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Great Northern? is the twelfth and final completed book of Arthur Ransome's Swallows and Amazons series of children's books. It was published in 1947. In this book, the three families of major characters in the series, the Swallows (the Walker family), the Amazons (the Blackett sisters) and the Ds (the two Callums), are all reunited in a book for the first time since Pigeon Post. This book is set in 1934 in the Outer Hebrides islands of Scotland and the two familiar Ransome themes of sailing and birds come to the fore.


For this story, Ransome was inspired by a fan, Myles North, an avid birdwatcher, who wrote a letter to Ransome which supplied a detailed outline of much of the basic plot. He also supplied the famous phrase of Mr Jemmerling: "What's hit's history: what's missed's mystery". Ransome also made a visit to Lewis in the Outer Hebrides for a fishing trip, and to research the area as the setting for the book.



Sea Bear, Pterodactyl, the Sea Bear's dinghy, the folding boat

The mail-boat (steamer) they see when going into harbour, but which does not carry letters from Captain Flint: I'll have to send telegrams instead of those letters (GN8,11).

Plot summary[]

The Swallows, Amazons and D's are all on a sailing cruise with Captain Flint in the Outer Hebrides. While the older members of the party clean the boat before returning her to the owner, the younger ones explore inland and a mysterious bird is seen nesting on an island in a loch. The question arises whether it is a Great Northern Diver which has never been known to nest in the British Isles. Mr Jemmerling, an expert whom they consult, turns out to be an egg collector and so a deadly enemy for the birds. The rest of the book describes how they try to protect the birds while gathering evidence of their nesting. Complicating the matter is a misunderstanding with the local inhabitants, the Gaels, who think that the land party has been sent to chase deer away from their breeding ground (and the land party pretends to be geologists by banging stones, which frightens the deer). So that Dick and John can photograph the nest, the Red Herrings are sent out to distract the Gaels, and the Decoys to distract Mr Jemmerling.


(numbers are days, names are chapter titles)

  1. The Sea Bear, Feeling Her Way In
  2. Putting Her On Legs, The First Discovery, "We're Being Stalked", First Sight of the Birds, Is It or Isn't It?
  3. He's Still There!, Cross Purposes, Mutiny Aboard, The Egg-Collector Cooks His Own Goose, Waiting For a Chance
  4. Giving Him the Slip, "I've Got to Have a Hide", Interrupted Netting Party, A Good Look-Out, Enemies Afloat and Ashore, Night Visit to the Island
  5. A Clear Coast For Dick, The Decoys, The Red Herrings, The Round-Up, Ship's Naturalist, Unwanted Rescuer, Roger's Dull Day, The McGinty Listens to Reason, Too Late!, "But What Has He Done With the Eggs?", "Quick! Quick!"


  • Great Northern? takes place in summer, as it never completely gets dark at the time of year they are sailing: .... Trouble is, it's so light at night up here .... (GN12), and that is the nesting season for Great Northern Divers
  • There is no certain year to be determined, but it does take place after The Picts and the Martyrs: the Ds knew how to sail their little Scarab (GN2), so the earliest is 1934. Dorothea refers to the D's earlier adventures of the Coot Club on the Norfolk Broads (GN10)
  • Titty recalls when she sees the Young McGinty's exercise book diary: French verbs .... I had to fill a whole book of them the summer we found Swallowdale (GN4).
  • Sea Bear and her crew had had .... a happy fortnight of good sailing .... (fourteen days) before the start of the book; going to Skye, Tarbert, and Portree
  • Mac is the owner of the Sea Bear, and they are bringing her back to him at Mallaig
  • Arthur Ransome visited the Hebrides in May 1945 and July 1946 while writing Great Northern?, staying at Uig Lodge on the Isle of Lewis. He returned there several times to fish for salmon (CFT p204,205).
  • Gaelic words used in the story: da fiadh dheug = twelve deer; damh a fireach = a male ox; damh is èildean = stag and hinds

Is It or Isn't It?[]

Great Northern? is sometimes listed alongside Peter Duck and Missee Lee as having story-within-a-story status; notably by Christina Hardyment (CFT). The book has some of the features of a Peter Duck story (violence, far-flung travel) but the extent of these is lesser (Scotland, not the Caribbean or China).

Arthur Ransome did not intend this status for Great Northern?. Writing to Myles North (discussing the book's dedication) he says:

...At all costs it must do nothing to weaken the reality ... nothing to suggest that it is a mere story and not the record of an actual happening, even if for bird protection's sake, the details are somewhat disguised. (AR's own emphasis and dotdotdots; SFM1947)

Arthur Ransome's Swallows and Amazons series

Swallows and Amazons | 'Their Own Story' | Swallowdale | Peter Duck | Winter Holiday | Coot Club | Pigeon Post | We Didn't Mean to Go to Sea | The Big Six | Secret Water | Missee Lee | The Picts and the Martyrs | 'Coots in the North' | Great Northern?

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This page uses content from Guide to Swallows and Amazons series by kind permission of Bill Wright.