"The circus clangs on, over the hill and out of sight. I’m standing in the road, among the litter and horse shit and scuffed-up dust. White dust settles on chicory and hawthorn. The birds resume their singing. The sun is warm on my back. I can breathe again."
I used that image of a dusty road a few years ago. But when the circus passes you, and the noise dies away, you walk on more slowly. There’s time to look around you at the trees and fields and hedgerows, and notice what’s happening. There’s time to watch birds and bees and butterflies, and notice how few there are, compared with the way they once were. You’ve let the circus go by, and for a while all is peaceful, but on this road there’s no turning back. Your misgivings mount - where is this road actually leading?
Writing for change
I began to write again because changes I’d known about for decades were suddenly accelerating. Human beings are now hurtling towards the long-threatened tipping point - we may already have passed it - when climate change, pollution and species extinction combine to bring our history to a shameful ending. We human beings did this. It may be too late to prevent the cascade of consequences that takes these changes well out of technological control. Or there may yet be time to stabilise ecosystems enough for some lives to continue, albeit diminished in quality and variety. Either way, I’d rather go down fighting for the lives of my grandchildren, everyone else’s gradndchildren, and all the other lives with which our species shares this planet. Alone, I can’t make a particle of difference, but I‘m not alone. The zeitgeist is changing, and many of us are trying to turn aside from the wide road that’s leading us to a very bitter end.
I spent much of my adult life writing novels. It was wonderful while it lasted, but there isn’t time for that now. I’m getting older, and the culture I belong to, which for most of my life has appeared (deceptively) to be unusually stable, is breaking up. This may be the ending of all empires, or just the end of an old song, but we’re certainly living through an ending, and whether regeneration is possible remains to be seen.
And so I begin to write after a ten year gap. In that ten years I’ve been watching other lives in a small corner of rural Scotland. I’ve watched how other species, plant and animal. live through the seasons and the years. I’ve observed how the landscape changes. I’ve seen how new tchnologies arrive, and how native species of birds and butterflies decline faster than I could have imagined possible. I’ve thought about the history of this place. I’ve considered my own ancestry too: how eclectic it is, how displaced, and how far removed from any indigenous sense of belonging. I’ve reflected on my good fortune in having a loving family, and a preponderance of other species who shared the landscapes I called ‘home’. What impact have all these things had upon my ideeology, for what I regard as ‘normal’?
For a decade I have taken time to think. I’d decided to let the circus go by, but I didn’t guess where that would lead next. I’ve been what people call an environmental actvist, albeit a fairly supine one at times, most of my life. But having the conversation isn’t always the same thing as confronting the reality. Now we have to face the truth.
Now I need to support the young people who lead the way in speaking truth directly to power. Now I need to say ‘Not in My Name’ more loudly than I have ever done before. I expected that there would be more adventures still to come, but I didn’t expect that they would mean doing this.
Ten years of silence were a lead-in to writing about this. I can bear witness to what I’ve observed, and bring my tuppence-worth to the debate. Alone, I have nothing to say, but I can be part of a collective voice of protest that may, even now, make a difference. I don’t believe that our species can change course without creating new narratives to live by. The old stories - so familiar that we accept them as simply the way things are - have failed us. We need new narratives that push the boundaries of what we think is real or possible. We need to see our world and ourselves in a different light, and change direction. Many people - artists, scientists, writers, storytellers of every kind - are weaving the new narratives we need. This is a co-operative effort. Competition, isolation, hierarchy and personal acclaim are obsolete. This is about re-connecting with each other and the other lives on earth which we have oppressed and plundered for so long. Such a change may seem terribly unlikely, but unlikely things have happened before.
What I am writing
I’m writing essays about our connection with the earth and the other lives that share the planet with us. I’m also writing about ancestry, inheritance and family: the beloved people and traditions to which I belong, whose collective history has brought us to this pass. The third strand (I think of them as woven together in a plait) is memoir - not all about me (boring), but about the world in which I found myself, beginning as a post-WWII baby, and ending as a grandmother whose descendents face a terrifying future.
I hope that what I write will be read and resonate with others. I’m just one small voice among many. This isn’t about resuming a career. It’s about what I think needs to be said, and not just by me. We need action more than words now, and I’m up for that. But words are what I do, so here they are.
‘Speaking to the Animals About the Hunt’ TedX Talk, Findhorn, October 5th 2017
‘The Blue Sail’ in An Anthology to celebrate the Tenth Anniversary of the Scottish Writers’ Centre (Biggar: Red Squirrel Press 2018)
‘The Lie of the Land’ Kosmos Spring Quarterly 2019
‘The Tree that Danced’ in Bella Caledonia May 2019
‘Voices From the Silence’ in A Necessary Fiction Robert Witcher & Daniel Van Helden (Eds.) (London, Routledge 2019)
‘Rewilding Who We Are’. Dark Mountain. Spring 2020
Reflections - 2016
Some of the happiest and most interesting chapters of my life have been those I spent writing historical fiction. I have loved being in pursuit of an idea, letting it develop into a story, and following the thread until I can see the whole pattern. I have never quite known what it will turn out to be.
Sometimes it has quite literally been a voyage of discovery. I have followed my characters by sea and land, usually in more comfort than they experienced in whatever past time they inhabited, but still in a fairly minimalist way for a C20 and C21 traveller. Whether I am writing about Viking explorers in Vinland, Quakers in the War of 1812 between Canada and the United States, early lighthouse keepers, or Mesolithic hunter gatherers, I have tried as far as possible to literally follow in their footsteps. My travels also involved forays into libraries and archives, both near and far from home. They involved talking to people about the places they lived in, their ancestors and their own inherited skills and knowledge.
