The story of life on, and the leaving of, St Kilda is one which has been told in a number of different ways over the years. There have been documentaries, dramas (Michael Powell’s The Edge Of The World is essential viewing), memoirs, poetry, and shelves full of other books examining life on the island, and especially about the evacuation in 1930.
There has even been a musical collaboration between Alasdair Roberts and Robin Robertson called Hirta Songs which became a live show mixing song, poetry, and original footage from the last days of habitation. It is a story that continues to fascinate, signifying the end of one way of life in Scotland and the inevitable move to another.
Literary fiction about St Kilda is more rare, perhaps because the true story is so incredible to begin with. However, with The Lost Lights Of St Kilda, Elisabeth Gifford takes the final years of life on the remote island as the backdrop to a love story for the ages.
It’s a beautiful novel, one which excels in vivid portrayals of people and place. The central protagonists of islander Chrissie and visitor Fred fall in love on St Kilda, but the course of love never did run smooth and they soon find that there are many set against any relationship, as well having to face the practical struggles of life on the island. Fred not only offers the possibility of someone new, but some thing new, and Chrissie feels the pull between two very different futures. But, due to circumstance, and no little foul-play, neither comes to pass.
The story moves between Chrissie’s early years on St Kilda pre-1930 and 1940/41. She now lives on the Morvern peninsula, with her daughter Rachel Anne, situated on the west coast of the Scottish Highlands – a place where some St Kilda residents were relocated after evacuation. While she remains geographically close to her birthplace it now only exists in her memory, as does Fred, and the memories of both are painful.
Meanwhile, Fred is trying to make his way back from war through occupied France, the memory of Chrissie still with him, but increasingly his hope of any future is fading. He has to deal with the clear and present danger of his escape from captivity, but the past continues to haunt him. Gifford has a keen sense of time and place and although only a decade has passed these events, in such disparate places, seem worlds away from their relatively carefree years on St Kilda, and the changes in Chrissie and Fred reflect this.
If you enjoyed Karen Campbell’s The Sound Of The Hours (one of SWH!’s 10 Best Books of 2019) then The Lost Lights Of St Kilda has undoubtedly something for you. Both novels could be described as romances, but the real story is found in the details of communities struggling to survive trauma and, in The Lost Lights Of St Kilda, there is the sense that when any such community is lost then the nation as a whole is somehow lessened.
Elisabeth Gifford has written a novel which is, at its heart, about loss but also hope and the importance of memory, both individual and shared. If you don’t know the incredible story of St Kilda then this is a perfect place to start. If you think you do then it’s worth reconsidering, and that’s because of the telling as much as the story itself.
The best fiction will always offer new perspectives, and by focusing on individual stories you get to learn something further about the bigger picture. Using such a wild and unforgiving place, one approaching the very worst of times, as the backdrop for this story gives a romantic dimension to the St Kilda legend which few have previously considered. The Lost Lights of St Kilda tells a story of “boy meets girl” which could have, and which does, happen any where and everywhere, but rarely is it played out against such momentous events.
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