At Brow Well on the Solway - the last days of Robert Burns's life.

At Brow Well on the Solway, you walk to the very edge of the land and almost tumble into a mass of thrift, clumps of pink flowers fringing the shore, like some wild garden. They face the sea, looking outwards and when the wind blows through them, they tremble with a dry, feathery sound.

At all times of the year, the wind blows unhindered across these mudflats. There is nothing to stop it, down here, on the Solway. And the sky is dazzling: high and bright with the malicious glitter of a sun half hidden behind clouds. It is a place of endings, of dizzying infinities. A place where long horizontals constantly carry the eye outwards and beyond. Where these same long horizontals dull the urge to fly.

In June, when the thrift is still in bloom, it is as restful as it will ever be. There are wild roses in the hedgerows, white, pale and dark pink. There is a froth of bramble flowers with the promise of fruit to come. Oystercatchers and peewits patrol the mud. There are whaups, curlews, bubbling in the peaty wastes. And you can hear the laverock, the skylark, climbing higher and higher, to the very edges of sound and tumbling through the skies in an ecstasy of movement. Down there, in front of you, a burn meanders through the mud, fresh water meeting salt, while beyond that again is more mud and silver water, cloud shadows and the misty hills of another country. But it is still the loneliest sight you will ever see.

On the third day of July in the year 1796, Robert Burns left his home in Dumfries, left his wife Jean and his children, and travelled to Brow Well on the Solway. It was, essentially, a poor man’s spa. There was a chalybeate or mineral spring with a stone tank built to house it and not much else. One Doctor Maxwell had diagnosed a wholly fictional malady called Flying Gout, and advised the poet to drink the waters in an effort to alleviate his symptoms. He was thin, he was weak, he could barely eat and he was in constant pain. It is likely that a systemic infection from a tooth abscess had caused his chronic endocarditis (inflammation of the heart muscle) to become acute. It would quickly prove fatal.

He was very ill.
He stayed in a cottage close by the well. He ate a little thin porridge, and drank some porter with milk in it. When the porter bottle was empty, he told his landlady that the ‘muckle black deil’ had got into his wallet, and asked her if she would accept his personal seal as payment but she refused it and brought him the porter anyway.

In July, the thrift would have been dying. As well as instructing him to drink the foul tasting waters, the doctors had recommended that Robert should try sea-bathing. They were only following the fashion of the time. In the south of England there would have been snug bathing machines and separate beaches for men and women to indulge in the novelty of salt water against skin. One month’s bathing in January was believed to be more efficacious than six months in summer. But perhaps there was a sense of urgency in the poet’s case. No time to wait for winter.

He was, no doubt, in that state of desperation where you will try anything. He would have gone struggling and staggering and wading into the sea, half a mile every day, far enough for the water to reach up to his waist, because that’s what the doctors had advised. Did they know how shallow these waters were? How far he would have to walk? How bitter the struggle for desperate mind over failing flesh? His landlady would have gone flounder trampling when she was a lassie, kilting her skirts up and wading out into the firth, feeling for the fishes with her toes. Did he feel the Solway flounders slithering away beneath his unsteady feet? It was his last chance of a cure and he was full of fear. Fear for his beloved Jean who was heavily pregnant. Fear of debt. Fear of death.

Nearby is the village of Ruthwell. In the church there is an Anglo Saxon cross. It is so tall that the floor has been dug out to make room for it. Because it was judged an idolatrous monument with its intricate carving, its runic inscriptions, which must have seemed suspiciously pagan, it was smashed into pieces on the orders of the General Assembly of the Church of Scotland. That was in 1664, but it lay where it fell for many years and the good folk of Ruthwell used the stone blocks as benches to sit upon, while they yawned their way through interminable sermons. 

The poet was invited to visit the manse at Ruthwell, but when the ladies there offered to pull a curtain across to shade his eyes from the sunlight, he asked them to leave it be. 'He will not shine long for me,' he said. 

The seawater would have done some good only in that it numbed the pain. It would have been his last chance. He had been a week at the salt water and wrote that he had secret fears that the business would be dangerous if not fatal. No flesh or fish could he swallow. Porridge and milk and porter were the only things he could taste. And how could he attempt horse-riding, which the doctors had also ordered, when he could not so much as drag himself up into the saddle?

‘God help my wife and children if I am taken from their head with Jean eight months gone’ he wrote. He sent letters to his father-in-law, James Armour, in Ayrshire, begging him to ask Jean’s mother come to Dumfries, but Mary Armour was visiting relatives in Fife and there was only silence from Mauchline. His correspondence reeks of desperation.

From the middle of the month, the tides were unsuitable for bathing, so he went home, borrowing a gig from a farmer named John Clark, in Locharwoods. When he got back to Dumfries, he was too weak to walk up the Mill Vennel, let alone climb the stairs to his bed. His young neighbour, Jessie Lewars, had to come out and 'oxter' him into the house.

Poor Burns had almost run his course. Still, he must struggle with the stream, 'till some chopping squall overset the silly vessel at last'. Love swells like the Solway but ebbs like the tide. Life too. 
He who always sang of rivers and streams, was coming, at last, to the sea. He died in Dumfries on 21st July 1796. Jean gave birth to his last child on the day of his funeral. 

If you want to read more about Robert Burns, but especially about his beloved Jean, look for my novel, The Jewel, all about the life of Jean Armour.

Creating a Fictional Setting - My Imaginary Scottish Island

In the Curiosity Cabinet, I created a fictional Scottish island called Garve. In writing The Posy Ring, the first of a new series with the same setting, I've deliberately set out to find out even more about it. It's an Inner Hebridean island. It's medium sized: bigger than Gigha but smaller than Islay. It sits somewhere between Islay, Jura and Gigha but like the mythical Celtic Tir nan Og, there's a nebulous quality to its situation. Of course the characters know exactly where it is, but readers should be able to speculate a bit!

