Showing posts with label Ayrshire history. Show all posts
Showing posts with label Ayrshire history. Show all posts

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 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!)

Timelines, Killer Details and Thank God for Google: Researching Historical Fiction.

So many reference books ...
As usual, I'm reblogging my latest post for Authors Electric here on my own blog, for anyone who might be interested. This time it's about the process, the joys  - and the occasional pitfalls - of historical research.

Those of us who write historical fiction will be well aware that there are various ways of setting about it. There’s no single right or wrong way and the volume of research needed will vary not just according to how well you know the period, how immersed you are in a particular time and place, but will also depend upon the kind of fiction you’re writing, and reader expectations too. One reader’s unacceptable anachronism may well be excused by another reader who is happy to focus on the story rather than the detail. Most writers know their readers, know what they want and I’m not about to argue with that.

Personally speaking, I do masses of research. In fact I have to persuade myself to stop, give myself permission to get on with the writing, because there’s a part of me that enjoys the research too much, especially going back to primary sources: letters, contemporary accounts, old documents of the kind where you have to ‘get your eye in’ even to read them. It’s justified procrastination. But sooner or later, you have to write the book.

The book in question is a new novel called The Jewel, all about Robert Burns’s wife, Jean Armour, due to be published next spring. So you set the research aside, and immerse yourself in the world of the novel. Then two things happen. You realise that you have to go easy on what’s included. Historical research informs the novel, informs the way the characters behave, but if you try to put in everything you now know, the novel will suffer from great indigestible chunks of fact for fact's sake. At the same time – paradoxically - it's only when you begin to write that you discover all the things you really need to know, but that have somehow eluded you.

My favourite Jean and Rab:
Clare Waugh and Donald Pirie
When I was planning this post, it struck me that there are three key points to researching historical fiction. Well, in truth, there are lots more, probably as many as there are writers. But these three issues always loom very large for me, so it’s worth sharing them.

I think of them as TimelinesKiller Details and TGFG or Thank God for Google.

When you’re researching something that really happened, even if you’re going to allow yourself to make up all kinds of things that might or might not have happened, timelines are vital. Knowing your dates. And I don’t just mean what year something happened, but what time of the year something happened – and what else was going on at the same time. It is amazing how often knowing precisely when something happened in relation to something else gives you an interesting perspective on your subject: one that may even be counter intuitive. For example, it soon became clear to me that Jean didn’t actually fall pregnant for the first time in summer, even though the imagination loves to conjure pictures of outdoor dalliance among the mountain daisies, but in the middle of a damp, chilly, Ayrshire winter. Which immediately makes you wonder about the how and the where of it, especially at a time when houses were crowded, privacy was at a premium and both parties knew that her parents disapproved of the poet to the point of paranoia. I have plenty of ideas about the how of it, and I’m pretty sure I’m right, but you’ll have to read the book to find out what I think! 

Time and again, the juxtaposition of dates and events either explained something satisfactorily, or threw up a conundrum that served to make the story more interesting.

Alongside these timeline issues though, are what I like to think of as killer details. These are more likely to come from primary sources: statistical accounts, parish records, surviving letters; and it’s vital to go back to them wherever you can. There is nothing, absolutely nothing, quite like seeing the real signatures of your protagonists, and knowing that the people you are writing about were once there in the flesh, holding a pen, making those marks on that particular piece of paper. (OK, I admit it, I shed a tear when I thought about that one!) There’s the fact that in another document, the word ‘child’ suddenly becomes ‘children’ long before the babies in question were born, suggesting that the midwife must have heard two heartbeats. There’s a contemporary description of the internal geography of an alehouse that allows you to ascertain the truth or otherwise of a particular piece of gossip. There’s the sudden realisation that you have - serendipitously, and while looking for something else - come across the details of another birth that has significance for the plot you want to construct. These are small details that may seem insignificant but they add authenticity. And the excitement of discovering them is incomparable.

