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.

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.

 

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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.

 

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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.

Two men, two schools

I’ve had a really interesting piece of work over the last few years which has culminated in this little pair of booklets, available from Stewart’s Melville College.

Stewart’s Melville is an independent school in Edinburgh and a prominent landmark as you drive into town from the north along the Queensferry Road. The original building opened in 1855 as Daniel Stewart’s Hospital School, and a few years ago the school approached me to see what I could find out about the life of Daniel Stewart (1744-1814).

It wasn’t a straightforward project, with Daniel’s story surrounded in myth and lacking documentation, but the picture emerged of a young man who pulled himself out of poverty to take his place in Edinburgh’s Enlightenment society.

In 1972 Daniel Stewart’s combined with Melville College, creating Stewart’s Melville College. The founder of the other half of the school was not, as you might expect, Mr Melville. Melville College was named after the street in which it was located, and its founder was Rev Robert Cunningham (1799-1883). The natural next step was to explore his life story also. Having researched Daniel Stewart, where sources were sparse and legends plenty, this was a very different project, with vast amounts of written material available.

It was also bittersweet as my father, who passed away earlier this year, was educated at Melville College and would have been very interested in the life of its founder, particularly as they spent their early years just a few miles (and more than 100 years!) apart.

Daniel Stewart and Robert Cunningham were very different men, one shrewd and determined, the other visionary and restless. And yet there are similarities too. Both men overcame challenges in their early years: Daniel Stewart was born with few prospects, and Robert Cunningham had to give up his studies to find work when his father was lost at sea. There’s much more that could be said about their contribution to education within the Scottish context, but ultimately both men looked beyond themselves and their own needs to provide education for others.

Stewart’s Melville College is open on 23 September for Doors Open Day – why not take a look?

 

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

The False Men by Mhairead MacLeod

Here’s an interesting new book.

the false men

In North Uist last summer we stayed in a lovely cottage which was a converted outbuilding of Balranald House, the former factor’s house. From one window we could see Balranald House, and from another the ruins of Kilmuir Church. It thrust me back into the world I had first explored while writing Faith in a Crisis: the tightly knit network of factor, minister, agent and landlord which so profoundly affected the lives of the Uist people during the crisis years of famine, eviction and emigration in the mid-19th century.

It’s been interesting over the years too to notice that the posts I’ve written about these people and events – Escape from Balranald House and Vallay: ruined houses and a tidal island, for example – consistently receive among the most hits on this website.

The dramatic story of the elopement of Jessie MacDonald of Balranald plays out against the harsh background of famine and eviction, and involves all the key players in that tight network of relationships. ‘The False Men’ by Mhairead MacLeod, published this week, is a novel based on those events.

It feels a bit like stumbling on a novel written about people I know, so close did I get to Finlay Macrae, James MacDonald and the rest over the time I was working on Faith in a Crisis. It will be interesting to see how someone else has interpreted them!

That’s my weekend reading sorted.

 

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

Reflections on the Edinburgh International Book Festival

Edinburgh in August is bursting at the seams, as it welcomes every imaginable artistic expression. It’s a city alive with energy and activity, flourishing, but also frantic. So how satisfying that in the midst of all this there is a garden given over to words and to ideas. There is always time at the Book Festival – time to browse, time to sit. Time to read and to chat, to listen, to think, to disagree or to be inspired.

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My own @edbookfest experience goes back pretty much to the beginning. I don’t know which year it was – 1983 or 1985 I guess – that I met Joan Lingard and found her so warmly encouraging of my early ambition to be a writer. She won’t remember the conversation, but I do. There was also Mollie Hunter, whose books nurtured my passion for Scottish History. They didn’t call it YA at that time – ‘for older readers’, perhaps – but those were the footsteps in which my son and I walked to see Robert Muchamore and Patrick Ness last weekend. More than three decades of writers engaging with readers and being generous with their time in the heart of our city – what an impact that has.

 

Anticipation begins when I receive the programme. I start with a longlist of endless possibility and eventually narrow my selection down to something which sits more realistically with daily commitments and the bank balance. Inevitably there are writers I would like to hear but miss – Ever Dundas and Malachy Tallack were probably top of that list this year.

