I’ve thought quite a bit recently about what historical novelists go though to try to make sure their books are as accurate as possible. In some cases the information available to them is plentiful as in the case of Jay Parini’s book on the last days of Tolstoy where it feels like everyone and his dog was writing a daily diary. Warwick Collins chose as his subject an even more famous writer but focused on a period of his life for which there wasn’t much information and so there’s a fair element of conjecture in his work. He’s not simply needed to imagine conversations but to think of ways to plausibly link what hard facts he had together.
Imagine then the problems faced by the writer Margaret Elphinstone who chose to write about a family who lived in Scotland around about 6150 BC – that would be slap bang in the middle of the Mesolithic period. Okay, no written records then. What then have archaeologists managed to glean from dig sites? Well, they’ve unearthed evidence of a nomadic people who used small stone tools (microliths, microblades and scrapers) often made of flint or chert, who lived in tents, kept domestic animals, could sail (the remains of canoes have been found), fished – obviously – and hunted using bows and spears. There are archaeological digs in Scotland – Margaret herself went to two in Orkney and Coll; in fact it was finding a microlith on Coll that started her thinking about Mesolithic Scots – but since the artefacts uncovered were not so good (possibly because of the acidic soil) she found it necessary to rely on data from Scandinavian digs.
The similarity to Native Americans is striking and when I began reading The Gathering Night I have to say the people I used as a benchmark were Indians but instead of the Sioux, the Crow and the Cheyenne we have the Auk, the Lynx, the Heron and the Seal tribes and instead of Sitting Bull and Crazy Horse we have Bakar, Nekané, Amets, Kemen and others, Basque names. Her choice here was not an arbitrary one:
I use Basque names for my characters because, although no one has any idea what languages were spoken in Mesolithic Scotland, Basque is thought to be the only extant language of pre-Indo-European – which is to say, pre-agricultural – origin on the western seaboard of Europe.
So what were these people like? Margaret took the position that “wherever there are people there will be emotions, rituals, metaphors, stories, art... in other words, a constant search for meanings.” Most primitive cultures are spiritually aware. They have medicine men or shamans. The Auk People have Go-Betweens, old men, and occasionally a woman, who are capable of communion with the spirits and who also, although not rulers, are individuals that the people turn to for guidance. The Go-Betweens’ spiritual practices in the book were based on her readings in shamanistic spiritualities from many different parts of the world.
Outlining his concept of the archaic mind, the Italian philosopher Giambattista Vico claimed that we cannot access primordial thought directly: “It is beyond our power to enter into the vast imagination of those first men” and he’s right but where’s the fun in that? This isn’t the first time that a writer has let his or her imagination run riot. William Golding’s second novel, The Inheritors, concerned the extinction of the Neanderthals and before that Jack London’s Before Adam portrayed the brutal extermination of the Australopithecine by Homo Sapiens but the writer most people probably think of is Jean M. Auel best known for The Clan of the Cave Bear which is set during the rise of Cro-Magnon Man (and again the demise of the Neanderthals). Her novels are described as “speculative alternative historical fiction” and she does seem to employ “significant poetic licence” in her writing; The Gathering Night is on the whole much more realistic in its speculations and avoids Auel’s sex scenes completely.
The basic story in this book is a simple enough one told by several different people over eight nights. Each night deals with events at a particular campsite starting and ending with River Mouth Camp. We hear in the opening section, which is narrated by Haizea, about the disappearance of her brother, Bakar and his presumed death. Later in the book we learn of his return to this world. A number of things have to happen though for that to take place. And the spirits – we are led to believe – ensure that they do. The spirits are a big part of the lives of the Auk people and oversee the relationship between individuals, families, tribes and between People and Animals. A number of words are oddly capitalised. Some like Moon, River, Sun and Mountain are clearly regarded as entities with which the people have a relationship but I wasn’t sure why Years, Red and Yellow gets capitals. I assumed this was a mark of importance but considering this is part of an oral tradition I found it out of place but not troubling. This is what Margaret told me:
The capitalisation indicates the spiritual status of what is being talked about. The English language can’t take account of this – we’re moderns and we don’t think like that. Hence ‘Bear’ is the animal in a spirit context; ‘bear’ is more in the nature of a good dinner.
