Showing posts with label Burns on the Solway. Show all posts
Showing posts with label Burns on the Solway. Show all posts

Robert Burns's Funeral, 25th July 1796.

On this day, in 1796, Scottish poet Robert Burns, who had died only a few days earlier in his Dumfries home, was buried. He had struggled to return from Brow Well on the Solway, where he had been taking a 'water cure' that can only have hastened his end from acute endocarditis. Once home, he had to be 'oxtered' into the house, where he took to his bed and never left it again.

The funeral was a very grand affair at mid-day at St Michael's Kirkyard, in Dumfries. As a member of the Royal Dumfries Volunteers, he was given a military funeral, thus ignoring one of his last wishes. 'Don't let the awkward squad fire over me,' he had said, but they did it anyway.

While her husband was being buried, his wife Jean was giving birth to his last child, Maxwell.

I wrote about it in my novel: The Jewel, published by Saraband.

'On the morning of the funeral, before she could even dress, her pains began. It was clear that she could not leave the house. An hour after they had come to carry Rab away, her waters broke, streaming onto the stone floor. She went into labour and gave birth to his last son, Maxwell, on the same day. Few people perceived or even cared how terrible that was for her: to be in such pain and distress at that time. Jessie perhaps, although Jessie had no weans of her own yet. Mary Armour might have offered her some comfort, but Mary was in Fife and word had only just reached her. Rab's heartbroken mother would know what she was feeling. Nobody else. No man would have fully understood the darkness that engulfed her during the hours that she laboured for love of him on such a day. 

Jean told only a few people that the night after the funeral, as she lay in their bed, wrapped up in blankets, aching for the warmth of her husband's body beside her, with the shape of his head in the pillow still, and a few dark hairs attached to it, he had come to her. The whole house was quiet, Maxwell swaddled in her arms. She had been singing to the new wean until he slept, and she saw Rab coming into the room. He was as bold and clear as though he had still been in life and, she thought, rather more healthy than the last time she had laid eyes on him, a gleam in his eye and a flush of sunlight on his cheek. 

She was not afraid.

When had she ever been afraid of him except just that one time, in the stable, in the Back Causeway? Rather she felt the wee bubble of laughter that she had so often felt with him, laughter even in the most serious of situations, at the general absurdity of everything, even the very worst of things. She looked up at him while he gazed down at her and, in particular she thought, at the  baby. Well, why not? He had aye loved the weans best, loved the curve of their cheeks, the soft, vulnerable place at the back of the neck, their perfect wee fingers and toes. Then he shook his head sadly, as though regretting that he could not stay, and disappeared, so suddenly that it seemed like a snowflake, melting away in your hand.'

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 

Downloading Rab - or - yet another post about Jean Armour!

I'm reblogging this from my recent Authors Electric contribution since I got a kick from writing it - and I hope you might enjoy reading it.

I wrote this play about Burns for Glasgow's Oran Mor venue
As everyone who knows me, and quite a few people who don’t, will know by now, I’m working on a novel about Robert Burns's wife, Jean Armour. Never heard of her, somebody said to me only the other day. Which is one of the reasons why I’m writing it. Even when I wrote my play Burns on the Solway for one of the Play, a Pie and a Pint lunchtime seasons at Glasgow's Oran Mor, I found myself writing about Jean as much as Rab.

Anyway, as usual in mid-project, especially mid historical project, I’m doing a lot of research. Some of it is necessary but some of it is just for fun, meandering down some strange highways and byways of history and occasionally (like last week) coming up with one or two electrifying possibilities about certain – I hesitate to use the words ‘sacred cows’ but they just popped into my head – of Burns lore.

Also popping into my head in the early hours of the morning with uncomfortable regularity is the desperate need to look something or other up just to see if it fits with my far-fetched but fascinating thesis about somebody who isn’t central to the story – but the theory is perfectly possible and much too good, not to say controversial, to leave out.

