Margaret Elphinstone: The Gathering Night

Margaret Elphinstone

Through rigorously exhaustive research, Margaret Elphinstone has written a new novel about Mesolithic Scotland. Doug Johnstone grunts his appreciation

Margaret Elphinstone has carved out a fine career as a purveyor of excellent historical novels, but for her latest offering she’s done something a bit different and gone prehistoric. The Gathering Night is set in Mesolithic Scotland, somewhere between 10,000 and 3000 BC, and tells the story of a group of hunter-gatherers, the Auk people, and of what happens when some strangers from a rival tribe, the Lynx people, come into their world. It’s a brilliant fictional evocation of a time that’s usually given short shrift in history books, a situation that drew her to the period in the first place. ‘I was initially thinking about Neolithic,’ she says. ‘Then I found out there were thousands of years before that when Scotland had hunter-gatherers, 7000 years of history that nobody ever speaks about.’

Doing meticulous research into Scottish prehistory and other hunter-gatherer groups around the world, Elphinstone discovered that, far from the club-wielding, grunting caveman cliché, Mesolithic Scots had complex societies, a well-developed moral and spiritual sense, and practical skills we have long since lost. ‘That image of cavemen is still with us and we all know The Flintstones,’ Elphinstone laughs. ‘But these people were very sophisticated with language and had their own form of technology. We’d be defeated in their world, they were far more skilled than we are.’

Studying the likes of the Inuit and African Bushmen, Elphinstone gradually developed a picture of what early hunter-gatherers on Scottish shores would have been like. The author has a reputation for painstaking research, but like all her work, The Gathering Night wears its expert knowledge lightly and never lets superfluous detail overwhelm the narrative. ‘You can’t get bogged down when you’re writing a book. I actually really enjoy the endless research, but you don’t want to get it all into the book. Sometimes when you’re very fond of a fact and it took a long time to get hold of it, you want to get it in, but if it’s not relevant then it must go.’

Elphinstone estimates that she leaves out about 90% of her research, which makes you wonder if she has ever thought about channelling it all into a non-fiction work. ‘Not really, because for me it all focuses around characters,’ she says. ‘Right back to history at school, I could only make sense of it by centring it on a character, then it would all start to work.’

At the core of The Gathering Night is a very human story, a complex tale of love, revenge, murder and honour, a book that manages to be both gripping in terms of plot, engaging with character psychology and a hugely evocative exploration of time and place. What strikes you most is that our 10,000-year-old ancestors had all the same concerns and worries that we do today. ‘Genetically we’re no different from these people, we’ve got the same emotional make-up. I think one of our problems today is that we’re biologically and emotionally still hunter-gatherers, only now we’ve got to take charge of a whole planet and we haven’t got the equipment to deal with that.’

The Gathering Night is published by Canongate on Thu 21 May.