One of the most striking things about my research trip to the Isle of Lewis, (other than the people I met – see my previous blog familiarity-and-kindness-on-the-other-side-of-the-world.html was to get a sense of how the island, Stornaway and Uig areas in particular, functions as a community. I wanted to find out how people - both past and present -interacted with each other. I learned that family and place are defining features. Whenever people talked to me about someone else from the island they referred these two aspect e.g. “Malcom Macleod, from Cross, near Ness, Jimmy and Isabel’s eldest.’ In doing this they acknowledged a person’s heritage and belonging.
It has had me thinking about if and how we do this in urban communities in both Australia and the UK and how this might have impacted on my contemporary protagonist who was born and bred in London. Did she feel as if she was missing this strong sense of place and continuity? Or did she feel inhibited when she went to Lewis and have a sense of being watched and scrutinised? Whilst I have already included some aspects of this in my novel actually seeing and hearing how this is done on Lewis will, I hope, bring greater authenticity to the characters .
I went into a restored blackhouse and got a real sense of how it must have felt to be protected from the weather by those solid walls. I wondered too, as that night I snuggled in to my pillow top mattress and multiple pillows, how on earth they actually ever slept; crunched into the short cupboard beds that they shared with at least two others. What skills and values must they have had to manage this lack of privacy? How did it impact on relationships? It also brought home even more starkly the devastation of the Clearances as people where driven out of their solid walls to seek temporary shelter on the far north of the island, often doubling the number of people per house there, and families were split between those who stayed and those who left on the ships to the unknown of the New World.
One of the most chilling items I came across (and bought) was the 1851 diary of John Munro Mackenzie, the Chamberlain of Lews” He was employed by the then owner of Lewis, Matheson, to oversee rent collection and the removal of those families unable to pay. It gave no recognition to the fact that they had been previously forced off the good grazing and cropping land onto rocky seaside crofts. Nor to the recent potato crop failure. Even though I had already read many second hand and academic analysis of the Clearances and also some first-hand accounts from the victims via the Napier Commission http://napier-outerhebrides.blogspot.com/, this cold hearted diary written daily by the very person issuing the instructions to remove families came as a shock. It takes the reader directly into the catastrophic meetings where lives were destroyed. This is one excerpt I found particularly brutal:
“ they are not willing to confess that they will be short of food before the next crop for fear of being sent to America- I told all who did not accept the offer now made to them (i.e. emigration) need not expect assistance of any kind either in food or seed and that they must wholly depend on their own resources which will be a good answer to make to beggars in the future. I then went to dinner at the Castle…”
He then goes on to list, croft by croft, the number of people to be removed. As the lovely 80 year old Anna McKinnon said to me “those that claim the Clearance did not happen need look no further than this diary as proof.” The Chamberlain clearly failed to see the brutal irony of going for a free and sumptuous dinner at the Castle after casting the lives of hundreds into chaos and probable death.
So what were the “or worse” aspects of my research trip? My hope of resolving the contentious issue regarding where the chess men were found, was not met. Three of my most treasured research resources disagree. Dave the Archaeologist says Mealasta and Anna the holder of local wisdom and Gemma an Historian and curator at the Lews Museum say Adroil. Although these sites are only about five miles apart I know now that this will be a significant issue for any Lewis people reading my novel. For a couple of days this dilemma thwarted my writing until I decided to write a caveat that allows me, as a writer of fiction, to choose between these two.
The other ongoing research niggle is an elusive letter allegedly written by the chess pieces finder Calum Macleod. It was mentioned in 1830’s records then disappeared. I had read about it and Dave talked of it, as it influenced his find location decision. But despite several days spent trying to re-find a reference I cannot find it referred to anywhere. So do I simply accept Dave’s account - he is an Archaeologist after all - or do I suspend writing until I find it? Well clearly the latter is not an option but it will be a research shadow that I may one day need to eliminate.
Take a look at my Research page to see photos of the inside of a blackhouse. People were still living in these in the early 1900’s.Blackhouses
Jennifer is a writer of short stories, novels and a family history.