Category Archives: History

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.

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.

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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.

 

Glen o’ Dee Hospital

How sad this morning to learn that Glen o’ Dee Hospital, which I wrote about last year, was completely destroyed by fire overnight. Here’s the relevant part of my original post from July 2015. I’m glad we saw it in all its neglected, fascinating glory.

Glen o’ Dee Hospital

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A complete contrast, this one, but another unexpected discovery. I had come across the name of this former tuberculosis sanatorium during the course of some research, and when we saw the signpost we decided to take a quick look. I’m not sure what we expected to find, but my photos definitely don’t do this unusual building justice.

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You can see an image of how it looked originally here, and some photos of the abandoned interior here. Resting among the pine trees on the edge of Banchory, the sanatorium was built in 1899-1900, and modelled on the pioneering sanatorium built in Nordrach in Germany. It was originally known as Nordrach-on-Dee, and was intended to provide fresh air, treatment and research in the battle against the scourge of tuberculosis. As treatments changed and the disease became less common, the sanatorium was no longer needed. Since then the building has had a spell as a luxury hotel, and then was used once more as a sanatorium during the Second World War, before becoming a convalescent hospital. It finally closed in 1998. This stunning building is Grade A listed so can’t be demolished, but instead is crumbling slowly into total decay. Apparently it featured unsuccessfully in the 2003 TV series Restoration, but it’s a tragic loss of an unusual and fascinating building.

 

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

Escape from Balranald House

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Balranald House

We’ve just returned from another wonderful holiday in North Uist, in the Outer Hebrides. This time the cottage we were staying in was a beautiful conversion of outbuildings once belonging to Balranald House. From one of the windows we could see Balranald House, built in 1832, which was the home of James Macdonald (also known as Seumas Ruadh), factor to Lord Macdonald.

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I ‘got to know’ the Macdonalds of Balranald in my research for Faith in a Crisis: famine, eviction and the church in North and South Uist (Islands Book Trust, 2012). James Macdonald was part of a close network of power and influence which profoundly affected the lives of those trying to survive on the land in Uist. His brother John lived in Rodel House on Harris and was factor to the Earl of Dunmore; his sister Isabella was married to Finlay Macrae, minister of the Established Church in North Uist who lived on Vallay (see earlier post).  I could see the ruins of Finlay’s church at Kilmuir through another window of the cottage.

In 1850, the Macdonalds of Balranald were at the heart of a romantic drama which was reported in newspapers throughout Scotland. Twenty-one year old Jessie was in love with Donald Macdonald of Monkstadt, Skye, but her father Seumas Ruadh wanted her to marry Patrick Cooper. He was an Aberdeenshire man who was trustee for the heavily indebted Macdonald estates and the main instigator of the recent Sollas evictions. A marriage to Seumas’s daughter would have further strengthened important ties.

In February 1850 Cooper proposed to Jessie. In desperation she wrote to her lover, and the two decided to elope. With the help of Donald’s servant they fled from Balranald House by night, Jessie by all accounts in high spirits all the way to Lochmaddy. But it was a stormy night, and while making for Skye they were swept off course to Harris. By this time the alarm had been raised, and they were discovered by Jessie’s uncle, John of Rodel. Jessie was taken to Rodel House where she was held captive, her aunt sleeping in the bedroom with her to prevent another escape.

Donald meantime returned to Skye, where he gathered some friends and sailed to Harris to rescue Jessie by night. Newspaper accounts state that ‘Mr Macdonald (Rodil) came out of his house in his shirt and drawers, swearing at them as if he was mad.’ Somehow, in the ensuing confusion, Jessie and Donald managed to make their escape. They fled to Edinburgh where they were later married, but Seumas Ruadh and John of Rodel, together with Patrick Cooper, were not likely to accept such defiance. Donald Macdonald was charged with breaking into Rodel House and with assault, but he was cleared – to cheers from the public gallery. The young lovers had excited public sympathy.

Jessie and Donald were married on 22 April in St Cuthbert’s parish, Edinburgh. Church of Scotland marriages required banns to be proclaimed on three separate occasions in the home parish of both bride and groom. In what may have been an attempt by Finlay to lend some belated respectability to the affair, an intriguing entry in the Kilmuir marriage register reads:

Donald MacDonald Tacksman of Baleloch to Jessie Cathrine MacDonald daughter of James Thomas MacDonald Esquire Tacksman of Balranald 31st March 1850.’

It’s interesting to notice that the very next entry in the Kilmuir register records the marriage of another Balranald daughter, Elizabeth, to a Skye minister, also in April 1850. This entry states that the banns were ‘proclaimed in the Parish Church in North Uist in the regular and normal manner’ – a statement that is not made with regard to Jessie’s marriage. No doubt Elizabeth’s wedding was a much happier occasion for the family!

Jessie and Donald eventually emigrated to Australia, but their dramatic story illustrates just how closely factor, minister and land agent were bound together at this critical time in Uist’s history, a theme which I explore in more detail in the rest of the book.

[adapted from Flora Johnston, Faith in a Crisis: famine, eviction and the church in North and South Uist, Islands Book Trust 2012]

 

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