Category Archives: Writing

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.

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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.

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.

 

9 April 1917: Vimy Ridge and Captain Daniel Gordon Campbell, one hundred years ago today.

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Canadian National War Memorial at Vimy Ridge

Extracts from War Classics: the remarkable memoir of Scottish scholar Christina Keith on the Western Fronted. Flora Johnston

Then we came to open country and the road wound upwards. Stretches of barbed wire, gashes in the ground, trails of camouflage, sandbags in heaps, told us where we were. But they were far less noticeable than they had been from the railway. Our eyes commanded a wide stretch of country, sweeping away to the horizon. For miles all around the air was pure and sweet, and the horror of Thiepval seemed far behind. We saw nobody at all and it was hard to realise that so short ago this had been a battlefield for thousands.  Only a lonely cross here and there – or a group of crosses – suggested it. I had begun to fear our American had forgotten all about us and was prepared to carry us to the end of the world when all at once, in the centre of the champaign and at its crest, he stopped. ‘This is [Vimy] Ridge,’ he said, ‘I’m going on to Lens. Goodbye.’ Hardly waiting for our thanks, he whizzed off and we were alone.

The high ground of Vimy Ridge provided a natural vantage point of great military significance. In April 1917, as part of the wider Battle of Arras, the Canadian Corps succeeded in winning the Ridge from the Germans at the cost of over 10,000 casualties.

The silence was unbroken; the land was desolate. Almost afraid to break the quiet, we moved on to the grass, and with a cry of delight, I stooped down and picked a flower. It was the commonest little yellow thing, that grows in unnoticed thousands at home, but I held it reverently and greedily and the Hut Lady looked at it too. ‘Isn’t it lovely?’ she said lingeringly, stroking it petal by petal. To find a flower after all that we had seen, seemed a miracle.

We moved on and picked up bits of shells, bullets, stray bits of camouflage: all the odds and ends left over from the fighting.

 ‘Come, and I’ll show you a big gun emplacement – boche,’ he said, changing the subject, ‘and then we’ll look at the Canadian memorial.’

My eyes had turned to the horizon again, to the heights that once were St Eloi. Someone I knew lay there, who had been a Canadian, and it was too far for me to go. I could only see the Ridge where he had been killed, and not the place where he lay.

As Christina looks towards St Eloi, we have a rare insight into her personal experience of loss and grief during the war years. The soldier in her thoughts is Captain Daniel Gordon Campbell of the Canadian Infantry, who had been engaged to marry her sister Louise. He had grown up near the Keith family, in Halkirk.  Like them he attended the Miller Institute and Edinburgh University, where he excelled both academically and at sport, representing Scotland at the high jump. A lawyer, he had emigrated to Canada, and was serving with a Canadian regiment when he was killed at Vimy Ridge on 9 April 1917. He is buried in the cemetery at Mont St Eloi. Louise was devastated by his death, and kept detailed scrapbooks which include newspaper cuttings about the Canadian action at Vimy, letters of sympathy from friends, and information about his final resting place.

 I went quietly to the big gun emplacement. It seemed untouched, and even to my inexperienced eyes, of amazing strength. ‘We got held up here I don’t know how long,’ he explained, ‘you see how well it is screened and how it commands all this stretch of ground.’

‘Put down those things you’re carrying,’ he said, glancing at my armful of spent bullets, bits of camouflage, bits of shells and flowers. ‘No-one will touch them here and I’ll snap you at the foot of Canada’s cross.’

The great high cross, with Canada in white letters, stood high on the crest of the ridge. The bright March sunlight danced on the white letters and picked out with silver the grey cross. The keen March wind blew like the winds of home over all the quiet field. The Hut Lady and I sat in the shadow of the memorial and looked towards St Eloi.

I have never seen the snapshots for, though our officer carefully took our names and addresses down on our map, he forgot to send them.

Today Vimy Ridge is the site of the breathtaking Canadian National War Memorial, overlooking the landscape on which so many Canadians lost their lives. More than 11,000 names of those whose grave is unknown are inscribed on the walls of this impressive monument, which was unveiled in 1936. However, even while the war was still continuing, memorials were erected on Vimy Ridge to commemorate the devastating losses suffered by the Canadian troops. Christina and her friend were photographed at the foot of one of these memorials. Louise’s scrapbook contains a photograph sent to her of one such cross, which may be the one visited by Christina.

Edit:

Daniel Gordon Campbell is among the lawyers featured in this exhibition in Toronto. It’s good that he is remembered.

© 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.

 

Sackcloth on Skin: try everything!

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The motto for 2017. Try everything.

This is the year that I will try to find a publisher for Sackcloth on Skin. I’m arriving at this point about a year later than I perhaps expected to, but I think that’s probably a good thing. In some ways not much has happened in the past year – but I’ve been through the book several times and it’s much better for all that editing than it was a year ago. And most importantly, Moniack Mhor happened. I wrote about my week at Scotland’s creative writing centre here. It definitely helped the book, and perhaps more significantly it helped my mindset as a writer. It was the first time I’d shared this book with anyone else, and it was such an encouragement to realise that people seemed to believe it was worth something. It also took away some of my impatience and stress about what should happen next.

But I can’t sit in this waiting room for ever. Three or four years ago I decided it was time to stop dreaming and to actually get on and write this book. Now once more it’s time to stop dreaming and  get on and look for a publisher. I may not succeed, but I need to try. And I am under absolutely no illusions about how difficult that will be, and how resilient I will have to be to cope with rejection. I remember how tough it was trying to get War Classics published, and that wasn’t part of me in the way this book is.

When I was speaking about publication at Moniack Mhor with one of the tutors she said ‘try everything’. Not in some scattergun approach – I have a very clear plan of who I want to approach and why – but if one avenue doesn’t work out try another. Don’t give up. So that is my plan for 2017. Try everything.

I have a plan, but unexpected opportunities may come along. On 6 January there was a twitter event held by XpoNorth offering the chance to tweet a pitch for your book. In the spirit of Try everything I had a go. And guess what, it didn’t change the world, it didn’t lead to a publishing deal –  but it was fun. I’ve only dabbled in twitter before so even the process of composing my tweet was an absorbing challenge, and reading all the other tweets was unexpectedly addictive. This was mine:

@florajo14
1688 woman in sackcloth, pregnant, betrayed. Grief as Renwick hangs. 2013 roadtrip thru Scotland’s spiritual landscape. Love echoes. #xpob

So 2017 is the year I will try to find a publisher, and the voice in my head repeats Try everything. Deep breath … bring it on!

 

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