Melissa Bailey from The Prime Writers explains how she researched history and mythology of the Scottish Islands in order to write her second novel.
My second novel, Beyond the Sea, is set in the Hebrides – a place that I am familiar with but have never lived – and moves between the twenty first and the seventeenth centuries. It tells the story of Freya, a year after her husband and son vanish at sea, and her return to the lighthouse keeper’s cottage on the tiny island where she and her family lived. Her narrative is punctuated with Edward’s – a Cromwellian soldier despatched to battle in the Hebrides in 1653, his sense of isolation and alienation mirroring Freya’s.
So a great deal of research was necessary. Fortunately, research is one of my favourite parts of the writing process and I do lots and lots of it before I even think about putting pen to paper. My obsession with it, apart from a passion for the detail, is fuelled by a desire to render the world of the book as accurately as possible. Clearly this was of paramount importance when dealing with the historical plotline, but I knew I also needed to deepen my knowledge and understanding of the area in which the whole novel was set.
Freya’s story came to me first and I began by reading articles and books (primary and secondary sources) on the Scottish islands – to capture a precise sense of place and people. The history of the Hebrides is rich and dangerous, inextricably bound to its proximity to the sea. I read accounts by lighthouse keepers of the harsh realities of tending the light, of isolation, fear, depression and madness. I unearthed stories of whisky high jackings and buried treasure, letters, sealed in wooden boxes, which had been floated on the tides from St Kilda to the Outer Hebrides.
There were many accounts of storms and shipwrecks. One in particular stayed with me. The Swan, a small warship, was despatched by Cromwell to the Hebrides in 1653, to suppress the royalist uprisings. During a violent storm on 13 September, the Swan was ripped from its anchor and smashed against rocks, sinking in The Sound of Mull. Two other ships in the Swan’s flotilla, The Speedwell and the Martha and Margaret, also sank during the storm, but there are no records of their final resting places and few about those that were lost. I began to think about the forgotten men aboard these ships – who they were, the bloody conflict they had seen, the hopes and regrets they carried with them. It was from these gaps in the historical record that Edward’s narrative was borne.
I’m a huge fan of legends and fairy tales – they are narratives that explain ancient cultures, their customs and rituals – and in the western islands of Scotland there are many myths of the sea that I have long been familiar with. They find their origins perhaps in the restlessness of the ocean currents, but are then transformed into stories of the Blue Men, who seek to sink ships in the perilous waters of the Minch, or the Maid of the Waves, who, like the tides, protect and curse in equal, fickle measure. The stories are colourful, demonstrating the acceptance of the supernatural in the everyday and I wanted that to fit just as naturally into my novel – mermaids, sea fairies and seal-folk, the magical Green Island hidden in the west, where the spirit of spring resides. I really enjoyed revisiting these stories of my childhood and interweaving some of this mythology into my own writing.
I made a number of visits to the Hebrides whilst I was writing Beyond the Sea. For me, nothing quite beats immersing yourself fully in the world of your novel – experiencing the omnipresent smell and taste of the sea on the air, the weather worn smoothness of the rocky mountains, the unexpected blasts of colourful machair. And wherever you are in the Hebrides, you are never far from the voice of the restless, ever shifting ocean. I made recordings of it in different weather and moods so that I wouldn’t forget exactly what it sounded like.
I visited the Isle of Mull (on which some of the action of Beyond the Sea is set), not only to steep myself in the general atmosphere, but, more specifically, so that I could take the journeys by road and sea that Freya takes in the book – and more accurately describe them than by having studied them on Google Maps. I went to Knockvologan on the south of the island, waited until low tide, and then crossed the exposed white sand beaches of the tidal island of Erraid (the setting for Robert Louis Stevenson’s Kidnapped). I trekked past the now abandoned lighthouse keepers’ cottages and tried to imagine what it would be like to live on a tiny island like this, isolation complete when the sea rolled back in.
I made another trip to the Isle of Skye so that I could visit Neist Point lighthouse, the one on which I modelled the lighthouse in Beyond in Sea. Perched on the most westerly outcrop of Skye, its remoteness is complete. After that visit, I drew a map of Freya’s fictional island, the lighthouse at the northernmost point on the high rocks, the shingle beaches to the south. This map remained on the wall of the room where I wrote the novel, providing an anchor for me in Freya’s world.
The internet is a fantastic research tool and I found out so much useful information from websites, Wikipedia, YouTube, Pinterest etc. I learned the rudiments of how to drive a boat and found the exact locations of many shipwrecks including the Swan.
While I was researching the experiences of lighthouse keepers, I came across a wonderful recording by an old keeper, Billy Frazer, who had been stationed at the much feared Dubh Artach – a lighthouse built upon an isolated black rock south of Mull, and which features in Beyond the Sea. In it he recounts the everyday challenges of life at the lighthouse, and his face-to-face encounter with what all keepers fear – ‘the big wave’. Again, some of this information made it into the book.
Films, exhibitions, books
While I’m writing I never really stop researching. I’m always looking for inspiration from outside sources – whether that is films, exhibitions or novels written on similar subjects or in the same geographical area. I watched Macbeth (2015) partly filmed on Skye, amidst the strange and stunning scenery of the Quiraing. It helped me tap into that wild landscape and changeable weather once more. I went to a Viking exhibition at the British Museum where I saw for the first time the elaborate silver necklaces known as Permian rings and learned about how the Vikings buried their dead. Both of these things can be found in Beyond the Sea.
Of course, huge amounts of my research never made it into the novel – quite rightly. It’s important to remember that however fascinating I find it all, it won’t all be relevant and the reader won’t want to know it. But my objective is that its flavour infuses the whole world of the novel and makes it a more authentic place for my characters to inhabit.