Creative Essay on ‘The Boat’ short story in Island by Alistair MacLeod

Image result for picture of the boat in alistair macleods short story

Creative Essay on ‘The Boat’ from Island by Alistair MacLeod for Year 12 English on the old VCE Curriculum prior to 2024

Creative Prompt:

Years later, one of the daughters has to tell her daughter about her childhood, the role of the island and why she eventually left Cape Breton.  Refer back to the story in Island ‘The Boat’.


  • Scottish Gaelic names for father = dadaidh formal, dadai = dad or daddy
  • Scottish Gaelic names for mother = mathair
  • Scottish Gaelic girls names = Ainslie, Fiona, Alana, Annis, Morag, Catriona
  • Scottish Gaelic name for island = Innis

Creative Story Based Around ‘The Boat’ Short Story

Looking through my kitchen window over the Cape Cod seashore I heard the sharp laughter of a gull.  The moment was broken as my 15 year old daughter Alana called out “Hey ma, I have to do a literature assignment on our family’s ancestry which is due Friday can you help me with it?”  This middle daughter was just like me and her grandfather.  We all loved literature and reading.  Yet she was tall, willowy with fine facial features set off by long dark hair tinged a reddish copper colour, energetic and beautiful like her grandmother.  “Sure” I called back to Alana as she lopped into the kitchen with her notebook and pen; “What do you want to know?”  “I need information about where you came from, you know ma, the traditional stuff you never talk about”.  I looked at her striking face and my mind wandered back to an old-fashioned kitchen with a wood and coal burning stove next to a heavy table, around it stood five wooden homemade chairs.  Alana said “For instance ma why did you give the three of us girls a weird middle name like ‘Innis’, what does it mean?”

“Innis is Scottish Gaelic for island” I told Alana.  “I wanted to link you and your sisters like a chain of tradition back to my home land of Cape Breton.  It was my way of retaining the custom of someone of the sea like my mother’s people”.  Was that my real reason for calling the girls ‘Innis’ I wondered?  My five sisters and brother Callum were all born at Cape Breton but my three girls Fiona, Alana and Catriona were born at Harwich Port Massachusetts.  Looking over the Cape Cod seashore and the Atlantic Coast, Harwich Port is 848 miles from the bitter windswept island of Cape Breton.  No one at Harwich Port had to carve out an existence as a fisherman or give up their dreams to sustain a family of seven children.  Not like my old father who yearned for a life taken from the imaginative stories in his books away from the sea.

As children we called our father by the Gaelic ‘dadai’ an informal way of speaking to him while he was in his room lying on his bed smoking his handmade cigarettes.  His ashtray overflowed with tobacco shreds and ash as my sisters, one by one, sat on his bed or in a single chair reading his stack of paperbacks.  No one called our mother anything but the more formal ‘mathair’ because we were all scared of her as she would look at us with her dark and fearless eyes.  ‘Mathair’ never thought reading trashy books would help anyone in life.  I remember clearly she slapped my sister so hard she left the print of her hand upon my sister’s cheek just because Fiona was reading one of ‘dadai’s’ paperbacks.  We all knew it was difficult to defy our ‘mathair’ but the call of reading books outweighed our restlessness and we lost interest in darning socks and baking bread.

“So who are your mother’s people of the sea then?” Alana asked me.  I explained the ancestry story as clearly as I could; “The Cape Breton Islanders were mostly families from the Highlands in Scotland who were forced to leave their homes in the 1800’s.  ‘Mathair’s’ family were all inshore fisherman sailing Cape Island boats in search of lobsters, mackerel, cod, haddock and hake.  Her brothers all had large families to sustain.  In fact my uncle Bryce had thirteen children to support while he worked with my ‘dadai’ on our boat the Jenny Lynn”.

Alana was intrigued and followed up with a question about what the people of the sea were like and the importance of the ‘boat’.  As I told her about the boats racing out to sea with their traps I could see in my mind uncle Bryce tall and dark like ‘mathair’, standing at the tiller guiding the boat between the floating pans of ice and my ‘dadai’ in the stern with his hands upon the ropes that lashed the cargo to the deck.  I remember watching from the kitchen window of our old house that faced the sea, while my ‘dadai’ was away fishing in the boat.  We were always working on repairing clothes, preparing food or just looking for the return of the boat.  When ‘dadai’ returned home the first question my ‘mathair’ would ask was “Well, how did things go in the boat today?”

Alana stretched out her long legs and stood up with a yawn and said “OK I know about dad’s family history settling in Boston from 1630, but why did you choose to leave Cape Breton for Harwich Port?”  How do you explain to your own daughter that restlessness that you get at 15 looking for a life elsewhere and the imaginative world that books inspire?  Each of my five sisters felt the need for change from raising hens to growing vegetables.  When the Sea Food Restaurant opened it catered to tourists that flooded the island during July and August.  I got a job as a waitress and met people who were not classified as “our people” according to ‘mathair’, but they were fun, carefree and well educated.  Sometimes my sisters and I would stay out late on hot summer nights and try to dodge ‘mathair’s’ questions about who we were associating with.  ‘Dadai’ understood as we talked softly to him late at night about our ambitions beyond the island while the music of his radio floated up the stairs.

I cleared my throat and said to Alana “Then one day your father and his family came to Cape Breton for a summer holiday.  I was swept off my feet by your father’s brilliant smile and his welcoming family.  I didn’t care that ‘mathair’ believed he was not one of ‘her people’ or that she couldn’t understand I wanted a life outside of ‘the sea’ at Cape Breton”.  “Wow ma that’s why we never see our grandmother but what happened to your ‘dadai’? Alana asked me.

It was long after I left Cape Breton and settled in Harwich Port with my husband and three young daughters when I received a call from Callum to say that ‘dadai’ had drowned at sea.  It seemed nonsensical that my father and my uncles who were all experienced fisherman sailing the Atlantic waters could not swim a stroke.  The news of my father’s drowning devastated all of us.  It left Callum with a terrible choice whether to continue the seafaring tradition of ‘mathair’s’ family or leave Cape Breton for his own dream of becoming a university professor.  In the end the Jenny Lynn left my mother with bitterness that neither her husband nor her son was able to sustain the fisherman’s life.

Answering Alana as best I could I just said “My father drowned at sea during a violent storm when he was fishing with Uncle Callum.  The towering waves hit him as he stood in the stern of the Jenny Lynn and he went overboard”.  As Alana hugged me I did not tell her the details of how my father’s body was found at the base of rock-strewn cliffs where he had been hurled and slammed many times so there was not much left of him physically but for the brass chains on his wrists and the seaweed in his hair.

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