“Every summer Quill and his friends are put ashore on a remote sea stac to hunt birds. But this summer, no one arrives to take them home.”
I have read some fine books since the start of the year but this is going on my pile of books that I would keep in my soul forever. This extraordinary telling of a true story is beautiful and is unrelenting in its confrontation of what it means to stay alive. It was so hard for me to put it down that last night I was reading well beyond midnight, desperate to get to the end. Desperate for a happy ending that is not quite what I expected.
So what is the story all about. Well, living on a remote Scottish island in the 1700s must have been pretty harsh to say the least, particularly as the St. Kilda Archipelago sits off the western coast of some of Scotland’s larger islands. Now these tiny islands are the homes of wildlife, humanity has left nature to its own devices. However, the crofters and farmers that lived there in the 18th Century relied on sheep, fish and the birds to live. Fowlers, as the men and boys in this story are called, were shipped off to a remote rock and spent a few weeks capturing the birds that nested there. They effectively farmed them for the food, oils and feathers. In fact, pretty much all of the bird was used. However, what this group of 9 people didn’t expect was to be left behind. Why they were left is not revealed until the end of the tale but it’s worth the wait.
The main character is wonderful Quilliam. He is a young man, not quite adult but not a boy. He is wise beyond his years and suffers awfully at the hands of one of the men, Col Cane. But Quill is sensitive and has great empathy and it is thanks to him that this small group survive their 9 months on a rock with 3 caves. His dreams of returning to Hirta (the island where they live) and being with his beloved, Murdina, keep him alive and he believes her spirit is with him throughout the ordeal. And what an ordeal. You are living on a rock. There are no comforts, just rock. You live off the birds that you are supposed to be taking back to Hirta and the fish you can catch. There is no real warmth and your clothes are tattered and torn, saved only by constant repairs. Every day you venture out a slip could result in your death or worse an injury that leads to death. The whole experience can be summed up as horrific. Yet, somehow despite everything that takes place, the loss, the hope, their stubborn refusal to die, there is such spirit in the boys.
What I found most moving was the relationships between each of them. The tenderness, the hatred, the love and the jealousy. All human spirit seemed to be encapsulated in 9 months isolation. There are villains, Col Cane being the worst. A supposed religious man who uses his position to manipulate the boys and maintain his lazy disposition. He gets his comeuppance, however. Mr Farris who without Quill would have never made it home and Davie, wonderful Davie, who I just wanted to hug. The landscape itself is living and breathing through the beautiful writing. McCaughrean captures every moment through the tiny details and at times, I was literally hanging on a cliff’s edge wondering how on earth the next moment could possibly be resolved. It’s a stunning read.
Who should read this book?
Heartily recommended for Year 7 & 8. This book would open up wonderful cross-curricular opportunities for history and geography and would be a brilliant text for looking at context. It’s also a really good introduction to Lord of the Flies if you were thinking of using it at GCSE. There’s some wonderful opportunities to talk about gender identity here. What makes a boy or girl? How do we create gender? So perhaps this might work in Year 9 too. As an adult, this is one of the stories that lives with you and I am so glad I read it. Well worth its Carnegie nomination and more.
You can buy this book here: https://amzn.to/2ko2kBr