The People of the Black Foot and Other Curiosities


When you start to research a piece of writing - in my case new fiction  - you can find yourself following strange threads that lead you back in time to something unexpected. As happened to me last week.

I love research. My first degree was in Mediaeval Studies, and then I did a Masters in Folk Life Studies. Everything I learned then still informs the things I write. But the problem is knowing when to stop. You enter a labyrinth and you may never find your way out again.

Some years ago, when I was researching and writing my novel about Robert Burns's wife,  Jean Armour, The Jewel, I came across the notion of a 'go between' - somebody whose job it was to arrange the courtship and marriage between two young people. Here in Ayrshire, at the time of Burns, that person was colloquially called a 'black fit' or black foot. And no matter where I looked or who I asked, I could find no very convincing etymology for the term. It was definitely in use. To quote my own book: 'A black fit was somebody, often an older woman or man, whose help might be enlisted to carry messages back and forth between lovers. ... Sometimes a black fit was needed where parental disapproval might be a bar to meeting. Sometimes it simply meant that a respectable person would act as match-maker within a small and curious community, easing the means of two young people getting to know each other.'

In my novel, Rab and Jean use the services of an older woman called Katy Govan as their 'black fit' to facilitate their courtship - as indeed it's believed they did. 

Back in 2020, in the middle of lockdown, I wrote several posts about the history of this part of South  Ayrshire or Carrick. You can find the first one here - A Little Bit of Ancient Carrick History   and the second one, on Place Names and Clan Names.   There are two more and you'll find links to them in each post.

But now, I think I may have drawn the wrong conclusions about the 'tribe' who lived in this part of Carrick, the people who may have had dark, curly hair. Because somewhere among my reading over the past few weeks, I came across another reference to the 'tribe with black feet' in Kirkmichael. And this time the writer suggested that they may have been so called because they were people who wore hand made hide brogues, with the dark 'hairy' side facing out. Making them distinctive. It seems odd, but possible. Especially when you realise that nearby Maybole  has a long tradition of boot and shoe making, extending right into the 20th century!

At the same time, another historian pointed out that the Celtic 'tribe of the black feet' were the 'kindred' - the Galloway and southern Ayrshire clan - who would later become the all powerful Kennedies, one of whose prerogatives was to organise marital alliances between various members of this huge extended family. So maybe you would go to the 'black fit', aka your Kennedy chief or kenkynol of your muinntir or household, if you wanted to arrange a wedding!

Following the threads of this research, I also came across a wonderfully haunting song called Oran Bagraith, which is judged to be the earliest known example of the Galloway language, (other than place name evidence which is much older and prolific) - a  mixture of Gaelic and Brittonic, with some words that nobody can translate. But it certainly belongs here, containing references to various local place names and to the people of the black foot. You can read about it on this site and listen to the song here.   The song is a 'song of defiance' and may have been composed as a lament for the 2nd Earl of Cassilis, Gilbert Kennedy, who was murdered in Prestwick in 1527 by Hugh Campbell, Sheriff of Ayr. 

'Wrapt up in the folk of the black foot
in their agriculture and grazing
in the genealogy of the folk of the wolf
well mounted diamain* warriors
They would be salmon fishing in Lochinvar
They would be deer hunting in Carsphairn
They would be badger hunting in Glen Shamrock 
They would be feasting in Dalry'  

NB This is St John's Town of Dalry and Glen Shimmerock is a few miles to the North East of that town. *Diamain seems to have some Gaelic correspondence with Scots Gaelic Diobhain  This paper is interesting, but essentially only if you're already a Gaelic or Welsh speaker. If anyone can tell me what diobhain actually means, I'd be grateful! 

So there you go. No conclusions, but lots of questions. Galloway had plenty of MacLellans who were the 'folk of the wolf'. But the Kennedies were the 'black feet' and maybe these early Kennedies spoke a unique Galloway language with words and grammar that seemed to belong partly to Gaelic and partly to some form of Brittonic. Wikipedia will tell you that these people were 'erroneously' called Picts. But more recently scholars have recognised that some carved stones in Galloway certainly have what seem like Pictish symbols. 

Mystery upon mystery. 
Of course I'm writing fiction now, so I have a bit of leeway. But the facts and speculation underpinning all this are fascinating. 

A Bad Year for Trees and Other Stories


Just in time for Christmas, A Bad Year for Trees would make a good stocking filler for anyone who likes short stories. Almost all of them have been published before, anthologised by other people or even broadcast on Radio 4. 

I've been meaning to collect them together for a long time. At the moment, I have a new non-fiction book, the Last Lancer, going through the Saraband publishing process, I also have some ideas for a brand new project simmering away. Assembling this little retrospective has proved to be a pleasant distraction, especially allowing me to look back at what inspired these stories. 

I think they epitomise something I was told by an (ex) agent. 'Your work is too well written to be popular, but too popular to be really literary,' she said. My bad. 

All the same, it makes them readable! Let me know what you think. 

It's available as an eBook, and now in paperback. I've written other stories, over the years, but these are the ones that I believe have stood the test of time. 

The paperback was published with the invaluable help of Duncan Lockerbie at Lumphanan Press  

It Never Rains: Innocent Times, Beautiful Song, Beautiful Performance

Me, in Wuthering Heights mode, with the lovely Andy 

The other week, I was driving along with BBC R2 playing in the background. My husband is addicted to the Popmaster Quiz, although he seldom gets more than three points. Neither do I, unless it's something from the late sixties or seventies. I don't often have Radio 2 on in the car but suddenly, Ken Bruce played this song, and I was transported back to my very early twenties, just finished university, with - theoretically anyway - the world at my feet. Anything seemed possible.

It was a very happy time. I was about to go off to work in Finland for a couple of years and this song, although in reality it's a rueful song about broken dreams, took me right back to that time and that feeling, as some songs do. Especially Albert Hammond's songs.

I suspect this video is from Top of the Pops or something like it. Look at the dancing girls, slightly shy, slightly awkward, aware of the cameras. These were more innocent times, but also dangerous times, mostly because of that very innocence. You can't watch this genuinely lovely performance without remembering that the programme - and the company - had also played host to one of the worst sexual predators the world has seen: Jimmy Saville of evil memory. 

Nevertheless, there's something happy about this unfussy performance, from the clever lyrics to the gentle way the singer engages with the youthful audience that makes you recall the best of that time. 

Watching it, I looked at the young girls dancing and thought back to myself at that age. The pressures on young women to conform to some hyper-sexualised image were there, but they were certainly fewer. Look at their not-terribly-glamorous clothes, look at the make-up or lack of it, look at their hair. We loved clothes and shopping and make-up just as much as girls do now, although most of us couldn't afford to spend too much on them. I remember wearing a long regency style Marks and Spencer's nightdress to a party, a party at which an older woman observed disapprovingly that some young women were wearing nightdresses at parties ...

 I was, however, lucky enough to have a mum who was a talented seamstress - her sisters had worked in tailoring - and she made me fashionable clothes from Vogue Paris Original patterns: a midi dress, a Jean Muir dress, a Doctor Zhivago coat in black wool, with fur around neck and cuffs. But nobody was posting endlessly doctored selfies online, few young women thought they needed plastic surgery to conform to some impossible standard of femininity, and magazines weren't posting pictures of female celebrities and slagging them off for looking anything but perfect. If we were bullied (as I was, mercilessly, in my early teens, moving to Scotland from England) we could at least escape once school was over, retreating into our own little bubble, with music for company. 