Anyway, there I was, all cosied up in bed on a wild, wet and windy morning, 5 am and I was wondering if I could really be bothered to get out of bed before the central heating had come on and pad through to the study and rummage through my great heap of research books old and new until I found the poem I was looking for to see if it really did seem to say what I thought it said, and if it really did seem to date from when I thought it did.
Jean, in her late forties, John Moir, courtesy of South Ayrshire Council

No, I couldn’t, was the answer to that one.

Then I noticed that my Kindle was lying beside the bed. It’s a Paperwhite, so I didn’t even need to switch it on. I just opened up its girly pink cover and woke it up. Unlike my husband, it never seems to object. It had just occurred to me that although I have many volumes of Burns’s poetry and letters, some of them quite old and rare, I don’t have any of his poems on my Kindle. I touched the shopping cart symbol, put Robert Burns into the search box, and up popped lots of available editions including one that had everything, and I mean everything, with all kinds of interesting old annotations and notes. 99p. I gently touched Buy It Now and within about three seconds it was on my Kindle, and I was reading it. Some blessed soul has digitised this out of the goodness of his or her heart, and although the formatting isn’t perfect (Well have you ever tried formatting poetry or even plays for an eBook?) the readability is spot on and the notes are fascinating.

I spent the next couple of hours until I could justifiably get up and make the tea, reading through a series of poems written particularly at the time I had been speculating about. Another thing struck me forcibly. I found it easier, much, much easier, to read the longer poems on the Kindle than on the pages of a book. I have no idea why that should be, but it was true. I’ve ploughed my way through The Holy Fair before today and found it difficult, even with a good working knowledge of the Scots language of Burns’s time. No longer. It was like a lightbulb coming on in my head. The Holy Fair, if you don’t know it, is a blissfully satirical account of one of the huge festivals of preaching, prayers and communion held in late eighteenth century Scotland. 

Fabulous old photo of Mauchline's Cowgate,
courtesy of
This one was in Mauchline about a mile away from Rab’s farm at Mossgiel. But the fact of the matter was that they were also festivals of eating, drinking (lots of drinking) and subsequent fornication. Even those who disapproved of the raw satire couldn’t actually say that the poet was lying or even exaggerating. In fact the Holy Fair seems to have borne a strong resemblance to those days of misrule you find in Mediaeval times when all the gravity of the church would be turned topsy turvy and I suspect the origins of them are pretty much the same – a sort of communal letting off steam. 

Reading it on my Kindle, I find myself appreciating the poem from the ‘batch o’ wabster lads, blackguarding frae Kilmarnock ...’ (Kilmarnock weaver lads coming into town – probably with money burning a hole in their pockets - and definitely up to no good, certainly nothing holy) to the lovely lines: Oh happy is the man and blest, nae wonder that it pride him, whas ain dear lass that he likes best, comes clinkin’ down beside him. Wi’ arm reposed on the chair back, he sweetly does compose him, which by degrees slips round her neck and’s loof upon her bosom, unkenn’d that day. I do like the idea of the happy man copping a wee feel of his ain dear lass’s ‘bosom’ while the oblivious minister is preaching hell fire and damnation. You get the feeling that the poet is writing what he knows all about, don’t you? 

The last lines of the poems are probably the best known:

There’s some are fu’ of love divine
And some are fu’ of brandy
And many jobs this day begun
Will end in houghmagandie
Some ither day. 

Houghmagandie. If you don’t know what it is – I’ll bet you can guess.

Donald Pirie and Clare Waugh as Rab and Jean
Anyway. Amid all this, it struck me how very privileged I am to be able to access this with so much ease. The ancient volumes in my possession are engaging and - yes – they smell good to me. I quite like that old, dusty, library smell. But on a wild, wet and very cold March night give me a warm bed and a Kindle. And for most other practical purposes too, if I'm honest.

