Tim Robinson’s books are amazingly interesting works of precision.
He has created a new genre of literature, a landscape biography.
With meticulous labour Robinson in the two books Stones of Aran: Pilgrimage and Stones of Aran: Labyrinth tells us about the history of the islands. He does this while describing his systematic hikes across the Aran Islands, painting a detailed view of the barren island.
The small Aran Islands are presented meter by meter, crag by crag, fissure by fissure.
As a map maker he records every limestone rock, house, barn, wall. But he also talks to the farmers. Talks about the isolation of the islanders. Their strange habits. Their faith. Their own Saint Enda of Aran. Their history.
The people in Aran were extremely poor and permanently threatened by famine. In the rough circumstances of their small rock island on the edge of the Atlantic Ocean, they make a living by fishing, harvesting burning seaweed to sell the kelp (containing iodine and alkali), and growing potatoes on their fissured rocky field fertilized with seaweed.
“Large families live of the bounties of a few small plots, and save all other income for the rent; the potato thrived on the plenteous labour of those families, the carting of sand and seaweed that created the plots out of rock, the spadework that doubled the shallow soil into ridges, the weeding and watering could be done by children. Fecundity led to overcrowding: the ridges full of low-quality potatoes vulnerable to drought, pests, diseases and prolonged salty winds that scorched their stems…” (Labyrinth)
“The Aranners distinguish about thirty types of seaweed, each with its own advantages and disadvantages as fertilizer, for various crops or as raw materials of kelp. The main division is between feamainn dhubh, blacked and feamainn dhearg, redwood. The former comprises the dark-toned Focus species that grow on the upper and middle shore, …” (Pilgrimage)
They hunt for basking shark in wobbly boats, called currachs, made of lath and canvas …
“All available tackle – ‘spears, gaffs, bocáns, pocáns, buoys, boreógs, straimpíns, one knives and poles and chains taken from a ship wrecked at Big Cleft’ – was assembled and carried down to Port Bhéal and Dúin; a spear was attached by a rope and a cable to a chain wound around a big boulder in a depp pot-hole of the shore; five three-men in currachs were launched, a shark was eventually speared, and when it had run itself to exhaustion another team of fitted men hauled it ashore.” (Pilgrimage)
And go on life endangering searches high on the cliffs for eggs, and birds.
“Razor bills, guillemots, and black guillemots, puffins and cormorants were the birds usually taken on the cliffs. Both eggs and birds were eaten, …
The hunt was conducted as follows. The men would walk across the the cliffs at dusk with the rope, which was often a communal investment. One end of it would be tied around the cliff man’s waist and between his legs, and the other made fast to an iron bar driven into a crevice or wedged in a cairn on the clifftop. A team of up to eight would lower the cliff man, guided by signals from a man stationed out on a headland from which he could watch the progress of the descent. The cliff man would carry a stick to keep himself clear of the cliff face while swinging of the rope…” (Pilgrimage)
A masterpiece of scrupulous investigation. Wonderfully written with massive joy and persistency.