According to Amazon, there are at least 1,678 books or editions of books set in or about St Kilda – which works out at more than 40 for every one of the 36 islanders finally evacuated in 1930.
Leading Canadian novelist Michael Crummey would be bemused by that. In his native Newfoundland, islands and remote fishing villages have been collectively abandoned over the past half century so often as to make it almost commonplace.
The evacuation of an island community – and one man’s determination to resist it – is the subject of his outstanding new novel, Sweetland, about which he will be talking at the Ullapool book festival a week today. In Newfoundland, these scattered fishing villages – there are 1,200 of them, of varying degrees of vulnerability, dotted around the island’s coastline – are known as “outports”. These places are where the province’s history started, where its culture runs deepest, so you might expect resettlement plans to be wildly controversial. But they’re not: those fishing villages all grew up because of cod, and cod is so close to extinction that the 1992 ban on fishing for it still hasn’t been lifted. Newfoundlanders, buoyed by an offshore oil boom which is pumping unprecedented wealth into their capital, St John’s, seem to have grown resigned to outports slowly disappearing from the map.
Crummey, however, has been fascinated by Newfoundland fishing village culture ever since he first started writing: his last novel, 2009’s Commonwealth Prize-winning Galore, is a vivid celebration of outpost folklore, myth-making and storytelling at its 19th century height. Reading it, you’d expect its author to have himself grown up in an outport, so conversant does he seem with the ways of the sea and the fisherman’s skills.
You’d be wrong. On an island in which nearly everyone lives on the coast, Crummey grew up almost as far away from it as possible, in the small zinc mining town of Buchans, where his father worked in a factory. This is an island, remember, almost without farms: the topsoil is too thin, the land too boggy, the winters too long. Inland it is almost uninhabited.
“Basically, it was in the middle of nowhere,” he says, “on an elevated plain, mainly bog and spruce forest”. Like Siberia? “I’ve never been,” he laughs, “but yes, I guess.”
“Both my parents grew up in outports, though, and everyone else their age in Buchans did too. So in a weird way, I was made by the outports even though I was nowhere near them. For a long time I felt like a fake Newfoundlander because I didn’t grow up on the water. I don’t know if that had anything to do with me taking up writing, but I wrote about that world from the very start.”
If Buchans was remote, it was nothing compared with Labrador – a region more than three times as big as Scotland yet with the same population as Glenrothes – where he moved in 1979 when he was 14 and the Buchans zinc mine closed. The iron ore mining town of Wabush is near Labrador City (about the size of Haddington). There’s another town 40 miles away and – look at the map – hundreds and hundreds of miles of nothing (apart from the world’s biggest herds of caribou). At this point, I’m beginning to feel sorry for him.
Actually, he says, it wasn’t that bad. Both places were company towns. “At its height, about 2,000 people lived in Buchans, which is big in Newfoundland terms. And there were facilities most people outside of St John’s could only dream of – a cottage hospital, a bowling alley, a movie theatre, a hockey rink. When my father moved there at 16 from the tiny west Newfoundland outport he grew up in, it was like a time machine jumping 50 years into the future. There were heated buildings, a pay cheque every two weeks regardless of the weather. He only intended to work there to pay off his debts from fishing – he’d lost $200 in two years, which was a big chunk of money back then. But he stayed for 30 years.”
It’s when Crummey talks about the way of life his father left behind that one catches the pulse of his fiction. “It had hardly changed for 200 or 300 years. He started fishing with his family at the age of nine and went on what they used to call the Labrador fishery. Every spring 10,000 men and their older children – about 10 per cent of Newfoundland’s population – would spend the summer fishing off the Labrador coast, either in schooners or from the land.
“The ones like my grandfather who had their own land on Labrador were called stationers. They’d build a shack, and every morning go out to their traps, bring the cod in, process it, and do that as many times as they could. Building a shack was hard there as they had to go inland to find trees to chop down. There was so little lumber that they didn’t even build an outhouse, they’d just use the landwash as a toilet. There were two rooms downstairs and the crew slept under the eaves on mattresses stuffed with wood shavings. It was like something out of the 18th century even in 1947, which was Dad’s last year there.
“The people who lived that life aren’t nostalgic about it. It was really, really hard, and they’re all quite happy to have their flush toilets and cable TV. But they do miss the people. There was something about that way of life that created a particular character – people who were incredibly self-reliant yet who were completely dependent on one another.”
Moses Sweetland, the protagonist of Crummey’s novel, is such a man – strong-minded, obstinate, “someone who is not necessarily in touch with his feelings, who might have strong opinions but wouldn’t be able to tell you why”. Working for Adventure Canada on cruises round Newfoundland, stopping at its own real or potential St Kildas – places where the inhabitants have either taken or are actively considering the government’s resettlement grants – Crummey met plenty of people like that.
“I knew that to make this novel work I required a particular kind of person to be the last holdout against an island evacuation scheme that required everyone in the community to agree. Moses arrived ready-made. He was who he was from the very first scene when the government man came to his door. I knew who Moses was immediately because I had grown up around him.”
In a way, the novel is a threnody to thrawnness. Sweetland’s obstinacy earns him the antagonism of islanders who used to be close friends, but he perseveres with his determination to cling on, even as everyone around him packs up and leaves the island that bears his name. Sweetland: a place of ice and rain, hardship, endurance and occasional tragedy. How could a man not want to leave a place like that? What makes him want to stay?
Crummey wasn’t consciously aware of it when he was writing the book, but when he looks back, he sees that the biggest influence on it was watching his father face up to the cancer that killed him in 2002. Alone on the island, Sweetland has to face up to the end of a life he loved, to the changes that will mean its death, to the beauty and dreams that, even on the remotest, coldest outpost, no man would want to leave.
“It might sound bleak, but that’s not my sense of it at all. Even alone on the island, he is completely alive in the world. There is something heroic about his determination to maintain a connection to the place he had come from and to do it on his own terms. It wasn’t at all like a defeat.”
• Sweetland is published by Corsair, £16.99. Michael Crummey will be at the Ullapool Book Festival on 10 May