Robert Burns's Magnificent Response to a Critic

I don't know how this had escaped my attention until this week - but it had: Robert Burns's incomparable response to a critic who had complained that his poetry contained 'obscure language' and 'imperfect grammar'.

I mean I've felt like this often enough - haven't we all? But I never had quite these words to express my feelings!

Ellisland, 1791.

Dear Sir:

Thou eunuch of language; thou Englishman, who never was south the Tweed; thou servile echo of fashionable barbarisms; thou quack, vending the nostrums of empirical elocution; thou marriage-maker between vowels and consonants, on the Gretna-green of caprice; thou cobler, botching the flimsy socks of bombast oratory; thou blacksmith, hammering the rivets of absurdity; thou butcher, embruing thy hands in the bowels of orthography; thou arch-heretic in pronunciation; thou pitch-pipe of affected emphasis; thou carpenter, mortising the awkward joints of jarring sentences; thou squeaking dissonance of cadence; thou pimp of gender; thou Lyon Herald to silly etymology; thou antipode of grammar; thou executioner of construction; thou brood of the speech-distracting builders of the Tower of Babel; thou lingual confusion worse confounded; thou scape-gallows from the land of syntax; thou scavenger of mood and tense; thou murderous accoucheur of infant learning; thou ignis fatuus, misleading the steps of benighted ignorance; thou pickle-herring in the puppet-show of nonsense; thou faithful recorder of barbarous idiom; thou persecutor of syllabication; thou baleful meteor, foretelling and facilitating the rapid approach of Nox and Erebus.



The Curiosity Cabinet, Attractive Highlanders, Two Love Stories, a 3 Day Sale - and Luriana Lurilee

From 1st April (and no, this isn't an April Fool's trick, honestly!) The Curiosity Cabinet will be on special offer at a reduced price for three days. (Here in the USA)

Although it's in that category and is undoubtedly Scottish, and seems to attract some of the same readers, it's a novel that isn't really a 'time slip' story like the excellent and popular Outlander, because nobody actually goes back in time.

But all the same, it slides between two tales, one past and one present, within the same setting, two parallel love stories both set mostly on the same small (fictional) Hebridean island and both involving attractive highlanders. (Or islandmen, if we're being strictly accurate here!)

There are subtle connections between the two stories and between the characters. In some ways, the problems and challenges of the past are being worked out in the present. And yet that isn't the end of the story either. Things may come full circle. But they may also change in unexpected ways.

I think the point I was trying to make, or one of them at any rate - apart from telling two intertwined love stories - was that in small places like this island, the barrier between natural and supernatural is somehow thin. And, moreover, you are sometimes aware of the multiple layers of existence of all the people who have lived and loved and died there down all the years.

Way back when I was at school (and that's a woefully long time ago!) I read Virginia Woolf's 'To The Lighthouse.' And in that novel she quotes a poem that has stayed with me down all the years as well.

I wonder if it seems to you
Luriana Lurilee
That all the lives we ever lived
And all the lives to be,
Are full of trees and waving leaves,
Luriana Lurilee.

Strangely, I've only just found out that it was written by a relatively unknown poet called Charles Isac Elton, circulated to a small number of people and transcribed by Leonard Woolf in 1902.

Who was Luriana Lurilee? What was Luriana Lurilee?

If anything, the last verses of the poem are even stranger:

How long since you and I went out,
Luriana Lurilee
To see the kings go riding by
Over lawn and daisylea,
With their palm-sheaves and cedar-leaves
Luriana Lurilee.

Swing, swing on the cedar bough!
Luriana Lurilee
Till you sleep in a bramble-heap
Or under the gloomy churchyard-tree,
And then fly back to swing on a bough,
Luriana Lurilee.

Those words kept coming back to me - or the version in To The Lighthouse, which as far as I remember seems to be 'changing leaves' - when I was writing the Curiosity Cabinet and they still do. They even came back to me when I was writing another island set novel - Bird of Passage - for which they are even more appropriate, albeit for an entirely different set of reasons.

But even now, when I write or speak about the Curiosity Cabinet - which I first wrote some years ago as a trilogy of plays for radio and then rewrote as a novel - these strange words about trees and leaves, about lives we lived and lives to be, come drifting through my mind.

There's a magic in them - and for me, there was a kind of magic in the landscape and people and lives of the novel too.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Holy Fair - Robert Bryden

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

Is this the real Jean Armour?

Jean by John Moir, courtesy of South Ayrshire Council
It happened a few months ago and it came quite out of the blue. I had never seen this picture on the left before. Then it popped up online, on the BBC's 'Your Paintings' site, under the name of Scottish portrait painter, John Moir. I'm assuming this is because the BBC, in conjunction with museums and councils, are now digitising public collections - which is excellent news for historical novelists everywhere!

For the past year or so, as anyone who follows this and the Authors Electric Blog will know, I've been researching - and now I'm in the middle of writing - a novel about Robert Burns's wife, Jean Armour, his 'bonnie Jean'. But of course, the research never ends. You find yourself pursuing strange little byways of history, enticing and fascinating, speculating endlessly about what might have happened,  and eventually you have to tell yourself firmly to get on with the story. But just occasionally something amazing happens.

