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

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


The Dyrock Burn, from the Kirkyard

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Ancient Yew in our kirkyard

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

A Little Bit of Carrick History, Part Four: Life in an Eighteenth Century Manse

The Glebe

Moving on many years, for my final part of this gallop through the older history of the parish - there is a surviving notebook which describes life in the manse of Kirkmichael about 1720, when Mr James Laurie was ordained minister, and Kirkmichael had a population of 700 souls, scattered throughout the parish in a number of clachans. The village as we know it today was not yet in existence. 

In 1904, the Scottish Historical Review included a fascinating fourteen page summary of this notebook, later published by the Edinburgh University Press, and if you're interested, you can access it on the JSTOR site which gives access to academic articles. You'll need to create an account as an independent researcher, but they have made access easier during Covid. Look for Life in a Country Manse, about 1720 for a vivid and fascinating overview of life in and around Kirkmichael 300 years ago. 

This was well before the present kirk was built in 1787, although the lych gate, still in existence, dates to 1702. Once again, we can conclude that the parish had grown during the intervening period, with episodes of Covenanter activity disturbing the peace of the people. 

Life in the Manse
At the time when James Laurie was keeping his meticulous household accounts, the manse itself was by no means the grander building of later times, but was instead a smallish thatched house with a kailyard in front, half glazed narrow windows, thick walls, and four rooms divided by wooden partitions. It probably stood where the old manse of Gemilston stands now, although we can’t be sure. 

There was no 'village' as such. Kirkmichael was a remote parish, 'through which ran tracks over the moors to Maybole and Ayr.' Even the mansions of the lairds were 'homely and unpretentious' although we are told that Kirkmichael House was exceptional in being 'as desirable a dwelling in all the country, having good gardens and orchards, the first in Carrick planted with peaches and apricocks

From 1711 – 1732 James Laurie noted down memoranda of his income, his expenses and the details of his daily life, and these give us a fascinating picture of what that life was like. In the Manse, lived the minister, his wife Ann, and their children, four boys and three girls, as well as the minister’s sister, Betty. There were, besides, three women servants, a serving man and a herd lassie who slept over the byre. 

Money Problems
The minister was funded by the local people, lairds and farmers, but sometimes his stipend was hard to come by. It seems to have been very difficult for him to get his parishioners, even the reasonably solvent ones, to pay to keep the manse in a good state of repair. A lot of bartering went on, with the stipend sometimes being paid in meal and other necessities rather than money. Sometimes even that was hard to come by and he would wait three years for his payment. Often the lairds would give the minister 'precepts' or orders on their tenants, in lieu of actual cash, so the poor tenant farmers would have to give some of their own harvest to the minister, in the shape of malt, meal, barley, grey oats, white oats and something called 'horse corn' which would arrive in sacks or creels, on horseback, and have to be stored away by the minister for future use.

We should note here that the payments were, for most of the 18th century, still in Scots pounds and shillings, which had been considerably devalued, had been replaced by sterling after 1707, but which continued to be used, so the sums mentioned are smaller than you might suppose.

The manse is often in a poor state of repair and the 'heritors' who are supposed to attend to such things, resist spending money on its upkeep so that the minister himself must foot the bill from his stipend:  'Paid William Simson 4 shillings and sixpence for the window in my room, twelve foot of glass and mending ane old window.'  

Clothes and footwear
Woollen fabric such as 'grey plaiding' is made by local weavers, and is used for the minister's and his son's clothes, although he has a fine 'coat of blue broadcloth for solemn occasions' such as when he travels to Edinburgh to the General Assembly. In winter, the women of the house, including Ann and Betty, are engaged in spinning yarn, which they then weave into cloth for their own purposes, as most people did back then. However, Ann - as befits the minister's wife - has a gown of 'Musselburgh stuff' (this seems to have been fine quality woven wool) made by a local tailor for ordinary wear. The women also sell some of their work to the weaver who comes looking for customers' work to sell on. Ann and Betty are happy to sell Lady Killhenzie 'cloath napery' for 14 shillings. The minister has a flock of sheep to supply his own wool, and grows flax on the glebe so that the family can make their own linen. 

There are tailors in some of the clachans, with an interesting reference to a tailor from Straiton making a 'sackcloth' gown for one unfortunate Janet Kennedy. Adulterers and 'adulteresses' were supposed to appear in church in sackcloth robes, but even at this time, the practice is falling out of favour, and by the time of Robert Burns and his transgressions with Jean Armour some sixty years later, there is hardly a tailor to be found willing or able to make such a thing, nor a minister insisting on it. 'Daddie' Auld certainly doesn't. Mr Laurie, however, does seem to have approved of it and there is some mention of culprits 'not appearing in the kirk without sackcloth'. 

A travelling shoemaker, probably from Maybole, makes shoes for the family, in preparation for which, Mr Laurie gets in leather, hemp and rosin, the tanned leather often coming from his own beasts. The shoes tended to be for best, and for wearing to the kirk and for travelling, rather than for everyday use, although Ann has comfortable 'cloath slippers' made for herself. In August 1716, 'James Niven and his servant 'wrought nine days' making shoes for the family, for which he was paid board and lodging, plus 'six and a quarter pence sterling and seven pence for timber heels.' 

