On this night, eight years ago, I started writing my novel, Of Stone and Sky. It was the summer solstice here in the Highlands of Scotland and I was woken at 3am by the light and an idea that kept tugging on me. Finally, I got up, went down to the kitchen table and started writing on a blank sheet of paper. The first words were, “A story. A land. A people. This place of beauty and history, of loss and hope. A shepherd.” Top right of the page it says, “4am, 22 June 13 – The shortest night”.
For a long time, The Shortest Night was the working title of the book, initially because that’s when I started it, but also, as the story emerged, because the summer solstice became the point of emotional climax for one of the central characters. That event happens right at the end of the book at the summit of Angel’s Peak, a mountain in the Cairngorms whose Gaelic name is Sgòr an Lochain Uaine – the Peak of the Small Green Loch.
It’s a tough walk to get there and I’d never been, writing the chapter based on walk reports and photos. But in eary July 2019, feeling overwhelmed by life and in need of a mountain, I went up with my husband, Alistair, and our golden retriever, Sileas, (Gaelic for Julia.) By then, the novel-in-progress was on its third title – Colvin’s Walk – but on a much higher rejection count, which was a significant source of my stress. The account of that trip and how it changed me, can be read here. On that occasion, because of the dog and our uncertainty about the route, we didn’t take the steep scramble up the north ridge of Angel’s Peak that my character Sorley takes in the novel, opting for a safer traverse.
Now, two years later, Of Stone and Sky has found the right title and the right publisher in the wonderful team at Birlinn/Polygon Books and is rapidly finding happy readers. Which is the whole point. This past weekend, in order to celebrate, to give thanks, and to walk the path of Sorley as he searches for his brother Colvin on midsummer’s night, we went back up to Angel’s Peak. This time, we swapped the dog for our professional Mountain Guide friend, John Lyall, who led us up the ridge.
And before I went, I registered Of Stone and Sky on BookCrossing.com. Bookcrossing is a way of releasing books into the wild for others to find, read and pass on. I did the same thing with my first novel, A House Called Askival, planting a copy on the top of Askival, the highest mountain on the island of Rum, for which the house in a hill station in north India is named.
Wonderfully, it was found a few days later by a delighted book-lover who shared the news and later released it at the Ryvoan Bothy in the Cairngorms (little knowing it is my stomping ground). I’ve never heard about its journey from there, but perhaps it was fed into the fire on a particularly cold night… Or perhaps, hopefully, it fell into the hands of another book-lover and is still travelling.
And so, like offering the ‘angel’s share’ of a barrel of whisky, I left a copy of Of Stone and Sky at the top of Angel’s Peak. In order to fend off the notorious Cairngorms weather, I double bagged it, put it in a tin, double bagged it again and taped it up like a parcel bound for the moon. The best container I had for the job was a shortbread tin and it seemed a perfect choice for historical fiction set in the Highlands, with its tartan, glass of whisky and Dean’s Shortbread strapline, ‘History in the baking’. But there’s a wry irony too. While Of Stone and Sky certainly does serve up a hundred years or so of Highland history, it’s not melt-in-the-mouth. In fact, more than one reader has commented how the book is NOT the shortbread-tin version of Scotland. I do hope, therefore, that the finder of the tin – and, indeed, my readers – will not be disappointed.
As well as the book in a deceptive tin, we took a very special shepherd’s crook into the Cairngorms. The full story of our walk – and the crook – will be in an upcoming post. For now, I leave you with an extract from that chapter in the novel where Sorley makes the trip.
