Just over a week since our annual trip to Scotland: six days of glorious sunshine spent partly on Skye and partly in Gairloch, the place we are thinking of moving to (see my blog Just looking out of the window). It is in this part of the world that much of the action of my novel is set, with Gethin making a spontaneous trip to find his sperm donor father here, and hooking up with Jez on her Harley. Many of our visits have doubled up as research, though I’ve pretty much done all that now. Still, I took photos of the sunset from our campsite, which is where I imagine Gethin, bewildered and alone:
That’s Harris you can see in the distance
I was going to set this novel in 2011, the year the pilot whales were trapped in Durness, but after visiting in 2014, I decided to go for that summer of the build-up to the Independence Referendum. I was struck by the energy of that campaign, the way people talked about it everywhere you went, the young people hungry to find out and argue their way to political awakening. It seemed the perfect metaphor for Gethin’s widening perspective, the idea of hope for shaping a better future, something his generation had never felt before. And how that compares to the disillusion his mother Pat feels after the radical political action of her youth. How he brings back that sense of possibility to her.
Of course things have changed since then. The disadvantage of being a slow writer of fiction set in contemporary times that refuse to stay still! The Yes campaign lost the Indy Ref, and although the momentum for political change stayed strong in Scotland, Brexit and this year’s general election seem to have thrown its direction into doubt. And then there is Jeremy Corbyn, doing for the youth south of the border what the Indy Ref had done for the Scots. Record numbers of young people registering to vote, packing out his rallies and chanting his name at Glastonbury, his campaign endorsed by Grime musicians. And people from my generation feeling for the first time in decades there is something worth getting behind. For all we lost the general election, we gained increased hope in the possibility of change.
But for me there is something about Scotland that is more than just the Indy Ref. It feels so different to the place I used to visit as a child and young adult. The highlands always caught my imagination, but the facilities were severely lacking. Just the odd snotty hotel which might deign to let you into the public bar if you took off your boots. Sparsely populated hamlets and not a vegetable to be found. Now it’s teeming with cafes and shops selling high-end local produce, and the hotel bars are more like pubs. But it’s not just about an easier life for the tourist; there are cafes that are run as social enterprises, employing local people and using the profits to invest in local services. Community centres promoting local bands and artists. An openness to migrants and the benefits they bring to the previously dwindling communities. It feels like a place that is taking matters into its own hands. If only England could follow suit!
Feeling this buzz has turned the Scottish Highlands from a place I loved to visit to a place I want to live. And from first discovering the NW coast in 2007, I knew this had to be where my novel would unfold.
A couple of books from my holiday reading:
Hope and Other Urban Tales by Laura Hird, whose stories of Scottish low-life revealed a humanity in her dysfunctional, mainly male, characters that I found very humbling.
And I loved Meaghan Delahunt’s To the Island with its tale of an Australian woman’s search for her Greek birth father. A story steeped in the turbulent violence of post-war Greek politics and the effect this has had on the psyche of the people caught up in it. Her description of the father character, imprisoned and tortured by the Junta, and the system of informers that broke the trust within communities and families, makes the Indy Ref an afternoon picnic in terms of political backdrop.
Still, Writers Rule No 1: Don’t Compare Yourself To Other Writers. You will find yourself lacking whether you are or not. And so, after entering another competition, I continue on my M1 journey of the final edit. If it’s Sheffield to London I’m probably just passing Leicester now. And Gethin has reached Scotland, with Jez not far behind.