My Dolls' House at Christmas

 My late mum always wanted a dolls' house. When my dad spent a couple of years working in Vienna, as a visiting expert at the International Atomic Energy Commission there, my mum came back with a collection of dolls' house miniatures, picked up here and there, some new, some vintage. But she never got her dolls' house. 

I'm still not sure why, because my dad would have bought her one or - more likely - made one for her. He was good at making things. But perhaps she just enjoyed collecting the miniatures and dreaming about the house. Later, my husband made a dolls' house for me, but although it was beautiful, it was always a bit too big for the space available, so eventually we passed it on to a young relative. 

Then, a few years ago, Alan found the second hand house of my dreams and it turned up on Christmas Day. It's a solid plywood Georgian mansion, with six rooms, plus stairs and hallways, in its beautiful interior. It may have been made from one of those patterns that you used to get in Hobbies Magazine. 

I just love it. 

I furnished it with my mum's pretty miniatures, and then spent the next few years adding to them. It is a bit over-furnished now, but I don't care. Cluttered is a good look for a dolls' house. 

Over the years, I've found more things to go in it, finding them in charity shops from time to time. Because I do some part time dealing in antique textiles, to supplement my writing income, I visit our local saleroom quite a lot, and one week I came home triumphantly carrying several boxes full of miniature furniture and accessories. I sold many of them - regretfully. The stunningly beautiful hand crafted Victorian style book case, with shelves full of real miniature books, was much in demand and since it didn't really fit into my own house, I had to let it ago, along with other things like garden furniture. I could have a garden, but again, space is short in this full size cottage. The one thing I haven't yet done is make curtains. That's on the to do list for this year. 

Anyway - here are some more pictures, so that you can peer into the rooms. My two favourite objects in the whole house are in the nursery. If you look closely, you'll find a pair of hand sewn soft toys: hares, I think, given the long ears. One's on the little boy's knee, and one is sitting in the chair. They are tiny and exquisite and no, I didn't make them but somebody did. The other miniatures that I love are the tiny rack of sewing things, in the nurserymaid's room - and that absolutely gorgeous needlework cushion in the comfortable chair in the drawing room. But really, it's full of good things. And if you think this is a strange hobby for a grown woman, I once had a friend who had three. Right enough she lived in a big house herself. But they were magical houses. 

I don't know quite why I love this house so much, but I think it's very much tied in with being a writer. For me, it has a life of its own. Although not, I hope, the kind of life that the haunted dolls' house has in the M R James story of the same name. But it does represent a kind of escapism for me. A form of play that certainly bears some resemblance to the kind of 'play' most writers indulge in when they play around with ideas and characters and made up places and spaces. 

When literal people say - as they occasionally do - where does the cook sleep, and where is the bathroom? - I tell them that there is, of course, a lot more to the house. 

You're just not seeing all of it. But in my imagination, I know it's there!

The nursery is probably my favourite.

The main bedroom. 

This is the nurserymaid's room. She does a lot of sewing!

Mr and Mrs Doll, at teatime. 
There's champagne too.

The dining room, all ready for dinner.

My other favourite room - I love this kitchen.


Facebook for Writers

Dreaming of a white Christmas - or maybe not.

Over the past year, I've attended a few professional Zoom meetings with my fellow writers, and the subject of social media comes up fairly regularly. Some of us are happy to wade in and engage with Facebook, Twitter, Instagram etc, and others aren't. Some think that Facebook is the work of the devil. It may be, and you will need a long spoon to sup with it. It is also a huge time suck. A veritable sink hole of time suckery. 

But it's still a useful tool for writers. And there are some very nice people on there. I've made contact with many old 'friends in real life' as well as making some new ones. 

The truth is that, much like real life, all these sites are a mixture of the good, the bad, and the truly ugly, but if you want to sell books, or help your publisher to sell your books, (as well as keeping sane during a pandemic) you are going to have to learn how to do a little interacting and Facebook is probably the easiest place to start.

What surprises me is how many writers still claim to know nothing at all about using social media and are quite nervous about it in general. 

So here are a few pointers about Facebook in particular. And since I don't claim to be an expert, do feel free to add your own comments and recommendations below. This is an ever changing world, so if you are reading this in some hypothetical future, it may all be very different! 

1 Practical matters. There is no point in my reinventing the wheel, so if you want to set up a Facebook profile, go to the site, press the buttons, and follow the instructions. They make it pretty clear and I'm not going to be able to add very much that's useful to it. 

There are a couple of provisos though. When you are setting up your Facebook profile, you can search for - or Facebook will show you - potential friends. You can send friend requests. Don't send too many at once, (the Facebook Gods don't like it) and begin with people who are friends in real life. People will also send you friend requests. You don't need to click on them all at once. Or at all. You're in charge. Gradually, you will build up a circle of people who know you, on and offline. Or people with mutual friends. You will even meet some lovely, interesting new people.

Look at the tab marked 'Privacy'. You can make your account quite private. For example, I don't let anyone else post stuff on my pages. By which I mean that they can comment on my posts all they like, but I don't want them dumping unwanted stuff straight on my page. It's why I have comment moderation on my blog. You might be surprised by how much spam crops up on here, but never makes it onto the blog, because I just report it and delete it.  I relax my privacy settings in time for my birthday though! You can post things only to your friends, or you can make them public. Facebook explains all this much more clearly than I can, so again, do read the instructions. 

2 Once you have a Facebook account, you can also set up a dedicated author page. Or you can just focus on that, if you want to. Again, Facebook will tell you how and give you options for the kind of page you want. I'll come clean here. I use my private Facebook profile - with some privacy settings tweaked - far more than I use my author page. But I do still use it. I post links to blog posts such as this one, and other professional news, and information about the book I may be working on at any given time. That also links in to Goodreads, which I find a difficult site to 'work' so at least it keeps my profile current on there as well.  It also gives me the facility to set up details of events. In a normal year I would probably use it more than in a Covid year. 

3 Groups are where it's at with Facebook - increasingly so. If your books are set in ancient Rome or 19th century London, you can be sure to find a group of like minded individuals - not writers, but just people who are interested in that time and place. Join them. Join in. There are many writers' groups out there as well but remember that you are more likely to find your readers in special interest groups. Writers read a lot, it's true - but they also work a lot, and find themselves reading for work. I for one don't read very much new fiction when I'm deep into a book, although I often reread old, much loved fiction, Dickens and the like, mostly as a means of escape from the intensity of my own work. 

4 Probably the most important point of this whole post - be generous. Much like in the real world, you have to interact with other people. One thing that stands out to me is how many beginners will join a Facebook group and instantly dump a 'buy my book' post on there. No interaction, no chat, no likes, no sympathy, nothing. I attended a professional Zoom meeting earlier this year and while the speaker was speaking, there were people in the chat facility posting 'buy my book' links. Not sure if they would have got any takers, but for most of us, it's a bit irritating. Some groups don't allow it. There are people on Facebook who I never see or hear of from from one year's end to the next, unless they have a book to sell. Then it's 'oh, look, here's my book, you have to buy it.' No. No I don't. 

There is, to be fair, a whole spectrum of engagement. I'm on there a lot - too much probably. But I blog a lot as well. And I'm interested in what other people are doing and thinking and saying, whether it's online or out in the real world. 