Like this picture that quite suddenly appeared on my computer screen - a bolt from the blue.

If you know anything at all about Robert Burns, if you have been to any of the excellent museums where his life story is explored and celebrated, you will have been told that we don't really know what Jean looked like. We have her husband's word for it that she was 'clean limbed, handsome and bewitching.' Clean limbed, incidentally was a great compliment, albeit hard to translate. Slim and well formed, I suppose is as near as we can get. She had the 'handsomest figure, the sweetest temper, the soundest constitution and the kindest heart in the country.' Certainly she was a tolerant and sweet natured woman but she doesn't ever come across as a doormat. So presumably, she was a woman of great character. And she could sing. Beautifully.

But most accounts of her life refer to the portrait on the right, with her grand-daughter, which is of an older lady in every way, the lines of pain etched onto her face. And although it's a strong face, it doesn't stand up well when compared with the pretty silhouette of Nancy McLehose (Clarinda) or the romantic depictions of Highland Mary who died young and tragically.

Jean lived on, of course, surviving her husband by many years, brought up her children (and another one of his), kept fresh flowers in the windows of her house in Dumfries and patiently welcomed in the pilgrims and the souvenir hunters, although she must have wished them far enough from time to time. I've learned one thing from all my research. If your dearest wish is to be immortalised as a romantic heroine, don't, for God's sake, outlive the love of your life. Die young, preferably of some fatal disease. Poisoning is a good alternative. But you could also consider leaping to your dramatic death. Male writers will love you for it. If you must live on, die in penury lamenting your lost love.

Jean did none of these things and look where that got her?

Anyway, you can imagine my excitement at suddenly seeing the much more youthful image at the top of this post - and tracing it back to South Ayrshire Council. It's currently in storage, but they are very kindly going to let me see it. If it is by John Moir, then it makes sense that it might have been painted in 1812 or 13 - which would put Jean in her late forties, still youthful, very smartly dressed, carrying a bit of weight after all those children - but an indisputably pretty woman, with those lovely candid eyes staring straight at you!

I've been able to discover a little more about Moir. He was born in Aberdeen, he went to Italy to study for a while, and then he set up his studio in Edinburgh where he produced some excellent portraits of the great and the good, including a splendid image of Willie Marshall the 'King of the Strathspey' whom Burns knew all about and called the 'first composer of Strathspeys of the age.'

Willie Marshall, National Galleries of Scotland
 I suspect he may have wanted to paint Burns, but by the time he was returning from Italy as a fully fledged artist in the 1790s, the poet was either ill or dying. In 1812, Moir was certainly exhibiting successfully in Edinburgh. Reviews speak of his great facility for painting children, but I haven't been able to find any examples online, although his work seems to crop up at country auctions from time to time. He didn't always sign his work either which complicates things. Examples seem to be largely in the possession of various councils.

There's some evidence that Jean was in Edinburgh around 1812 - James Hogg, the Ettrick Shepherd who seems to have had a bit of a crush on her, met her there. Her clothes in the portrait are intriguing - smart and fashionable, especially the bonnet and the beautiful shawl, which looks expensive. But then we know that she was a woman who liked nice things, and had once been married to a man who loved his wife to dress well, who bought lutestring silk for her dresses and ordered a very fine printed shawl for her from his friend who had set up business in Linlithgow. Her hair is still dark and curls around her face. Her skin is soft and clear. She looks both thoughtful and kindly. She is, it seems to me, a very attractive middle-aged woman - and it's easy to see the 'handsome and bewitching hussy' the 'delicious armful' lurking just below the surface. That, coupled with her obvious intelligence, certainly gives the lie to all those commentators who have seen fit to damn Jean with faint praise as 'not quite worthy' of her husband.

So what do you think?

If I can find out more about this portrait I'll certainly let you know.

Bear Necessities.

Family of very elderly bears
Some people reading this might not know that, wearing my other hat, I buy and sell antique textiles - partly because the contribution to our family income is essential when it comes to buying more writing time, and partly because I'm daft about them and have been since I was in my teens.

But just occasionally, I'm tempted by teddies as well. And last week, it happened again. I managed to acquire the sad little family of bears you see on the left. Mostly, I don't keep them - I rehome them and these will be no exception. I'd quite like to keep them and add them to my own collection but I can't afford to. Mind you, I did buy a couple of elderly Chad Valley teds a few years ago and they are still sitting in my living room just because one of them is so cuddly, even more cuddly than my own old bears, Mr Tubby and Teddy Robinson, that I can't 'bear' to let them go.

Anyway, this quartet of teds came together in the same auction lot and obviously belonged together and I'm not planning to split them up. Like rescue dogs that have been brought up together, I'll try to find some sympathetic arctophile to take all of them. The biggest ted is the most valuable. This isn't always the case, but he isn't just any old bear, he's a pretty rare antique bear. He has no labels and no, he isn't a Steiff, but with his triangular face, his long arms and longish humped body, his quite chubby legs with definite ankles, his stitched nose, his boot button eyes and low set ears and most of all because of his slightly pointed pads on his feet, I think he's probably a very very early Ideal bear all the way from the USA - pre WW1 - which is a long time to survive. He's a bit threadbare, he's a bit wobbly, and he has some trouble about the feet where you can see some of his wood wool stuffing - but he's so smiley and engaging that I'm sure somebody somewhere will love him as much as I do and - more importantly - as much as somebody so clearly did in his long, long past.

