I remember the paraffin lamp, ready for lighting, floating in a pool of oil, and the reflectors surrounding it in layers of twinkling glass. The sun shone through convex glass panes; the sea below was like the wrinkly silver-blue paper you got round teacakes. And the land? My memory lets me down - was it in Mull, Cumberland or Devon? Looking at my mother’s diaries, it could have been any of them. But at some point in the early 1950s I climbed the winding stairs - in my mind now they are painted red - of a tall white lighthouse. There was the paraffin lamp, with its layered reflectors, and there was the twinkling sea outside. I decided to become a lighthouse keeper when I grew up, preferably on an uninhabited island. (This was one up on the first ambition I can remember, which was to sit by a coal brazier in a little wooden hut in Bromley car park, selling car park tickets through a slot in the window.)
About fifty years later I attended a conference on the Literature of Small Islands at the Centre for Manx Studies on the Isle of Man. Browsing in the local history section in Douglas library, I discovered that an Act of 1815 assigned the construction and administration of Manx lights to the Commissioners of Northern Lights in Edinburgh, and not to Trinity House in London. So Manx lightkeepers had been Scots... (Later I met some of their descendants, and heard their stories.) I scented a story in the clear Manx air… I re-read a book I’d bought in a secondhand bookshop in Lansing, Michigan: Women Who Kept the Lights. In North America, lighthouse keepers were often women. In Britain, neither the Commissioners for Northern Lights nor Trinity House employed women, but women did keep private lights sometimes; for example there was once a woman lighthouse keeper on Little Cumbrae. My story began to grow.
The Centre for Manx Studies (part of the University of Liverpool) kindly hosted me for a semester early in 2005. It was a delightful place to work. Colleagues helped me with Manx language and history. I borrowed Breesha Maddrell’s name for one of my characters, and her father Alex, once coxswain of the Port St Mary lifeboat, helped me work out all the sea voyages I needed. One day he said, “I have to show you what it can be like out there on a bad day.” He played his DVD, filmed from the lifeboat. Watching it, while sitting over coffee and homemade cakes in the Maddrells’ comfortable sitting room, I began to feel distinctly queasy, even though I’m usually fine at sea. In Castletown (pictured in the C19 above), another new friend, Celia Salisbury Jones, had me to stay several times; her fascinating house on the Parade plays a key role in the book.
My original plan was to set my lighthouse story on the Calf of Man, but when I stayed there, and researched its history, it simply had too much real history to accommodate my fiction. So, I raised the Chicken Rocks (pictured right) into a habitable island, very small, but with its own private light. Although imaginary, my island is geologically correct, appropriate for a geological stratum within the novel. Archie, the lighthouse surveyor, has just read the first volume of Lyall’s Principles of Geology. He is now (1831) serving his notice with the Stevenson engineers, as in September he is due to sail as a supernumerary on HMS Beagle, on a voyage of scientific exploration in South America.
The lighthouse on the fictional island of Ellan Bride is to be superseded by a new Stevenson light. Two surveyors are sent to do the preliminary survey. In the Map Department of the National Library of Scotland, one can study the original drawings and maps made by Stevenson’s surveyors, signed and dated, from Cape Wrath southwards. Original documents are so loaded with significance. As with the Quaker minutes in Carlisle, or the bills of lading from Saulte Ste Marie, used in Voyageurs, I thought, “This is the paper they handled, these are the lines they wrote with their own hands.” Our world is so filled with facsimiles, it’s so easy to lose that feeling.
I wrote the first draft of Light on a residency at the Bogliasco Foundation, near Genoa. I could describe the changing colours and moods of the sea simply by looking out of my window as I sat at my desk (left). Sometimes it looked a bit more like the Irish sea than it does in the picture.
