I know exactly how many years it took to write Redlegs. It was conceived a little after my daughter was, and it was published when she was 21.
I mean, I wasn’t sitting all day every day tussling with it. That would be about a paragraph a week. During that time, I wrote something like three stage plays, 70-odd hours of television (including Taggart, and documentaries like An Anarchist’s Story), about twice as many radio dramas and documentaries, a book of short stories (Poor Angels), and another novel (Ascension Day). As well as doing my bit bringing up Emma and her wee brother.
I was also, in the early years, still working for UNESCO. And it was on a mission for them, in Barbados, that I first encountered a real-life Redleg.
Trying to get to know the island – I was working on youth art and enterprise – I went on a National Trust walk around the Scotland district, which tickled me. (It is only called that because it’s got a couple of hills and reminded British emigrants of mountainous Caledonia.) All but one of my walking-fellows were black, professional Bajans. I’d presumed the outlier was an adventurous holiday-maker – he seemed to be struggling with the heat even more than I was. But when eventually we fell into step, I could barely understand a word the man said. He spoke like Shaggy on speed: the thickest Bajan accent I’d come across.
He told me his story, or what he knew of it. His ancestors were white, British. Indentured workers, or ‘felons’ who had been ‘Barbado’ed’ (often for not much more than stealing a chicken). His name was Macdonald.
Other Bajans knew as little about the Redlegs as the Redlegs themselves. They were a kind of invisible people. Dismissed as ‘backra johnnies’, the name ‘redlegs’, tradition has it, came from the poor white workers getting their legs burnt in the cane fields, below the hem of the kilt. They lived mainly around St. Martins Bay.
I became fascinated by these people, and by a story that, back in the 1990s, had never really been told. I read everything I could get my hands on, spending all my free time in libraries and the Barbados Museum. I got to know Jill Sheppard, whose book The Redlegs Of Barbados remains the seminal study (and who made the most potent rum punch in Caribbean history). I visited St. Martins Bay regularly and made friends there. I was shocked at the poverty, the ill-health, and how little they knew about their own history.
I knew back then, in 1991, that I wanted to do two things: make a documentary about the Redlegs, and write a novel. The two projects were entirely different in my head. The first was to discover and tell the facts about these people, washed up by history and colonialism. But in the novel I saw other opportunities. Here was a situation that would let me explore subjects I was fascinated by… What makes a community, a nation? How do we, each of us, relate to the group as individuals? How do stories, myths, to create a sense of ourselves?
The TV documentary was finally made 17 years later (Barbado’ed: Scotland’s Sugar Slaves) and I gave the novel to my daughter on her 21st birthday in 2012. If you read my notes in The Pigeonhole’s serialisation of Redlegs, you’ll find out why it took so long.
Chris Dolan is the author of Redlegs, which we are serialising in 15 daily staves from the 20th July 2016. Sign up now to claim one of the limited free spots.