he heads to Glasgow, encounters a memorable dreadlocked boatbuilder, and eventually rows to Iona with a bunch of monks in a curragh. He signs on for a 10-day trip on a tall ship, leaving and returning to Oban, round Skye, via the Shiant Islands, Scalpay, Mingulay and Canna.

Thorpe goes up the Caledonian Canal, across to Fraserburgh, from where he takes a berth on a fishing boat as far as Shetland and back. Then he returns to Lerwick with the Shetland Trader, and encounters the one and only Stuart Hill.

Captain Calamity, as he became better known in these parts following his ill-fated attempts to sail round the British Isles in a 14-foot metal rowing boat with a windsurfing sail attached to the top, has oft been portrayed as a figure of fun.

But through Thorpe we unearth a different character altogether, an expert sailor who really believed in what he was doing, and a man who had a rough deal in more ways than one. And, important to remember, someone who on many occasions encountered the rescue services through no fault of his own.

After giving up on the idea of sailing the next leg in Captain Calamity’s new boat, he runs into three middle-aged “professionals” in Lerwick, men with “distinguished silvery-hair and expensive sunglasses”, as he eloquently puts it, and bags a lift to Fair Isle.

He stops off in Orkney, courtesy of the lighthouse ship Pharos, where he meets Angus Hutchison, “the last lighthouse keeper”, at his home in Stromness. From Kirkwall he takes the ferry to Aberdeen, then “Maritime Rescue International” to Arbroath and finally ends up back in Edinburgh, an adrenalin-fuelled adventure over.

It is easy to see why Thorpe has won awards for his writing. This is imagery at its best, with humour, honesty and sincerity thrown in. An excellent read for the gnarled seadog and confirmed landlubber alike.

Independent on Sunday
Sunday 5th March 2006

By Tom Boncza-Tomaszewski

ON a May morning Nick Thorpe left his Edinburgh flat with a simple plan in mind. Using a succession of boats he hoped to hitch his way around Scotland in a “crumpled clockwise circle”. The trip would have an open-ended itinerary with three exceptions: a stint crewing a square-rigged sailing ship around the Outer Hebrides, a voyage with a group of men re-enacting St Columba’s fourth-century voyage from Ireland to the island of lona (this would involve dressing in a monk’s robe and singing hymns while rowing), and re-visiting an island off the west coast that had been a childhood holiday haunt. The account of his journey, blending travelogue with memoir, is presented here with off beat, self-depreciating humour. These are not the words of a salty sea dog – more a writer all at sea.

The voyage around the Outer Hebrides, for example, is approached with admirable vagueness. Thorpe knows he will have to work his passage, but is unsure precisely what this will involve. Seeing the “handsome two-masted, 100ft brigantine with a navy blue hull and one of those old-fashioned bowsprits” moored in Oban harbour he wanders towards her (boats are all female in this kind of adventure) with the theme from the Onedin Line playing in his head. Climbing aboard, however, the Pogues soon kick in when the bosun finds he only drinks occasionally (“What’s the fecking point of that'”) and doesn’t smoke at all (“We’ll have to educate you a little”). It beats all those tales of travel writers foot-slogging through exotic lands in search of profundity and enlightenment.

Scottish Book of the Month – March 2006

Nick Thorpe is an award-winning Edinburgh journalist whose work has appeared in the ScotsmanScotland on Sunday, most of the quality broadsheets and on the BBC World Service. Thorpe and his wife were travelling through South America when they encountered Phil Buck, an American adventurer who planned to sail from Chile to Easter Island on a small Bolivian boat made of reeds. Nick joined him on his quest to discover whether Polynesia might originally have been settled by travellers from South America rather than Asia. The men weren’t entirely sure how to manoeuvre their makeshift vessel and were as surprised as the duck when they accomplished their goal. His first book, Eight Men and a Duck: An Improbable Voyage by Reed Boat to Easter Island, described his unexpected adventure.

Now the rover returns with Adrift in Caledonia: Boat-hitching for the Unenlightened, an account of his tour of the coasts and canals of Scotland. The opening sounds like the stuff of dreams for many commuters – he left route to work and hitched a ride on a small canal boat that was heading for the west coast and eventually the sea. His mutinous odyssey continued through Scottish waterways including industrial canals, beautiful lochs and chill coastal waters. He floated on for two and a half thousand miles, admiring the manufacturing buildings along the Clyde and the isolated shores of Viking Shetland. He joins a group of monks who get about by coracle, joins a hunt for that camera-shy celebrity, the Loch Ness Monster, and has a hair-raising voyage clinging to the rigging of a tall ship. His nautical travelogue is filled with poignant and dryly humorous snapshots of Scotland. It’s a wonderful tribute to a nation fringed by the sea and to the wanderer’s impulse to go wherever their curiosity dictates.

