Have you ever concocted a story in your head and then discovered much of it to be true? So it happened with my story, Silver Darlings, just published in the Dark Hall Press Anthology of Ghost Stories. Silver darlings, for those readers who may not know, is the colloquial name given to herrings by Scottish fishermen.
Earlier this year I travelled to the very north of the UK, to Scotland, and one of the emptiest spaces in Europe: Sutherland. Here I stayed in the hamlet of Portskerra, in a tiny, but beautifully converted cottage. An old mill stone had been embedded in the hall floor and I later learnt that this had been taken from the little mill that had once been attached to the cottage, home to the miller and his family.
I'd gone to Sutherland to escape from London, to find peace and quiet to write. And to walk. Very soon, the atmosphere of the area, and of the cottage in particular, began to colour what I was writing. I hadn't intended to write a ghost story, but that's what began to develop in my head: the story would centre around the inhabitants of the cottage, and a tragic drowning ... and the unsettling spirit of one family member particularly affected by the tragedy.
The photograph on the right shows the old mill as it once was, and the cottages around it.
As I walked on the beautiful coastline, and began talking to local people, it soon became clear that the area had indeed known its fair share of tragedy. Portskerra has always been a fishing community, and on my ramblings, I soon discovered the Drowning Memorial, close to its pier. This monument commemorates the many fishermen from the village who over the years were lost at sea.
The Drowning Memorial includes a verse by the celebrated poet Hugh Macintosh, who was born in Portskerra in 1901. I discovered a pamphlet in the cottage that included his entire poem about the drownings, and some details of the family who had lived at the mill at the turn of the 20th century. I was taken aback to discover that my fictional account of the cottage's inhabitants had not been far from the truth: three family members had indeed been tragically drowned in the fishing disaster of 1918. The wife of one of the drowned men, and her daughter, had lived on in the cottage, the latter, it seems, until well into the 1970s.
It was then that I learnt of the little museum in the nearby hamlet of Strathnaver and was informed that it contained a
photograph of the mill's inhabitants, taken before disaster struck. Of course, I went there immediately. Spookily, although the museum contained many photographs amongst its exhibits, I was immediately drawn to an unlabelled family grouping. This was indeed an image of the family who had lived at the mill. And, although it may sound odd, I felt as if I had always known these people. Silver Darlings, of course, diverges from the truth, and I have no idea what the lives of this family were truly like, or how the fishing disaster affected them. It is unlikely, however, that such a loss in one family would have left them untouched. As you can see, they are smiling in the photograph, still blissfully unaware of the events which were about to unfold.
My story may be largely fictional, but it lets a little piece of history live on. So, if you fancy a bit of spooky reading for a dark and stormy night, have a look at Silver Darlings, and the other stories in the Dark Hall Press Anthology. It's now available on: