An extract from a non-fiction work in progress, Shouting from the Edge of the World.
In January 1732, Lady Grange was abducted from an Edinburgh boarding house. She recognised the men who wrestled her to the ground, bound her in cloth like a corpse, and tied her to the back of a rider on horseback. Their destination was a tower near thirty miles away, where she would be held prisoner like the princess in a bleak fairy story while her captors pondered their next steps.
They needed to find a long-term secure place to hold her. It should be so remote that she could not accidentally encounter anyone tempted to communicate with Edinburgh, as her husband would probably have already suggested she had suffered a natural death. Preferably she would be placed where no-one would be swayed by her faded beauty or spirited defiance, as she would not quietly accept being severed from her old life. An island in the Hebrides under the control of a friendly clan chief would eliminate the need for warders and keep costs minimal.
At harvest time, when safe seafaring was still viable, the kidnappers shipped their ‘cargo’ (as they described her in their vulgar code), out to the flat isles of Heiskir beyond the Outer Hebrides off north-west Scotland. There the Steward and his wife were her hosts for more than a year. Lady Grange demanded shoes, stockings, wheaten bread and a minister whom she might convince of the immorality of holding her a prisoner. She was in her early fifties and accustomed to command. Her hosts grew uneasy about keeping her and the conspirators were forced to reconsider. The Lady would be better placed on an island without resident gentry, where her native English would be unintelligible to Gaelic-speaking natives who would remain uncorrupted by her grief and promises. They chose an islet eighty miles from the mainland and forty miles beyond the Western Isles, a rock in the Atlantic Ocean barely three miles by two, blasted by winds so strong that no tree or shrub could survive. There could be no escape from here, the last inhabited place between Scotland and Newfoundland, on the edge of the known world: St Kilda.
Lady Grange was determined not to be silenced. When she had lived there for six years, she disclosed her whereabouts in two letters which were smuggled to Edinburgh without being intercepted. The plotters had not foreseen that a Presbyterian missionary society would send to St Kilda an English-speaking minister who might be persuaded to let her use his writing materials.
In her letters she named the men who had seized her, but as they were never brought to trial hers is the only version of the story that survives. She did not disclose what might have provoked her fate, through it was rumoured that she had evidence, an indiscrete letter perhaps, that her husband and his friends were involved in a Jacobite plot to put a Stuart king on the throne. It was plausible this had persuaded the conspirators to remove her from society to preserve their own lives, and there is little doubt her husband was complicate in the plan. He may have had a more mundane motive: to enjoy his London mistress without the inconvenience of an outspoken, carping wife. For whatever reason, Rachel was forced to live alongside the lowliest subjects of King George II. The islanders of St Kilda were so distant from London, an adventurous journey of at least a month in favourable weather, they would have no interest in city scandal and may not even have known the name of their king.
Once Edinburgh society had learned Rachel was alive and held on St Kilda, the conspirators acted quickly to prevent her rescue. She was transported to secluded places around the Highlands to be finally lodged in a tenant’s cottage at Trumpan, a scattered community on the Waternish peninsula of Skye. Over the thirteen years of her captivity she may have received no news about her children and distant home. In 1745 she died and was buried in the graveyard of a Trumpan church which had been a roofless ruin for nearly two centuries.
The graveyard in Skye was a few miles from where Jack and I settled in the 1970s after years of scheming and saving. Amongst numerous changes to my life, I set aside my literary classics to read books with ‘Skye’ in the title. These were old volumes sent by southern friends in which rivers, hills or inlets had a tale attached: some told as history, others as folklore, though as an incomer I could not judge the difference. Stories were set down as if legend, history and practical advice were equivalents: a heap of stones marked the grave of a heroic kinsman; a fairy visitor crooned to the infant to hush his tears; an islet grew sufficient grass ‘to rear one sheep to obesity, feed two to leanness, and to starve three.’ It seemed I now lived within a Highland version of Middle Earth. Before I could pronounce the names on the road signs, I was experiencing an imaginative geography with specific places laden with memory of loss or loyalty, and footprints long ago washed away.