“Three years after my brother disappears, I make my slow way up the walk they took when I was just a light in my mother’s eye, up through the pass of the Lairig Ghru in the Cairngorm mountains and into the Garbh Choire. It is midsummer’s day and the smells of moss and peat rise around me in the warm air, cotton clouds drifting in the high blue. Stones shift under my feet and hands as I pick a route up the rocky slope to the Lochan Uaine and the waterfall where the MacPhersons’ key was found. Hip throbbing, sweating, I pull off my pack and ease down onto a rock, enjoying the cool air on my damp back and hair. Above me rise the twin summits of Cairn Toul and Angel’s Peak, together forming a curving wall of steep cliff and scree slope that shelters me from the full force of the wind. Stretched out between me and the foot of the cliffs, the lochan is a vivid blue-green, deeper than the sky. Its surface is lightly brushed with ripples, edges lapping on pebbles that all look grey at first, but gradually reveal their colours, from pearly white to peach and pink, mottled mauve and black.
I lie that night on a mossy ledge beside the lochan, the hood of my bivvy bag unzipped so I can stare at the sky. It never quite gets dark but glows a deeper, lovelier green by the minute, drawing me into drifts of light sleep and welcoming me back as I wake to the sound of a bird or a voice in my dream. Each time, I find the moon has travelled, a silver canoe rowing the deep. In the very early hours, with the sky softening to pink, I see a deer a few feet away. She is young and delicate, one hoof lifted, her eyes fixed on me. We watch each other, barely breathing. Then her ear twitches and she shoots away, so swift and quiet it seems she is spun from light.
It’s 3 a.m., but I get up, drink from the cold lochan and climb the curving north ridge beside it to the summit of Angel’s Peak. It is slow and painful, and I am light-headed from hunger and lack of sleep. By the time I get to the top, the sun has risen and washed the whole of the Cairngorms in gold.”
As well as a free one on top of Angel’s Peak, copies of Of Stone and Sky can be found here.
These are the main characters from my Cairngorms-set novel, Of Stone and Sky, roughly in order of appearance or importance.
Mo Smith – primary narrator, minister turned publican, like a sister to Colvin & Sorley
Colvin Munro – a Highland shepherd, born & raised on the farm of Rowancraig Estate, disappears
Sorley Munro – his younger brother, left at 17 to make his fortune in the City, secondary narrator
Agnes Munro – their mother, a Highland Traveller by heritage, married into the farm
Gideon Munro ‘Gid’ – their father, a shepherd on Rowancraig all his life apart from service in WW2
Donald Munro – Gid’s father
Phamie Munro – Gid’s mother
Beulah Duggins – Gid’s sister, housekeeper at Rowancraig Estate
Archie Duggins – from Yorkshire, gamekeeper on Rowancraig Estate, Beulah’s husband
Liana Munro – Colvin’s wife
Tess Munro – Colvin & Liana’s daughter
Alex Munro – Colvin & Liana’s son
Dougie MacPherson ‘Mr Mac’ – Gid’s best friend, forester and ecologist
Margaret MacPherson ‘Mrs Mac’ – Dougie’s wife and friend to Agnes
Fachie MacPherson – Dougie’s son and Colvin’s best friend
Lord Edgar Mackintosh – owner of Rowancraig Estate, the laird
Kirat Aggarwal – wealthy Malaysian American businessman
Vivian Aggarwal ‘Viv’ – English, Kirat’s wife
Rahesh Aggarwal – Kirat & Viv’s son, a lawyer
Nellie Pegg – one time maid at Rowancraig House
Annabelle – Sorley’s ex-girlfriend
Carrick Devlin – Sorley’s boss in Sydney
Major Walter Hoare-Cressington ‘ Watty’ – owner of Logie Estate, south of Rowancraig
Lady Miranda Hoare-Cressington – Watty’s wife
Plus assorted even-more-minor characters
The regulars were arriving for their slap-up Christmas dinner. Some faces glowing, others uncertain and sad. Damp coats steaming on the hooks above the radiator. Winter-chapped hands fumbling with paper hats.
It was the monthly meal for the homeless provided by our church and I was one of the team. Every month we served a three-course meal, but tried to make it extra special at Christmas, with crackers, decorations, music and gifts. Most of the folk did have some sort of accomodation and we asked for no proof of need, but just welcomed all who wanted to be there. And it was moving to see who came and how homeless the heart can be.