The internet has revolutionised this kind of research. Too much, sometimes. The temptation to pursue white rabbits (or sacred cows) down enticing holes in the fabric of the world wide web is overwhelming and the research can expand to ridiculous proportions. On the other hand, there’s something extraordinarily satisfying in piecing together a complicated tissue of known facts, rampant speculation and distinct possibilities based on a hundred subtle hints. It’s one of the things I love about writing historical fiction: that combination of the actual and the possible facilitated by the countless pieces of the puzzle that are now available at the click of a mouse or the touch of a screen. 

The Holy Fair - Robert Bryden

Making sense - or credible fiction - of them all is where the fun starts.

There Was A Lad - Happy Birthday to Rab.

This post is reposted from my last Authors Electric post. I thought it might be worth another outing on my Wordarts blog. After all, you can't have too much of a good thing, and Rab was a very very good thing!

On 25th January 1759, our national poet (or one of them - we're not short of poets up here) was born.
Or as Rab himself would have it: 

There was a lad was born in Kyle, 
But whatna day o' whatna style, 
I doubt it's hardly worth the while 
To be sae nice wi' Robin. 

Our monarch's hindmost year but ane 
Was five-and-twenty days begun, 
'Twas then a blast o' Janwar' win' 
Blew hansel in on Robin.

Kyle is a part of Ayrshire (the others are Carrick, where I live, and which has lots of Burns associations too) and Cunningham, a bit like the Ridings of my native Yorkshire. The blast of January wind blew down the chimney of the cottage that Burn's father had built for himself and his family in Alloway, near Ayr. You can listen to the whole poem if you like, here, recited engagingly by Alan Cumming for the BBC. 

So this post is a wee pre Happy Birthday shout out to possibly my favourite poet of all time: Robert Burns. 

Here's one we did earlier!
We'll be having a smallish, private Burns Supper in this village about a week later. We'll eat traditional food: cock-a-leekie soup, haggis, steak pie, mashed potatoes, mashed turnips, trifle, oatcakes and cheese. This is not, I have to confess, my favourite meal of the year. I can pretty much take or leave everything except the trifle, the oatcakes and cheese. But the company is always good. There will be plenty of wine, some whisky, excellent conversation, poetry, a few short and entertaining speeches, lots of toasts and some songs.

I have, occasionally, been invited to speak at other, more formal Burns Suppers - on one memorable occasion I had to give the 'Immortal Memory' which is the big speech of the evening. I had a tooth abscess and was on those antibiotics where they warn you not to touch a single drop of alcohol because it will have disastrous effects. (This is true, by the way. The effects are, I'm told, instantly emetic!) So I had to do it completely sober and toast Rab in mineral water.  The poet would have sympathised, both with the toothache and the abstinence.

Not quite how I first saw the cottage.

I've loved his poetry, but most particularly his songs, ever since we first moved to Ayrshire when I was twelve. I used to walk to Burns' Cottage in Alloway - still very atmospheric back then - and spend an hour or two daydreaming. The poems so precisely and heart-rendingly reflect the countryside around here. The poet himself seemed such a mass of contradictions - and the more I researched his life and work, the more intriguing those contradictions became.

My play about Robert Burns on Kindle.
I wrote a full length radio play for BBC R4 all about the writing of Tam O' Shanter, and then a stage play for Glasgow's Oran Mor, called Burns on the Solway.  As the playwright, I found the whole production more illuminating than I had believed possible - when a production goes well, and this one did, it somehow intensifies and enhances the idea you first had. And now, I seem to be writing a novel, about which I can't say any more than that it has been simmering inside me for a very long time. Perhaps since I was twelve and daydreaming in the old cottage. But even while I was writing The Physic Garden, William Lang, in that book, insisted on talking to me about Burns - who would have been a much more recent memory for my narrator. (Burns died in July 1796)

Donald Pirie and Claire Waugh, a compelling Robert and Jean.
First, William says 'I often think Mr Burns and myself might have had a great deal in common if we had had the good fortune to meet and talk about our respective experiences. Burns wrote convincingly and lovingly about the flowers of his native heath. I cannot even now read the lines, oft hae I rov'd by bonny Doon, to see the rose and woodbine twine; and ilka bird sang o' its luve, and fondly sae did I o' mine, without it bringing a lump to my throat, which is a very daft notion after all this time.'

