Category Archives: Scotland

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.

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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.

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Francis Burton Harrison and Frances Hodgson Burnett – uncovering a century old mistake!

At least I think so … but if anyone can find evidence to the contrary I’d love to hear about it.

Testing the water with a new project (I need to lay the novel aside while I see what happens with it), I found myself this afternoon looking into the Harrison family, who owned Teaninich Castle in Easter Ross from 1921. Francis Burton Harrison, an American, was Governor General of the Philippines, and his colourful life story includes wealth, politics, controversy, a Scottish castle, as many wives as Henry VIII, and several tragedies.

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Teaninich Castle

Research these days does generally start with Google and wikipedia – but today is a perfect example of why it can’t stop there! Google Teaninich and Harrison together, and you read time and again that the flamboyant American Charles Harrison who lived there was the inspiration for Frances Hodgson Burnett’s Little Lord Fauntleroy. There’s even a Frances Hodgson Burnett room in the castle. Intriguing! Was this Charles Harrison a brother, a father, or a mistaken first name, perhaps?

Digging a little deeper I found what seemed to be confirmation. American newspaper articles from as early as 1910 and 1913 identified politician Francis Burton Harrison (so definitely the right man) as the inspiration for Little Lord Fauntleroy, which was written by his mother, Frances Hodgson Burnett. One headline reads ‘Lord Fauntleroy is barred from the White House’!

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Francis Burton Harrison in 1913

Really? Well, I loved The Secret Garden and the Little Princess as a child so I was pleased to find their author was connected to the family I was researching. The only problem is, I cannot find a single piece of evidence for the claim. Frances Hodgson Burnett’s family details do not include Francis Burton Harrison. She is said to have modelled the character on her son Vivian. Mr Harrison’s family details are also widely available, and do not include the author of Little Lord Fauntleroy.It seems there is no connection whatsoever between Frances Hodgson Burnett and Teaninich Castle. So what is going on?

Francis Harrison’s mother was in fact a writer of the same era, known as both Constance Cary Harrison and Mrs Burton Harrison. Incidentally, she sounds like a very interesting woman in her own right. One article about ‘lady dramatists’ mentions both women within a few paragraphs. Perhaps they knew each other. Perhaps the similarity of names led to confusion. Did our Francis Burton Harrison try to deny that he was Little Lord Fauntleroy, or did he in fact perpetuate the mistake? All the people involved were still living in the 1910s, when these claims were made. What did they think?

The Harrisons are a tiny, tangential link in the new project, so I need to resist the temptation to explore this one much further … at least for now.

But ‘fake news’ can last a long, long time …

 

© 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.

Emerging Writer Award – Sackcloth on Skin

I’ve had another project going on in the background for the last two or three years: my novel, Sackcloth on Skin. It’s set partly in seventeenth-century Scotland, with a smattering of St Andrews in the 1990s and a 2013 road trip thrown in, and explores Scotland’s spiritual landscape and heritage.

In January I came across the Emerging Writer Award, a joint venture between Moniack Mhor Creative Writing Centre and the Bridge Awards, and decided there was no harm in applying. I sent them the opening few pages of the book together with an outline of the whole novel, and was overjoyed to be awarded ‘highly commended’.

http://www.moniackmhor.org.uk/writers/the-bridge-awards/

There’s a long way to go, but it’s great to have a vote of confidence in what I’m doing with this book.

Very kindly they have awarded me a subsidy towards attending one of their courses, so I’ve booked on a course led by some of the writers I most admire and am somewhat nervously anticipating that experience! I’ve always been very much a solitary writer, particularly when it comes to my fiction, so opening up about this is extremely daunting – but it has to happen.

Looking forward to being able to share more as the months progress.

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

 

The Battle of Loos: a personal story

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Today is the hundredth anniversary of the start of the Battle of Loos, a battle which left deep scars on Scotland. There are commemorations taking place in various locations across the country this weekend, including Dundee and Inverness, home to some of the regiments which were so brutally affected.

Around 30,000 Scots were involved in the battle, and the losses were absolutely devastating. Loos was an attempt by the Allied forces to gain ground and create movement in attack, but as the troops launched their attack on 25 September it became clear that much of the German barbed wire was still in place, and the enemy machine guns and artillery were ready and waiting. A failure to provide reinforcements and relief to the first wave of attack contributed to the horror that unfolded. Loos was also the first time that the British army used poison gas.

My great-uncle, Alexander Morrison (Sandy), was killed at Loos on 25 September, one hundred years ago today.

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Sandy Morrison as school captain

Sandy was the third of seven brothers, born to Hebridean parents living near Oban. The family moved to Edinburgh for the sake of the education of the boys, sending them to George Watson’s College. By all accounts, Sandy was outstanding. This could simply be family legend, the natural result of grief over his death, but it seems to be borne out elsewhere.

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The Morrison family: Sandy is standing on the far right.

I spent the last three years of my schooling at the same school as the Morrison brothers. I remember towards the end of either fifth or sixth year, during that wonderful lazy time we used to have after exams (which today’s students don’t have with the much more efficient but much less enjoyable system of moving on before the summer holidays) I managed to escape some classes and spent the time instead in the library, going through old editions of the school magazine searching for references to the Morrison brothers. (Yes, I’ve been obsessed by all this stuff since back then!) There are some hugely entertaining references to these loud voiced Gaelic speakers keeping everyone else awake on camp, or to one of the brothers playing the bagpipes through Morningside at midnight, and many references to their full involvement in school life. Through it all it’s clear that Sandy was exceptional, and you can find out more about his school career here.

