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.

‘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

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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.

 

Putting flesh on the bones

This story was on the news yesterday, timed for Halloween. Forensic artists have recreated the face of one victim of the Scottish witchhunt. Lilias died in 1704, possibly having committed suicide, after being interrogated and tortured for supposed witchcraft.

Lilias

There’s a scientific wow factor about the story, but I find it really chilling.

She’s just an old lady, somebody’s neighbour, granny. She looks like one of us. You wouldn’t look twice at her in the street. She doesn’t look like a ‘witch’, but more to the point she doesn’t look like someone from THE PAST. She just looks like one of us.

I guess that’s what as a writer I’m often trying to do. To take away the sense of the other, to reconnect with people who walked through this landscape at a different point in time.

To put flesh on bones.

 

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

Longlisted for Mslexia Competition

I was really pleased and encouraged to learn that Sackcloth on Skin has been longlisted for the Mslexia Women’s Novel Competition 2017.

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Next stage is to send them the whole manuscript (hard copy rather than email – better get printing!) and the shortlist will be announced in December.

I’m sure there will be lots of high quality work on the longlist, but each result like this feels like a small step forward in trying to work out the right path for my novel, and an encouragement on the days when it all feels like a self-indulgent waste of time.

I’ll keep you posted!

Edit 9 December

I didn’t make the shortlist, which is inevitably a wee bit disappointing, but I’m still delighted that my novel was included on the longlist. Moments of encouragement and moments of despair are all part of this mix, I think! I’ll try to use them both as I work out the next steps for this book.

 

 

 

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