Patrick Brydone, the forgotten man of the Scottish Enlightenment, was born in 1741 in our village, a son of the manse. A soldier, a pioneer in the study of electricity and magnetism and a traveller, he wrote the first readable travel book - A Tour through Sicily and Malta : in a Series of Letters to William Beckford which ran to nine editions was immensely popular and is still easily accessible to this day.
We set sail from Southampton to cruise through the Mediterranean following, at least part of his route to Sicily and Mount Etna.
In his book he describes, amongst a fund of detailed observations, such titbits as the Italian love of ice-cream and the banditti who guarded him during his stay on the island :
Criminal as they are to society in general, yet to one another and to every person who puts himself under their protection, free from every imposition.
He climbed Mount Etna describing woods with great oaks and chestnut trees up to 204 feet in circumference. Here, he had discussion with a canon, Recupero, on the time taken for soil to accumulate from lava flows and that the calculations arising from this showed that Mt Etna had been erupting for at least 14000 years. This flew in the face of Bishop Ussher’s statement based on the Bible that the world began in 4004 B.C.
Brydone’s account of this was censured by Samuel Johnson and his biographer Boswell as being anti-mosaical and he was advised to” pay more attention to the Bible.”.
David Hume, atheist, philosopher and giant of the Scottish Enlightenment praised Brydone for his geological expertise in letters to Wm Strahen
James Hutton of Siccar Point fame, the father of geology, published his Theory of the Earth in 1788. He would almost certainly have read Brydone’s Travels and would have been influenced by it.
While Mt Etna, Brydone noted that the Bishop of Catania received revenues for the sale of ice and snow to all of Sicily, Malta and part of Italy.
: “even the peasants regale themselves with ices during the summer heats […] and there is no entertainment given by the nobility of which these do not always make a principal part. When he visited the underground caves filled with ice he remarked that the peasants made the finest ice-houses: It was the peasants of Sicily who supplied ice to the confectioners, street sellers, and cafés of the island.
At a later port of call, Venice, we had the finest ice cream I have ever tasted!
We sailed through the Straits of Messina in the footsteps or rather, the oar-sweeps of that other wanderer in the Mediterranean – Ulysses on his journey back to Ithaca.
|Approaching the Straits of Messina|
The twin dangers of Scylla and Charybdis guarding the straits meant little to the power of mighty diesel engines but the whirling eddies created by the meeting of the Tyrrhenian and Ionian seas in the narrow gap would indeed have seemed like the devouring monster Charybdis to the tiny galleys of the Achaeans. Circe's advice to Ulysses to "hug Scylla's rock" held true even today as we made our passage.
|The swirling eddies of Charybdis|
|The Rock of Scylla|
Ulysses had encountered Polyphemus the Cyclops on the island and escaped by cunning after blinding the giant by driving a blazing tree trunk into his one eye.
When anchored at Taormina, his men displeased the Sun god Apollo by killing the god's cattle for food. The god was so displeased that he threatened not to shine unless they were punished by the other Olympians. Only Ulyssses survived their vengeful shipwreck.
|Taormina , with the bay where Ulysses men angered Apollo ?|
Brydone recalled their fate when visiting the Craeco-Roman amphitheatre at Taormina. After more than two thousand years in is still in use as a concert venue.
|Mount Etna seen from the amphitheatre|
While Brydone sailed on to Malta in his journeys, we docked at Venice then crossed the Adriatic to Croatia.
We returned across Homer's "wine-dark sea", passing the "floating islands of Aeolus" the god of the winds, and so to the Pillars of Hercules at Gibraltar.
|The Aeolian Islands, home of the god of the winds|
A journey in the wake of two adventurers three thousand years apart.