The second part of the story is told by Alaia, Bakar’s other sister. She talks about the birth of her daughter, Esti:
We were alone in the winter house – just me and my mother and Haizea and the sound of the River. The River sings many songs at River Mouth Camp, sometimes loud and angry, and sometimes in the gentlest of whispers. On the night of Esti’s birth the River sang with its whole throat. It told of snow melting in the hills, of water under the earth stirring deep roots, of white waters filling empty streambeds, of overflowing banks and flooded marshes. In Thaw Moon the River sings of its own strength, and its death for People or Animals to meddle with it.
When Esti is born no one at first recognises her. Nekané, Alaia and Bakar’s mother, had hoped her daughter-in-law would bear a son; she anticipated the return of her son but much has to happen for that wish to be fulfilled. When the old woman looks into her granddaughter’s eyes all she can see is the child saying, “I am not him. I am not him.” Just before sunset the men return from hunting and Amets gets to see his daughter for the first time:
“I didn’t recognise you at first, grandmother. I last saw you long ago, far away under the Sunless Sky. You are Esti. You’ve come again to bring sweetness into our lives.”
Because Amets recognised his daughter she was able to live.
The name Esti is not an Auk name. Amets had come from the Seal People and had been taken in by the Auks. This was not common practice, tribes tending to stick to their own hunting grounds, but not frowned upon as long as protocol is met and the newcomer respects their beliefs. This is how Bakar will eventually return to this world, he will be reborn and if someone recognises him his name will be spoken again.
In the novel some people are named whereas others are not. When Alaia takes up the tale she describes how her husband and her father had left camp:
Amets and my father – as you know, his name isn’t in the world now – had gone hunting upriver.
It’s an expression that’s used often, his or her name isn’t in the world now, and it took me a while to realise that the Auk people who are the focus of this story view names in a different way to us. When someone dies their name is never spoken again until they are reborn – reincarnated – and recognised by someone which is why certain characters are mentioned by name by the storytellers even though they have died because children have been born subsequently and someone has “seen” a father or an uncle or some dead relative in the child.
All the while this is happening Nekané is “becoming Go-Between.” She had taken the loss of Bakar hard and had spent a long time wandering in the wilds looking for him. It’s during this time that her spiritual awakening begins and she realises her calling. She also meets her spirit guides, a Swan and a Dolphin; why these she doesn’t learn for a good few years however because although the telling of this tale takes place over eight nights their tale actually covers about twelve years by my reckoning. The spirits it would seem take their time over things.
If I had one difficulty with this book it was with these spirits. I had no problem with any of the four Go-Betweens – Zigor, Hodei, Aitor or Nekané – relating encounters with them or out of body experiences but when Osané talks about them this is what she says:
The spirits rose over the Go-Betweens’ heads as they drummed. They swooped over the People. They showered down Red and Yellow. They shot back to the Go-Betweens like arrows made of fire. The spirits dipped over my brothers’ heads as they passed.
There’re not a lot of descriptions like this and we could perhaps put this down simply to embellishment on the girl’s part. The events surrounding this appearance are emotional and she’s at the centre of everything. I asked Margaret:
I deliberately left it so the reader had to make up their own mind about the spirits. I don’t suppose you or I would have seen a thing if we’d been there – I think that people see what they believe in, sometimes to an astonishing degree. (That includes us, but that’s another story.) I don’t think Mesolithic people would even ask our post-enlightenment questions about the boundaries between the real and the supernatural. The question has no relevance to their world so I don’t answer it. But I agree it’s unsettling for the modern reader – at least I did hope it would be.