I've always had a soft spot for Hammond who is - incredibly - 78 now. Born in Gibraltar, a British national, he is one of our greatest singer songwriters and so often, when you love a song, you'll discover that he wrote it. Songs like Nothing's Gonna Stop Us, and 99 Miles From LA and Moonlight Lady. He's not always as appreciated as he should be, but then prophets have no honour in their own lands and all that. 

Nevertheless, thanks for playing It Never Rains, Ken. I could (and quite often do) listen to it over and over again. 

Oh Duolingo! What Have You Done?


Sagrada Familia, Barcelona

I can't remember exactly when I started learning Spanish on Duolingo but back in May of this year, I had been doing it for more than 1000 days (or a 'streak' in Duolingo's terms). I loved it and told a lot of people about it. I was usually on the site for between two and three hours a week. 

I allowed my streak to lapse when we spent a week in Barcelona, and sitting on the hotel balcony with a glass of wine, watching and listening to the world go by, in between visiting some of the city's wonderful architecture and restaurants, outranked the need to keep up or compete. Besides, I was practising my Spanish every day, albeit with limited success. And being intrigued by Catalan too. Making that leap from exercises on a screen, not just to speaking, but to understanding what native speakers are saying, is always a hurdle for language learners. Still, I managed a fair bit, including asking for and understanding simple directions, buying things in shops, ordering in restaurants and so on. When we came back, I took up where I had left off, albeit with a much reduced 'streak' - but with a reinforced enthusiasm for the language and for the app too.

I hadn't ever subscribed, so I was bombarded with adverts, but some of them proved to be quite useful - and developers have to be paid. Since you can do more than one language simultaneously, I had taken the opportunity to refresh my much more competent French. Duolingo used to have blocks of stories, and as you progressed, there would be exercises associated with them, so that you could do some writing of your own. The fact that I found this much easier to do in French than in Spanish was an indication of where I was 'at' in both languages. And the sad thing is that I had begun - via much repetition and practice - to be able to write paragraphs in Spanish as well. I was about to sign up to the paid version.

Then, suddenly and without warning, Duolingo changed the entire structure of the app, the entire way in which you learn. 

There used to be a learning 'tree' through which you could progress but also go back to repeat certain parts till they were drummed into your head. I've taught English as a foreign language and the only way you know you're becoming reasonably fluent is when the right phrase or sentence pops straight into your mind. Now, the Duolingo site is a long tail of pretty anonymous exercises, and for those who have been using the site for a long time, when confronted with it, you have no idea where you are. To be scrupulously fair, there are 'guidebook' sections that are useful. But only when you can tie them in to where you were and where you are now. Initially, the stories (which I loved) seemed to have disappeared altogether, but now I find that they're scattered along this never-ending tail so you can't access the more advanced and more entertaining ones. It may be for years and it may be forever, as the song goes. Not for me. 

The app was very much 'gamified' - no bad thing in language learning, since it keeps you engaged - but now the points (aka rewards) system has been pruned to within an inch of its life. Making mistakes is penalised by directing users towards in-game purchases. The paid version is probably better in this respect, but I'm told that the penalties are still harsh.

I hate it.

I've tried. But every time I go back to it, determined to try an exercise, I get so bored by it that I can't finish even one. It sends me to sleep. And all for five points. Who would? 

For a while, although the PC version had changed, I had the old app on my phone, but then that changed to the hideous new version too. So far, the CEO is holding firm. But complaints are legion. 

I've thought about this a lot over the past couple of weeks, because losing Duolingo has been like losing a friendship and I've wondered why so many users like me are so incandescent. I had huge affection for the app and its cast of characters. Especially Eddy. I'd invested a huge amount of time and energy. Now, it's gone. 

Nobody likes change. I've thought about the unwelcome changes that have been imposed on users over the years by, for example, Facebook. No doubt they too lost people. And presumably, that's what the CEO of Duolingo was and still is thinking. 'They'll get used to it.' 

But these changes on social media sites stopped short of the catastrophic destruction of the central premise. So we got used to them. By contrast, Duolingo seems to have taken the decision to destroy a palace and complacently erect an expensive hovel. It no longer allows us to do what we want to do. For a great many users, it is no longer fit for purpose. (It remains to be seen whether Twitter will weather its own storm, but I'm having doubts there too, and for much the same reasons.) 

If I had paid for Duolingo, I'd be demanding a refund.  I haven't deleted it yet, because I'm holding out a faint hope that sense may prevail, but I'm not holding my breath either. Meanwhile, I've signed up to Babbel. Plenty of other language learning apps are available. Good luck in finding one that suits you. 

Brits and Kids and Queues

In case you're wondering, that's me in the picture, back in 1986, about 6 or 7 months pregnant. We were filming my TV drama, Shadow of the Stone, on the Clyde, and you can see my 'bump'. You can still watch the serial as well, but that's a story for another day.

I was reminded of this when I recently followed a thread on Mumsnet. Some unfortunate mum had been queueing to check in for a flight, with a three month old baby, and mistakenly thought she could jump the queue. Not only did she get dog's abuse from other people, but the vast majority of mumsnetters agreed with the abusers, vociferously.

Following some of the thread (not much - I couldn't stand the holier-than-thou tone of it), I found myself thinking 'Brits and kids and queues. Nothing changes.'

When our son was born in November of that same year, my husband was still working as a yacht skipper, first on a beautiful catamaran called Simba and then on a couple of other big yachts: Clyde boats, mostly based in the Canaries. The baby, all grown up now, loves Spain, working in Barcelona for several years and revisiting it as often as he can. He speaks fairly fluent Spanish too. It's quite uncanny.

I had a harrowing time during his birth in Scotland, and felt ill for a long time afterwards. My chief memory of that time is pain and fatigue, combined with the joy of the new baby. And breastfeeding, successfully, but also being told that if I wanted to 'do that', maybe I would like to do it in the Ladies. Would you like to have your lunch in the loo? 

When our son was six weeks old, we flew south to Los Cristianos on Tenerife. We borrowed an apartment from friends, Alan was intermittently skippering charter yachts, and both my parents and Alan's mum flew down to spend time with me, and help out with the baby. All in all, it was a blissfully happy time. 

On board Simba

One of the main reasons why it was so blissfully happy was the genuine affection that the Canarians had for babies and children. On our first night, we took the baby in his pram down to a local restaurant It was a warm night - by Scottish standards, anyway - so we took an outside table and sat down. The proprietor came rushing out - 'no, no - you can't keep the bebe out here in the cold!' Inside, she rushed about moving tables so that we could enjoy our meal with the baby contentedly slumbering beside us. 

Over the months that followed, we realised just how relaxing it can be to have a child in a child-friendly country. Babies were welcome everywhere. I fed him everywhere too. You could leave the pram outside a supermercado while you did some shopping and come out to find a small group of teenage boys, intent on amusing the little nino. My parents decided that we needed a baby bath, and described how a kindly man in the hardware store had insisted on practically emptying his loft to get exactly the right bath (in his opinion) for them. Everyone from young, handsome waiters to elderly ladies in black played with the baby, distracted him if he seemed fractious, and generally made everything so much easier than it might have been. 

A few years later, back in the UK, a young Catalan friend came to stay with us to improve his English, and was incandescent with rage at a sign outside a restaurant saying 'children welcome'! 'But are children not welcome everywhere?' he demanded. 'Why not?'

I thought the UK might have changed for the better over the years. In this one respect anyway, because everything else seems to have got so much worse. And it's true that - for example - in Scotland, it is an offence to try to stop a mother from breastfeeding in public. 

But oh, those Mumsnet comments! 

God help you if you're in the UK and you try to jump the queue with a baby. 

