by Geraldine McCaughrean
“On a diet of oily soup and ice-fringed, sleepless nights, their goodwill was failing and falling back inside their bodies, unable to reach their eyes to look out, or their mouths to smile, or their throats to speak.”
St Kilda is an isolated Scottish archipelago in the North Atlantic Ocean, situated 41 miles west of Benbecula. It is bleak, sometimes beautiful, its sea cliffs the highest in the country, its narrow ledges and mighty stacs (large outcrops rising sheer-sided out of the sea) the most important breeding ground for seabirds in north-west Europe. It is also the remotest part of the British Isles.
For thousands of years, until 1930, a community of no more than 180 indomitable souls inhabited the largest island: Hirta, where they built sturdy stone houses to be shared with their meagre livestock during the long winter months. They led desperately gruelling lives in a place so wild and inhospitable that trees refused to grow; surviving only on limited food crops such as barley and potatoes and on cheese made from sheep’s milk. They were generally unable to fish due to the mountainous seas but sustained themselves by hunting the island’s profusion of birds – gannets, fulmars and puffins forming a major part of their diets. These were caught by ‘fowlers’ who lowered themselves on ropes from the sheer clifftops or by scaling the towering stacs from their boats.
“Warrior Stac grows bigger the closer you get. You would swear it was pushing its way upwards – a rock whale pitching its whole bulk into the sky, covered in barnacles, aiming to swallow the moon.”
It is in this storm-battered, inaccessible part of the world Geraldine McCaughrean has set her latest novel, aimed at younger readers but equally likely to appeal to adults. Based on a true story, it begins on Hirta in August 1727 with a fowling party setting sail for Warrior Stac (properly known as Stac an Armin) to harvest “the summer plenty: bird meat, eggs, feathers, oil…”
A group consisting of nine boys and three men is put ashore on this, the tallest sea stac in Scotland. The party is to remain there for a few weeks, as generations before them have done, but this year, no one returns to take them home.
St Kildans were a race of God-fearing people who set great store by a concoction of superstition, omens and religious doctrine, and as the weeks turned into months they convinced themselves that nothing short of the end of the world had caused their abandonment. They were starving and frozen with only each other for comfort. Why hadn’t they been rescued? How could they hope to survive a winter on this exposed lump of rock amid a seething ocean?
As both thalassophile and someone fascinated with remote islands, I was inevitably tempted by the promotional blurb on the back cover of Where the World Ends. I seldom read narratives aimed at young adults, mainly because I know so little about the them (perhaps because I went straight from reading children’s stories to adult fiction almost overnight) but I’m immensely gratified McCaughrean’s 2018 CILIP Carnegie Medal-winning historical novel appeared on my radar. Why? Because it is simply one of the best books I have read this year.
It is at once disquieting and compelling, funny and unbearable; a tale of survival in punishing conditions, recounted by Quilliam, an adolescent boy with a gift for telling stories. This beautifully written book will, I know, be one to which I continue to refer (and no doubt reread) in the future. I wholeheartedly recommend it to readers of any age.
“…it was spring, and spring engenders hope in every creature, from the tideline to the mountain peak.”
Many thanks to Usborne Publishing for gifting a copy of this title.