In summary, Facebook can be good for writers. But if you put very little in, you'll get very little out. Much like computers, it's a case of garbage in, garbage out. We've all been to those parties where you meet somebody and try to talk to them, only to find them peering over your shoulder, in case somebody more interesting or useful comes along. Social media is much the same. You don't have to like everyone, but you do have to be interested in human nature in all its many manifestations. 

After all, isn't that what being a writer is all about? 

Old Photographs and Uncertain Times


The Czerkawski siblings, Meryszczow, 1926

As I said towards the end of my last blog post, I'm in the middle of researching my Polish grandfather's life story, for a new book. We're in the middle of a pandemic and enduring the hideous culmination of a Brexit that a large majority of people in Scotland (and many in England) didn't vote for and loathe more and more, the deeper Westminster drags us into it. 

All of which is keeping me awake at night.

The photograph above is in the book about the Kossak family that I also mentioned in that last post and that had been sitting on my bookshelves for some time. Wanda Czerkawska - the shyly smiling lady facing the camera - was going to marry artist Karol Kossak in 1927, so her story would become part of the much more famous Kossak family story. Wanda was born in 1898, so she was six years older than my grandfather, and 28 when this picture was taken. They must have believed that she would become an old maid, at a time when women especially tended to marry young. The book is in Polish. My command of that language is very limited, so I could do little more than skim through it, although a friend translated the chapter on Wanda's family for me. I thought I had looked at all the pictures, but when I was casually leafing through it a few weeks ago, the photograph above leapt out at me. I'm not sure why I hadn't noticed it, but perhaps it was because the book was still new and shiny, I had simply missed the page.

It excited and moved me.

I have only two other photographs of my grandfather. One is a small head and shoulders snapshot and the other is with my grandmother and my father as a young child. His hair is in a bob, and he's wearing a smock, as boy children did in those days. But until I saw this new picture, I had no group images of the siblings of the family and none so early. 

It's intriguing, that photograph. 

My grandfather
Firstly there's the focus on my grandfather, Wladyslaw Czerkawski, in the middle. He was more handsome than that in other pictures, but here, he is the main figure in the picture, with the rest of the family slightly out of focus, grouped around him. He looks solemn and thin and under a certain amount of stress. And he's wearing a black armband. I'm fairly certain that he is wearing it for his mother, Anna, who had died in 1925. This had left Wladyslaw central to the family in all kinds of ways. His widowed mother had made a second marriage, one of which, for various reasons that are becoming clearer to me, the family disapproved intensely, and which seems to have been less than happy. There was a child of that marriage, Danuta Hanakowska, born in 1920, and Wladyslaw must have known that her care and upbringing would be left to him and his young wife, again for reasons that are becoming clearer to me. I'd been wondering about the starched lady at the back of the picture, the one turning away from the camera as though she doesn't quite belong. But of course she would have been Danuta's nurse.

Of the others in the picture, the lady in profile with thick, dark, bushy hair (hair that she passed on to me) is my grandmother, Lucja. She was only 20, though she looks older, and the little bump she is showing would have been my father, who would be born in May of that year. At the back, between my grandfather and grandmother, you can see the profile of a pretty young woman, fashionably dressed in white. That would be Ludmila, or Ludka, the beautiful, spoilt baby of the family. I remember seeing a picture of her among Wanda's possessions, when I was in Poland in the 1970s, dressed in silk lounging pyjamas and sporting a cigarette in an elegant holder. It was, of course, difficult to copy photographs back then, but if anyone out there still has them, I'd be delighted to have copies of them. I think they may be with the Kossak relatives in Sweden, with whom, sadly, I lost touch. 

I don't know who the others are: the lady with the cloche hat at the back ('she looks like you' says a friend) or the tall, good looking man on the right, or the slightly self satisfied man on the left. But since the caption says 'Czerkawski siblings' they may be Wladyslaw's reckless elder brothers, Zbigniew and Boguslaw. Zbigniew died of consumption in 1932, while Boguslaw (Bogdan) was killed during the war in 1943.

The picture was taken at an estate called Meryszczow, but at this time, Wladyslaw and Lucja were living at another estate, some kilometres away, called Dziedzilow, which is where my father was born, so they must have been there because of the death in the family and its consequences. Wladyslaw would have fallen heir to Meryszczow as well, had war not intervened. 

Old photographs are always mysterious moments in time, caught like fossils in amber. This has a momentous quality to it, because it was a turning point for all of them in more ways than one. 

I look at this picture and see that none of them had an inkling of what was about to happen, a little more than a decade later. Only two of them would survive, three if you count the bump, and of those, only two would go on to have a fulfilling and happy life after earlier turmoil 

Which leads me back to thinking about the uncertain times we live in now. We're here at what feels - not like the culmination of something, although it is - but at the start of something worse. Unless Scotland can find a way of extricating itself from the hard right Eton Mess that has infiltrated the Conservative party (never my party of choice, but - at other times - never ever as mad and bad as they seem now) we are in for some miserable years. The notion of a sovereign and thriving UK is proving to be the jingoistic mirage we always suspected it was. Personally speaking, if we were younger, we may even have left by now, and taken our chances in mainland Europe or Ireland, much as many of those in this picture might have been better to move away, head west, possibly to America, where they would at least have stood a chance of survival. 

But we don't, do we? We have loyalties and allegiances, homes and friendships. And in our case, we have a Scottish government with a certain level of competence and care and the possibility of independence. So we hang on and hope for the best, even as we fear the worst.

These were people who knew all about the reality of difficult borderlands, where life could be short and violence was never very far away. Maybe like people living on the edge of a volcano, they thought it wouldn't happen to them. Maybe, like my friends and relatives here who keep shrugging and telling me that nothing will or can be as bad as all that, they thought it better to sit it out. Maybe they'll be right, although this small group of people were wrong.

Who can say? All I do know is that as a writer of historical fiction and non-fiction, I've learned a great deal over the past few years, lessons I would rather have avoided. I've often found myself wondering what it would have been like to live at a time and in a place where things had begun to fall apart around you. What would it have been like to try to maintain your footing, and a certain moral compass, amid those shifting sands. 

We read books or watch movies about Nazi Germany and we think 'Why didn't people do something?' 
We read about the dreadful fate of the Jewish people, and we think 'Why didn't they see the signs? Why didn't they move away while they still could?' 
We look at these people in the picture who must surely have had some small inkling of impending doom. 

Well, maybe they didn't. Whoever does? Whoever really believes that things will fall apart? That human beings will be careless and cruel?
I look at my grandfather's face, and I think that of all of them, he was perhaps the only one with any kind of prescience. But in uncertain times, we cling to the hope that things will and must get better.

Sometimes, they get much worse first. 

Julian, Wladyslaw and Lucja

An Extraordinary Christmas (or Two)

Aunty Wanda
This is a picture of my great aunt Wanda Kossak. She was the elder sister of my grandfather, Wladyslaw Czerkawski, the grandfather I never knew, and about whose life I'm writing a book.

I first met Wanda in the1970s, when I travelled by train to Poland and stayed with her and her watercolourist husband, Karol Kossak, the last in a line of distinguished Polish artists that included Karol's grandfather, Juliusz, and his uncle, Wojciech. My enchanted autumn with them is a subject for another post. My Polish was about as basic as their English, but my French was better, and as with many Poles of their generation, their French was good, so that was how we conversed most of the time. Over the weeks of my visit to their apartment in a spa town called Ciechocinek, I got to know and love them.

They were no longer young, and by the time I returned to Poland to spend Christmas there, Karol was dead, but Wanda had a long life, from 1896 to 1983. In fact, I had two Christmases in Poland, although they have somehow become fused in my mind and I will have to rummage through my box of old letters before I can properly distinguish one from another. 

The first time was when I was teaching English in Finland. Flights home to Scotland were very expensive so I travelled across the Baltic to stay with my Polish relatives. The second time was in the late 1970s, when I was working for the British Council, teaching English at Wroclaw University. Our longish winter vacation was in February, which meant that, once again, I headed for Warsaw, to spend Christmas with my father's cousin Teresa Kossak, her partner Andrzej, her mother, Wanda, and a whole heap of Kossak relatives, with whom, sadly, I have since lost touch. (If any of you are reading this, I'd love to hear from you!)

Those Christmases have become a series of vignettes of a time long past. So here's what I remember.

Warsaw was cold. Colder than Wroclaw, so much further south. There was frost and snow. There was a cheerful covered market, smelling of apples and dill pickles and cheap tobacco and that wonderful smoked 'mountain' cheese that I've only ever managed to buy in Poland. 

Teresa's tiny apartment was beautiful, with her collection of porcelain cups, her bright textiles, her books and artworks. In fact it sometimes strikes me that much of what I've decorated or planned since then, in our own house, has contained an echo of that time, in that warm, cramped, hospitable flat that I envied and wanted to emulate. She and Andrzej kept dogs that were much too big for the place, and since I was extremely allergic, they borrowed another apartment from a friend for me to sleep in, so that I shouldn't have to wheeze too much! 

I remember visiting the studio of one of their friends, an artist in amber, and the pungent scent of old forests from the polishing. He took me for a magical walk round the newly rebuilt old town. He must have been in his fifties, although he looked younger. It was evening, one of those clear, cold evenings, when the light leaches slowly out of the sky, and trees and buildings are sharply silhouetted against a golden sky. We walked and talked. His English was fluent and he told me something of the history of each place. He told me that he had taken part in the Warsaw Uprising when he was very young. Many corners of the rebuilt city held sad memories for him, where this or that friend or colleague had fallen. 
'I can still see them,' he said. 'Ghosts everywhere.' 

Warsaw was not bombed from the air. It was blown up from the ground, erased from the map. But it was rebuilt, and I was privileged to see it for myself, and to see it through his eyes as well. 

I had a proper Polish Christmas Eve at the Kossak house in - I think - Zoliborz. This is always a lengthy meal with many meatless courses, and makowiec - the most delicious Polish poppy seed cake - at the end of it. 

The house was crammed with Kossaks of all ages.  These included autocratic, intelligent Aunt Joanna Skarzynska, Karol's sister. She spoke excellent English, seemed to me a little like Lady Bracknell and quite as unnerving. She had worked in the American Embassy as a young woman, which was her post-war undoing, since she had survived, only to be imprisoned by mad, bad Stalin as a western spy. She survived that too. I got the impression that she could have survived almost anything. 

I remember a son - Wojtek? -who had been working as an archaeologist, I think, in the Gobi desert. He sailed sand yachts and gave me a little bronze Tibetan Buddhist platter with a sun symbol etched into it. There was a scientist daughter-in-law who worked her socks off in the kitchen, and there were assorted teens and children, and other more remote family members. 

The Kossak house was old and spacious and had survived the war relatively unscathed. There were polished wooden floors, lights, warmth, the inevitable pictures - and a tortoise that clip clopped about the floor, and tried to avoid being trampled underfoot. 

My dear, sweet, loving Aunty Wanda was my saviour, especially on the days following Christmas Eve when we went on family visits. I don't think I have ever met anyone whom I loved so completely after such a short acquaintance. She carted me about with her, while I felt the need to protect this fragile little lady on Warsaw's rickety trams. We laughed a lot. We visited relatives of whom - at this distance in time - I have completely lost track. But I know that, like the book of Genesis, or those Gaelic clan recitations, I could see that they were intent on fitting me neatly into the family genealogy. I was Wladyslaw's granddaughter, Wanda's great niece, Julian's daughter, the one who had fetched up in England after the war and married an Englishwoman. 

And I remember bigos. Every house offered bigos and every bowl was slightly different  - much as you'll be offered mince pies or Christmas cake here. It's good in reasonable quantities, but I also remember Andrzej who was brisk and sexy and very kind to an awkward young woman, who was a little in love with him, saying 'Poor, poor Kasia. Not MORE bigos!'

Only a few years ago, one of Teresa's friends wrote to tell me that she had died, and she sent me a book that Teresa had written about her family, including a chapter about her mother, Wanda Czerkawska. By that time, both my parents too were dead. This year, a Polish friend translated Wanda's chapter for me, which added another, even more intriguing dimension to what I already knew about my Polish family. 

But you'll have to wait for my next book to find out more! 

Missing People

I love writing Christmas cards. I mean I know it's a bit of a slog, but I still enjoy it. 

Which is just as well, because I write a lot of them every year, and often put a little note in or on each one - especially if the recipient is somebody I don't see very often, or don't chat to on social media. Not newsletters. I don't do those. Although one year, I did write a spoof newsletter, with various fictional relatives indulging in bizarre activities like evening classes in witchcraft and black magic, and equally fictional ten and eleven year old nieces and nephews obtaining first class degrees in Nuclear Physics and suffering from early onset male pattern baldness. A good friend of ours thought - at first glance - that it was genuine, and was disgustedly reading it out to his wife, before she pointed out that it was all made up 'because that's what she does!' she added. 'Makes things up.'

I've already written and posted cards to old friends in mainland Europe and elsewhere. This year that includes our son, currently living and working in Barcelona, and for once not able to come home for a Christmas visit. Not just a card but a large parcel, which next year will be made much more difficult by what is called, in this household at least, sodding Brexit. 

Still, this being Scotland, we have options.

But I digress. I like spending a little while thinking about all the people that I have known and loved throughout my life. I like remembering all the tiny and sometimes silly and often hilarious details about our friendship, especially when it's a long term friendship, even when we don't often see each other. 

Sadly, the older you grow, the more you find yourself missing the people who have fallen off the end of the list. You still remember them. And they are in the address book as well as in your mind. But you wish you could drop them a line, or phone them or see them. 

 So it is that I find myself wishing that I could write to my Canadian friend, Anna, who would phone me - latterly from Canada - for long, warm, chatty calls, roughly once a month. We were a generation apart, but she was smart and wise and witty and she took no prisoners, and I loved her. I wish my Auntie Vera was still here when I get out the gorgeous nativity set she knitted for me. I wish my lovely mum and dad and my kind, wise mother-in-law were coming for Christmas. I wish I could send a card with all my news to my old head of department, Scottish folklorist Stewart Sanderson, who I kept in touch with for many years. I wish I could send him a copy of my new book, because I know it would be right up his street. And I wish I could still open an envelope and find a newsy note from Leonard White, who produced a television series I worked on many years ago and who kept in touch with me for the rest of his long and productive life. 

