Showing posts with label Scotland. Show all posts
Showing posts with label Scotland. Show all posts

Here we go again ...


Can we knock on the head once and for all the belief that Burns was a drunkard and a 'crap father'? This was a view expressed yesterday in a Facebook group devoted - I kid you not - to 'Scottish Literature'! 

The poet was neither, and to label him so is to ignore both the context and the recorded truth of his life. 

He was no saint. He occasionally over-indulged (as which of us has not)  but the drunkard myth was a figment of the imagination of some 18th century idiot writing an obituary in a local rag, and in the process misrepresenting as alcoholism the illness that killed him - most likely chronic endocarditis or inflammation of the heart muscle, which, when it turned acute, was a death sentence.

His wife Jean never forgot or forgave the misrepresentation. 

The glib judgments of his character I read last night seem to have one thing in common - a complete ignorance of historical context. Not surprising, really, since our own history is so neglected by our education system. 

For a man of his time, Rab was a good, loving and patient father, in verse and in action too. By all accounts he was content to work away with the children playing around him. There is evidence of his devastation at the death of his little daughter Elizabeth Riddell Burns at the age of three, as he and Jean desperately sought a cure for the unknown illness that caused her to waste away. Compared to the more aristocratic writers of the time who preferred to pretend that their children weren't there at all, he was a model parent.

He was a serially unfaithful husband, it's true. His wife, as one later biographer observed, was 'better than he deserved' but then she has been largely ignored by his other biographers. She was likened to an 'unfeeling heifer' by one female commentator, as though only a heifer would put up with him. 

In fact he loved women not wisely but too well and was just as likely to enjoy the company of older women as young women, something that is a rarity even today, when older women become largely invisible. He was a fantasist, like many writers, but had the sense to distinguish between the romance that inspired his poetry, and the real, abiding love he felt for his wife, a love that is present in so many of his poems and songs, if only we look for it.

Finally, when his first illegitimate daughter was born in 1785 he wrote a defiant poem in her honour. This, at a time when the Minister and the Kirk Session in every parish in Scotland would spend much of their time trying to get men to own up to the children they had fathered!

Welcome, my bonie, sweet, wee dochter!
Tho' ye come here a wee unsought for,
And tho' your comin I hae fought for
Baith kirk and queir;
Yet, by my faith, ye're no unwrought for --
That I shall swear!

If you want to know more, look for my novel The Jewel, all about Jean and her husband, their life and times.

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. 

Scotland or What?


That's the question.

Somewhere among my many books there's an old - a very old - Beano Annual. I was a big fan of the Beano when I was a child. My beloved grandad bought me a copy every week. There was usually a mild tussle with my dad over each new issue, because he loved it too. Mostly we would read it together. Come Christmas, there would usually be a Beano Annual in my stocking. In one of the cartoons, I forget which, but it may have been Lord Snooty, now only remembered every time Jacob Rees Mogg rears his head, there's an image of the Scottish border. Not that Lord Snooty was Scottish, but since the Beano and Dandy were published in Dundee by the redoubtable D C Thomson, the cartoons would, every so often, contain a small and faintly satirical reference to English perceptions of Scotland. 

The border was, as far as I remember, a very definite line, on the northern side of which were instant mountains, (lochs and bens) and men in kilts, leaping about, tossing cabers, and saying things like 'hoots mon'. It was, of course, a joke. A joke, moreover, at the expense of our English neighbours. A bit like that episode of Hancock's Half Hour, where Tony discovers that he has Scottish blood and becomes the laird of Glen Sporran. Or tries to. The one in which James Robertson Justice calls Hattie a 'fine wee woman'. 

I found myself thinking about all these things last weekend when I watched the first episode of a new TV crime drama 'set in Scotland' (sic). It was a television version of a well reviewed radio drama which, surprisingly enough, I hadn't heard. To say that I didn't enjoy this incarnation would probably be to underestimate the strength of my feelings about it, and it's safe to say that I won't be watching it again. But I'll leave the reviewing of it to more dedicated TV critics than I am. 

Besides, that's not really what this post is about. You see, for me, it demonstrated a very real and all too common disrespect shown to Scotland, far more often than is excusable. As though we live in some kind of cartoon country, where once you step over the border from England, you will find yourself in a vague, undifferentiated place where signs saying 'Benview' indicate that this is a land of bens and lochs. Watching an hour of this drama, from Scotland, was deeply frustrating, mostly because it was nothing at all like Scotland. 