The Misty Isle of Skye was written by a local minister MacCulloch, and whilst most books passed over Lady Grange’s story in a single unamplified sentence, his contained five pages about her. I felt an affinity with her: a cosmopolitan incomer like myself, unable to speak Gaelic, cut off from family and the culture of high society, forced to become a loner. Both our lives were framed by the ambitions of men who had professed the utmost love. Yet there were differences. I had planned my adventure to move to the Hebrides in my twenties whilst Rachel was older than my mother when she was compelled to live on a most inhospitable island. She left behind six living children, whilst I was yet childless. And then, as MacCulloch pointed out, her husband’s moral character was ‘at least dubious’ and their marriage ‘became intolerable.’ Because I longed for a friend, I allowed myself to become haunted by Rachel, Lady Grange, introduced through a book found in a musty shop in St Edmund’s Passage in Cambridge, yet intensely alive for me today.
The churchyard at Trumpan is on the final loop on the single-tracked road, and I recall only three houses beyond it before it re-joins the primary way. Insufficient traffic passed for me to arose curiosity if I parked for ten minutes before going home after my day teaching at the primary school. The ruined church is left as a memorial to the congregation burned to death 400 years earlier in a feud between the local clan MacLeod and MacDonald of Uist in the Western Isles. The shape of a single-roomed cottage, the eastern high gable is nearly intact, a perfect triangle perched on a square, black against the sky. A slit of a window-opening is positioned where I might have expected a chimney. As the sun rises, the light coming through the unglazed fissure would have fallen like a pointing finger on the worshipers’ heads. The church was never reinstated, nor the community repopulated in the old way.
I would look for her gravestone. It is a rectangular pale grey slab positioned on a base, with an inscription on the landward side. It stands a few paces west of the doorway to the church, so smothered by pallid lichen that the engraved lettering is hard to decipher.
R I P
wife of the Hon James Erskine
died AD 1745
Her name was Rachel.
On Skye it was customary for a woman at burial to be recalled by her maiden name, though I believe Rachel would have been satisfied with these words, ‘wife of Lord Grange’, as that is how she identified herself to strangers. I could picture her, this unhappy, irate woman, her fine dress in tatters, her hair blowing around her face, shouting words I could not catch on this windswept point.As I would seldom raise my own voice, I was exhilarated to imagine her daring, her refusal to submit. I stood at the stone church looking across the sea to the view of the Western Isles, knowing that behind them, hidden, lay the island of St Kilda where she was forced to lived.
In the years between her death and my arrival on Skye, she had become authenticated history, intriguing authors like the diarist Boswell who noted ‘the true story of this lady is as frightfully romantick as if it had been the fiction of a gloomy fancy’ . It irritated me that he lacked understanding of the courage needed to stay alive in such desolation. In defiance, I attached her story with its unsolved riddles to my own.
As Jack and I settled into our first Hebridean autumn, the days lacked the bright colours of the holidays we had spent here with friends. West coast rain, however brief and light, could be expected on most days. So far north the pale sun was rising as I set off for work, and we needed lights on all day. The days shortened with unexpected speed, as if lacking the vitality to stay awake. Evenings would arrive before Jack had remembered to get in the firewood or secure the hens. I was too busy to watch the sunset.
As we adapted to being crofters, I discovered there would be few occasions to wear my miniskirts or floaty long dresses. I reluctantly bought an anorak, an unglamorous garment universally worn in every town north of Carlisle. My long hair was tucked under a hood. Needing to kneel to attend to the animals, I wore waterproof trousers, so my skin was not chafed by damp jeans. It became my everyday uniform.
Whatever had been provided for Rachel since she had left the city would have changed her appearance too. In Edinburgh she would have worn embroidered fabric shoes tailored to fit, which she had slipped into wooden pattens which lifted her feet above the muck of the streets. They may not have survived her journey. Once on St Kilda, where anything imported could only be provided through the annual visit of the steward, she must appeal graciously to his goodwill and wait for his return: or accept what was available on the island.
