About Me

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I write well researched but readable historical and contemporary novels and some non-fiction. I live in a Scottish country cottage with my artist husband. I love gardening and I also collect the fascinating antique textiles that often find their way into my fiction. This blog is about all these things and more!

Saturday, June 13, 2015

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. 

























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