Alan, his mum, and the baby at Candelaria

Bird of Passage: my Wuthering Heights inspired novel on special offer.


Cover art by Alan Lees

My novel Bird of Passage will be on special offer at 99p for the Kindle eBook version, for a whole week, from late on 14th October to the 21st October. If you haven't already read it, do grab a bargain. If you'd prefer the paperback, you'll find that here (at full price, I'm afraid, but it's a nicely produced book and a long one!) 

After all, what else can you do at this miserable time of year, with the country's economy crumbling around us, but bury yourself in a book? I plan to do the same thing, but I'll be writing something new as well.

Over all the years of my writing career, and even though I've been happily published by Saraband  for some time now, with my new non-fiction book, The Last Lancer, due to be published in 2023, there were two or three fairly early novels that I always thought of as the 'ones that got away'. 

Until I took the decision to publish it myself, it had always been my orphan child, the book that a few people read and enjoyed, but that nobody in the industry wanted. Unlike The Amber Heart, that kept being turned down with fulsome praise, because 'nobody is interested in Poland', which seemed in theory at least to be a credible marketing decision back in the 1980s, no agent or publisher would even read Bird of Passage, in spite of its Scottish setting and Irish background, and in spite of the fact that it tackles some harrowing issues that are still very much current. In short, it was turned down unseen. I should add that I can't blame my current publisher for this. There is only so much work that an individual independent publisher can deal with and had Saraband seen it earlier, they might well have taken it. But by the time they became 'my' publisher, there was more work ready to go, more work I wanted to write specifically for them. Writing careers are tricky like that. 

In the case of Bird of Passage, back when I was still sending out submissions, I suspect the kiss of death as far as agents and publishers alike were concerned, was the Wuthering Heights connection. Later, I wondered if I should have been so up-front about it. Perhaps I should never have mentioned it. But surely they would have noticed the faint parallels? Or maybe not. 

Anyway, in all my innocence, I gave the game away. And that was the rock I perished on. No matter how much I was at pains to say that this wasn't a rewriting of the incomparable original, (how would I dare?) but was a kind of homage to it, nobody in my industry believed me enough to read it and see for themselves. 

Wuthering Heights was my late mother’s favourite novel. I was a Yorkshire lass, although one with a rich Polish and (like Emily) a rich Irish heritage as well. We lived in Leeds until I was twelve years old. You can read more about my family background in a book called A Proper Person to be Detained (Saraband 2019), part personal memoir, part family history. I was named for the heroine of Wuthering Heights, a doubtful compliment some might say, and I was trundled over the moors in my push-chair to Top Withens, the setting for the Heights in the novel, if not for the house itself. As soon as I was old enough to read and begin to understand the novel, I fell in love with it, although I soon realised that it was a powerful and absorbing evocation of a cruelly obsessive love, with very little of romance about it. Since then, I have reread it almost every year, and have found more to marvel at with every reading. 

I'm not alone. I know plenty of people who are similarly obsessed with Wuthering Heights. And here we are again, with a new film, Emily, in cinemas from tomorrow ... 
But to return to Bird of Passage. Cue forward some years, and after a spell of writing for the stage, I began to focus almost wholly on fiction, with occasional ventures into non-fiction. Although most of my work since then has been beautifully published by Saraband, I still kept going back to Bird of Passage. Most writers have ‘bottom drawer’ novels: the books that you write before you are published. I have several, and most of them should never see the light of day. 

Like the Amber Heart, Bird of Passage always felt different. Felt like irritatingly unfinished business. I kept going back to it. Tinkering. Leaving it alone. Thinking about it. It haunted my dreams. It was as though these characters wanted desperately to tell their story. Back then, I still had an agent, but I had other work waiting for submission, and Bird of Passage languished on the far recesses of my PC. Nobody wanted to know. Nobody had the time to read it. Nobody cared except me. 

All the same, I couldn't get Finn and Kirsty out of my mind, so when I took the decision to combine some self publishing with my traditional publishing, this was one of three novels that I felt deserved another life beyond the confines of my computer and my own imagination. That was when I tackled it in a big way, with all the benefit that so much experience of writing and editing can bring. Suddenly, I knew exactly how I wanted it to be, exactly how the story should be told. When it was finally published, one of my reviewers wrote that it is a 'reimagining' of Wuthering Heights at a different time and in a different place. It is a good way of describing it, and that is perhaps as close as it gets to Emily's masterpiece.

The cover, designed by my artist husband, is exactly what I wanted, and seems to reflect the story as accurately as possible. It's a grown up story set mostly in the Scottish countryside, exploring the kind of mutual passion that is attractive in theory but ultimately destructive. It's a novel about the nature of obsessive love and the terrible, irreparable damage of childhood trauma.

If you love Wuthering Heights (or even if you don't) and if this sounds like your kind of novel, why not give it a try? 

Why Are So Many British Christian Churches So Embarrassed by the Reality of the Crucifixion?

The Execution by Alan Lees
My husband, artist Alan Lees, painted the above picture several years ago. Not because he is especially religious, and not because anyone had commissioned it. But just because he wanted to do it. He titled it The Execution. It is a striking and disturbing image of Christ on the Cross, a sacrificial victim amid a sea of less-than-kindly human faces. It is painted in acrylics on canvas board, it has a hand-made driftwood frame, and it is a very large and dramatic piece of work. It is also, in the opinion of many people who have seen it, strikingly beautiful as well as disturbing. 

We can't even give it away. 

For a while, we tried to sell it online from our Etsy store or from Alan's studio. He doesn't make a fortune (few artists do) but the images trickle out - sometimes wonderful originals and sometimes good quality giclee prints.

Lots of people admired it and one or two very much wanted to own it, but decided regretfully that it was just too large for their small houses. We had always thought that it would be more suitable for a church or some kind of religious foundation. I listed and promoted it online, here, there and everywhere, but nothing happened. 

Years passed. Alan has quite a large studio, but nevertheless, this picture dominates it and we knew that sooner or later, it was going to have to go. 

Eventually he decided that, given the subject matter, he would give it away, preferably to a church or religious foundation. Free to a good home. All they would need to do would be to arrange transport or some kind of courier. It's large and heavy, but it would fit into the back of a big hatchback or small van. 

I publicised this offer. Nothing happened. From time to time, I would try yet another church or religious foundation, including one for which Alan had carved a couple of beautiful statues to commission. Thanks, but no thanks, they said. 

Every year, I donate one or two of my signed books to the big Christian Aid sale in Edinburgh. I asked the organiser if she might know of anyone who might like to have it. She kindly said that she would consult 'the bishop'. The bishop seems to have been noncommital. How would they transport it the 70 odd miles between here and Edinburgh? Far too difficult. 

We tried churches, monasteries, salerooms. Nobody showed even the faintest interest. Rather, they seemed embarrassed by the suggestion that they might want to own this image. We even offered it as a fundraiser, but that was met with blank incomprehension.


A disturbing image with a beautiful frame.

Given this utter indifference, Alan's first thought was that he would make a bonfire of it, but it seems a shame and besides, the frame is lovely.

With the bonfire idea abandoned, Alan eventually decided that he couldn't waste the canvas and frame, and so he decided that he was going to have to paint over it. The picture would still be there. But there would be something else on top of it.

He hasn't done it yet, but the deadline is getting closer - two or three weeks away. He's already working on sketches for the new picture.

Two things have happened in the meantime. 