Smiley and engaging.
He was very dirty and I have a feeling he had been kept with his companions in an attic - or at least that's what he looked like. The only thing I've done is given him a very gentle, very cautious clean up to remove the worst of the grime and show him up in his true honey colours. With him there's a much smaller blue bear - not half so old, I'm sure, but jointed and with nice eyes. There's a chubby little Japanese bear - much faded pink wool - with a working squeak (like Piglet!) which surprised me when I was brushing him very gently with a soft brush and touched his tummy. And finally there is a very strange creature with upright arms, no eyes, a terribly threadbare knitted jumper and feet that look as though they were intended to be booted at one point. He has clearly been loved almost to bits and only rescued by a grubby canvas covering, crudely stitched. Where it is coming apart, you can just see that there might once have been mohair or similar beneath - but if you touched him too much, he would fall apart!

Woppit? Loved almost to bits.
Looking at him, the shape and size of him, I think he was once a Merrythought Woppit Bear - issued in 1956 from the Story of Woppit cartoon strip. Almost unrecognisable, for sure, but I think that's what he was! His better known (and better preserved) cousin is, of course, Donald Campbell's Mr Whoppit. This one could do with some eyes, and possibly a whole knitted suit, to keep him together. But I find him touching beyond belief - somebody has clearly loved him very, very much.  

That's the problem with dealing in something you love - it's always so difficult to let them go! Meanwhile, if you think you too might like to try your hand at buying and selling antique and vintage items to add to the household income, I've written an eBook about it. It's called Precious Vintage and it's available across all platforms, but I'll give you the Amazon Kindle link, here in the UK and here in the USA. 

Happy Birthday to Jean Armour

Jean's brooch

25th February  is Jean Armour's birthday. Not only that, but it's the 250th anniversary of Jean Armour's birthday - so why does nobody seem to have noticed but me?

Ah well. Happy Birthday, Jean!

Poor, Dear, Unfortunate Jean

Jean Armour in old age, with her grand-daughter. 

I posted this recently on the Authors Electric blog (some very good stuff on there at the moment about the hideous new EU VAT rules - you can find it at this link) but thought it might be worth reblogging it here on my own blog - especially given how close we are to Burns Night

For the past nine months or so, I’ve been deep into research for a new novel – a fictional account of the life of Robert Burns’s longsuffering wife, Jean Armour. Or, ‘poor, dear, unfortunate Jean’ as the poet (often called ‘the Bard’ up here) described her in one of his more whiny and self absorbed letters. And for the past couple of months, I’ve also been writing the novel itself. Or trying to.

He had offered her marriage, she had agreed, then repented under pressure from her parents, especially her dad who is reported to have fainted clean away when he heard the news of the common law marriage. He thought Rob wasn’t good enough for his much loved daughter, and he may well have had a point. Very much miffed, the poet decided to cut his losses and leave Scotland. Only the success of his first publication prevented him from heading to the Indies where he would probably have fallen victim to some foreign fever. But even when he was being celebrated in Edinburgh, even when he was seeing other women and writing love poems to and about them, his references to Jean in his correspondence suggest that he couldn’t quite dislodge her from his affections, however hard he tried. And believe me, he tried.

I’ve had a soft spot for Jean for more years than I care to recall. I’ve written two plays about Rob Mossgiel as Burns sometimes called himself – Mossgiel being the name of the family farm, or the one they were currently renting, anyway. Both times, the plays turned out to be as much about Jean as they were about her husband. Interestingly, even nowadays in Ayrshire, farmers are often named after their farms. There used to be a Jim Grimmet who lived outside this village. Sometimes it’s just the farm name as applied to the man – Auchenairney, for instance.

The Bleach Green in Mauchline which figures in the tale of Jean and Robert.
Also said to be the site of the Elbow Tavern.
The old man is Sandy Marshall, born while Jean was still alive.

I already knew quite a bit about Jean, but I needed to know more. There is a vast amount of information about Robert out there but considerably less about his wife. This, I’ve decided, is because with a handful of welcome exceptions, most of the commentators past and present, academic and popular, have believed the fiction that in marrying Jean, a reasonably prosperous, property-owning stonemason’s daughter, he was somehow marrying beneath him. Thank goodness for Robert Crawford who in his excellent biography of the poet, The Bard, was not shy of expressing his opinion that Jean was too good for her husband. Besides, if Jean’s dad thought that the marriage was a non-starter, how much less welcome would the Bard have been as the strapped-for-cash, albeit not actually penniless, partner of some country gentleman’s daughter in a Scotland where the class divisions were much more strongly marked than they are now. And the divisions still do exist.