Household goods
The entries on other household goods are particularly fascinating. In Maybole, the minister buys hens and eggs too, as well as cheese, sugar, tobacco, coals, thread, soap and gunpowder. He spends money on 'plaiding' and on the wigmaker to mend his wig, a wig being an absolutely indispensable item for men of importance at the time, even quite young men, as he was. He spends a good deal on 'sugar candie' but some of this is to ameliorate the taste of the nasty medicines of the time, as we can see from its inclusion in various recipes, among which we find baked ground mother of pearl mixed with powdered slaters (i.e. woodlice) Those medicines involving the contents of the herb garden, however, seem more palatable and more efficacious, witness the use of horehound and coltsfoot for a cough, something still found in herbal cough mixtures today. 

Tea drinking is only just becoming fashionable and Mr Laurie buys 'lime' (meaning loam or earthenware) to drink it from. A pound of 'Bohea' or black China tea costs a massive 24 shillings. But they are a la mode  at the manse and must have indulged in the habit from time to time. 

In Edinburgh he buys not just useful vegetable seed for the manse kitchen garden, such as 'colliflower' lettuce, carrots and parsnips, but seeds for his flower borders: ‘africa marigold, sunflower, jelly flower, luppyns, double holly oaks, bella donna’ and others. I love the fact that even then, they had a flower garden, but we should remember that these also had medicinal purposes. He buys in wine for household use. Ale is brewed at home, but we sometimes find small sums for 'ale' in the accounts which represents coins given to tradesmen who come to the door with deliveries. 

Other small sums are given out to the wandering poor, of which there are very many, not least Scottish sailors who have been captured by pirates, sold into slavery, escaped and finally arrived home in a penniless and broken down state. 'To a poor man taken a slave in Algiers' or 'To a slave from Algiers, dumb'.

Balancing the books is always difficult, and with no enclosed land and few improvements, overwintering of beasts, even for the minister, is very hard and there are losses, although nothing is wasted and hides will be tanned for leather. It is obvious that without a bartering system it would have been impossible to survive. Mr Laurie is even forced to borrow from his canny sister Betty on one occasion, who charges him interest on the transaction. She needs cash for pins, needles and knitting thread.

Books and learning
Learning is a wonderful thing and he has managed to acquire a great many books - perhaps some from his minister father - which he lends to his friends, including the sons of local lairds, as well as ministers from neighbouring parishes. Human nature being what it is, the books sometimes go missing and he writes 'I do not know who has this' rather plaintively. (I have much the same problem!) His children go to the village school, and perhaps then to Maybole, Ayr and Glasgow for their further education. One of his sons, George, becomes a minister in turn and as minister of Loudon has a large part to play in encouraging Robert Burns. 

It's apparent from all this that most of the houses in what now constitutes the old parts of the village were not built till much later in the eighteenth century, well after James Laurie was buying his flower seeds in Edinburgh. When we had occasion to take down a bit of wall to build an extension, some years ago, we found the stones of a much older house, including a lintel, used as infill in the wall. Where from? Presumably from one of those much older cottages in the vicinity of the manse, or closer to Kirkmichael House or even further afield. 

There certainly used to be more cottages along the road towards Crosshill, towards the farm of Merkland. Older people here remembered the ruins. There was also the ‘Waukmill’ along there, where the cottage-woven fabric was taken to be stretched. There is little left of it now except for a shell of stones, down by the river at Merkland Farm. Incidentally, it is possible to trace some of the history of the parish through its mills of various kinds, many of them along the banks of the Dyrock burn or the River Girvan. 

There is a great deal more to the story of this village, including the Covenanters, (I think somebody else can tackle that complicated period!) and - in the 19th century - the brief rise of Ayrshire whitework, of which I have my own small collection. I'll write more about this needlework in due course. 

One final suggestion - if you find Mr Laurie's account interesting, you could do worse than seek out a book called The Annals of the Parish by John Galt. It is still in print in various forms, it is ostensibly a novel, published in 1821 but it's told in the voice of an 18th Century minister who sounds a lot like Mr Laurie. It is entertaining, informative - and in places, extremely funny. Reading it, you realise how little village life has changed in the intervening period. 

In the kirkyard


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

A wintry day on the Dyrock

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

A Little Bit of Ancient Carrick History, Part One: Who Lives in Carrick?


There's an excellent community venture going on in this small corner of Carrick to collect and collate a wealth of local history, and although I've got a brand new writing project to work on, and all kinds of things I should be doing instead, it sent me back down a rabbit hole - an enticing rabbit warren really - of a piece of research I started a long time ago. 

When I dug it out and went over it with the new project in mind, I realised that I had got lots of things wrong, and also that there was plenty more to be said - so I've spent a large part of this week digging down into it again. It's complicated - so there will be three parts. But if you too enjoy digging down into the past, you might find it useful or entertaining. 

Years ago, I did a Postgraduate Masters in Folk Life Studies at Leeds University. There was an outside chance that I was going to do place name research. Well I didn't, and I'm quite glad about that. I was always more inclined towards fiction rather than the academic world. And I do love a bit of wild speculation! But I still find place names - and personal names too - fascinating, because they're a bit like fossils: tantalising remnants of something ancient, buried in the landscape. 

Anyway - here comes a bit of background.

When the Romans first came to Britain, (in 55BC as we used to learn at school), they noted that the Iron Age tribes who lived in this part of the world – Carrick and Galloway - were the Novantae. That, however, was the Roman name for them, and we don’t know what they called themselves. We think that they probably spoke the Britonnic language that would have sounded a bit like Welsh, but we know very little else about them. 