Scottish Book of the Month – March 2006

Anthony Browne

From the award-winning writer Nick Thorpe, Adrift in Caledonia is the story of an amazing journey through Scotland’s canals, lochs and coastal waters. From the Clyde to Oban, Orkney to Edinburgh, this 2500 mile quest is never short on humour, but also gives a unique insight into the characters and lives of those who work and play on Scottish waters.

The Herald
7th Jan 2006

A Book a Week for 2006: Resolved to be better read this year? Rosemary Goring selects an unmissable 52 books…

Journalist Nick Thorpe offers us “the gift to see ourselves…” etc, in Adrift in Caledonia, in which he makes his way round the canals, lochs and coasts of Scotland by any means that come to hand.” (Rosemary Goring)

Sunday Express
5th August 2007

Englishman Thorpe “blags, begs and befriends” his way along more than 2500 miles of Scottish canals, rivers, lochs and sea from Edinburgh in the south to the Shetlands in the far north by hitching on any vessel he can, from  a narrowboat to a multi-million-pound trawler.

His circumnavigation is far more than a Theroux-esque travelogue along a quirky theme. Embarked upon in part because of a loss of faith and an identity crisis, his journey is part pilgrimage – literally when he dons monk’s robes to row a canvas curragh in the spiritual wake of St Columba – and part voyage of self-discovery.

His insight and humanity, together with an honest lack of certainty, make him a companionable guide. His dry humour is always a place of safety when the water threatens to overwhelm.

David Connett

Scots Magazine
Jun 06

Coastline Hitch Hiker
An eventful journey round Scotland’s coastal waters

It was a journey of chance encounters and impromptu friendships. A water-borne adventure which would one day fascinate the grandchildren. But in the meantime, why not write a book about it?

And so, from a wild idea germinated by a Scottish canal bank, has come Adrift In Caledonia, the tale of a lone Englishman making his way round a large chunk of Scotland’s coastal waters on other people’s boats – starting and finishing at Edinburgh.

Nick Thorpe, already an award-winning author, began his 2500-mile, boat-hopping odyssey on the Union Canal and his nautical pilgrimage was to take him through Scotland’s canals, lochs and coastal waters from the Clyde to Shetland and back down the east coast to Fife and the Firth of Forth.

With no craft of his own, he found himself on board almost anything that floated – from rowing on the Clyde with rescuer-supreme George Parsonage to unfurling the topsail gallant of a two-masted brigantine in a Force 7 wind in the Sound of Sleat.

Thorpe is a natural story-teller, with a wonderful gift for description. This on a trip on our last steam puffer from Crinan to Loch Sween: “. . . between the rocky mainland and the Paps of Jura, the wind was worrying the water into whitecaps.”

The puffer, incidentally, is the Vic 32, now fully restored, complete with its stubby red funnel and converted to passenger use.
When it comes to the most unusual craft Nick Thorpe found himself in, the prize must surely go to the curragh, a flimsy rowing boat of ancient Irish design, a wooden skeleton covered in a few layers of canvas and pitch. He left it and his companions – an assort-ment of adventure-pilgrims dressed as monks – in Iona, thankful to be on his way.

But if the mock monks weren’t entirely to his taste, there were others who were. For it is the people whose path Nick Thorpe crosses who form the true pith of this absorbing story.

There were also some scary moments such as the descent into Loch Linnhe in the company of the local diving school – getting hopelessly lost within about five square metres of darkness and having to be winched up again.

But the characters . . . Angus Hutchison in Stromness, the last light-house keeper, now retired and none too keen on auto-mated lights. Then running aground off Cunningsburgh, near Lerwick, with the somewhat unfairly nick-named Captain Calamity.

And, of course, there was Peter Morrison, crewman of the fishing boat Vivid whose fish-and-paint-stained dungarees Mick Jagger once took a fancy to. And who could forget 71-year-old Tom Gardner and 80-something Coull Dees, two canny former fishermen who handle Anstruther Museum’s White Wing, an 18-foot Fifie, literally to the manner born? “This boat’s fleein, Coull. Look at us – two recycled teenagers!”

The author was marooned only once. Having landed in the harbour-fringed Kingdom of Fife, he was forced to walk from Largo to Kinghorn before finally boarding his last vessel – a very fast pilot boat – for a whirlwind trip across the Forth. Then home with a bottle of single malt in his pocket.

Ian Smith

Saga Magazine
May 06

Hitch-hiking around the islands and waterways of Scotland, Thorpe explores the changing moods of himself, the Scots and water: it’s a lovely, lively read for lubbers.

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