Somebody has confirmed our original thought that the picture would perhaps find a better home somewhere like Spain or Italy or Poland - in fact any country, worldwide, with a strong Roman Catholic or other Christian tradition. But there is a huge gap between acknowledging this truth and placing the image before anyone who might wish to acquire it for their church or monastery. Anyone with the authority to make the arrangements. And the problem of transport becomes a bit more difficult (and expensive) than a journey of 70 miles in the back of a car. That would be the responsibility of anyone who wants the gift of the picture, but it seems to be an expense too far.

The second thing that happened was that a friend who had admired the picture pointed out a truth that had occurred to both of us, without being fully acknowledged, because it is uncomfortable. The response to this image from so many allegedly Christian organisations has involved a weird mixture of revulsion and embarrassment at this depiction of the grim reality of crucifixion. And yet, without that sacrifice, what's the point? What is the point of positive images of redemption without some perception of the events, the sacrifice, the dreadful reality of the execution leading up to it? 

Why have so many wishy washy British churches - not to put too fine a point on it - so comprehensively lost the plot? 

If you are genuinely interested in finding a home for this picture somewhere in Europe or elsewhere, don't hesitate to contact us via this blog or through Alan's website.  But the window of time available is small now. And we've had time wasters before. It's still free to a good home, but you will have to arrange packaging, uplift and transport from south west Scotland at a definite time - and have a setting worthy of it. That's all we ask. 

Can you help? 

The Amber Heart eBook - Special Offer


The Amber Heart, my big Polish love story/saga/historical romance, however you like to label it, is free as an eBook on Kindle, just for a few days - 2nd, 3rd, 4th October. There's a nice fat paperback too, but I'm afraid you'll have to pay for that! 

Interestingly enough, my new non-fiction book, the Last Lancer, due to be published by Saraband in spring 2023, is the true story of my Polish grandfather, his family, his milieu and his forebears in Poland and Ukraine. Parts of it are even stranger and sadder than fiction. 

You Don't Need to Pay to Write

Lidl has lovely notebooks

I was troubled, recently, to see somebody posting online that she couldn't afford to pay for creative writing courses and retreats. The person in question seemed to have swallowed the myth that it isn't possible to write without them. 

I'm here to tell you that this is not true. 

If you want a recommendation for a 'how to' book, you should buy Stephen King's excellent On Writing, more memoir than instruction manual. The advice he gives is both simple and cheering. Read a lot, write a lot and avoid 'workshops' like the plague. 

I've written since I was a child, beginning with poetry, moving on to plays and short stories, and now all kinds of fiction and non-fiction. None of it has ever paid very well, and therein lies a problem. 

The numbers of writers who can earn a living from their fiction has become vanishingly small. This is why so many of us teach the thing we know most about - creative writing. For many writers tutoring classes and retreats is the only thing to keep what Robert Burns called the 'poortith cauld' - cold poverty - away from the door. They can be useful and helpful, no doubt about it.

But that doesn't mean any of them are compulsory.

'The only way to learn how to write is to write,' a novelist told me, when I was first starting out. So I did. 

You could, if you lack confidence, find a local writing group: one where you can receive encouragement or pointers or inspiration. These are usually much less expensive than the big professional courses. Joining a book group might be an even cheaper alternative, where you'll read and discuss books with other people, and gain an awareness of why some books are more popular than others and whether that matters, and what kind of  books you like best.

But don't let anyone fool you that you have to be able to pay to do courses or retreats or classes to learn how to write. If you don't have access to a computer, join a library, and buy yourself a big fat notebook and some pens. (Lidl has great, cheap notebooks. So does T K Maxx.) 

That is really all you need to get started. Give yourself permission to play around with words and ideas. Don't feel that you have to 'get it right'. Just enjoy yourself. Worry about all the rest of it later. 

Rest in Peace

Holyrood Garden Party

Some years ago - all unexpectedly - we were invited to the Royal Garden Party at Holyrood.  Well, my artist husband, Alan Lees, was. I was his plus one. You're not allowed to take photographs, but later on, Alan painted the above image from memory. It sold very quickly. He thought it was definitely a minority interest but I suspect somebody who had been there on that day recognised themselves. 

We had no idea what to expect, but it was a wonderful experience, from the ultra polite police checking passports and invitations at the gates, to the fabulous food, including little cakes with crowns on them. And plenty of fizz. The dresses were a sight to behold. As were the Royal Company of Archers, (much in evidence today at Holyrood) some of them in outfits that looked, and probably were, more antique than their owners. The gardens were beautiful, the sun shone, and everyone seemed full of good humour. 

The Queen must have been well into her eighties, but she negotiated the stairs down to the garden with ease. We were informed by the numerous helpful attendants that Her Majesty would go to one side of the garden and Prince Philip to the other, so we could choose who we wanted to 'see'. It quickly became obvious that the vast majority of us wanted to see the Queen. Philip must have been well used to it by that time. We were there with friends, none of us rabid monarchists, but not rabid republicans either, and we glanced at each other, slightly bemused by the fact that we were enchanted by the whole thing.

The Queen was in a particularly beautiful shade of peacock blue. I always admired her for the fabulous colours of her outfits, and this one was even more vibrant in real life. She stood out like a wee jewel, a lesson for all older ladies who favour the appalling beige. (And no, Eddie Izzard, she didn't look like a man at all.) She was tiny, although the kilted man in the picture, one of the people who was presented to her, was even smaller. It was clear that certain people had been singled out to speak to her. Not us, somewhat to my relief, although we were close enough to see and hear. She spent a full five minutes chatting animatedly to a young woman and her mum, and when she moved on, all they could say to us was, 'She was so nice! And she knew all about us!' 

There were, of course, attendants to jog her memory about the multitude of people she spoke to that day. But all the same, it was quite a feat for a woman in her eighties. Or for anyone. Such is the power of the office, and such - now that I think about it - was the power of a woman who has been a fixture for most of us, for most of our lives, that we could do nothing but admire her. 

News of her death made me teary in a way I wouldn't have expected. But it also brought very vividly to my mind an old BBC TV 'Castaway' documentary about artist Julie Brook. She was spending some months living in an old bothy on the uninhabited island of Mingulay. She was, as far as I remember, working with the landscape, but also painting, magnificently, the vertiginous cliffs of the island. I envied her those months of solitude and dedication. 

She told a story of how one day, she saw the Royal Yacht approaching and, as she went for her usual walk, a solitary security officer asked her if she could perhaps avoid that particular beach for a few hours. The royals were having a picnic. Later, she was painting, when she heard somebody at the gate. It was the Queen, standing there with a bunch of wild flowers in her hand, politely asking if she could see some of her work. Her overwhelming impression, the artist remarked, was just how happy and relaxed Elizabeth looked, as they chatted about her art and her stay on the island. But what a bizarre experience it was too. Dreaming about the Queen is a recognised phenomenon and not one that is exclusively experienced by dyed-in-the-wool royalists. Afterwards, the artist found herself fleetingly wondering if it had been a dream. 

We shall not see the Queen's like again. Above all, she was a role model for so many women born into a world where many of us were perceived to be second class citizens. I have no problem in pausing for a while to think about her with respect. 

The Master and Margarita - A Novel for All Time


I reread this wonderful novel very recently. I remember the first time I read it, on the recommendation of my dad, many years ago, I thought it funny, clever, beautifully written. But this time round, I also realised just how powerful and how satirical it is. And why, allegedly, Putin is afraid of it. 

I can think of any number of organisations and well-known toadies here and now in the UK that should also be afraid of it. But it cheers me up enormously. It was written between 1928 and 1940. Bulgakov burned the first manuscript but wrote it again. It wasn't published - and even then in a censored version - till after his death. 

You can buy a very beautiful Folio Society edition (cover above).Worth every penny. 

What's it about? 