Needless to say people are quick to assume things about the spirits. When something goes wrong they get the blame and when things go well they get the credit. What is interesting is that none of the sprits are viewed as bad per se. If bad things happen the root cause is inevitably assumed to be the fault of the humans. I mentioned that this book takes place circa 6150 BC. Margaret didn’t pluck that date out of thin air. Although the Mesolithic Period constitutes more than half of Britain’s history, we know next to nothing of the lives led by our early ancestors. The archaeological record is, as I’ve said, minimal. The only event known to have occurred in the entire period was a tsunami which struck the east coast of what is now Britain around 6150 BC. This disaster becomes a key element in the story.
It is not something that affects the Auk people though, not directly at least. The first they learn about it is when a young man called Kemen, a member of the Lynx People, arrives in their camp and talks about how he, his brother, Basajaun, and a few others survived the tidal wave that destroys their village:
The grey cliff roared like a waterfall. Its sound filled the world. It raced towards us.
The grey cliff crashing down. Our world ending.
My body came back to me. We raced back along the beach. The grey cliff screamed behind us.
Basajaun ran faster than me. He always could. I turned once. I saw the cliff made of water. All the thunder I’d ever heard was rolled up inside it. It flew towards me, faster than an eagle. I ran.
The trees bowed in the wind.
Basajaun glanced back. I smelt the water. It roared over us. It was swallowing my head. Basajaun ran back to me, and seized me by the shoulders, ‘Too late. Hold on!’
The sea smashed down on us. Its roar swallowed us; it gobbled us like little fishes. Its belly was noise and whirlwind. We kicked and fought. No air. I was drowning. I died.
It was a kind of death anyway. Because in that crashing sea my old life was swept away, and, in so far as I still walk the earth – I, Kemen, in this body – I’ve come back from the dead, so I must have been born all over again, out of that wave which swallowed Basajaun and me.
Because after I’d died – inside that whirling water-cliff – the sea spat us out.
Basajaun is not with Kemen. It seems he decided to take a woman and stay with the Heron People. The Auks are a little wary of him – how could the spirits allow such a terrible thing to happen unless something just as terrible precipitated it? – but the Auk People, after intercession by Zigor, the most senior Go-Between, accept him and he receives the mark of the Auk people on his back. Why the back is significant: no man can see his own back. Kemen takes (well, basically is ordered by Zigor to take) Osané as a wife and ends up joining Amet’s family effectively taking the place vacated by Bakar who, as I’ve said, was waiting to be reborn.
Okay, that restores the universal balance. Well done spirits. The thing is in pairing up Osané and Kemen feathers are ruffled. Edur had his eye on Osané and now Kemen finds himself with at least one enemy. But the spirits can see the bigger picture. All they have to do is be patient and wait for Basajaun, Kemen’s brother, to arrive a few years later and then everyone will be where – and who – they need to be. Those in-between years are not good ones for the Auk People. The Animals are not giving themselves the way they used to. They won’t listen to the male Go-Betweens when they speak to them and it’s only then that we can see why a female Go-Between is needed, to resolve what happened to Osané, to discover why she had to leave her family in such a rush and go with Kemen and to learn what happened to her son although by this time Bakar has returned them in the form of Kemen and Osané’s second child. There is without a doubt a flavour of Greek Tragedy here. Only when certain truths are revealed and matters put straight can life return to normal.
What Margaret has produced here is an utterly believable world, my one reservation about the physical representation of sprits aside.
I really wouldn't like people to think: 'Oh there's nothing there so she made it all up', I would like to think there is nothing in the book that hasn't been real for somebody at some time in some place. Of course, there are hypotheses about Mesolithic Scotland because there are so few signs, but that doesn't mean you go off into a complete fantasy.