That was back when our own home was a two-bedroom flat in Stirling with two pre-school boys filling the space and my writing desk wedged a couple of feet from my pillow. So when I got an email from Kirsty Williams, BBC Scotland radio drama producer, asking if I had any ideas for a story about food and memory, I didn’t have to ponder. She was curating a series called The Madeleine Effect inspired by Proust’s In Search of Lost Time in which eating a madeleine, the small French cake, transports him to the past.
Not long before, I had heard a story from a local family that had shocked me. And so, being the magpie writer that I am, I borrowed elements from those events and kneaded them into my experiences of the homeless meal, along with other images, stories and memories that appeared like seasoning on the shelf of my imagination – or indeed rose out of the loaf unbidden – until the tale Broken Bread was formed.
As the Christmas angels said, Be Not Afraid. No unsuspecting people were harmed in the writing of this story. Names, cultural backgrounds, events and identifiers are all changed. People sometimes think they recognise themselves or others in my writing, but they are usually not the people I had in mind. Perhaps we all recognise ourselves in stories. Perhaps we should.
Broken Bread was read beautifully on Radio 4 by the very fine Scottish actor Gary Lewis, who I know best for his role as the father in the film Billy Elliot. Alas, the recording is now buried in a BBC archive and not available to hear anymore, but I still have the text. I’m extending it to you now as a gift. In order to download it, you will have to sign up for my newsletter, but you can unsubscribe straight away and still keep the story. I won’t tell anyone.
Or you could stick around and enjoy the conversation. There is always news of the happenings from my desk and beyond, what I’ve been up to and where I’m headed (if only I knew) as well as special offers and opportunities for subscribers only. And if you respond, I will write back. So come and swap tales with me, break bread in spirit, share life. There is always room at the table.
Wherever you are, at the end of this strangest of years, may the season of light in darkness bring your heart home.
Broken Bread is here and listen out for another Radio 4 Story on New Year’s Day.
Friends and faithful readers of Writing the Way, I cannot tell you how happy I am to share this news with you. Below is today’s press release from Scottish independent publisher, *Polygon:
FACT AND FICTION: TWO-BOOK DEAL FOR MERRYN GLOVER’S CAIRNGORMS
Polygon, an imprint of Birlinn Limited, has signed Merryn Glover to a two-book deal for a novel and a non-fiction work each set in the Cairngorm mountains. Glover was the first writer in residence at the Cairngorms National Park and has won Creative Scotland support for both projects.
Polygon has bought World All Language rights from Cathryn Summerhayes at Curtis Brown and will publish novel Of Stone and Sky in Spring 2021 and The Hidden Fires: A Cairngorms Journey with Nan Shepherd in 2022.
Of Stone and Sky is a multi-generational family story set in the Scottish Highlands. After shepherd Colvin Munro disappears, a mysterious trail of his twelve possessions leads into the Cairngorm mountains. His foster sister Mo and prodigal brother Sorley are driven to discover the forces that led to his disappearance. Spanning almost a century, the novel is a paean to the bonds between people, their land and way of life. A profound mystery, a political manifesto and a passionate story of love, the novel is shot through with wisdom and humour.
The Hidden Fires is Glover’s response to Nan Shepherd’s The Living Mountain. Drawing from her upbringing in the Himalayas and gradual adaptation to Scotland’s hills, she contrasts her own Cairngorm experiences with Shepherd’s. Exploring the same landscapes and themes of the classic work, she challenges herself and the reader to new understandings of this mountain range and its significance in contemporary Scotland.
Edward Crossan, Editor at Polygon, said: ‘I am thrilled that we are publishing Merryn Glover, an exceptional writer. Her moving and profound novel, Of Stone and Sky, was commissioned on the strength of its compelling narrative and elegant prose. Her non-fiction work, The Hidden Fires, which uses The Living Mountain as its guiding light, is a poetic piece of nature writing, a fitting tribute to Nan Shepherd, and is so vital now, more than ever.’