And later, he quotes again: 'The tocher’s the jewel, as the poet Burns wrote. And so many men are but knotless threids who will slide away from lassies at time of need.'

Poets, male and female, don't always practise what they preach, and Burns was very far from being the saint depicted in so many fulsome Burns' Supper speeches. He was, in fact, capable of appalling behaviour, even by the different standards of his day. But any eighteenth century man who can write a song like The Tocher's the Jewel, has got to be applauded. Here's the original - followed by a loose translation for anyone who needs it.

O meikle thinks my Luve o' my beauty,
And meikle thinks my Luve o' my kin;
But little thinks my Luve, I ken brawlie,
My tocher's the jewel has charms for him.
It's a' for the apple he'll nourish the tree;
It's a' for the hinny he'll cherish the bee;
My laddie's sae meikle in love wi' the siller,
He canna hae luve to spare for me.

Your proffer o' luve's an airle-penny,
My tocher's the bargain ye wad buy;
But an ye be crafty, I am cunnin,
Sae ye wi' anither your fortune maun try.
Ye're like to the timmer o' yon rotten wood,
Ye're like to the bark o' yon rotten tree,
Ye'll slip frae me like a knotless threid,
And ye'll crack your credit wi' mae nor me.

Oh much thinks my love of my beauty,
And much thinks my love of my kin
But little thinks my love, I know fine,
My dowry's the jewel has charms for him.
It's all for the apple he'll nourish the tree;
It's all for the honey he'll cherish the bee
My laddie's so much in love with the silver (money)
He has no love to spare for me.

Your offer of love is an arles penny (this was money paid to seal a deal, usually between servant and master!)
My dowry's the bargain you would buy
But if you're crafty, I'll be cunning,
So you with another your fortune may try.
You're like to the timber of yon rotten wood,
You're like to the bark of yon rotten tree,
You'll slip from me like a knotless thread
And you'll  spend all your credit with more than me.

Not the best translation in the world, mostly because some of these words and phrases are virtually untranslatable - and still current, here in Ayrshire. Only a little while ago, I heard somebody describing a man sadly but accurately as a knotless threid. But it's this poem, among many other wonderful poems and songs, with its powerful and angry evocation of the voice of the young woman, that pays for all. For me, anyway.

I'll finish with another image from the play, courtesy of Leslie Black who took a series of stunning production photos.

Happy Birthday, Rab, when it comes.

Happy Birthday, Robert Burns

Ever since we moved to Ayrshire, when I was twelve, I have been a fan of our local poet, Robert Burns. When I was in my teens, we lived within easy walking distance of Burns' Cottage at Alloway, and I used to take myself off there on a Saturday morning. It was a nice atmospheric place then - hardly interpreted at all - and you could easily imagine yourself back in time. Or I could, anyway. I would lurk there for hours, conjuring ghosts which - sad to say - never appeared. But later, when I found that I wanted to write about Burns and his wife and his milieu, perhaps all that early daydreaming helped me.

The image above is - of course - the romantic portrait painted by Alexander Nasmyth. But this week, STV and David Heyman unveiled a more believable reconstruction of what the poet may have looked like. You can watch it  here - well worth a look. Scientists in Dundee had taken the existing cast of the poet's skull and - using up to date and fascinating methods - built up a more believable image. Well, I think it's more believable anyway. The picture has met with a mixed response. In fact the response has been rather like the response to a portrait, with people claiming to like it, not like it, or generally disputing whether it is in fact 'like him.' But nobody has seen him. Not in the flesh. Not even me, loitering in Burns Cottage, hoping for ghosts, all those years ago. Idealized 'poetic' portraits, like the one above - nice as it is - can't have told the whole story.

