Writing (but not Visiting) St Kilda

Geraldine and the cover of her book
Category: Writing

I often set my books in far-off places and in the past: It affords more possibilities for adventure and variety.

Truth be told, I hardly ever visit the places I write about.

In my work, setting invariably takes on a powerful role within the story: malicious and murderous, for instance, in The White Darkness (Antarctica) and Plundering Paradise (Madagascar). After researching those locations, I had no wish to visit them. But, truth be told, I hardly ever visit the places I write about. For one thing, writing doesn’t pay well enough to finance reconnoitring. For another, however intrepid an author might be, she can’t travel back through time – to ancient China or mediaeval England, Tamburlaine’s Empire or Captain Ahab’s whaling days.

Only the imagination can take her there.

Researching St. Kilda 

So what happens when the imagination can barely credit what it finds? The more I read about the lives of the inhabitants of 18th century St Kilda the less I could envisage being one myself. Gentle, pious, organised, hardy people, their lives were ruled by the seasons. Circumstance had brought them to a place so remote that they did not look to the outside world except as an outlet for their birdy produce. OK. And yet their lives were SO harsh, SO primitive that the description above does not capture them at all.  

I quickly discovered the difficulty of basing fiction on 18th century Kildean fact.

Squatting on an earth floor deep-sprinkled daily with ash and urine until it’s time to cart it out and mulch the fields? Eating dozens of air-dried puffins a day while reading omens off the sky, in a landscape aflutter with pagan myth and ancestral ghosts? Spending eight months marooned on a bare sea stac, through the winter, without the means to summon help? I quickly discovered the difficulty of basing fiction on 18th century Kildean fact.

Gateway to St. Kilda

I am wont to take liberties with geography and I’ve always thought a few inventions or exaggerations came under the protection of artistic licence.  But Usborne Publishers are sticklers for accuracy. As a result, Where the World Ends is the most ecologically, historically, botanically accurate book I’ve ever written. Me, I might have drafted in birds, plants and sea-life with shameless abandon, but an almost Calvinist rigor was brought to bear by expert advisors, to ensure that readers wouldn’t find fault.  It was important for this book, because St Kilda takes quite a hold on people who visit or read about it. They tend to become experts! The idea of it ensnares them - like puffins undone by curiosity. “I wonder what happens if I put my head through this loop…” 

Perhaps it is something about islands. My favourite book gift ever was Judith Schalansky’s Atlas of Remote Islands. My daughter gave me it. She also gifted me Kilda. Given the chance to go there, she came back spellbound. After writing a play about the island, she was left with a spoil-heap of facts and stories which she said I could plunder. I was lured in. “I wonder what will happen if I put my head through this storyline…”

Anyway, I am hoping Kilda-philes will find their way to Where the World Ends and enjoy it as well as approve it.

And no, I have not been to St. Kilda myself, let alone the sea stacs around it. Imagination took me. And I’m glad, because that way there were people still living in The Street on Hirta, and great auks still roaming the shoreline, white ropes still hanging from the cliffs and songs still riding the thermals and wave-tops like shearwaters.


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Geraldine McCaughrean

Where the World Ends by Geraldine McCaughrean, a stunning look at the art of survival and the stories we tell to keep memories and hope alive,  is out now and is published by Usborne. Geraldine McCaughrean is one of today's most successful and highly regarded children's authors. She has won the Carnegie Medal, the Whitbread Children's Book Award (three times), the Guardian Children's Fiction Prize, the Smarties Bronze Award (four times) and the Blue Peter Book of the Year Award.