The idea for The Visitors fell into my head almost fully formed while on holiday in Grogport, a tiny hamlet on the east coast of the Kintyre peninsula. It's connected to the mainland by a narrow isthmus, and it feels like an island. The beaches are sandy and studded with pebbles. Hills rise steeply from the shore and narrow roads wind around the coast, ducking inland to skirt the inlets. To the east, Arran lurks like a beached whale, and Gigha is smudge in the haze on the horizon to the west. Abandoned crofts explode with rowans, and in places the ferns fall into the road, wet and green.
My daughter was three months old, and the long drive from Cumbria, in Northwestern England, had unsettled her. She started waking early—around five in the morning—and wouldn't go back to sleep. My wife and I made coffee and watched the sun rise over Arran, casting blue light on the millpond Kilbrannan Sound. From the kitchen window, we saw herons stalk the surf, lashing down on crabs or minnows. Seals hunted in the bay every evening, and an otter dismembered fish on the shoreline. The garden thronged with little birds, and at one point I saw a kestrel sitting on the washing line, no more than five yards from the house. When we walked around the island, there were butterflies in the gorse, spiders on the sand, bees in the grass, gulls wheeling on the updrafts. I was shaken, at times, by how much life was around me, living as it always had, as though the land itself was alive and conscious. In so many places, it looked as though people, civilization, had simply given up and moved elsewhere. It felt as though the land was waking after centuries of slumber, and just beginning to stretch.
On the third or fourth morning, watching a seal swim like quicksilver in the bay, the spark of a story flared brightly inside me. It caught fast, and began to smolder. That story became The Visitors. Selkies, living in Grogport. A murder mystery. A young girl, desperate to leave an island. And it would be an island, I decided; the Kintyre peninsula was beautiful, but didn't do everything I wanted for the story. I started drafting a sense of what the island looked like. I called it Bancree. As I began to write the story, the island evolved too, morphing into something real enough to touch.
Bancree is a scrapbook of my Scotland. I grew up in Inverness, where I could see Ben Wyvis from my bedroom window. We walked our dogs on the shingle beach at Ardersier and through the sodden plantations of Culloden. I've been canoeing and camping on Loch Maree in torrential rain, and climbed the boulder fields of Torridon and Glen Nevis. I've been to the top of Schiehallion, and walked on the clifftops of Dumfries, and fallen out of bars on Tobermory, and seen friends crash cars by the shore of Loch Ness. I've taken the train from Edinburgh to Inverness so many times that the journey is engrained in my memory. From the top of Glen Affric, with June snowmelt still feeding the burns, I've seen both coasts glitter in the sun. Scotland has a hundred landscapes that sing to me, and I collected something from each of them to build Bancree.
The island is my love letter to Islay, Jura, Gigha, Mull, Iona, Ullapool, the Highlands, the Black Isle, Moray, and the Great Glen—to the landscapes I grew up in, the landscapes I love. I've never tried to sketch Bancree or make a map. I know what it looks like, and where to find Grogport, and Tighna, and Izzy's hut, and the wind farm on the Ben. But more importantly, I can drive the road around Bancree simply by closing my eyes. I can feel the scrunch of shingle underfoot, and the batter and bluster of the Atlantic coast. There is dew sagging on spiderwebs, spun between the thorns of gorse, and rafts of flotsam hefted on the beaches. Dead, empty crabs still scuttle on the breeze. The twiggy scratch of heather, the rivulets of water in the bracken. Titanic clouds, dark and warm and scudding low enough to touch. The fluttering machair, alive with bees. Fog that swallows the tops of trees and telegraph poles. The water in the bog pools, dark with peat, staining all the world around, pouring brown from every tap. Sands that hiss and sing as the wind rolls across the beach in waves.
Bancree is as real as a dream to me. It is vivid and bursting with life. I can feel the rub of sand between my fingers, but there is no map to go there.
Visit Bancree yourself by picking up a copy of The Visitors by Simon Sylvester, $19, mhpbooks.com.
A Quick Glossary of Terms From This Essay:
Isthmus: A narrow strip of land with water on either side that connects to larger bodies of land.
Croft: Scottish term for an enclosed area of land typically used for farming.
Rowan: A small tree bearing green leaves and red berries.
Kestrel: A small bird of prey.
Gorse: A bright-yellow flowering plant.
Selkies: Mythical creatures that can morph between woman and seal.
Machair: A low-lying, grassy plain found on the Northwest coasts of Ireland and Scotland.