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.