Most of all, this year, I find myself missing two friends, my radio producers and friends, Hamish Wilson and Marilyn Imrie, who both died this year - I wrote about them on this blog and elsewhere, here and here, but it's very hard to accept that they're not here, when I see their names in my address book, and fleetingly imagine meeting up with them again before remembering that it isn't possible. 

All of which makes the remaining friends - and the new friends, of which there are many - all the more precious. If you ask me what I've missed most, during this last Covid and rabid politician infested year - I would say it has been the hugs. Sometimes the need to hug somebody, close friends, good friends, my son, has been so acute that it is a physical pain. I think many of us are feeling the same. 

For now, the occasional socially distanced walk, the Zoom calls and the phonecalls and Christmas cards with their messages and kisses will just have to do. 

As for me, I'll be queuing for the vaccine whenever it's available. 

It's not too late to bake your Christmas cake ...


I promised to post this recipe a while ago, and then got distracted by other things. This is the recipe my mum always made, written into the back of an old book on bakery. It's never too late to bake this one, so if you bake it now, it'll be good, but if you only get round to doing it at the last minute, it'll still taste nice. The trick is in soaking the fruit for a long time and using real butter. Don't use margarine and don't use spreadable butter! Unsalted or ordinary salted butter are both fine, but I don't recommend using those (otherwise lovely) butters with salt crystals.

You'll need

1 kilo mixed dried fruit (with or without peel)
200 grams (1 pack) glace cherries
300 grams (I just use 10 heaped tablespoons) plain flour
1 teaspoon bicarbonate of soda
1 level teaspoon salt
60 grams ground almonds (leave these out if you don't like or are sensitive to nuts) 
1 x 250 gram pack of butter (real butter, not spreadable and never marge)
250 grams soft brown sugar - light or dark will do
4 eggs, beaten.
Juice and zest of 1 orange and 1 lemon
Half a teaspoon of nutmeg
Half a teaspoon of mixed spice 
(NB these are optional - depends what you like. I add more nutmeg.)
1 teaspoon almond or vanilla essence
1 large tablespoon black treacle or molasses
Milk if needed.
Whisky, rum or brandy, to taste

You will also need a large and as heavy as possible cake tin, preferably one with a loose base. The one in the picture was my mum's, and possibly my nana's before that, so it's more then seventy years old and still going strong! Mary Berry has an excellent Christmas Cake Calculator I think mine is 21 by 9 cm high.

A day or two before you're going to bake the cake, put the dried fruit into a bowl, with the juice and zest of the orange and lemon, and a large sherry or smallish wine glass of whisky, rum or brandy. I favour brandy but sometimes I make a 'whisky mac' with whisky and a good measure of Crabbie's ginger wine, and use that instead. Stir the juices through, cover the bowl and leave at least overnight. You can leave it for a couple more days if you like, stirring occasionally. You can also add a bit more whisky or brandy. If you don't have these spirits, you can experiment with what you do have. I suspect a glass of sherry would do the job just as well. 

The fruit will begin to plump up, and it will smell wonderful. 

Before you begin mixing, line your cake tin, base and sides with a couple of layers of greased greaseproof paper. Let the paper come up over the edge of the tin as in the picture. Grease with a little melted butter.  

Heat the oven to Gas Mark 2, 350 F, 150 C. I actually bake this a little below that, because I have a hot oven, but better to bake slowly for a long time, than to bake it too quickly.

Wash the sticky glace cherries in warm water and leave in a sieve to drain. Pat dry with kitchen towel.

Soften your butter so that it's workable but not melted. You can do this in the microwave for a few seconds, or just leave it at room temperature for a while. 

Sieve the flour into a bowl and mix in the other dry ingredients, salt, spices to taste - include cinnamon if you like it -  bicarb and ground almonds

Put softened butter into a large mixing bowl with soft brown sugar and cream it together until fluffy. You can mix this cake with clean hands and I generally do. Add the beaten eggs a little at a time, and carry on creaming. Don't worry if it curdles. You will need to add your flour mixture also a bit at a time, as you're adding the eggs. You should finish up with a very stiff cake mixture.

Now, tip in your fruit, including any liquid at the bottom of the bowl, the cherries, and lastly a large tablespoon of black treacle. You can leave the treacle or molasses out if you don't have it but it enriches the cake. Mix it up and again you could do this by hand. It should still be softish, but should hold together well, and should not be at all runny. If you lift a big spoonful you should have to shake it quite hard to get it to drop off! If it seems too solid, you can add a little milk. 

Put it in large dollops into the prepared cake tin, and smooth it down, and out, so that there are no airlocks. Make a very slight depression in the middle. This is a cake that won't rise much, and you're aiming for a pretty flat top. 

Put more folded double layers of greaseproof paper around the outside of the tin, (you will need to tie this with thread or string) and then put several more loose layers of paper over the top. 

Put it into the middle of a heated oven. My old recipe says (unhelpfully) 2 - 1- Half. In reality this will take four to six hours of slow cooking, I turn the oven down from 150 C to just over 100 C after the first hour or hour and a half, and then leave it to continue baking at that low temperature for another few hours. After two to three hours, you can slide it out to check that the top isn't burning. It honestly doesn't matter if it cracks a bit - in fact there are benefits to that. If it does burn, and you're planning to ice it, you can simply cut the burnt bits off. 

It will make your whole house smell wonderful.

When it seems cooked, check it with a skewer, which should come out reasonably clean, and without raw mixture although it might be a bit sticky from the fruit. Another old fashioned method is to have a listen! If it is sizzling away, it's probably not done yet. 

Take it out of the oven but leave it in the tin, and - this is where a few cracks might come in handy - baste it while still warm with a few more tablespoons of your chosen spirit. NB - the cake isn't as alcoholic as you might think, because the soaking alcohol will have evaporated, leaving only its flavour behind, so you can afford to be generous.

When it is quite cool, take it out of the tin, peel off most of the greaseproof paper, but you can leave a layer of greaseproof at the bottom. Put away in a cake tin, lined with more paper. If you like, you can add a little more brandy or whisky after a few days. 

It will be good to eat almost immediately, but if you can leave it for a while, it will be even better. You can cover with marzipan and icing in the traditional way, or you can just use it as a cut and come again cake for the holiday. This year especially - when we won't be able to have too many visitors - it will keep for many weeks or even months, in a dry airtight tin. We've eaten the Christmas cake at Easter, and it was delicious. My Yorkshire grandad ate his Christmas cake with a good slice of Wensleydale cheese, and I like it that way too.

Above all, don't panic. This may seem like a complicated recipe, but it is the most forgiving of cakes. You can leave things out and put things in, to your own taste, and it will still be delicious. 

A Little Bit of Carrick History, Part Four: Life in an Eighteenth Century Manse

The Glebe

Moving on many years, for my final part of this gallop through the older history of the parish - there is a surviving notebook which describes life in the manse of Kirkmichael about 1720, when Mr James Laurie was ordained minister, and Kirkmichael had a population of 700 souls, scattered throughout the parish in a number of clachans. The village as we know it today was not yet in existence. 

