Around the World with Elisabeth Gifford

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We are starting in the UK in Scotland.

My guest on the blog is Elisabeth Gifford whose books are set in the Scottish islands.

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Elisabeth Gifford grew up in a vicarage in the industrial Midlands. She has an MA in Creative Writing from Royal Holloway College. She has published the biography of a couple who rescue abandoned orphans in China. She has two novels out with Corvus Atlantic, ‘Secrets of the Sea House’ and ‘Return to Fourwinds’ and is writing a third which will be a novelisation of true events in Warsaw during WW2. She and her husband, a Scot and a cartoonist and illustrator, live in Kingston upon Thames.

Here Elisabeth tells us how she feels about Harris, its people and culture and the inspiration for ‘Secrets of the Sea House’.

‘Secrets of the Sea House’ is set in the Hebrides on Harris, one of the most remote parts of Scotland. Even when you have crossed the long bridge from the mainland over to Skye and then made the long drive to the far side of the island to Uig harbour, you still have a good hour and a half at sea on a CalMac Ferry before you get to Harris. For me, Harris begins on the ferry, the smudge of purple across the sea turning to land, fish and chips in the café and hearing snatches of Gaelic from nearby tables, hoping to spot dolphins or basking sharks as you pass tiny volcanic islands. The ferry docks in Tarbert, a town that would be called a village anywhere else, the boat standing as tall as the buildings.

We always feel a mounting excitement driving across Harris towards the first view of Luskentyre estuary, white and turquoise in the sun. Beyond are agate mountains, the wild and isolated bays of Huishinish and some serious hiking out into otherwise inaccessible hills and coastline. Today, we head down the west coast to Borve and a string of breath-taking white beaches, windswept and empty for most of the year except for gangs of bandit sheep. The unique Machair soil along the west coast is incredibly fertile, peat mixed with Atlantic shell sand, giving a thick pelt of wildflowers in summer, or barley and potato rigs if the land is still cultivated. After the clearances, the villages were left to sheep, but in a low light you can still see the lines of raised potato beds that corrugate the once populated grassy sweeps. It was while reading about the clearances that the voice of Moira began to speak up. She had a lot to say.

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You pass through Scarista village with manse and church where spine tingling Gaelic psalming is still sung at Gaelic services. The Manse is now a bijou hotel where we have had some magical meals overlooking the sea. Reverend Alexander came from trips to the Huntley museum with its glass jar specimens in Glasgow and from visits to Edinburgh where Darwin first explored his theories of evolution. I saw Alexander living in the Manse, facing out to the Atlantic, and far too handsome for his own good.

Down in Northton village at the end of Scarista bay, Bill and Christine Lawson run Seallam, a genealogy tracing service for the many descendants of the clearance diaspora. Bill and Christine also stage fascinating exhibitions about Harris and St Kilda and run a far too tempting bookshop.

At the foot of the island Strond has ethereal views across to the Uists. Gaelic folk singer Julie Fowlis is from Uist and she sang some of the old Uist songs about sea people for the launch of ‘Secrets of the Sea House’ in Glasgow.

Facing towards Skye, on a peninsula of the greenest of hills, is the tiny Rodel Cathedral. Inside are carvings of medieval knights and ancient birlinn boats built according to the island’s Viking heritage. Most high points on the island still carry a Viking name, from a time when they were used by incoming invaders as navigation points.

Turning northwards along the east coat you join the narrow and twisting golden road, named for the colour of the peat moors in winter, and because it cost the council so much to build back in the thirties. Here the landscape is very different.  Gneiss rock – the oldest in Britain – lies exposed by weather in sheets of silver grey. To your right, the Minch glints silver and blue according to the weather. The bays are often filled with sleeping seals and you’ll find several cafes and artists’ studios tucked away.

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Minch Light by Willie Fulton

We head for a very special place, the Drinishader gallery of William and Moira Fulton who paint the ever- changing moods and colours of Harris and St Kilda. The Fulton’s art gallery was once a cottage for holiday lets. We were so lucky to stay there on our first visit to Harris and returned there several times for a family holiday that was part adventure and part spiritual restoration as we sailed on the Minch, drank peaty whisky overlooking the sea, read by the fire or surfed over on the west side beaches. Willie and Moira told us wonderful stories about their life in a Hebridean village over the past few decades, and gave permission to use some of those village stories as an inspiration for the book. I wanted to try and capture that moment in the island’s history when crofting was still a mainstay of island life.

