Category Archives: History

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.

 

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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.

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.

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.

Exploring old Edinburgh

I like history – but I’m every bit as intrigued by the way the past connects with the present as I am by historical events themselves. That’s probably why Sackcloth on Skin isn’t the straightforward historical novel which might have more chance of finding a publisher! But they say write about what interests you, and this absolutely fascinates me. How does the past influence and intersect with the present – in ideas, in stories, in objects, in buildings? Does it matter? What if we’re completely oblivious to the history of a place or an idea – does our lack of awareness make the past irrelevant, or does it still have significance? How many layers are there anyway?

Tempting to apply that politically, but that’s not the point of this post.

One of the great things about walking about Edinburgh is that those layers of the past are everywhere around you. A new project by St Andrews University is stripping back the layers and has created a reconstruction of Edinburgh in 1544. If you like this kind of thing it’s fantastic. You can walk up the Royal Mile and through closes which are still there today, or down the steep slope of the now-disappeared West Bow to the Grassmarket.  This trailer is just a taster for the app to be released in May.

Fast forward 150 years, and Dilys Rose’s newly published novel Unspeakable conjurs up just as vivid an experience of Edinburgh’s closes, taverns and lands, this time not eerily empty but full of clamour and stink, humour, struggle and tragedy. It’s the story of Thomas Aikenhead, the last person in Britain to be executed for blasphemy. I read it with some trepidation, because when you’ve just finished your first novel you really don’t want to discover that such a superb writer is about to publish something of similar period and theme! But I really enjoyed the book, and with a deep breath can say that Sackcloth on Skin occupies its own territory. Whether that territory ever finds its way into the wider world remains to be seen…

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