Mistress and Commander: High Jinks, High Seas and Highlanders by Amelia Dalton

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Mistress and Commander: High Jinks, High Seas and Highlanders by Amelia Dalton

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Category: Travel
Rating: 3.5/5
Reviewer: Magda Healey
Reviewed by Magda Healey
Summary: A story of one person's (female, posh, and English) adventure in running - often extremely hands-on - a cruise business in a converted Danish trawler on the west coast of Scottish Highlands, this reads like a collection of fireside tales of adventure shared with fond memory, many a laugh, a few tears, and an occasional shudder. Recommended for those fond of this part of the world, impressed by personal determination and ideally - both.
Buy? Maybe Borrow? yes
Pages: 320 Date: May 2017
Publisher: Sandstone Press
ISBN: 978-1910985175

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Nowadays, Amelia Dalton runs a travel agency which, by the look of it, is a something of a modern version of how Thomas Cook began: excusive, tailor-made holidays, cruises and expeditions all around the world catering to those who can afford this kind of thing. Mistress and Commander' shows how she got there: from an upper-middle class wife whose life involved landed gentry, boarding schools and county hunts to scrubbing stinky goop from the cargo hold of what used to be a Danish Arctic trawler, running charters to St Kilda, dealing with doubtful mechanics, lecherous skippers, and getting her own Master's ticket, by the way of family tragedy, martial drama and what seemed like the steepest learning curve related to marine engines one could possibly imagine.

And thus the character of Amelia Dalton comes across very well, and a fine character it is, determined, confident, extremely driven and although often vulnerable, firmly belonging to the stiff-upper-lip tradition.

But the real stars of Mistress and Commander were the boat (an oak-built Danish Arctic trawler that nearly sinks before it even makes it to Scotland) and the Scottish Highlands, the land and its people, described with obvious love and respect, yet without an ounce of tartan-tat sentimentality, from the wilderness of St Kilda to the steam-filled worker's canteen at the Fraserburgh shipyard. I would question the parade of colourful and "colourful" characters had I not met some of the same kind, both round the parts where I live now, and in harbours far away from the Highlands (it seems to me that canny fishermen, washed-out skippers, conscientious engineers and demanding clients are the same world-over). Dalton has an eye for the comical and can find amusing or surreal aspects even in pretty dire situations. The incontinent skipper (but in possession of the correct licence), the Coke-bottle contraption for keeping the diesel flowing, and the shipyard workers who leave for lambing will stay with me for a while.

Where the book suffers most is perhaps in trying to be too many things in too small a space: a consistent narrative as well as a collection of anecdotes, an emotional memoir as well as the story of ship-related venture and adventures. This means that well-developed stories are linked by hurried fragments that gloss over the very surface of events that would have been better either omitted altogether or elaborated on.

But it was refreshing to read what's ultimately a personal memoir that neither glossed over the darker aspects of the story nor treated them in the self-indulgent manner so typical of rich-woman-of-certain-age-trying-to-find-herself narratives. I don't think Amelia Dalton set out to find herself on the seas off the western Scottish coast, but I seems like ultimately she did, and her account of the high and low points of that journey is an enjoyable read, occasionally edge-of the-seat exciting, occasionally very moving.

Despite quite a lot of anecdotal drama (it actually opens with a sinking ship), Mistress and Commander is an unhurried book, and at its best reads like a collection of exciting fireside tales, stories of adventure shared with fond memory, many a laugh, a few tears, and an occasional shudder.

For some reason this true-life account reminded me of M C Beaton's Hamish Macbeth gentle crime series while The Little Shop of Happy Ever After by Jenny Colgan is an (also gentle) chick-lit take on the Highlands. Those looking for a slightly longer-distance accounts of sea (well, ocean) travels might enjoy Three Ways to Capsize a Boat: An Optimist Afloat by Chris Stewart.


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Buy Mistress and Commander: High Jinks, High Seas and Highlanders by Amelia Dalton at Amazon You can read more book reviews or buy Mistress and Commander: High Jinks, High Seas and Highlanders by Amelia Dalton at Amazon.com.

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