The Voyage of Máel Dúin

(Generously contributed by Dave Cowper - an OMS/RDG Druid)

Having taught seaman ship and navigation as a young man I thoroughly enjoyed reading The Voyage of Máel Dúin’s Boat. As a young sailor I too have had a few tall tales to tell about shore leave in foreign ports. Several of their adventures remind me of a time I once spent at sea, but that’s another story better saved for later generations. Lately I can relate to Máel Dúin’s Boat better then the adventure itself, “a rickety frame covered in well weathered hide that’s traveled way farther than it was originally intended to”.

My hope is you enjoy your journey as much as I.
Be-Safe my Friends,

Please read the actual story at least once and enjoy it as the Beautiful Irish Epic Tale that it is, before wading into my ramblings. I do not intend for this to be a scholarly study, my wish is to share my own Immram as I explored The Voyage of Máel Dúin’s Boat.

Text [translation]: Immram Curaig Maíle Dúin (The Voyage of Máel Dúin’s Boat)

So when the question was asked “could it be based on fact” it was natural for me to look at a chart and wonder where they could have gone? Taking descriptions within the voyage I tried to connect them with an actual route they may have followed. My first attempts were to send them into the Mediterranean and the blue green waters of the Greek Islands. Then the green glass sands on the French coast seamed inviting but this ended up as a poor fit. Briefly I attempted to send our heroes to the Green Glass Beach on the Hawaiian Islands but theirs was a less tropical path to follow.

Then the thought hit me, what if they had actually sailed west into the North Atlantic...
Several of the 3 day legs at the beginning of their journey seemed to fit nicely with the geography in the North Atlantic. Even the initial storm would likely have blown them north fitting nicely with my little scheme.

You may need an atlas before you read this or Google Maps can be searched for specific locations I mention. I have included the links to follow from some of my research to allow you to enjoy a few of the fascinating and beautiful wonders of the North Atlantic.

Leg #1 - Ireland to St. Kilda (180 miles in 3 days is 60 miles per day)
Assuming they intended to head west but were blown north to start that would make the Island of St. Kilda a possible landing place about 30 miles west of the Outer Hebrides off the west coast of Scotland. It also fits the description of “two small flat islands”.

Figure 1 - St. Kilda

Leg #2 - St. Kilda to N. Rona (135 miles in 3 days is 45 miles per day)
3 days travel and they “heard a sound to the north east” - would land them in N. Rona Island about 50 miles north of the northern tip of Scotland.

Leg #3 - N. Rona to the Orkney Islands (87 miles in 3 days is 29 miles per day)
3 days they find an “island high and great” - the Orkney’s have the highest vertical cliffs face (351m) in the UK and are located just off the north east coast of Scotland.

Figure 2 - The Old Man OF Hoy, Orkney's

Leg#4 - Orkney Islands to Shetland Islands (87 miles in 3.5 days is 25 miles per day)
3.5 days they “find an island with sandy soil and horses with the legs of hounds”. The Shetland Island chain, Shetland Phonies are well known as being shorter than other horses.

Figure 3 - Shetland Phony

Leg #5 - South Shetland to north coast of Shetland Islands (100 miles)
Rowed afar to “an island great and flat of large size and breadth”. Maybe another island in the Shetland Islands.

Leg #6 - Shetland Islands to Faroe Islands (176 miles in 7 days is 25 miles per day)
“A full week…discovered a great high Island…a plain on the island….valve of stone…pierced by an aperture through which sea-waves were flinging”. Several of the long flooded bays in the Faroe Islands have very narrow openings to the ocean where both the wave action and tidal flow would be quite impressive under the right conditions.

“Leg #7 - “…an island with a great cliff around it on every side and therein was a long, narrow wood, and great was its length and its narrowness…”. The Faroe Islands are more of a series of long very steep ridges rising out of the ocean. Long narrow valleys are formed between these ridges.

Leg #8 - “…island with a fence of stone around it…raced around about the island…round and round like a millstone…it went to the beach to seize them, and began to smite them, and it cast and lashed after them with stones of the harbor… and lodged in the keel of the curragh”. This description would be familiar to any sailor that had tried to launch his craft from a beach into the surf or had to cross over a reef that generated a surf. There’s an old saying that you haven’t sailed until you’ve run aground (harbor rock meets keel).

Figure 4 - Faroe Islands

Leg #9 Faroe Islands - “Great animals like unto horses. Each of them would take a piece out of the other’s side and carry it away with its skin and flesh… streams of crimson blood…and thereof the ground was full.”

What if the crew were to witness polar bears (adult males can weigh 400–680 kg or 880–1,500 lb) hunting. The grey seal(adult males can weigh 300 kg or 660lb) and walrus (adult males can weigh 1,797 kg or 3,960lb), can be found in the North Atlantic including Greenland and to a lesser extent Iceland and both are hunted by the polar bear.

Figure 5 Polar Bear Attacks Walrus

“So they left… swiftly, madly, hastily..”