In 1904, the Scottish Historical Review included a fascinating fourteen page summary of this notebook, later published by the Edinburgh University Press, and if you're interested, you can access it on the JSTOR site which gives access to academic articles. You'll need to create an account as an independent researcher, but they have made access easier during Covid. Look for Life in a Country Manse, about 1720 for a vivid and fascinating overview of life in and around Kirkmichael 300 years ago. 

This was well before the present kirk was built in 1787, although the lych gate, still in existence, dates to 1702. Once again, we can conclude that the parish had grown during the intervening period, with episodes of Covenanter activity disturbing the peace of the people. 

Life in the Manse
At the time when James Laurie was keeping his meticulous household accounts, the manse itself was by no means the grander building of later times, but was instead a smallish thatched house with a kailyard in front, half glazed narrow windows, thick walls, and four rooms divided by wooden partitions. It probably stood where the old manse of Gemilston stands now, although we can’t be sure. 

There was no 'village' as such. Kirkmichael was a remote parish, 'through which ran tracks over the moors to Maybole and Ayr.' Even the mansions of the lairds were 'homely and unpretentious' although we are told that Kirkmichael House was exceptional in being 'as desirable a dwelling in all the country, having good gardens and orchards, the first in Carrick planted with peaches and apricocks

From 1711 – 1732 James Laurie noted down memoranda of his income, his expenses and the details of his daily life, and these give us a fascinating picture of what that life was like. In the Manse, lived the minister, his wife Ann, and their children, four boys and three girls, as well as the minister’s sister, Betty. There were, besides, three women servants, a serving man and a herd lassie who slept over the byre. 

Money Problems
The minister was funded by the local people, lairds and farmers, but sometimes his stipend was hard to come by. It seems to have been very difficult for him to get his parishioners, even the reasonably solvent ones, to pay to keep the manse in a good state of repair. A lot of bartering went on, with the stipend sometimes being paid in meal and other necessities rather than money. Sometimes even that was hard to come by and he would wait three years for his payment. Often the lairds would give the minister 'precepts' or orders on their tenants, in lieu of actual cash, so the poor tenant farmers would have to give some of their own harvest to the minister, in the shape of malt, meal, barley, grey oats, white oats and something called 'horse corn' which would arrive in sacks or creels, on horseback, and have to be stored away by the minister for future use.

We should note here that the payments were, for most of the 18th century, still in Scots pounds and shillings, which had been considerably devalued, had been replaced by sterling after 1707, but which continued to be used, so the sums mentioned are smaller than you might suppose.

The manse is often in a poor state of repair and the 'heritors' who are supposed to attend to such things, resist spending money on its upkeep so that the minister himself must foot the bill from his stipend:  'Paid William Simson 4 shillings and sixpence for the window in my room, twelve foot of glass and mending ane old window.'  

Clothes and footwear
Woollen fabric such as 'grey plaiding' is made by local weavers, and is used for the minister's and his son's clothes, although he has a fine 'coat of blue broadcloth for solemn occasions' such as when he travels to Edinburgh to the General Assembly. In winter, the women of the house, including Ann and Betty, are engaged in spinning yarn, which they then weave into cloth for their own purposes, as most people did back then. However, Ann - as befits the minister's wife - has a gown of 'Musselburgh stuff' (this seems to have been fine quality woven wool) made by a local tailor for ordinary wear. The women also sell some of their work to the weaver who comes looking for customers' work to sell on. Ann and Betty are happy to sell Lady Killhenzie 'cloath napery' for 14 shillings. The minister has a flock of sheep to supply his own wool, and grows flax on the glebe so that the family can make their own linen. 

There are tailors in some of the clachans, with an interesting reference to a tailor from Straiton making a 'sackcloth' gown for one unfortunate Janet Kennedy. Adulterers and 'adulteresses' were supposed to appear in church in sackcloth robes, but even at this time, the practice is falling out of favour, and by the time of Robert Burns and his transgressions with Jean Armour some sixty years later, there is hardly a tailor to be found willing or able to make such a thing, nor a minister insisting on it. 'Daddie' Auld certainly doesn't. Mr Laurie, however, does seem to have approved of it and there is some mention of culprits 'not appearing in the kirk without sackcloth'. 

A travelling shoemaker, probably from Maybole, makes shoes for the family, in preparation for which, Mr Laurie gets in leather, hemp and rosin, the tanned leather often coming from his own beasts. The shoes tended to be for best, and for wearing to the kirk and for travelling, rather than for everyday use, although Ann has comfortable 'cloath slippers' made for herself. In August 1716, 'James Niven and his servant 'wrought nine days' making shoes for the family, for which he was paid board and lodging, plus 'six and a quarter pence sterling and seven pence for timber heels.' 

Household goods
The entries on other household goods are particularly fascinating. In Maybole, the minister buys hens and eggs too, as well as cheese, sugar, tobacco, coals, thread, soap and gunpowder. He spends money on 'plaiding' and on the wigmaker to mend his wig, a wig being an absolutely indispensable item for men of importance at the time, even quite young men, as he was. He spends a good deal on 'sugar candie' but some of this is to ameliorate the taste of the nasty medicines of the time, as we can see from its inclusion in various recipes, among which we find baked ground mother of pearl mixed with powdered slaters (i.e. woodlice) Those medicines involving the contents of the herb garden, however, seem more palatable and more efficacious, witness the use of horehound and coltsfoot for a cough, something still found in herbal cough mixtures today. 

Tea drinking is only just becoming fashionable and Mr Laurie buys 'lime' (meaning loam or earthenware) to drink it from. A pound of 'Bohea' or black China tea costs a massive 24 shillings. But they are a la mode  at the manse and must have indulged in the habit from time to time. 

In Edinburgh he buys not just useful vegetable seed for the manse kitchen garden, such as 'colliflower' lettuce, carrots and parsnips, but seeds for his flower borders: ‘africa marigold, sunflower, jelly flower, luppyns, double holly oaks, bella donna’ and others. I love the fact that even then, they had a flower garden, but we should remember that these also had medicinal purposes. He buys in wine for household use. Ale is brewed at home, but we sometimes find small sums for 'ale' in the accounts which represents coins given to tradesmen who come to the door with deliveries. 

Other small sums are given out to the wandering poor, of which there are very many, not least Scottish sailors who have been captured by pirates, sold into slavery, escaped and finally arrived home in a penniless and broken down state. 'To a poor man taken a slave in Algiers' or 'To a slave from Algiers, dumb'.

Balancing the books is always difficult, and with no enclosed land and few improvements, overwintering of beasts, even for the minister, is very hard and there are losses, although nothing is wasted and hides will be tanned for leather. It is obvious that without a bartering system it would have been impossible to survive. Mr Laurie is even forced to borrow from his canny sister Betty on one occasion, who charges him interest on the transaction. She needs cash for pins, needles and knitting thread.

