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.

 

Francis Burton Harrison and Frances Hodgson Burnett – uncovering a century old mistake!

At least I think so … but if anyone can find evidence to the contrary I’d love to hear about it.

Testing the water with a new project (I need to lay the novel aside while I see what happens with it), I found myself this afternoon looking into the Harrison family, who owned Teaninich Castle in Easter Ross from 1921. Francis Burton Harrison, an American, was Governor General of the Philippines, and his colourful life story includes wealth, politics, controversy, a Scottish castle, as many wives as Henry VIII, and several tragedies.

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Teaninich Castle

Research these days does generally start with Google and wikipedia – but today is a perfect example of why it can’t stop there! Google Teaninich and Harrison together, and you read time and again that the flamboyant American Charles Harrison who lived there was the inspiration for Frances Hodgson Burnett’s Little Lord Fauntleroy. There’s even a Frances Hodgson Burnett room in the castle. Intriguing! Was this Charles Harrison a brother, a father, or a mistaken first name, perhaps?

Digging a little deeper I found what seemed to be confirmation. American newspaper articles from as early as 1910 and 1913 identified politician Francis Burton Harrison (so definitely the right man) as the inspiration for Little Lord Fauntleroy, which was written by his mother, Frances Hodgson Burnett. One headline reads ‘Lord Fauntleroy is barred from the White House’!

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Francis Burton Harrison in 1913

Really? Well, I loved The Secret Garden and the Little Princess as a child so I was pleased to find their author was connected to the family I was researching. The only problem is, I cannot find a single piece of evidence for the claim. Frances Hodgson Burnett’s family details do not include Francis Burton Harrison. She is said to have modelled the character on her son Vivian. Mr Harrison’s family details are also widely available, and do not include the author of Little Lord Fauntleroy.It seems there is no connection whatsoever between Frances Hodgson Burnett and Teaninich Castle. So what is going on?

Francis Harrison’s mother was in fact a writer of the same era, known as both Constance Cary Harrison and Mrs Burton Harrison. Incidentally, she sounds like a very interesting woman in her own right. One article about ‘lady dramatists’ mentions both women within a few paragraphs. Perhaps they knew each other. Perhaps the similarity of names led to confusion. Did our Francis Burton Harrison try to deny that he was Little Lord Fauntleroy, or did he in fact perpetuate the mistake? All the people involved were still living in the 1910s, when these claims were made. What did they think?

The Harrisons are a tiny, tangential link in the new project, so I need to resist the temptation to explore this one much further … at least for now.

But ‘fake news’ can last a long, long time …

 

© 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:

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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.

 

#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.