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Story of Strathcarron women inspires writer and broadcaster Sally Magnusson to imagine plight of massacre survivor ahead of Tain festival appearance

By Margaret Chrystall

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Sally Magnusson has appeared previously at the St Duthac Book and Arts Festival. Picture: Mark Janes
Sally Magnusson has appeared previously at the St Duthac Book and Arts Festival. Picture: Mark Janes

It was research for Sally Magnusson’s latest book that had brought her to Tain long before her first appearance at the town’s book festival.

Now she is back to talk about Music In The Dark, its story rooted in Strathcarron.

The book centres on the fictional character Jamesina Ross, once so in love with language that she was determined to become a writer – giving voice to her community.

But that was before a chilling event changed everything. Now living in the south of Scotland, Jamesina’s life has been scarred by a violent incident based on a true event.

Research into the facts and the creation of a life from imagination unite the two sides of Sally Magnusson’s work – as a journalist and novelist.

Letting go of the research and scrupulous truth-telling of journalism – to write fiction – hadn’t been easy, to free her imagination – “I had a mental image of me at the top of a tree, flying off it!”

Now, a third novel later, Sally said: “With each successive book I’ve been able to do that more easily, leap off the tree, if you like, and to fly above the ground rather than be tethered to fact and to the earth.”

Sally Magnusson's book is set partly in Strathcarron.
Sally Magnusson's book is set partly in Strathcarron.

When Sally imagined the Rutherglen street adult Jamesina would live on, it was based on the real street her own great-grandmother had lived on and which Sally knew well.

“But when I checked, I discovered the street hadn’t existed at the time and I was quite downcast. Then I thought ‘I could just make it a fictional street!’ I keep having that rush of adrenalin when I remember I can make things up!”

Sally first discovered the story of the Strathcarron women who have inspired Music In The Dark in the writing of a lawyer and journalist called Donald Ross.

“He wrote about what was happening in the Highland Clearances around the mid-1850s. He had been to Knoydart and had sent very angry and detailed letters to papers such as the Northern Echo about the scandal of those townships being emptied, the people having to go to Australia and what happened to those that remained.

“He heard about the clearance of Greenyards in Strathcarron and the brutal way the authorities had laid waste to the women who were resisting. That is when he wrote a pamphlet called The Massacre Of The Rosses.

“I was really intrigued to read that it was mainly women who were to the fore when the eviction notices were being delivered and the more I read into the subject – although it is an under-reported phenomenon – the more I realised that it was normal for the women of these townships to go to the front and try and stop the eviction notices being delivered by the sheriff to the main tenants of any township.

“In Coigach near Achiltibuie, there’s a sculpture being prepared for the women up there. When the landowner had tried to clear the township, the women managed to disperse the sheriff’s officers five times, the fifth time they had actually stripped the sheriff’s officer naked and sent him back on his boat!

“But by Strathcarron, the authorities went full-bloodedly for the women’s heads with their batons and left dozens for dead. Donald Ross called it a massacre.

“For me, women resisting in the Highland Clearances became spliced together in my imagination with the story of my own great grandmother.”

Sally will give the Neil Gunn Lecture at Eden Court: “I will talk about Butcher’s Broom which is about the Clearances and I appreciated that in The Scotsman’s review of Music In The Dark they said it could stand comparison with Gunn’s book! And I’ll be talking about the women’s resistance to the delivery of the Clearances eviction notices.

“There is surprisingly little in the way of studies into the women who resisted the evictions.

“But I think a historical novel can access those experiences. It doesn’t make me qualified to talk about it authoritatively, but I can put the ideas into my novel!”

Sally will be at St Duthac Book & Arts Festival on Saturday, Sept 16 at 7.30pm. Details: stduthacbookfest.com. Sally will give The Neil Gunn Lecture on Monday, Sept 25 at 7.30pm. More: www.sallymagnusson.com

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