The crime solvers were housed in what looked like an empty modern building in the middle of nowhere. So empty that I swear it echoed. There was a Norwegian detective and a Scotsman who thought she had taken his job. I mean I know this happened in reverse in the stunningly good Broadchurch but that was explicable in all kinds of ways. A (Clyde Coast?) marina seemed to have only one boat in it. My ex-professional sailor husband muttered mutinously over this one. Sometimes a vague city skyline or a few buildings hove into view. More often, there was a whole lot of sea, and a character who inexplicably goes to school in a small boat. There are lots of shadowy mountains, sorry, bens, in the distance, interspersed with sudden shots from the obligatory helicopter, of a single track road winding through dense forests. This place simply slides away from you all the time, like Brigadoon. It has no existence at all beyond this moment. 

Where the hell were we? This was Scotland for Dummies, produced by people who seemed to have no knowledge of the reality of this place that I love, in all its wonder and variety and complexity. 

And yes, I know it was a crime drama, not a travelogue, but it didn't need to be like this. I kept thinking about the always excellent Shetland. It doesn't matter that in real life there are (thankfully) few murders there and Shetlanders may be able to find fault. But most of us can willingly suspend our disbelief, because everything else is so lovingly scripted and filmed and acted. 

Instead, in the immortal (real) words of Mr Spock, this was 'no Scotland as we know it!' 

Ice Dancing - My Scottish Village Novel (with a bit of Ice Hockey thrown in for good measure!)


Cover image by Alan Lees

This week, my slightly quirky love story, Ice Dancing, is being serialised in the Dundee Courier. It seems appropriate for that newspaper, since not only is Ice Dancing set in and around a small rural Scottish village - and Dundee has a rural hinterland - but a theme of Ice Hockey, players and fans, runs through the novel and Dundee is a good hockey town. 

All the same, you don't have to know anything about the sport to enjoy it, because the novel's narrator, farmer's wife, Helen, knows nothing at all about it either, till she meets Joe, a visiting Canadian Ice Hockey player. Then she finds out all about it.

The book was a labour of love for me. I never expected it to be particularly successful. I just wanted to write it (probably the best of all reasons for writing anything) but to my surprise, I find that people who find it and read it seem to love it too. I suspect it doesn't have much to do with the hockey. It has more to do with what turned out to be a fairly sharp-eyed but loving observation of the realities of village life. After all, and with occasional spells elsewhere, I've lived in a rural Scottish village for some 40 years. And, as one lovely reviewer pointed out, it's about the realities of love and desire at first sight as well. 

The reason for the title, which gives me no end of trouble when people think it's a how-to manual, will become very clear if you read the novel! 

You can download it as an eBook here and as a paperback here. If you're reading this in the USA you should be able to find it on Amazon there as well.

Flowers and Books

Flowers and books

 It has been a wretchedly cold spring, here in the west of Scotland, so that everything is happening in the garden a few weeks later than it should. The elderly and very cautious Golden Noble apple tree at the bottom of the garden, that is on a two year cycle anyway, now has lots of blossom on it. So perhaps we'll have apples in the autumn - lovely, big, golden cooking apples that are so sweet that they need no sugar. 

We've struggled on through Covid - and we're not out of the woods yet. We're both fully vaccinated now. Three cheers for the NHS and an efficient Scottish government. Brexit is still the misery that it ever was, but our government remains defiant, and I believe we really are moving towards independence and either rejoining the EU or an alliance with the Nordic nations, with whom we seem to have so much more in common than we do with our immediate neighbours to the south. But perhaps in time the whole upheaval will make us better neighbours than we are at present. 

I'm working intensively on a new book now. It's called The Last Lancer, all about my Polish grandfather and his extraordinary family. I'm hoping to have a good first draft finished by the summer. Meanwhile, as ever, there are other ideas hovering, and nudging at me. I say 'as ever' but that's not strictly true. For somebody who spends a lot of time inside my own head, with characters of my own creating, I've found lockdown a trial. I've missed meetings with friends and I've missed hugging them more than I can say. And that in turn seemed to make my brain sluggish and unimaginative. A worrying lockdown lethargy. 

Most of all, though, I've missed my son, whom I haven't seen since the Christmas before last. I go to sleep missing him and wake up missing him. We chat online, of course, but it's not the same. And it's certainly not the same as a hug. A couple of weeks ago, he moved to Stockholm from Barcelona where he had been working. 'Getting a bit closer,' said a friend. I think he already likes the city very much but more than anything else right now, we want him to be able to come home for a visit, later on in the summer. There are thousands, perhaps millions of us in this situation, missing children, parents, grandparents, and new grandchildren in other countries. And it hurts. Every time I hear somebody going on about needing a holiday, I think - well, you want a holiday, and so do I. Very much. But there are so many of us who need to see our much loved relatives, and time is marching on.

