Wednesday, October 2, 2013

The Man Who Discovered Britain

by Mark Patton

In 318 or 319 BC, a ship arrived off the coast of England that was wholly unexpected. It came from a land of which nobody on these islands had even dreamed, a land of marble-columned temples, of theatres, of gods whose names had never been spoken here before. Its captain was Pytheas, a Greek from the colony of Marseilles. He probably had on board one or two Gauls, who were able to communicate both with him, and with the astonished Britons, as they enjoyed their first ever taste of wine. For the classical world, it was as much a giant leap as, in our own times, was Neil Armstrong's first footstep on the Moon.

Pytheas's account of his expedition, On the Ocean, does not survive. There were probably copies of it in the libraries of Marseilles, Alexandria, Athens, Pergamon and Rome, all of which went up in smoke. Such was the case with so many works. Chance has played at least as great a role as judgement in determining what has, and has not, been handed down to us (a sobering thought for us writers). His account, however, was read and cited by writers whose works have survived (Strabo, Pliny, Avienus, Diodorus Siculus, Hipparchus), and this is how we know what little we do know about his expedition.

Pytheas did not necessarily arrive on these shores on a Greek trireme or pentekonter. It is, perhaps, more likely that he travelled overland to Bordeaux, and hired a local ship, better suited to Atlantic than to Mediterranean waters. He must, however, have sailed around Brittany and might have sailed north from Le Yaudet, where there was an important Iron Age settlement. His first landfall in Britain might have been in Chichester, or Weymouth, or Torquay. Cornwall would clearly have been of interest to him as a source of tin. (Herodotus had mentioned this a century before.)
He could, at this point, have sailed back to Marseilles with a cargo of tin ingots, his fortune made. Instead, he chose to circumnavigate these islands, probably stopping on the Isle of Man before going on to the Outer Hebrides and Orkney (Hipparchus's account suggests that he took astronomical observations in each of these places). He may even have ventured as far as Iceland (Pliny's Ultima Thule) where, it was claimed, the sea "congealed" and, during the winter, the sun never rose.

Callanish, in the Outer Hebides, one of Pytheas's likely stopping points. Photo: Richard Mudham (licensed under CCA).

The Broch of Gurness, in Orkney, where Pytheas may have been a guest. Photo: Rob Burke (licensed under CCA).

He returned home via the "coasts of amber" (presumably Denmark and/or the Netherlands), having completed a voyage worthy of an Odysseus. If there was a Penelope waiting for him at home, her name is forever lost to us. There is much about his voyage that we can only imagine. Sir Barry Cunliffe has set out what we can know in his book, The Extraordinary Voyage of Pytheas the Greek.

In my novel, An Accidental King, set three centuries after Pytheas's voyage, I have it remaining as a folk-memory, literally something that is sung of, and I give him a British lover (this is fiction, after all), who he abandons, as Aeneas abandoned Dido, sailing away into the sunset. "Remember me, remember me, but oh, forget my fate" ( Was ever a sentiment more powerfully expressed?

Mark Patton's novels, Undreamed Shores, An Accidental King and Omphalos are published by Crooked Cat publications, and can be purchased from Amazon.


  1. It must have been quite an adventure for a man who came from a much warmer climate, to find himself in the cold north! For some reason, I had thought that there were much earlier voyages for tin, but there you are! :)

  2. "On the Ocean" must rank among the great "lost" books. It makes you wonder about all the vanished manuscript treasures we don't even know ever existed!

  3. The earlier tin trade was probably indirect, Sue (Cornish Britons trading with Breton Gauls, who traded with Gauls around Bordeaux, who traded with Greeks from Marseilles). Stories, as well as goods, would have travelled along these networks, piquing the interest of adventurous Greeks and Gauls alike. "On the Ocean" must surely be one of the great "lost" books of all time, Undine, but just one among thousands that went up in smoke at Alexandria, Pergamon, Athens and libraries elsewhere.