Satan comes to Moscow. Of course nobody believes in him. Or his sidekicks, including a 'cat like personage' called Behemoth. He is free to wreak havoc. And he does. Especially among those complacently in power. Especially, it seems, those complacently in power in the arts. London and Edinburgh, take note. 

Meanwhile, enjoy this extract. Then, if you haven't already done so, read the whole novel.

'The branch office of the Theatrical Commission was quartered in a peeling old house at the far end of a courtyard, which was famous for the porphyry columns in its hallway. That day, however, the visitors to the house were not paying much attention to the porphyry columns. Several visitors were standing numbly in the hall and staring at a weeping girl seated behind a desk full of theatrical brochures which it was her job to sell. The girl seemed to have lost interest in her literature and only waved sympathetic enquirers away, whilst from above, below and all sides of the building came the pealing of at least twenty desperate telephones. 
    Weeping, the girl suddenly gave a start and screamed hysterically: 'There it is again!' and began singing in a wobbly soprano, 'Yo-o, heave-ho! Yo-o heave-ho!' 
    A messenger, who had appeared on the staircase, shook his fist at somebody and joined the girl, singing in a rough, tuneless baritone: 'One more heave, lads, one more heave . . .' 
    Distant voices chimed in, the choir began to swell until finally the song was booming out all over the building. In nearby room No. 6, the auditor's department, a powerful hoarse bass voice boomed out an octave below the rest. The chorus was accompanied crescendo by a peal of telephone bells. 'All day lo-ong we must trudge the shore,' roared the messenger on the staircase. Tears poured down the girl's face as she tried to clench her teeth, but her mouth opened of its own accord and she sang an octave above the messenger : 'Work all da-ay and then work more . . .' 
    What surprised the dumbfounded visitors was the fact that the singers, spread all through the building, were keeping excellent time, as though the whole choir were standing together and watching an invisible conductor. Passers-by in Vagankovsky Street stopped outside the courtyard gates, amazed to hear such sounds of harmony coming from the Commission. As soon as the first verse was over, the singing stopped at once, as though in obedience to a conductor's baton. The messenger swore under his breath and ran off. The front door opened and in walked a man wearing a light coat on top of a white overall, followed by a policeman. 
    'Do something, doctor, please! ' screamed the hysterical girl. 
    The secretary of the branch office ran out on to the staircase and obviously burning with embarrassment and shame said between hiccups: 'Look doctor, we have a case of some kind of mass hypnosis, so you must. . .' He could not finish his sentence, stuttered and began singing 'Shilka and Nerchinsk . . .' 
    'Fool!' the girl managed to shout, but never managed to say who she meant and instead found herself forced into a trill and joined in the song about Shilka and Nerchinsk. 
    'Pull yourselves together! Stop singing!' said the doctor to the secretary. It was obvious that the secretary would have given anything to stop singing but could not. When the verse was finished the girl at the desk received a dose of valerian from the doctor, who hurried off to give the secretary and the rest the same treatment. 
    'Excuse me, miss,' Vassily Stepanovich suddenly asked the girl, 'has a black cat been in here?' 
    'What cat? ' cried the girl angrily. ' There's a donkey in this office - a donkey! ' And she went on, 'If you want to hear about it I'll tell you exactly what's happened.' 
    Apparently the director of the branch office had a mania for organising clubs. 'He does it all without permission from head office!' said the girl indignantly. In the course of a year the branch director had succeeded in organising a Lermontov Club, a Chess and Draughts Club, a Ping-Pong Club and a Riding Club. In summer he threatened to organise a rowing club and a mountaineering club. And then this morning in came the director at lunch time . . . '. . . arm in arm with some villain,' said the girl, 'that he'd picked up God knows where, wearing check trousers, with a wobbling pince-nez . . . and an absolutely impossible face!' 
    There and then, according to the girl, he had introduced him to all the lunchers in the dining-room as a famous specialist in organising choral societies. The faces of the budding mountaineers darkened, but the director told them to cheer up and the specialist made jokes and assured them on his oath that singing would take up very little time and was a wonderfully useful accomplishment. Well, of course, the girl went on, the first two to jump up were Fanov and Kosarchuk, both well-known toadies, and announced that they wanted to join. The rest of the staff realised that there was no way out of it, so they all joined the choral society too. It was decided to practise during the lunch break, because all the rest of their spare time was already taken up with Lermontov and draughts. To set an example the director announced that he sang tenor. What happened then was like a bad dream. 
    The check-clad chorus master bellowed: 'Do, mi, sol, do!' He dragged some of the shy members out from behind a cupboard where they had been trying to avoid having to sing, told Kosarchuk that he had perfect pitch, whined, whimpered, begged them to show him some respect as an old choirmaster, struck a tuning fork on his finger and announced that they would begin with ' The Song of the Volga Boatmen.' 
    They struck up. And they sang very well - the man in the check suit really did know his job. They sang to the end of the first verse. Then the choirmaster excused himself, saying, 'I'll be back in a moment . . .' - and vanished. Everybody expected him back in a minute or two, but ten minutes went by and there was still no sign of him. The staff were delighted - he had run away! Then suddenly, as if to order, they all began singing the second verse, led by Kosarchuk, who may not have had perfect pitch but who had quite a pleasant high tenor. They finished the verse. Still no conductor. Everybody started to go back to their tables, but they had no time to eat before quite against their will they all started singing again. And they could not stop. There would be three minutes' silence and they would burst out into song again. Silence - then more singing! Soon people began to realise that something terrible was happening. The director locked himself in his office out of shame. With this the girl's story broke off - even valerian was no use,.
    A quarter of an hour later three lorries drove up to the gateway on Vagankovsky Street and the entire branch staff, headed by the director, was put into them. Just as the first lorry drove through the gate and out into the street, the staff, standing in the back of the lorry and holding each other round the shoulders, all opened their mouths and deafened the whole street with a song. The second lorry-load joined in and then the third. On they drove, singing. The passers-by hurrying past on their own business gave the lorries no more than a glance and took no notice, thinking that it was some works party going on an excursion out of town. They were certainly heading out of town, but not for an outing: they were bound for Professor Stravinsky's clinic.

Publishing Advice for the Faint Hearted

My new non-fiction book,
to be published in spring 2023, by Saraband.

There is an ocean of publishing and self publishing advice out there already, some of it very good indeed, and I don't propose to reinvent the wheel. But given that I'm a 'hybrid' writer - both traditionally and self published, roughly half and half - and also that I'm 'contaminated by experience' as somebody at the BBC once described us more mature writers and I'm sometimes asked for advice, I thought a few pointers might not go amiss. 

1 Don't self publish too soon. 

If you want to try for a traditional agent and publisher, then by all means go down that route first. Polish your manuscript till it's as good as it can be, and start sending out those query letters, those sample chapters, those synopses. Do your research. Be professional about it. Be polite. Don't harass people. (You should see the emails some would-be writers send to publishers!) But at the same time analyse your ambitions. Do you just want to get this one book 'out there' or are you planning for the long term. In which case ...

2 Don't wait too long to self publish.

By which I mean, don't hang about for years, hoping that you're going to hit the big time. Agents and wildly successful writers will tell you that if you persevere you will get there, and you may. But you may also waste half a lifetime on a single project. Bestsellers are the stuff of our dreams. Steady sales, even small ones, are possible. You might be surprised by how many writers combine self with traditional publishing these days.  

3 Don't keep polishing the same book, over and over.

Well, you can. I've done it more times than I care to remember, but mostly because I hadn't got it right the first or second or third or fourth time and in general I love to edit. Whatever you do, do not keep rewriting your book to the demands of a string of different editors, because nothing is more certain than that it will eventually implode under the weight of contradictory demands. 

