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.

A Fresh Chapter

The first of April may be April Fools’ Day, but I really hope this isn’t a joke, as this week I move into a new pattern of work.

I’m starting a new part-time job tomorrow as Church Office Manager at Davidson’s Mains Parish Church in Edinburgh. This is my local church where I’m already very involved, and committed to all that we’re about. The church office is beside our fabulous café, The Sycamore Tree, and it’s a busy place with all sorts of community contact. I’ll have lots to learn but I’m really excited about getting started.

But I set up this website a few years ago to share news about my writing, and this new pattern could be quite a significant one in those terms too. I’ve been thinking a lot about purpose and calling over the last few months as I’ve been making these decisions, and it seems that for me that’s always a multi-faceted thing. Family … work … faith … writing … they’ve always all been part of the mix. All that’s happening just now is a shift in balance.

 I’ve worked from home ever since the children were born on a range of projects, and for the past few years almost exclusively on exhibition work for CMC Associates. That work pattern was ideal for our circumstances, but things have changed. One of the challenges of my unpredictable work pattern was making time for my own writing. Whenever I had a project on it was pretty much impossible to make space for writing, and whenever I had a gap between projects I felt guilty about writing and not earning money. Now for the first time I will have a fixed day each week given over to my own writing, and I can give myself that permission to write. I cannot tell you how exciting that is!

So I have a list beginning to take shape … flash fiction competitions (new to me), submissions strategy, and probably most importantly a review and potential major redraft of my novel. I’m going back to Moniack Mhor later in the year and I’m pinning my hopes on that as a chance to get some clarity about where I go next with it. Between now and then there’s a good deal of preparation to be done.

Today is my first ‘writing Monday’ and I think I just got started!

© 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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Scholar Spotlight: Christina Keith

A post about Christina Keith on History, Classics and Archaeology blog of Newcastle University

POLARIS

Having just celebrated this year’s International Women’s Day, I have been inspired to find out more about the women who are part of the history of Classics at Newcastle University. My research has led me to discover the remarkable Christina Keith, a pioneering female scholar in the field of Classics and beyond.

Christina Keith joined Armstrong College (the first incarnation of Newcastle University) as a lecturer in Classics in October 1914, making her one of the earliest female scholars in the department’s history. This was the first lectureship of Christina’s academic career, following on from several years of study in higher education. Although not the case nowadays, pursuing higher education was a rare and unusual choice for a woman in the early 20th century, and Classics in particular was a traditionally male subject. A brief survey of Christina’s time at university makes clear both her natural aptitude for academia and…

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Ocean Liners: Speed and Style

Round the world with Christina Keith

In November 1925 the SS Empress of Scotland set sail from Southampton across the Atlantic, at the start of a voyage round the world. Among her passengers was 36-year-old Christina Keith, a Classics lecturer from St Hilda’s College Oxford who was on a year’s sabbatical. Independent-minded and always unconventional, Christina was embarking on the voyage alone, writing, ‘I want to meet different people for one year.’

Christina was my great-aunt, and I published her wartime memoir as War Classics. She was born in Thurso in 1889 and studied the male-dominated subjects of Latin, Greek and Classical Archaeology at Edinburgh and Cambridge Universities. Her pioneering early career was interrupted by the First World War, and War Classics recounts her experiences lecturing to the troops in France and exploring the devastated battlefields soon after the guns had fallen silent.

Now, after six years of lecturing in Oxford, she was seeking wider horizons once more. I have the letters she wrote to her mother during her cruise, and they are full of vivid descriptions of life on board a 1920s ocean liner, and the changing world she met at each different port.

That’s why I was so keen to see the Ocean Liners: Speed and Style exhibition at the new V&A in Dundee, and it didn’t disappoint. The exhibition explores the cutting edge design and cultural impact of these legendary ships, and helped me place the story of Christina’s voyage and of her ship – built in Germany as the Kaiserin Auguste Victoria in 1905 – within that wider context.

It was a stunning, if bitterly cold, day for my first visit to the V&A Dundee, with the impressive building looming out of the freezing fog, and the RSS Discovery appropriately enough reflected in (very thin) ice.

I think Christina and I may well have some unfinished business …

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

On that night of all nights every man, drunk or sober, was to find a welcome: Christina Keith, 11 November 1918

 

War Classics cover

War Classics cover

One hundred years ago my great-aunt Christina was behind the lines in Dieppe as a tutor with the army’s education scheme. She describes the day when peace was declared after the four long years which had devastated her generation:

Late in the afternoon I went into the huts to see the men and how they took it. The Base Commandant had sent round word to close the canteens if we wished, as the men might be drunk. But we did not wish. On that night of all nights every man, drunk or sober, was to find a welcome there.

When I went in, they were still sober and the hut was packed to the door. Most of them were singing and some few laughing and talking. Would you like to know what they sang? No ‘Rule Britannia’ or ‘God Save The King’ – English soldiers rarely sing either unless they are bidden. No – it was a chorus we were to hear every day for the next six months, with varying emphasis – ‘When do we go home?’, each word punctuated by thumps of mugs on tables, and the last word raised the roof.

At night they were many of them drunk, and the sober ones, with thoughts of the punctilious WAACs with whom they were dancing, were for turning the drunks out. ‘No, no,’ said the Hut leader firmly, ‘let the drunks dance by themselves in this corner.’ So, sometimes three together, sometimes the orthodox two, sometimes one, the drunks danced merrily in their corner; whenever one, well meaning but nothing more, lurched out to grab a WAAC, he was hastily but tenderly shepherded back by a stronger comrade.

 Outside bells blared; flags flew; bands played; at every window in the Grande Rue faces looked out, laughing, crying. In the distance the Marseillaise came rolling down and its echo ‘It’s – a – long – way – to – go.’

I stole into the Cathedral. Over the altar hung our flags, quiet and still. There was no need to wave them now. Utter quietness here and one spot of light only. In the chapel at my side lay the empty tomb and the marble watchers beside it. The figure of the risen Christ was outlined and ringed with light. Never have I seen so many candles ablaze together. Beneath Him in the darkness knelt clusters of black-robed women. Peace had come.

From War Classics: the remarkable memoir of Scottish scholar Christina Keith on the Western Front, edited by Flora Johnston

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

 

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.

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