By Anna Mazzola
Writers are forever being asked where they get their ideas from. For me, it is often a vague notion of the sort of book I want to write, combined with a real case. For my second novel I knew I wanted to create a dark fairy tale. In my reading I came across a case from the 1880s, in which a number of young girls vanished from the slums of East London. One of them, Eliza Carter, returned briefly before her final disappearance to tell her friends that the fairies had kidnapped her and forbidden her to return home.
Rather than write a book based on the real case, as I had done with my first novel, I decided to shift it away from London and turn it into my own dark fairy tale involving spirits that take the form of birds. I needed a country where many people in the 19th century still believed in fairies and folklore, a place steeped in magic and with a rich oral history. When I visited Skye with its eerie landscape, history of cleared people and stolen stories I knew I had found the right place.
Bleak and beautiful
Skye is the second largest of Scotland’s islands, a 50-mile-long stretch of knife-edged mountains, glinting lochs, velvet moors, and perilous sea cliffs. It is sublime, but also strange: largely treeless, and marked by the homes of the crofting communities who were evicted during the Highland Clearances and sent on boats to Canada, America, Australia.
Researching the story world
Historical fiction is much like fantasy fiction; you have to create a world that readers can believe in. For The Story Keeper, that meant learning as much about Skye as I could. I read about the history of the island, of the Clearances, of the Gaelic language and of the folklore – the fireside stories that Audrey, the protagonist in The Story Keeper, is tasked with collecting. I spent time at the Skye and Lochalsh Archive Centre where the wonderful staff helped me locate census records, 19th century maps, and photographs of stern-faced police officers and black-robed clergymen.
The written records only tell so much. There was very little to show how the islanders would have spoken, or what their daily lives entailed. Most of the accounts were written by rich Englishmen on a jolly jaunt to the Hebrides, who were appalled at the squalor in which the crofting people lived. Not much remains of the crofters’ own experience of island life.
There are nuggets to be found, however. I read letters sent home by those who had been cleared: stories of children taken with fever on the boats; of sea burials and sea weddings; of hopes for a better future.
I read the reports of the Napier Commission, the inquiry into the conditions of crofters and cottars. Her you get a glimpse of how islanders spoke - ‘I am a Skyeman to my backbone’; ‘a little pimple of a woman’ - and learn of the effects of the Clearances. Witnesses used the word ‘scattered’ again and again:
‘How many brothers had you?’
‘We were six altogether.’
‘What became of the other five?’
‘They have scattered. Some of them are hereabouts, and as for the rest I cannot tell where they are.’
Walking the land
Most useful of all was the land itself, the atmosphere. The main setting is Broadford, the island's second biggest village in the 19th century, where the cattle market took place and where a lime kiln operated.
Beann na Caillich (The Hill of the Old Woman) looks down on a beautiful bay, on the edge of which, at Irishman’s Point, I situated Lanerly, the mansion home of my reclusive folklorist, Miss Buchanan. In the bay beneath the house Audrey finds the body of a young girl and sees a cloud of strange black birds.
I stayed in a little cabin just by the bay, watching for eagles and otters, puffins and seals. I felt the wind rock the cabin as the storms came in. I wrote more in one weekend than I had in weeks. I also went out walking and running to the underground cairn, where a wrist-guard of green stone had been found. And to Skulamus and Breakish, stunning landscapes where crofting communities once lived.
The cleared coast - Suisnish and Boreraig
One Sunday I set out to walk all the way to the ghost village of Suisnish, a journey that Audrey herself makes to find the dead girl’s uncle. I passed a ruined church on the road to Elgol and walked along the Marble Line, the route of a railway that once ran between Broadford and a series of marble quarries.
For a Londoner used to constant noise – cars, sirens, humans – it is quite something to walk for miles in a place where there is only the wind over the red grass, the chirruping of tiny birds, the bleating of sheep and the murmur of the sea. Eventually, I reached the stone houses at Suisnish which stand as memorial to the people who were cleared to make way for sheep.
Skeleton of a strange beast
The other key location in The Story Keeper is the Quiraing: a spectacular and strange landscape formed by a landslip, which created high cliffs, hidden plateaus and sharp needles of rock. Here, Audrey is told, her mother slipped and fell, many years before. But when she returns and she sees the place for herself, she begins to wonder whether it was simple as that, or whether something else was at work.
And here comes perhaps the most peculiar part of my research: contacting walking companies and mountain rescue teams to find out from which cliffs and mountains in Skye people had fallen. This is the kind of odd thing writers do. In fact, it turned out that no one had fallen from the Quiraing, at least not in recent years. So you’re safe to go walking there; in fact, I’d highly recommend it. Just watch out for clouds of black birds.
Anna Mazzola is a writer of historical crime fiction and, probably due to some fault of her parents, is drawn to peculiar and dark historical subjects. Her debut novel, The Unseeing, was published to critical acclaim in 2016. Her second novel, The Story Keeper, a gothic tale about a collector of folklore and missing girls on 19th century Skye, was published in July 2018. She studied English at Pembroke College, Oxford, before accidentally becoming a human rights and criminal justice solicitor. She lives in South London with two small children, two cats and one husband.
All photographs courtesy of Anna Mazzola.