Put simply - but it isn’t really simple, so if you’re an expert on this, bear with me while I oversimplify! - there are three kinds of Celtic language. There is Q Celtic, which probably came to these islands with waves of migration, roughly 1000 BC,  and from which Irish and Scots Gaelic are both descended. There is P Celtic or Britonnic, which was spoken throughout the island of Britain in the late Iron Age and beyond, from about 400 BC, including southern and central Scotland, and from which modern Welsh is descended Thirdly, the people we know as Picts lived north of the Forth Clyde Line and they spoke another Celtic language, although scholarly debate still rages as to the nature of this tongue. 

We also know that there were brochs – round towers that tend to be associated with Picts like the one in the picture  – as far south as Galloway, and it’s now recognised that there were southern Picts too. On balance Pictish was probably closer to P Celtic. Place names provide a clue to the nature of their language, as do some surviving inscriptions that use the Latin alphabet. 

Complicating matters still further is the notion that earlier Bronze age tribes may have been similar culturally and linguistically to the Q Celts who were displaced by incoming Britonnic tribes. Some even  speculate that the Novantae could be the remnants of Bronze age people. 

The Roman geographer, Ptolemy, who wrote about the tribes of Britain, but didn't have much to say about the Novantae, also recorded 38 native place names from Scotland in the second century AD, but when place name experts look at them today, less than half are recognisably Britonnic or Gaelic. The rest are mysterious and interesting. River names, for example, are sometimes much older than other words, and perhaps date from even older languages, because the Celts were incomers too. 

Even the smallest knowledge of ancient and local history tells you that we are all, every last one of us, descended from economic migrants. Even if your blood turns out to be pure Pict or Celt, that's what you were. 

If we look at this part of South Ayrshire, we can see that over the first millennium AD, especially after the Romans departed, Celtic peoples travelled between here and Ireland. No doubt they would have intermarried and learned each other’s languages. In time, the ‘English’ came north and complicated things even more. Northumbrian Angles settled in Galloway, in the seventh and eighth centuries AD, and Maybole, the capital of Carrick, was one of their northern centres of population. 

These Anglo Saxon people seem to have managed to achieve some kind of power balance with their Celtic neighbours. The Britons - and place name evidence suggests that a lot of them were P Celtic speaking Britons in this area by that time - were, by tradition, farmers, cattle and horse breeders – sometimes quite wealthy people - who lived up in the hills. They were also miners, and occupied areas where silver could be extracted and gold panned in the streams. Both Angles and Britons hunted and fished, but they weren't short of wildlife and game. The separation of one settlement from another by wide tracts of forest probably helped to maintain the peace between these rather different peoples: the Celtic people on the hills and the Angles, speaking a variety of Old English in the valleys. 

I have this wild theory that if you tested a cross section of hill top Ayrshire and Galloway farmers, those who have been farming in this area for many generations, you would still find Britonnic DNA predominating.

Time marched on. The power of Northumbria started to diminish, the Celtic kingdom of Strathclyde expanded and the balance tipped in favour of the Britonnic tribes again, although all were coping with inroads made by young Norse settlers, aka Vikings. The Strathclyde tribes were possibly rather better at this than the Northumbrians. Alliances were formed, broken, formed again. We know that in the early 10th century AD, Galloway and Carrick were still divided between largely Britonnic and Anglo Saxon enclaves but there was also place name evidence of those earlier Q Celtic speakers who had lived here, may still have been living here, and would live here again. 

Over the next hundred years or more, we see a powerful resurgence of Gaelic place names in this area, as people moved here from Ireland. Nothing is clear cut, and there may have been plenty of unrecorded interactions between the Britonnic and Gaelic speaking peoples. They may have been here all along, keeping a low profile. Nevertheless early in the eleventh century, the balance of power in this part of the world had changed. The kingdom of the Scots was established and they brought with them a language that again became dominant.

A host of Gaelic place names had come into existence - or were resurrected. Who knows?  There were hills, streams, farms and fields but even the personal names of the upper classes had become Gaelicised. It seems to have been the language rather than the population that changed. It was as though Gaelic had become fashionable. 

At the same time, people in Carrick still preserved many traces of their Britonnic descent and in this area, some Britonnic names have persisted right to the present day. Around Maybole, for example, there are many place names containing the Brittonic ‘tre’ or ‘tref’, meaning homestead. We find Troquhain, Threave, Barbrethan, Tranew, Tralorg, Traboyack, Tralodden, Trochrague, Trees and probably Guiltreehill as well, as we shall see. Pen and Pin place names may have a similar origin.

Part of the problem for those coming after is that history tends to be written in terms of the ‘high heidyins’ so we have endless (and frankly quite boring) lists of complicated relationships of the men at the top, charters etc but we know very little about everyday life. What we do know is that more and more settlements are being uncovered, places that were settled over a period of  many thousands of years, that this was quite a prosperous and cultured area a long time before the Iron Age and beyond, and that where we can’t find settlements going back thousands of years, it may well be because old farmhouses are sitting right on top of them. 

The Celts, Gaels and Britons alike, favoured hilltop forts so that they could see who was coming. So do many of the hill farmers of Carrick today. 

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

The Curiosity Cabinet - On Special Offer Now!

