Since I started work on the little chapbook of illustrations for Kilea, I have been thinking of the lure of islands, and a book has caught my imagination – The Atlas of Remote Islands:Fifty Islands I Have Not Visited and Never Will. Within it, there are wonderful hand drawn maps, is full of elaborate descriptions of place, fauna, flora, history, and it is one of those sorts of books to pour over again and again. I’m thinking of asking for it as a Christmas present, and disappearing off with it and a mug of mulled wine to sit by a window looking out on a snowy garden – there may be some romantic embellishment here.
And within the atlas too. There is something about the impossibility (or at least intense difficulty) of reaching these places which tinges the facts one does have of them with an otherworldly glamour. However, sometimes the islands, the impossible places you have reached, can turn out to be as just as haunting.
Loch Lomond, as seen from a high point on Inch cailloch
This picture was taken in 2007, in misty wet conditions (as you can tell by the blur) on the island of Inchcailloch, in the middle of Loch Lomond. D and I went there with A (not boy-A, but another good friend), M and C (a different C from before – I wish I had another way of providing anonymity for people!). You have to take the little wooden ferry over from the ‘mainland’, and catching that ferry involves a lot of waiting around in the boatyard of the village of Balmaha. Once on the island, though, you have made it to a different world. A microcosm of a unique history.
A Graveyard on Inchcailloch
The island’s name means in Scots Gaelic, Island (inch) of the old woman (cailloch) and is thought to refer to an Irish saint who came to convert Scotland, and may have made her home here. Despite the fact you can see all sides of the island from the summit of its hill (85m high), there used to be farms, industry and the home of the infamous bandits, the McGregors. The full moon over Loch Lomond was known as ‘McGregor’s Lantern’, because at night, the clan used to swim the cattle they had stolen across to the island.
An old tree bending to wash her hair in the loch
We wandered all over the island, discovering the graveyard, the ruined farms, the small campsite on the sandy beach. All of us struck by the beauty of the place, the soft, verdant, sorrowful atmosphere that veiled it. I grew up on an island, and a mythologised island forms the setting for Kilea. In a similar way, the Valle Grande, an isolated but magnificent (and real) meadow high in the Jemez mountains, forms the setting for my current novel. It seems that I am drawn to these places. At one time I thought this was because they were on the periphery – partially sealed off from the outside world by barriers of water or land, so that they were somewhat limited, good for a narrative, tightly binding it to the logic of a particular place. But that is only half the story – the other half is that in being islands, or island-like, they can become their own worlds. The smallest things take on significance, the smallest stories and memories nurtured and retold. A tree stump becomes an old woman, the moon a lantern for the island bandits.
While I wait for more news on Kilea, I’m likely to keep mulling over the sorts of elements that have gone into it. To lost family narratives and islands and deep dark pine woods, add houses with multiplying rooms (another theme that appeared benign in Kilea, now emerging in The Millennial). I hope I have enough to keep you all interested, at least until I flee South to Cornwall, and build myself a new bank of experience to turn into stories.
In your own writing or in novels you have read, what motifs to you find yourself attracted to?