I needed to get to as many uninhabited islands with lighthouses as I could. Typing in ‘Sule Skerry’, up popped Halton - converted fishing boat; skipper Bob Anderson. He put me on to the Sule Skerry Ringing Group, who chartered Halton (pictured right, off North Rona) every summer. The group had been ringing birds on Sule Skerry since the 1970s, and they kindly agreed to have me along. I thought my contribution would be mainly washing up, but I was initiated into the amazing world of bird ringing.
I am not a qualified bird ringer, but I have, under supervision, ringed a puffin. I’ve pitched my tent on Sule Skerry, and lain listening to the puffins in their burrows all around me, murmuring away as if they knew all the gossip in the world. I’ve had to shoo inquisitive puffins out of my tent. I’ve seen a pod of killer whales circling the island, hunting the seals. I’ve looked down from the bows of a Zodiac boat, and seen the white belly and open jaw of a basking shark just below. I’ve helped set up mist nets at night, and carried the stormy petrels (left) and Leach’s petrels up to the ringing hut, and written notes which the ringers dictated to me.
Best of all, it was my job to release the petrels after they’d been ringed. You think when you let go, the tiny birds will drop, but no, they leap from one’s open hands and fly upwards into the dark.
With the ringers, we visited Sula Stack, ringed petrels on North Rona, went in a Zodiac through the cave tunnels under Sula Sgeir, and had four perfectly fine days on St Kilda. In Halton, we circumnavigated all the St Kilda islands and stacks. I’ve had days alone on many uninhabited islands, as Bob would always put me ashore when there was a chance. On the Monachs I was so desperate to get to the lighthouse that I got myself marooned by the tide, to my shame, on Shivinish, and Angus had to rescue me in the Zodiac. I had days on every one of the Shiant islands. I was in the Zodiac when Bob and Angus landed on Duslic skerry in a flat calm off Cape Wrath. That incident, along with many others, went straight into Light. Total cliché: but those days on Halton were among the happiest of my life.
The Map of Ellan Bride
The imaginary island of Ellan Bride is situated on the existing Chicken Rocks off the Isle of Man. Geologically the locations are plausible. So too are the flora and fauna. The map of Ellan Bride is a pastiche of a surveyor’s map from the early 19th century.
You can view the map in more detail by clicking on it and keying 'Command' and '+'
OR you can download a pdf of the map by clicking this icon >>
Published by Canongate, Edinburgh. 2006
ISBN 978 1 84195 805 7
Light is one of three of Margaret Elphinstone's novels which feature islands, reflecting her fascination with the subject. In Waylaid by Islands, published in the November 2007 edition of The Bottle Imp she recounts her enthusiasm for islands real and imagined.
The Globe & Mail (Toronto)
"If you are looking for a fast read, a wild plot, action-packed adventure, stay away from this book. It's as old-fashioned as the time in which it is set. It is slow and beautiful. 'Meandering' comes to mind. In 421 pages, Elphinstone covers only three days. The island glows poetically with beauty and wildness.
"This is a challenging novel because of its length and detail. But it is well worth the challenge. If you have time to sit quietly and concentrate, you will benefit greatly from immersing yourself in the strange culture of lighthouse keeping and in such an interesting time."
Booklist - USA
"In this moving depiction of a close-knit family learning to navigate overwhelming change, Elphinstone also brings alive the stark beauty of the island through her graceful, finely detailed descriptions of the wildlife and landscape."
"Ultimately, though, all facts can do is stitch a picture of the past together: they can't make it live. For that you need a sense of character, of how people will act in unpredictable situations. In Light, Elphinstone's handling of subjective reality is as assured as her control of the objective, historical world. Outwardly, little might seem to happen in the meeting between the men from the world beyond the island and the women of Ellan Bride. Inwardly, emotional landslides are ready to happen.
"As the two women go about their daily chores, Buchanan's survey of the island proceeds apace. tensions slowly rise. Through his telescope we chart its cliffs and contours; with his chains, we measure eveything on it that needs measuring. What he can never calibrate - family love, hope, remorse - is the real subject of the novel.