Cover image by textile artist Alison Bell.
I wrote The Curiosity Cabinet a long time ago - in fact as I've already said elsewhere on this blog, it began life as a trilogy of radio plays inspired by the real historical story of Lady Grange (but very different from her story) and set on a small Scottish island a bit like my favourite Hebridean Island of Gigha. The plays involved two intertwined parallel love stories, one modern, one historical. But when I decided that I wasn't very happy with the modern day story in the plays, I started all over again with the novel. It was one of three books shortlisted for the Dundee Book Prize and it was subsequently published by Polygon. Lorraine Kelly read it and sent me a lovely note about it which I still treasure. Later, when it was out of print, I published it on Kindle myself, where it has been sellling very well ever since. It has had some fabulous reviews from readers here in the UK and in the US as well. My very favourite review was from a US reader who said that the writing was so tight you could 'bounce a quarter off of it.'

You know, as a poet and playwright as well as a novelist - not to mention as a reader too - I've never really subscribed to the notion that a book has to be over complicated and inaccessible in order to be good. I suppose what I'm always aiming for is an accessible and readable book which is nevertheless thought provoking. Some of my favourite writers - especially short story writers like William Trevor and Bernard MacLaverty - are clear and readable - but their work stays in your mind afterwards and works away like yeast, changing the way you think! That's always what I'm aiming for - but I know I don't always achieve it. And if you can read any of my books and say that you've enjoyed them, then that's good enough for me.

The landscapes of the Curiosity Cabinet were inspired by the wonderful little island of Gigha which I've been visiting for years. Even the ferry in the novel is very like the Gigha ferry.

As for the historical story - well, as far as I know, there is no Manus McNeill, sadly, though there were and still are lots of McNeills in the Western Isles and some of them may have been called Manus and may even have been a little like my lovely, irascible but honourable hero. But there is an ancient grave in the old ruined kirk at Kilchattan on Gigha and somehow, in my mind, I always associate it with my fictional Manus although I know that it's much older than the hero of my novel and even though it's nothing like the grave described in the book.

All the same, every single  time I visit the island, I go to the old kirk and leave a little posy of wild flowers on his grave. I can't explain why I feel the need to do this, but I do.

The Curiosity Cabinet is on special offer on Kindle now and for the next five days. You'll find it for 99p here on Amazon UK and also at a reduced price on in the US.

Inspirations for The Curiosity Cabinet: The Isle of Gigha

Whins - with an overpowering scent of coconut.
My fictional island of Garve, in The Curiosity Cabinet and also the unnamed island in my later novel, Bird of Passage were certainly inspired by the little isle of Gigha, which lies just to the west of the Kintyre Peninsula and is the most southerly of the true Hebridean  Islands. It's pronounced Gi-ah, with a hard 'g', in case you were wondering!
My husband, Alan, first introduced me to this island which was to become such a significant and inspirational place for me. Years before we met, he had been fishing for clams off Gigha with his brother-in-law when the boat's engine had broken down. Some of the island fishermen had come out to rescue them, given them generous hospitality and one Willie McSporran had managed to repair the engine with spare parts retrieved - precariously - from the little island 'tip' at the north of the island. After that, and over many years, Alan would return to Gigha whenever he could. He exchanged fishing for work as a charter skipper on a series of yachts and whenever they rounded the somewhat perilous Mull of Kintyre, Gigha was the place where they stopped off.
I still hadn't visited the island myself, although I had heard a lot about it over the years.
Then, when our son was three or four, we had a summer holiday there, staying in the B & B at the island post office and shop, which was then run by Margaret and Seamus McSporran, the famous 'man of fourteen jobs' - and also Willie's brother.
It was bliss. A perfect place for a holiday with a small child. Safe, friendly, beautiful. We walked, we picnicked, we paddled, we fished. My memories of that time involve digging furiously for lugworms on the beach. Or sitting on the rocks in the sun - the climate is very mild here and quite often the rain leaps right over the island to fall on the mainland beyond.

Ardminish Bay, on Gigha

Since that first visit we have been back countless times, with friends, with our son, or just on our own to visit Willie and his wife. Every time we go, we seem to find something new to see and explore, which is strange, because this is a small island - only seven miles by one and a half wide. But it has some twenty five miles of coastline, so there is a lot to see. And because it was strategically very important, placed between the territory of the Lords of the Isles and the mainland, it has a complex and fascinating history.
At some point, it was also the subject of a brave community buyout. You can read all about it on the island's own website here. I've written my own big factual book about the history of Gigha - called God's Islanders, it was published by Birlinn in 2006. It was a labour of love and if you want to know all about the 'real' Gigha, then you could do worse than read it.  Largely thanks to lovely Willie McSporran who sat with me over vast quantities of tea and pineapple cake, and patiently told me all about the island history for many, many hours, it is as authentic as I could make it.
But Gigha was in my head. Which is why I found myself setting two of my novels on a small Scottish island that bore a strong resemblance to this one. In The Curiosity Cabinet, Garve is very like Gigha.
'The island reminds her of those magic painting books. The shop here used to sell them. You would dip your brush in water and pale, clear colours would emerge from the page, as this green and blue landscape is emerging from the mist.' 

In Bird of Passage, a more harrowing tale altogether, a Scottish set homage to Wuthering Heights, Finn comes to an unnamed island which - again - bears some resemblance to Gigha. It proves to be his salvation and his tragedy.

All the characters in both novels are, of course, entirely fictional in every way but one.
In The Curiosity Cabinet, Alys revisits the island after an absence of twenty five years and is captivated by the embroidered casket on display in her hotel. She discovers that it belongs to Donal, her childhood playmate, and soon they resume their old friendship. Interwoven with the story of their growing love, is the darker tale of Henrietta Dalrymple, kidnapped by the formidable Manus McNeill and held on the island against her will. With three hundred years separating them, the women are linked by the cabinet and its contents, by the tug of motherhood and by the magic of the island itself. But the island has its secrets, past and present, and the people of these islands can - so an old historian observes in the prologue to the novel - keep a secret for a thousand years.
That, I'm sure, is the absolute truth!

