Liz Macrae Shaw tells how a tragic family tale inspired a novel.
The human brain is a story-seeking missile. From early childhood we search out stories, starting with our own personal ones. That’s why programmes about genealogy such as Who Do You Think You Are? have such an appeal and why family history is a source of inspiration for many writers.
The starting point of my second historical novel was the discovery of an unexpected heroine among my ancestors. Finding a heroine, rather than a hero, was especially pleasing because women in the nineteenth century were so often confined to a purely domestic role. We’re all familiar with Florence Nightingale as the ‘Lady with the Lamp’. She is reported to have carried the lamp on her night rounds when she checked on her soldier patients during the Crimean War. My three times great grandmother, Janet Mackenzie, is also associated with providing light but in a quite different context.
She lived on the remote island of Rona, which stretches out like a fingertip from the long island of Raasay, off the coast of the Isle of Skye. There’s no spring water on Rona and when supplies ran low, Janet’s husband set sail for Portree on Skye to replenish the stocks. A number of people went with him, including Janet’s son and brother. On the return journey were two servant girls who were coming to work in Janet’s house.
The Inverness Journal of March 1822 reported what happened:
‘The boat set out from the east side of Trotternish, Isle of Skye, in the morning with a strong breeze at SW. Towards noon it blew stronger but the boat got safe to within a mile of Rona where, being overpowered by the squall, and the people being unable to lower the sail owing to some failure in the tackle, they were buried among the waves in sight of their friends who anxiously observed the progress from the shore.’
Sadly, deaths at sea were all too common in the Highlands. This one was especially harrowing as the watchers on the shore stood by powerless as the boat was driven onto the rocks at the entrance to Arcasaid Mòr (Big Harbour). However Janet’s response to the tragedy was a unique one. It’s explained in a letter sent in 1851 by Captain Henry Otter, the commander of a Royal Naval Survey vessel, where he refers to her as ‘a philanthropic widow’.
He writes, ‘Her cottage is on the beach and in such a position that a light in one of the widows, when in sight, clears all the rocks at the entrance to the harbour. For ten years she has kept this light burning… Much oil is therefore expended and when her sons cannot procure a sufficient supply from the fish they catch, she is obliged to buy more… Many fishing vessels and boats owe their safety from the storm to the poor widow’s lights when beating up the Sound of Raasay in the long winter nights, and unable to contend against the terrific squalls that blow from the Skye shore.’
This letter was sent to Alan Stevenson, engineer to the Commissioners of Northern Lighthouses. He was one of the lighthouse building Stevensons and an uncle of Robert Louis Stevenson. Captain Otter suggested that the Commissioners should pay Janet for the volume of oil she had used over the years. Some sources say that they gave her a bigger oil lamp instead. Either way, it wasn’t long before her lamp became redundant. The Stevensons were building lighthouses all over Scotland and in 1857 the Rona lighthouse came into service. Janet’s role as the ‘widow with the lamp’ ended.
Janet MacKenzie has long fascinated me. She was a resourceful woman who turned her loss and grief into altruistic action. Captain Otter too was an inspiring character. He was a career sailor who spent much of his professional life surveying the waters of the West Highlands. He took a keen interest in the people of the area. He was remembered with affection by the inhabitants of St.Kilda for his projects to help them in their tough existence. In gratitude for his efforts, an infant born on the island in 1860 was christened in his honour, ‘Mary Jemina Otter Gillies.’
Henry Otter was also linked to the Isle of Skye through a member of his crew. On a slope above the Scorrybreac shore in Portree Bay is a solitary grave, near the site of an old chapel. It’s dated 1861 and marks the burial place of Richard Williams, coxswain of HMS Porcupine, Captain Otter’s ship. The sailor committed suicide but nothing more is known about him.
I wanted to incorporate these real characters into a story. There was the mystery about the circumstances of the sailor’s death and another intriguing possible event occurred to me. Robert Louis Stevenson famously turned his back on the family business of building lighthouses to take up the writer’s pen instead. We know he accompanied his father Thomas on trips to islands where lighthouses were planned. There’s no evidence he travelled to Rona but what if he had done so – and met Janet MacKenzie there?
That is where No Safe Anchorage begins, on the island of Rona with an elderly Janet MacKenzie and a young RLS. My main character, Tom Masters, a lieutenant serving on Captain Otter’s ship, is entirely fictional. His story takes him across the Atlantic to Canada.
So, Janet MacKenzie is a powerful inspiration to me. In return, I have a sense of responsibility towards her. I can’t know what she looked like, how she spoke, what sort of personality she had. I wanted to do justice to her, to find out as much as I could about the times she lived in, to be thorough in my research. The rest is imagination. Historical fiction is history with a human face. It’s a way of keeping the past present and of forging links through time.
An unexpected bonus of writing my book was the chance to make contact with some distant cousins, descended from William, one of Janet’s fishermen sons who provided oil for her lamp. He later emigrated to Australia to prospect for gold. As is the way with emigrants, Janet’s story was kept alive down the generations, as a precious memory of the homeland. Four of Janet’s descendants, two from Australia and two of us from Skye, plus their partners, made a pilgrimage to Rona in August 2017. We sat outside the bothy built on the remains of her house on the shore and raised a glass to ‘the widow with the lamp.’ There was a gentle swell on the sea as we sailed over and several pods of dolphins followed our boat. On a calm summer’s day it was hard to imagine how the journey would be in wild weather when terrified sailors strained their eyes for a glimpse of her life saving light.
Liz MacRae Shaw is the author of Love and Music will Endure, an historical novel inspired by Mairi Mhor nan Oran, a bard and political campaigner born on Skye. Her second novel, No Safe Anchorage, is published on 27 October 2017.