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Science Geography

A Dune Adrift

The Strange Origins and Curious History of Sable Island

by (author) Marq de Villiers & Sheila Hirtle

McClelland & Stewart
Initial publish date
Feb 2006
Geography, Atlantic Provinces, Historical Geography
  • Paperback / softback

    Publish Date
    Feb 2006
    List Price

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Sable Island lies off Canada’s Nova Scotian coast. A shape-shifting ghost of an island, it is in fact more a sandbar, adrift in the Atlantic, wandering to the east or west with the storms that so frequently batter it – but somehow never tipping over the nearby Continental Shelf.

The bane of sailors for many generations, it declines to stay exactly where it is on the sea charts, and is so low that it can often not be seen until an unfortunate ship is almost in its clutches. As a result, its beaches have been littered over the years by hundreds of shipwrecks. These have attracted both the notorious “wreckers,” who scavenged for whatever they could “salvage,” and were suspected of occasionally doing away with any witnesses who had the temerity to survive, and the employees of the Humane Establishment, set up for the rescue of shipwreck victims.

Anchored roughly by tough vegetation, surprisingly supplied with fresh water in the middle of salt, inhabited by hardy wild horses descended from Acadian ponies left on the island in 1756, Sable is an amazing place, and the authors have done it justice in this engaging and often lyrical book.

About the authors

Born in South Africa, Marq de Villiers is a veteran Canadian journalist and the author of thirteen books on exploration, history, politics, and travel, including Windswept: The Story of Wind and Weather, Water: The Fate of Our Most Precious Resource (winner of the Governor General’s Award for Non-Fiction), Down the Volga in a Time of Troubles, and Into Africa: A Journey Through the Ancient Empires, written with Sheila Hirtle. He has worked as a foreign correspondent in Moscow and through Eastern Europe and spent many years as Editor and then Publisher of Toronto Life magazine. Most recently he was Editorial Director of WHERE Magazines International.


Marq de Villiers' profile page

Sheila Hirtle's profile page


  • Winner, Evelyn Richardson Non-fiction Award

Excerpt: A Dune Adrift: The Strange Origins and Curious History of Sable Island (by (author) Marq de Villiers & Sheila Hirtle)

Sometimes, the horses pay the passing humans no never mind, which seems odd, because horses are naturally inquisitive animals. If you’re walking along a sand road in the interior and a horse comes plodding towards you, you might stand aside politely (perhaps scrambling up onto the bank to give the animal enough room to pass), and it will amble past with nary a sideways glance, a toss of its head, or a tiny wicker of acknowledgement. You might as well be an inanimate post.

One October afternoon, on the sandy road from the station, where a bank of bayberry had eroded, its long, coarse roots exposed to the sunshine, a passing stallion extended its neck along this natural comb and then, without a by-your-leave, raised its tail and rammed its haunches back and forth across it. Itching duly scratched, it resumed its amble, grumbling quietly to itself as it passed, paying no attention at all to the human interloper. It was small, perhaps a stout thirteen hands, a glossy black with a small diamond-shaped white blaze on its nose, its sun-bleached reddish mane blowing forwards over its eyes, which were completely hidden in the tangle. On an island without trees, the horses will scratch where they can, which is the main reason that beacons, posts, rain gauges, landing lights for the helipad, and anything else that can be broken by a horse’s heft are fenced in. The hair they slough off mostly just blows away, but a fair amount can be seen attached to scratching posts like guy anchors.

On other occasions, if you’re crossing the heath towards a group of horses, they might amble slowly aside, but they might keep grazing and hardly lift their heads from the grass to watch you pass, or perhaps one in a group will swivel to watch as you go by. But usually they will be more inquisitive. A whole group might watch as you pass, in curiosity and not alarm, looking at you intently, as though mulling the peculiar fact that you have only two legs where there should be four. And if you come across a couple of young bachelor horses in an amiable mood, they might follow you cautiously, peeping over banks and around dunes, like great big children clumsily playing hide-and-seek. Once or twice, if you sit in the lee of a dune and wait a while, you might look up to see a great, long-lashed horse eye peering at you over the edge, so close that you can hear the wind in its owner’s shaggy mane and hear its little snorts and breathy breathing. The station staff, busy with their chores, sometimes think of the horses as pests. If you leave a gate open, you will very soon find a horse inside the compound, checking it out, and if there is sensitive or delicate equipment within its reach, it will be rubbed and scraped — the horses always seem to itch — and often damaged. “The grass is always greener on the other side of whatever fence or gate or building there is,” Gerry Forbes grouses. It’s one of his first instructions to newcomers: Don’t let the horses in.

Editorial Reviews

A Dune Adrift brings one of Canada’s — and the world’s — lesser known wonders to life in an entertaining, informative way.”
Canadian Geographic