Showing posts with label Isle of Gigha. Show all posts
Showing posts with label Isle of Gigha. Show all posts

New Shoots - The Winter Solstice



In the picture, you can see a couple of hyacinth bulbs in a pair of vintage bulb glasses that were a gift from a friend. I love them and use them every year. They're sitting on my office windowsill, alongside an oak block from some ancient shipwreck. It washed ashore at the south end of the Isle of Gigha, and lay there waiting for us to find it, one long gone summer. 

The other day, after a bitterly cold, misty spell of weather, the sun shone and I walked around the village, dropping off Christmas cards. It was quiet in the village with not so much as a dog barking, although one or two of them popped their heads up as I passed by. As I walked along the winding drive to the old manse of Gemilston, I was suddenly aware that the verges were already starred by bulbs, peeping through, little clumps of pale spikes, tiny teeth. I'm not sure whether they were snowdrops or crocuses - snowdrops possibly, because they come first. Before the end of January and well into February, they will be in bloom here in the west.

I don't much like winter, but if anything, I like autumn even less. I can admire the colours, enjoy the apple harvest, the brambles, the sloes. All that. But nothing lifts my heart like the first signs of spring. I'm a springtime person, and for me, spring comes early. As soon as the Christmas decorations are put away for another year, I like to bring springtime into the house, in the shape of snowdrops, catkins and early indoor hyacinths. 

Today, at 15.49, the time of the winter solstice, we were waiting with our bottle of fizz (Cava today!) and a couple of Victorian champagne glasses, and we raised a glass to the turning year and the return of the sun. It would not be an exaggeration to say that I find the way the light leaches out of the days in October and November profoundly depressing. (Especially at this miserable Covid time) - but almost as soon as the year turns I feel a small lifting of my spirits, a sensation that only grows as the weeks go by. 

I hope you do too. 

Another Inspirational Visit to the Isle of Gigha

Jura from Gigha

One of the most inspirational places for my fiction and non fiction throughout my writing life has been and remains the tiny Isle of Gigha, off the Kintyre Peninsula - the most southerly of the true Hebridean islands.

Recently, we were there to celebrate a friend's sixtieth birthday, a nice mixture of old friends, relatives and grown-up children. Our son remarked that it was both a happy and a sad time, in a nostalgic kind of way, since this group of friends and their kids had been visiting the island on and off since they were small, and loved to paddle or dig for bait or fish for crabs from the catwalk in Ardminish Bay. Not that they don't still enjoy doing these things but there is something about the unalloyed pleasure you feel as a child that you can never quite recapture.

You can see what I mean from the picture on the left of myself in the big nineties specs, with the redoubtable Willie McSporran, and a very young and very blonde son.

At the bottom of this post, there's the same son, 6ft 4 inches and still dwarfed by the Gunnera plants in Achamore Gardens!



My novel The Curiosity Cabinet is set on a fictional island called Garve, a bit like Gigha. Actually, in my imagination, it's bigger than Gigha, but smaller than Islay and situated about where Jura lies! But it has a similar landscape and history: a smallish place with miles of rocky coastline and a fascinating history, softer than some places, an island full of flowers, with its fair share of trees, and gorgeous white sandy beaches. 

'The island crouches long and hilly on her horizon, like some mysterious hump-backed animal. Already she can smell it, the scent that is somewhere between land and sea and has something of both in it. The island is full of flowers. Ashore, Alys knows that honeysuckle will clutter the hedgerows like clotted cream, weaving a dense tapestry with marching lines of purple foxgloves.' 

When we were there, though, a week ago, the honeysuckle and foxgloves were not yet in bloom. It was all flag irises and bluebells and drifts of pink campion - the flowers of late spring that I love so much.

The gardens at Achamore House were also stunningly beautiful, but I think that's a subject for another post, one for the gardeners among my readers.

