“This place I’ve grown to love: it’s not forever. It’s on the move all the time, either growing or dying, or fluctuating unpredictably between the two.”
Douglas Gifford’s review of Hy Brasil described the book as a ‘happy satire’ and that seems to me exactly right. Hy Brasil is a contemporary novel - or was when I wrote in 1996/7. It’s set on an archipelago that isn’t actually there, but if you raised Mt Faraday on the North Atlantic ridge a few thousand metres, it would be above the surface of the ocean, and this is where I established Hy Brasil.
Located between tectonic plates, on a highly strategic boundary, Hy Brasil is geologically and politically unstable. It also inhabits an ambiguous space between fact and folklore. ‘Hy Brasil’ is the Irish name for the mythical land west over sea - also known as Tír na nÓg, Atlantis, Eldorado, among many other names. My island of Hy Brasil is also Caliban’s, Robinson Crusoe’s, Gulliver’s, Long John Silver’s, Peter Pan’s, Ralph’s, and a host of other more or less fictional characters. It seems that people needed to believe in Hy Brasil. Until 1865 it actually appeared on Admiralty charts.
My book is a game about islands, and representations of islands. Hy Brasil has features of all the real islands and archipelagos I have known: The Hebrides, Orkney, Shetland, Faroe, Iceland, Greenland, Newfoundland, Miquelon...
Travellers to Hy Brasil are often struck by the resemblances to other North Atlantic islands. This is illustrated in the photos accompanying this article, which show a marked affinity with well-known landmarks elsewhere. This, for instance, is Ishmael’s house at Ferdy’s Landing; his office is in the converted byre, just visible behind the house.
And this is the mysterious Castle of Ravnscar, where those notorious pirates, the Morgan clan, held sway for centuries. Lucy, last of the Morgans, lives alone in the Castle, though possibly not for much longer.
This illustration shows one of the steep streets of colourful wooden-frame houses of old St Brandon’s which lead uphill from the harbour. In nearby Main Street you will find (below) the famous sycamore tree. Legend has it that a whaler on his way to South Georgia brought the sapling here from Orkney and planted it in an uncharacteristic moment of nostalgia.
One essential piece of research was to spend three weeks exploring the Azores to complete the picture (it’s a tough life, writing novels). Tectonic plates meet and clash on the North Atlantic Ridge. Hy Brasil, like the Azores and Iceland, is geologically volatile. An eruption of Mount Brasil is the immediate cause of the coup d’ état in 1996. Dorrado, on the west coast of Hy Brasil, is famous for its spectacular hotsprings (below).
Off the north coast of Hy Brasil is the small island of Despair where Jared and Ishmael are determined to raise the Cortes, a Spanish galleon wrecked on the lee shore four hundred years earlier.
Marine archaeology in Hy Brasil is hampered by strong currents and exposure to Atlantic gales, pictured below, as well as by a total lack of funding.
I’ve never spent more than a few hours alone on an uninhabited island. I spent more time in my childhood pretending I was on one. As an adult, living on the Shetland island of Papa Stour, we were sometimes cut off for weeks and I really enjoyed that feeling, but then there were other people about. All alone for months on end? I’m not so sure. The Island of Despair (or, as the French first named it, Île d' Espair) was only populated by gannets after the Despair lighthouse was automated. However, as readers of Hy Brasil will know, the lighthouse buildings (below) are not wholly uninhabited.....
I have given Hy Brasil as authentic a history as I could, drawing upon histories of other Atlantic islands. From Colombo to Castro, there are fleeting resemblances to historical figures. There is a terrible aspect to Atlantic history too: Hy Brasil’s population includes descendants of convicts, tied servants, pirates, smugglers and escaped slaves who found uncertain sanctuary here. A locus of the thriller plot is the disused NATO base. If Hy Brasil existed, it would be part of the world we live in.
I wrote Hy Brasil when I was living in Mount Pleasant, Michigan. Douglas’s phrase ‘happy satire’ is unsurprising, because I was very happy when I wrote it. I’d left behind a hideous work situation to take up a post as Visiting Professor at Central Michigan University (CMU), which was sheer pleasure from start to finish. My children had recently left home, so instead of hanging about missing them, I was living in a little flat on campus, enjoying warm hospitality from colleagues and students, exploring totally new territory (of which more anon, under Voyageurs) and writing in all my spare time. Hy Brasil is full of jokes: I would sit over my computer in the English department late at night, laughing out loud over my own wit. Well, I find it funny, anyway.