Mossgiel looking very much as it would have done in Burns's time
Jean may not have been a great reader although she was well able to read and write. Books were scarce, unless – like her husband – you went out of your way to beg, borrow or buy them. She certainly read his poems. She was a strong, healthy, good natured and intelligent young woman who was willing to learn what she needed to know to support her husband and her children. There is a kindliness about her, a sturdy and beautiful sense of morality that shines through all her actions. And a deeply attractive physicality. The more I know about her, the more I love her. 

She even went to Mossgiel to learn all about dairying from Rob’s mother and sisters, when her husband took a lease on a small farm called Ellisland, down in Dumfries and Galloway. 

Ellisland in Dumfriesshire. They moved here from Mauchline.
Little of her correspondence survives. There were a few letters written by other people on her behalf but these were mostly on matters of business or legality, when she was older. It’s clear that she was literate but unsure of herself when it came to the complexities of these matters. We have a clutch of letters from her sons when they were grown up or in their teens, living elsewhere, especially from a son who was studying in London and wrote her the kind of loving, begging letter with which all mothers will be familiar: ‘It’s great down here, but I need some clothes and a bit of cash.’ Well, perhaps not in those very words, but that kind of thing.

We don’t know what she wrote to her husband when they were apart because he didn’t think to keep any of it. We have a handful of letters and poems from him to her, touchingly domestic, extraordinarily loving. In fact it seems very odd to me that strings of academics have been blind to just how much he loved and relied on her. 

Jean's teapot.

‘My Dear Love, I received your kind letter with a pleasure which no letter but one from you could have given me – I dreamed of you the whole night last; but alas! I fear it will be three weeks yet ere I can hope for the happiness of seeing you. My harvest is going on. I have some to cut down still but I put in two stacks today, so I am as tired as a dog.’ 

He goes on to talk endearingly about sweet milk cheese, table linen and her new gowns. Real life. We know that when he did manage to come back to Mossgiel, she would walk out to meet him along the road. As you would. They were in their twenties, in love and in lust. 

Robert Burns: the handsome husband.
But although it’s easy to get a sense of her, it’s harder to find out the facts. There are objects, of course, and references to objects, and that’s what fascinates me most of all : a pretty teapot, a flower picture, a plate, a pair of spectacles, a beautiful gold and coral brooch, a fine china bowl with birds and roses, a corner cupboard, a kettle, a cookery book and a bonnet box. I love her stuff. There’s so much of the woman in there. But as I read all these books, past and present, in which she figures only as a bit player, a walk-on part, I realise that so many of these commentators and researchers despise the domesticity instead of asking themselves what this love of pretty things and nice clothes might tell us about Jean and her husband, who clearly liked them too and aspired to a certain level of comfort.

Jean's flower picture

Oh, and she could sing like a bird. She knew all the old songs and she sang them well. And since her husband was a song collector, the song collector of Scotland par excellence – that too has to count for something, doesn’t it? Burns Night, by the way, is on 25th January. Robert was born on that date in 1759 in a cottage in Alloway not far from the town of Ayr, and almost immediately, the chimney blew down in one of the winter storms that were commonplace in the West of Scotland and still are. There's one blowing up even as I write this in a house built only fifty years after the year of the poet's birth. Jean was younger than her husband, born on February 25th in 1765. 

Meanwhile, I wrestle with the elephant in the room, a large poet-sized elephant, an elephant that has assumed the status of myth, all things to all men. This is a novel about Jean. It will of necessity also be a novel about her famous husband. But the task of making it genuinely about Jean and not about ‘Rob through Jean’s eyes’ like everything else ever written, including my own plays on the subject – that’s the really tricky bit!

I’ll let you know how it goes.

January has been so horrible that I'm doing a three day giveaway on The Curiosity Cabinet!

My Scottish island novel
with a beautiful cover by artist Alison Bell
Up here in Scotland, especially in the West of Scotland where I live and work, it has been a truly horrible January. I mean it isn't generally the best month of the year, but we're only half way through and we have had almost constant wind, heavy rain, hailstones, snowstorms and more rain. As I sit here writing this, there is a horizontal blizzard roaring past my window! We have had power cuts and train and ferry cancellations. I know, I know - it's winter. But when it all comes at once after a fairly mild autumn, and when the post-Christmas malaise has set in as well, it's not exactly calculated to cheer you up, is it? And that's without reference to the hideous sad and sorry political situation in the world beyond this small village.

Anyway, apart from gazing morosely into my garden and noticing among all the chaos that some of the bulbs are starting to poke their noses through, and some of the shrubs are starting to show definite signs of buds, and the jackdaws that live among the chimney pots are clearly starting to think about nesting - I thought I might do a three day giveaway on one of my novels, The Curiosity Cabinet, on Amazon. Here in the UK and here in the US.

I haven't done a freebie for years and I don't suppose I'll be doing another one any time soon. I'm planning to release The Curiosity Cabinet, by far my best selling novel on Kindle, onto other platforms and also as a paperback, some time later in the year when I've completed the first draft of my new novel.

But meanwhile, since it's quite a sunny and summery book, set mostly on an idyllic Scottish island, I thought it might cheer a few people up. The island that inspired the book is my beloved Isle of Gigha, just off the Kintyre Peninsula, but I'm told it could just as easily be a number of other small, beautiful Hebridean islands.