On St Kilda men and women went barelegged and barefoot in the summer months when most outdoor work was done. In winter, a woman’s footwear was made from the skin of a solan goose whose elegant neck supported its head at right angles like a walking-stick handle. This formed the heel of the shoe. The beak was cut off to create an opening for the foot, and the long neck shortened and sewn to fit the wearer snugly round the toes. The shoe-mitten was then turned inside out so the soft downy-side was worn next to the skin. A pair could last five days indoors or perhaps three in the open, but the supply of goosenecks was inexhaustible.
These shoes are described by the ingenious researcher Martin Martin, who made journeys through the Western Isles in the late 1690s, recording his explorations for the Royal Society in London. Change would be slow in such a remote and established community, and his visits to St Kilda took place a mere thirty years before Rachel’s confinement there. He noted that islanders’ stockings were not knitted in the round, nor made from a length of fabric joined by a seam, but were ragged cloth laced with feathers pushed through to hold them.
I needed robust footwear. Indoors I wore wooden-soled clogs which the dogs warily avoided. I bought wellies from the Crofters Store twenty miles away, black knee-length Argylls made for a lad, quite unlike the thin bright floppy pairs I had previously worn. It gave me pleasure to look at them: with thick serrated soles, the toes tilted up slightly up like those of a cheerful gnome, a brilliant design which ensured I never stumbled, yet light enough so I could break into a run. They stood proudly by the kitchen door, ready for my feet to slip in at every sortie, and never replaced during my fifteen years on Skye.
Rachel’s garments had a significance beyond practicality.Rev Alexander Carlyle was ten when Rachel was kidnapped but his memoir provides one of the few first-hand accounts of Rachel in her prime. He writes, ‘This lady had been very beautiful…’ ‘She was gorgeously dressed…’  If she were to persuade anyone to help her return to civilisation from the Highlands, she would need to convince them of her elevated connections. As woman with no power or money, her English language and her outfit were the sole indicators of her status. A lady could be recognised by the fashion of her garments, and her husband’s wealth judged by the quality of the fabric.
Her clothes would have been made specifically for her, a complicated jigsaw of sleeves and skirt, stays and petticoats, the pieces exactly fitted to her shape and re-fitted daily with the assistance of a maid. The silks and velvets which would catch the changing light in the candlelit rooms of the city, provided little warmth and would trail hazardously in a low hovel with an earthen floor and a fire burning on a few stones in the centre. There was no one to impress, no ‘occasions’ apart from a church service which would often take place outside, there being no building large enough to contain the population.
The winter weather would have made the island feel like a ship at sea, with wind speeds up to 140 mph. Her clothes would be impractical in conditions so wild. The local women would have pitied her as she strived to control long skirts and fine cloaks with velvet hoods which filled with wind like sails. Proud as Rachel was, she wanted to survive. Perhaps she persuaded the Steward to bring her a metal needle imported from England and a pair of scissors, so she could re-fashion her clothes for increased safety. Yet every such decision increased her distance from her former status as a privileged noblewoman: and from her home.
In unisex jeans I was obviously an incomer, pink-cheeked and slightly grubby since I might have recently mucked out the goat. By comparison, the women around me appeared tidy and wholesome, as if they had just thrown off an apron and taken a batch of scones from the oven. When they received a message that the minister’s red car had been seen on the road they would change into a skirt, since Highland courtesy would prompt them to avoid giving any unease or offence. Many bought clothes through heavyweight catalogues like Freeman or Littlewoods, where one paid a small amount weekly. I was easily confused by this method. I asked my mother to buy jeans and polo-necks for me at Marks in Marble Arch. When my parcel arrived, I would savour the jumpers, patting them, holding them to my face, imagining they smelt faintly of my Mum.