So what did I go to? In the past I’ve enjoyed some big sell-out events, like Ian Rankin and Tom Devine. This year I was drawn to events which chimed with all I’ve been thinking about and working on recently. There was a Publishing Scotland event which picked up on some of the themes aired at XpoNorth. There was Polly Clark’s interweaving of two narratives in Larchfield, and Dilys Rose’s Unspeakable which I wrote about here. Dilys Rose was sharing a platform with Francis Spufford, so I included his Golden Hill in my holiday reading – and was blown away by it. It’s an action-packed romp through 18th-century New York which is written with extraordinary skill and ambition, has lots to say about storytelling, and seems to me to succeed where many books just miss in navigating the complex relationship between  21st-century perspectives and historical authenticity.

The pleasure of the Book Festival lies in the unexpected gifts it brings you. Golden Hill was one. Another was the people I met, and the interesting conversations I had. But the greatest gift for me this year was the discovery of a new favourite book, Who Built Scotland. I booked the event because it sounded my sort of thing, and by the end of a fascinating hour was convinced enough to buy the book. I’m now rationing myself to a couple of chapters at a time, the better to savour them. It’s beautifully written – not surprising, with the impressive contributor list of Alistair Moffat, Kathleen Jamie, Alexander McCall Smith, James Crawford, and  the outstanding James Robertson. If you are interested in Scotland, in the landscape and the buildings and the people and the culture, and how all these have interacted throughout history and prehistory, you will want to read this book.

And that’s the magical, indefinable thing that happens sometimes, when the words on the page connect with something at the heart of you. For me that was Who Built Scotland, but with a truly global and diverse programme, it will be something very different for you. Thank you, Edinburgh International Book Festival. Until next year.

 

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

Pitching my novel @XpoNorth

Yesterday I was in Inverness, live pitching my novel Sackcloth on Skin to a panel of publishers in front of an audience. It was an event staged as part of #XpoNorth, Scotland’s leading creative industries festival, which is held over two days in Eden Court Theatre. It’s a vibrant mix of music, film, digital technologies, publishing, seminars and trade stands (including Moniack Mhor). The atmosphere was fantastic, with live music and interviews taking place wherever you turned.

The Writers’ Pitch panel was chaired by agent Jenny Brown, and included representatives from Sandstone Press, Hodder / Sceptre, Canongate and Birlinn. What a line up! Around 120 writers had applied to pitch their work to the panel, and 18 of us had been selected, divided equally between non-fiction, literary fiction and commercial fiction. We sat in the room glancing at one another nervously, working out who else was pitching, and encouraging one another. There were two really interesting discussions between the panel members about trends in non-fiction and fiction publishing. Each writer then had five minutes to pitch their work, and then received feedback based on both the pitch and their original submission. It was a real privilege to listen to some of these fantastic ideas, and there are a few books out there I look forward to reading in the future!

So what about my own first experience of pitching?

It was a huge encouragement to have been selected in the first place alongside some seriously talented writers.  Since the start of the year I have sent off my synopsis and extract of my manuscript to a number of agents with very little response, so I’m so grateful for the opportunity to get some first-hand professional feedback. Of course it was terrifying, but I was determined to enjoy the experience and to try not to second guess the outcome. I was happy with the way the pitch went. The panel members were positive about the stories, characters and themes in my book, which was really encouraging. Some people from the audience later spoke to me too and said how much they’d enjoyed it.

I did receive one piece of feedback consistently from the different panel members which was to do with the complexity of the structure of the novel. It’s definitely a fair point, and something I think I can address. If anything came through to me yesterday it was how quickly the focus moves from writing a book – alone, in a wee bubble – to working out how to sell the book. While keeping its integrity, it’s important to work out if there are aspects which will get in the way firstly of me trying to ‘sell’ the book to an agent or publisher, and then their challenge to sell it to their colleagues, booksellers, and ultimately the public.

Of course it would be easy to be discouraged because I didn’t walk away from XpoNorth with quite the result I might have wanted, but this whole process was never going to be easy! So it’s back to the keyboard, which is the aspect I love so I’m happy enough with that for now. I’ll then have to see whether I believe the new structure is an improvement, and try sending it out once more.

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Walking through Inverness to do my pitch yesterday morning, I came across this paving stone. Indeed.