Jean lived in a room here. So did Rab - on and off.
Finally, there’s Google. Thank God for Google. Take the tiny, unimportant example of Ballachulish slate. I live in a house – a listed building - with a Ballachulish slate roof. (You can see something similar in the picture above.) This kind of slate is no longer available except in reclaimed and reconditioned form although substitutes are generally used. For a small and relatively unimportant detail in the story, I found myself assuming that Jean Armour’s father – a prosperous Ayrshire stonemason - would have used Ballachulish slate, especially on the houses of the wealthy. But rereading the chapter, it tripped me up. Just how old is Ballachulish slate? When did they start quarrying it? In the olden days before Google, I would have had to go to the library, look it up and waste precious writing time checking when the quarry was in its heyday and how likely it was that an Ayrshire stonemason and building contractor would have had his roofers using it some thirty years before our own house was built. Or - more likely - I would have deleted Ballachulish altogether and reverted to the simple word ‘slate’. Well, it wouldn’t have mattered. It was a minor detail. But in terms of authenticity, all the Ayrshire builders I know have used the description Ballachulish slate. So, it turns out, might Jean Armour's dad. Thank God for Google in dozens of small but interesting ways.

So those are my three important issues. But of course there are plenty more. If you're writing historical fiction, or even considering it - what's the most important challenge for you? 

Even more research books...

My historical novel The Physic Garden is still available
in paperback and as an eBook from most outlets.
If you want to see my first 'take' on Rab and Jean, you can read my play
  Burns on the Solway on Kindle and on most other eBook outlets too.
The Jewel is scheduled for publication next spring.
Watch this space!
Catherine Czerkawska 

My Obsession With Textiles

Detail of an Ayrshire whitework baby gown
Yesterday, I spent a very enjoyable afternoon in the company of the ladies of the Ayrshire Embroiderers' Guild. They'd asked me to speak to them about my collection of Ayrshire whitework - and the history of this astonishing needlework - but it was going to be some time in the future. Since I'm not too far away, I offered to fill in if any of their speakers let them down - and the opportunity arose a lot sooner than we expected. One of their speakers had to cancel so I stepped in.

I'm occasionally asked to speak about this work to various local groups. I take along my own collection, set it out on a couple of tables, talk about the history and then let people handle and examine it. There's nothing quite like being able to see and touch the real thing when it comes to textiles, and since whitework like this is quite surprisingly washable (in spite of its obvious delicacy) I'm happy for people to look more closely - especially embroiderers. I should add that I felt a bit of a fraud because I can't embroider at all, even though I so often write about the textiles I love. My late mum was an embroiderer but I have trouble sewing on buttons!

Somebody in the audience asked me where my interest first started. It was a good question. My mum used to go to the saleroom quite often and in the school holidays, I went with her. She was into pottery and porcelain but even back then, it was the textiles that attracted me: vintage and antique clothes, shawls, baby dresses, linen and lace of all kinds. My first purchase, when I was old enough to bid for myself, was a beautiful but very badly damaged antique whitework baby dress. From then on, I was hooked.

Continental needlework - very beautiful!

Now, I collect textiles, and deal in them from an eBay shop called The Scottish Home, dividing my working life between these and my novel writing. If I have a big writing project on, like now, I will do much less selling online. If times are hard, then I will restock my shop and sell whatever I can bear to part with. But the whitework stays here. That's my own little obsession.

I find that these lovely old embroideries and other textiles find their way into my fiction all the time. Sometimes it's just a matter of getting costume right when I'm working on historical fiction. Sometimes, as with The Curiosity Cabinet and The Physic Garden, the embroidery is more central to the story. I don't know quite why I'm so passionate about these things, but there does seem to be some connection between the interweaving of threads and the weaving of words into stories in my mind!

A little while ago - recognising that a lot of of people out there might be looking for ways to make a bit of extra cash I also wrote a fairly basic eBook guide to buying and selling vintage items online and elsewhere. It's called Precious Vintage and it's available as an eBook on all the popular platforms - for example on Amazon and in the iTunes store and on most other platforms too. So if like me you're obsessed with some particular area of collecting, you could do worse than try to turn your hobby into a source of much needed income.

