One of the things I enjoyed about writing Between Boat and Shore was getting to imagine my way into a world which I had already almost visited. Many of the places described are real, and the others are based on buildings from the same period or reconstructions. Here’s a quick run-down with pictures and links for readers who might be interested (some minor spoilers but nothing major, so you should be safe to read this if you haven’t read/finished the book yet).
The island on which Trebbi lives is South Ronaldsay, and the nearest modern village is Burwick. Look round that Google map and you’ll find Liddel Loch, and just south of that, a small sheltered bay. Although sea levels have been fairly stable for the last 6000 years, there has been local change and I allowed a bit for erosion and gave myself some poetic license in the details of the shoreline. As far as I can tell there’s no evidence for a village on the site I described – but the people who built Banks Chambered Tomb, also known as the Tomb of the Otters, needed to live somewhere, so I invented Otter Village.
It seems that on at least some of the Orkney islands during the Neolithic, every community has its own tomb. On Rousay, so many of them survive that archaeologists have been able to guess where the boundaries between community areas might have been – in Hedges’ (very useful) book The Tomb of the Eagles he provides a possible map for this (p106). Studying an OS map of South Ronaldsay, I felt pretty close to drawing my own, each ‘slice’ of the island with a tomb, access to the sea, fresh water, and access to the higher land as well. (The small size of the island helps with working this out, but it also gave it an advantage for real neolithic people as well as authors – at just under 50 km², it’s too small to support a breeding community of large predators: even with plentiful food, that’s a home range for just one or two brown bears, i.e, not a breeding population.)
The tombs themselves are interesting. There are at least two distinct styles found on Orkney – some divided into chambers with upright stones, and others with chambers built into the walls. The Tomb of the Eagles is an example of the first kind, but the structure is easier to see in this picture of Midhowe tomb on Rousay.
Below a white gantry and wooden walkway in the top and right of the picture, a stone structure has a green floor, very thick side walls with a stone facing and rubble core, and thin, upright ‘flagstones’ sticking out in the central space, where the floor is mainly green.
Maes Howe, probably the most famous of the Orkney neolithic tombs, is an example of the second kind with chambers built into the walls; so is the Tomb of the Otters, although (as you can see in the diagram on this page) much smaller. Ordinary people aren’t allowed to take pictures inside Maes Howe, so here’s a picture from Charles Tait’s professional photography website.
The block walls of Maes Howe showing how the side chambers are built into the thick walls.
The houses in the novel are based on those at Barnhouse and Skara Brae, on the mainland of Orkney. In this picture, which I took at Skara Brae, you can see the dresser – Trebbi keeps her cooking pots on one of these – and the small stone-slab box on the floor, which may (as in the novel) have been used for keeping seafood alive until it was wanted.
A Neolithic house at Skara Brea, similar to those I describe in Otter Village. The hearth in the centre of the house is on the lower left; there’s a large dresser and at the base of it a box which may have been filled with seawater and used to keep seafood alive; and on the right, a box bed. The sea is just visible at the top of the picture.
Also mentioned in the book are the stone circles, the Ring of Brodgar and the Stones of Stenness – plus a completely fictional location which is more like Seahenge, even though I know that’s later. Here’s a picture of mine showing the Stones of Stenness.
(some of) the Stones of Stenness – three huge uprights with sharply angled, ‘scalpel like’ tops, on a grassy area, with water and distant hills behind.
And it’s the Ring of Brodgar which appears on the cover of the book itself, picture by E. James and the cover design by Fiona Pickles at Manifold Press.
Paperback copies of Between Boat and Shore are now available – buy from Amazon (UK or US), or get in touch with me directly if you’d like a signed copy.