Meanwhile, flowers and books keep me sane. Many years ago, my dad painted some furniture for his and my mum's bedroom. After they died, I took the big wooden chest, with its bright Polish flowers. You can see it in the picture above. It sits in the room where I work. It's very useful - and I treasure it. It's good to have a link with the past, especially when, as I am now, you're trying to write about a family history that sometimes seems so exotic and bizarre as to be the stuff of fiction rather than fact. Working on The Last Lancer - coupled perhaps with the advent of spring, however late and chilly - seems to have triggered other ideas too. Let's hope it continues!

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

Looking towards the new manse.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

A wintry day on the Dyrock

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Throwing It All Away

There was a time, back in 2012, watching the opening ceremony of the London Olympics, when many of us felt at least a stirring of pride in - or perhaps I mean genuine affection for - the island group that we call home. It was a production full of historical awareness, creativity and good humour. We liked to think it reflected the best of us.  

Yet here we are, eight years later, and many of us can't think about that time without a profound sense of regret and horror. Because in eight short years, we've been precipitated into the most divisive political situation of my life - although I know other parts of this now precarious union have been through worse times.

How on earth, we wonder, could a country that is supposedly part of a voluntary union, deliberately throw away all that goodwill, all that affection, in the pursuit of an unattainable, unrealistic and unworthy dream - one, moreover, that has turned into a nightmare for so many of us, based as it is on lies, greed and xenophobia. The sabre rattling we're now seeing at Westminster is terrifying. It takes an Irish writer, wise Fintan O'Toole, to call it out for what it is: England recasting itself as a victim of colonisation, emerging from the imaginary 'empire' of the EU. 

Somebody remarked to me today that - living in the EU - he always makes it clear that he is Scottish, not English, because so many of his friends, coming from many different nations, have admitted that they really don't much like the English now. They're very fond of Scotland though.

I'm glad for Scotland, but sad for England. After all, I was born there, albeit with an Irish grandmother and a Polish father. I spent the first eleven or twelve years of my life in England and I loved it deeply. Still do, in so many ways. But the cultural and ideological gap between Scotland and England is now a gaping chasm, one that can't be spanned - and certainly not by one of the PM's imaginary bridges.

As most of my friends know, last year, after thinking about it since 2016, and taking some time to gather together the various papers needed, I reclaimed the dual nationality I had when I was born. It was a fiddly but not particularly difficult or expensive procedure, largely down to helpful advice from the Polish vice consul in Edinburgh and the fact that I still had a number of my father's old documents squirrelled away.

I haven't yet applied for my passport. I had all my 'ducks in a row' but then Covid and lockdown and shielding (for my husband) intervened and I couldn't get to Edinburgh. I'm hoping to do so before the end of the year. 

What the process has done, though, is to highlight for me that the citizenship is more important to me than the passport. The passport, when I get it, will be a convenience. The rather beautiful and formal citizenship letter was what I craved. Let's face it, Poland too has its troubles. But I don't think it's ever going to be stupid enough to vote to leave the EU. So the letter symbolises something very important to me - not just Poland, but Poland in the heart of Europe - and the precious retention of my European citizenship that the Cummings government has tried and failed to take away from me.

I loathe the constant stream of tabloid insults to our European friends and relatives. Now the government intends to break international law, threatening the Good Friday Agreement in the process. I resent every lie, every implication that the EU is the enemy, every wretched inconvenience. I resent having to try to stockpile food and medication. I resent every smirking politician who invades my TV screen, disparaging the rest of the continent to which I belong, and which I love. 

But you know what I hate most of all? I hate the way the revulsion at what this government is inflicting on the rest of us fills my days and disturbs my nights. 

I've always been interested in politics. I can't call myself an activist, but I've done my bit. I campaigned to join the Common Market, back in the 70s. I've been a Labour party member and now I'm a member of the SNP. I've read and debated and I've always voted. 

I've also made big mistakes. Huge. Voting no at the last indyref was the biggest mistake of my life, and, hand on heart, I did it because I swallowed the lie that it was the only way of remaining in the EU. I've regretted it every day since. I didn't do my homework. I didn't look at countries like Finland - which I know well - and Denmark and Norway, and wonder why on earth we couldn't be like them. There's nothing I can do about that now except say sorry, and campaign for independence. And to be fair, I've been welcomed into the fold like the lost sheep in the bible. 

But it strikes me that although politics should be something we all engage with, it works best when we don't have to think about it every single day; the way so many things that are important to us in our lives go on working just well enough that - even the most proactive of us - don't have to consider them or be afraid of them all the time. I am careful what I buy, shop local as much as possible, read labels. But I don't spend my entire days worrying that the farm shop down the road is up to something nefarious behind my back. I trust them. I love the fact that the water that comes out of our taps here tastes pure and clean and I would be alarmed if it didn't. But I also pretty much trust Scottish Water to keep it that way, without worrying about it every time I drink a glass of water.

