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
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.