Finding Jonet: real objects, real people and historical fiction

The National Museum of Scotland opened in Edinburgh in 1998, a new home for Scotland’s treasures. Straight out of university, I was fortunate enough to be part of the team creating the displays. What a privilege, to get up close and personal with the real objects which were handled by generations past, and what a gift to the storyteller too.

Some objects, like Mary Queen of Scots’ jewellery or Bonnie Prince Charlie’s picnic set, were famous and had always been on display, but there were also objects among the collections about which we knew very little. One of these was a gown made of sackcloth which had been donated to the museum in 1806 by the minister of West Calder parish. The description given at the time was: ‘a sackcloth gown, anciently made use of in the Parish Church of West Calder, as part of ecclesiastical discipline.’ (Archaeologica Scotica III p90)

That was it: no more information.

How would this ugly object fit in The Church gallery, alongside gleaming communion silver, pews and hymn boards? We needed to know more. And so it was that one day I went along to the National Records of Scotland, and I met Jonet Gothskirk.

Her story was buried in the records of West Calder kirk session. I’ve been back recently to check the records, and because they have been digitised it’s all done on screen, but at that time I turned page after page handwritten by the seventeenth-century session clerk. I followed Jonet’s story, not knowing how long it would last, not knowing what had happened to the man with whom she was said to have committed adultery, and not knowing, at first, that she was pregnant.

Jonet’s story and surrounding research helped us to display the gown in a meaningful way, and I wrote up our findings in an academic article for Costume journal in 1999. I moved on from the museum in 2000, but Jonet and her story stayed with me. Now, more than two decades later, she has become one of two protagonists in my novel What You Call Free, which will be published by Ringwood Publishing on 17 March.

Jonet’s story left me with so many questions, and also with a strange and slightly uneasy sense of responsibility! She was a real person. Those months when she was forced to parade publicly in front of her community wearing that gown must have been deeply traumatic, but had been long forgotten until I unearthed her story among the records. Now her name once more was on display for millions of visitors to the museum, albeit hopefully in a more sympathetic era. I did a bit of digging among genealogical records, and although I couldn’t establish anything with real certainty, there was a strong possibility that Jonet was just a teenager. My desire to give her a story was growing stronger.

In writing historical fiction the question at the forefront of my mind is always ‘what did it feel like?’ We can see and even touch the objects, we can read the archives – but what did it feel like? It took decades for Jonet’s story to emerge in its right form, intertwined with the story of another historical woman from late seventeenth-century Scotland, Helen Alexander (more on her another day). We know far more about Helen’s life from her own words, but like many men and women of her class, Jonet is remembered only for her ‘sin’. The story I have given her is therefore fictitious, my interpretation of what might have happened to a woman faced with Jonet’s circumstances. It is structured around the timeframe of her weekly punishment. I did consider making up a name, but it seemed important to give honour to the real woman whose ordeal inspired What You Call Free.

The museum is of course closed just now because of lockdown, but when restrictions are lifted you can go along to The Church gallery and see the gown for yourself, and remember Jonet and many others like her.

I will.

Register for the launch of What You Call Free.

Pre-order a copy from Ringwood Publishing.

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