Time, of course, never stands still. Willie knew we would cry a bit when he told us he was going to convert the cottage to an art gallery. Of course there are other wonderful cottages for holiday lets on Harris, we’ve stayed in so many, but none will ever have the magic of that walk ‘home’ along to Willie’s gallery in Drinishader. If you are in Harris, do the walk from the gate by the sea to the gallery and you’ll understand.

Because Harris and Lewis are so remote they remain one of the UK’s last strongholds of Scots Gaelic. They welcome incomers who want to make a life in the islands, but retain their Gaelic culture of deep crofting and fishing roots, of rugged self-sufficiency, of spirituality and kindness. We loved hearing some great Gaelic and Celtic bands and singers at the Hebridean Celtic Festival in Lewis, and loved almost as much its designated porridge van, and the fried Haggis and chips.

The best compliment I can get is when people who know Harris tell me that the book reflects the islands, or that reading it feels as if they were really there. It’s my attempt to hold on to a very special place and its history, so it can be passed on – and treasured. The Hebrides’ unique culture is vibrant but fragile. The islands face pressure from from overseas, automated fish farm corporations that employ no locals, and who risk spoiling the pristine water in the bays with effluent. There’s inevitably pressure from wealthy retirees who want to plonk a loud holiday house in the middle of a very special landscape, sometimes contributing little to the island economy and its Gaelic speaking families. Tweed weaving is coming back, a new whisky distillery is planned, but the islands need a louder voice to protect livelihoods and prevent the slipping away of a unique heritage.

Mill race stones, ancient dwellings, rusting tractors, all get left where they fell for years, for decades and for centuries in Harris, giving a feeling of continuity and active history. In Lewis, the atmospheric Callanish standing stones are as old as Stonehenge.

There’s a rich heritage of island literature also. After finding his book on Selkie myths and mermaid sightings in a Harris gift shop, I met with Gaelic historian and seaman John MacAulay. He gave permission for me to base the novel on his research into the history that lies behind the mysterious sea people legends that are so prevalent in Scotland and the Isles. A few years later, it was the most tremendous pleasure to visit the arts centre in Stornoway for the Hebridean book festival and give a joint talk with John MacAulay about The Sea House and the true history behind the selkies.

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I would like to thank Elisabeth for such an inspiring guest post. I now want to visit Harris for myself.

However, even if I haven’t been to Harris, I have read ‘Secrets of the Sea House’ which was shortlisted for the Historical Writers’ Association’s Debut Crown For Best First Historical Novel. I thoroughly enjoyed it. Here are my thoughts:

On the Scottish island of Harris, Ruth and Michael have bought the dilapidated Sea House in the hope of creating a bed and breakfast they can run with the help of Michael’s brother Jamie and Jamie’s girlfriend Leaf. However, both the Sea House and Ruth have secrets to uncover leading them back into the past and the life of Reverend Alexander Ferguson over a century before in the 1860s.

I thought ‘Secrets of the Sea House’ was a wonderful narrative. Based around the legends of the sea folk, Elisabeth Gifford leads the reader back and forth in time like the waves of the sea itself. The writing is hypnotic.

With several narrators, including Ruth, Alexander and his servant Moira, each has a distinct voice adding layer upon layer of understanding and depth to the story. Articles from newspapers, stories within stories and letters give detail and colour to make for a hugely satisfying read.

All the characters are complex and real and the reader learns to uncover and accept the past in tune with Ruth’s own discoveries. The echoes of the past reverberate through the decades so all the way through I wondered whether history would repeat itself as Ruth’s depression seems to mirror that of her mother.

One of the most beautiful elements for me is the way in which Elisabeth Gifford creates a sense of place. Her descriptions are beautiful and it is so easy to get an image of Scotland and its islands from her writing.

‘Secrets of the Sea House’ is meticulously researched and raises several philosophical questions about how we deal with our past, with mental illness, our beliefs and our roles in life. However, above all else it is a mesmerising and thoroughly entertaining read. I loved it.

Secrets of the Sea house

‘Secrets of the Sea House’ is published by Corvus, an imprint of Atlantic Books and can be bought here along with Elisabeth’s other books.

I’m reading ‘Return to Fourwinds’ next.

Return to fourwinds

You can follow Elisabeth on Facebook on her website and on Twitter

8 thoughts on “Around the World with Elisabeth Gifford

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