Books and learning
Learning is a wonderful thing and he has managed to acquire a great many books - perhaps some from his minister father - which he lends to his friends, including the sons of local lairds, as well as ministers from neighbouring parishes. Human nature being what it is, the books sometimes go missing and he writes 'I do not know who has this' rather plaintively. (I have much the same problem!) His children go to the village school, and perhaps then to Maybole, Ayr and Glasgow for their further education. One of his sons, George, becomes a minister in turn and as minister of Loudon has a large part to play in encouraging Robert Burns. 

It's apparent from all this that most of the houses in what now constitutes the old parts of the village were not built till much later in the eighteenth century, well after James Laurie was buying his flower seeds in Edinburgh. When we had occasion to take down a bit of wall to build an extension, some years ago, we found the stones of a much older house, including a lintel, used as infill in the wall. Where from? Presumably from one of those much older cottages in the vicinity of the manse, or closer to Kirkmichael House or even further afield. 

There certainly used to be more cottages along the road towards Crosshill, towards the farm of Merkland. Older people here remembered the ruins. There was also the ‘Waukmill’ along there, where the cottage-woven fabric was taken to be stretched. There is little left of it now except for a shell of stones, down by the river at Merkland Farm. Incidentally, it is possible to trace some of the history of the parish through its mills of various kinds, many of them along the banks of the Dyrock burn or the River Girvan. 

There is a great deal more to the story of this village, including the Covenanters, (I think somebody else can tackle that complicated period!) and - in the 19th century - the brief rise of Ayrshire whitework, of which I have my own small collection. I'll write more about this needlework in due course. 

One final suggestion - if you find Mr Laurie's account interesting, you could do worse than seek out a book called The Annals of the Parish by John Galt. It is still in print in various forms, it is ostensibly a novel, published in 1821 but it's told in the voice of an 18th Century minister who sounds a lot like Mr Laurie. It is entertaining, informative - and in places, extremely funny. Reading it, you realise how little village life has changed in the intervening period. 

In the kirkyard


A Little Bit of Ancient Carrick History, Part Three: Silver Spurs

Looking towards the new manse.

Near to the natural mound of Kirkmichael House (called Kirkmichael Tower on Pont’s map) is a house called Fairy Knowe. Incidentally, if you want to have a look at a series of old and interesting maps of Scotland, including Carrick, you can see and search them all online on the National Library of Scotland's site here.

Most fairy knowes have nothing to do with the fairies, and this one hasn’t either. Instead it comes from the Scots Gaelic faire, meaning watch or guard hill. But a guard hill for what? Fairy knowes are strategically placed near castles or forts of some sort. Fairy Knowe looks towards Maybole, commanding fine views over the surrounding countryside. To the north is Drumore, the big ridge. The name suggests an outlying rampart of something. West of Kirkmichael House is Auchenairney or the Field of Sloes – and still has sloes to this day. What seems to be true is that for many hundreds and perhaps thousands of years people have lived not just in, but around Kirkmichael House, which would have been as important to the village as the kirk. Even within the village is a house named Clawbeg that appears on old maps – with the name meaning ‘small mound’ or barrow. 

There are other place names of interest within the parish. Drumdarragh is a farm mentioned in old records. It seems to have disappeared, but in 1711 we find two farms referred to as Upper and Nether Dundarrach, which translates as small fort of the oaks, and there is an Aikenhead farm in this area today, which of course means much the same thing, but in English. 

Natural mound of 
Kirkmichael House 
Maybe Dundarrach hasn’t disappeared at all.

Descriptively Port Cheek, within the village, is Gaelic, meaning the harbour where the river flows out of the hollow. As it does. The burn is the Dyrock, which was also named for the oaks that grew and still to some extent do grow along the banks. Arnsow is the height of the wise man or sage, Dalduff, the dark field, Ballycoach, the town of the wood, Barskelly, the top of the bare rock, Drumfad, the hill of peat, and so on. 

These were people who were describing and naming a landscape in which they lived and worked and were occasionally referring to people they thought of as others – such as Barbrethan, or Barbredda on the old Pont map, ‘the height where the Brits live’ - even when those others had been here for a long time. The names are, if we pay attention, still describing the place to us, but back then, they were even more important in characterising the landscape.

An English friend had been told that Guiltreehill, outside the village, had been a gallows hill. Well it's possible, but not likely. Executions would have taken place elsewhere, in centres like Maybole and Girvan and Ayr, It seems much more likely that the tree element is yet another British tref, or house name. Gil-tref may mean the house of the manservant, (as in the word ghillie.)  Maybe we see a favoured servant being given some land to build a house for himself, just as so many years later, our own house was built by a well regarded servant. 

Lead was mined up there, but the ore also yielded silver. The 1838 Statistical Account for Kirkmichael contains this tantalising reference: 'In the wacke at Guiltree-hill and Montgomerieston, veins of galena are found, of sufficient importance to have been at one time worked; and they are said to have yielded a high per centage of silver.'

That 1838 account, which can be accessed here, via the excellent Maybole site, also contains a wealth of fascinating information about the area, not least that of some 1000 people in Crosshill, 800 are Irish. The minister doesn't seem to approve of them very much. He also notes that there are ten alehouses in Kirkmichael and finds it an 'unwarrantably large number'.

When I first moved to the village, many years ago, older people would tell me that items made of Kirkmichael silver could still be found here - but I've never seen any. I'd love to know if any remain, lurking at the back of somebody's drawer, or in a box in the attic! 

The mine was certainly a very old one. Perhaps the ‘silver spurs’ that had to be paid to John Kennedy by Murdoch son of Somerled, on St Michael’s day, were made from local silver. And as I said in an earlier post, the Britonnic tribes were miners as well as horsemen and women. Intriguingly, Orchard Farm, and Cloncaird House also seem to be connected with metal working: Orchard with gold, not apples, while Cloncaird is the ‘field of the metal workers’. 

 Perhaps the whole area, back then, was noted for its metal working and perhaps the Britonnic people had those particular skills. Maybe this was an area of much more wealth and interest than we can possibly imagine.

Go to Part Four of this overview of life in the village, for a fascinating account of what life was like in an eighteenth century manse. 

A Little Bit of Ancient Carrick History, Part Two: Place Names and Clan Names

A wintry day on the Dyrock

Our deeds show that our house was built between 1806 when the deeds refer to a piece of land belonging to Cloncaird, and 1811 when they talk about the land and the ‘house built thereon’. The person who built the house had been a gardener on that nearby estate. There was a long tradition of giving land to a favoured servant. Many houses round about are newer or older, but only by a margin of twenty or thirty years, and even the oldest cottages in what is now the conservation area of the village seem to date from no earlier than 1780 or thereabouts. The village is much older, though perhaps it wasn’t a village as we know it today, but more a parish, a collection of clachans around the kirk and Kirkmichael House. 

The present kirk is the newest of three or more buildings on the same site since the Mediaeval period. In the 13th century, we are told that one John de Gemilstoun obtained permission from the priory of Whithorn to estabish a shrine dedicated to St Michael at a peaceful location beside the bank of the stream now known as the Dyrock. In Latin charters, this shrine was described as Ecclesia Sancti Michaelis de Gemilstoun and much later, in 1325, Robert I confirmed this ownership. 

