One of the pleasures of reading (as Laurie said so eloquently on her blog last week) is that it allows us to experience places we haven’t been to and lives we haven’t led. The same might be said of writing. I have always been intrigued by ‘what if’ scenarios. What would I have done had I been in a particular situation? How would I have coped? What choices might I have been forced to make?
Having said that, in my most recent book The Shipbuilder’s Daughter, I draw on personal experience and childhood memories as well as stories of a time before I was born, passed on to me by my grandfather Peter, my mother Annie and her brother, Lachie as well as great aunts and other relatives.
In The Shipbuilder’s Daughter, my heroine, Margaret, fearing her children will be removed from her, flees to North Uist where she has accepted a post as a doctor. Unable to keep her children with her while she carries out her medical duties, she arranges for a family of a friend to care for them while she works. I’ve kept the name of my grandparents home, Sandbank, describing it as it would have been in the thirties (and still was when I was a child !) and modelled the family the children stay with on my mother’s family, even giving them the same names.
My grandfather worked in the shipyards of Govan but left to return to the islands when the health of his children, particularly that of his eldest son, Lachie, suffered in the smoggy, damp conditions of Glasgow. My grandfather, Peter Morrison was a remarkable man. Although he received very little formal education he was a well-known Gaelic bard. Many of his stories, songs and tunes have been recorded and collected over the years by the School of Scottish studies and are still sung today. He was also a prolific writer of letters to newspapers, sharing his opinions, of which he had many with the world at large. In the forties – seeking a better life – he took his family, including my mother, to live on the Monach Islands, about as far away from civilisation as you can get, where they lived, just the six of them for four years, surviving on what they could grow themselves, and income from the sale of lobsters or rabbit pelts – but that it a story for another time.
As a child going to Sandbank to stay with my grandparents for the summer holidays was a great adventure. The journey there seemed to take forever involving an interminable car journey; how me and my five siblings and our parents ever squeezed in to one car, I can’t imagine – it almost certainly involved sitting on laps – plus a boat journey of around three hours. Arriving at Lochmaddy (North Uist’s port) we’d be met and another journey over single-track roads would follow. Even then the journey wasn’t over. Sandbank at that time had no road or causeway to it, so if the tide was in, we’d be bundled in to anther small boat and rowed across to the house.
The magic for me didn’t stop there. Because of where Sandbank was built the tide would come in twice a day, high or low depending on the time of year and when it did it would completely change the landscape. I’d go to bed, (my way lit by a small paraffin lamp – there was no electricity at the house only a generator which supplied electricity for a couple of hours ) with my uncle’s boat lying its side on the sands only to wake up to find it bobbing in the sea, the house completely surrounded by water. (The causeway you can just see in the photo is a relatively recent addition.)
Without television or toys, we children would make our own entertainment. There were too many of us to be kept in doors so we’d be chucked out to play regardless of the weather (although the sun always seems to shine in childhood memories ) and we’d roam the croft, sail pretend boats made from reeds in the fissures of the fidean, or share a home- built wooden one (made by my then bachelor uncle Lachie), on the incoming tide. We’d search rabbit holes and feed hens, play in boats that were no longer in use and had been left to rot on the sands, dig for cockles, or hang our legs over the jetty and fish using crab heads for bait.
Many of the activities necessary to survival were shared by the community and often we children would help lift and stack peats or gather the hay – looking forward to when the Byre filled and we could fling ourselves from the hay loft into mounds of sweet-smelling hay. There were also trips in Grandfather’s boat to other, uninhabited islands where lunch would be tea, made with water taken from a loch and boiled by a fire made with heather (to this day I can still smell its particular scent) along with mussels picked from the rocks and bannochs or scones baked that morning by my grandmother and spread with home-made butter.
Not all the memories were pleasant; there was no indoor toilet and no running hot water so baths had to be taken (and shared ) in a zinc tub in front of the Rayburn stove, and my grandfather used to force spoonfuls of seal blubber on us to keep us healthy. A man of his time, he was strict and as a staunch member of the Free Church of Scotland, forbade any activity on Sundays that wasn’t reading the bible or writing letters – excruciating for young children.
In the evenings, people from other parts of the island would visit. Drams of whisky would be poured for the adults, someone would bring out an accordion or fiddle and then the music and dancing would start. In between there would be the story-telling. My parents and all the islanders were gaelic speakers – but not us children – so sadly we couldn’t follow what was being said.
My mother’s family were crofters and lobster fishermen and an abiding memory is of my Uncle Lachie striding across the sands – a sack of crabs slung over his shoulder (crabs weren’t considered to have monetary value back then in the same way lobsters did) and me running to meet him. It was he who told us the story of Baroomba who lived in a nearby loch and wanted nothing more than to grab a child and drag her, or him, in to a watery grave – thinking back it was to keep us away from that particularly deep, steep- sided loch, he who made us bats and boats out of wood and even painted them for us and he, who later, when my brother and I returned to live with him and my grandfather as lively teenagers – intervened in what could only be described as a clash between the generations. But that too is another story and for another time.
So it is with much love and gratitude that I dedicate this blog to the memory of my Uncle Lachie, who died in 2015 at the great age of 91 and is still sorely missed.
Thank you for taking the time to read this. You can read an extract from The Shipbuilder’s Daughter here on Wednesday and order it on Amazon. The ebook version of my second book We Shall Remember is currently, but only for a little longer, heavily discounted and you can buy it on Amazon at its reduced price if you’re quick.
Thanks also to my fellow authors for inviting me to contribute today!
Finally, I have a question for you. Is there somewhere that holds an abiding place in your heart?