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Where the World Ends: Geraldine McCaughrean on St Kilda

Posted on 18th June 2018 by Martha Greengrass

The author of more than 160 works for children, Geraldine McCaughrean establisher her career by winning a Carnegie Medal in 1988 for A Pack of Lies. 30 years on, as she claims the award for a second time for her thrilling novel of survival and courage, Where the World Ends, she opens the door to the real history that inspired this extraordinary tale.

I’ve written a lot of books set in the past, and researched them all.  I recall borrowing a book - Arms and Armaments in 14th Century France - that had not been out of the library since 1934 (98% dull, 2% priceless).  But always, before, I’ve been researching the background for an invented story.  I based An Ideal Wife on a man who really did adopt two little girls with a view to marrying whichever turned out best… but only really exploited the idea and the era.   I’ve never before based a book closely on a true event.  With Where the World Ends, set in St Kilda, I found out what a difference that makes to doing the research.  

There are many, many incidents in the history of the St Kilda archipelago that warrant a novel.  The event I swooped on, open-beaked like a skua, was a marooning that took place in 1727 on one of the sea stacks sticking up out of the ocean around the main island of Hirta.  A paragraph.  Three men and eight boys were taken over to Stac an Armin to gather gannet chicks, fulmars, eggs and feathers.  No one came back to pick them up.  There is no record of how the stranded survived, what they did, what they thought, what they said… Ideal!  A flimsy trellis of fact over which to grow a story of survival against all the odds.  Plenty of scope for the imagination.

Stac an Armin

My own exploration of the subject brought me such wonders as the storm-petrel lantern, a bird threaded through with a wick and lit like a candle, which burned down to its very feet before going out. It brought me the ‘blue-green men’ who live in (or possibly are) the treacherous waves that pound Kilda.  It brought me myths of a warrior queen who once drove her chariot over dry land, from the mainland to Hirta.  It served me up porridge laced with fulmar oil.  Best of all was the giant auk – now extinct – who immediately waddled its way into a leading role.

Bird Illustrations by Jane Milloy ©Usborne Publishing Ltd 2017Bird Illustrations by Jane Milloy ©Usborne Publishing Ltd 2017

St Kilda is a wonderfully remote, otherworldly and extreme setting. But ironically that means that it casts its spell over huge numbers of people, who consequently know a LOT about the place.  Setting a story there is similar to retelling the Bible (a job I’m currently doing): you can’t take liberties: people mind too much.  The islands and stacks of St Kilda are mantled in birds.  People know about the birds.  They know, too, about the harsh everyday life of native Kildans over the centuries.

Luckily I was writing the novel for Usborne Books which, having its roots in educational books, places great emphasis on accuracy.  Not only did they commission lovely illustrations (so that the reader can tell their guillemot from their gannet) and smother the endpapers with flocking birds, but they loosed analysts on my manuscript who could give the FBI and MI5 both a run for their money.  Out went the bonxies, in came the blackbacks. Out went the red sea slugs and in came the red jellyfish. Out went Mungo and in came Murdo  (more Gaelic)...  I was grateful to be saved from showing my ignorance.  Not many authors benefit from such back-up.

But even they – even the best informed of Kilda-philes cannot know the true details of that time eleven men and boys spent stranded on Stac an Armin: how they survived, what they thought and said, what they went through, how it changed them.

Indeed, your own imagination may picture things quite differently.  Fiction is one person’s take on an infinite number of possibilities. Maybe the gannets and guillemots do know the truth, and still shriek it from every limed cliff-ledge. There is simply no one left living there to interpret what they are saying.  

Where the World Ends, by Geraldine McCaughrean, is published by Usborne Publishing at £9.99.  A Sunday Times Children’s Book of the Week.

Feature Image: Donna Green/https://www.flickr.com/people/euan-donna/

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