Reading a blog post about the role of environment in writing, prompted me to admit I’d find it difficult to write if I couldn’t recall the natural backdrop to the action of story or novel. Surroundings have always been important to me.
When young, holidays were spent on a small island in the Firth of Clyde, playing on beach and rocks, and messing about in rowing boats with friends. I remember vividly the gritty feel of sand between bare toes. As we paddled in the shallows, feet looked strangely white, like jellyfish, their image fractured by dancing waves and reflected sun.
I remember too my panic whenever I came across seaweed when swimming. Yet on shore I found piles of seaweed fascinating, poked them with sticks to see what crabs or other things might be hiding there. If I was lucky a sea urchin shell might remain intact, or I’d find a starfish. Memory still holds the smell of those days – the tang of sea and shore, salt mixed with tar, spiced with cockles shelled for fishing bait, oil from motor boats covering the water with a sheen of iridescence. Time and again these memories resurface in short stories and novels.
My grandfather thrived on walking. Raised in the county, he thought nothing of covering considerable distances in his steady gait. He regularly pushed me in my pram through a nearby park, introducing me to trees and plants. When he retired (aged 74) his daily walks were a source of enormous enjoyment. On Sunday afternoons I often accompanied him, delighting in his stories of the area decades previously.
From wanders with my grandfather, I gravitated to tentative gardening trials, culminating in a mammoth attempt to restore and keep under control a slice of highland hillside in Argyll. Here, gardening became a winter activity as hordes of midges often drove us inside in summer. Sadly, midges and rampant growth, due to the mild moist climate, got the better of us, and trees and shrubs eventually sank back into a wilderness of Buddleia.
In order to identify our garden’s bounty, we took to roaming through the nearby botanic garden – a wonderful hillside collection of trees, shrubs, rhododendrons and azaleas, with areas devoted to the conservation of plants under threat in their native habitats. A magical place in spring and summer, but equally wonderful in autumn and winter when, along with leaves in jewel colours, strongly coloured and patterned barks were revealed. The smell of pine trees, of sawn wood after trees had been brought down in gales, remains with me.
The botanic garden was formerly an estate belonging to a keen horticulturalist. Many of its trees and shrubs had been brought back by Victorian plant hunters on expeditions to China, Japan and the Himalayas, their trips financed by plant lovers, and those keen to boast of something exotic in their gardens. We suspected our garden with its uncommon trees received some of the plant hunters’ trophies in seed or cutting form.
Having become acquainted with numerous Latin botanical names, it came as almost no surprise when a relative doing family tree research sent me an article she had come across that showed my ancestors were gardeners. My grandfather, with a large number of greats tacked to the front, is described as a botanist, winning prizes at the Scottish Horticultural Society for the fruits he grew whilst head gardener in a castle near Perth, though born not far from where I now stay.
In 1841 he sailed to Australia with members of his family, departing from Greenock with around 170 passengers on the India, a three-masted, barque built in Greenock. Like most others, my ancestors travelled steerage, crushed together like sardines in the lower deck.
Living conditions turned out to be the least of their worries, for the crew mutinied and the passengers had to take over. The crew had not long come to their senses when the ship was threatened with pillaging by a Spanish pirate ship. This was followed by a four hour gun battle with the brig HMS Acorn, then, 600 miles from land, a drunken crew member went into the hold for rum, staggered and dropped his candle setting the ship on fire. Passengers lucky enough to scramble aboard one of the ship’s boats (there was only room for a third of them) were eventually picked up by a French whaling ship.
My ancestors all survived, but lost everything. They were taken to Rio Janeiro where the consul looked after survivors, and chartered the Grindlay, to take them on to Australia, arriving in Port Phillip (which became part of Melbourne) four and a half months after leaving Greenock. My ancestor became a market gardener. His son became a gardener in the government gardens, another descendant settled in a Melbourne suburb where his brick house has been preserved, and is now a restaurant.
There are other gardeners in my family, but their lives seem to have been less adventurous than those who left that June day in 1841 for Australia.