The wonderful Isle of Gigha
The novel is listed as a 'time slip' novel but it isn't really. It's set in the past and in the present - two intertwined stories - and it's about the significance of parallel lives and loves. It's a quiet book. It's about the unsung lives of women, and the hidden histories of remote places. It's about the magic of small islands. It isn't really a mystery novel, and there isn't really a 'twist' in the tale. Some readers guess what has happened to bring Henrietta to the island but a surprising number of people don't. Either way, that's OK because that isn't really the point. The point is the sense that sometimes the problems and difficulties of the historical past can be resolved in the present. And then life goes on.

I think this novel was inspired by a fine writer called Elizabeth Goudge and a novel I read when I was still in my teens, called The Middle Window. It was an old novel, even then, but it enchanted me. I recently bought a battered paperback copy and reread it. It is very much a book of its time, but I still found myself caught up in the magic of her descriptions. Back when I was working in radio, I dramatised Kidnapped for BBC Radio 4 and that also fed into this story. I wrote a radio trilogy called The Curiosity Cabinet and then this novel which was different, in many ways, from the radio drama.

Anyway - it's free for three days, today, tomorrow and Sunday. If it cheers you up in the middle of a dreich winter, my job will be done!

The original Manus McNeill.

Needing My Fix of Wuthering Heights

Top Withens, the site, if not the building, that inspired Wuthering Heights.

Every so often, I find myself needing to reread  Emily Bronte's Wuthering Heights all over again. I love this novel so much. Something reminded me about it today and (having read several paperback copies to bits over the years) I've just transferred the file to the newer of my Kindles. I don't know why but from time to time, these days, I also find myself acutely, almost painfully homesick for Yorkshire - but I think it's the Yorkshire of my childhood and that's a hard place to visit! 

I was born in Leeds. When I was young, we used to visit Haworth - my parents and myself - and we would walk over the moors to the already derelict farmhouse called Top Withens, said to be the site - if not the actual building - of Wuthering Heights. This was my mother's favourite novel as well and the reason why she chose to call me Catherine which isn't a family name at all. In fact family legend has it that my parents trundled me over the moors in a baby buggy, before I could walk and there is an old black and white snapshot to prove it. 

Ponden Hall  - much quoted as the model for Thrushcross Grange - is actually much closer to the appearance of the Heights, albeit not its situation. Browsing online today, I was enchanted to discover that you can stay there for Bed and Breakfast and they have an Earnshaw Room with - oh joy! - a box bed like Cathy's. 

I now want to go and stay there so much that it hurts. 
We'll see what this year brings. 

Here I am, right in the middle of a deeply Scottish writing project and I can feel my Yorkshire roots tugging at me, reminding me of something else I'm longing to write. Isn't that always the way of it? 

But really, Wuthering Heights has influenced so much of my writing - not least in my Scottish novel Bird of Passage which was always intended, not as a rewriting, for that would be impossible and undesirable, but a reimagining,  a 'homage' to the original if you like. 

One reviewer, Susan Price, describes it as a dialogue with the older book, and I like that idea very much. Sometimes it feels as though I've spent my whole career in a kind of dialogue with Wuthering Heights, never quite getting to the end of it as a source of inspiration. 

The New Mattress and the Selkirk Grace

For anyone who has been wondering what happened next, the new mattress is wonderful, thanks! It's a Sealy Posturepedic Diamond Latex and no, they aren't paying me to advertise. I don't do that on this blog. But when something is this good, I may as well be honest about it. 

I love it.

It is about a million times more comfortable than the Memory Foam Monstrosity: firm but not too firm, soft on top, springy where it needs to be springy, deep and deeply comfortable. Actually, I didn't sleep too soundly last night, only because I kept half waking up and thinking 'Wow, isn't this mattress blissful?' and then falling asleep again.

My husband, who was excessively attached to the Memory Foam Monstrosity thinks that it is 'alright' which is high praise. We'll see. The day the MFM is carted away by the council is the day I'll know he means it.

In other news, the weather is wintry beyond belief and we had a power cut this afternoon. We were due to attend a meeting at the Burns Museum in Alloway, so took ourselves off there for an excellent lunch first.  Does this count as 'research' for my Jean Armour novel? Maybe. Disappointed to see that the museum shop is selling Burns Supper invitation cards containing the Selkirk Grace with ... aargh ... the wrong words. Not just a variation on the Scots which would be OK, but an intrusive 'not' that makes a  nonsense of the second line and - to some extent - the whole wee poem: 'Some wad not eat that want it.' Did they think Rab got it wrong, maybe and took it upon themselves to edit him?

Just in case this bugs you as much as it bugs me, here are the right ones:

Some hae meat and canna eat,
And some wad eat that want it,
But we hae meat and we can eat,
And sae the Lord be thankit.

The Hated Memory Foam Mattress Meets Its Doom Today. Yay!

My most popular blog post ever wasn't on this blog - it was on my old Scottish Home blog (now amalgamated with this one because I can't manage more than one blog at a time) - and it was titled I Hate My Memory Foam Mattress. Turns out that a whole lot of other people hate their memory foam mattresses as well. And since on the internet, everything lasts forever, the comments still pop up on that post from time to time.

