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Somerled: A violent 12th century Scottish warlord, with a sperm-spray of offspring in numbers only matched by Genghis Kahn. A father of sons who try to kill each other. A boy of MacDonald myth, who is light of heart and deep of thought. A son of the wild Atlantic seas. A monstrous fighter.

Me: A scaredy-cat Londoner. A mother who frets if her children sniffle. A starter at shadows, a concrete-walker. Weak-armed and flubbery-tummied. Someone who once saw a decapitated squirrel and has never quite got over it.

 

We are not an obvious match. So why Somerled? And why me?

It started on Islay. On an island in a loch in the middle of an island, where I first heard the title: “Lord of the Isles.”

But like all stories, the start is really the middle. I had to be the type of woman who heard the words “Lord of the Isles” and was dizzy with the possible stories – the Lords and their women and their sons and daughters, and this beautiful, violent, wind-scoured land in which they lived.

I had to be in Islay in the first place. For that I had first to meet my husband. He then had to be the type of man to spend his holidays visiting his barrel of whisky which sits even now, waiting to mature, in the Bruichladdich distillery on Islay.

So being who we are, and lucky enough to meet, we were on Islay about five years ago. It was, as my husband’s Glaswegian clan say, a dreich day; grey and drizzling. Finlaggan, the island-Loch home of the Lordship was unprepossessing at first. A few ruined stones, some reeds bending in the ruffled water.

There are places where history breathes on your neck, whispers in your ear. For my last book Treason’s Daughter, I felt the shiver at the Banqueting Hall in London, neck cricked and mouth open as I looked at Rubens’ take on the Stuarts’ bombastic pretentions. That extraordinary moment when the curtain ruffles and stretches, and we feel the past suddenly become present and urgent. I have felt it in grand places, like the Hagia Sofia in Istanbul or the Pantheon in Rome. I have felt it in humbler places – amid the deserted houses of Mingulay in the Outer Hebrides, or the shores of the Thames at a brackish low-tide.

And at Finlaggan there it was: history pressing in, clamouring to be heard, to be told and retold; by firelight, by Kindle, by who-cares-how, as long as the stories are heard.

I immediately started reading. The Lords of the Isles, I discovered were based in Finlaggan from the thirteenth century. They were MacDonalds, descended from Donald the Grandson of Somerled. Somerled, the boy hero, who built a dynasty from the wreckage of the Norse invasions of the western sea-board. The boy with the Norse name who became a hero of gaelic myth.

There are always stories I want to pick up and run with. Wrinkles in the narrative that seem to cry out for a novelist’s touch. But I can’t tell them all. Initially, I dismissed Somerled; a period I did not know much about, in a country whose fictional past suffers from a shortbread-tin romanticism.

But Somerled’s story would not leave me. The opening passage – the boy stranded on a rock, scared of dying nameless – arrived fully formed.

I’ll do some research, I thought. I don’t have to write it. The more research I did, the more I loved the immersion in this alien world, this tangle of Gael and Norse. Then I discovered that Somerled’s wife and sons were linked to the House of Ivar, the Norse dynasty which dominated medieval Ireland. The House of Ivar’s Gaelic allies, and marriage partners, were the O’Donovans. My mother is an O’Donovan, and grew up in County Cork. Somerled's descendants and I are practically cousins, I told myself, giving myself permission to jump in.

Here we are five years later. The Winter Isles is about to launch. My dream of Somerled is real.





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This is me, seconds after the bound proofs of The Winter Isles dropped through my letter-box..... Less a selfie, more a Boolfie...