Oh My Hat! What a journey! And to have survived to share the tale….imagine going through all that and not surviving to share it??? I love your ‘nature blogs’. The writing is as picturesque as the lovely images!
Thank you. Yes, an unbelievable journey. We moan about time spent in airports, security checks, but can fly across the world in very little time and in fair comfort. These journeys in sailing ships across oceans in uncertain weather must have been nightmares with no privacy, no facilities, poor food and probably dire company. Yet some brave should did the journeys several times, undaunted by the hardships. They must have been hardier in those days.
The information about the journey came from a long poem written by one of my travelling ancestors. The poem was passed down through the family, and another member got to know of it and researched the happenings mentioned, then wrote an article. Amazing how the internet widens our knowledge and brings us together.
What a fabulous history to have uncovered. Most of us will only ever find stories interesting solely to those following after them, but yours has it all!
Yet so many people emigrated from here, especially during the Clearances, that there must be plenty such stories but perhaps never recorded and passed down to families. My ancestors’ stories came from Australia, so I suppose families there know of them but they never made their way back to relatives in the home country.
What a fascinating story. I am especially interested in it because I have been reading and listening on Audible to the book Two Years Before the Mast. I had always heard of this book, but it sounded boring. Let me tell you, it is incredible!!! What I often do is listen to a book on Audible, and read it at the same time. ( It is like when we were little and our teachers read stories to us.) Because this book has so many nautical terms I do not understand, I found an annotated edition on ibooks on the iPad. So, I can click on a word, and the meaning will be there. I was confused by the author saying, they were “sailing large”. I found out it means sailing downwind. “Sailing by” is sailing towards the wind. So, we have the expression, “by and large” to mean the whole. Is this an American expression or do you have it as well? Regardless, thank you for your wonderful photos and story.
Thank you for this, Carol. ‘By and large’ is quite a common expression here – especially amongst politicians who tend to want to say a great deal without the words conveying much.
That book sounds very interesting. I have an iPad but (apart from my own first book) I haven’t actually downloaded books to read on it, but I might download this to read when we go on holiday later this year. It would add to what I know of sailing across oceans in three-masted boats.Always good to have book recommendations that others have enjoyed.
Interested too that you listen to audio books, an area I haven’t as yet ventured into. Again, this is something I was wondering about for travelling so I think I’ll have a look and see what’s available. Thanks for your comments.
The audio books saved my life when I had pneumonia for 4 weeks. I never had experience of absolute zero energy when ill, but I could listen to books on my iPad. They also helped me fall asleep. (there are many free books on the iPad, that is how I got into Robert Louis Stevenson and Kidnapped. Would love to see the area in Scotland that he describes)
Thank you, Carol. Really must check that out. Stevenson is a fascinating character, but it’s his wife, Fanny van de Grift Osbourne, who really grabs me. She and RLS met in Grez, an artist village south of Paris, and ‘became an item’ despite Fanny still being married. We made a trip to Grez to savour the atmosphere. Stevenson then risked his health to follow Fanny, travelling steerage, across the Atlantic and across America to San Francisco in order to marry her. To me, it’s a story with everything, and I’ve been fascinated by Fanny (a woman who liked younger men!) ever since reading Alexandra Lapierre’s book on her.
Wow, this sounds like another great book for me to read. I was so excited to find the Robert Louis Stevenson museum located in St Helena, where I think he honeymooned with her. This area is only about an hour away from me.
Carol, if you are interested there is another book worth reading by Nellie Van de Grift Sanchez (Fanny’s sister I think). It’s available free to download. I got it by Googling Fanny Stevenson. Project Gutenberg digitised it but I think it’s available from others. It provides a fascinating insight into Victorian times in America as well as Fanny.
A beautiful post. I read that their ancestors had adventures with navigation and shipwrecks. It is an interesting story that I read by the translator online 🙂
This sentence: “the scent of pines, the timber after trees had been felled in gales, remains with me.” It makes me think that the memory of the smell is very powerful. Often an odor brings accurate memories of places, people, events.
I enjoyed reading this.