The Curiosity Cabinet - Where Did The Ideas Come From?

Ardminish Bay on the Isle of Gigha
The Curiosity Cabinet (free on Kindle today and every day till Saturday) began as a trilogy of plays for BBC Radio 4. They were broadcast in the Afternoon Theatre slot, although I can't remember when that was: late 1990s perhaps? I know that the novel was originally published by Polygon in 2005 so it must have been a few years earlier, because I sat on the story for a while, thinking about what I needed to do to it to turn it into a novel.
The production (by Hamish Wilson) was excellent, as were the performances, and the plays were well received. But all the same, I knew I needed to make some changes and it was a long time before I realised exactly what they were.

The historical story was fine, but the contemporary tale was only 'alright'. Half there. It involved a divorced woman, her small son, and an old islandman. But there seemed to be something lacking.  It took a few years of mulling it over, going back to it and rewriting it before I realised that the modern love story should in some way run parallel to the historical love story - not that they should ever intersect. This isn't a genuine 'time slip' novel. Nobody travels back in time. But all the same, there was a sense in which I wanted the problems and tribulations of the past to be - somehow - worked out, resolved, in the present. And in order for me to be able to do that, I would have to find some way of the present reflecting the past, a fragile web of connections. But I knew it also had to be very subtle. Anything too obvious, anything too 'clunky' and the whole delicate structure would come tumbling down around my ears.

There were a couple of other things that inspired the story though. One was the true tale of Lady Grange who was kidnapped and spirited away at the behest of her husband (she was becoming something of an embarrassment to him in all kinds of ways!) and held on St Kilda for many years. Lady Grange was much older than Henrietta in the Curiosity Cabinet, Henrietta is a widow - and Lady Grange's story has no chance of a happy ending. But what fascinated me was the clash of cultures, the struggle which a lowlander would have to adapt and adjust to living on a small island where nobody even spoke her language. Something that could, and did, drive a prisoner to madness.

Some island flowers.

Years before, I had also dramatised Stevenson's Kidnapped (and its sequel, Catriona) for BBC Radio in ten hour-long episodes. Ten hours of radio. Can you imagine it? I don't think it would happen now! I loved both novels, still do - and both of them are, among so much else, an exploration of that clash of Highland and Lowland cultures. There is a scene, late in Kidnapped, where David Balfour and Alan Breck return to the House of Shaws to bring wicked old Ebenezer Balfour to book for his crimes. It always stuck in my mind for the little frisson it gave me when Alan Breck tells Ebenezer Balfour that David is his prisoner, and asks him whether he wishes him to keep or kill him. It is, of course, all a ruse, to get Ebenezer to admit his culpability (which he does!) But it struck me even then, how relatively easy it would be for somebody to disappear for ever into the wilderness of the Highlands and Islands.

Which is - in a way - what happens to poor little Henrietta, in The Curiosity Cabinet, kidnapped to the fictional island of Garve. There is a Garve in Scotland. There are several Garves, since the name means 'rough' and there are plenty of rough islands. My fictional Garve is a little like the Isle of Coll, but it's also like the Isle of Gigha, which I know well.  It may be rough in winter, but in spring and summer the island is full of flowers.

Tomorrow, I'll tell you a bit more about Gigha, and how the island landscape helped to inspire both The Curiosity Cabinet and a subsequent novel, Bird of Passage.

Blogging, Branding, Aromatherapy - and a free download.

