Monthly Archives: August 2014

Faith in a Crisis: Finlay and Norman

If you’ve read Faith in a Crisis, my book about the famine and evictions in 19th-century Uist, this article on the Carmichael Watson Project blog might be of interest. It has some interesting perspectives on both Finlay Macrae and Norman Macleod.


Finlay’s house on Vallay.

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

The James Plays

I spent most of Saturday in a world of love, violence, feuding, greed and ambition. Fifteenth-century Scotland.

The new trilogy of history plays, The James Plays, is being performed for the first time at this year’s Edinburgh International Festival, and will travel to London when the Festival is over. On Saturday there was an opportunity to watch all three plays in one day – James I: The Key Will Keep The Lock, James II: Day Of The Innocents and James III: The True Mirror.

The early Stewarts were easily my favourite aspect of studying Scottish History at St Andrews, so it was partly a trip down memory lane. The programme for the plays contained mini essays about each king’s reign written by St Andrews academics – and what a joy to read the story of James III as told by Norman MacDougall, whose Special Subject on James III was so much fun!

So what about the plays? As a trilogy they were superb. I loved the fact that each play had a very different feel, both in the writing and the production. James I offered a hugely entertaining portrayal of 15th-century Scotland, with a host of strong characters and great performances. James I is variously remembered as a tyrant or a strong ruler, and Rona Munro’s interpretation of how his style of kingship may have come about was both interesting and convincing.

James II had a darker feel which was powerfully communicated. While not every aspect of the interpretation was how I would have imagined events taking place, the portrayal of the manipulated child king who was haunted by the events he had witnessed was very effective.

James II is the only one of the three kings whose story I have seen dramatized before, in The Ballad of James II, performed at Rosslyn Chapel in 2007.

I enjoyed James III as a climax to the first two, but it was the part of the trilogy which I personally found least satisfying. It was a vivid imagining of the possible story of Margaret of Denmark, and Sophie Grabøl’s performance was impressive. But the development of Margaret’s character left us with a fairly one-dimensional picture of her husband.  Only once, I felt, did he almost spark into life, when he seemed to taunt his people with having too narrow a view to grasp what he could have offered them. Personally I would have enjoyed seeing this, or other, aspects of his personality and reign explored. Instead this play was the one which probably travelled furthest from history to imagination – the result was an enjoyable performance, but for me it had less impact than the previous two.

Still, watching all three plays one after the other was a thrilling experience. James I, James II and James III, remembered in Scotland at last! See them if you can.

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

Vallay: ruined houses and a tidal island (part 2)


The overgrown ruins of the tacksman’s house and Finlay’s home are modest when compared with the gloomy Edwardian mansion which lies close by. Erskine Beveridge built his imposing summer home where he could enjoy spectacular views across the strand to the island of North Uist, and north towards the hills of Harris. But it was much more that simply the scenery which attracted this Fife-based businessman to Vallay.


Erskine Beveridge inherited and expanded his father’s damask linen business in Dunfermline, and made his fortune in the process. He was a keen amateur archaeologist and was very interested in the new art and science of photography. Erskine travelled widely, in Scotland, Europe, America and Canada, but in North Uist he found the ideal location to pursue these two interests of archaeology and photography. He first visited the island in 1897, and bought the island of Vallay in 1901. He then set about building a suitable house for his family – no easy task on a tidal island!


In 1911 Erskine Beveridge published North Uist: Its Archaeology and Topography, the result of his investigations on the island. Today this can be obtained in a reprint. More evidence of his time in North Uist can be found in a book recently published by RCAHMS, Wanderings with a Camera in Scotland. This wonderful book is an invaluable record of the landscape, people and architecture of Scotland in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. The North Uist photos in the collection include pictures of Beveridge’s own excavations in progresss, as well as a mixture of crofting townships and archaeological sites.


Erskine Beveridge died in 1920, and left the house to his son. But his son was tragically drowned crossing the strand in 1944, and Vallay House was soon abandoned. As each winter passes, its exposed position on the edge of the Atlantic must be taking its toll. Much of the roof and many of the floors have collapsed, and the building would be dangerous to enter. Still, there’s enough to be seen through the windows – rich red wall colouring, tiled fireplaces, even a tap – to conjur up an image of Erskine Beveridge, perhaps sitting by that fireside reading over his notes of the day, living his own island dream.

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There’s much more to see on Vallay – ruined farm buildings, beautiful beaches, archaeological sites. There wasn’t nearly enough time to see it all before the tide would be rolling in again. Which just means I’ll have to go back ….


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