Some years ago, we decided that the time had come to buy a new mattress. I was persuaded by my husband and the salesman to go for a memory foam mattress. Big big BIG mistake. As soon as I got into it, that night, I realised that I hated it with a passion. It was like sleeping on quicksand. It sucked you in. You couldn't move. You could hardly get out of it. It smelled horrible. And the heat emanating from it was a nightmare.

The problem was that my husband, with serious arthritis, loved it. Still does, really. Eventually, unable to stand it any longer, and becoming subject to all kinds of inexplicable aches and pains, I took myself off to the spare room. My husband's arthritis got worse and worse. I blame the mattress. He won't hear a word said against it. But I remember adverts at the time proclaiming that you don't move much on a memory foam mattress and selling this as a benefit. But it isn't a benefit for anyone with arthritis. We are designed to move when we sleep and if we don't do it, and are prone to arthritis, we seize up. He seized up good and proper. Trouble is, I don't think anyone is researching this kind of thing. Why would they? The manufacturers won't do it. Everything you read online suggests how good these wretched things are.

Fortunately, the mattress has now lost its memory. I couldn't be happier about this, even though it was an expensive purchase. It doesn't spring back. It is set, like cement, in my husband's shape, and there is an ineradicable dip in the middle. When we have visitors I (don't much) sleep in there with him and find myself sliding slowly down the sand dune, clinging to the edge of the bed.

So - just after Christmas, we went in search of a new mattress. I note with a certain amount of wry amusement that the manufacturers of horrible memory foam mattresses have cottoned onto the fact that a lot of us loathe them, and are busy trying to ameliorate the problems by adding springs, coils and all kinds of other things. Still, as we left one shop, I met a man who was arguing with his wife. She wanted the memory foam. He had just sat on the mattress in question, struggled to get up and said 'I'd be wrecked within weeks if we had one of those.'

I couldn't resist it. 'You probably would be,' I told him.'And your wife will suffer from heat stroke.'

The new mattress arrives today. We got it in the January Sales, in Archers and it's a Sealy Posturepedic. We tried it out in the store. If felt absolutely wonderful, reasonably firm underneath, springy, soft on top, natural. Now my sceptical husband says that he won't be flinging out the memory foam job until he's sure that he can sleep on this new one so we have to keep it for a bit. If it wasn't so environmentally unsound (not to say toxic) to do it, I would be tempted to build a bonfire in the garden and put the old mattress on the top. As it is, I'm keeping fingers and toes crossed that it will soon be the subject of a special uplift from the council and sent to the recycling centre to be made into whatever useful substances can be recovered from this waste of space as a mattress.

My Obsession With Textiles

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

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

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

Continental needlework - very beautiful!

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

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

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

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

And a Very Happy and Successful 2015!

My lovely haunted cupboard.
One of the nice things about living here in a small Scottish village is that for a few days and sometimes weeks after New Year's Eve, every time you meet a friend or acquaintance for the first time, they will shake hands or kiss you (or both) and wish you a 'happy new year!' There's something quite cheering about getting so many good wishes in such a short space of time.

Have just spent two good working days when I ought to have been writing, taking down and putting away Christmas decorations. And cleaning up the resulting chaos of dust, pine needles, dried up holly leaves and general domestic disorder. And trying to come to terms with the slight feeling of let-down because I love Christmas, coupled with the overwhelming sensation of panic at the amount of writing I now have to do.

It will get done. It always does.

Have also, however, been distracted by the EU and its new VAT regulations on digital downloads. Fortunately, Amazon and D2D, my distributors of choice are handling the nuts and bolts. Not quite sure what my trad publishers are doing about it yet. But it still means higher prices for eBooks for which I apologise now, to my readers and potential readers. I'll still keep them as low as possible, within reason.

There's also a certain amount of work for me while I decide how much of this price increase I can afford to absorb, and lots more business for Amazon, which I suspect was not really the intention of this bad, stupid, ill thought out law. It was no doubt developed by a bunch of Brussels fat cats who haven't a scoobie how digital sales work, and whose salaries are so monumental that it never crosses their minds than anyone might have to supplement their meagre incomes with a micro-business or two. And even if it does cross their minds, they will probably be of the 'let them eat cake' persuasion.

Meanwhile, if you want to know the kind of thing that really goes on in a small Scottish village in winter, you could always read Ice Dancing.  It's very authentic!

Happy Christmas?

Happy Christmas? 
Like Pollyanna (which was shown on TV a few days ago) I'm sitting here trying to find things to be glad about. I watched the movie while I was cooking. I get so fiendishly bored with cooking that I have to find ways of distracting myself. I sometimes find myself wishing that - like Deborah Meaden of Dragon's Den fame - I could say 'I don't cook' and mean it.

One day ...

Some time just before Christmas, my business debit card was hacked or cloned or whatever and some nasty piece of work tried to buy £350 worth of goods somewhere in the USA. Unfortunately for them, RBS's fraud detection systems are excellent and they put a stop to two suspect sales immediately and contacted me.