Throughout my life there were some governments who seemed to be doing their best, and some that I didn't trust. Some I voted for and some I didn't. I never believed that any of them would keep all those fine election promises. And there were some that I disliked intensely. But there has never been a government like this one. 

It was in 2016 that everything changed. At first, we thought it might be OK. Given the closeness of the referendum result, and the way in which Scotland voted to remain in the EU by an overwhelming majority, we actually thought that some sensible compromise might be reached. And you know, we would have gone along with it. Leaving the EU would have been bad and we wouldn't have liked it, but staying in the single market and customs union would have honoured the referendum result while accepting that just under half of the country disagreed. That would have been a way forward: a decent and honourable compromise. And it wouldn't have threatened the Good Friday Agreement in the way that it is under threat now.

There was no compromise. None whatsoever. There were people who predicted the way things would go and we thought they were exaggerating. We underestimated the xenophobia and carelessness and malice at the heart of the state. We underestimated their determination to placate the Brexit Ultras. They threw it all away: forty seven years of co-operation and collaboration. Almost all of my adult life. All that goodwill, all that regard, all that honour and honesty. All those - let's face it - special privileges England demanded and largely got. They threw it all away to placate a minority of delusional haters.


God alone knows. For money? Because they're disaster capitalists? To save an ageing Tory party? Because it was always the plan? Because some of them never really understood that blackmailers will always ask for more? Because they thought that if they were dishonest in very specific and limited ways, we would all be fooled into agreement? 

As I write this, the European press are increasingly bemused - but also amused - by our self destructive posturing. They still have each other and they can do without us. So long and thanks for all the fish.

Hunting around for some - any - words of wisdom, I'm reminded of an F Scott Fitzgerald observation: Let me tell you about the very rich. They are different from you and me. They possess and enjoy early, and it does something to them, makes them soft where we are hard, and cynical where we are trustful, in a way that, unless you were born rich, it is very difficult to understand. They think, deep in their hearts, that they are better than we are because we had to discover the compensations and refuges of life for ourselves. Even when they enter deep into our world or sink below us, they still think that they are better than we are. They are different.

It doesn't help our despair, but it helps to explain their difference and their indifference. 

In last week's Brexit Blog post, The Descent Into Political Insanity, the usually measured and restrained Professor Chris Grey pulls no punches when he points out that the Brexit Ultras are now willing to sacrifice anything and everything to a cause that has long since ceased to bear any resemblance whatsoever to the promises they made. It has now become – and I don’t use this term lightly or carelessly – a form of political insanity, and it is an insanity which has spread to the entire government.

Precisely. Which is why Scotland must save itself. And soon. We must not allow ourselves to be dragged off the cliff with our neighbours. We've tried to talk sense into them, but it hasn't worked. We've been willing to compromise in all kinds of ways, but we've been ignored and our elected representatives insulted. We are rich in things that matter. And we have plenty of friends elsewhere in Europe who would be happy for us to cut the rope. When England comes to its senses, we can forgive, get on, heal our divisions, be better neighbours. But it doesn't look as though that's going to happen any time soon.

Meanwhile, how's your stockpile of imported goods coming along? 

Rewilding - A Free Novella


My weird little novella, Rewilding, is free on Kindle today and for a few days more, so if you like folklore, magic, Scottish myths and all kinds of things like that, give it a try. 

I wrote it last autumn, when we had been on a trip to the Isle of Skye to visit friends there. (People from the island will no doubt recognise the cover image!) But it isn't about Skye. It's love story of sorts. Possibly. A story about enchantment and the attraction of danger and false perception and all kinds of other things. 

When I was writing it, I was also inspired by this extraordinary song, sung by Julie Fowlis. The dangerous monster becomes something else entirely. But then the winners write the history, as a rule. 

It's not long - a short novella or a long short story. And there may or may not be a sequel, because I have an idea floating around somewhere, waiting to crystallise into a proper addition to the story.

Anyway - give it a try - and if you like it, please do give me a brief review. Every little helps! 

On the Beach at Culzean

This piece of writing is, if I had to define it, a prose poem. It was published under the title On the Beach at Culzean, in 2009, in the first edition of the Brownsbank Broadsheet. I don't know if there were any more editions, and soon after that, I stopped submitting small pieces of work unless I was directly asked for something, and concentrated on longer fiction and non-fiction instead. However, I came across this today while looking for something else, reread it and found that I liked it. More than that, it made me feel a little weepy. So I thought it would be nice to share it again on here. 


