Beginning the Research
I was looking for a good place to really get into the Viking vibe – somewhere away from Facebook and the Net where I could write without the usual distractions, and soak up Norse folklore and surroundings and, hopefully, see where little Knut was actually headed as an adventure.
I had a vague idea and James had given him a terrific ‘look’, but I wanted something darker and deeper than just the story of a kid dressing up. And then came a sign like a bolt of lightning , obviously from the Norse God, Thor, of course.
An ad on the Net for a lighthouse keeper’s cottage I could rent leapt right out at me. Fortunately, or perhaps, unfortunately, it was located in the Shetland Islands, high on a hill on the southern-most tip of at a place called Sumburgh Head, site of lots of Viking ruins. The Shetlands are a bleak, storm-swept, barren group of islands a twelve hour ferry journey north of Scotland. And it was heading into winter. On the other hand the lighthouse was built by the father of my hero, Robert Louis Stevenson, the famous Scottish author. His grandfather and father and uncle were all engineers and were responsible for building many of the great white lighthouses that dot the rather treacherous British coast, including building this one in 1809 at Sumburgh Head.
RLS didn’t go into the family business building lighthouses, probably to his dad’s great distress, but instead, went on to become the most celebrated writer of his time, a real shining light, creating Treasure Island, Kidnapped, The Strange Case of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde, The Black Arrow and many others.
This is part of my journal from last November while I was working on the early drafts of The Last Viking.
I’m here in Sumburgh with my longest serving friend, Allen Newton, the editor of Perthnow, and we are way out in the North Sea while the weather is living up to the North Sea’s reputation. Last night I lay in bed listening to the wind blow, howl, shriek, scream, roar, bluster and generally carry on like it was trying destroy the white lighthouse just outside my bedroom window, not to mention me personally. This particular lighthouse is a bit of a brute as they go, being short and stumpy, whereas, most of the 150 Stevenson lighthouses that line the coast are elegant with simple beauty, and, as a testament to their builders, are all still standing and being used today two hundred years after their construction in the most inhospitable locations imaginable.
The lighthouse is 22 miles from Lerwick, the main town, a old Norse word meaning Muddy Cove, and the track from sea level up to Sumburgh Head is narrow, nearly vertical, and has stone walls to prevent you from plunging down onto the jagged rocks that are so far below you that you are looking down on hundreds of seagulls circling swooping in what look like endless dogfights between WWII Spitfires and ME 109s. To me this is not as all surprising considering RJ Mitchell designed the Spitfire after spending hours studying seagulls flying overhead.
To the south, the rest of Scotland lies way beyond a horizon that is lost in a lead grey sky that disappears into a lead grey sea, and northwards, on Shetland’s west coast, green fields look like huge chucks have been chomped straight from them by a huge cliff-eating monster, leaving a ragged, wave-ravaged coastline that is also soon lost in the grey, grey mist. This is it, the atmosphere I’ve been searching for and the reason everyone thinks we’re mad in coming here in November. But, more importantly, this is also where RL Stevenson was inspired to write Treasure Island, while staying here with his father in 1869. Unst, the northern most island of the Shetlands is exactly the same shape as that map on page three of Treasure Island.
The book was originally written for RLS’s 12 year old stepson, Lloyd Osborne and it’s easy to imagine the two of them huddled by this very fire place I am now, with a raging storm outside as Robert played out the story of Jim Hawkins, Long John Silver, Squire Trelawney and Blind Pew and the black spot and not forgetting also the exciting adventures of David Belfour and Alan Breck in Kidnapped.
I’m sleeping in the spare bedroom at the Principal Lightkeeper’s cottage, the very same room RSL would have also slept in. Now, if I can’t get some decent inspiration with all those stars in alignment, then there can be no hope for me at all. Other that The Secret Seven getting me hooked on reading at age seven, RLS was the very writer who grabbed hold of my imagination all those years ago, and never ever let it go. He’s the reason I keep reading, trying to discover, always unsuccessfully, another writer as good as him. He’s also the very reason I write adventure stories. Jack’s Island has Treasure Island stamped all over it. He’s the one who, thankfully, arrested my development – and who’d want to be grown up and move on from RLS? Now, I can’t thank him enough or imagine a better place to be. I really can’t.
Over the years I’ve been to Rudyard Kipling’s house at Batemans, the Bronte’s at Haworth, Jane Austen‘s at Chewton, Thomas Hardy’s at Dorset, Wordworth’s and Beatrix Potter’s in the Lake District, Tim Winton’s Albany, Shaun Tan’s Inglewood, as well as to the Globe and Stratford on Avon and a busman’s holiday of others, but this is The One.
The place positively reeks of history. Below us are the ruins of stone-built Viking houses, and many of the farmhouses have what look like small versions of Viking Longships on their front lawns, as if waiting to go raiding, or a-viking, as they originally called it.
There’s the original whitewashed keepers’ houses, built as solid as RSL’s reputation to successfully withstand hundreds of years of raging storms, three huge Victorian engines in the basement that kept the light spinning, a massive gas-powered fog horn the size of a length of Kalgoorlie pipeline, as well as several WWII bunkers when this was a Radar station in the 1940s. There’s also the faint whiff of ancient diesel every so often so that, if you close your eyes and listen to the crashing waves way below, it seems just like you’re in Captain Smollett’s cabin on the Hispaniola. (Except that was wind-powered and not diesel, of course.)
But by Thor’s wrath, the wind blows. In my life I’ve been through at least three cyclones, but nothing compares to the wind outside that is trying to tear your ears clean off. And today is a fine day. Standing outside this morning appreciating the view and nursing my coffee, I lasted not even three minutes before I was forced inside, feeling like I’d been sandblasted and shivering like I’d just seen Ben Gunn’s ghost. Tonight Al went outside with his camera and tripod to try some artistic shots using his time exposure of the lighthouse beams spinning overhead, but he was back inside within a 125th of a second at f5.6. Then he couldn’t hear a word I said as both his ears were ripped off and are now somewhere between here and Reykjavik.