"Buchanan is a rationalist, about to join the Beagle voyage, and he's already got his doubts about creationism. 'If an island could be invented in the space of a night,' he tells the beautiful Deya, 'that would indeed be a miracle.' He's right about that, but if there's any miracle involved, it's not God's but Elphinstone's."
SFGate - USA
"She bestows on all her characters strengths and flaws, creating a remarkably convincing reality.....Through the vehicles of these complex adults and children, of what they see and feel and love, Elphinstone conveys the ache of loss while balancing it with hope. Her ending is no simple wrap-up in which everyone lives happily ever after. In fact, Lucy will be standing in the lighthouse once more in the closing pages. She will have gone nowhere yet, but in the past few days, seen much further than the beam of light reaching across dark water."
"Margaret Elphinstone weaves a sparkling adventure from a few strands of (almost) fact in Light . The hugely inventive Elphinstone takes a fictitious islet off the Isle of Man as the pretext for an 1830s-set yarn that fuses history and fantasy into an exuberantly clever romp, swathed in the mist and spray of northern seas."
Scotland on Sunday
"Elphinstone's tiny island of Ellan Bride, off the Isle of Man, is so well described, with even the inclusion of a hand-drawn map at the beginning of the novel, that it's a shock to realise that this is all a product of the author's fertile imagination and months of research.
"The novel is shaped, as is Woolf's To the Lighthouse, something like a musical sonata; the opening and closing sections featuring two men in a boat (exposition and recapitulation) frame the main body of the novel (development).
"Some of the most beautiful writing in this multi-viewpoint novel is seen through the eyes of the young; Mally, Diya's daughter, devastated by the news that the family will have to leave the only home she's ever known, stands on the beach with her mother where 'she knew, for absolute certain, that she'd remember this moment - the shining sky, the dark outline of her mother's head, the sun-touched cliffs of Hamarr, the circling puffins and the gleaming tower'. Which of us hasn't, at some point in our childhoods, had these vivid, shocking moments of clarity forgotten and then recalled decades later?
"Elphinstone's use of analogy is breathtaking: as hope fades and the family accept that they are soon to be evicted from their island, Mally stands on the beach with her mother and looks down 'as a bigger wave swirled around their feet. It made white lace-like patterns on the sand. Then it went away, and the lace-marks soaked away and vanished'".
"Like the surveyor, Elphinstone loves detail and accuracy. She builds her story of Ellan Bride and its tiny population from the rock upwards. The island is meticulously imagined, every place named and known, as if Elphinstone has climbed those cliffs herself, thrust her leather-clad hand into a puffin hole to catch her dinner, brought a yawl into the landing stonne, planted apple trees against a southern wall, shielded young vegetables from the sea wind and polished the lighthouse mirrors until they reflect eight miles out to sea..........Elphintone's research is so beautifully absorbed that the island just lives."
Scottish Review of Books
"Margaret Elphinstone has hit on a perennial theme: the demands of Progress in opposition to the feelings and indeed the lives of those who obstruct its path. It is a good subject, that can be seen in a different form in, for instance, Iain Crichton Smith's fine novel of the Clearnaces, Consider the Lilllies; and it is a measure of Margaret Elphinstone's success that her novel doesn't suffer in the comparison. Its success lies in the thoroughness with which she has imagined her characters and in her ability to animate them - to make the argument immediate and personal, so that the reader is anxious about the outcome, engaged in the narrative. This is no mean achievement.
"It's a solid dramatic novel, in many ways old-fashioned in the manner of, say, George Blake or AJ Cronin - and none the worse for that."
"...Elphinstone knows how to pen a tattling good read......
"As someone who has worked on lighthouses, I was struck by the accuracy of some of the detail. The dodgy business of getting from a small boat on to a landing rock at low tide, for instance....the endless routine of never letting the light go out. The endless noise of the kittiwakes, guillemots, puffins, gulls, razorbills and shags."
"Another bold step forward for a ‘traditional’ writer who seldom fails to make the long-ago and faraway seem as near as the matter of our own everyday lives.”