Joan Aiken was often asked where she got her ideas. She was once so moved by a news story and a powerfully melancholy piece of music, written to save a Scottish island, that this story, and the story told by the music itself, inspired her to write her own mythical supernatural tale, The Scream about an endangered and lost island. It was linked in her mind, to the famous Munch painting of this name, and an an extraordinary present she had been given – a screaming pillow, which also comes into the story…
Sir Peter Maxwell Davies wrote Farewell to Stromness when the future of the Orkney Islands where he lived, was threatened by a proposal to mine there for uranium, known locally as Yellow Cake. His music formed part of a protest performance on Orkney called The Yellow Cake Revue, which helped put paid to the horrific project. His hypnotic piano piece, only five minutes long has become a poignant part of many people’s lives, bringing peace, comfort and hope.
But it is not an entirely soothing composition, more of a dangerous journey; the way has to be followed round crags, up mountains, over high bridges, through mists and fog – we are in danger – until at last the light appears through the mist, first dimly then welcoming and then blazing, and finally home is seen again. The opening rhythm returns, this time more like the rocking of a boat, and quietens, takes us in its arms into the rocking of a lullabye. Finally it softens, and fades, gently into history. The danger has been surmounted, but the experience remains.
Inspired by this powerful musical expression of struggle and resolution, Joan Aiken wrote her haunting story called The Scream, which also references the famous Munch painting of that name, of a terrified figure seeing an appalling vision on a bridge. In Joan Aiken’s story the inhabitants are forced from their homes on a Scottish island because it is due to be poisoned for a scientific experiment. Brought up on their own myths, these people had always believed local dangers would be wrought by Kelpies – water demons, very hostile to humans – not by alarming technological developments…
“Before the time of electricity, radio, motors, long-range missiles, aircraft,
people thought seriously about such things.”
But while the exiled islanders have to adapt their way of life to the ugly new towns and tower blocks where they now live, they have brought with them a powerful magic which is stirring, endangering their new lives and calling them to return, and which finally it breaks out in a great Scream, with the force of a tidal wave, and with the unleashing of this ancient power the island is reclaimed.
As the daughter of Joan Aiken, I was brought up on stories which although haunting, also saw me through dangers and rocked me to sleep. We shared music too, and this piece which recalled the Scottish folk tunes her mother used to sing, spoke to us both of our roots, and a love of islands, many of which we had visited together. The last one we visited before she died was the Channel Island of Herm, her house was called The Hermitage, and we joked about the journey being our Herm from Herm. Sitting on a shore of sea shells, she told me how she had always longed to be on Desert Island Discs, and had often thought about her music choices while waiting to fall asleep at night. One of her choices would have been Farewell to Stromness, and so we had it played at her funeral, to see her safely home.
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Hear Farewell to Stromness played by Sir Peter Maxwell Davies
The haunting Y.A. novel The Scream has just come out as an EBook
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The illustration at the top is by Arvis Stuart from the cover of a children’s play by Joan Aiken called Winterthing – another mythical island which disappears each winter