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
My hope is you enjoy your journey as much as I.
Be-Safe my Friends,
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
Curaig Maíle Dúin (The Voyage of Máel
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
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.
#1 - Ireland to St. Kilda (180 miles in 3 days is 60 miles per
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
1 - St. Kilda
#2 - St. Kilda to N. Rona (135 miles in 3 days is 45 miles per
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
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.
3 - Shetland Phony
Leg #5 - South Shetland to north coast of Shetland Islands (100
Rowed afar to “an island great and flat of large size
and breadth”. Maybe another island in the Shetland
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
#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).
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.
#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.
#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.
6 - The 1973 eruption of the Eldfell Volcano in Iceland
#22 - "…entered a sea that resembled green glass”.
Greenland’s coastal waters are known for being cold, clear
and sometimes green.
7 - The Sea of Glass
#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.
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
9 - Icelandic Sheep
10 - Musk Oxen
# 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.
11 - Geyser Erupting
Island was full of the stench of salmon”. Sulfur rich
pools surrounding geyser do smell quite strong.
# 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
12 The Great Plain
#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.
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.
#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.
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)
#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.
15 Rockall on Map
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?
(Volunteer in Iceland)
The Reader’s Digest Great World Atlas (1984) ISBN
Tira Brandon-Evans (2006) The Hazel Grove, School of Bardic
(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.
[translation]: Immram Curaig Maíle Dúin
(The Voyage of Máel Dúin’s Boat)
Revue Celtique 9, 1888, 447-495; 10, 1889, 50-95.
of Translation: 1888-9
text scanned by: Jonathan M. Wooding (7/3/2002) – re-use
permitted with acknowledgement.)