For my own tastes the book is a tad on the long side. There are lengthy descriptive passages that certainly add colour to the work but, and again I’m basing this opinion on the view I have in my head of North American Indians as a laconic race, the storytellers could have made their points perfectly well using a fraction of the words used. Here’s an example of what I’m on about from the opening to ‘Fourth Night: Salmon Camp’:
In Light Moon I carried the fire to our Salmon Camp – the one that was my father’s Birth Place. Salmon Camp is a place of many waterfalls. We fall asleep to the sound of water rushing through the gorge below. Two Rivers meet just above our Camp. One comes from Mother Mountain, the other from Salmon Camp Hill. Many streams had fed those Rivers and helped them grow strong. Whenever the streams cross the precipices that line the hillside they make more waterfalls, until the whole hill sings. At the foot of every waterfall there’s a dark pool. The streams sing to the Salmon with many voices. When the Salmon hear the call of the waters they come in from the sea and leap up the falls. They jump from pool to pool until they lie in the lap of the hills. The high pools are the Birth Place of the Salmon, and their Death Place too. All the while we’re at Salmon Camp we hear the Rivers sing to the Salmon. The songs of the water live in our hearts and become our songs too.
Now I hate to criticise this because there’s nothing wrong with that paragraph at all other than the fact that you could skip it and miss nothing as far as the plot goes. So if you’re the kind of reader who wants to get to the point then 368 pages of the above could feel like hard work. There’s not a taste or a smell that she doesn’t describe. At least it feels like that. And yet strangely one Amazon reviewer said this:
I do have to admit to being a little disappointed that it is more about people and less about their surroundings than I had hoped for. Margaret Elphinstone has a real but in this book under-used talent for descriptive writing, which is a pity when she has been clever enough to pick such a potentially fascinating setting for her story. – italics mine
I read this book over eight days, one section a day. And the inclination to jump paragraphs was strong although I found the story interesting enough and its resolution believable. I particularly liked her decision to have the main parties involved tell their own bits of the tale. That said most of the time I couldn’t tell you who was talking, the voices tended to blend into one.
Apparently most of Margaret’s books have maps and I would have thought this was a book that would have benefitted from one but she decided this time to leave it out:
[S]ome of the Camps in the book are on known Mesolithic sites. Of course there must have been infinitely more Mesolithic habitations than the ones we know about. I don’t want to say exactly where the places are. Sea levels have changed considerably since then anyway. But if you want a clue – look at the map of Mull and Ardnamurchan. I’ll say no more.
The book does have a dramatis personæ, rare these days but a definite help.
As I said at the start of this article I’ve been impressed at the lengths historical novelists go though to try to make sure their books are as accurate as possible. Margaret Elphinstone is right up there. I mentioned the digs she went on. She also made her own flint tools and constructed her own cowhide coracle. All this research is thoroughly integrated into the narrative. You never feel you’re reading a textbook masquerading as a novel. Apparently “she leaves out about 90% of her research.” An interesting read especially bearing in mind it was written with the news of the 2004 Indonesian tsunami fresh in her mind.
Margaret Elphinstone was born in 1948 in Kent, and educated at Queen's College, London and the University of Durham. She is Professor of Writing at the University of Strathclyde in Glasgow, where her main areas of academic research are Scottish women writers, and the literature of small islands. She has done extensive study tours in Iceland, Greenland, Labrador and the United States. She lived for eight years in the Shetland Islands and is the mother of two children.
Her fiction includes the novels The Incomer, A Sparrow's Flight and The Sea Road, a re-telling of the Viking exploration of the North Atlantic. She has also published a collection of short stories, An Apple From a Tree, two books on organic gardening, as well as a volume of poetry, Outside Eden. Her fifth novel, Hy Brasil, is set on a mythical island in the mid-Atlantic, Voyageurs, the next, takes place during the 1812 War in North America, and Light is set in a remote lighthouse in the 1830s.
 Giambattista Vico, 1984 . The New Science. Ithaca: Cornell University Press, p.378
 Susan Mansfield, ‘A shard of flint inspired Margaret Elphinstone's evocative novel about hunter-gatherers in Scotland’, Living.Scotsman.com, 30th July 2010
 ‘The Gathering Night Interview with Margaret Elphinstone’, BooksfromScotland.com