In the Curiosity Cabinet, I could permit myself to be vague. I knew a lot about the landscape of my fictional island of Garve or Eilean Garbh. The name means 'rough' in Gaelic, and I knew that this was an island that might indeed look a little rough from the sea. Trees would have been planted only later in its history but it would still be a softer landscape than those of the Outer Hebrides. There would be wild flowers in plenty, some trees and some decent grazing, although the upland parts of the island would be less hospitable.

But now that I've been working on the first of a series of novels with the same island setting, I've spent a while happily working out the entire landscape of my made up island: the houses, the villages, the farms, the archaeological remains (a great many of these) the harbours, the roads and where the streams flow through the landscape. My husband has drawn out a map and I've been filling in names and places.

Many years ago, at my primary school, I remember working on a 'desert island' project. We were given a board each and lots of old fashioned plasticine. I can smell it now! We were encouraged to make an island of our own. We could bring in things from home: beads, feathers, flowers, sticks, anything that we thought might enhance our island. I can remember being practically obsessed with it for weeks.

I recognised those same feelings all over again when I was creating my fictional island. I've spent ages poring over my makeshift map, writing in place names, putting in landscape features, imagining what it would look like and feel like to be there, with my two feet on the ground. Inhabiting it, just as my characters do. Now my artist husband is painting a colourful and rather more arty plan of Garve, but I'm still engrossed by my bigger map, deleting things here and there, adding things too. It is displacement activity, for sure - but it's also a necessary part of creating a world that really hangs together, that exists in my imagination.

It now seems so vivid to me that I daily feel a certain amount of disappointment that I can't actually hop on a CalMac ferry and visit it in reality. Most writers spend a large part of their lives living in their own heads, so to speak, and this is a prime example. Garve and its people have become as real to me as any other place that I know and love.

Grown Up Love Stories - Reclaiming Romance

I've been neglecting my blog again, mainly because I've been working on a new novel, called The Posy Ring. It's a spin off novel to The Curiosity Cabinet, set on the same fictional Scottish island of Garve and since I'm some 75,000 words into it I can at least begin to talk about it!

There's a point in any new project where not only does it not seem to exist at all, but where you begin to doubt that it ever will be a living, breathing thing, as opposed to a random heap of words. I've been through that and out the other side, and although I'm still not 100% certain that the light at the end of the tunnel isn't an oncoming train, I have high hopes that I will emerge blinking into the daylight in a month or so.

People often ask me what kind of novels I write and they're already asking what this new novel, the first of a series, is 'about'. I've always found the question difficult to answer precisely.  I write a certain amount of well researched historical fiction, and the new novel is at least partly that. The story deals with events in the past and present, but, as in the Curiosity Cabinet, nobody goes back in time. Rather, I'm telling two parallel tales in the same fictional setting. And that setting has a profound influence on both stories.

I remember being startled a few years ago, when a colleague introduced me as a writer of 'romance'. Now I'm fond of a good romance, but the term - which used to be a very broad one - seems to have become synonymous with a certain structure of story, especially one aimed only at female readers (but sometimes written by men) and almost invariably with a happy and upbeat ending.

I often tell people these days that I write 'grown up love stories.' They are, I hope, about recognisably real men and women and they don't always end happily ever after. The Physic Garden is a good example although there, the central 'love story' mostly concerns a friendship between two men. (OK, it's a bromance!) It's also a book about an extreme betrayal which leads to tragedy. There is a happy ending of sorts, but like real life, it's equivocal and happens many years after the event.

The Jewel is about the relationship between Robert Burns and his wife Jean Armour.  That certainly was a very grown up love story - arguably Scotland's greatest - and if we know anything about the poet's life, we know that it isn't going to end with them living happily ever after. Or not for very long.

The Curiosity Cabinet involves two distinct love stories, one past and one present. The Posy Ring is heading the same way, but there is, I find, a significant element of this new book that involves love for a house and its contents. And for an island. The quality of mystery and excitement is there. Love is there too. But it's also about a search for a sense of belonging.

Maybe though, we just need to reclaim that word 'romance' which is a perfectly good word after all. Perhaps we need to go with a much broader definition. I have many friends who write 'romances' but they all, even within the more conventional parameters of that genre, write quite differently. Looking it up, I found it described as 'a feeling of excitement and mystery associated with love' and  'a quality or feeling of mystery, excitement and remoteness from every day life.'  These are fine as far as the mystery and excitement go, although many fine romances seem to be firmly rooted in everyday life - and none the worse for that.

Back when the Curiosity Cabinet was submitted for the literary prize for which it was eventually shortlisted, one of the readers remarked that it was a 'guilty pleasure'. Even then, I wondered what was guilty about it, and why, since he then went on to say that it was well written and involving. The only conclusion I could reach was that it is essentially a pair of parallel love stories and he felt guilty for enjoying it only because of the subject matter, whereas, presumably, he wouldn't have felt quite so guilty about reading and enjoying a novel involving the extremes of murder and mayhem.

This is not to say that everyone has to like everything, because patently they don't. I don't like too much gore in my reading, for example, but I know a lot of people who do. It's when we start to make value judgements on the basis only of subject matter that we run into trouble. I thought I didn't like 'fantasy' much till I discovered the amazing China Mieville. Perhaps we should all decide to take genre labels with a pinch of salt and be a bit more adventurous in our reading.

Perhaps we need to indulge ourselves in a bit more pleasure without any self imposed guilt.