Take The Amber Heart. That was by far my longest saga of rewrites, a book that I'm pretty satisfied with now. I'm very glad it's out there, and reasonably well reviewed. But at one point, two different agents had told me to delete a third of it. Unfortunately, one wanted me to lose the first third and one the last third. I did neither, but I certainly pruned it drastically and then rewrote large chunks of it as my skills as a novelist improved. I enjoyed it, but it took years, and I was writing plenty of other things at the same time. The trick is not to get bogged down in one project.

4 Do keep on writing. 

Write your next book while you're trying to sell the first, and write another book once you've written that one. Practice makes perfect. You'll be learning how to write while you're doing it. We all have bottom drawer novels that should probably never see the light of day. But once you have a significant body of work, you can decide which projects have 'legs' and which you've lost interest in. Then you can choose what, if anything, you want to do with them. 

5 Time is a good editor.

If you can leave a book - or any piece of writing - for a few months, even after you think you have edited it to within an inch of its life - you will see not just typos and repetitions and infelicities, but all kinds of structural things that you want to work on. This is another reason to be prolific, to leave one project in abeyance while you work on something else. The other tip is to send your manuscript to your Kindle and read it on there. Problems will leap out at you, because you're seeing it in a different format, much closer to print.

6 Write for love, try to publish for money. 

Samuel Johnson said no man but a blockhead ever wrote, except for money, but almost nobody publishes for money these days and we're not all blockheads. Publishers, except for the big corporations, don't make much either. If you want money, buy a lottery ticket. But although you will and should write for love, remember that publishing is a business, whether it's yours or somebody else's, and you should treat it as such. Be polite, be thoroughly professional, but don't assume you always have to be a humble supplicant either. 

Bird of Passage was definitely a labour of love!

7 Be realistic about selling

I know a number of writers who boycott Amazon. Oddly enough, they don't ever seem to demand that their publishers boycott Amazon too. There are some truths in their stance. Amazon doesn't pay much tax here in the UK, but that's the fault of the government who don't ask for it. And it isn't only Amazon. If you're reading this on a smartphone, check just what your phone company doesn't pay in UK taxes either. At the same time, you could look up just who owns the UK's biggest bookseller. 

'I prefer to buy from a small business,' people say, and so do I. But the fact is that thousands of small businesses (some with bricks and mortar stores too)  trade on Amazon, thrive and pay their taxes, because no small business will get anything like the publicity, the digital footfall and customer security a site such as Amazon will deliver. I notice that Amazon is starting to flag up these small businesses, and good for them. 

8 Be realistic about your own skills

When I first decided to self publish some of my older titles, I did it through Amazon's Kindle Direct Publishing and still do. They have made it progressively easier over the years. I can also put new, experimental (for me) work out there, such as Rewilding. More recently, I decided that three of these older, recently revised novels deserved to be in paperback. While I can format for Kindle, which is fiddly but easy, I soon realised that formatting for print-on-demand paperbacks was a much harder proposition. Ironically, one of the ways I realised this was when reading a book that had been published by a small publisher, only to find 'printed by Amazon' on the back and to realise that the company had made a terrible job of formatting the paperback.  

After some searching, I discovered Scottish based Lumphanan Press, who now help with my formatting for paperback. I pay a flat fee and they make a truly excellent job of formatting text and cover so that I can upload it myself. I'm delighted with the finished product and it means I have some copies to sell alongside my traditionally published books, at various events. I either use my own photographs or my husband's artworks for the cover images. (I'm aware that I'm lucky to have a painter on hand.) I should point out here that Lumphanan offer a full spectrum of services, so if you want more extensive professional help with your project, you can get it. They are emphatically not a 'vanity press'  and they will never do the hard sell -  but they will obviously charge realistic rates for the services they offer. Finally ...

9 Live in hope.

I don't make any fortunes out of my writing. I never have. I have had spells of making a reasonable living but it was always a switchback. A giant game of snakes and ladders. Now, between my traditionally published work, some paid events, a pension and a small monthly payment from Amazon (who pay every month, on the nail) - my artist husband and I get by. I also sell antique textiles online to supplement my writing income. I'm not retiring any time soon and have a big new project in mind. But I know people who have made quite a lot of money. Those self publishers who have done this have treated it as a business. They do indeed write for love and publish for money. And they are prolific. Not all of us can or would want to do that and some people just want a traditional deal. For some, seeing their work in print is enough. There is no single right way - but it is good to be aware of your options. Do feel free to comment or add questions. 

 Whatever you decide to do, go for it wholeheartedly. Love what you do. And good luck! 

Ice Dancing is a grown up love story and - in terms of reviews -
probably my most successful book! 

A 17th Century Con Man Part Two - The Plot Thickens


The Dyrock Burn, from the Kirkyard

We continue with the session's accusations against Wm Houstone whose behaviour seems to have grown ever more bizarre but ingenious.

Art 5th That the said Mr Wm Houstone is guilty of gross and notorious cheating. 
Instance 1st that having borrowed a horse from Mr Hew Whyte, now minister of Dunnipace did exchange the same with Hew Fergussone, and the said Mr Hew making enquiry for his horse, the said Mr Wm did plead with the person with whom he had changed to give back the horse and engaged to pay twenty shilling sterling for the use of the horse he had gott, and for payment of the same gave a bond of five pound sterling, due to him by John Alexander of Drumochreen with a commission to uplift the foresaid twenty shillings out of the first end of the foresaid soume, but desired that it might not be craved for a twelvemonth, the person who had gott the said bond, requiring the foresaid twenty shillings from Drumochreen, he shewed a discharge of the foresaid bond, dated about a month after his precept. This is proved by Hugh Fergussone himself with whom he exchanged the horse.

(William was clearly a rather good con-man!)

Instance 2nd The said Mr Wm Houstone having gathered a considerable soume of money in the borders of England under pretence of supplying the suffering people of Scotland and having bought drugs with a part thereof, and brought the rest home with him, the Laird of Drummastone hearing that he had money and not knowing by what means he had got it, and standing in need of money at that time, desired the loan of it, the said Mr William granted the same and appointed him a day to come and receive it. The gentleman coming accordingly and bring with him a subscribed bond, the said Mr Wm told him that he had no more there with him, but ten pieces, but the rest was at his father’s house in Maybole and if the gentleman would go thither with him, he should have the complete soume which he might easily do, being on his way to Edr (Edinburgh) when they were come near to Maybole within a mile or two of it, the foresaid Mr William told the gentleman that there was a gentleman nearby whom he behoved in civility to visit. The said Laird of Drummastone intreated him not to stay. (i.e. not to linger long.) Houstone replied that his horse being young was now wearied and that he might come up the sooner, desired he might have the pounnie (pony) upon which the gentleman’s man was riding with the cloakbag and having thus exchanged horses he went out of the road as if he designed to pay his visit, but instead their-of he took the subscribed bond out of Drummastone’s cloakbag and hasting up and giving back the horse, he desired the gentleman to stay at an Inns till he should bring the money to him, instead of which he went off with the bond which he had taken out of the cloakbag and within a short time, pursued the gentleman upon the same.

(So not only did he manage to steal the ‘bond’ from the bag on the servant's pony – the evidence of a loan he never paid – but he then tried to pursue Drummastone for cash he had never given him! I wonder what were the drugs that he bought.)

Instance 3rd The said Mr William having persuaded John McEon,a country chapman to bestow his stock upon sheep and goat skins which he might carry to Holland, assuring him he would make a gainful voyage and having gone with him to Borrowistouness (Bo’ness) the said Mr William did steal from the chapman a great part of the said skins after they were put on board of the ship and sold them again.

