Tuesday, 29 November 2016
Hy Brasil is an island in the Atlantic, somewhere over the horizon from Ireland, Iceland and the Azores, that has been sighted several times since the Middle Ages and has given rise to many legends. Said to have towns with towers of gold, thought to be often shrouded in mist, it has been identified with the Fortunate Isles that the Celts believed lay in the sunset regions to the West, and with the fierce, fair and free lands that Viking voyagers discovered. It was last seen in the late 19th century, but continued doubt about its existence has meant that it has been removed from most maps and atlases.
Scottish author Margaret Elphinstone published a splendidly-imagined novel set on the legendary isle and its smaller sister islands. In her Hy Brasil (Canongate, 2002), she creates a many-dimensioned version of the realm, with its mixed heritage from all the lands of the North Atlantic littoral, its obscure, half-mythic origins, its colonial pride yet independent spirit, its modern dilemmas as a new nation.
A skilful story-teller, she brings in many relishable themes; spying, smuggling, conspiracy, a volcano, rebellion, exile, roads taken and not taken. Through the travel notes of a self-aware, but still learning, young woman, the charmingly-named Sidony Redruth, we discover the eminently convincing history, legends and culture of the island: but we are also drawn to understand the human qualities and foibles of the island characters.
This is indeed a Hy Brasil that might have been. The author also slyly includes a good few enjoyable references to other literary islands and seafarers. But most deftly of all, she invites us to think about the nature of imagined worlds and their relationship to lived experience. A book in which a fantastical premise is given fine substance, it will linger with the reader long after.
In tribute to the book, a Hy Brasil postage stamp was issued in 2005 in an edition of just 200 copies, with the kind agreement of Margaret Elphinstone. Designed by Cohn Langeveld, a well-regarded artist of the fantastic, the 2/6d stamp commemorates the first Viking voyages to the island, and depicts a dragon ship with sail aloft approaching the volcanic land.