There's a silhouette which seems to have a rather heavier jaw than the neat little chin in the Naismith portrait. There's an old photo postcard of Jean Armour Burns Brown, the great grand-daughter of the poet, (above) who was said to resemble him. I have a copy of this in my own collection, and the eyes are very striking indeed. Contemporary descriptions often refer to his eyes as a noteworthy feature but these descriptions also stress that he was a countryman, the very image of a country farmer, albeit one who was singularly attractive to women. But we all know - don't we? - men who are deeply attractive but far from conventionally handsome. Often it's a question of energy, the ability to make you laugh, the ability to focus on you to the exclusion of all else, a talent for flirtation in a non threatening way.

And then comes the most recent image. At the point where it was unveiled, you can tell that - for some of those seeing it for the first time - the image was unexpected. It is one of those delightful 'sharp intake of breath' moments. And  even these reconstructions using sophisticated technology, are not the last word. But we've no reason to think that this might not be the closest we can come to seeing the real, true face of the poet. I'd love to know if Heyman interviewed the wonderful Ayrshire farmer and Burns devotee before or after the unveiling of the image, because the resemblance was pretty striking. Watch the programme and judge for yourself.

Looking at this image, people have remarked that the eyes are too close set (I don't know how much the structure of the skull would dictate this - but one assumes it would!) that the chin is too heavy (but then there's the silhouette to consider) and that it looks like a waxwork. To me, it also looks pretty much exactly like one of any number of the Ayrshire farmers who are my neighbours, here in this village some ten miles down the road from Alloway. There is an Ayrshire 'type' if it's permissible to say this: strong, stocky, very, very dark, thoughtful, energetic, intelligent, handsome rather than fine featured. You can spot them everywhere in Carrick. Although we know that Burns's father came from Kincardineshire, his mother, Agnes Broun, was a local woman. I've often wondered if Agnes conformed to that type as well - because if Rab loved his Jean (and I'm pretty sure he did!) she too was very dark, handsome rather than pretty, a fairly typical Ayrshire lass.

I've maintained a constant low key obsession with Burns and the women in his life for years. You can tell, can't you? Some time ago, I wrote a radio play about the writing of Tam O' Shanter - it was produced with the brilliant Liam Brennan as Burns and the equally wonderful Gerda Stevenson as Jean. For once, we got the right accent for Rab - Liam comes from Kilmarnock. You might be able to download it free, here although this seems to be a pirated version. But nobody else is doing anything with it, so if you want to listen, you might as well give it a try. Later this year, I will probably publish the script as an eBook to Kindle. I have about 100 plus hours of radio drama sitting about in script form, and some of the original plays, like this one, are worth publishing.

Donald Pirie and Clare Waugh as Robert and Jean
Meanwhile, I also wrote a short stage play called Burns on the Solway, for Glasgow's Oran Mor, A Play, A Pie and a Pint. It was directed by Michael Emans with Donald Pirie as an astonishingly believable - and ultimately heartbreaking - Burns, Clare Waugh as an equally heartbreaking and beautifully played Jean and Celine Donoghue providing music to die for: one of the most rewarding productions I have ever worked on. I loved what they did with it. You can download and read it on Kindle here in the UK and here in the USA. But meanwhile, you might like to read a review of it on today's Indie eBook Review, by my fellow playwright, Cally Phillips.

Robert Burns has become something of a constant in this family. My artist husband Alan Lees made a life size carving of Tam O' Shanter and his grey mare Meg. And then, when arthritis put paid to the carving, he painted a whole series of images of Tam, including this one above. (I particularly like the eyes under the bridge.) My new historical novel, The Physic Garden, due for publication in February, isn't about Burns, but it is set in Glasgow only a few years after his death, and the poet certainly gets a mention  I'm gearing up to tackling a much longer piece of fiction about the poet. But perhaps not this year!

Meanwhile, if you want to know a bit more about me, you could do worse than have a look at the interview I did recently for Tara Moore's lovely blog. It was a great pleasure to answer such an interesting set of questions.