John de Gemilston
Records are disappointingly silent about John, except that he was the son of another John de Gemilston, Knight. I’ve found myself looking at the various mediaeval spellings of the name and wondering if he was actually of the Gaveston family, like Edward II’s pal Piers, son of a Gascon knight, who met with a very nasty end. There are some later commentators who have pointed out that the name may, in fact, be Gavelston, which isn’t a million miles away. Why did he want to establish a shrine here? Was he an incomer? I also wonder whether the shrine was for the good of his soul, or to combat lingering paganism in the area. After all, the name of the burn that runs past the church is from the Celtic word for oak, and such trees were a key part of Celtic custom and belief. 

It would be good to be able to fill in some of this period of 400 years, between the founding of the church, and the more systematic record keeping of the 17th century and beyond. We know that there was factional fighting between the two branches of the ancient Kennedy family in Carrick: the Bargany and Cassillis Kennedies. There is plenty of material about that, especially the great feud of 1601 that was to end in Bargany’s murder and there are excellent local historians who know more about all this than I do. You could also do worse than read S R Crockett’s The Grey Man for a fictional overview. But to try to go into it in any detail for this small part of Carrick would involve a great deal of digging into charters and old records to find out more about the Kirkmichael Kennedies in particular. The truth seems to be that they tended to keep their heads down and not get too involved if they could possibly help it. 

The road to the kirk with lych gate
Place names
Like so much else in Kirkmichael, habitation seems to have revolved not just around the kirk, which always sat a little separate, along with the Manse, but in another direction, around the feet of Kirkmichael House. Look at older maps, look at the place names and there is a focus on Kirkmichael House as much as on the kirk. Why should this be? Could it be that the site of the house is the site of an older settlement altogether? 

Some distance to the south of the village is our little cluster of Britonnic place names although there are others round about. These also seem to be sites of habitation, even older than the village as an entity, and mixed in with plenty of old – possibly even older - Gaelic names like Barskelly and Bargannock. Names such as Threave, Barbrethan, (literally the height of the British) Tranew and Troquhain also go back a very long way and some like Barbrethan seem to suggest two communities living cheek by jowl.

The place names in and around Kirkmichael itself are mostly Scots Gaelic but older people in the village still call or at least pronounce the village as opposed to the church name ‘Ker-mich’l’. There are plenty of old documents in the archives spelling it Carmichael. Caer generally meant a stronghold or citadel in Britonnic, and sometimes came to be used in conjunction with the name Michael, mostly as an early Christian reference to the power of the archangel, at sites where the older religions had once been practised. Michael was your go-to archangel for casting out devils – or pagan beliefs.

Kirkmichael House itself sits on a natural ridge, not a man made hill. Still, the Celts liked these naturally defensive positions. Within the Victorian house is a seventeenth century house, and buried deep in that is something older yet. Sparse written records go back to the eleventh or twelve century. But the surrounding place names suggest something older still, at least going back to the time of the Scots Gaels as well as to the Britonnic tribes of the Kingdom of Strathclyde.

Silver Spurs on St Michael's Day
There is an intriguing, if cryptic, reference to Kirkmichael in the preface to a Victorian translation of an ancient volume called The Book of Deer. This book, a 10th century Scottish book of Gospels, with 12th century additions, contains some of the earliest Gaelic writing in Scotland. It was found at the Monastery of Deer in Aberdeenshire (a monastery no longer in existence) but with some evidence of a possible lowland origin. 

A strange little footnote in that Victorian translation, trying to establish some kind of connection between the ancient Kingdom of Strathclyde, and the Celtic tribes of Brittany, refers to Mediaeval records of Kirkmichael. In them, it is called the ‘parich of Kyrmychel Muntirduffy’. There is a reference to ‘Malcolm son of Roland of Carrick, by his charter, said to be dated 1370, to John Kennedy lord of Dunnowyr the lands of Freuchane and Kennethane, lying in the parish of Kyrmychel Muntirduffy, in the earldom of carrick and shrie of are, with all the right that Murdach son of Sowerli had, paying at the feast of St Michael Archangel, at Kyrmychel, a pair of silver spurs.’

Dunnowyr is Dunure, Shrie of Are is Shire of Ayr. Freuchane is, in fact, Treuchane, modern day Troquhain, outside the village in the Patna direction, with the T having been mistaken for an F by whoever was transcribing. There are other transcriptions of this charter confirming this. What is now a hilltop farm was once quite an extensive estate. Kennethane is elsewhere referred to as Kennochane and is linked to Troquhain or Treuchan but I can’t find its equivalent anywhere on the ground or even on old maps. However, this may be the same place as Knockaneckie or Kennackie named elsewhere in mediaeval charters and could be a variant on Cnoc an Eachann (Hector’s hill?) I still don’t know where it was though. Sowerli is Gaelic Somhairle, aka Somerled, who was one of the descendants of the Lord of the Isles, and like his name, of Norse origin. This indicates that he owned lands near, but not necessarily in Kirkmichael. As I discovered when researching the Isle of Gigha, land was often used by the great and the not-so-good as a reward for services rendered, and trying to work out exactly who owned what can be a woeful business. 

Another footnote adds that among the charters of King David II is one ‘anent the clan of Muntircasduff, John McKennedy, Captain thereof.’

We find Murdoch, Son of Somerled, the original owner of these lands near, but not necessarily in, Kirkmichael, cropping up as ‘Juror’ – a man of power and influence - at a couple of enquiries into local legal disputes in 1260, such as this one, in which in-laws have clearly fallen out: 'An inquest was made at Girvan in Carrick in the presence of (among many other lords) Murdoch son of Somerled, who said that they knew well that a marriage was contracted between Hector, son of Sir Hector, and Samuel MacCann’s daughter. Sir Hector placed his son in full sasine of the five-pennyland of Auchensoul for a sum of money paid to him by Samuel; and Hector his son was in sasine for a year and a half, during which time Samuel was guardian. After anger and discord arose between Sir Hector and Samuel, Sir Hector recognosced (reclaimed possession by feudal right) and took sasine of the land, not judicially but by will, and so cultivated the same, and at length deceased.' 

The confirmation of Kennedy ownership of Troquhain and Kennochane comes a hundred years after this Carrick son of Somerled is going about his business, so we’re not sure when the transfer took place – only that Kennedy had to pay for it with a pair of silver spurs and that this may even have been an annual payment, a form of rent.

King David’s charter also defines John McKennedy as the Captain of Muintircasduf Clan. Unpicking this still further, I’m immediately struck by the spelling reflecting the traditional pronunciation of the village name. It would also suggest that even in 1370 the whole place was strongly associated with the feast of St Michael. The Celts celebrated his feast day on 29th September and this day was also associated with horses and horsemen – (I wrote about this feast day in a very popular novel called The Curiosity Cabinet) which helps to explain the ‘silver spurs’. Were they made here? There is a tradition of silver mining outside the village, of which more later. 

The Tribe of the Curly Black Hair?
That name Muntircasduff is perhaps the most intriguing reference of all.

It means something like the ‘clan of the people of the curly black hair’. Later scholars translate this as ‘black feet’ but the ‘curly black hair’ description seems to make a lot more sense. This clan name might help us to make some sense of the origin – or one of them - of this branch of the Kennedy family, and their connection to the Britonnic people in this part of Carrick. 

