Moniack Mhor: a spacious place

 

img_8837

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.

img_8846

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

IMG_8135

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.

IMG_7903

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.

IMG_7127

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.

001

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.

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.

 

Perspectives on peace 1918: the Keith family

[Reposting this from 11 November 2014. Caithness Archive Centre are currently serialising Barrogill’s letters home from the Front on their website: ]

Two sisters and a brother. Three contrasting experiences of peace.

IMG_7354Barrogill was with the army in France:

They picked the divisions for the slaughterhouse and sent them forward with no purpose and no idea save that they be decimated. If that be generalship a bairn could do better! The war dragged on and our pals died. By the end of 1918 after we had assembled the might of the world against Germany, weight and casualties told; the Hun sought an armistice: and the war came to an end.

It was through our lines, just where I happened to be, that in October 1918 the big black car with its huge white flags passed carrying the Hun delegation seeking armistice talks. And Foch was just behind us in his train. I was told by a friend who was present that when Foch read out the terms he was proposing to hand the Germans, Haig intervened saying ‘Good God, the Hun will never accept these terms.’ To which Foch replied ‘I am afraid they will.’ As indeed they did. And so the war ended.
[from family archive material]

Christina was behind the lines in Dieppe:

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, The History Press, 2014]

Mildred was working in London:

There were huge crowds already [at Buckingham Palace] but we were very lucky in getting up on the wall surrounding the statue of Queen Victoria. We were held up on the wall by soldiers and got a splendid view of the Quadrangle. We had only been there a quarter of an hour or so before the place was absolutely black with people so we were fortunate. General French and Townsend passed just beneath us on their way to the Palace – the police making way for them. It was grand. Then a band arrived and after half-an-hour during which everybody was cheering and waving flags and shouting ‘We want King George!’ he appeared! An Australian officer had managed somehow to get on top of the statue and he had most of the ragging. The King, Queen and Princess Mary appeared on the balcony and for fully ten minutes there was an uproar. It was grand and very, very thrilling. I shall never forget it. Then the band played first ‘Tipperary’ and everyone joined in- then ‘Land of Hope and Glory’ and ‘Keep the Home Fires Burning’. One after another of these topical songs, the crowds taking them up, and ending finally with all the allies national anthems. After that the King spoke but naturally I couldn’t hear a word – at least make out a word. I had a splendid view the whole time.
[from family archive material]

Remembering also Louise Keith’s fiancé Daniel Gordon Campbell, Sandy Morrison and Willie West, who didn’t come home.

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

.

 

War Classics: Barrogill Keith’s letters

I’m interested to see that Caithness Archive Centre are publishing a series of posts on Barrogill Keith’s First World War letters on their website.

https://www.highlifehighland.com/caithness-archive-centre/letters-home-1-2-october-1915/

12the-Scottish-Rifles-Photo-Only-1024x649

It’s great to have these fascinating letters shared so widely. I transcribed and published the full series of Barrogill’s letters in War Classics, my book about Barrogill’s sister Christina, which includes her moving account of her own time in France towards the close of the war.The book also includes more biographical information about the Keith family.

If you would like a copy of War Classics, you can buy it from Amazon or contact me direct.

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