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.

 

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#100womenwiki : Christina Keith

 

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#100womenwiki is a 12 hour ‘edit-a-thon’ taking place today (8 December) with the aim of adding more women to wikipedia. At present only around 17% of notable profiles on wikipedia are of women, and  today is about  encouraging people across the globe to consider whether there are women who should be included and are currently missing. I read about the initiative on the BBC website  and decided to try submitting an article on Christina Keith, whose First World War memoir I edited and published as War Classics: the remarkable memoir of Scottish scholar Christina Keith on the Western Front. It was less complicated than I expected, and you can now read Christina’s wikipedia page here!

 

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.

Moniack Mhor: a spacious place

 

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Moniack Mhor is Scotland’s Creative Writing Centre, nestling in the hills near Beauly. Throughout the year it offers a wide range of courses and retreats. Last week’s Historical Fiction course was led by Margaret Elphinstone and Isla Dewar, with James Robertson as guest reader. It was both a privilege and a pleasure to be there, thanks in part to the generous support of the Bridge Awards.

The centre is ideal for its purpose, full of character with stone walls and a wood burning stove and a spectacular setting. The weather was typically Highland, ranging from stunning blue skies to a mist which clung to the landscape for a whole day, and then a storm which shook the windows as we shared our work on the final evening. My room was simple, with a plain wooden desk set at the window overlooking the hills. Whenever possible I worked with the window wide open –  a spacious place indeed.

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The course offered practical workshops in the morning which were both fun and demanding, and one-to-one tutorials with the tutors in the afternoons. There was plenty of opportunity to think, to walk and of course to write. It was great to spend time and share ideas with such a supportive, fun and interesting group of people.

I’ve come home rested yet challenged, inspired and encouraged, with increased confidence in what I am doing and a determination to build more protected writing time into my week. I also came home with a ‘to do’ list relating to my novel Sackcloth on Skin, but the way the mind works is a strange thing. Two days after returning, with conversations and words and ideas still replaying in my head, I suddenly saw a fresh way of resolving something which has bothered me about the book. If only I could have had that thought while I was at Moniack, with the chance to talk it over with others … but on the other hand it’s good that the creative process wasn’t left behind with the peace and the scenery! So there may now be a bit more rewriting to be done than I’d anticipated, but hopefully in the long run that will be a good outcome of having spent my week at Moniack Mhor.

More soon ….

 

© 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.

Reflections of Newcastle 1914-18

I was interested to come across the Reflections of Newcastle project, which seeks ‘to explore the intellectual, cultural and social life of Newcastle during the First World War, concentrating in and around the Lit & Phil.’ It has a lot of resonance with my researches into Christina Keith’s life immediately before she set off for France.

I visited the Lit & Phil building in Newcastle as part of my research for War Classics: the remarkable memoir of Scottish scholar Christina Keith on the Western Front. Christina’s first job was as Classics lecturer at Armstrong College, Newcastle, but as soon as she took up the post in 1914, war was declared. The College was requisitioned for use as a military hospital and the department decamped to the Lit & Phil building. Christina lived and worked in Newcastle all through the war years until 1918, when she set off for France to take part in the army’s education scheme under the direction of Sir Henry Hadow, who had been Principal of Armstrong College.

There’s more information about Reflections of Newcastle 1914-18 here.

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The entrance stairway of the Lit & Phil, Newcastle

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

William Keith and the Battle of Jutland

Christina Keith, whose extraordinary wartime story you can read in War Classics, was the eldest of eight children. The Keith family, like so many others, saw one child after another drawn into a different aspect of the First World War. One of her brothers, William Bruce Keith, joined the Navy and was involved in the Battle of Jutland, the centenary of which is being remembered today.

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William as a boy, appropriately dressed in a sailor suit.

William is known as ‘Uncle Bill’ in our family, but when he was a young boy his brothers and sisters called him ‘Willie’. He was born on 15 April 1898, so was just 16 at the outbreak of war. According to my father:

William wanted to go into the Navy and he discovered that he had just missed the date by which he had to apply and he would have to do something else, and then the war broke out so he was able to get in after all.

The Navy at Scapa Flow was a very real presence in the lives of the Keith family living in Thurso, and in her memoir Christina often refers to the familiar sight of battleships in the Pentland Firth. In 1916 William, now aged 18, was a midshipman on HMS Warspite.  He describes the whole engagement in vivid detail in a letter to his brother Barrogill, who was serving with the army in France.

Our steering gear now got jammed and we started turning in circles – just before the ‘Defence’, which was quite close to us, caught fire and vanished. We were now helpless and the Germans seeing us turning in circles singled us out and concentrated on us. We had about 6 or 7 firing at us, and we couldn’t reply as we were turning so quickly that the guns wouldn’t train fast enough. Shells were bursting all around us, and I thought it was all up. One shell dropped so close that the spray from it drenched us in the foretop. We were hit several times and one small splinter came into the foretop.

Eventually the focus of the battle moved on, and they managed to sort the steering and were ordered to return to Rosyth. In an understatement so typical of the writings of the time, William says they were ‘rather hungry and tired’. Fourteen men had been killed and sixteen wounded. Inside the ship they found a scene of devastation, with chairs, tables, lamps and pictures broken into pieces. All lifeboats and rafts had been smashed, and they were in immediate danger of being torpedoed, so the men made makeshift rafts from the broken furniture. They eventually made it back to Rosyth in safety, and William writes, ‘when we got inside the Forth Bridge we did feel thankful.’

He was able to take some leave at home in Thurso, just across the water from the naval base at Scapa Flow on Orkney. Today, one hundred years on, a service was held in beautiful St Magnus Cathedral to commemorate the 8500 men, both British and German, who lost their lives in the Battle of Jutland.

 

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