The Dark Island

I was at a concert the other day, listening to the Training Choir of the fabulous National Youth Choir of Scotland give a heartfelt performance of a Scottish folk song called ‘The Dark Island’.

It’s a song about Benbecula – a small island in the Outer Hebrides, off the west coast of Scotland – and expresses the longing that people often have for the days and places of their childhood. I think that there are several versions of the song, but the one I heard was written by David Silver and set to music by Iain MacLachlan. It begins:

“Away to the westward, I’m longing to be
Where the beauties of heaven’ unfold by the sea
Where the sweet purple heather’ blooms fragrant and free
On a hill-top, high above the Dark Island.”

I think that everyone has their own ‘Dark Island’: a place from the past that lives so vividly and fondly in the mind that sometimes you ache to return to it in the present. Of course, it is never the same when you do. Sadly.

One of my ‘Dark Islands’ is the place where I grew up – a school for, what they called at the time, ‘maladjusted’ boys. I’m neither a boy, nor maladjusted (I hope), but my dad was a teacher there and we lived, like all the other staff and their families, on the school grounds. These grounds were huge and I spent a good part of my childhood falling into ponds, making dens in the forest and running over the playing fields with the other staff kids. Summers were glorious…

From a writer’s perspective, ‘Dark Islands’ like this are a fantastic resource from which you can steal scenes, emotions and settings. They are often found at pivotal points in your life – growing up, first love, leaving home, marriage – and because they are so clear in your mind, they can help you deal convincingly with similar challenges that your characters might be facing.

That is the hope anyway. While I’ve made a conscious decision never to return to the place where I grew up, for fear of spoiling my rose-tinted memories, I know that I can always return there in my imagination and, as the song says:

“…capture the magic that lingers for me
When I’m back, once more upon, the Dark Island.”

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