The black dog rushes ahead. She is more than ten years dead, but here she is, sniffing along the shoreline, her curly cockade of a tail held high. My son, in red wellies and padded jacket, is walking along the beach, squatting to examine a handful of minute golden shells, prising them up with his starfish fingers, toddler’s treasure.

The shore is a string of pebbly and sandy curves. Arran comes and goes: a grey space, a smudge, a real place, etched against the skyline, Goat Fell cloaked in snow. The sea is audible on all but the stillest of days but in winter it is a muted roar. Closer, you can distinguish the inward rush and outward tug of pebbles beneath the waves. Agates have tumbled in, eggs that shatter against the rocks to reveal a smooth world within a world, a blue and white landscape, sea and sky preserved in stone.

The effect of the cliffs, the woods, is to shield the beaches from change, cutting them off from the land. Up there are narrow paths, leading mysteriously out of sight. Some of them thread through frosted plants and naked trees to the sea. Some of them end in nothing, nowhere, oblivion. Take care.

One winter, a canon blew down from the castle and landed on the beach. On Boxing Day, we took coffee and Christmas cake and climbed down to the empty bay, to sit on the elephantine rocks and gaze at the sea. Grey on grey. We found it half submerged in a pool of water, an intruder in this wholly wild world.


My son has shed his wellies and hooded coat, casting his clouts before may is out. He slides and slithers, exclaiming over each find: fishing net, feathers, sea glass, his voice bouncing off rocks. What creature made these holes? What’s gribble worm? What? Why? How?

In the woods, snowdrops have given place to windflowers, then daffodils, ramsons, bluebells. On the fringes of the park, there are swathes of whin that smell of coconut and dazzle the eyes. During hard times farmers pulped this spiny crop and fed it to their cattle. The whin mill was an upended grindstone, trundled along a channel, hauled by a carthorse. You can see ghostly rings in the grass, to this day. And whin is still hard to handle. Stumble, put out a hand to save yourself and there will be tears.

Down here, the shore is edged by volcanic rocks, stretched and folded back on themselves, wrinkled, with seams of white quartz. There are caves too with ancient fortifications built across, as though the earlier castle had grown upwards, a living thing, rooted in the rocks beneath. Archaeologists have found human bones here. People were born in these caves, spent their lives, died and were buried among the giant spiders that also call this labyrinth home.

On the beach, the storms have left a litter of driftwood behind, sculptures on smooth sand. Out there the air is a mixture of salt and sweet. Ailsa Craig is a sugared cake.


Picnic time. From above, you can see reefs at low tide, with cormorants and shags perched on the teeth of them. They teem with life, these pavements of rock, and the pools between: anemones, barnacles, little fishes, translucent shrimps, sea slugs. Children are exploring the reefs, teasing the anemones, briefly imprisoning creatures in jars and boxes. Look and let go, look and let go, calls the teacher.

We trek down to the beach, staggering beneath our trappings. We make a boat out of sand. My son motors to Arran and back within the hour and the sand holds up pretty well. He and his father and his grandfather commence engineering operations. They dam the burn that trickles down from the hill, dig a new channel, build a castle, divert the channel so that it forms a moat. The whole edifice is decorated with shells and white quartz pebbles.

There are swallows diving above, oystercatchers patrolling the shoreline, wagtails darting here and there. I tuck my skirt into my knickers and wade through soft salt water feeling shells between my toes, then look back and see the men in my life, grown small against the rocks, utterly absorbed in the moment and each other.

The dog follows me, splashing and cavorting. She has found a length of mooring rope, thick and prickly, but it is pinned into the shallows by a stone, and she is pulling and tugging, snuffling and sneezing as the salt water goes up her nose. Up there, behind the theatrical arc of the beach, people are walking among the scenery, wearing unsuitable shoes. You can see the odd flash of colour from a jacket or dress. There are precarious girls in high heeled sandals, tight skirts pinning their knees together.

The air smells of roses.


My son is growing fast. He wears a burgundy waterproof against the rain and a daft tweed hat that suits him, although he will only wear it here, where his friends won’t see. He has given up holding hands. But he still has apples in his cheeks, and a face like a flower, open and trusting. My heart aches for him, for all those leaps of faith which he must soon make. For the tripping and falling. For the spiny shrubs. For the picking himself up and walking on. For the narrowing of possibilities. For the disappointments and the friendships and the loves that are not me. How could it be otherwise?

Geese skein across the sky. The swallows have already gone.We stumble down the path to the sea past the boathouse with its tarry roof. The old dog with her white muzzle trots ahead of us. She comes and goes, a memory in both our heads.