Cairenn Chasdub was said to be the mother of one of the High Kings of Ireland: Niall of the Nine Hostages, who died around the turn of the 5th century. She is described variously as the daughter of a Saxon king (which she couldn’t have been, given the dates) but also and much more likely as the daughter of the King of the Britons – possibly even of Romano British origin, like King Arthur himself. She too has an interesting story involving victimisation by her husband’s first wife and later rescue from near slavery by her grown up son. 

Whatever the meaning of the name, it’s clear that those ancient Kennedies living where Kirkmichael House now stands, considered themselves to be part of the clan of the people of the curly black hair, with roots going back to the ancient Britonnic people of these islands.

If you want to read more, follow the link to Part Three

A Little Bit of Ancient Carrick History, Part One: Who Lives in Carrick?


There's an excellent community venture going on in this small corner of Carrick to collect and collate a wealth of local history, and although I've got a brand new writing project to work on, and all kinds of things I should be doing instead, it sent me back down a rabbit hole - an enticing rabbit warren really - of a piece of research I started a long time ago. 

When I dug it out and went over it with the new project in mind, I realised that I had got lots of things wrong, and also that there was plenty more to be said - so I've spent a large part of this week digging down into it again. It's complicated - so there will be three parts. But if you too enjoy digging down into the past, you might find it useful or entertaining. 

Years ago, I did a Postgraduate Masters in Folk Life Studies at Leeds University. There was an outside chance that I was going to do place name research. Well I didn't, and I'm quite glad about that. I was always more inclined towards fiction rather than the academic world. And I do love a bit of wild speculation! But I still find place names - and personal names too - fascinating, because they're a bit like fossils: tantalising remnants of something ancient, buried in the landscape. 

Anyway - here comes a bit of background.

When the Romans first came to Britain, (in 55BC as we used to learn at school), they noted that the Iron Age tribes who lived in this part of the world – Carrick and Galloway - were the Novantae. That, however, was the Roman name for them, and we don’t know what they called themselves. We think that they probably spoke the Britonnic language that would have sounded a bit like Welsh, but we know very little else about them. 

Put simply - but it isn’t really simple, so if you’re an expert on this, bear with me while I oversimplify! - there are three kinds of Celtic language. There is Q Celtic, which probably came to these islands with waves of migration, roughly 1000 BC,  and from which Irish and Scots Gaelic are both descended. There is P Celtic or Britonnic, which was spoken throughout the island of Britain in the late Iron Age and beyond, from about 400 BC, including southern and central Scotland, and from which modern Welsh is descended Thirdly, the people we know as Picts lived north of the Forth Clyde Line and they spoke another Celtic language, although scholarly debate still rages as to the nature of this tongue. 

We also know that there were brochs – round towers that tend to be associated with Picts like the one in the picture  – as far south as Galloway, and it’s now recognised that there were southern Picts too. On balance Pictish was probably closer to P Celtic. Place names provide a clue to the nature of their language, as do some surviving inscriptions that use the Latin alphabet. 

Complicating matters still further is the notion that earlier Bronze age tribes may have been similar culturally and linguistically to the Q Celts who were displaced by incoming Britonnic tribes. Some even  speculate that the Novantae could be the remnants of Bronze age people. 

The Roman geographer, Ptolemy, who wrote about the tribes of Britain, but didn't have much to say about the Novantae, also recorded 38 native place names from Scotland in the second century AD, but when place name experts look at them today, less than half are recognisably Britonnic or Gaelic. The rest are mysterious and interesting. River names, for example, are sometimes much older than other words, and perhaps date from even older languages, because the Celts were incomers too. 

Even the smallest knowledge of ancient and local history tells you that we are all, every last one of us, descended from economic migrants. Even if your blood turns out to be pure Pict or Celt, that's what you were. 

If we look at this part of South Ayrshire, we can see that over the first millennium AD, especially after the Romans departed, Celtic peoples travelled between here and Ireland. No doubt they would have intermarried and learned each other’s languages. In time, the ‘English’ came north and complicated things even more. Northumbrian Angles settled in Galloway, in the seventh and eighth centuries AD, and Maybole, the capital of Carrick, was one of their northern centres of population. 

These Anglo Saxon people seem to have managed to achieve some kind of power balance with their Celtic neighbours. The Britons - and place name evidence suggests that a lot of them were P Celtic speaking Britons in this area by that time - were, by tradition, farmers, cattle and horse breeders – sometimes quite wealthy people - who lived up in the hills. They were also miners, and occupied areas where silver could be extracted and gold panned in the streams. Both Angles and Britons hunted and fished, but they weren't short of wildlife and game. The separation of one settlement from another by wide tracts of forest probably helped to maintain the peace between these rather different peoples: the Celtic people on the hills and the Angles, speaking a variety of Old English in the valleys. 

I have this wild theory that if you tested a cross section of hill top Ayrshire and Galloway farmers, those who have been farming in this area for many generations, you would still find Britonnic DNA predominating.

Time marched on. The power of Northumbria started to diminish, the Celtic kingdom of Strathclyde expanded and the balance tipped in favour of the Britonnic tribes again, although all were coping with inroads made by young Norse settlers, aka Vikings. The Strathclyde tribes were possibly rather better at this than the Northumbrians. Alliances were formed, broken, formed again. We know that in the early 10th century AD, Galloway and Carrick were still divided between largely Britonnic and Anglo Saxon enclaves but there was also place name evidence of those earlier Q Celtic speakers who had lived here, may still have been living here, and would live here again. 

Over the next hundred years or more, we see a powerful resurgence of Gaelic place names in this area, as people moved here from Ireland. Nothing is clear cut, and there may have been plenty of unrecorded interactions between the Britonnic and Gaelic speaking peoples. They may have been here all along, keeping a low profile. Nevertheless early in the eleventh century, the balance of power in this part of the world had changed. The kingdom of the Scots was established and they brought with them a language that again became dominant.

A host of Gaelic place names had come into existence - or were resurrected. Who knows?  There were hills, streams, farms and fields but even the personal names of the upper classes had become Gaelicised. It seems to have been the language rather than the population that changed. It was as though Gaelic had become fashionable. 

At the same time, people in Carrick still preserved many traces of their Britonnic descent and in this area, some Britonnic names have persisted right to the present day. Around Maybole, for example, there are many place names containing the Brittonic ‘tre’ or ‘tref’, meaning homestead. We find Troquhain, Threave, Barbrethan, Tranew, Tralorg, Traboyack, Tralodden, Trochrague, Trees and probably Guiltreehill as well, as we shall see. Pen and Pin place names may have a similar origin.

Part of the problem for those coming after is that history tends to be written in terms of the ‘high heidyins’ so we have endless (and frankly quite boring) lists of complicated relationships of the men at the top, charters etc but we know very little about everyday life. What we do know is that more and more settlements are being uncovered, places that were settled over a period of  many thousands of years, that this was quite a prosperous and cultured area a long time before the Iron Age and beyond, and that where we can’t find settlements going back thousands of years, it may well be because old farmhouses are sitting right on top of them. 

The Celts, Gaels and Britons alike, favoured hilltop forts so that they could see who was coming. So do many of the hill farmers of Carrick today. 

If you want to read more, follow the link to Part Two