Anyone who reads this blog regularly will know (and perhaps be faintly annoyed, for which I apologise!) that I've been playing about with the design of it, trying to find something that looks right for me, reflects the kind of fiction I write and, perhaps most important of all,  is legible. I've been trying to avoid that glaring white text on a black background, which nobody over a certain age can read. Me neither.
It's harder than you think to get it right and yet appearance matters. Just as the cover images of my eBooks tell you something about what you might find inside, so the background of a blog or website tells you a lot about the person writing it.
Which is why I've been experimenting with available backgrounds.
But whenever I found one I liked and no matter how much I tweaked the settings, the text became quite difficult to cope with. I've spent hours at it. For the moment, I'm settling for this seascape especially since so much of what I write seems to have the sea somewhere in it - even The Physic Garden involves a trip to the Isle of Arran for my main characters!
Linked to this is the fact that I've been reading and trying to learn a bit about creating a brand. Not cynically, but with the intention of trying to target those readers who - for want of a better explanation - are the people who will enjoy the kind of books I write.
There's an excellent blog post about this here on Stephen T Harper's blog. The wonderful Seth Godin sums it up, when he writes, 'Unanimity is impossible unless you are willing to be invisible.' And goes on to say that we have to learn to say 'It's not for you.'
This doesn't mean that I want to deter anyone from giving my books a go. But it does mean that we don't all love the same kind of work. (Just as well really.) And as writers, we're always trying to connect with the readers for whom we're really writing, the people who 'get' it, the people who will get some pleasure out of it, become lost in the world we've created - and hopefully, come back for more.
Although we badly want everyone to love what we write, we have to accept that some people won't. Why should they? And we have to learn to say 'it's not for you, then. But that's OK.' and move on.
Which is hard, because most of us remember the occasional negative review far more clearly than any number of positive comments.
It can be an interesting exercise to go to a book by one of your favourite authors on Amazon, one with a lot of reviews, and glance at the one and two star reviews. You can be pretty sure that - even with the most successful writers - there will be a few, sometimes more than a few, negative reviews. Sometimes these are quite illuminating - especially when they are well thought out, well written, but still negative. You may not agree with them at all. You probably won't. Especially if this is a writer whose work you love. But if you pause for thought, you can see why  it may be that you disagree, that you're enthusiastic about a particular book while somebody else isn't,  just as you may adore a particular piece of music while somebody else can't bear it.
A few years ago, when I had aromatherapy massage, the therapist asked me if there were any herbs or scents I particularly disliked (rosemary, when it's too intense) and any which I particularly loved (neroli, always, but any variation on orange and orange blossom.)
She took these preferences into account when preparing massage oils.
I think it's the same with books really. I'm invariably on the look out for whatever the equivalent of neroli is in fiction.
Some of my close friends much prefer rosemary!
On the whole, it's all pretty subjective - and that's quite heartening. Even if you are writing for a tiny, experimental niche market there will surely be somebody out there who will say 'this is definitely for me!'
And why not? It's one of the joys of this brave new world in which we find ourselves.
Meanwhile, the trick with branding isn't to indulge in crazy blanket marketing. It's to find out about your own work, what it is, what it's like, what characterises it -. and then try to find and connect with those readers who have been searching for exactly this kind of book.
Which is all VERY much easier said than done!
(All helpful suggestions gratefully received.)
Meanwhile, for anyone who wants to sample the kind of books I write, The Curiosity Cabinet will be free to download for five days, from 26th February to 2nd March. Quite a lot of people already have this book in paperback, but this means you can get the Kindle edition too if you want. One reviewer has described this as a 'rich tapestry of a book'. Two stories, historical and contemporary are intertwined on a small (fictional) Scottish island. What mostly emerges from the reviews is that people have quite simply found this to be an enjoyable read, one which stayed with them long after they had finished the novel. That's more than enough for me. If you haven't yet come across it, give it a go. I hope you enjoy it too! If you're reading this in the US, you can click here  instead.

Drowning in Linens

Edward Ellice 
As some of my readers will know, when I'm not writing novels and stories, I buy, sell and collect antique textiles. I quite often find myself doing talks about them - and writing about them as well. They're in The Curiosity Cabinet and they're most definitely in the Physic Garden. They are also, at the moment, in my house. 
A few weeks ago, I bought FIVE big boxes of old  Irish linen damask tablecloths and large dinner napkins, in our local saleroom. I don't know exactly how many tablecloths there are. Thirty? Forty? I keep losing track because I get distracted by the beauty of them. (And the weight. My God, but they're heavy!) And that's not counting the small mountain of napkins. Some are perfect, some are a little thin but on those, the patterns are so strange that I think they must be very old indeed. 
They are big tablecloths - more than big - huge, some of them 6 yards and more long,  old damask banqueting cloths in the finest, smoothest most beautiful linen imaginable. Old linen of this kind - grass bleached, I reckon - feels like glass under the hand. Cool, impossibly smooth. The patterns are woven in, intricate and very beautiful. I think they were laundered a very long time ago, stored away carefully in tissue paper and not brought out into the light of day for many years. Some of them date from 1870 (the date is woven into the ends) with the names of their previous owners, Eliza and Edward Ellice but some are clearly even older. All textiles have a story to tell, but some are more intriguing than others. 
A little research revealed that this was a late second marriage for both of them, that Eliza was Eliza Stewart Speirs in September 1867 (some of the linens have the initials ESS embroidered on them). Eliza was born to the 'beautiful Miss Stewart of The Field' as an old Glasgow book tells us. That must have been around 1817 or 18 and her father was Mr Hagart of Stirling. (Jean Armour was still alive, Robert Burns had died only some 22 years previously. ) Her grandfather was Thomas Stewart of the Glasgow Field, a calico printer. Was The Field, then, a bleach field? 
Eliza herself married Archibald Speirs on 22nd June in 1836 but he died in 1844 at the age of 39. They had two children.
Archibald's mother was Margaret Dundas, who was born in 1772 and who died (after her son) in 1852.
Somewhere in these boxes of linen is a set of her napkins, or at least they have her name woven into them.
Somewhere, too, is a fine but beautiful tablecloth woven with unicorns, lions, anchors and harps and the date 1849. 
Clearly, then, my boxes contain a whole collection of one family's linens, preserved, laundered, labelled and some of them very beautifully mended - obviously much loved pieces. And as you can see - I can never resist researching things, trying to find out something of their history. It's what brings them to life for me and - I hope - for their new owners. I love the rehoming aspects, because textiles, especially old linens, are so often thrown out, or cut up, or used as dust sheets for decorators! 
As a break from fiction (even I need a break now and then, much as I love writing novels and stories) I'm working on a little guide to buying and selling antiques and collectibles as a way of making some extra cash in these difficult times - not just textiles, although obviously, that's the subject I know most about!  It'll be a few more months before it's ready to go, but I've learned a lot over the last decade or so, and I reckon I might as well pass some of it on to my readers. 

The Physic Garden: How William Lang Told Me His Story.

The other day, somebody asked me THE QUESTION. It was a very nice lady, chatting to me in our local shop.
'Where do you get your ideas from?' she said.
Most writers will have encountered this question many times. Don't get me wrong. It's not irritating. Most of us love our readers and love to talk about the inspiration behind our books. But I also think most writers will  find that question - however often people ask it - very difficult to answer. Or if not difficult, then puzzling. Where DO we get our ideas from? Are we puzzled because we don't know, or is it because people who ask it are always genuinely surprised that we can make things up so easily - and it makes us wonder about it too?

