Molly Flatt's novel, The Charmed Life of Alex Moore, begins in London before the action moves to Orkney where a huge secret is discovered. Here Molly shares just what it was about Orkney that inspired her, and why you should visit.
My debut novel, The Charmed Life of Alex Moore, begins in the heart of east London: all tiny apartments, gritty streets, hipster cafes and co-working spaces buzzing with tech entrepreneurs. But it ends up somewhere very different - somewhere that just happens to be hiding the world's biggest and most ancient secret. And at first, I couldn't figure out exactly where that somewhere should be.
It couldn’t be too far from Britain, and I wanted it to be real - no Avalons or Atlantises for me. But it had to be a place that felt, well, just a bit magic. Of course, it also had to be isolated enough for readers to believe that a massive secret could have been concealed there for several centuries - a massive secret that was still being successfully kept, right now. It was a pretty big ask.
Then I discovered Orkney.
The Orkney Islands are . . . well, they’re like no other place on earth. When I took a research trip there in summer 2012 (yes, it took me a long time to write this beast), I couldn’t believe that there weren’t more novels set in this mind-blowing archipelago. It’s a gift to writers, but it’s also a must-visit for anyone with half an imagination and a love for a compelling yarn.
So here are five reasons why all bookworms should book that ferry now . . .
The Orkney Isles look like they were designed by Tolkien in one of his mellower, Middle-earth moods. Largely treeless because of the winds, they offer a stunning panorama of shivering golden-green barley, sparkling heather swathed in purple-grey mist, towering sandstone cliffs and white-sand beaches clustered with puffins and seals. Yes, there are also some pretty miserable 1960s rendered buildings, and the harsh reality of farming such exposed land was brilliantly captured by Amy Liptrot in her memoir The Outrun (2015). But to outsiders (especially outsiders good at filtering reality through a romantic literary filter), Orkney is a dramatic dream.
I challenge you to drop onto the turf of Stenness, crawl inside the tomb of Maeshowe, read the Viking runes scratched into the inner wall - and resist the urge to bring those trespassing twelfth-century graffiti artists, with their bold boasts and crude jokes, back to fictional life. Maeshowe is just one of a feast of historical wonders scattered across the Orkney Isles. From burial chambers to standing stones to extraordinarily well-preserved villages, it’s a Neolithic Disneyland, and each haunting site positively drips with untold tales and lost lives.
Unsurprisingly, Orkney is full of strange and wonderful myths, from the legend of Assipattle and the Stoor Worm to the fables of the half-seal, half-human selkie folk. You’ll also want to bury yourself in the words of local authors. George Mackay Brown’s lean, earthy novels and poems are far less well known than they should be. Beside the Ocean of Time, which won the Saltire Scottish Book of the Year Award in 1994, is my favourite. The poetry of Edwin Muir is deeply moving, and it’s worth seeking out Stromness-dweller Andrew Greig’s eclectic writings, too. And she’s not native, but Amy Sackville’s Orkney (2014) is a tense and compelling novella about a newlywed couple honeymooning on the stormy shore.
Before I visited Orkney, I was a little worried about quite how warm a welcome this soft southerner would receive. But the Orcadians I met proved to be incredibly generous with both their time and their tales - even better when regaled in their gentle celtic accent, and peppered with words from Orkney’s ancient, extinct dialect, Norn. The (now ex) librarian in Kirkwall, Stewart Bain, proved invaluable in rooting out research material, while Tom Rendall, the creator of the Voices Around Orkney project, shared wonderful insights about the language and literature. Don’t be afraid to chat up strangers, in other words.
A good book is only ever enhanced by a glass of something to help the words go down - and boy, does Orkney’s famed whisky do the trick. The Highland Park Distillery is the most northern of all the distilleries in the world, and is one of the few to malt its own barley, using locally-cut peat from Hobbister Moor. In fact, during one round of manuscript edits, I decided to count the number of times characters drink whisky in The Charmed Life of Alex Moore. Let’s just say, in this case, art was worryingly close to life.
The Charmed Life of Alex Moore - a grown-up adventure with a magical twist set between the Shoreditch startup scene and the wilds of Orkney - is out now.