In case you're wondering why all this is relevant, it's because I'm deep into a new novel called The Posy Ring - and it's a kind of spin-off novel to The Curiosity Cabinet. It's not a sequel, because I didn't think a sequel would work. But it has a similar fictional island setting, a similar structure with past and present day parallel stories (although nobody actually goes back in time) and we meet some of the characters from that first novel all over again.

That was another reason why the visit to Gigha proved to be even more inspirational than it usually is. You'll have to watch this space for more news of The Posy Ring. I still have quite a lot of work to do!

Son amid the Gunnera



The Curiosity Cabinet - The Book of My Heart

The Curiosity Cabinet has now been published by Saraband and is available in all sorts of places, including good bookshops like Waterstones, either in stock or to order, online and, of course, from Amazon, where the eBook version is also widely available here and in the US, here.

The gorgeous cover image is by talented photographer Diana Patient.

Of all the books I have written - and I suspect that even includes the Jewel, much as I love Jean and Rab to bits - this may be the 'book of my heart'. I've been wondering why I feel like this about it. It's quite short and it's a simple love story; parallel love stories, really, set in the past and present of a fictional Scottish island called Garve: bigger than Gigha and Coll; a bit smaller than Islay perhaps but with a similar southern Hebridean landscape. Garve is an island full of flowers. The Curiosity Cabinet is not just about the love between two couples - it's about love for a place, the gradually growing love for a landscape. Which may have something to do with the fact that I wasn't born in Scotland. We moved here when I was twelve. I've spent most of my adult life here. And along the rocky road of adjustment, I've grown to love the place and its people.


I've noticed that readers tend to fall into two camps. It's been a popular novel, and people do seem to like it. But some of them find it a 'guilty pleasure' and think it's just a simple romance, while others seem to notice that it's pared down, rather than facile. Which was kind of my intention, but when you're doing this in a piece of fiction, especially a love story, you're never sure that readers are going to 'get' it.

In a way, it doesn't matter at all.

If a reader gets pleasure from anything I've written, then who am I to complain? And I don't. Because lots of readers seem to have enjoyed the book. But all the same, it's gratifying when somebody understands the time and trouble taken, and then takes time themselves to comment on it. One of the best reviews I think I've ever had was from an American reader who said 'this is so tightly written that you could bounce a quarter off of it!'

I must admit, I loved that review! It cheers me up when I'm feeling down, reminds me why I write.


It may well appeal to some fans of the Outlander novels and the TV series, although it isn't a Jacobite tale, nobody goes back in time, and the past/present stories run in parallel only. Interestingly, I wrote the novel version some years after I had written it as a trilogy of plays for BBC Radio 4. (It isn't usually done this way round, but back then, I was writing a lot of radio drama!) These plays, produced by Hamish Wilson, were very popular with the listeners. It was a joyful production and one that those who worked on remember with a great deal of pleasure.


My husband was working as a commercial yacht skipper at the time, here in Scotland. We'd done a bit of travelling off the west coast of Scotland and I was particularly smitten with the landscape and history of these islands. I was beginning to be very much in love with them. The Curiosity Cabinet, in its various incarnations, is the result. I was also feeding my own textile collecting habit, and wanted to find a way of weaving it into my fiction. Not that I've never been lucky enough to own something as precious as an antique embroidered raised work casket. I had to content myself with viewing them in Glasgow's wonderful Burrell museum.

Now, however, there will be more novels in the same vein. I'm deep into a project that is not a direct sequel but a spin-off trilogy of novels, with the same island setting - but in a different part of the landscape, and in different time periods. I'm finding it equally captivating for me, as a writer. The first in the series won't be out till 2018. I'll keep you posted! 

The Way It Was: A History of Gigha


Sorry for the rather long silence between posts, but there's been an awful lot going on here in the UK. Wish there wasn't. Glad I'm in Scotland.

Foxglove and fuchsia at Keill.
Anyway - my old/new book about Gigha is out now, and what a smashing cover (painted by Pam Carter) they've come up with at Birlinn. Lots of the research for this book was actually done in the little white cottage on the right of the picture, which is where we stayed for a number of summers: Ferry Croft One, very close to the beach.

