Ethersay is now six months old. To mark its half year anniversary, today I’d like to share some words I wrote which explain how my own experiences during the Scottish independence campaign eventually moved me to write this novel.
For me, the day after the independence referendum was a blur of tiredness and disbelief. Everything was done on autopilot: taking the kids to school, picking them up, heading to the shops for some retail distraction. Everyone else seemed to be the same, too. I remember walking around Livingston shopping centre and noticing how quiet it was – the place itself was busy, but the people there were muted, sombre, reflective. Disappointment hung in the air like rain on a dreich winter’s day: disappointment in ourselves, disappointment in Scotland. Disappointment that the vision we had for our country would not, at that moment in time at least, be realised. And perhaps above all, an aching disappointment at the realisation that dependence had won.
Much of that disappointment, of course, would have belonged to those who voted Yes. But I always wonder how many of those who voted No woke up that day and realised that they felt disappointed, too.
Prior to the referendum, I had started writing my first historical novel, having set myself the bucket-list style challenge of publishing a book before my thirtieth birthday. In that final, crucial six months of campaigning I had put my project on hold, throwing myself entirely into political activism in a way that I had never done before. Sure, I had campaigned for my party’s candidates in various elections, but this was different, somehow – it felt so vital, so momentous, so all-consuming. For six months, I lived and breathed the independence referendum. I walked miles; I chapped doors, delivered leaflets, worked on street stalls. I did everything I possibly could. If I give this my all, I remember thinking, then perhaps it will be enough. Perhaps we will win.
And then we lost. I still struggle to describe what it felt like once it was over, once I knew we hadn’t won. Emptiness, numbness, grief – none of those words seem to quite fit. All I know is that at that point, all I wanted to do was throw myself back into writing, and I did. Thank goodness I had my book to focus on, to distract me, to give me something to think about other than politics during those long, dark autumn days.
During 2015 and 2016, I published my first book then wrote and published its sequel – two historical fiction novels, set hundreds of years ago in my native Lancashire. They were a welcome escape, intellectually and emotionally. They were somewhere I could go and not think about how absolutely gutted I still was and for a long time, that was great.
Gradually, however, I found my gaze shifting back towards the independence referendum. By this point almost two years had passed and so much had changed at a pace which is still astonishing. Creatively, it felt like the right time to look back, to take those experiences and those feelings and weave them into fiction. Then I had a dream (yes, really) about a woman who finds herself stranded on a remote island with no memory of how she got there. I remember waking up and immediately jotting down the idea, spinning its threads, developing it through questions: who is she? How did she get there? What is it that she can’t remember?
What if she was a Yes campaigner?
What if the referendum had irrevocably changed her life?
An idea was born; an idea which over the subsequent weeks and months became my third novel, Ethersay.
Of course, it is important to say that the woman in the book isn’t me, that she is a work of fiction, as is every other character in the book. But as the saying goes, you should write what you know. I also feel, to paraphrase another saying, that if you’re ever going to have a clear idea of where you’re going, then you must understand where you’ve been. Stories can help us to do that; they can resemble real life but be remote enough from it to provide a safe space in which to explore the emotional and psychological impacts of our experiences. Stories can help us to reflect, to digest, and to engage. Perhaps above all, stories can help us to come to a better understanding of ourselves.
And in my view, if Scotland is going to move forward as a nation, if we’re going to realise our massive potential as we navigate the murky, brexiting waters of present times, we need to do exactly that. I hope Ethersay contributes to that but if not, well, it was damn cathartic writing it.