Author Archives: florajohnston

About florajohnston

I'm a freelance writer and researcher interested in anything and everything to do with Scotland's history and culture.

Faith in a Crisis: evicted

Norman Macleod was one of the main characters in my book Faith in a Crisis. Now the house he lived in, which was part of his story, is on the market. The lady who lived there  was a friend of my parents and I remember visiting as a child, but the shiver down the spine comes when I think of Norman and Julia descending those stairs, walking through those rooms …. and leaving the house with their ‘young and helpless family’ when they were evicted by the factor in 1843.

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Trumisgarry Church

Extract from Faith in a Crisis (Islands Book Trust, 2012):

Norman, by quitting his church at Trumisgarry, was no longer entitled to his house. He wrote to Lord Macdonald, offering to pay the same rent as any other and observing, ‘I trust your Lordship does not really intend to drive me with my young and helpless family out of my present dwelling house.’ The factor, Seumas Ruadh of Balranald, himself an Established Church elder, replied in these terms:

It is not [his Lordship’s] intention either to grant you a site or to give you any lands …. I am sorry for you and your family, you will be much put about, but you have brought it all on yourself. …. Kind compliments to Mrs McLeod.

Within a few years, of course, many of Norman’s congregation would also have been evicted from their homes and land, with fewer resources to survive and far more drastic consequences.

Seumas Ruadh was the father of Jessie of Balranald, whose story I told here. It was recently fictionalised  in the novel The False Men by Mhairead Macleod.

These stories just keep coming back.

© All content copyright Flora Johnston. You may reblog, retweet or share with acknowledgement, but please do not use in any other context without permission.

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The shipwreck that never was

There’s a ship called the Priscilla aground in the Pentland Firth at the moment – see for example this from the BBC News website.

Aground cargo ship Priscilla

Photo from BBC News website

My dad was a great storyteller, particularly when it came to both sides of his remarkable family, the Morrisons of North Uist and the Keiths of Thurso. The news item about the Priscilla reminded me of one of his stories which he heard as a boy from his own grandfather, Peter Keith (1847-1936). It’s the story of a shipwreck in the Pentland Firth which wasn’t quite what it seemed ….

Peter Keith

Peter Keith holding his grandson Peter Keith Morrison

As a lawyer and notary public in Thurso, one of Peter Keith’s more sombre tasks was recording the circumstances of shipwrecks on the treacherous Caithness coast. On the morning after a stormy night the captain of a small sailing vessel arrived in his office, looking for a notary public who would record the sorrowful events of the night before. He told how he had tried to take refuge in the Scrabster Roads area just outside Scrabster Harbour, but his ship went down, drowning both the mate and the ship’s boy and leaving him the sole survivor.  He narrated in detail the dramatic circumstances of the shipwreck and Peter Keith made notes, then told him to come back to sign the declaration once he’d had time to write it up fully.

So far, nothing unusual. But when a second man arrived in his office, claiming to be the sole survivor of a shipwreck in Scrabster Roads, Peter Keith began to wonder. Always canny, he said nothing but let the man tell his story. This time it was the ship’s mate, claiming that both the captain and the boy had drowned, but telling a quite different tale of how the vessel came to be lost. So Peter Keith once more made notes, giving nothing away, and in time both men signed their notarial protests.

It was about a fortnight later that the true story emerged, when the twice-drowned ship’s boy turned up alive and well. The ship had indeed taken refuge near Scrabster, but once she was safely tied up and the men presumably resting, both the captain and the mate independently decided to leave the ship – completely against their duty and without the other knowing. They went ashore and spent the evening in the thick, noisy warmth of (separate) pubs.  But while they were enjoying a few stolen hours ashore of good company and fast flowing drink, sheltered from the howling winds outside, the cable holding the ship secure parted, and she began to drift out to sea once more.

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Scrabster Harbour

Eventually the captain and the mate must each have made his way back to harbour. Their ship was gone.  It was a wild night, and there seemed to be only one explanation. Each believing himself to be the only survivor, he took an invented story to the notary public to save his own skin.

And meanwhile there’s a ship adrift on that wild sea, with an inexperienced boy the only person on board.