Glover is the author of A House Called Askival (Freight, 2014), four radio plays for BBC Radio 4 and BBC Radio Scotland and numerous short stories. She was born in Kathmandu and grew up in Nepal, India and Pakistan. Australian by citizenship, she lives in the Highlands and has called Scotland home for over 25 years.
Glover said, “I am honoured and excited to be published by Polygon, a proud, independent Scottish publisher and the perfect home for these books, so rooted in Scotland. I am also delighted that Polygon matches the international vision and wide reach that is so important in my work”
- Polygon Books is an imprint of Birlinn Limited, Scotland’s largest independent publisher. It publishes literary fiction, poetry, and books on popular culture from award-winning writers such as Liz Lochhead, Norman MacCaig, Jenni Fagan, Stuart Cosgrove, and the author of The No. 1 Ladies’ Detective Agency, Alexander McCall Smith. Polygon was originally established by students of Edinburgh University, including a young Gordon Brown, in the late 1960s. It became part of Birlinn Limited in 2002. In 2018, Polygon was the home of the Centenary Edition of the Novels of Muriel Spark.
- Press release on Polygon’s site here.
To see what others have said about Of Stone and Sky, follow the links below. If you’ve read it, please do add your own review on Amazon, Goodreads or other retailer sites. If you would like to feature the book in your publication, site or broadcast, please contact Polygon Books for a review copy.
Book of the Year 2021 – Bookmark Festival Article in The Herald
Longlisted for the Highland Book Prize 2021
05 May 2023 “There is a very strong spiritual strain running through the book… giving it a powerful redemptive theme.” Rev Prof Ian Bradley in The Church Times
19 Feb 2022 “Unfolds impressively and with a sweeping scope, dispelling romantic notions of the Highlands to acknowledge its material realities, and doing it through diverse, well-developed characters, before capping it with a satisfying ending.” The Herald
05 Aug 2021 “It’s honestly one of the best books I’ve read, outstanding Scottish literary fiction and a real contender for my book of the year.” Joanne Baird of the Portobello Book Blog
06 June 2021 “It’s immensely readable – and overflowing with grace.” John Dempster for the Inverness Courier (& other Highland News Group papers)
15 May 2021 “I adored the writing: it’s a gorgeous, poetic story full of big themes: love, grief, ecology, politics, history and community… One of my favourite books ever.” Sarah for ScotLitDaily
May 2021 “With the most wonderful blend of stark plot lines mixed with richly descriptive detailing, this is a beautifully readable novel.” Liz Robinson for LoveReading website
Spring 2021 “Ranks with the finest of nature writing.” Neil Reid for Scottish Mountaineer magazine
3 May 2021 “A book which explores love, both the love of people for one another – brothers, youngsters, couples – and love of the place in which they live.” Vee Walker on her blog
21 April 2021 “Of Stone And Sky is a rich stew of a novel, one with a Victorian complexity of plot, a family saga which is also a socio-economic survey of Highlands history over almost 300 years… A considerable achievement.” Alan Massie for The Scotsman newspaper
INTERVIEWS, FEATURES & BROADCASTS
05 May 2023 The Church Times podcast interview with Rev Prof Ian Bradley
22 April 2022 On Northern Bibliosphere podcast: Land, Communities & Identities
June 2021 My article on Society of Authors in Scotland blog: On the Trail of the Lost Shepherd
26 June 2021 Best Summer Reads – Susan Swarbrick for Herald Scotland
May 2021 Feature by Dawn Geddes in The Scots Magazine
22 May 2021 Interview with Nora McElhone for Dundee Courier
May 2021 Conversation on John Burns Podcast
2 May 2021 Article by me for the Sunday Post about my relationship with the Cairngorms
23 Feb 2021 Feature on Nan Shepherd in Dundee Courier by Gayle Ritchie including section on me
Losing my wallet was the last straw. The final sign, if any were needed, that what I was really losing was my marbles. It was the climax of a catalogue of cock-ups and memory lapses, of a comedy of errors that had been playing out for several weeks, but long since stopped being funny. I’d taken on an extra piece of work that had burgeoned into something much bigger and more complex than I’d thought, with tight deadlines and high stakes.
