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Science and nature came together on Iona over the last month when author Liz MacWhirter took up a residency in a shepherd’s bothy.
Having enjoyed immense success with her debut novel Black Snow Falling, an Elizabethan fantasy aimed at young adults, Liz travelled to the island in order to ‘find some head space’ that would enable her to pull all the elements of her next literary project together.
‘My next novel will be partially based in Iona so I thought it would be a great idea to spend some time there,’ she explained.
Born just outside London, Liz lived more recently in Edinburgh before marrying her husband Rupert Smith and moving to the Borders last year. It took a few days to get used to living on her own in a remote setting with neither a toilet or running water in the shepherd’s hut. But it was the darkness of the island that caused the biggest problem for the self-confessed city girl.
‘When you live in a city you tend to associate darkness with danger,’ she explained.
Having been introduced to science as a child by her engineer father, however, a trip to Florence many years later led Liz to a mechanical Armillary Sphere made for the Medicis in the 1500s, which embodied the long-held belief that the earth was at the centre of the heavens.
An experience which perhaps helped her combat her fear of the darkness.
‘Eighty per cent of my brain loved it but 20 per cent was on alert,’ she said.
‘That eventually stopped though and I became totally absorbed in the island, a place where I could feel intimately connected to the the earth’s turning.’
For several years now artists of all mediums, from around the world, have been coming to spend time at John MacLean’s hostel at Lagandorain to pursue a project or work towards completing a sustained piece of work.
To date there have been visual artists, poets, writers and photographers, with each residency concluding with an Open Studio for islanders.
‘These are a great success and add something special to the life of the island over the long winter months,’ said John.
‘It has been a pleasure and inspiration to have Liz at Iona Hostel. My particular interest is in literature and it’s been fascinating to observe her work progress.’
Black Snow Falling has been nominated for the 2019 CILIP Carnegie Medal, the Historical Association’s Young Quills Award and was nominated for the EIBF First Book Award. It was the Scottish Book Trust’s Book of the Month December 2018.