This is an update on God's Islanders that was published some years ago, in hardback: a revised and updated paperback, just the right size for you to slip into your pocket and carry around the island with you. Gigha is one of my favourite places in the whole world, and I've set some of my fiction on an island not a million miles from Gigha as well. I'm already planning a new project with an island setting.

Misty morning at the ferry terminal. 
This morning, Undiscovered Scotland features a lovely review of the book. Once you've read the review, perhaps you should also visit the island. We were there for a few days - not nearly long enough - in early June and I wish we were back there now: it's a gem, small, but very beautiful indeed.






An Island that Inspired a Novel: Gigha and The Curiosity Cabinet

Beautiful cover art by Alison Bell

This is the time of year in Scotland, still more or less spring, but with summer fast approaching, that I invariably find myself thinking about the beautiful Isle of Gigha. We didn't visit last year, and I reckon that was the first time in many years that we didn't manage to go, even if only for a few days. Our son paddled in its turquoise seas when he was a little lad. We visited with friends (sometimes with a lot of friends!) and sometimes it was just the three of us and then just the two of us when Charlie grew up. I think all the young people who spent time there have happy memories of the place.

The island is bathed in golden light.
We are planning to try to get there later in the year, perhaps in September or October when the place is full of luscious brambles (blackberries if you're not reading this in Scotland!) and the whole island seems often to be bathed in golden light. But my favourite time of year there is still May with its oceans of primroses, violets and then bluebells, or June and early July when the place seems to be awash with wild flowers of all kinds, armies of foxgloves, buttery honeysuckle. As Manus, one of my characters in The Curiosity Cabinet says to Henrietta Dalrymple, when she asks him for plants and bulbs to make a garden, 'Henrietta, the whole island is a flower garden.' And of course it is.

The whole island is a flower garden.
Two of my novels have been inspired by Gigha: The Curiosity Cabinet and (rather more loosely, but still recognisable) Bird of Passage. Both stories are fictional, and so are all the characters, but the landscape is a different matter. And of course I've also written a big non-fiction book about Gigha, a gallop through the prehistory and history of the people of the island: God's Islanders. I can't quite leave it alone!


Ardminish Bay
My husband, artist Alan Lees, feels much the same - and he has painted it on more than one occasion: the picture on the left is Ardminish Bay with the boathouse restaurant in the background and yes - the sea really can be that colour. The air is so clean and there are days when the colours seem to be impossibly vivid.

The Curiosity Cabinet has been available worldwide as an eBook on Kindle for some years now and I've just uploaded it all over again - not with any real changes, but with a few tiny edits and with a sample chapter of Bird of Passage at the end.

I'm in two minds about these 'bonus chapters' myself because I know how frustrating it is to think that you have another chapter to go in a book and to suddenly find that it has ended, and what you thought was more of the novel is actually an extract from another book altogether! But I hope readers will forgive me, because it doesn't seem quite so bothersome in an eBook and besides, Bird of Passage is another novel set in a similar island landscape and I have a feeling that if you enjoy The Curiosity Cabinet you might well enjoy Bird of Passage too. It's a bigger, sadder and more disturbing novel altogether than the rather gentle tale that is The Curiosity Cabinet but the island landscape plays a big part.

I've also published both these novels to various other platforms including Apple, so you should be able to find them pretty much anywhere you want. The Curiosity Cabinet was published in paperback some years ago, but sold out and consequently went out of print quite quickly. Second hand copies do crop up for those who prefer paper, but I'm planning a Print on Demand version as soon as I can find the time to do it. I have a draft of a new novel to finish first!

Still, I'm hoping that paperback versions of  The Curiosity Cabinet and Bird of Passage too will be available before the end of the year.

