Margaret Elphinstone was born in 1948 in Kent, and educated at Queen's College, London and the University of Durham. She is Professor of Writing at the University of Strathclyde in Glasgow, where her main areas of academic research are Scottish women writers, and the literature of small islands.
Her fiction includes the novels The Incomer (1987), A Sparrow's Flight (1989) and The Sea Road (2000), a re-telling of the Viking exploration of the North Atlantic. She has also published a collection of short stories, An Apple From a Tree (1991), and two books on organic gardening, as well as a volume of poetry, Outside Eden (1990). Her fifth novel, Hy Brasil (2002), is set on a mythical island in the mid-Atlantic.Her most recent books are Voyageurs (2003), set during the 1812 War in North America; Light (2005); and The Gathering Night (2009), a story set in the Stone Age.
At the centre of Margaret Elphinstone’s writing lie three major preoccupations: a craftsman like dedication to the art of writing, where she delights in the beauty and variety of words and the skill of combining them together to weave rich, atmospheric prose, a dedication to accurate research, and a profound love and respect for nature.
Her first novel, The Incomer (1987), sees her experimenting with science fiction, not of the spaceship-landing-on-earth variety, but of a more subtle nature. The novel tells the story of Naomi, a travelling violinist, who arrives one evening in the small village of Clachanpluck, and settles down to pass the winter there. The story seems to be set in the present-day and yet there are no cars, no televisions or kitchen gadgets, and no means of mass communication or entertainment in the village. The inhabitants themselves live a clan-like existence in family units or 'households', working the land for the common good and rarely leaving the place of their birth.
There are hints of a 'time before', of a terrible calamity having occurred, of famine, of fish dying and animals sickening on the hillsides. We are never told exactly what the catastrophe was, but it is clear that it was the result of human failings. The villagers now seem to have a new innocence, a simple attitude to life based on hard work and survival. At first it seems that they suffer surprisingly little from jealousy, envy or acquisitiveness, and their attitude to love and relationships seems rather subdued. Is this a form of utopia? Perhaps not, for all is not well in the village: one of its inhabitants returns to the passionate, greedy human behaviour of the past and commits a terrible crime, the likes of which have not been seen for generations.
The concepts of 'new innocence', of outsiders being able to tell us more about ourselves, of a new model for the relationship between the sexes and the prospect of an apocalypse for mankind are further explored in Elphinstone’s book of short stories, An Apple from a Tree (1991). Some of the stories, such as the one from which the collection takes its title, where a young woman meets a naked girl in the Botanic Gardens in Edinburgh, experiment with common motifs (biblical allusions, fairytale, the myth of the alien) in a playful, imaginative fashion. This taste for ironical magical realism continues in 'Green Man', where the heroine, Sarah, comes across a man from another planet camping in the highlands. The man, who is 'completely, uncompromisingly green. The vivid, vibrant green of fresh spinach plants, or bogland grass, or young hawthorn', is able to read Sarah’s thoughts, and proves to have a wisdom and sensitivity that Elphinstone implicitly suggests is unusual in his counterparts on Earth.
Other stories in the collection are more serious and rather foreboding in nature, illustrating Elphinstone’s interest in ecological and environmental issues. Set in the contemporary world but inspired by Scottish folklore, these stories revolve around a mythical well, whose waters are symbolic of purity, and whose guardian will protect humanity from itself. 'The Cold Well' is a particularly apocalyptical tale, where the keeper of this magical water source senses danger whilst visiting a man-made building, probably a nuclear reactor or similar, a harbinger of human decadence.
