Well here I am on my research trip on the other side of the world. One day I was looking towards the Antarctic and within days I was at Ness on the Butt of the Isle of Lewis looking over the North Atlantic towards the Arctic. From one extreme to another you would think but I immediately felt on familiar ground. Of course, I have been vicariously living and breathing the island for twelve months or so now; walking its streets via google maps, wandering the beaches via jpg images and drone footage. I’d even walked around a Black house on Youtube. But nothing beats the reality: the smell of a peat fire, the scratch of the heather, the crash of the ocean on ancients cliff faces.
The greatest surprise has been the overwhelming kindness and interest local people have taken in my novel and my research. It started when I couldn’t access the instructions to my airbnb. The taxi driver switched off the meter, drove around where I thought it was from memory and then and called in at the local store to help ask for local knowledge. The storekeepr , also the Post Office searched her records and when I finally arrived, the hosts were out the front waving us down having seen us searching. Now that’s island hospitality!
I have already become a familiar figure at the Lews Museum where a wonderful young curator has gone out of her way to talk to me about the chess men, their history and the stories surrounding them. She has inspired me to add another chapter devoted to the skulduggery that led to the hoard being split much to the annoyance of the British Museum which was led to believe it was buying the entire find.
A volunteer at the Stornaway Historical Society has also caught my interest in his hypothesis that the flat face, high cheek bone features of many an islander can be traced back to the children of the men who went to Canada working for the Hudson Bay company and came back with First Nation wives and children.
My tour with Dave the archaeologist introduced me to the many sites associated with the chess men and also provided tales of local customs which are still underpinned by the Free Church traditions especially as they apply to any activities on the Sabbath. And on his specialist subject, the ancient monuments such as the Callanish standing stones, he is possibly the island’s expert.
I have been given the names of other local people to contact who may be able to tell me if there are living relatives of my characters on the island and of a woman who is compiling an anthology of the local folk stories and myths. When I stop people in the street to ask directions they not answer my question but go on to tell me a wee story of their own about the island. “The building was once a school before it was the old museum you know. I went there myself. It’s haunted you know.” From another “I only went to the old museum once and the first photograph I saw was of my grandmother. Apparently she was the first female JP in Scotland and I never knew!”
The best (and worst) thing that has happened is that the weather has been gloriously sunny day in day out - a rarity for the island. But it makes spending time in the library looking at newspapers and old records unthinkable, surrounded as I am by empty sandy beaches and a sea that truly sparkles.
One thing is for sure, the locals love their Chessmen and each has a theory of who found them and where. Take a look at my photos and start planning your trip to this wonderful place where kindness abounds on the other side of the world.
Jennifer is a writer of short stories, novels and a family history.