Manus McNeill? 
The Curiosity Cabinet consists of two interwoven love stories, past and present. Nobody goes back in time - although the problems of the past may be continued and perhaps worked out in the present. It's also a story about the way in which small and rather magical islands such as this one can feel as though they hold the whole history of the place, layers of it, one on top of another. 'Thin places' where the boundaries between past and present seem to be somehow blurred.

So - if I've whetted your appetite a bit, here's a little extract from the present day story. After an absence of twenty five years, Alys has returned to the island where she used to come on holiday. And in her hotel, she has come across the 'curiosity cabinet' of the title - not really a curiosity cabinet at all, but an old, very valuable and very beautiful casket, embroidered with traditional raised work.

'Presently she takes her drink and finds the residents’ lounge again. It is still empty, so she moves about the room examining pictures. They are large oil paintings, grim death rather than still life: birds, their feathers tumbled and bloody, hunks of meat, overflowing platters of fruit and vegetables. There is the inevitable stag, on a heathery hill. There is a grimly handsome highlander, staring pensively into the distance. There are a few portraits of bald-headed, pot-bellied, self-satisfied old men, so dark as to be almost indistinguishable from each other.

And then she comes upon a display case of mahogany and glass. There are objects, neatly arranged on three shelves. But the casket is central. The casket has raised, heavily embroidered panels on a wooden base and little gilded feet. The scenes are biblical. A woman stands breast high amid the growing corn. She is Ruth. ‘Whither thou goest I will go … thy people shall be my people,’ thinks Alys, surprised by her own knowledge, remembering the words from some long-ago reading, a school service perhaps. She hasn’t been to church in years. There are birds and flowers too: long-necked swans and plump seagulls, honeysuckle, wild roses with their centres formed of tiny seed pearls, drooping foxgloves.

The embroidery has faded over time but only a little. The two front doors are open to reveal five drawers, two wide and three narrow, also embroidered with flowers and birds and beasts. There is a tall house in grey silk, with fragments of mica for windows.

She can still hear the child pattering about, giggling.

Other objects, presumably the contents of the cabinet, are spread out on the shelves above and below it. Here is a miniature shuttle, prettily inlaid with gold, and with a few discoloured threads still attached. Here is a needlelace collar, very fine and floral. Here is a tiny pincushion, a painted silk fan and a coral teether. On another shelf is a hand mirror, intricately decorated with semi-precious stones in the shape of flowers: forget-me-nots and pansies. Alongside these precious keepsakes, she is puzzled to see a little collection of pebbles and shells and swansdown. Finally there is a scrap of yellowed paper, with a few words of incomprehensible writing: a letter? A poem? Alys is enchanted by these things and suddenly possessed by the need to know more about them. 

Slowly but surely, Alys finds out more about them: who made the casket and why, who owned it and its contents, what became of it, and what is the connection with her childhood playmate, island fisherman, Donal. And perhaps most important of all, who was the mysterious chieftain of the island, Manus McNeill, who had some great treasure which he lost, and who took to himself a bride from the sea? 

But the islanders are people who can 'keep a secret for a thousand years' and it's only when you belong that you can understand the truth of that hidden past. 

























The Curiosity Cabinet on Pinterest


I've been a convert to Pinterest for a while. It's a lovely, easy site to use, and I can never visit it without a little lifting of the heart.  Maybe because it's good displacement activity. (Well, it is!) Maybe it's also because I have a very visual imagination. When I'm working on a novel or a play, I tend to surround myself with all kinds of inspirational images, pictures that help to fire my imagination, even when I'm feeling in the doldrums. Pinterest is a nice addition to those resources: pictures of landscapes and food, textiles, interiors, costumes and all kinds of things. Pictures of heroes, too.

I now find I use it quite a lot when I have a work in progress - I'm using it with my Canary Island trilogy at the moment. One of the good things about the site is that it isn't very time consuming, or it needn't be. You can just go there briefly, have a little browse, pin a picture, be intrigued or inspired and get back to work.  Or you can spend hours on it, especially if you follow the pictures back to their original websites. But you don't have to.

