Where the world ends by Geraldine McCaughrean

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This extraordinary novel, based on a true story about a group of men and boys stranded on a rocky outcrop (a Stac) in the North Sea for nine months, is riveting as McCaughrean ponders their survival. She gives each of the nine boys and three men a name and a back story, making sure each is recognisable and memorable.

The group is dropped off each summer to collect, kill and dry some of the birds which roost there, raising their chicks through the spring. The work is perilous and stories are handed down of some of their predecessors falling to their deaths as they scale the vertical cliffs. They must climb the rocks to the nests, using rope made by the islanders and handed down from one family to the next. They dry the dead birds, first taking their feathers to take back for bedding, and sharpening the quills for needles, an extra source of income for this isolated community.

Even getting to the island is breathtaking: each having to leap from the boat to the rocky edge as the boat rises with the waves.

These people are from the island of Hirta, the westernmost island in the St Kilda Archipelago, on the west coast of Scotland. The last inhabitants unsurprisingly opted to leave in 1930, settling on the mainland.

But this story takes place two hundred years before. In this tale, the men are in awe of one who calls himself minister, imposing the more objectionable traits of Christianity upon them, causing the younger ones to blanche with fear, but Quilliam a little older than these, offers a safe haven. Outcast, he finds a ledge where he can shelter, and it is to his cave that they come for a rest from the tyrant. Eventually the man leaves, commandeering the raft and sailing off for an island nearby from which he can signal their community.

But why they have been abandoned is a question they all ask, the minister saying that it is the end of the world and they have been forgotten by God. They dream of their families in Heaven and long to be with them.

The cold and wet is a constant throughout this long story, documenting their mental state as they cope with each other, the hunger and isolation. It was said that boys going fowling came back men, and this experience in 1727 made sure of that.

Themes: Isolation, Survival, Scotland, Fishing, Historical novel, Abandonment, Religion, Birds.

Fran Knight