St Kildans had to wait longer for their imports. The steward on his annual visit from the Western Isles brought them blue indigo dye which they used sparingly to add a blue stripe to their fabric, woven from the wool of Soay sheep. These small beasts had a fleece coloured from light brown to chestnut, so the thread produced was variegated in the russet colours of the landscape. Soays shed their coats naturally, so their fleece was plucked in handfuls from their backs rather than sheared. Once collected, it was a woman’s work to ‘tease’ the wool, separating the locks, removing any burrs or twigs, and aligning fibres prior to spinning. When it felt light and airy, she would lay the fluff-ball out flat, and gently wrap it round the round a distaff pole so she could carry it tucked under her arm, spinning in situ. The finest wool came from the smooth fibres around the beast’s face and front which were more difficult to spin; the strands of courser wool from the back clung into a thread more easily, having invisible scales which interlinked. With one hand she would tease out a length of wool and with the other twirl a drop spindle, the shaft weighted by a whorl to give it momentum. This transferred the twist from her fingers to the wool, so it formed a thread at the whorl, which could be wound into a loose skein. This method of spinning was ancient and slow, but St Kildans never developed wheel technology, neither for spinning nor carrying, preferring to use the hands and the backs of the womenfolk.
Using a slow drop spindle, I worked the locks of wool which had become detached from our rolled fleeces at shearing. I gathered a little ball which I incorporated into my rug-weaving, using a loom made from an old window-frame, and a warp of fixed string. For the weft, I cut strips of fabric from my precious but redundant Laura Ashley dresses and wove with rags the colours of an English garden, alternating with off-white home-spun wool to fix the weaving tightly.
My jeans were made of denim with its distinctive ‘twill’ stitch, created by an offset at the end of the row, so the stitch appears slanted. This helps the fabric to drape well. The St Kildans probably used this twill stitch for weaving a plaid in the browns of the Soay wool with a stripe coloured with indigo. The men wore the plaid pleated in folds and held by a belt, with one end thrown over the shoulder. This kilt served as a blanket by night. As more colours were introduced, a ‘tartan’ became a way of interplaying the coloured threads so there was always a square where the different colours of warp and weft threads criss-crossed to make an mixed coloured band, just as a painter mixes a yellow and blue to make green. A master weaver can create three shades from two coloured threads, and as many as twenty-one out of six.
The woman’s plaid was called an ‘earasaid’, wrapped around the body and sometimes over the head. The English engineer Edmund Burt described it admiringly. Worn over a plain tunic it was ‘the undress of the ladies; and to a genteel woman, who adjusts it with a good air … a becoming veil… brought over the head, and may hide or discover the face according to the wearer’s fancy…’ I suspect Rachel’s lack of suitable clothing would have disturbed the St Kildans. Martin Martin describes their character as, ‘happier than the generality…in innocency and simplicity, purity, mutual love and cordial friendship.’ Concern would have prompted the women to safeguard the unhappy prisoner as they would one of their own. They would have wrapped a plaid around Lady Grange to comfort her in exile.
 MacCulloch, J.A. The Misty Isle of Skye, (Eneas MacKay, Stirling, 1927) p. 42
 MacCulloch, J. A. The Misty Isle of Skye, (Eneas MacKay, Stirling, 1927) p. 64-68
 Boswell, James The Journal of a Tour to the Hebrides, (Penguin, 1984) p.195
 Martin, Martin, A Late Voyage to St Kilda (Birlinn Ltd, 1999) p. 273
 Carlyle, Alexander, Autobiography of the Rev. Dr. Alexander Carlyle, (Blackwood Edinburgh, 1861, reproduced by Forgotten Books, London) p. 8
 Carlyle, Alexander, Autobiography of the Rev. Dr. Alexander Carlyle, (Blackwood Edinburgh, 1861, reproduced by Forgotten Books, London) p. 14
 Burt, Edmund, Burt’s Letters from the North of Scotland, (Birlinn, Edinburgh, 1998) p. 48
 Martin, Martin, A Late Voyage to St Kilda (Birlinn Ltd, 1999) p. 280