Sometimes, like now, I've been moved to create a Pinterest board for a work that was done and dusted some time ago - purely for fun. I've just done it for my novel The Curiosity Cabinet and you can see the board here. Most readers will have their own ideas about the landscape of the novel - and the embroidered box of the title. But all the same, I thought it might be nice for readers to see some of the images that inspired it.

The Curiosity Cabinet is a novel which has had a long and complicated life. It started out as a trilogy of radio plays, was totally rewritten as a novel, shortlisted for a book prize, published by Polygon, and then went out of print but not before it had been released as an unabridged audio reading and abridged (without the sex and swearing - not that there is a LOT of it - but very nicely done!) for the People's Friend. It had been so well reviewed, had so many readers who had taken the time and trouble to tell me how much they liked it, that it became one of my first Kindle books. It had a new and very beautiful cover by my friend, textile artist Alison Bell. And in 2014, I plan to re release it in paperback, via Amazon's Createspace.

I've been visiting the little Hebridean Isle of Gigha for many years now - I even wrote a history of the place called God's Islanders for Birlinn - and I love it. The Garve of the novel isn't entirely Gigha and other islands are certainly available! Coll, for instance. But the landscapes of Gigha definitely inspired the landscapes of Garve, past and present, in the novel. They went on to inspire the landscapes of the anonymous Scottish island in Bird of Passage too - but differently. Maybe I'll do a dedicated Pinterest board for that novel too, in due course.

I'll be adding a few more pictures to the Curiosity Cabinet board over the next few weeks. This is the landscape of the novel - when I visualise the film of the book in my head this is the kind of thing I see. Well, a girl can dream, can't she?




List Making for Beginners: How To Organize Your Writing Life

I'm taking a little break this week from my Canary Isles Odyssey, mainly because I'm so obsessed with my Canary Isles novel, Orange Blossom Love, that I can't find creative space for very much else. Instead, I'm going to be writing about another obsession: lists. A recent excellent blog post by Laura Resnick all about the writing process and how we work as individuals (I can recommend it, especially if you've ever found yourself not so much 'blocked' as 'stuck') mentioned her liking for lists and I immediately thought 'that's me, too!'

I'm a compulsive list maker. A few years ago, I had a conversation with my lovely laid back sister-in-law, in which she mentioned, quite casually, that she 'never ever made lists.' It was my own response to this that fascinated me. I imagined doing without lists and instantly felt queasy. Then I felt a spasm of envy. Wouldn't it be nice, I thought, to be free from the tyranny of the list?  So I tried. I really did. I went cold turkey, tore up my lists. (Sneakily left them on my PC though, just in case.) I lasted about five days. Then panic set in. Just one little list, I thought. But you know how it is? One thing led to another and soon I was hooked, back in full list making mode again.

I sometimes go away for a few days and deliberately leave my lists behind. It's very liberating and I enjoy the break but I can only do it for so long and in specific places. My beloved Isle of Gigha is a pretty good place for doing without lists, a place where maƱana is a concept with altogether too much urgency about it. But once I get home, I'm back on them again.

Gigha: a good place for doing without lists.
On the other hand, list making may be a virtue rather than a vice. I'm so reliant on mine that I'm phased by people who - in a professional situation - seem to forget to do the urgent things while concentrating on the unimportant. Don't they ever make lists? Don't they know about organizing and prioritizing? Well, perhaps not. So in case you're a list making novice, and especially if you're a writer and a list making novice, let me give you a few tips from the depths (and believe me they are very deep) of my own experience.

One of our big problems as writers is that we often have an embarrassment of ideas, but don't know which to choose. Or we have said 'yes' to too many proposals and don't know which to work on first. Or we simply have too much to do and find ourselves trying to do everything at once, in a panic. We need to prioritize and the easiest way to do that is by means of a list. Or several lists. Ongoing, organic lists where nothing is fixed. And the easiest way to manage this is on your PC, because you can shift things around. Although I'm a compulsive printer-outer as well. I like to see my lists on paper! You should take a conscious decision to divide your lists into at least two kinds: work and life. If you try to amalgamate the two it will all go pear shaped. Writers love displacement activity and including 'mow the lawn' or (in my case, at the moment) 'sort out the flower pot mountain at the bottom of the garden' on the work list is inadvisable. Work lists are just that - professional projects which involve your business. And if nothing else, the list habit might encourage us all to be more businesslike.