'Did you spend £350 at 6 o'clock this morning in the USA?' asked the pleasant young man who was dealing with the problem.  At which time I was, of course, fast asleep in bed on a cold and frosty morning. I'm now wondering how it happened. What website was hacked into? Where might the card have been cloned? This is a card that is used so infrequently that any anomalous payment is going to show up almost immediately. I use it exclusively for business but for most online transactions I use a credit card. Business postage, a local saleroom where I know everyone and they know me, a supermarket filling station where it's never out of my sight? I just don't know, but perhaps, at some point in the past year, my attention slipped and I keyed it into a foreign website.

Anyway - card has been stopped and a new one will arrive in the New Year.

Apart from that, my husband has a chest infection on top of a nasty cold and given that he already has a severely compromised immune system, he seems to have cracked a rib with coughing. Son is also in bed with same hideous cold, and is running a temperature. Other friends seem to have suffered from a string of annoyances ranging from huge to small. And a few other things - too complicated to go into here - have gone wrong as well.

Meanwhile the sainted EU has made sure that my eBook prices will have to increase from 1st January with the imposition of a hideously complicated (not to say ridiculous) new VAT system.

Like Pollyanna I suppose I can be glad that the sun is shining and the house is reasonably warm for a 200 year old cottage that can, let's face it, be a wee bit chilly at times. And by the way, wasn't Hayley Mills good in that movie? With the wrong young actor it could have been revolting!

Or I can be glad that the man-flu two are feeling a bit better. Or that RBS is so quick off the mark.

Or that eBook sales over Christmas were not too bad at all. Meanwhile, I've printed out the missive from Amazon about VAT and am looking at it in horror, knowing that I'll have to wrestle with figures some time soon. They'll do most of it for me, but I need to know what's what.

Just as I need to have a major business meeting with myself very soon, and make plans for 2015. Even though the best laid schemes and all that. Which reminds me of my first and most important writing project of the year...

Knitted crib and Christmas music

New Way of Blogging for a New Year

The view from my cottage window.
I'm taking a little break for Christmas - and let me take this opportunity again to wish you a very happy and peaceful festival - and a New Year that brings you all you could wish for you and yours.

Oh, and a little publishing success wouldn't go amiss, if that's what you're after. Or a lottery win. That would be nice.

But before I sign off for a few days, I've been thinking about making some changes to this blog - posting more often, but not so many carefully crafted (and let's face it quite long!) posts. Well, maybe once a month. But these days, we seem to be drowning in 'how to write' or 'how to publish' or 'how to find a publisher/agent/the pot of gold at the end of the rainbow' posts. I don't know about you, but I'm getting a bit bored with it all. Besides, this was never meant to be a 'how to' blog although my pretty extensive experiences of writing, publishing and being published - as well as being rejected - may occasionally be helpful if that's what floats your boat.

Anyway - I've decided to do something a wee bit different. During 2015, I'm going to blog as often as I can find the time about whatever takes my fancy. I have two or three big projects on hand. I'll be researching, writing, reading, writing some more, trying to earn a living, trying to earn a better living - as well as buying and selling antiques, which is the other way I try to earn a living. Most of the posts will be shorter - and some will be very short - but more frequent. I hope. Let's see how we get on.

I plan to blog about the difficulties, the disappointments and frustrations, as well as the good stuff.  Or maybe I just mean the realities. And what it all feels like. And why - when  push comes to shove - I've never really wanted to do anything else.

Meanwhile, for a whole week, from 24th December, you can download my big Eastern European historical novel The Amber Heart onto your new Christmas Kindle for a bargain price. You'll find it here in the UK and here in the US. Hope you enjoy it.

Writing Christmas

This piece of furniture, dated 1626, is 200 years old than the house!
I'm still in the middle of Christmas preparations here in this small Scottish village where I live and work. The tree is trimmed and so is the house. This old house seems to enjoy Christmas as much as we do. 200 years and the stones themselves seem to appreciate holly, ivy, the softness of candlelight. Whenever we have a powercut - and it happens from time to time in very windy weather -  I always feel that the house really loves a return to candlelight. You can almost feel it settling down with a sigh of contentment. And if you're as imaginative as I am, you can sense some of those previous inhabitants too, although the house has always felt peculiarly calm and happy.

It's a house in which people have stayed for a long time.

Sometimes, in a world where the news seems to be a constant barrage of devastating tragedy, political hatreds masquerading as religion, and misery of all kinds, this community seems like a sanctuary of sorts. Not always - because what place is? But mostly. And sometimes all you can do is gather friends and family about you, love and care for those closest to you, and hope, somehow, that the light spreads a little.

The old Polish setting for my novel: The Amber Heart
I miss my late mum and dad at Christmas. Well, I miss them all year round. But Dad loved Christmas and we always celebrated in the Polish as well as the British way. Christmas Eve was magical and a little of that magic still remains.

So when I was thinking about a Christmas 'special offer' for my readers, the book that came to mind was my novel set in mid nineteenth century Poland: The Amber Heart.

