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>> Revisiting Scotland's Highland Clearances

Revisiting Scotland's Highland Clearances

Revisiting Scotland's Highland Clearances

KAREN MCCOMBIE's new novel steps back in time to the 1860s and a remote Scottish island of Tornish. Bridie loves the island but longs for adventure and when a new and cruel Laird arrives, her dreams of escape take on a fresh urgency.
This is an evocative and adeptly told story about our dreams, empowerment and courage, with a strong setting and plenty of great characters - a great start to this new series by Karen McCombie.

We asked KAREN MCCOMBIE to tell us more about LITTLE BIRD FLIES:

Q: What inspired the idea for Little Bird Flies and what did you want to focus on in the story?

A: I guess you could say that Little Bird Flies is a love letter to Scotland, even if it's not the Scotland I grew up in, since it's set in 1861! I've lived in London for many years now and we have our lovely English daughter, but there's something about the timeless, wild landscapes of the hills, forests and lochs of Scotland that feel somehow locked in my DNA.

As for focus, it's always, always the ordinary people's stories I'm interested in. Even when I was young, and visited historic castles in my part of Scotland with my parents, I'd still be keen to know about the servants' lives in the kitchens and stables, much more so than the pampered Lairds and their families in their grand rooms upstairs.

Q: Why did you decide to step back in time for this novel?

A: I have written historical fiction before... there's my evacuee novel Catching Falling Stars; a time-slip into the Edwardian era with The Whispers of Wilderwood Hall (the year 1912 is very significant, if - *spoiler* - you can think of a famous disaster that happened that year!); and secret-packed The Pearl in the Attic, which is set on my local high street in north London in both the present day and 1904.

I loved writing and researching these books, but I have to say the research I did for Little Bird Flies and its follow-up, Little Bird Lands is the most immersive experience I've ever had writing. I've really felt lost in the worlds of Victorian Scotland and the emigrant experience to America. It's been utterly fascinating.

Q: How much research did you need to do into this period, the 1860s, and why did you choose this timing?

A: My starting point was the Highland Clearances, an historic event that's familiar to Scottish schoolchildren, who study it as part of their curriculum, but is little known anywhere else. When I read about that whole century of Scottish lairds and landlords occasionally encouraging but more commonly forcing poor tenant farming families off their lands, I realized I couldn't set it in the early days of the Clearances, as the conditions of people's evictions and forced emigration was often so barbaric I couldn't see even the slightest way I could bring some humanity to the subject.

Instead, I chose to begin my novel towards the end of this period, when heroine Bridie's family feel as if this terrible period in Scotland's history has passed their island by. But has it? And setting my story in the 1860s meant I could include aspects of the Victorian age that I'd always been fascinated by. Queen Victoria herself pops up - almost!

Q: What did you learn about writing historical fiction, compared with writing contemporary stories, from writing this novel?

A: I learned what I'd heard was true - you need to read a TON of research, and will only end up using a fraction for your actual novel. But if you don't do the enormous amount of research, just the very feel of your story will not ring true. And every author wants their readers to get lost in whatever they write!

Q: How did you choose your setting, a Scottish island? Is it based on somewhere you know?

A: Our friends lived for a few years on a fairly remote island called Ulva, off the west coast of Scotland. We only visited the island once, but it made a huge impression on me.

Only nine people lived on Ulva at that time, but when we walked around it, our friends pointed out where villages once stood, and you could imagine the bustling community of the past, before the Highland Clearances swept everyone away. My fictional setting of Tornish certainly owes a debt to that one trip we made to Ulva.

Q: Why did write the book in the first person, and why did you want your protagonist, Bridie, to have this internal struggle of both loving home and a longing for adventure?

A: I always like to write in the first person, since it makes the character feel more alive and present, and that's especially important when you're writing something historical - I just want that distance of time to disappear for the reader.

As for Bridie's internal struggle... if characters' points of view are simply black and white, it can make a story seem flat, I think. So Bridie adores her best friend Will but gets irritated by him, loves her sisters while being weary with their bossing, and adores the island and its people at the same time as aching to see more of the wide world.

Q: Was it difficult to have a female central character who longs for adventure at a time when women and girls weren't allowed to do very much at all?

A: I think to a certain extent I was thinking of lots of women's and girls' stories I'd read or heard about over the years... the struggle of knowing you can do or be so much more, but society won't let you. Even my own mother struggled with choices that were closed off to her as a working class young woman.

Thinking of the waste of all this talent through the centuries makes my blood boil. And it made me want to give such a girl a voice. And while Bridie can't totally change the world she's living in, she can still have her victories.

Q: Why was it important for you that Bridie has a disability, and what would you like your readers to take away from reading her story?

A: Watching my daughter, her friends and my own friends' children make their way through the secondary school years, I was aware that lots of them were going through this hugely important transitional time while struggling with difficulties that might be physical or emotional, connected to bullying or family problems.

I kept thinking that I wished I could tell them all that their difficulties were just part of their story, they did not define them. So Bridie's difficulty is a disability, but it's only a small part of who she is. I really hope it might give readers going through their own issues the sense that they are SO much more than just that issue alone.

Q: Will you be returning to Bridie's world?

A: Yes! I'm putting the finishing touches to Little Bird Lands right now, following the adventures of Bridie's family as they travel through America, in search of a place to call home.

Q: Bridie is torn between loving the excitement of the city and missing the island and nature. Which is your natural 'home', town or country?

A: I love both, though the city is home. And I'm very lucky to live in an area of north London where I'm spoiled with an urban version of nature all around me, with huge parks and woods on my doorstep.

Q: Where is your favourite place to write and what are you writing now?

A: At home, I write in a tiny back bedroom, but working at home ALL day makes me a little stir-crazy. So most mornings I pack up my laptop, walk through the park and write for a couple of hours in the local garden centre cafe, surrounded by flowers, and a dog or two if I'm lucky!

Q: And what is your favourite escape from writing?

A: I'm currently doing the Capital Ring walk around London with friends... we do a chunk of a few miles once a month, through amazing urban greenery, discovering hidden pockets of the city and its history that we had no idea about. Apart from that, I switch off with my cat on my lap and a good drama on TV!

Q: What other historical fiction would you recommend to young readers?

A: There are so many authors writing amazing historical fiction these days, such as Catherine Johnson, Emma Carroll, Katherine Woodfine, Jacqueline Wilson, Sally Nicholls, Hilary McKay, Tanya Landman and loads more.

But one novel that particularly gripped me when I read it was At the Sign of the Sugared Plum by Mary Hooper, about a young teenage girl coming to work in her sister's sweet shop in London - just as the plague begins to take hold in the city. Dark but totally gripping...

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