First and foremost, I have a Mega List of planned projects. This includes all kinds of proposals and ideas, everything I may or may not be working on over the next few years, everything from the novel I'm working on right now to the tenuous ideas that intrigue me but may come to nothing. This is a long but fairly uncomplicated list, by the way. I keep detailed notes for each project, not just on the computer but in folders too. I'm paranoid that way. At the moment, my Mega List consists of brief descriptions of fiction, long and short, with one or two non-fiction projects. If I've promised an article to somebody, it might be on there too, but not blog posts like this one. They belong on a different list altogether. I revise the Mega List often and I use it mainly to prioritize but also to sort out my own thoughts about the work. The projects at the top of the list are what I'm working on right now. And they are important to me. The projects at the bottom of the list are interesting but non urgent. I may never work on them, and some of them will almost certainly fall right off the end but that's fine. If I grow bored with an idea, I shouldn't be working on it anyway. Also, outside factors will influence this list. If I find that I have a potential project which is pretty high on my list, and has suddenly become flavour of the year for reasons beyond my control, I can push it up the list. If I'm reluctant to do it, then that tells me something about my own commitment, so I'll think again. I will often add projected dates, but I do try to be realistic. And often - especially at the top of the list - there will be projects which I know will run in parallel with each other so this list will allow me to allocate time to each and to see where I'm overstretching myself. Most of all, this list allows me to focus, set some things aside but remember them and think about them from time to time. And sometimes, for no particular reason other than my own preoccupations, a project will leap over everything else and find itself at the top of the list.

Next is my Things to Do This Week list. 'This week' is a little ambitious, I'll admit. 'This month' would be a better title. This is also a work list, and again the trick is to be realistic in what you can achieve. (I give myself some very good advice but I don't always follow it!) And once more, you need to prioritize. At the top of mine, right now, is 'Short story proofs to be read and sent back' as well as 'Orange Blossom Love, onscreen revisions.' Everything else, including 'For God's sake do your tax returns' can be shuffled down the list a bit, because my accountant has gone on holiday for a few weeks. But he'll be back by the 21st July, so 'You have really GOT to do your tax returns' will probably be top of the list by the end of next week, and I'll bite the bullet and do them.

Finally, for work, I have a Today list and that really is all the things I need to do today in order of priority, including meetings, phonecalls etc. I sometimes allow other things to intrude on this list, but only if they're genuinely urgent and even then I always try to prioritize the work above the household tasks.

Because I sometimes sell antique textiles on eBay to help the budget along, I have an occasional 'Listings list' but the more I self publish, the less I trade on eBay and this is a fairly simple affair. Come October, though, when people turn to eBay for their linen tablecloths for the Thanksgiving or Christmas holiday seasons, as well as quirky gift items, it might grow longer and more complicated.

Besides these, I have a House list and a Garden list and a Shopping list. (I told you, I'm compulsive) The House list involves all the biggish jobs that need doing. This changes - sometimes it's in order of urgency and sometimes, like now, when I'm having a bit of a clear-out, it lists jobs from room to room. It's a very static list! The Garden list is always in order of priority. And yes, sorting out the pot mountain at the bottom of the garden is definitely top of that list. So is the weeding. But even with the weeds it's quite a pretty garden, so the garden list can run and run and run, like the bindweed.

The garden manages quite well on its own!