It isn't wholly set in winter, of course. There are plenty of summer scenes, plenty of Easter celebrations. But when I think of it, it seems to be a snowy landscape that comes into my mind. So much of it was based on the stories about my family that dad had told me over the years. I wrote them as fiction of course, changed them, shaped them, wove them into a different story entirely.

The Amber Heart is set in mid 19th century Eastern Europe - an unfamiliar but magical setting. It  follows the fortunes of an array of characters whose lives are disrupted by the turmoil of the times. But first and foremost it's a love story.

Maryanna is a Polish landowner’s pampered daughter, born and brought up in the beautiful 'pancake yellow' house of Lisko, while Piotro is a poor Ukrainian estate worker. The lives of these two people from vastly different backgrounds are destined to become hopelessly and tragically entwined from the fatal moment of their first meeting. 

At one point in the  novel - after a series of devastating events - Piotro is travelling hopelessly, painfully on foot, through a wintry landscape, when he is given traditional hospitality by a Polish family on Christmas Eve: 

'After the meal there followed a convivial few hours with vodka and violin music. One or two of the women lead the company in singing traditional Christmas songs. They were mostly sweet and sad lullabies to the Christ Child: ‘sleep baby Jesus, my little pearl, sleep my heart’s darling.’ Piotro recognised the melodies and even knew the words of some of them, but he was shy of singing aloud and he only mouthed the words along with the singers. They made him sad, brought a lump to his throat, though he couldn’t have said why.'

For the week beginnning 24th December, The Amber Heart will be on special offer in Amazon's Kindle Store - a big book at a bargain price. Or here, if you're reading this in the US. A good, long Christmas read. 

Meanwhile, let me take this opportunity to wish all my readers and subscribers a very happy Christmas and may the New Year bring you all you could wish for yourselves. 

Why You Shouldn't Boycott Amazon

Old and new: teddies and Kindle
As Christmas approaches, I've been encouraged by a few colleagues and even one or two friends to boycott Amazon. They've called it a monster, a parasite, and a few other nasty names besides, some of them (oddly enough) while making enthusiastic use of it as a distributor.

Do they realise, I wonder, that in calling for a boycott of Amazon, they are in effect, calling for a boycott of the small cottage industry that is me and thousands, perhaps millions of people like me? Literally cottage industry in my case because I live and work and file my tax returns from a cottage. But I distribute - among other places - on Amazon.

If they don't like Amazon's tax arrangements, then they need to lobby politicians to change the law, but they are going to have to do it for all those other mega corporations that do exactly the same kind of legal tax avoidance. As the director general of the CBI says, if the government wants a different result from the tax system, it must change the rules. Mind you, we should be very careful what we wish for.  The latest EU changes to VAT on digital downloads are certain to have the presumably unintended consequence of driving more and more small businesses away from distributing their product themselves and into the arms of the big companies. One can only assume that they were drafted by a bunch of elderly and ridiculously well-paid denizens of Brussels who have no idea how the internet works. Unless there is a change of heart, from 1st January, not only will eBooks cost more, (apologies to my readers, but since my prices are quite low anyway it won't be too draconian) but most EU based digital businesses - people selling everything from knitting patterns to training manuals online - will either have to decide to trade exclusively via the likes of Amazon or not trade within other EU countries at all. The alternatives, for a micro-business, will be so costly as to be utterly unrealistic. On the whole, I've been a supporter of the EU, but when they make cross border trading this stupidly problematic, you've got to ask yourself what's the point? This is the first time that I've genuinely started to think that in any referendum, I might well vote to leave!

Amazon is my main distributor for my self published work. And one of the distributors for my publisher too. Other distributors are, of course, available and I use some of them, but the truth is that at present, nowhere sells as well for me as Amazon, and no other distributor pays me the monthly sum of money that allows me to carry on writing fiction and occasionally publishing elsewhere.

The garden of my 'cottage industry'.
All the same, I don't actually 'love' Amazon although I may joke about it. There are precious few people in the world I love and I can't think of a single company or organisation that merits that kind of affection although I'll admit that T K Maxx gives me a bit of a buzz.

But I do respect Amazon. They sell books for me all the time. And they pay a decent share of the proceeds on the nail, every month, with great efficiency.  Even in the middle of the recent VAT hideousness, they have done what they can to make things easier for the small trader.

There are thousands of people like me in all kinds of businesses, large, medium and very very small. If you want to boycott Amazon for Christmas, that's your prerogative. But don't then kid yourself that you are supporting small businesses, cottage industries like mine.

Because you're not. You are damaging them. Damaging us all: the writer, the chocolate maker,  the coffee roaster, and the fabulous loose leaf tea blender I've just discovered while researching this post, as well as the artist, the crafter, the toymaker and the herbalist. I don't expect they're supporting an Amazon or an Etsy or a Google boycott either.  Many of them have nice little 'high street' or rural shops that are also supported by online selling  Because that's the way it works these days. Even small shops sell online as well. They sell in as many ways as they possibly can. Except to other EU countries, from their own websites after January. That's one boycott I'd be willing to support.

Meanwhile, I'm off to buy some tea. From a small business, a cottage industry really. Probably via Amazon.