Secrets of the Sea House by Elisabeth Gifford

21 February 2014 22:45

The action in this book flips between Scotland in 1860 and Scotland in 1992, mainly on Harris, a Hebridean island. Michael and Ruth have bought an old manse with the intentions of refurbishing it and turning it into a guest house. A tiny skeleton is discovered in an old tin chest underneath floorboards in what they are calling the Sea Room and Ruth is amazed when she realises that there is only one leg bone. Of course the police have to be involved but it turns out that it is a very old skeleton, so nothing that the police need to worry about but Ruth, who is herself pregnant is fascinated by it and naturally wonders about the story behind it.

In 1860 Scotland, the Reverend Alexander Ferguson has an interest in evolution and wonders if there is a possibility that such things as mermaids existed in the past. There have always been folk tales of such things. He wonders if they did exist, was it possible that they were an evolutionary step, such as Darwin was writing about.

The local landowner has decided that he will get rid of the islanders and replace them with sheep, a far more lucrative business for him, and the Reverend Ferguson is horrified to discover that he is being involved in the ghastly task of clearing the land of his congregation. Ruth has had a dysfunctional childhood so she has lots of demons from her past to deal with and they’re all coming to the surface with her own impending motherhood.

The actual stories were enjoyable and well written, but not researched at all and the mistakes drove me round the bend, but if you aren’t Scottish then you probably won’t know about all the things that are wrong.

However this book could have been doing with being better edited, silly things like one character going to get her hair permed every week!!!! obviously that isn’t possible. That should have been shampooed and set every week as I think you can only have a perm every 6 months, if you had one every week then your hair would quickly fall out and you would have no scalp left at all, those chemicals are fierce. Also on page 217 the reverend is described as wearing a white surplus, it should of course be white surplice.

But THEY always say that you should write about what you know about, or at least make sure that you research your subject. Sadly Gifford is absolutely clueless about religion in Scotland and she got herself into a right fankle/tangle. At first I couldn’t figure out which variety of Presbyterianism Alexander Ferguson was but I settled on the Free Church of Scotland, mainly because of the mention of Gaelic psalms being sung in his church, but the clothes which he was wearing would never have been worn by any sort of Presbyterian minister, never mind a ‘Wee Free’ – who have been described by a friend of mine as black belt Protestants. A satin stole was mentioned at one point and any minister who wore something as frivolous and vain as that would soon find himself without a church and congregation. They apparently went to ‘matins’ – oh no they didn’t! A black graduation gown over a black suit was/is what Presbyterian ministers wear in the pulpit. Ministers in most Scottish churches have always had to do what amount to auditions and the congregation votes on them, fire and brimstone was the order of the day, if the minister wasn’t seen as being strict then he probably wouldn’t have got a congregation and church at all.

The mention of the surplice (surplus !!) being worn by Alexander whilst he was conducting a service, that’s the white smocky thing which is worn by Scottish Episcopalian and Roman Catholic priests, is completely alien to any form of Presbyterianism. But when Alexander went to Morningside to visit his bishop towards the end of the book I was actually groaning out loud. The bishop referred to Alexander’s time as a curate!!!!

The whole reason for the Scottish Reformation was to get rid of such things as bishops, the congregation is in control and there’s also no such thing as a curate unless it’s an Episcopalian one. So Alexander could never have had a bishop. At one point there are people crossing themselves!! Well I swear I could hear John Know birling in his grave, about 20 miles away.

To be fair Gifford does give thanks to a lot of people who helped her with this book, including a reverend somebody. I’m assuming that they didn’t actually read the book otherwise such glaring mistakes should have been pointed out to the author.

I read this one as part of the Read Scotland 2014 challenge and it has a wide variety of possible books which will fit it as they don’t have to be by Scots but can just be set in Scotland, or be written by an author who is now living in Scotland, but there is a vast difference between Scottish authors and authors who use Scotland as their setting – just saying.

8 responses to “Secrets of the Sea House by Elisabeth Gifford”

  1. Peggy says:

    Thanks! You’ve saved me buying the book!

  2. Judith says:

    Katrina,
    Oh, gosh, who is this Gifford? I know exactly what you mean about people writing about places and societies and people they haven’t researched as fully as they should have. It’s so annoying! In fact, if I could say so, the discrepancies can feel like hearing fingernails being drawn across a chalkboard.
    I hope your next read is better!
    Judith

  3. Anbolyn says:

    It sounded so promising! Mistakes are easy to fix (and research) and it is maddening when authors, editors, publishers don’t catch the inconsistencies.

  4. As Judith says, you’ve saved me from buying this book! Your post did make me chuckle – how on earth did it get published?

    On the subject of Read Scotland – I’m a bit unsure about books by authors living in Scotland (not Scottish) writing books not set in Scotland – doesn’t seem right to me that they qualify – just thinking …

    • Katrina says:

      Margaret,
      I assume that as nobody involved with it knows that the culture and religion in Scotland is entirely different from England, then they don’t realise that it’s all wrong.

      I think that it was the newspaper which set up the voting for the ‘best Scottish novel’ which came up with such a wide ranging choice of possible candidates. I was doubtful about them describing Michel Faber as a Scottish writer, simply because he happens to live in Edinburgh at the moment. For the challenge I think I’ll stick with Scots or at least people who have lived in Scotland for most of their lives.

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