Instance 4th The said Mr Wm Houstone having hired two horses from William Sloan, Stabler, in Edinburgh did sell the same as if they had been his own.

Instance 5th likewise cheated John Kairns stationer in Edinburgh of a great many of Calderwood’s Histories, (i.e. books) buying them at eight pound and selling them for six as if they had been his own.

(How he made a profit on this is unclear, but perhaps he never paid the sum for them in the first place - only promised it.)

Art 6th Notwithstanding of the notoriety of the said crimes, the said Mr Wm Houstone did take upon him to preach and particularly did presume to invade and usurp the pulpit of Kilsyth within the presbytery of Glasgow not only to the scandal of all good Christians but to the manifest contempt of all good order and contrair to the express prohibition of the said presbytery under whose inspection the said church is, and contrair to his own bond to the privy council, and when he was cited to appear before the said presbytery to answer thereto and was by them referred to the Synod, he did contemptuously and contumaciously neglect to appear before the same and did presume to go to Flanders to complain to his Majesty as if he had been injured and pretended he had a commission from many thousands of presbyterians in Scotland to represent to his Majesty their grievances and did return with forged letters of recommendation under the Earl of Portland, his secretary’s hand, to be settled in the peaceable possession of the kirk of Kilsyth. He did continue in the usurpation of the said pulpit of Kilsyth and kept the keys of the said church and refused to admit Mr John Pettigrew, a member commissioned by the said presbytery to preach at the said kirk and does still pretend to be a lawful ordained minister though adducing no authentic testimonials of his licence or ordination before an church judiciary within this kingdom, though often required to do.

(To go the length of Flanders to petition the king is rather extraordinary! Thereafter, he seems to have taken over the kirk at Kilsyth, and refused to leave. I wonder if any parishioners came to hear him preach?)

The Synod having considered the foresaid libel and having found the first four so very material articles clearly proven and that the said Mr William Houstone is an infamous person, and is justly lyable to the highest censures of the church and being loath to multiply oaths, they did supersede the judicial probation of the rest of the articles and instances of the libel though they had sufficient evidences to instruct the same and money more of the like nature.

(There were lots more instances of his dishonesty - too many for the Synod seemingly, who decided that they had enough evidence without listing all of his crimes.)

And the Synod having found the foresaid Mr Houstone guilty of the above libel and heinious scandals and that to all he has added a long continued track of contumacy and most manifest contemning and reproaching of the whole ministers of this church, although yet he professed himself content to meet with them providing they had passed all his scandals and immoralities without any acknowledgement or censure for the which the Synod judgeth the foresaid Mr Wm Houstone worthy of the censure of excommunication and appoints him to be excommunicated and shut out from the communion of the faithful and delivered over to Satan and that in the high innerkirk of Glasgow upon the 22nd day of January 1683 ( sic subscribitur) Extracted per Robert Campbell, Synod Clerk.

In obedience to which sentence of the synod Mr Thomas Kennedy, one of the ministers of the gospell at Glasgow did upon the 22nd day of January 1693 in the high inner kirk pronounce and declare in the name of the lord Jesus Christ the said Mr Wm Houstone excommunicated and shut out from the communion of the faithful and in the same name and authority of Jesus Christ delivered the same Mr Wm Houstone over to Satan for destrucyion of the flesh that the spirit may be saved in the day of the lord. Sic subscribitur John Spreul, clerk to the presbytery of Glasgow and general session of the toun.

(Dreadful, is written in the margin. And an illegible word, possibly ‘this dreadful sentence’. But I’m not sure what ‘destrucyion of the flesh' means in this context. Scotland was still burning witches. Did the kirk have the power to execute Houstone? Or did they simply mean that - as he had wished on his own family - the devil would deal with him? What happened next? Did he go into exile? I think we need to know!)

A 17th Century Con Man, Part One - Haunting the Bounds of the Parish

Ancient Yew in our kirkyard

I was browsing through some (very) old records from the Kirkmichael Kirk Session when I came across the intriguing story of a local con-artist named William Houstone.

 These records begin in 1692 with the information that the previous session books are 'away with the curate' who fled during the ‘late revolution’ – that’s the Glorious Revolution of 1688 when William of Orange deposed James Stuart. Presumably the curate had   Catholic sympathies. ‘He was apprehended in rebellion in the north and having escaped out of prison and fled to France as is reported, it is not known if they could be recovered.’

 There follow various accounts, mainly to do with fornication, which preoccupies all these kirk sessions rather more than seems wise, with concerns including   the crime of ‘antenuptual fornication’ i.e. sex before marriage, which demands censure and punishment even when the people named have been married for a while. 

As I observed when I was researching my novel The Jewel, about Robert Burns’s wife, Jean Armour, this keenness to monitor such things often arose from a laudable attempt to force a man to take responsibility for his children at a time when falling pregnant out of wedlock could be disastrous for a young woman. The stool of repentance, upon which the poor penitents had to sit to be admonished before the congregation, is the subject of some discussion in these minutes, since it has fallen into disrepair and a joiner can’t be found to replace it, although whether from disapproval of its function, or because of the stinginess of the kirk session is never reported. Lack of space for the gentry is another problem with the elders suggesting that the gentry themselves pay for the building of a ‘loft’ or gallery to accommodate them and their families well away from the great unwashed. This falls on deaf ears - mostly due to the expense. The local lairds never had any ready cash, a set of circumstances which would make them ripe for exploitation by somebody with the wit of our Mr William Houstone.

In March 5th 1693, the minutes become much more interesting, as they relate the tale of Houstone who, given that he is always accorded his title of ‘Mr’, must have been a person of some status before he achieved a certain notoriety in lowland Scotland.

It’s interesting to read the entries in full. There must be some more information out there about William and if anyone can find any, do let me know. I’m curious about him. How old was he? Had he been born in Maybole where his parents lived?  Did he believe his own tales?  It’s worth noting that the spelling in these very old records retains its inconsistency – the inconsistency that existed before printing meant that spelling became fixed. The clerk will sometimes spell the same word in different ways within the same sentence eg Libell and Lybel, a word which also seems to have changed its meaning over the years from accusation, back then, to its meaning now of possibly false allegations. 

I'll post this in two parts, with the occasional comment of my own in italics.

The session taking to their consideration that Mr William Houstone, lately excommunicate by the Synod, does frequently haunt the bounds and sometimes resides in Maybole, the very next parish and endeavours to make division and draw away some ignorant people from ordinances dispensed by their ministers, pretending that he is a more clean, honest and pure preacher than any other in Scotland at this time, notwithstanding his notorious villainy. Therefore they think it fit and necessary that a copy of said Houstone’s process and excommunication, (which was intimate to the congregation between sermons on Sabbath the 19th day of February last) be kept in the Session minutes that any who desyres may have access to read the same and be confirmed that this man is notoriously wicked and unworthy of the name of a preacher, and for this end they appoint it to be recorded in the Session book. The tenor whereof follows.

(This record was kept in Kirkmichael, only three miles from Maybole, where we can assume William's parents lived - although I've been unable to find out where.)  