That, added to the Shared Stories project, my other writing work, several personal challenges and the usual domestic circus, meant life had become overwhelming. It felt like a vice was tightening around me and I couldn’t get a single thing right. Not only was I forgetting, losing or making a mess of things, but I could barely put two words together. The final indignity for a writer: I was losing the plot.
An underlying source of this stress is the deepening sadness that my Cairngorms novel Colvin’s Walk is still without a publisher. That awful waiting is an experience so common to writers, and yet it never loses its pain, for at its core is the growing fear that your work is not good enough. That you are not good enough. This May marked a year since my agent, Cathryn Summerhayes of Curtis Brown, took on the novel; in the same month she won Literary Agent of the Year at The 2019 British Book Awards. She’s undoubtedly good enough. Has my novel proved too much for even her considerable powers? I try to reassure myself that an agent of that calibre and experience would not have taken it on unless she believed in it. So why, why, why…?
When we met last September, Cathryn said agents have their heads in their hands trying to sell literary fiction at the moment; it’s just not deemed commercial enough. This is true, but clearly some literary fiction is being sold. Just not mine.
So I don’t know why. All I know is that it’s a story that took me nearly five years to write and however unsaleable or strange, I still yearn for it to be told; it’s a story I think about every day.
In that story, shepherd Colvin disappears, leaving twelve of his possessions in a meandering trail across the landscape, their discovery gradually revealing the story of his life and the mystery of his going. His brother Sorley finds the last one at the top of a mountain in the Cairngorms. The Gaelic name is Sgòr an Lochain Uaine – the peak of the small green loch – for it rises above a corrie that cups a dark pool, so high it is hidden until you are beside or above it. In English, it is The Angel’s Peak.
I chose it for those names and for its remoteness and beauty, but relied on internet walk reports and photos for description, as I had never been. This year – Alistair and I promised each other – we would go. I started the novel at 3am on midsummer’s night six years ago and for a long time its working title was The Shortest Night, not just because of its genesis, but also because it is the night when Sorley climbs the mountain.
One week after my lost wallet, it was the 21st of June, but we were committed to Solas Festival that weekend. Two weeks later, Shared Stories activity finished for the summer and though I had a mound of other work and writing I wanted to do, I knew I needed a break and to take stock. I knew I needed a mountain.
In a serendipitous gift, the diaries and the weather were both clear enough that first weekend in July and suddenly the thing I’d been saying for ages I wanted to do looked like it might actually happen. We started gathering our under-used camping kit, borrowing and buying to fill the gaps, and plotting the route. Extremely fit walkers can get up Angel’s Peak and back from Speyside in a long summer’s day, throwing in the neighbouring Munros of Cairn Toul and Braeriach for good measure, but I’m not one of them. Nor do I want to be. Why tear round the hills as fast as possible, beating myself to a pulp in the process? What’s the point? I’m not bagging Munros or doing mountain marathons; I don’t need to win or prove anything. In fact, the opposite.
I need to lose.
Not my wallet or my composure, but all the illusions that keep creeping back and tying me up in knots.
I need to give up.
Not on writing, but on the pushing and pressure – internal and external, the straining to achieve, the seductions of so-called success.
I need to walk into the mountains.
Not to conquer but to surrender, to find myself at the mercy of things greater than me; to go to the rock that is higher than I.