Sometimes I tried to do what my characters had to do, just to see how it felt, whether it was making a boat, climbing a mountain, or looking at the world from one particular spot. I’ve been very lucky to be able to do the thing I most wanted to do. I wouldn’t have missed a moment of it.
Most of my writing has been done in solitude. I’ve written at home, and on my travels. I have sought out peace and quiet, in remote places such as lighthouses, and occasionally (a luxury) on writers’ retreats.
When a book has come out I have done my best to promote it. I’m not good at it; the very thought of networking makes me feel sick, and I’ve been known to run away from literary parties. I don’t like big book events; I find them angst-ridden and stressful.
The best festivals I’ve been to are the small Scottish ones: Shetland, Orkney, Ullapool, Islay, Colonsay, Lismore, Wigtown… places like that. Writers and punters meet in a small, friendly community and there isn’t a lot of hype. (On the left I am enjoying a small-scale tour of the Isle of Man after the publication of Light.)
I wrote my first novel Islanders in the winter of 1979 when I was living at Northbanks (right), on the Shetland island of Papa Stour. I describe the writing of Islanders in my account of my early novels.
My first published story came out in Chapman in 1985, and my first novel was published by The Women’s Press in 1987.
A few years later I went to meet Walter Cairns at the Scottish Arts Council, who told me that as a Scottish writer I might apply for a grant to give me time to write. I had no idea such a thing existed, but I can honestly say it changed the course of my life. If success is being independent, solvent and happy, then the grant I received to travel in Iceland (left) and Greenland, and discover more about the Norse world, was the start I needed to become an established writer of historical fiction.
The 1980s were a very different world as far as publishing went. Sometimes new writers ask me now how to get started, and I have to say I am out of date, I don’t know what you do now.
On occasion readers ask if it is easy to live by writing; I’d say it depends on how much you need. I always had a part-time job; I had two children to support. In the early years I worked mostly as a home help and gardener. In 1990, on the strength of my published writing, I accidentally slid into academia by a back door, which I think is no longer possible. I had never thought of teaching before, but I found I liked it, and this led directly into my later work with emerging writers and writers’ groups.
University employment gave me opportunities for secondments: I wrote two novels while working at Central Michigan University; a very productive time among friendly colleagues who appreciated my work. A further semester of writing took place, courtesy of the University of Liverpool, on the Isle of Man. In both Michigan and the Isle of Man I recaptured some of the adventure and freedom of Papa Stour. However, I have found that on the whole the lower the conventional status of a job, the more conducive it is to writing (and often the more worthwhile). Those who employed me as home help or gardener were generally a pleasure to work for. Alone, I could immerse myself in physical work, and my mind could roam freely.
It is kind of people to ask what I’m writing these days. If the question makes me impatient it’s not their fault. My most recent novel, The Gathering Night was published in 2009. If Canongate are holding their breath waiting for the next one, they’ve not said so recently. I have decided not to join the circus, and my life is outside the public domain.
I still do events when the request interests me. I like meeting readers in an informal setting (such as the Dark Mountain Festival, right, or at Durhamhill events in Galloway, below). I like taking workshops and residential courses occasionally because I’m interested in how and what other people write. It pleases me to think there is a community of writers, and certainly none of us could write what we do if there were not other writers who had gone before us, and who are around us now.
I didn’t expect to continue a line of work in mentoring and taking workshops. I had the strange experience of planning to write a novel, and then realising it wasn’t right, I wasn’t going to do it. Shortly afterwards a younger Scottish writer asked me to be her mentor. Her subject was the very topic that I had abandoned. It seemed as if I’d known I had an interest here, but hadn’t yet realised what it was. My new role feels just right. If I can assist anyone to find their voice, whether for published work or for their own satisfaction and empowerment, that seems to me worthwhile.
However, I am uncomfortable with self-promotion and reaching for success. When I started writing historical fiction, I thought nothing could make me happier than to have a book out, and have other people enjoy reading it. But a certain mild success can be a poisoned chalice; self-promotion starts to seem like an irresistible imperative. It can become addictive. Sometimes there seems to be a confusion between writing books and becoming a celebrity. If success is having one’s books available in triplicate on every airport bookstall on the planet, there must be an awful lot of disappointed people out there. I’ve reached the point at which I prefer not to join in.
We’re living in troubled times, and the future looks ever darker. When I started writing I was deeply involved in the issues of the day: the women’s movement, the peace movement, anti-nuclear demonstrations, Greenham Common, Friends of the Earth. When I look back I can see how contemporary angst informed my fictions, although that was never part of my conscious plan. Two of my early novels, The Incomer and A Sparrow's Flight, are set in a possible future, after some (deliberately undefined) cataclysm. I haven’t approached that topic directly again, but now it seems to be approaching me. I am among the lucky few who have lived most of my life in relatively uninteresting times - and place. It won’t be like that for my descendants. What more can I say? Or write? It feels more like a time to watch, to try to grasp what’s happening, and to think what to do. If that involves writing, why then, I shall write.
Meanwhile, I am lucky that all my novels are still available. On this website I attach a list, with bibliographical details and a short description. You can also download the maps from the novels, as they are never printed properly in the books, and you can get something much closer to the original off this site.
You can also access details about my other writings here. This includes academic articles, short stories, poems and other oddments.
That’s about it. The object of the website, as I see it, is for people who are interested to be able to find out what I have written, and how to get hold of it.
If you would like to know more, please read the books.
You can read reviews of Margaret Elphinstone's novels on the appropriate page for each book. Margaret Elphinstone's biographical details and events programme can be found here.
Image of Iceland courtesy of John Elphinstone.