Elphinstone’s historical novel, The Sea Road (2000), takes as its inspiration the life of the Viking heroine Gudrid, in particular the sea voyages she took around the north Atlantic as far as the coast of North America. It is loosely based on a number of Nordic sagas, and reproduces the sense of adventure of these stories, combined with exquisite historical precision, that can only be the fruit of months of extensive, passionate research. Gudrid’s story is written as if she were retelling her life in the first person to the Icelandic monk Agnar (who is to write down a theologically correct version in Latin for a Roman Cardinal), and it therefore echoes the oral traditions from which the Nordic sagas originated. The descriptions of cold, hunger, desolation and despair are written in a simple, crisp, unadorned prose that seems fitting for a woman born in an ice-ridden territory where famine, violence and death were everyday occurrences. Her description of the sea voyage to Greenland, for example, finishes with these words: 'When we reached the open sea the wind failed us. We ran into bad storms … We had hardly any water, and disease broke out amongst us. I was colder than I can ever begin to imagine now. Half our company died … We suffered terribly from thirst and exposure. I have scars still on my hands … Those were open sores. But at last … the sea spat us out'. Despite the harshness of her origins and language however, Gudrid’s warmth, humanity and energy shine out as she retells her story. Elphinstone seems so close to her heroine that the very vocabulary she uses becomes more Nordic in origin, so that she chooses words like skerry rather than rocky island or reef, sheiling rather than hut, byre rather than stable, kinsmen for relatives, and words even less familiar to us such as mizzle (mistlike rain) and kye (cattle).
Elphinstone’s next novel, Hy Brasil (2002), tells the story of a young English travel writer who visits the fictitious island of Hy Brasil in order to write a book. The literature of islands is one of Elphinstone’s research specialities at the university where she works, and in this novel her fascination for islands and water is mixed with other elements - hidden treasure, lighthouses, pirates, a volcano, drug smuggling and political intrigue, including resistance, revolution and torture – to provide a recipe that would be irresistible to any reader, not least because it harks back to the great adventure storytellers of English literature such as Daniel Defoe, J.M. Barrie or R.L. Stevenson.
As in all her novels, Elphinstone’s descriptions of place - of the heroine’s trip onto the volcano, or the interior of the castle of Ravnscar, for example - resound in the reader’s imagination long after he has finished the book. In Hy Brasil, just as in The Sea Road, where she describes in detail the clothes the Vikings would have worn, their commerce or their seafaring techniques, Elphinstone throws herself with meticulous enthusiasm into the details of subjects ranging from volcanic activity to deep sea diving and marine research.
Her novel, Voyageurs (2003), is an ambitious, monumental work of almost 500 pages. In it, Elphinstone returns to historical fiction with the story of Mark, a Quaker from the north of England, who goes over to the US-Canadian border in the early 1800s in search of his lost missionary sister. As in The Sea Road, Elphinstone’s pays great attention to historical detail and Mark, like Gudrin, takes not only a physical journey, but also a journey of self-discovery, as he struggles to keep his religious faith and remain a pacifist in a region on the brink of war.
At first, Mark appears as a simple, unsophisticated soul. He comes from a sheltered religious community in Cumberland and speaks in the strange, antiquated, almost biblical style of the Quakers of the time but, throughout the book, he grows steadily more psychologically complex. At some times he is almost unbearably pious, at other moments we see him struggling (and sometimes failing) against the temptations of the flesh and anti-religious, but entirely normal instincts, such as pride and despair, and we are reminded of the novel’s many historical predecessors, in particular The Pilgrim’s Progress. Mark always thinks carefully about what he does however and analyses his own and others’ behaviour and motivations with an honesty and clarity that make him strangely likeable, despite his occasional priggishness.
Mark is a faithful observer of the people he meets, the customs he encounters and the landscapes he travels through, and Elphinstone is at her best in her descriptions (via Mark) of the countryside, mountains, rivers, forests, lakes and weather conditions of North America. The impression that the novel leaves behind is of the sheer vastness of what was still a virgin territory. Mark notes that, though he comes from the Lake District, one of Britain’s wildest areas and inspiration to the Romantic poets, his native landscape is tame in comparison to the dimensions, harshness and rugged beauty of North America. Already, in the early 19th century, we can see that human ambition is a danger to the social and natural stability of the region. Elphinstone has written books on organic gardening, and her belief in man’s need to respect his environment is an essential facet of her fiction, as well as her life. As she sums it up in The Incomer: 'We are the land. The elements that created the land live in our bodies … What is done to us is also done to the land, and what is done to the land is the thing which is done to us. There is nothing else'.
Amanda Thursfield, 2004