On this night, eight years ago, I started writing my novel, Of Stone and Sky. It was the summer solstice here in the Highlands of Scotland and I was woken at 3am by the light and an idea that kept tugging on me. Finally, I got up, went down to the kitchen table and started writing on a blank sheet of paper. The first words were, “A story. A land. A people. This place of beauty and history, of loss and hope. A shepherd.” Top right of the page it says, “4am, 22 June 13 – The shortest night”.
For a long time, The Shortest Night was the working title of the book, initially because that’s when I started it, but also, as the story emerged, because the summer solstice became the point of emotional climax for one of the central characters. That event happens right at the end of the book at the summit of Angel’s Peak, a mountain in the Cairngorms whose Gaelic name is Sgòr an Lochain Uaine – the Peak of the Small Green Loch.
It’s a tough walk to get there and I’d never been, writing the chapter based on walk reports and photos. But in eary July 2019, feeling overwhelmed by life and in need of a mountain, I went up with my husband, Alistair, and our golden retriever, Sileas, (Gaelic for Julia.) By then, the novel-in-progress was on its third title – Colvin’s Walk – but on a much higher rejection count, which was a significant source of my stress. The account of that trip and how it changed me, can be read here. On that occasion, because of the dog and our uncertainty about the route, we didn’t take the steep scramble up the north ridge of Angel’s Peak that my character Sorley takes in the novel, opting for a safer traverse.
Now, two years later, Of Stone and Sky has found the right title and the right publisher in the wonderful team at Birlinn/Polygon Books and is rapidly finding happy readers. Which is the whole point. This past weekend, in order to celebrate, to give thanks, and to walk the path of Sorley as he searches for his brother Colvin on midsummer’s night, we went back up to Angel’s Peak. This time, we swapped the dog for our professional Mountain Guide friend, John Lyall, who led us up the ridge.
And before I went, I registered Of Stone and Sky on BookCrossing.com. Bookcrossing is a way of releasing books into the wild for others to find, read and pass on. I did the same thing with my first novel, A House Called Askival, planting a copy on the top of Askival, the highest mountain on the island of Rum, for which the house in a hill station in north India is named.
Wonderfully, it was found a few days later by a delighted book-lover who shared the news and later released it at the Ryvoan Bothy in the Cairngorms (little knowing it is my stomping ground). I’ve never heard about its journey from there, but perhaps it was fed into the fire on a particularly cold night… Or perhaps, hopefully, it fell into the hands of another book-lover and is still travelling.
And so, like offering the ‘angel’s share’ of a barrel of whisky, I left a copy of Of Stone and Sky at the top of Angel’s Peak. In order to fend off the notorious Cairngorms weather, I double bagged it, put it in a tin, double bagged it again and taped it up like a parcel bound for the moon. The best container I had for the job was a shortbread tin and it seemed a perfect choice for historical fiction set in the Highlands, with its tartan, glass of whisky and Dean’s Shortbread strapline, ‘History in the baking’. But there’s a wry irony too. While Of Stone and Sky certainly does serve up a hundred years or so of Highland history, it’s not melt-in-the-mouth. In fact, more than one reader has commented how the book is NOT the shortbread-tin version of Scotland. I do hope, therefore, that the finder of the tin – and, indeed, my readers – will not be disappointed.
As well as the book in a deceptive tin, we took a very special shepherd’s crook into the Cairngorms. The full story of our walk – and the crook – will be in an upcoming post. For now, I leave you with an extract from that chapter in the novel where Sorley makes the trip.
“Three years after my brother disappears, I make my slow way up the walk they took when I was just a light in my mother’s eye, up through the pass of the Lairig Ghru in the Cairngorm mountains and into the Garbh Choire. It is midsummer’s day and the smells of moss and peat rise around me in the warm air, cotton clouds drifting in the high blue. Stones shift under my feet and hands as I pick a route up the rocky slope to the Lochan Uaine and the waterfall where the MacPhersons’ key was found. Hip throbbing, sweating, I pull off my pack and ease down onto a rock, enjoying the cool air on my damp back and hair. Above me rise the twin summits of Cairn Toul and Angel’s Peak, together forming a curving wall of steep cliff and scree slope that shelters me from the full force of the wind. Stretched out between me and the foot of the cliffs, the lochan is a vivid blue-green, deeper than the sky. Its surface is lightly brushed with ripples, edges lapping on pebbles that all look grey at first, but gradually reveal their colours, from pearly white to peach and pink, mottled mauve and black.
I lie that night on a mossy ledge beside the lochan, the hood of my bivvy bag unzipped so I can stare at the sky. It never quite gets dark but glows a deeper, lovelier green by the minute, drawing me into drifts of light sleep and welcoming me back as I wake to the sound of a bird or a voice in my dream. Each time, I find the moon has travelled, a silver canoe rowing the deep. In the very early hours, with the sky softening to pink, I see a deer a few feet away. She is young and delicate, one hoof lifted, her eyes fixed on me. We watch each other, barely breathing. Then her ear twitches and she shoots away, so swift and quiet it seems she is spun from light.
It’s 3 a.m., but I get up, drink from the cold lochan and climb the curving north ridge beside it to the summit of Angel’s Peak. It is slow and painful, and I am light-headed from hunger and lack of sleep. By the time I get to the top, the sun has risen and washed the whole of the Cairngorms in gold.”
As well as a free one on top of Angel’s Peak, copies of Of Stone and Sky can be found here.