The truth is that most writers have heads which are positively stuffed with ideas. We have ideas, characters, settings, stories, coming out of our ears. The problem is hardly ever the ideas. The problem is in making the time to get all those ideas written down in some form and then deciding which of them you want to live with and work with for the next year or so, which of them stay on the back burner, and which of them might as well be consigned to the dustbin. Actually, that's not strictly true either. Whenever you consign anything to the dustbin, you will invariably discover that it is exactly what you needed - but didn't realise it till now - for whatever you are working on at the moment.

I sometimes think it's a question of practice. The ideas, I mean. I remember doing a sort of 'taster' session for a lovely group of young mums, about writing. By the end of it, they had all created an imaginary character, and some of them were starting to have ideas about interesting things that those imaginary characters might do. Making stories for and with and about them. All of them seemed slightly surprised that - once they got over the hurdle of thinking there was some great mystery about 'getting ideas' - it was so easy to make something up. And so pleasurable. It's one of the reasons why writers carry on writing, in the face of troubles which include lack of cash and lack of time, but seldom lack of ideas!

Anyway, here's how it worked with my most recent project.

My first idea for The Physic Garden came years ago when I found a facsimile of an old book called The Scots Gard'ner, by John Reid, first published in 1683 by David Lindsay in Edinburgh and reprinted by Mainstream in 1988. I read it, intrigued by the poetry of it, by the beauty of the language and practicality of the advice. Later, I came across another fascinating book called The Lost Gardens of Glasgow University, by A D Boney, published by Helm, also in 1988, clearly a good year for books about garden history. It was an account of the gardens of the old college, including the old botanical garden which had been polluted by the nearby type foundry. And that, in turn, sent me back to more primary sources. There were other books - a wonderful history of Scottish plant explorers called Seeds of Blood and Beauty, by Ann Lindsay, published by Polygon - which gave me some insight into the possibilities which might have enticed my characters - and another very old book, which I had to spend a somewhat traumatic afternoon in Glasgow University library examining - but if I told you all about that one, it would give my story away!

Part of a christening cape, embroidered with flowers.
At the same time, I acquired an embroidered 'christening cape' - I have it still - and I was told that it probably dated from the early 1800s, which is about the same time that this old cottage where I live and work was built. There seemed to be some correspondence in my mind between the beautifully embroidered flowers on the silk of this cape and the flower specimens which the gardeners were asked to provide for the botanical lectures. And that too fed into the story. Like so many of my novels, this one began life as a play, but it felt unsatisfactory. I didn't yet have the elbow room I needed. I wrote and rewrote but still it felt like a series of scenes from something much longer.

And then William Lang, the narrator, walked into my head and started to tell me his story. 'In his own words' as they used to say in school. 'Tell it in your own words.' Except that these were his words, not mine. Or that was what it felt like. That's still what it feels like. And it is a very Scottish story, with a handful of very Scottish words. I even thought about putting a little glossary at the back of the book, but finally decided that readers could probably guess what they meant easily enough. I plan to blog about it later though!

Some of the characters are very loosely based on people who actually existed, back in the early 1800s, or what little we know about them. But the book doesn't pretend to be true. Not even that curious hybrid called 'faction'. It's undoubtedly fiction. I made almost all of it up, although I hope the setting is authentic enough. William lived with me day and night for a spell, and told me his story as clearly as though he had been speaking into a recorder. I was reminded  of those slightly sinister tales of 'thought forms' that become so vivid that they assume a strange kind of life beyond the mind of the thinker. Except that with William, it wouldn't have been sinister at all, because he is such a lovely, honourable elderly man, looking back on his young self with wisdom and understanding. And that, in a way, makes it even worse. You see this is a tale of a terrible betrayal that permeates the novel, events that have influenced (although not ruined) William's whole life.

Where do such ideas come from? I suppose the answer is all kinds of sources and none, real life events and make believe. It would be nice to know what other people think. How does it work for you?

Buried Treasure

As you can see from the picture above, if you look closely, even my doll's house has books in it! I'm seriously considering making some tiny, bound manuscripts and stacking them on shelves in various other rooms. Maybe the lady of the house - which is my current pride and joy and refuge from all things online - could be a writer in her spare time. This idea occurred to me because I spent a couple of days last week climbing up and down a real stepladder in my real house, my upstairs study to be precise, with a nice view of the garden and the woods beyond. I've been storing folders and box files on a high shelf that runs the length of the whole room for years now, and I decided I needed to investigate and take stock of exactly what I had in the way of material.

With three full length novels, a couple of short story trios and a few plays already published and selling quite nicely on Amazon, I've been considering what I'm going to publish next and what my future publishing strategies might be.  It seemed to me that I had a lot of work just sitting there. Moreover, I suspected some of it might be good work, not just those early 'bottom drawer' novels you cut your teeth on and then hang onto out of sheer sentimentality, not because you think they're any good, but because it's hard to destroy something you've spent so much time on. So I thought it was time for an assessment.