At Air, (Ayr) the eleventh day of January 1693, the qlk (which) day the Synod of Glasgow and Air here convened having required ane account of the execution of the summons against Mr Wm Houstone, pretended preacher, issued forth by the Synod to be publicly intimated in all the respective churches within their precinct, upon the first Sabbath of November 1692 allowing him sixty days in case of his absence out of the kingdome, to compeir at this session of the Synod to answer to the points of the Lybel hereafter insert which Libell was publickly read in the several congregations at the intimation of the said summonds and having got a sufficient account of the execution of the said summonds, they did call the said Mr William Houstone three several times two Synod days viz the tenth and eleventh of January now instant at the most patent doors of the church of Air and he not compeiring, but adding contumacy to his other guilt libelled against him in sleighting these summonds as he had done the summonds of the Synod several times before, the Synod did proceed to cognosce upon the probation of that it contained in the several articles as follows.

Art 1 The said Mr William Houstone did in his several letters directed to the Laird of Craigy, signed with the sign of the cross, declare that the last time he took the sacrament he did it after the Romish manner. This is attested by famous witnesses, one of them adding moreover that the said Mr William did in the Tolbooth of Air renounce the protestant religion in the presence of Sir William Wallace of Craigie, Colonel Buchan and Major Duglas. To this renunciation one of the foresaid witnesses was clerk. 

(William obviously inclines to the Roman Catholic persuasion, although whether this is a matter of conscience or politics is hard to decide.) 

Art 2nd. That the said Mr William Houstone while in the tolbooth (prison) of Air did frequently curse and swear, yea, did curse his own parents, saying ‘let them goe to the devil for the devil will get them.’ And all the reason of this was because they had not obtained of Craigie that he should be let out of prison. This is likewise attested by famous witnesses.

(Telling anyone to go to the devil, let alone his own parents, was unwise, to say the least, at a time when the devil was a very real threat and an accusation of witchcraft might spell big trouble. See also, the accusation below.)   

Art 3rd That the said Mr William Houstone while in the tolbooth of Edinburgh did likewise curse and swear to the scandal and offence of the company where he was. This is attested by many famous witnesses, one of them adding that he did curse his own brother in these terms. 'Let him goe to the divel. The divel take him and you and all togither.’

Art 4th The said Mr Wm Houstone is guilty of notorious forgeries. Instance first, he did forge a call to himself to the parish of Kilsyth, subscribed by several of the inhabitants of the said parish, who being inquired concerning their subscribing of the said call, did judicially declare before the presbytery of Glasgow that they had never seen the said call, and that the subscriptions were forged which is clear by the records of the presbytery of Glasgow.

Mr William Wishart, minister att Leith, having given a testificat of the honesty of Kemp, the said Mr William Houstone did counterfeit Mr Wishart’s handwriting, inserting in the counterfit testificat several things relating to himself as if the said Kemp had asserted that he knew the subscriptions of Mr Wm Thomsone and some other ministers attesting the License and Ordination of the said Mr Wm Houstone and that the said Mr Wm Wishart did believe the testimony of the said Kemp to be true, which testimonial the foresaid Mr Wishart declared to be forged.

(Today, we might well draw the conclusion that William had some mental health problems, given his very grandiose schemes, carried out with a certain attention to detail, followed by possible spells of depression. But we should also remember that the people recording the tale are far from impartial observers. As we shall see in the following post, his behaviour was to become even more outrageous.)

Disability Pride Month - In search of comfortable and accessible hotel rooms in rural Scotland? You'll have to look long and hard.


On our way back from visiting friends who live on the Isle of Skye, we spent a night at Drimsynie House Hotel. Above is the view from the restaurant - which gives you some idea of the beautiful setting. But what I really want to talk about here is disabled access. Because this hotel is a star where this is concerned, unlike a whole tranche of Scottish Highland hotels with little to no consideration for anyone with mobility problems. 

My husband has serious arthritis. He isn't in a wheelchair - or not permanently - although he occasionally uses one to get about. But what he can't do is climb up and down stairs, and what he certainly can't do is climb into a bath with one of those over-bath showers. 

He's not alone, yet if you go to any booking site, and try to find a reasonably priced, comfortable hotel with disabled access, in the Scottish highlands or on the islands - you're going to struggle. 

Drimsynie was a serendipitous find. 

It is a combination of a holiday park with a hotel as part of it. There are (good looking) lodges and some caravans with bedrooms in the main building. It is a very well kept place. There is masses of space, and the setting is absolutely stunning and well off the beaten track - a long, single track road, in fact.  It has a curiously old fashioned and comfortable feel to it, and I mean that in a very good way. I kept thinking about Kellerman's in Dirty Dancing. Whenever I watch that movie, I wonder if such a place could still exist. Well maybe it does. Somebody somewhere may even have been carrying a watermelon, although I didn't see any candidates for Johnnie. The holiday park seemed to be full of young families, or grandparents spending time with grandkids, or small groups of older women - with a few couples like us, mostly passing through. 

We had booked a room with disabled access, something we always do with trepidation since they tend to be relegated to the bowels of the hotel. There was good disabled parking. There was a lift. (Yay!) The room was light and spacious, and had a wonderful view. The bathroom was sparkling clean and wheelchair friendly, if that was what you needed. The vast bed was a marvel of comfort. We were both tired after a long drive, and we had the best night's sleep we had had in years. There was a coffee machine, drinks, a kettle, free mineral water and toiletries too. 

All in all, they deserve praise for supplying a service that is, it is worth pointing out in this Disability Pride Month, rarer than the proverbial hen's teeth, especially in this part of the world. 

The excuse other hotels give is generally that the building is 'too old' for disabled access. But there is no reason why more old buildings shouldn't be able to install a small lift. Our village hall - a listed building with the main hall on the first floor - has one. Drumlanrig Castle along the road has one. Failing that, a stair lift would help. But most old Highland hotels reply to all enquiries with the casual brush-off that all their rooms are on the first and second floors. Then, even if a customer struggles to climb to a first floor, the over bath shower, with no helpful handles, is commonplace. Hard cheese to any customer with mobility problems. Which given the demographic of many of their guests, seems remiss at best. And it's not just oldies. Plenty of younger people have problems too. 

We stayed in another highland hotel on our way north and although the room was nominally accessible, i.e. on the ground floor, it was a long walk from the car park and it was tiny. 'Cat swinging not possible' remarked my husband. There was a walk-in shower in a bathroom so minuscule that it was physically impossible to sit on the loo without knocking the loo roll off its holder, and a washbasin so tiny that you couldn't fill the kettle without decanting water into a cup first. Worse than all this, however, the window looked out directly onto a tall fence beyond which was the beer garden. You literally couldn't see what the weather was like by looking out of the window. There was virtually no natural daylight in the room at all. Fortunately we were there for only one night - the staff were obliging and cheerful, the bar was comfortable and the food was good - but I was glad we weren't staying longer. Because the staff were so nice, we might even book it again in similar circumstances, but Alan would have to attempt to crawl upstairs and - worse - down again. 

As a writer, I've encountered a few appalling single rooms in my time. The very worst was in Edinburgh, up a precipitous flight of stairs, a tiny, madly expensive, crazily hot room with no view, right beside a flat roof, housing some piece of machinery from a nearby restaurant that made a deafening noise all night long, so you couldn't possibly keep the window open. No breakfast. Just a room. I fell out of there at about 7am and made straight for the nearest coffee shop. It's why cheapish and cheerful chain hotels with decent levels of comfort are popular with writers doing events. But the problems facing single travellers are as nothing compared to the problems facing anyone with a disability. You waste hours trying to figure out what's actually on offer when booking, only to have them respond to your enquiries with the news that all their rooms are on the second floor.  Or there is no parking, let alone disabled parking. Or the disabled parking is half a mile away. Or there is no walk-in shower. Or no lift. 

This means that the occasional gem like Drimsynie is a rarity. Surely, we need more consideration. In fact, it should be the rule, rather than the exception.