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

My Husband's Amazing Pandemic Woodcarving

Early on in the Covid 19 lockdown, we decided to seize the opportunity of clearing out our garden sheds and - more importantly - Alan's woodcarving workshop at the bottom of the garden. Because Alan suffers with severe and debilitating forms of arthritis, he had spent some years painting, and had hardly used the workshop at all, except as a place to store tools, and occasionally to cut up a piece of wood for framing his pictures. The result was that it had become extremely cluttered. We took our time, and I did most of the heavy lifting and all of the trundling up and down the garden. Good exercise for me. I don't think we had realised just how miserably neglected the place had become. 

If you'd like to see more of Alan's artwork and carving, you'll find his website here.

Buried under a large pile of miscellaneous stuff, we found a huge and beautiful block of lime wood. Many years ago, Alan had been asked by an American customer to carve him a depiction of the Last Supper, and Alan had drawn out the design and started to carve it, before the customer decided that he didn't want it after all. So he had shelved it and got on with other things. Back then, he was making sculptural rocking horses, and doing all kinds of huge outdoor carvings so he wasn't short of work. 

Cue forward all these years - it was early summer, and we gazed at the solid piece of wood - some 30 by 15 inches by 4 inches deep. 'Why don't you finish it?' I asked. So he did. 

Halfway through.

 It has taken him many months but yesterday, he completed it. It was very difficult, because the arthritis affects his hands too, so he could only work for a limited time each day. The other problem is that he can't stand for more than a few moments at a time, so he had to find a way of working that meant he could sit down to do it.   

Fortunately, our clear-out had also uncovered a useful folding workbench, with a tilting facility, that was exactly the right size   for the carving, and that could be set at the right angle. This meant   that he could sit in his comfortable lightweight folding wheelchair, and work away, getting a little fresh air as he did so.

The year and the carving moved on. It took a whole lot longer than he thought it would. This is a highly detailed high relief carving.

Autumn came and with it the usual, west of Scotland wet, chilly   weather. I suggested that he move indoors, so he commandeered  the conservatory, where he could work in warmth and light. And now, in early November, he has just sealed and finished it with some layers of good shellac. 

It is a thing of great beauty. The disciples look as though they are having quite a good time! People keep asking us what we are going to do with it next. Of course, we are hoping to sell it - we need the money - but the price will have to be right. No crafter is ever fully reimbursed for the hours spent on a piece of work, but I'd rather keep this than let it go without Alan being suitably rewarded, especially given his health challenges. And if I'm honest, perhaps because of the subject matter, I for one would rather it went to somewhere like a church, or a museum or a collection where it could be appreciated by lots of people for the minor miracle of craftsmanship that it so obviously is. A friend suggested that it would be good to find an Italian home for it, and I can see what she means. They love and appreciate woodcarving in Italy as perhaps it's never quite valued here.

Meanwhile, we're enjoying it. But all suggestions for its future home, as well as for a woodcarving aficionado with reasonably deep pockets gratefully received! 

If you'd like to see more pictures, you can have a look at it on the Love Antiques site. 

The Amber Heart: The Long, Long Story of a Story

I've blogged about my Polish novel The Amber Heart on and off over the years, but I don't think I've ever told the full unredacted story  - and now seems like as good a time as any, with a brand new, edited version out on Kindle, and a paperback and other eBook versions planned for early in 2021.

Lucky me.
Once upon a time, when I was young and optimistic, my first full length adult novel, titled The Golden Apple, was accepted for publication by The Bodley Head, an old and distinguished publisher. To be clear, this wasn't my very first novel. There were others, tucked away in folders, never to see the light of day. Practice novels. And there was a young adult novel, published in Scotland, before young adult was even a thing. But this was my first grown up novel that was fit to be seen. 

I considered myself very lucky. My agent for fiction at the time was Pat Kavanagh, and she was a fine agent with a wonderful reputation. Among other things, and unlike almost all agents now, who will tell you that publishers are looking for an 'oven ready book' (and that's a direct quote from one of my subsequent agents) she didn't consider it her job to edit. That was the publisher's job. If a book was good enough, she would sell it. Beyond that, the editorial relationship was with the publisher.

Not so lucky after all.
Half way through the publishing process, the Bodley Head was taken over by what was then Century, an imprint of mega conglomerate Random House. What had been a thoughtful Bodley Head style novel, about a cross cultural marriage, was published as a beach bonkbuster and sank without trace. It was an early lesson in the power of branding. And the disaster of the wrong branding. My editor at the time, with whom I had no quarrel, wrote to me later to say that she felt guilty about what had happened to my novel, and the knock on effect on my career. 

Still, with Pat's encouragement, I embarked on a new project. 

Back on cloud nine.
That novel was - in essence - The Amber Heart. It wasn't titled that back then. I think it was called Noon Ghosts. It was an epic and passionate love story, a family saga, very loosely inspired by what I knew of episodes from my own family history, not least a somewhat scandalous liaison between an aristocratic forebear and her estate manager. 