I’d never thought of visiting the Mid West until I was invited, in a Cinderella moment in Glasgow. I’d given a reading at a conference, and afterwards an American gentleman came up and said, “We have to have lunch.” Henry Fulton, and his wife Nancy, later became dear friends. At lunch, he invited me to come to CMU for a year. I instantly said “yes”, and then went home to look up where it was in my atlas.
I found in Mount Pleasant a welcoming, “can do” environment, where friends and strangers did all they could to help my project along. Early on I put up a notice in the English Department saying “I need to talk to a diver”. (There is quite a lot of diving in Hy Brasil and I don’t even like putting my head under water). The next morning there was a knock at the door, and a tall man standing there: “You wanted a diver?” He answered all my questions, read my first draft, and then brought in his diving equipment to demonstrate. I told a friend I needed to know about coastguards. The phone call came next day: “I’ve arranged with Steve to talk to you and give you a tour of the coastguard station at Frankfurt [on Lake Michigan] on Saturday.” Re-reading Hy Brasil now, I find more of my experience of the Mid West in it than I was aware of at the time, another reason why I’d quite like to live in my imaginary islands.
When Hy Brasil was published I was delighted when readers decided to join the game. Before publication a friend re-drew my scribbled map as a pastiche of the Ordnance Survey 1:2500 series (you can download the map in colour - see below). The President of the British Heather Society spotted erica hybrasilensis when reading my book on a beach in Lanzarote. He wrote an article in the Heather Society Journal about this new variety (sp. ‘Fabula’). The editor of a science fiction magazine designed and issued a Hy Brasil postage stamp. I’m pleased to think that other readers have enjoyed these islands.
Sometimes I think about what Hy Brasil is like now. I fear that, exposed and vulnerable in mid-Atlantic as it is, the shades of history are all too quickly closing in.
The sun sets behind the Island of Despair.
This photo was taken in late summer from the jetty in Lyonsness.
The Map of Hy Brasil
The map of the Hy Brasil archipelago (below) reflects historical attempts in old atlases to record this island (such as the example on the right dating from 1542). Although it does not exist, Hy Brasil featured in British Admiralty charts into the 19th century.
You can view the map in more detail by clicking on it and keying 'Command' and '+'
OR you can download a pdf of the map by clicking this icon >>
Hy Brasil Edinburgh: Canongate. 2002. 2nd ed. 2003. 438pp
Published in Canada
Toronto: McArthur and Co. 2002. 2nd ed. 2003. 448 pp.
Translated into German by Marion Balkenhol as Inselnotizen
Germany: Econ/List Verlag. 2004.
Translated into Portugese by Maria Theresa Costa Pinto Pereira as Hy Brasil Lisbon: Lyon. 2005.
An extract from this novel was published in Susan Bassnett and Stephanos Stephanides (eds.) Beyond the Floating Islands
Bologna: COTEPRA Reader Series 2002. pp77-79.
Hy Brasil is one of three of Margaret Elphinstone's novels which feature islands, reflecting her fascination with the subject. In Waylaid by Islands, published in the November 2007 edition of The Bottle Imp, she recounts her enthusiasm for islands real and imagined.
The Unknown Island, an essay by Margaret Elphinstone, is published in Isolated Islands in Medieval Nature, Culture and Mind edited by Torstein Jorgensen and Gerhard Jaritz and published by Central European University Press, Budapest, 2011. ISBN 978-615-5053-24-5
"So many distinguished island stories throng the Canon that you might think no more literary landfalls would be required. But a bold, original novel can always redefine the borders of its genre, and Margaret Elphinstone’s Hy Brasil does exactly that. This is a holiday treat of rare distinction: ingenious, gripping, thoughtful, and wonderfully entertaining Into the bargain.
"In the great Utopian tradition, Elphinstone creates a fictitious island-state in order to set in train an adventure yarn that can also function as a sort of thought-experiment. Her imaginary territory of Hy Brasil, formerly British Frisland, sits in the North Atlantic not quite halfway between County Kerry and Newfoundland. Mysteriously prosperous despite the fisheries crisis and the winding-down of a NATO base, the independent island and its odd people come under the scrutiny of a young Cornish travel writer, Sidony Redruth. Sidony has faked the competition entry that won her this guide-book commission: a clue to the subtle games with truth and illusion that Elphinstone plays. Arriving on this strange shore feels, according to Sidony, 'like walking into a book, or into a dream'.