Sounds to me like the correct response for a crew in a leather sail boat that has just witnessed a 1,500lb. Polar Bear kill a 3,960 lb. walrus.

Leg #10 - Faroe Islands to Iceland (280 miles)
“… hot was the ground under their feet and they could not dwell there for its warmth, because it was a fiery land.. “ Iceland is volcanically active and several legs of the journey could be interpreted as a volcano erupting.

Leg #12 - “Divided in two with a great mountain and a river of fire”. Iceland is volcanically active and the river of fire may have been a lava flow.

Figure 6 - The 1973 eruption of the Eldfell Volcano in Iceland


Leg #22 - "…entered a sea that resembled green glass”. Greenland’s coastal waters are known for being cold, clear and sometimes green.

Figure 7 - The Sea of Glass

Leg #24 - “…another island, and up around it rose the sea making vast cliffs of water all about it…”. There is a reef 2 miles off the Ostre Horn on the south coast of Iceland called Hartinger this may well be a description of the surf breaking over a reef. Iceland also has some of the world’s most beautiful waterfalls.

Figure 8 - Denttifoss Falls, Iceland

”… great herds of cattle… and many flocks of sheep…”. In the northern regions of Green Land the muskoxen (Ovibos moschatus) could be seen also Arctic reindeer (R. tarandus eogroenlandicus), an extinct subspecies found until 1900 in eastern Greenland. Also Icelandic sheep.

Figure 9 - Icelandic Sheep

Figure 10 - Musk Oxen

Leg # 25 - “A great stream rose up out of the strand of the island and went like a rainbow”. The eruption of the geyser named Great Geysir in Iceland has been known to launch 60 meters into the air, this is also the oldest know geyser.

Figure 11 - Geyser Erupting

“The Island was full of the stench of salmon”. Sulfur rich pools surrounding geyser do smell quite strong.

Leg # 28 - “A great plain there in on this great table land grassy and smooth”. A very close description to the Icelandic terrain including the fact that it actually has a more temperate climate than you would expect of an Island whose very northern most point just touches the Arctic Circle this is caused by the trade winds arriving from warmer southerly areas of the Atlantic.

Figure 12 The Great Plain

Leg #28 - The Escape - “… the queen flung the clew after them… and it clings to his hand. Diuran cuts off his hand”. In sailing ships there is always the danger of becoming entangled in the rigging and injured. If you were to ask an English speaking sailor she would tell you that the clew is where the tackle (sheets) are attached to the lower loose corner of a sail (two clews on the square sail of the curragh). If anything on a sailing ship is going to give you an injury it’s the clew of the sail, trust me on this one.

Figure 13 Parts of a Square Sail

The possibility of an injured arm needing to be amputated if it was not healing or became infected would be a possibility. It would be much more honorable (better story later) to lose an arm to save a ship from the queen than to say have a line brake your arm and need to have it amputated due to gangrene.

Leg #29 - “…an island with trees upon it like willow or hazel… great berries…..little tree…caused a deep slumber…new not whether he was alive or dead…red foam on his lips”. The red baneberry have a beautiful red berry that very poisonous to humans. The poison can cause the following symptoms vomiting, circulatory failure, head ache and diarrhea. This plant grows throughout northern Canada and the southern tip of Greenland. The leaf of the hazel have a serrated border the same as the red – baneberry but shorter, where the hazel is similar in length but not serrated.

Figure 14 Red Baneberry

Red Nightshade was another toxic plant with a red berry that was a candidate but it is native to England and I suspect they would have been able to recognize it and not needed to try it out.

Leg #30 - “Let us go into the lake and renew our selves”, May be a hot spring in Iceland (this one is a bit weak for a clue)

Leg #33 - They describe a “broad rock” and to the west of Ireland is a rock that juts out of the ocean called Rock All. This rock fits both the description of the final leg and direction as well from Leg #1 from St. Kilda. Sula Sgeir does, however, fit in nicely with the description in the final leg of their journey. I do however doubt that either rock could support 7 years of exile for the hermit.

Figure 15 Rockall on Map

Figure 16 Rockall

Figure 17 Sula Sgeir

Yes my theory has a few holes and not just a few leaps of faith but is this not true of all tails told of the Irish heroes?



Of interest: (Volunteer in Iceland)
The Reader’s Digest Great World Atlas (1984) ISBN 0-88850-018-1
Tira Brandon-Evans (2006) The Hazel Grove, School of Bardic Wisdom

(This translation of the Imram Curaig Maíle Dúin was found at:
The Celtic Christianity e-Library Homepage.
Alphabetical Catalogue, Desert in the Ocean, Celtic Hagiography.

Text [translation]: Immram Curaig Maíle Dúin (The Voyage of Máel Dúin’s Boat)
Translator: Whitley Stokes
Published: Revue Celtique 9, 1888, 447-495; 10, 1889, 50-95.
Date of Translation: 1888-9
This text scanned by: Jonathan M. Wooding (7/3/2002) – re-use permitted with acknowledgement.)