Evacuation: Elisabeth Gifford on The Lost Lights of St Kilda


When I opened the first page of Secrets of the Sea House back in 2014, I knew I’d found a historical novelist to treasure. I subsequently read Return to Four Winds, and The Good Doctor of Warsaw. Revisiting Scotland for The Lost Lights of St Kilda (Corvus, 2020), I think author Elisabeth Gifford has written her best novel yet.

It is hard to believe that anyone could fail to be moved by the people who once lived in this archipelago of St Kilda, one hundred miles west off the mainland of Scotland. By 1930, the time had come for the heart-breaking decision for its thirteen men, thirteen children and ten women to leave. So, at five a.m. on August 1933, they boarded HMS Harebell and departed, never to return. There are now strict restrictions on human visitation.

Only seven years after that momentous departure, a much larger and more well-known evacuation took place from 27 May to 4 April 1940 – The Evacuation of Dunkirk. What few know, and I certainly didn’t, was that the 51st Highland Division of the British Army were left behind (some say, abandoned) in France to fight the Germans alongside the French. On 12 June, 10,000 Scotsmen were captured and imprisoned. Some escaped southwards and over the treacherous mountain passes of the Pyrenees into Spain with the help of the French Resistance. Many were killed, but some succeeded in escape. But who were the heroes and who the traitors?

All historical novel writers research the true facts before they can weave their fictional magic. The Lost Lights of St Kilda contains a wealth of  historical, cultural, archaeological, geological and botanical detail. I asked Gifford how she managed to organise her research:

“I think I read just about every book there was on St Kilda, but the first-hand accounts were the most helpful. It was the same with the Second World War story, for which I read many biographies of escaping. Once I had read as much as I could find about the two periods, then I let my characters move about as they wished, and since we only saw what they saw, the things outside their experience were not essential to the story and had to be left out. However, I drew up pages and pages of notes, charts, time lines and lists so that I could know, for example, at any given time in the story, which birds or weather or crofting activities would have happened in the St Kilda story according to the time of year. In the Second World War section, I had to keep an extensive timeline of actual events to make sure that the story reflected what really happened. By the time I had finished, I had pulled together so much information on the last inhabitants of St Kilda that I was able to find the names and faces for the last family in each croft house and I am giving that to the Scottish National Trust, who now manage the abandoned village, for a visitor’s leaflet.”

With all this information to hand, I wondered whether Gifford had plans to write other novels about St Kilda, perhaps when it was a thriving, self-sufficient community further back in the mists of antiquity?

“Sadly no, as then, I feel, I would not be able to reimagine that period so fully as there is less day-to-day information the further back you go. Twenty years ago, I was fortunate to spend time with some of the elderly crofters on the nearest inhabited island to St Kilda, Harris, people who would have broadly had the same Hebridean Gaelic culture and outlook, and this helped fill in the characters of St Kilda for me. I was fortunate to catch that moment before time moved on, where the next generation had less immediate contact with the old Gaelic customs.”

Never having visited the west coast of Scotland, the sights and sounds of St Kilda captivated me, in particular Gaelic psalm singing. I asked her whether she would provide an audiobook.

“For a previous book I produced a video with some of the Gaelic psalm singing set to a background of folk music by Capercaillie, with their permission.1  If you visit Lewis and Harris today, you can still hear the unforgettable Gaelic line singing of psalms at Sunday worship. The book is going to come out as an audiobook and I had to phone a historian friend on Harris – Bill Lawson, consultant genealogist at the Seallam! Visitor Centre on the island – to put him in touch with the recording artist so that he could help them with how the Gaelic place names were pronounced.”

With so many details of archaeological, geographical and geological information, many authors regard a glossary as a necessary addition. Had she considered adding one, I asked?

“The story is rooted in a very specific culture and time, as well as the student’s study topics being esoteric, so the unusual words carry an atmosphere even if not totally clear. I think perhaps part of the charm of St Kilda is the feeling that it is a place that is other to us, a Gaelic culture now lost, which we can still visit in the form of a book, but something precious was lost when the people of St Kilda were evacuated.”

The well-rounded main characters of this atmospheric novel will all stay with me for some time. Initially, Chrissie falls in love with the wrong man. Later she wants to prevent her daughter, Rachel Anne, from learning about the past. Naturally, the girl resents this. I admired the novel’s main protagonist, Fred, for the way he remains steadfast to his love and is determined to find her after many years. He is the novel’s hero, but it wasn’t for him I cried when I turned the final page.

1. Gaelic psalm singing can be found on YouTube. Capercaillie’s “Gaelic Psalm Theme” was used in the promotional video of Secrets of the Sea House (also YouTube).

ABOUT THE CONTRIBUTOR: A member of and reviewer for The Historical Novel Society from its earliest days, SALLY ZIGMOND has published many short stories, two novels and a novella. Her most recent novel is The Lark Ascending (The Conrad Press).

Published in Historical Novels Review | Issue 92 (May 2020)

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