"Yet the glittering maritime landscape, and its eccentric folk, come to life with enormous freshness and immediacy. On Hy Brasil, a piratical Celtic heritage fuses with Viking, Portuguese and African strands left from a thousand years of landings. Whisky Galore blends into The Shipping News, with a touch of Márquez in the mix. It’s sometimes silly, but immensely seductive. Behind a tearaway plot that features Spanish treasure, cocaine smuggling, political shenanigans, nervous romance and even volcanic eruptions, Elphinstone draws cleverly on a rich stock of insular allusions, from The Odyssey and The Tempest to Gulliver’s Travels.
“'More’s been written about things that don’t exist than things that do,' warns Sidony’s local lover; Jed. Hy Brasil proves, in the manner of the strongest island narratives, that the places that don’t exist can make us think about the rules that apply, or ought to apply, in the places that do. The flamboyant escapism of this entrancing novel shows us a route back home. Whichever island you have in your sights this summer, I’d recommend you find a berth for it."
"The island in Margaret Elphinstone’s Hy Brasil is ....... a mysterious place where the remnants of an imperial heyday, characters from 'a black-and-white film' with language reminiscent of Elizabethan England, dwell alongside pirates, modern-day drug smugglers and refugees from other works of the imagination, from Moby Dick to The Tempest.
"At the centre of this island sits a murmuring volcano, as dark and malevolent a presence as Shakespeare’s Sycorax and Hy Brasil’s political intrigues are as treacherous as any endured by the betrayed Duke. Elphinstone’s down-at-heel echo of Prospero’s realm is served up with characteristic warmth and wit: shipwrecked on Hy Brasil by her own dishonesty, Sidony Redruth, a novice travel-writer, takes shelter in 'Caliban’s Fast Food Diner'; nearby, Trink’s Garage advertises its services using pictures 'of a blonde with improbably large breasts, and a tear-off calendar impaled on one of her stiletto heels'.
"We soon learn that Sidony is here under false pretences. Despite having won a national travel-writing competition with a piece the judges praised for 'her willingness to go somewhere unusual and look at it differently', Sidony has never been any further from home than Venice - a city she visited with her winnings from the competition.
"Now, at the urging of her commissioning editor, she has taken herself as far afield as it is possible to be and, marooned on Hy Brasil, an island which, for much of its history has been literally 'off the map', she begins work on her first book: Undiscovered Islands (working title). However, when we find her, she is stuck: the eye for authentic experience which she displayed in her competition piece (a description of Ascension Island she cobbled together at her local library) founders before the authenticity of Kidd’s Hotel - 'a depressing building, peeling stucco on the outside, and red plush wallpaper and acres of threadbare carpet on the inside, on which vast pieces of mahogany furniture float like jetsam from a Victorian steamship becalmed forever in the doldrums'.
"Around Sidony, a web of tales unfolds: the lonely spirit, Colombo MacAdam falls for two women, both of whom are 'in love with a dead man'; Ishmael, whale-watch tour guide and Melville refugee, enters politics; brigands and drug-traffickers, the ghosts of Captain Hook and Sir Francis Drake, malevolent shadows.
"At the novel’s close, Sidony Redruth, an island in her own right before she came to Hy Brasil, begins to understand the real difference between art (for which we can also read forgery, deception and the invention of history) and 'authentic' experience: 'I looked at it, and I thought, yes, I will, I’ll write it all, tomorrow or some day. That’s one part I can play, even if I haven’t any other. But then Jared said, as if he’d heard me, To hell with history. At least we can leave it over the water. He took my hand and pulled me up the steep bit. He was laughing. I’ll share my island with you, Sidony, he said. If you want it I’ll share the whole damn lot. But from here on in it’s private. You can write down all the history you like. Only not here. Not now. This bit is for living, just for its own sake '".
Hy Brasil Stamp
Hy Brasil has its own stamp, originally issued by the magazine ‘Wildwood’ in October 2004.
Colin Langevald was the stamp’s designer, and copies of the stamp are available free from Mark Valentine.
When it featured in a philatelic quiz on an Italian forum, it was described as ‘bellissima’.