Down here on Culzean beach, the familiarity of these stones, these shells, these grains of sand is comforting, our apprehensions soothed by the relentless thrust and pull of the sea. There is only now.

Behind the cliffs behind the woods there has been a change of scene. The heather is in bloom. The hill is a paisley shawl.


Please note that although you are very welcome to share this blog post, the piece itself should not be copied and shared online without my permission. 

Of Water Horses and Other Worlds

The Kelpies: photo copyright C. Czerkawska

Many people have heard of kelpies, mostly because of these spectacularly beautiful statues near Falkirk. What most people don't know though is that kelpies could be reasonably - albeit certainly not always - benign, or at least able to be controlled.

Back when I was very young, I briefly attended Brownies and among the sixers that pranced around the big plastic toadstool in the church hall were kelpies. I was a pixie. 'Here we are the jolly pixies, helping people when in fixes.' we sang. I think the kelpies were 'ready helpers'. A demonic and notoriously male water creature was perhaps not the best role model for little girls. Maybe that was why I ran away, hopped on the bus home and never went back. However, that's a story for another day.

Later on, I did a masters degree in Folk Life Studies and learned a bit more.

Essentially, the kelpie is a shape shifting 'water horse' inhabiting Scottish rivers and burns. They may seek human companionship, assuming the shape of an attractive black horse when out of the water, but you have to be wary of them, because they can also carry you to your death, if you're not careful!

The kelpie might be caught and harnessed, using a halter with the sign of the cross on it. As a last resort, 'cold iron' could kill it - as it could be the downfall of many other problematic supernatural creatures.

Occasionally, the kelpie might appear in the shape of a human being, but this is where the beliefs in these otherworldly creatures become confused and confusing, because while the kelpie can have a certain impish quality, the creature that you should never under any circumstances mess with, is the true water horse - the each uisge.

He is perilous indeed, this fiercest and most dangerous of the water horses. He lives in lochs or in the sea. He too may appear as a horse, on land, but will carry you off to the deepest part of the loch if once you so much as touch his mane. Even more dangerously, he can and all too often does appear in the shape of a handsome young man but when he rests his head in your lap, you'll find that he has sand in his hair. All in all, the each uisge does not get a good press.

But then, you come across old, old songs like this extraordinarily beautiful piece sung by Julie Fowlis: Dh’èirich mi moch, b' fheàrr nach do dh’èirich  in which the water horse turns out to be not so much the villain of the piece as the ... well, what is he? The abandoned lover? The heartbroken father? By any standards it's a deeply mysterious song, and I like things like that - things that challenge my view of the world.

It made me think.

Late last October I did an event in Tarbert with my new book, A Proper Person to be Detained and while we were there, I also listened to an excellent talk about overland cycling, and remote bothies. It struck me that for a woman alone, staying in such places might involve at least a frisson of nerves. It would for me, anyway, even though I have friends who would be absolutely fine with it. After that, we headed for the Isle of Skye to visit friends there, and one day, I clambered up by myself to a well preserved Broch. It was a wild, lonely, evocative place, and that too made me think.

Sometimes people ask me 'where do you get your ideas from?' This is where I get my ideas from. All kinds of places, all kinds of experiences that somehow slot together into a piece of fiction. I don't know how it works, but some stories just have to be written.

When we got home, in the dreich space between the onset of winter and Christmas, all these threads somehow wove themselves together in my head, and I wrote a long story - so long that it almost became a novella - called Rewilding

At 17000 words, it was a bit too long for a a short story, but too short for a novel. It presented itself to me in diary form, in the voice of a young woman, who has a perilous encounter in a wild place.

Or does she?

Well, you can decide for yourself. It's free on Kindle for five days, from 25th July till 29th July. If you're too late for the bargain, it still isn't expensive. So give it a go. One of these days, I might write the sequel that's lurking in my head, like the water horse, only just out of sight.
But it might have to wait till winter.

Don't Come To The Highlands - Read This Instead!

Dun Beag Broch, Skye

My spooky little novella, Rewilding, is currently free on Amazon Kindle, and will be till the end of the week, so download it now, even if you don't want to read it till later.

I wrote this late last year, after a trip to visit friends who live on the beautiful Isle of Skye. We've been talking on the phone now, lamenting the fact that we won't see each other for a little while.

The cover picture is of the amazing Dun Beag Broch on that island, although that isn't where this particular story is set - but it was certainly one of the things that inspired it. The other was this extraordinary song by Julie Fowlis - not just beautiful, but very unusual because it is sung from the point of view of the 'water horse', (not the kelpie who is a little more benign) pining for the woman who has deserted him, when this creature is usually portrayed as one of the most dangerous of supernatural creatures.