There was a powerful west wind that night and it was blowing the ship right through the Pentland  Firth. All the poor ship’s boy knew about navigating the Firth was that ‘you sail by Dunnet Head and by Cantick Head in Orkney, and you keep the Skerry lights open’. And it may have been by skill and it may have been by chance, but he brought that ship through the Pentland Firth without disaster, and was blown right out into the North Sea. Here she was picked up by a Norwegian ship and taken in tow, and the ship’s boy eventually got back to shore.

That’s where the story ends, although of course like all good stories it leaves me wanting more. Who was the ship’s boy and what happened to him? What a story he had to tell for the rest of his life! What about the captain and the mate, what happened to them?

There just might be some answers. The whole story was recorded in Peter Keith’s Protocol Book. There’s a collection of Keith Family Papers in Caithness Archives which I consulted when researching War Classics, the story of Peter Keith’s daughter Christina’s time with the troops in World War One.  Among those papers is the Second Protocol Book of Peter Keith. I have no dates and no names for these events, but wouldn’t it be wonderful if the story of the shipwreck which never was appeared in some form among its pages!

© All content copyright Flora Johnston. You may reblog, retweet or share with acknowledgement, but please do not use in any other context without permission.

 

 

 

 

 

‘Bible Talk’ by James Robertson | The Bottle Imp

It seems a while since I put anything up here. I’ve been busy with other projects, the ‘proper work’ kind that I don’t post much about, and although I keep querying about the novel there has been very little progress over the last few months. I have one or two other ideas on the backburner, but can’t let myself focus on them until I get the current piece of work completed.

But I came across this from James Robertson, who was the guest reader at Moniack when I was there, and I wanted to share it. He’s an outstanding writer, and for me this really resonates with the thinking which led me to write Sackcloth on Skin.

‘It’s in oor banes, man.’

 

‘Bible Talk’

We were oot for oor usual dauner roond the toun, Tam and me, and had stopped for a pech at the tap o the hill, whaur they’re plannin tae build eichty new hooses if naebody objects, and probably even if they dae. We had got ontae the Bible, some wey or ither. “In anither thirty …

Source: ‘Bible Talk’ by James Robertson | The Bottle Imp

60 Degrees North

I read a lot of non-fiction for work, but not very often for pleasure. 60 Degrees North by Malachy Tallack was a real pleasure.

60 degrees north

There’s something about northern light and coastal communities which draws me in with a wee touch of envy. It’s a different island community which has a hold on me – North Uist to the west rather than Shetland to the north – but the themes Malachy Tallack explores as he  travels ‘around the world in search of home’ found many echoes as I followed his journey.

It’s an experience I remember from childhood, standing on white sand with my feet in icy clear water, looking to the smudged blue horizon and thinking, next stop Canada. And there’s one of the family stories right there, my great-grandfather, the restless lad who looked out on that sea and eventually used it as his means of escape, ending up in the diamond mines of South Africa. But I can’t stand on that beach and look out to sea without also being aware of what lies behind – the curve of the strand, the steep dunes and above them the mound with its leaning gravestones, the names of my forebears chiselled into stone.

 

 

Only two of my eight great-grandparents came from the island … but this is the place we went back to again and again, rather than Angus or Wester Ross or Caithness (and there’s the story of industrialisation in Scotland right there) …. so it’s the one that remains relevant in the life I live now. It’s a mix of history and memory; of family mythology and very real picnics with dark clouds racing towards us and slippery rocks underfoot. It’s caught up with a Gaelic culture my dad embraced, which has its own resonance now that he is no longer here to tell the stories he loved.

So there was a lot in 60 Degrees North which drew me in, but then it drew me on – on into the author’s journey along the 60th parallel,  from Shetland through Greenland, Canada, Alaska, Siberia, St Petersburg, Finland, Sweden and Norway.  Through the extremes of northern light and darkness, coastal communities and forests belonging to bears, he uncovers contrasting ways different communities and individuals have related and continue to relate to the landscape in which they live. What they treasure, and what they have lost. It’s a personal journey for the writer, but one written so evocatively and thought-provokingly that I kept going back to re-read and savour paragraphs again and again.

