It was a small advert for a white cottage by the sea on a remote Scottish island, available to rent for the summer. Just the thought brought tears to my eyes with all the business of work and kids, of unspent dreams pushed to one side in the wonderful but exhausting city life. We booked it. That summer I began writing a book set on the island.
We went back to the cottage on Harris several times. After it became an art gallery for artists Willie and Moira Fulton, we rented other cottages on the island and I carried on writing each summer. After a couple of writing courses I found myself with enough material for a book set in the Hebrides. It became Secrets of the Sea House.
During that first visit, I’d heard about an even more remote island, St Kilda, and the close-knit community who had once lived there in a backwater of time. Fiercely attached to their beautiful island and simple way of life, they were finally forced to abandon their island under the pressures of the twentieth century. I wrote a short story about it on the writing course in London, but it was another ten years before I had the courage to write the book. It is now published as The Lost Lights of St Kilda.
By then I’d learned that my father in law‘s parents had been part of a smuggling ring in World War 2 helping soldiers and airmen escape from prison camps in Nazi occupied France. Many of those escaping soldiers were Scottish. I met people on the island of Harris who had known some of these soldiers, such as Padre Mac, a chaplain to the Highland soldiers in the German Stalags. I learned that 10,000 Highland soldiers were left behind fighting a rear guard action after Dunkirk. I saw a story that linked up the safe houses of Madrid in Spain with a Highland soldier escaping from the Nazi prisons and making a perilous journey down to neutral Spain, trying to get home to the girl he once loved on St Kilda.
It is always a pleasure for me to write about the Hebrides and St Kilda, their most remote island, hoping to share something of their remote beauty, white beaches, turquoise blue seas, and machair grasses filled with summer flowers – and wind, lots of wind. Two years ago we made the boat journey out to St Kilda, to see the abandoned village and climb up to see some of the highest sea cliffs in Europe with their breath taking views. You could feel how devastating it must have been for the people having to leave their island home, the community scattered across the mainland, having to cope with a modern way of life that was quite alien to them.
The characters in the book are fictional but based on real people. With the help of the 1930 census, I was able to find the faces of each member of the last families in the 16 cottages. I am giving this to the National Trust for Scotland that now manages the village site now and they are going to produce it for visitors to the island. It’s nice to know that I’ve been able to bring the St Kildan village back to life in some way, as a novel, and now also as a booklet for visitors to the island.
And I’m hoping also that book will also be a celebration of the courage of the soldiers who endured the second world war in prison camps, or made courageous journeys home across the snow capped Pyrenees to Spain, where people like my husband’s grandparents sheltered them in secret apartments near the Madrid British Embassy until they could be spirited home.
This summer I will be back in the Hebrides, and also Dundee, writing a new book exploring Scotland’s links to the Inuit communities through the Victorian whaling trade.
(c) Elisabeth Gifford
About The Lost Lights of St Kilda:
1927: When Fred Lawson takes a summer job on St Kilda, little does he realise that he has joined the last community to ever live on that beautiful, isolated island. Only three years later, St Kilda will be evacuated, the islanders near-dead from starvation. But for Fred, that summer – and the island woman, Chrissie, whom he falls in love with – becomes the very thing that sustains him in the years ahead.
1940: Fred has been captured behind enemy lines in France and finds himself in a prisoner-of-war camp. Beaten and exhausted, his thoughts return to the island of his youth and the woman he loved and lost. When Fred makes his daring escape, prompting a desperate journey across occupied territory, he is sustained by one thought only: finding his way back to Chrissie.
The Lost Lights of St Kilda is a sweeping love story that will cross oceans and decades. It is a moving and deeply vivid portrait of two lovers, a desolate island, and the extraordinary power of hope in the face of darkness.
‘Desperately romantic, lyrically written and with a fascinating plot.’ Katie Fforde, author of A Rose Petal Summer
Order your copy online here.