This long short story that I called Rewilding, hardly long enough to be called a novella, but certainly too long for a short story - seemed to arrive all of a piece, the way things sometimes do. I could see it so vividly in my mind's eye that it was almost like taking dictation. It's a theme I may well go back to later - something that intrigues me. After all, I have a Masters degree in Folklore, and every now and then my fascination with these things rears its head all over again.

Some years ago, when we were driving back from the Isle of Gigha, on one of those sunny, cloudy, gorgeous days that you so often get in this part of the world, we were heading down the side of Loch Fyne. As anyone who has driven along this stretch of road knows, there's a range of high hills on the opposite side of the loch, treeless and smooth. As we rounded one of the many bends, we were more or less facing these hills, where intermittent cloud shadows and sunshine chased each other.
And then ...
'Are you seeing what I'm seeing?' I asked my husband, who was driving.
''Yes,' he said. 'And I can't stop anywhere.'
He couldn't of course, and he had to keep his eyes on the road. So there are no pictures.
But briefly, straight ahead of us, the cloud shadows had formed a clear image, like a sharp projection on the hillside, of two huge horses, rearing up, black horses, manes flying in an unseen wind.
It was uncanny. I have never seen anything like it before or since. And it faded as quickly as it had come.

I think that experience too fed into the writing of this story. In my head, there's a sequel. Maybe I'll write it.

Meanwhile - please, please, please don't go to rural areas, thinking to 'escape the virus'. All you do is endanger those of us who live here. But you could escape into a story instead!

Happy Saint Bride's Day - The Coming of Spring.

Today is Imbolc, St Bride or St Bridget's Day and an important day in the Celtic world, marking the beginning of spring. I was reminded of it this evening, sitting at my desk, brooding on Brexit, when I realised that not only had the day lengthened considerably, but the birds in the garden were singing and sounding distinctly spring-like. It was very cheering.

Coincidentally, I'd been rereading my own novel, the Posy Ring, and deciding that I was still very fond of these characters and really would like to revisit them and find out what happens to them next. I've been asked to chat to a local book group about this novel, among other work, so I thought I'd better refresh my memory.

I suddenly remembered that I had written about the young women of the Scottish island where the novel is set, celebrating the festival of Bride in 1588.

'In February there was a brief respite when the young women of Achadh nam Blàth and the nearby clachan celebrated St Bride’s day. They took a sheaf of oats from the previous year’s precious harvest, formed it into a rudimentary figure, dressed it in some scraps of wool and linen, and trimmed it with whatever decorative items they could find: a handful of glass beads from broken jewellery, small shells from the seashore, a garland of daisies, snowdrops, coltsfoot as well as hazel catkins, culled from sheltered parts of the island. The figure was supplied with a slender white wand formed from a piece of birchwood with the bark scraped off. Ishbel had made a bed of rushes covered by a baby blanket close to the house door. There, Bride was welcomed in and laid down comfortably for the night with a couple of candles burning to keep her company. 
‘She was the foster mother of Christ,’ explained Lilias. ‘And so we honour her in this way. But she brings the springtime with her as well. Soon, soon it will come.'

A little later on, Lilias tells the stranger about the cailleach who brings winter - no bad thing, unless she lingers too long. To everything there is a season.

‘I am always forgetting how very little you know. The cailleach is the wise old woman. She walks the fields, bringing winter in her wake. A good thing too. The land needs to sleep and we need to rest for a time, while she walks and renews, walks and renews. Only now, she’s growing weary. It’s her turn to lie down and sleep. Then the springtime will come. You can feel her clinging on. Soon, she’ll not be able to resist. She will lie down and take her rest, and the blessed Bride will come and bring the springtime with her all over again.'

If the snowdrops massed on the roadsides as I drive in and out of this village are anything to go by, Bride seems to be well on her way.

Rewilding: the genesis of a slightly spooky tale.

One source of inspiration: Dun Beag on Skye

A question writers are often asked, whenever they stand up in public and talk about their work, is 'Where do you get your ideas from?' The fact is that most of us are never short of ideas. We have ideas coming out of our ears. We spend more than half our lives inside our heads, with characters of our own creating. What we're sometimes short of is the time to write them so we learn to be selective.

This is the reason why, if you ever approach a writer saying, 'I have this great idea for a novel/story/play' (meaning that you'd quite like us to write it for you) you'll generally find us backing away from you at speed, unless we're in the business of ghost writing, a worthy profession all of its own. We're not being mean. It's just that it may well be a great idea for you, but not for us.

Sometimes ideas arrive fully formed, sometimes as a small seed that nags away at you.