Recently, I introduced another list. Ever since I started self publishing, I've been uneasily aware that I should be wearing two hats: my publishing hat and my writing hat. My Mega List is a writing list. But this second big list is a sort of Promotion and Publicity list and at the moment, it's in the form of a dialogue with myself. What exactly do I write? What do I want out of the business? What do I want to work on right now? Can I market everything at once? (NO) What's the solution? This has turned out to be the most useful list of all. I don't know where the answers to those questions are coming from, but they have helped me to organize the publishing and promotion side of my business, balancing it with the need to spend the majority of my time on the writing. And it has influenced my Mega List in all kinds of unforeseen but useful ways.

Now it may sound as though I spend all my time writing lists, but I don't. Honestly! Once you've set this up, it only takes a few minutes each day (or the night before) to adjust the To Do Today list, while the Mega List and the Promotion List are only revised once a week - if that. Once a month would probably be enough.

The benefits are considerable - but only if you like lists! You don't forget urgent things. You consciously send non-urgent things to the bottom of the list and stop pretending you have to do them now and using them as displacement activity. You can clarify things in your own mind and get on with what you need to do first. Best of all, you can tick things off!

I do have a small confession to make. I have been known to write things on the list after I've done them, just so that I can have the satisfaction of marking them as done. But I suspect I'm not alone.

So go on, are you a list maker or not? If you are, what's your system? I'd love to know. Why not post a few of your own ideas below!











The Curiosity Cabinet: Where Did I Get My Ideas From?

Cover image by Alison Bell
A few days ago, just as I was thinking of writing this piece about The Curiosity Cabinet, I had an email  from friend and fellow writer Shirley Mitchell, who wondered if the 'cabinet' of the novel just might have been inspired by one of her children's stories, published some years ago, in which there was a 'curiosity cabinet'. As it happens, it wasn't, or not to my knowledge - but it very easily might have been and it would have been very nice if it was.

It's one of the most commonly asked questions when writers are giving talks and readings: 'where do you get your ideas from?'

You're always tempted to say things like  'Ideas R Us' or 'That big Scandinavian shop called Idea - they come in flat packs with free tea lights.'  But actually, it's a good question. The fact is that inspiration comes from a million different sources and it can be very hard in retrospect to figure out how the ideas all came together to make a novel.

With the Curiosity Cabinet, there were three very definite strands of inspiration, all of which collided in my head - and in the resulting novel. Four if you count the fact that I wrote it first as a trilogy of plays which were broadcast on BBC Radio 4.

Rachel Chiesley, the unfortunate Lady Grange

The idea began when I was in Edinburgh - probably when I was working on yet another radio play. The drama studios were in Edinburgh at that time. I went to an exhibition and learned about poor Rachel Chiesley, Lady Grange, who was 'kidnapped' from her home in the city in the early 18th century, and carried away to St Kilda, where she spent many desperate years in horrible isolation. There has since been an excellent book written about these events, The Prisoner of St Kilda by Margaret Macauley but at the time, I found myself piecing the sad story of Lady Grange together from various sources. What fascinated me about the story was the way in which the two cultures of Scotland, Highland and Lowland, were so very different, a difference which I had already found myself exploring in some detail when I dramatised Stevenson's Kidnapped and Catriona for Radio 4. I found myself thinking 'what if' - which is perhaps how all novels start. What if the person kidnapped was a young woman. What if she (and the readers) had absolutely no idea why she had been spirited away from everything she held dear? What if she had left a child behind? (I had a young son myself at the time.) Could she ever begin to adjust to her changed circumstances, to her changed surroundings? Could she ever change her perceptions of what seemed to her to be a savage place?

At the same time, though, another idea was fermenting away in my mind. I found myself visiting Glasgow's Burrell Collection on various occasions and it was invariably the needlework that drew me. I've loved antique and vintage textiles for as long as I can remember. My mum used to go to the saleroom and I used to go with her, but although she was mad about pottery and porcelain, I was fascinated by the textiles: the embroideries, the linens and lace. Still am.