Detail from a Georgian christening cape that features in
my novel, The Physic Garden

An Old Scottish Fashion Doll

 I don't know what she's called and I'm not even sure how old she is. She is a little like a doll called a 'Pandora' - a precisely and beautifully clothed 'fashion doll' . You can read all about these kind of dolls in an excellent research paper called Pandora in the Box, Travelling the World in the Name of Fashion.
Fashion, dress, is certainly her purpose. I don't think she was ever played with in the conventional sense - her condition is too beautiful. I found her in a local saleroom, here in Ayrshire, many years ago. I can't remember what I paid for her, but it wasn't a huge amount of money and she seemed like a bargain. I know that her dress is a variation on the 'Polonaise' style of eighteenth century dress, but she definitely wasn't made at that time - well, I'm fairly sure she isn't as old as that! She has the face of a Lenci doll in a way, but by no means so precisely moulded or so characterful, and if she were a Lenci doll she would be a lot more valuable. She is a rag doll of sorts, made of something that looks and feels like stuffed stockinette, with a head and face of stuffed linen, gessoed, I think and then with painted features and a (slightly spooky) wig of real human hair.

 She stands about 18 inches high, and as you can see from the pictures, she is fully clothed in layers and layers of hand stitched costume. These seem so very authentic that they taught me a great deal about how this mode of dress worked! Working from the outside inwards, she had a hat in pale pink satin, trimmed with little glass beads and with a blue glass hatpin. She has a pink satin 'Polonaise' overdress, with embroidered net sleeves, and tiny frills of hand made lace edging at collar and cuffs.

 The underside of this pink satin overdress is lined with a different peachy coloured material which is hand embroidered with beautiful little flowers and leaves.
Beneath this is a deep strawberry pink underskirt, consisting of a double layer of satiny fabric, peach on the inside, deep pink on the outside, all hand quilted together and fastening at the back with a little button. She has a white linen camisole laced with pink ribbons, and under that is a deep peachy pink satin corset, neatly laced, with under that a short linen shift (the kind of 'cutty sark' that Burns wrote about in the poem Tam o' Shanter.) You can just see the bottom edge of it underneath the pink corset, as I undressed her, below.

As you can see, she has a beautifully hand made petticoat under the quilted skirt. This too is in white linen and has a deep frill of scalloped cutwork embroidery, making a double layer with the plain edge of the skirt, and fluffing out the whole costume still more. 

Underneath that is a frilly peachy pink flannel petticoat (for warmth!) again buttoned, and with a little line of hand embroidery around the waist.
After that, come a pair of utterly gorgeous linen pantalettes. with tiny pintucks and tinier lace trim at the bottom, pulled together with pink ribbon.
And below that, a pair of handmade cotton stockings, with - an absolute triumph - a tiny but very handsome pair of white kid leather shoes with coloured beads trimming them.

She even has a little handmade hankie, with lace trim in her podgy fist. 

 I think she's wonderful. I keep her wrapped up in acid free tissue paper, but sometimes I take her along when I do talks about textiles, especially about Scottish whitework. I let people handle her with great care and admire the needlework. Many people see these kind of things in museums, but seldom get to handle them. I keep thinking there may be a story in her somewhere! But I'd dearly love to know more about her. I suspect she may have been a Scottish version of a fashion doll, a dressmaking project on which some seamstress demonstrated her many skills. I get the sense that she might not be that old, but the style of the work may well mean that she could be a hundred years or more. I've researched and hunted, but I have never seen anything quite like her. There are rag dolls in plenty and fashion dolls too but these are generally more lifelike and delicate with carved wood or porcelain heads. I've never seen such a marriage of a fairly crudely made doll with really exceptional needlework.

If you're reading this and you have any ideas, do comment below!