I’ve spent a lot of time this week with the ever-so-lovely Finlay McLeod (Fionnlaigh, to his Gaelic-speaking friends, and Fin to his English-speaking friends). He’s a gorgeous man, prone to fits of melancholy. An islander who struggled for years to settle on the mainland, he eventually succumbed to the tug of home and returned to the Isle of Lewis, the northernmost island of the Outer Hebrides which lie off the coast of Scotland.
From the pen of Peter May, Fin is the main character in a trilogy set in Ness, on the Isle of Lewis. Through his eyes we get a picture of life as it was and is on the Scottish islands. We witness the powerful stronghold of the protestant church. A church that chained the swings in the playground so that kids could not use them on Sundays. A church that forbade women going to the grave site to bury their men. A church, like many other churches, rife with hypocrisy and made even more polemic by rebellious teenagers and young men and women who, desperate to throw off the yoke of their inherited beliefs, went wild only to get the curam later in life and return to the church more devout that their parents ever were. Like reformed smokers, their zeal was unmatched.
The first novel – The Black House – is a wonderful depiction of the islands, the scenic beauty, and the chasm that existed between those bright enough to leave the island for mainland universities in Glasgow or Edinburgh and those left behind in dead-end jobs, fighting to make a living. May is an artist who uses words as paint. His vivid descriptions were powerful enough to transport me in my mind’s eye to the barren Scottish land and leave me with a yearning to go see for myself. The so-called black houses were not, as I had thought, a literal description of smoke-filled stone cottages, blackened by years of open fires and poor ventilation, but rather a contrast with the white houses built in later years for occupancy by people only.
The second – The Lewis Man – sheds light on that terrible phenomenon: homers. Designed to rid the big cities (Glasgow, Paisley and Edinburgh) of children from poor and homeless families, the ‘boarding-out’ of children has its roots in Victorian times. Many were sent to live in the Highlands and Islands, more still went further afield, to Canada. Put to work in the fields, tending sheep, harvesting seaweed, or working the boats, this indentured servitude continued to the 1960s. The fates of the homers varied considerably. There was no such thing as vetting potential surrogate parents – suitability was not an issue. May weaves a story of intrigue that shows a remarkable sensitivity for the traditions of the islands and its people and brings to life the sense of despair and hopelessness in which poverty is rooted.
The final in the series – The Chessmen – is perhaps the most powerful of the three, exploring as it does the roots of friendship and loyalty, of family relationships, and of obligations that pass beyond the grave. It is here that Fin comes into his own. By now, in my head, we were friends – good friends. We’d travelled a long road together and I so wanted to be able to sit and talk to him, to unravel his thoughts. I wanted to be on that beach, bracing myself against the sea air, or walking the cliffs, fighting to stay upright in the gale-force winds, or watching the moon at night as it settled over the lochs. I wanted to witness a bog burst – where heavy rainfall can lead to the disappearance of a lake as the water breaks through the peat bed and drains to a lake below. I wanted to fish for wild salmon, to hear mass in Gaelic, to walk the fells.
May’s deft inclusion of the Iolaire disaster in 1919 in which some villages lost ALL of their menfolk, lends the novel a credibility that makes Fin and his life even more real. To think that the first book in this trilogy was turned down by all major UK publishers beggars belief. The Blackhouse was first published in France as L’lle des Chasseurs d’Oiseaux where it was rightly hailed as a masterpiece.
This week, I am truly grateful for my love of reading and for those authors whose ability to paint pictures with words transports me to other worlds from the comfort of my couch. I can’t begin to imagine how soulless and empty my life would be without books. If you read nothing else this year, read the Lewis Trilogy.
Note: For a reminder of what the Grateful series is about, check out Grateful 52.
Photos ‘borrowed’, with thanks, from www.isle-of-lewis.com