The Scottish Clearances: when the facts support the fiction "with the brush strokes left in".
One of the main settings in my second novel is Penny Donald, the land tenanted by Calum Macleod and his wife Mhairi, the couple who, history has it, discovered the Lewis Chessmenin 1830 in a nearby sand hill.
Nobody could write about this era without being confronted at each turn with the harsh realities of the Clearances. As the market for kelp disappeared and the income from wool escalated, landowners began turning families out of their homes at alarming rates to make way for sheep. Other holding were converted into game parks to satisfy the gentry's lust for shooting and fishing.
Having already written that my family, the Macleods, were driven off the land and forced to emigrate to Canada, I was, then, amazed ( and pleased and saddened) to stumble across the email correspondence of two ex-Lewis men: 81 year old Donald J MacLeod to Alastair McIntosh, Donald had recorded his memories of the oral history passed down to him about the fate of the families on Lewis. Of Penny Donald. He wrote:
"Penny Donald. Malcolm MacLeod (Calum Sprot) from this village found the Lewis Chessmen. In 1851 he was evicted along with the population of all the villages in the area and then Ardroil became a large sheep farm. The ethnic population was replaced by sheep and a few shepherds from Kintail. The incomers had no knowledge of Lewis history or the Lewis Chessmen. The evicted for a while sought refuge in some Lewis villages, some trekking with their belongings over fifty miles to the Ness area of Lewis. Later many of these Uig people emigrated to Canada or Australia and took with them their Gaelic language, culture and history. So the Clearances are responsible for the misfortune of posterity losing the history of the Lewis Chessmen. The Clearances are not mentioned in the Lewis Chessmen brochures issued by the British Museum, this is not surprising as the Clearances have more or less been cleansed even from Scottish history books, though the evictions lasted for over a hundred years, the longest period of ethnic cleansing in the history of Europe. Malcolm MacLeod was a neighbour of my progenitor Donald MacRitchie.
What in all reality happened to the family I do not know so, as in the job of the historical novelist, I have created the story of their emigration, or some would say fleeing, to Cape Breton, to fill in the knowledge gap. This art of meshing of fact with fiction was brilliantly unpacked bu Hilary Mantel in a recent Reith Lecture “But I argue, a reader knows the nature of the contract. When you choose a (historical) novel . . . you are not buying a replica, or even a faithful photographic reproduction – you are buying a painting with the brush strokes left in. To the historian, the reader says, ‘Take this document, object, person - tell me what it means. ’ To the novelists she says, ‘Now tell me what else it means.”www.bbc.co.uk/programmes/b08tcbrp.