I grew up in the Midwestern United States, a part of the country with more corn than myth, with prairies vaster than its history. When I moved to Scotland a number of years ago, I found an abundance of both. Walking the streets of Old Town Edinburgh, I could feel the centuries in the cobbles beneath my feet, I could pass doorways that held the shadows of ghost stories. The real legends, though, were outside of the city.
One autumn, soon after my youngest was born, we escaped the city for a holiday on the Isle of Skye. We rented a little white cottage on a rocky beach and, for one glorious week, we trailed myths and legends across the island, from the Cuillin up to Trotternish. We followed rainbows in between sudden showers that turned everything jewel-green. We walked barefooted along the shingle and watched otters pull themselves up onto the rocks. We hunted for fairies under bridges and selkies along the beach. At night, with the children tucked into bed, I’d sip whisky by a peat coal fire and spread out all of the maps I’d picked up that day. On Skye, it seemed, a map wasn’t just a map. Each place on the island, each hill and stretch of land, had a story built into its very name. That map was both history book and fairy tale wrapped in one. I was enchanted and I wanted to write a novel set there, in that legend-tinged history.
On the drive back to Edinburgh, a story came together in my head, a story about a reclusive writer living on Skye. Set in such a place, where poetry and myth grew on the rocks like moss, I knew that language would be important. I decided to write a novel told all through letters.
It was surprisingly easy, at least at first. When I started writing, I only had a vague picture in my mind of two characters—that Scottish poet, with her wry sense of humor and boundless curiosity, and a cheerful, risk-taking American college student. I wrote that first letter, an impulsive fan letter from my college student, then waited for her to reply. Through that reply, and the ones that followed, their characters unfolded. Like and dislikes, fears and dreams, habits and quirks. I was able to piece together their story through their own words.
Some writers plan out what they are going to write. I like watching the directions mine takes itself, the corners of history it leads me to investigate. When I started out, I didn’t know that I’d be researching the American Ambulance Field Service, whose restless volunteers drove ambulances for the French army years before the U.S. entered the First World War. I didn’t know I’d be researching how to plait ropes from heather and use them in thatching a roof. I didn’t know that I’d be researching Highland fairy tales. I didn’t know I’d be researching ballet or Paris or history’s most hilarious college pranks.
I didn’t know I’d be researching Edinburgh during both world wars, and the surprising number of air attacks the city sustained. I learned that the building we rented a flat in had had all of the windows blown out in the back when a Zeppelin dropped a bomb in the back garden in 1916. At least that explained why the badly fitting replacement window leaked every time it rained (which, in Edinburgh, was quite often).
And though I knew I’d be researching war correspondence and reading through letters sent between battleground and home front, I had no idea how many I would be reading or how heart-breaking so much of it would be. So many letters were returned to sender and hopeful relationships ended before they could begin. But there were twice as many letters full of sweet sentiments, declarations, resolutions, and happy endings, as evidenced by the number of years those letters were saved and treasured in attic trunks.
Researching the mythology of Skye, both directly through volumes of folklore and indirectly through mentions in letters, journals, and memoirs, revealed an island that, even in the recent past, was still very much tied to an otherworldliness. From legendary figures from the past to lingering ghost stories to superstition and fervent belief, the stories I uncovered showed a different Skye than my history books.
All of the research I undertook was fascinating and illuminating. The history, pulled together with the stories and legends of Skye, made for a story far unlike anything I could’ve set in the part of the U.S. where I grew up. Part nostalgic, part magic, but, through the letters that my characters write, personal and real.
Jessica Brockmole is one of our featured rising writers on Hive this month, and you can see her and our other featured authors right here
Letters from Skye is available to buy from Hive right here