Speed dating has never appealed to me and my early launch into monogamy has rendered it unnecessary, at least where romance is concerned. Not so with books. Hopes of swiftly finding a passionate publisher as soon as my first novel was finished were slowly deflated over the several years it took to get a deal, and any dreams of life-long devotion were dashed when the publisher went bust a few years later. I’ve been out flirting ever since. And that’s what the London Book Fair is all about: one of the world’s biggest match-making events for books. Publishers and agents from around the world gather in the giant hanger of the Olympia centre, set out their stalls, and seek to woo each other in a back-to-back series of fevered rendezvous. I don’t think my chat-up lines are up to job so, thankfully, I don’t have to enter the fray. My agent was out there doing it for me with meetings from 8 to midnight all three days. Here’s hoping a marriage is in the making.
If not to tart yourself around the trading floor, then, why go to London Book Fair? Lots of reasons, depending on who you are. I took a day out of life in the Cairngorms to volunteer on The Society of Authors stand, answering questions and encouraging new people to join. Seems I’m better at match-making than flirting as I recruited three people over lunch. Because I am Co-Chair of the SoA in Scotland committee, it was also a useful time to touch base with several staff from HQ and to work on planning a series of author business skills workshops we are hoping to run later this year. It was great, too, to see friendly faces from the Scottish literary scene including folk from Publishing Scotland, Stirling University’s Publishing programme and our own SoAiS committee.
Historically, the London Book Fair didn’t provide much for authors except a terrible sinking feeling when you saw the hundreds of thousands of books published that year – while yours was not one of them. If you weren’t feeling insignificant before LBF, you certainly were after. But it’s a healthy dose of reality. The UK alone publishes nealy 200,000 books a year (not including self-published titles) and while everyone agrees that is too many for success, no-one can agree which ones to ditch. (Though everyone seems agreed on that point when it comes to mine.) Writers need to have their eyes wide open and realise just how many books are out there and how difficult it is to get published at all, let alone with enough frequency and fair terms to make a living.
However difficult, though, people do keep on writing, pitching, submitting and hoping, and that has influenced the offering at LBF. There is now an entire area called Author HQ with a seminar space and a section for author-centric stands titled – appropriately enough – Writers Block. That’s where The Society of Authors set up camp, along with The Alliance of Independent Authors and Amazon Kindle Direct Publishing. There are, of course, growing numbers of writers taking the self-publishing route and one seminar I attended was a panel discussion of indie authors who had been short-listed for the inaugural Selfies Awards – won by Jane Davis for Smash All the Windows. It was fascinating to hear their stories and I respected their professionalism and honesty about the ups and downs of the journey. I don’t feel it’s the right approach for me. (Yet, anyway.) It’s very hard to make literary fiction work in the indie world, but then again, it seems very hard to make it work anywhere.
So I looked around at the teeming hundreds on the trading floor, at the miles of displays, at the posters featuring the big fish, at all the minnows crowding hungrily round the seminar on How to Land a Literary Agent, and took my small fry self off to find a drink. In the throng of people I saw a beautiful, tall black woman striding purposefully in the opposite direction. “Rose!” She stared at me and then we whooped and hugged.
She was none other than Rose Kawesa Sandy, who had been a pupil of mine at Woodstock School in Mussoorie, India in 1992. I was there as a student teacher doing English, Drama and Dance and she – the daughter of Ugandan diplomats – was in her final year. Intelligent, athletic and musical, she was always in demand, but I had managed to persuade her to side line hockey for a term so she could be Titania in my outdoor production of A Midsummer Night’s Dream.
She and the whole cast were simply stunning and we have stayed in touch over the years, though never been in the same place at the same time. Till, of all places, London Book Fair. Rose has now turned her considerable talents to publishing, heading up the new Harper Inspire imprint and choosing to self-publish her own successful thrillers. And why has she chosen the indie route? “I know too much,” she laughs. We went out for dinner before I caught the Caledonian Sleeper home, and talked and talked about our lives, our kids, our Woodstock friends, our faith, our work and our books and it was, for me, the very best thing about London Book Fair. In or out of books, life-long friendships win over speed dating, every time.