I know that my PC has two (almost) completed but unpublished novels sitting on it. To be more accurate, the novels are on a PC, a laptop, various flash drives and stored in DropBox and on a Norton Cloud somewhere. So - I'm paranoid. There are also printouts. One, called The Physic Garden, is a historical novel set in Glasgow around the turn of the 1800s. It's related by an elderly bookseller who was once a gardener - although he's remembering the events of his youth - and it's a book about male friendship and extreme betrayal. I'm very fond of it. In fact, I think I'm probably more fond of it than anything else I've written. Oh, it definitely needs work. And it needs more words as well as less, additions as well as pruning. This novel was read (I assume) by a young intern at my previous agency. Her response was that it was 'just an old man telling his story.' Which is true. This casual, stupid remark so influenced me that I wasted several months trying to tell the story in the third person.

It didn't work.

There was no way that my narrator was going to allow his story to be told in anything except his own strong voice. Now, the possibility of publishing The Physic Garden as an eBook has allowed me to go back to my original plan and make this the book I intended it to be. It should be coming to a Kindle near you before the end of the year.

Also on my PC is a rather odd piece of contemporary fiction called Line Dancing, part romance, part literary fiction. I don't think anyone at any of my agencies ever wanted to read this, for the simple reason that it's about an older woman having a relationship with a younger man and none of the young women and men who inhabit agencies ever found anything to interest them in the proposal. But again, when I reread it now, I get that little kick of excitement that suggests the book is OK, probably worth publishing. And aren't there lots of older women out there who haven't quite given up on love?

That's just on the PC. It was when I started rummaging in all those old folders and files that a pattern began to emerge. I would climb the ladder and lift them down a couple of boxes at a time. Many of them hadn't been opened for years and there were not just cobwebs but dead spiders lurking inside. I had to use antihistamine for the sneezing and a vacuum cleaner for the spider skeletons.

Here's what I found:
First of all, there was a huge manuscript called Salt Sea Strawberries. Many years ago, I wrote a trilogy of dramas for BBC Radio 4, called The Peggers and the Creelers. It was about a Scottish fishing community and an inland boot and shoe making town, (not a million miles from Dunure and Maybole, in Ayrshire) and the plays constituted a densely woven series of dramas about the sometimes stormy relationships between the two communities and the demise of traditional industries. This was well before I ever had a PC. It had been written on an old electric typewriter, and now here it was, printed out on that flimsy old fashioned paper. A huge box of it. 130,000 words of it.

I read a few pages and remembered that the original radio series had elicited lots of fan mail. People had loved it. The novel isn't half bad either. Actually - like the plays - it probably amounts to a trilogy of novels, or it will, by the time I've rewritten it. I don't remember my agent - whichever agent I had at the time - reading this one either. She 'wasn't keen on family sagas. Nobody wants family sagas.'
And you know what? I had forgotten all about it! I hadn't forgotten the plays, just that I had actually spent a year or two of my life writing 130,000 words of a novel based on the plays that nobody then would even look at.

Another folder contained a novel called Snow Baby, a manuscript full of my own scrawled annotations. This is contemporary fiction, literary, lyrical, quite poetic. Extracts from it were published in Carl MacDougall's beautifully designed 'Words' magazine, way back in the 1970s. Which was a difficult magazine to get into. We're talking about a very youthful work here, written when I was supposed to be a 'literary' writer but in reality wasn't quite sure what kind of writer I was. I was a mid-list writer for sure - desperate to tell well written stories that would appeal to all kinds of people, but perhaps to women in particular. The problem with Snow Baby was that it was set in Finland and - you've guessed it - 'nobody wants to read anything set in Finland.'

There were also some 70 pages of a novel called The Marigold Child. This was a novel with an intriguing Mary, Queen of Scots connection. I had done the research and although the premise on which it is based is outrageous, everything fits. My agent's eyes lit up when she heard about it. I wanted to write it as a historical novel, but 'nobody wants historical novels' - or they didn't back then, though they do now - so I spent a year wrestling with it to try to give it a contemporary framework. The 70 pages is set in the here and now. I read it through and thought it read pretty well, spooky, with a couple of engaging central characters, but I'm still not sure that it shouldn't be a straightforward historical novel. That may be what it wants to be. We'll see. The point is that now, I can do what I want with it, not what somebody else is telling me might be flavour of the month.

There are besides this, files full of single plays and series with detailed background material. All these were made and produced on BBC Radio 4 and well received. Among them there's a series of plays about a Scottish family of yacht builders, and another set in Roman Britain, all well researched, all vividly written, albeit in dramatic form. By the time these were written, even though I knew in my heart I had material for more novels, I had had enough of soldiering through thousands of words and hoping for the best. There are folders full of detailed ideas and plans for novels, whole plots, meticulously worked out. There are short stories and even some non-fiction pieces. There's a young adult novel - the publisher no longer exists although my television serial on which it is based is still available on YouTube. There's a backlist novel which I always felt was published in the wrong way. Now it seems horribly dated and needs extensive rewriting. But somewhere inside it is a good piece of contemporary fiction - and that too seems a bit like finding buried treasure.

'I wish', said my husband, wistfully, surveying the great heaps of manuscript, 'all this had happened twenty years ago.'
So do I.
But we can only work with what we have and, as of now, I think I just have to get my head down and get more work out there. Lots of it. Once I've whittled my way down the pile I can stop, take stock and decide what might be best to do next. CreateSpace is calling, for instance, since I can't deny that I'd love to have paperback copies of all these.
There's a lot more to come and much of it is already written in some form at least. Editing and polishing takes time - years, probably, but there's an excitement about it all and a freedom that I haven't known for a very long time.
Kindle, other platforms, CreateSpace  - all I can say is, watch this space.