All of which is a roundabout way of exploring the genesis of my most recent slightly spooky tale that saw me through the dreich and dreary November days. I called it Rewilding. And it all began with a book festival.

Actually, it began long before that. Years ago, following my graduation from Edinburgh University with a degree in Mediaeval Studies, I did a postgraduate Masters at Leeds University in Folk Life Studies with Scots folklorist Stewart Sanderson. Both courses resulted in a lifelong interest in folk custom and belief.

Sometimes those interests coincide with my fiction.

Back to the Book Festival. At the very end of October, I'd been invited to speak at the Tarbert Book Festival - Tarbert Loch Fyne that is, and I can recommend it. I've spoken there twice now and hope they invite me back again. Anyway, my talk on my new book, A Proper Person to be Detained, was on Sunday lunchtime. That meant that we could listen to a presentation by one of my fellow Saraband authors, Alan Brown, with his wonderful Overlander book. (Buy it!) I was captivated by his account of 'bikepacking coast to coast across the Scottish Highlands'. But as I listened to him, my fiction writer's imagination was beginning to work overtime, the way fresh yeast starts to bubble and grow when you add a teaspoon of sugar.

I started to imagine a youngish  - but not too young - woman determined to prove her mettle in a small way, for various reasons that emerged as I visualised her. I saw her undertaking a small autumn backpacking expedition through a remote part of the western highlands, sleeping in bothies over some three or four nights, keeping a diary as she went.

The Cuillins
From Tarbert, meanwhile, we headed north to stay with friends on the Isle of Skye. We were fortunate to have chosen one of the finest weeks of the year. The sun shone day after day and although it was chilly, the frosts only served to enhance the scenery. We were seeing the Highlands and then Skye itself, in all their terrible beauty.

There is nowhere as beautiful as Scotland. Nor, sometimes, as daunting.

Among the places I visited, was a broch: Dun Beag. My husband has serious mobility problems, so he stayed in the car while I laboured up the hill to bag what is fondly referred to by my family as 'another of mum's heaps of old stones'. As I did so, I thought again about my fictional woman, and about myself at that age, mid thirties perhaps. I had done quite a bit of travelling and considered myself to be competent and unafraid. I started to project myself back into that situation, the solo hiker, in what is essentially a very safe part of the world. And then I started to think about fear, irrational fear maybe, but fear all the same, and why it might happen. Fear of the dark. Fear of strangers. Fear of silence. Because some places are scary and you have no idea why that might be.

Liam Brennan as Robert Kirk
When we came back, I started to write. Somewhere along the way, I recollected my own play, produced at Glasgow's Oran Mor venue a few years ago. The Secret Commonwealth, directed by Jen Hainey, with Liam Brennan as Robert Kirk, was a play about the 17th century Gaelic speaking minister of Aberfoyle who wrote a treatise of that name, all about the dangerous supernatural world, the 'commonwealth of the fairies'. Kirk was presumed to have been carried away by them as a retaliation for revealing their secrets. When that play was produced, the talented Celine Donoghue did the music. She had studied the songs and melodies that were associated with the sidhe of the Celts, fairies for sure, but nothing like the small, twee creatures of Victorian imagination - and dangerous when crossed. Creatures neither of heaven nor of earth, but of somewhere in between.

Along the way, I refreshed my memory about the belief in the water horse, the each uisge. Not the reasonably friendly kelpie, but a much more challenging creature altogether.

Finally, I came upon a song, collected and sung by the incomparable Julie Fowlis, a heart rending song that - unusually - gives voice to the each uisge, the dangerous water horse himself.

I wrote throughout the month of November, while I listened to the song obsessively. The story took its course, as such things will. I wrote to find out. I always write to find out. If I know the whole story before I begin, I tend to get bored and give up.

By the end of that time, I had a short novella or a long short story, some 17,000 words, which I called Rewilding. My good friend read it and at first remarked that it was a love story. Which it is. No doubt about that.

Then, she messaged me the following day to say that she had woken up in the night, disturbed by it, wondering what was really happening, worried by it.

That too was just the kind of response I wanted. It's not a story that I can place anywhere traditional with any certainty or speed, and I just wanted to get it 'out there' in time for Christmas. So, it's on Kindle. I may turn it into a small paperback as well, for those who don't much like eBooks, but I've reread it a few times on my Kindle in the dark, and I think it works. Especially in the dark, now that I come to think of it. Each time, it both frightens me and entices me.

I wonder if it will do the same thing to you. The question you have to ask yourself at the end is, what would you have done, in her shoes? Because I know what I'd have done. Do you?

Oh and by the way - if this song doesn't send shivers down your spine, I don't know what will.

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.'