My new book, ‘Light from the Window’ is undergoing its final editing and revision.
It’s an historical novel, different from my first one in being much less closely based on the life of a real person. The setting is the Highlands of Scotland and Canada during the mid-nineteenth century.
The seed of the story is a tragedy in 1822 near the island of Rona, a small rocky outcrop near the much larger Isle of Skye. Janet Mackenzie, one of my ancestors,, lived in a house on the shore and for many years she put an oil lamp in the window to help seafarers in the treacherous waters. In 1851 she came to the attention of Henry Otter, the captain of a naval survey vessel. He wrote to The Northern Lighthouse Board about her dedication and recommended that she be given a pension. In 1857 the Stevenson brothers built a lighthouse on Rona, meaning that her light was no longer needed.
Captain Otter continued with his surveying. Along with his useful charts of Hebridean waters there is another poignant reminder of his time in this part of the world. It’s a gravestone in memory of one of his sailors, Richard Williams, a coxswain who committed suicide and was buried near where once the Beal chapel stood on the Scorrybreac shore in Portree on the Isle of Skye.
When I discovered these intriguing fragments of history, like pieces of coloured glass smoothed by the sea and lying gleaming among the rocks, I wondered about what had caused these events and what sort of backwash followed after them. Might Robert Louis Stevenson himself have spent time on Rona as a child? So I pieced these fragments together to begin the story of a quest with a mystery at its heart.
Janet MacKenzie is the focus of the first part of the story. The focus then shifts to an imaginary sailor, Lieutenant Tom Masters whose adventures take him to Canada in pursuit of a mysterious woman who, he is convinced, holds the key to Richard’s death. I use the word ‘adventures’ because I felt the spirit of RLS pervades this story, even though he only appears briefly in it.
My previous book dealt with the pain of eviction and forced emigration. This time I look at the other side of the picture, the opportunities that opened up for migrants to a new country. Tragically these migrants often treated the Native Americans with the same contempt which they had experienced in their own homeland.
The lighthouse and the camera were both developed in the Victorian age. They serve as important metaphors in the novel. The lighthouse protects sailors but wreckers’ lights can mimic its beam and lure a ship to its destruction. The science of photography reveals but it also deceives. It hides as well as exposes so that a fleeting instant is recorded as if it were the whole truth.