Malachy Tallack’s novel The Valley at the Centre of the World is published by Canongate in May. I’ll look out for it.

2018 reading to date (because I said I’d keep a note of it):

Swing Time, Zadie Smith
How To Stop Time, Matt Haig
The Lesser Bohemians, Eimear McBride
Room, Emma Donoghue
The Map of Love, Ahdaf Soueif
The Minister and the Murderer, Stuart Kelly
The Secret River, Kate Grenville
60 Degrees North, Malachy Tallack

© All content copyright Flora Johnston. You may reblog or share with acknowledgement, but please do not use in any other context without permission.

Shaping the Landscape Exhibition

Shaping the Landscape is an exhibition currently running at New Lanark Visitor Centre. It tells the story of the dramatic geology of the Clyde and Avon valleys, and how this has influenced all aspects of life in the area. I worked on this exhibition as part of the work I do for CMC Associates, carrying out research, organising content and writing texts for display panels and digital installations.

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New Lanark World Heritage Site

Geology may or may not be your first interest, but it’s fascinating to consider how it (literally) underlies everything else. As well as telling the geological story, the exhibition covers topics as diverse as Roman roads, Sir Walter Scott’s ‘Tillietudlem’, coal mining and ancient woodlands. It’s well worth a look if you’re in the area – and there are some stunning walks through the gorges and woodlands too.

 

© All content copyright Flora Johnston. You may reblog or share with acknowledgement, but please do not use in any other context without permission.

 

 

Zadie Smith, Swing Time

My one and only resolution of 2018 is to keep a note throughout the year of what I’m reading. (I could have many more resolutions, but hey, another year, same dream.)

I don’t intend to share what I’m reading unless it’s of particular interest, but I’ve started the year with Zadie Smith’s Swing Time, and it’s going to be hard to beat. I was lucky enough to win it just before Christmas in a Twitter competition, along with Outriders, The Lesser Bohemians by Eimear McBride and The Fatal Tree by Jake Arnott. Thank you, Edinburgh Book Festival!

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I read and enjoyed White Teeth years ago when it came out, but I haven’t read anything else by Zadie Smith. That may soon change, as I loved Swing Time. I like to read a book which is not my experience yet is so convincing and so human that I can enter into that experience. And I particularly like to read a book where I’m not marvelling with every sentence and every plot twist at how wonderfully clever the writer is, because the writer has pulled me in so far that I have forgotten all about him or her – but nevertheless every now and then I’m drawn up by the beauty or poignancy or truth of what I’ve just read.  That’s what happened with this book – like this, which foreshadows #metoo so evocatively:

I remembered my own classrooms, dance classes, playgrounds, youth groups, birthday parties, hen nights, I remember there was always a girl with a secret, with something furtive and broken in her, and walking through the village with Aimee, entering people’s homes, shaking their hands, accepting their food and drink, being hugged by their children, I often thought I saw her again, this girl who lives everywhere and at all times in history, who is sweeping the yard or pouring out tea or carrying somebody else’s baby on her hip and looking over at you with a secret she can’t tell.

 

Next on my list is Matt Haig’s How To Stop Time which my children gave me for Christmas. I’m looking forward to it, but I always prefer to have a breather after a really good book – to stay in its world for a while before moving on. I have some research materials on standby for a possible new project, so that’s where I’ll go next.

Happy New Year!

© All content copyright Flora Johnston. You may reblog or share with acknowledgement, but please do not use in any other context without permission.

Old Lifeboat House

I researched and wrote the display boards for this project on Holy Island last year. It’s an exhibition about the history of the lifeboats on the island, with stories of dramatic rescues and the strong links with the community. Nice to see it has now opened – take a look if you’re ever on the island.

 

Restoring the Old Lifeboat House Holy Island.jpg

http://www.berwick-advertiser.co.uk/news/watch-the-old-lifeboat-house-on-holy-island-opens-after-1-37m-restoration-project-1-4610819

© All content copyright Flora Johnston. You may reblog or share with acknowledgement, but please do not use in any other context without permission.