When I visited the Burrell, therefore, I particularly loved the embroidered 'raised work' cabinets with their wonderful little scenes of all kinds: the figures and flowers, the birds and beasts and houses. I always found myself daydreaming about what it might be like to possess something like this, but also about the women who might have made them - and the objects they might have kept in them. The needlework pictures so often seemed to tell stories, to symbolise things which were important to the women who had so lovingly embroidered them. Not only that, but the very act of stitching seemed to me to imbue the resulting work with the emotion of the maker, quite as much as a painting or sculpture. Of course, these were not really 'curiosity cabinets'. Cabinets of Curiosities were usually masculine affairs, collections of rare and wonderful specimens of all kinds, shells, fossils, bones and the like. But the embroidered casket of my imagination was a very different kind of Cabinet of Curiosities. I saw it vividly in my mind's eye, full of a collection of fascinating objects: shells and feathers for sure, but also a number of personal possessions, stored away there for three hundred years. And in my imagination, I saw too that they were all women's things. In order to write the novel, I had to find out who those women were, and what was the story of the casket, The Curiosity Cabinet of the title. 


My third strand of inspiration was the Isle of Gigha. My husband first introduced me to this magical place. Many years previously, long before we met and married, Alan had been diving for clams off Gigha and the boat's engine had broken down. He and his brother-in-law, working together, had been 'rescued' by the islanders, who had offered them hospitality and engineering expertise in about equal measure. After we were married, and especially after our son was born, we went there often. It's still one of my favourite places in all the world. I even wrote a big history of the place called God's Islanders, very much a labour of love, published a few years ago by Birlinn.







So when I was thinking about a setting for The Curiosity Cabinet, and although the island in the novel is fictional, and could be any one of a number of small Hebridean islands, it was the Isle of Gigha with its white sands, its honeysuckle and foxgloves, its dazzling coconut scented whins that was always in my mind's eye.






Although the historical story in the trilogy of radio plays - the tale of Henrietta Dalrymple and Manus McNeill - is more or less the same, the present day tale is very different. I was never satisfied with that aspect of the radio trilogy and when I came to write the novel, it took off in quite different directions. I decided that I wanted to write two parallel love stories - one set in the past and one in the present. This was never going to be a conventional 'time slip' novel and although there are suggestions of the supernatural in it they are very subtle indeed and never overt. I suppose what I was aiming for was a suggestion that sometimes the past might just possibly influence, or might be worked out in the present. Or then again not! Without imbuing the whole thing with some kind of spurious Celtic twilight - I still wanted to illustrate the feeling you occasionally get on these Hebridean Islands, the vague sense that you are in a 'thin' place where the boundaries between this world and another are so fine that sometimes you can see through them. But all the same, I wanted it to be real. And in order to make it and keep it real, I had to pare it down as far as I possibly could, but still keep it involving and sensuous. 


When an American reviewer, Lorissa K Evans, wrote of the US Kindle editionthat 'the writing ,,, is so tight you could bounce a quarter off of it' I was delighted.

I submitted the final draft of the novel for the Dundee Book Prize. It turned out to be one of three books shortlisted that year, and was published by Polygon in Edinburgh. Feedback and reviews were excellent. A lot of people seemed to enjoy it and the edition sold out. Eventually, the rights reverted to me and since I was seriously considering indie-publishing by that stage in my career, it was one of my first ventures on Amazon Kindle where it seems to have had a whole new lease of publishing life. My friend, Scottish textile artist Alison Bell, gave me the new eBook cover image as a very beautiful gift.

You can download it here in the UK and here in the USA. One of the nicest and most perceptive reviews so far has been by Hilary Ely, on Vulpes Libris It's so lovely when a reader completely understands what you were trying to say in a novel and why you were telling the story in the way you did. There's no feeling quite like it!

Catherine Czerkawska
www.wordarts.co.uk

If you're curious about the story, interested in Scotland, especially small Hebridean islands and fancy some holiday reading with a difference, The Curiosity Cabinet will be free to download on Amazon Kindle for three days,17th, 18th and 19th of July. 


The original Manus McNeill?