After school Sandy studied agriculture at Edinburgh University, then emigrated to become a farmer in Edmonton, Canada. The records suggest he was already making his way home to Scotland – probably for a visit – when war was declared. He joined up with the Cameron Highlanders, becoming a Captain.

In 2008 I was working on an oral history project, and took the opportunity to record some of my father’s wealth of family stories. This is his account of Sandy’s death at Loos, one hundred years ago today:

On the 24th of September 1914 Shakes [Sandy’s brother, William Shepherd Morrison] was stationed at Loos and he was forward in the trenches because he was spotting the fall of the shells and he met his brother Sandy. Now Sandy according to the family was the brightest of them all and the leading one of the family, and he had become a farmer in Canada but immediately that the First World War broke out he came back to Britain. He joined the Cameron Highlanders and at this stage he was a Captain in the 5th Camerons. The Colonel was Lochiel, Cameron of Lochiel, the chief of the Camerons. And there was to be a big attack on the Germans on the following day, the 25th, and the order was that the officers were not to be armed with their revolvers as was usual, but they were to carry rifles. But Sandy carried neither. He went into battle with an axe. His company was a Gaelic speaking company – this is the 20th century, but this is what happened! The night before then he met Shakes and he told Shakes that he didn’t think he would survive the following day and he didn’t – he was killed in the attack. And they found his body lying beside three dead Germans all with axe wounds on them.

One hundred years on it’s hard to be sure of the truth of this family anecdote. Despite the story, Sandy’s body was never found and buried – like 20,000 others who fell at Loos he has no known grave but is commemorated on the Loos Memorial. But of course, in the carnage and confusion of a battle which lasted for days, someone might well have seen his body and testified to the manner of his death without a burial taking place or being recorded.

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There is in fact an echo of the story of the axe in an unexpected place. In War Classics, my book about Christina Keith’s time in France at the close of the First World War, I published some letters written by her brother Barrogill to their mother from the Western Front. Just a few weeks after Loos, Barrogill was repeating a story he’d heard about the actions of someone they knew during the battle:

I heard that AS Pringle – who was north with Keith Fraser – has been badly hit. He was magnificently game. With a battleaxe and a revolver old Toosie got over the trenches. He was hit 4 or 5 times and still fighting when last seen.

So maybe Sandy did go into battle armed with only an axe, and maybe he wasn’t the only one. If so, it’s perhaps little surprise that he didn’t survive the horrors of Loos. His death was a huge loss to the family – decades later my grandfather, a doctor, still kept a photograph of his older brother in his consulting room. In Sandy Morrison we see the loss of someone with enormous potential – a tragedy which is repeated in the lives of every single one of those young men who fell.

In memoriam.

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

Deeside discoveries – Migvie, Glen o’ Dee and Dunnottar

We spent most of last week exploring Deeside in the sunshine. There were various historical sites we planned to see, but it’s often the hidden places you come across unexpectedly which catch the imagination. Here are just a few…

Migvie Church

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We tracked down Migvie Churchyard in search of this Pictish symbol stone, which was well worth seeing. There was an interesting 17th-century graveslab nearby too. There was, we noted, no sign outside the church, but it’s always worth trying the door of a country church. What we found inside was utterly astonishing.

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The building was painted white, lit through beautiful coloured stained glass windows, and furnished and decorated with painting, stonework and woodwork which incorporated many Celtic and Pictish saints and symbols as well as verses from Scripture and other writers.

It turned out to be the work of local craftspeople, commissioned by Philip Astor (of the Astor family, and married to the writer Justine Picardie), who owns Tillypronie estate, as a memorial to his parents. I’m not sure how it is used, but it was a place of real beauty and peace, thought-provoking, and somewhere I could easily have spent far longer than we were able to.

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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.

The Whigs’ Vault, Dunnottar Castle

This one was top of the list of places I wanted to visit. My ongoing, long term writing project touches tangentially on some of the Covenanters who spent six weeks imprisoned in horrendous conditions in a vault in this inaccessible castle. Dunnottar sits in a spectacular location on the cliffs, almost completely surrounded on three sides by the North Sea, and can only be accessed by a narrow path and steep steps.

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We had a prior engagement with some puffins at Fowlsheugh a little further south. We basked in sunshine as we walked along the cliff edge spotting razorbills, guillemots, kittiwakes and the elusive, wonderful puffins, then drove back up to Dunnottar. It was a perfect summer’s day.

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But this was the view when we reached Dunnottar, just five or ten minutes up the coast.

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A bit unfortunate for the poor people who were trying to celebrate a wedding on the cliffs overlooking the castle.

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The east coast haar remained stubbornly persistent throughout the rest of the afternoon, so we didn’t get the full effect of being surrounded by the sea – but in some ways the swirling mist added to the atmosphere. And nothing could remove the resonance of standing in the vault where over 150 Covenanters who had survived the walk from Edinburgh were imprisoned, with no sanitation and little food and water.

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In Lewis Grassic Gibbon’s Sunset Song, Chris and Ewan spend a day at Dunnottar:

There the Covenanting folk had screamed and died while the gentry dined and danced in their lithe, warm halls, Chris stared at the places, sick and angry and sad for those folk she could never help now, that hatred of rulers and gentry a flame in her heart, John Guthrie’s hate. Her folk and his they had been, those whose names stand graved in tragedy.

Much to think about, much to work on.

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