To my relief, Pat loved it. She quickly sent it out and the response was wonderful. She related some of the reader and editor comments to me. 'I literally could not put this book down,' one of them said. 'I read it through the night and wept buckets at the end.'

There were lots in the same vein. They loved it and said so. Cloud nine loomed.

Pat couldn't sell it. 

Too foreign.
You know what the stumbling block was? 
It was the Polish setting. 
It always fell at the last editorial hurdle. The consensus in every publishing house she tried (and there were already diminishing numbers of possibilities what with all the corporate takeovers) was that nobody would want to read a piece of historical fiction set in Poland, especially one that was aimed at a largely female readership, never mind that some of those same readers had compared it to a Polish Gone with the Wind, never mind that it was a big, sexy, enticing love story.  It was too foreign and that was that.

Years later, Pat told me how frustrated she had been that she couldn't sell the novel. For her too, it was the 'one that got away'. 

Sadly, she died far too young. I put the manuscript away, stored all the research in a big box under the bed, and got on with other writing. 

A compulsive teller of tales.
I forged a pretty successful career as a playwright. But simultaneously, I was working on more novels, finding the pull of fiction irresistible. Many have now been published - beautifully - by Saraband. But I'm a compulsive teller of tales, so I finished up with more novels than Saraband could ever reasonably publish. 

Three in particular fell through the cracks in the publishing business: Ice Dancing, Bird of Passage (of which more in another post) and The Amber Heart. 

Curiously, and rather sadly, I think these three are among the best things I've ever written, and I don't say that lightly. Other people have told me so too. But of these, Bird of Passage and The Amber Heart are big novels and not just in terms of length. Of everything I've written, these three books have never been close to being published in traditional form. Bird of Passage and Ice Dancing haven't even been read by traditional publishers. 

Meanwhile, I had retyped the manuscript of The Amber Heart. You can tell how long this has been going on by the fact that its first faded incarnation was on that old fashioned perforated computer paper that ancient printers spat out in long reams. I expanded it, wondering if it would make a trilogy. Didn't like it at all as a trilogy. Filed it away on the computer, instead of in the box under the bed. Lost the file. Found it. Opened it up. Cut and edited it. A lot.

Pruning and shaping.
Throughout this time, I had several agents and lost them through no fault of my own. Two, at least, just left the business. All of them read The Amber Heart in its various incarnations, liked it very much, but still pointed out that nobody wanted to read a piece of fiction set in Poland. Two of them read it, praised it and told me that it needed pruning. They were right about that, at least, but the problem was that they recommended cutting quite different parts of the novel: one wanted me to lose the first third, while another wanted me to lose the last third. My very last agent was madly enthusiastic about it, but disappeared into the scenery before he could even send it out. 

I published it as an eBook with Amazon. That was about 2012. 
A few years later, I decided that it was indeed much too long. Unpublished it. Let it lie fallow while I wrote other things.

Most writers will have at least one book like this. I have several very early novels. I look at them from time to time and find them an interesting stage in my development, but - in the conventional words of the standard rejection letter these days - I don't love them. So why didn't I give up with this one? 

I've asked myself this more than once over the years. I suppose the answer came to me when, over this pandemic year, spent mostly at my desk, I realised that Pat and all those readers had been right. It is a good book. But the others were right too. It was much too long. Stodgy in places. Going back to it, years later, and with a lot more experience as a writer, I could see clearly enough that it needed pruning and rewriting. Just not the kind of pruning that destroys the whole tree. I took about fifteen thousand words out of it. Here, there and everywhere. I was drastic in places, but always careful not to destroy it completely. I killed a few darlings. I think now it's tighter, more readable, less verbose. More accessible. A better book.

I'm still in love with my main characters. Still love the story. And I'm still quite proud of some of the writing in it. Especially the bit about the dangerous birth ...

Moving on.
My other reason for re-publishing this now is that I'm currently working on a piece of narrative non-fiction, in a similar vein to A Proper Person to be Detained, but this time about my Polish grandfather, his life and milieu. I'm deep into research and planning for a new book called The Last Lancer. And it seems relevant. I got the big box of pre-internet papers and letters and pictures out from under the bed. Pandora's box, in a way because this all feels very personal.

My last, my very, very last enquiry to an agent referencing this proposed new book (why on earth did I do it?) elicited the faintly bored response that there were so many similar stories out there. Since my grandfather was born in Poland in a sleigh, grew up to look like a bit like a younger version of Olivier's Maxim de Winter, was a cavalryman who drove a Lagonda and died young at Bukhara on the silk road, I suspect that there aren't all that many similar stories out there, but who knows? Maybe there are.

All the same, if I ever again publicly express a desire to find an agent, you will know that it's code for 'I've been kidnapped. Send help immediately.'

So there we are. And here it is. While I'm hard at work on the Last Lancer, if you like deeply romantic historical tales of love and loss (and cake. There's quite a lot of cake in this book), you could do worse than give The Amber Heart a try. 

It will be reduced to 99p here in the UK and also in the US from 21st December till 28th December, so grab a bargain, and escape into another time and place for a while!