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.
Exciting news – What You Call Free is now available to pre-order from Ringwood Publishing, ahead of the launch in March.
Cynthia Rogerson, award-winning novelist, said:
‘Flora Johnston has written a literary page turner about one of Scotland’s most turbulent and least talked about periods …. It’s a bleak story because it’s a bleak time, but the characters retain their warmth and humanity. All in all, a compulsive read. As addictive as chocolate, and as nourishing as a bowl of Scotch broth.’
Jenni Calder, novelist, poet and literary historian, said:
‘Flora Johnston tells a powerful story, steering a sure-footed path through perhaps the most complex and divided period in Scotland’s history in a way that resonates with many issues today.’
Scotland’s creative writing centre, Moniack Mhor, is a very special place. I’ve stayed there twice in the last few years, and those two weeks were hugely influential in the writing of What You Call Free.
I’ve been working on this book for a very long time! I began writing it in 2013, although the idea had been there for much longer. In 2016 I entered it into the Bridge Awards’ Emerging Writer Award and was delighted to be ‘highly commended’, and to receive a grant towards a Moniack Mhor retreat as a result.
The format for the tutored courses is a perfect combination of workshops, one-to-one tutorials, evening readings, and as much thinking time, writing time, good food, good wine and good conversation as you could possibly want. With some trepidation, I chose a historical fiction course led by Isla Dewar and Margaret Elphinstone, and travelled to Moniack. Although I am used to having my non-fiction words published in different forms, my fiction writing had always been a private and solitary enterprise. I had never done a creative writing course or joined a writing group, and had rarely shared or spoken about my work. I learned a great deal on that course, but I think its real significance lay in giving me permission and confidence to think of myself as a fiction writer. It was a completely new experience to speak the language of fiction with other people and to discuss my writing and my dreams. The book I was working on – at that time called Sackcloth on Skin – was a bit of a sprawling, multi-strand, multi-timeframe mess, but my first visit to Moniack Mhor encouraged me to believe not just in the book but in myself as a writer.
Eventually I was ready to send it out. There were some positives – a couple of longlistings for example – but then came the stream of rejections from agents and publishers. If you have ever put yourself through this you will know how completely demoralising and destructive it is. By the end of 2018 any confidence I’d discovered at Moniack was fast disappearing. And yet, I couldn’t quite bring myself to give up on this story. I still believed in it, but something needed to change. My choice seemed to be either to self-publish the book as it was or to change it drastically. I decided to try removing everything but the 17th-century storyline, and rewriting it as a historical novel.
It should have been devastating but it was actually quite cathartic! By the time I had cut out everything I no longer wanted, the book was about half the length. It was much easier to see its weaknesses, and where the historical story needed development. Around the same time the Moniack programme for 2019 dropped into my inbox. I hadn’t planned to go back, but a course on ‘Finding the heart of your novel’ led by James Robertson and Cynthia Rogerson caught my eye. Could Moniack work its magic a second time?
I signed up, and then left the book aside until June 2019, when I returned to Moniack with a mutilated half novel! I was worried the course might not live up to my first experience, but it was a wonderful week. As before, the setting, the people, the generous help from the tutors and the encouraging atmosphere all combined to help me to understand how to take the book forward.
I spent the rest of 2019 rewriting, and by the start of the year was ready to begin the daunting prospect of sending my novel – now What You Call Free – out again. But this time I had more experience, and the support and advice of writer friends made on that course. In summer 2020 the book found its home – with Ringwood Publishing, an independent Glasgow based publisher who publish an exciting range of Scottish fiction and non-fiction. It should come out early next year. There’s still a long way to go, but I will be forever grateful to Moniack Mhor for helping me firstly to believe in myself as a writer and then to understand the book I was writing.
This has obviously been a really hard year for Moniack Mhor, but they continue to offer online courses and opportunities. Check them out, and support them if you can!
The first of April may be April Fools’ Day, but I really
hope this isn’t a joke, as this week I move into a new pattern of work.
I’m starting a new part-time job tomorrow as Church Office
Manager at Davidson’s Mains Parish Church in Edinburgh. This is my local church
where I’m already very involved, and committed to all that we’re about. The
church office is beside our fabulous café, The Sycamore Tree, and it’s a busy
place with all sorts of community contact. I’ll have lots to learn but I’m
really excited about getting started.
But I set up this website a few years ago to share news
about my writing, and this new pattern could be quite a significant one in
those terms too. I’ve been thinking a lot about purpose and calling over the
last few months as I’ve been making these decisions, and it seems that for me that’s
always a multi-faceted thing. Family … work … faith … writing … they’ve always
all been part of the mix. All that’s happening just now is a shift in balance.
I’ve worked from home
ever since the children were born on a range of projects, and for the past few
years almost exclusively on exhibition work for CMC Associates. That work
pattern was ideal for our circumstances, but things have changed. One of the
challenges of my unpredictable work pattern was making time for my own writing.
Whenever I had a project on it was pretty much impossible to make space for
writing, and whenever I had a gap between projects I felt guilty about writing and
not earning money. Now for the first time I will have a fixed day each week given
over to my own writing, and I can give myself that permission to write. I cannot
tell you how exciting that is!
So I have a list beginning to take shape … flash fiction
competitions (new to me), submissions strategy, and probably most importantly a
review and potential major redraft of my novel. I’m going back to Moniack Mhor
later in the year and I’m pinning my hopes on that as a chance to get some
clarity about where I go next with it. Between now and then there’s a good deal
of preparation to be done.
Today is my first ‘writing Monday’ and I think I just got started!
Norman Macleod was one of the main characters in my book Faith in a Crisis. Now the house he lived in, which was part of his story, is on the market. The lady who lived there was a friend of my parents and I remember visiting as a child, but the shiver down the spine comes when I think of Norman and Julia descending those stairs, walking through those rooms …. and leaving the house with their ‘young and helpless family’ when they were evicted by the factor in 1843.
Extract from Faith in a Crisis (Islands Book Trust, 2012):
Norman, by quitting his church at Trumisgarry, was no longer entitled to his house. He wrote to Lord Macdonald, offering to pay the same rent as any other and observing, ‘I trust your Lordship does not really intend to drive me with my young and helpless family out of my present dwelling house.’ The factor, Seumas Ruadh of Balranald, himself an Established Church elder, replied in these terms:
It is not [his Lordship’s] intention either to grant you a site or to give you any lands …. I am sorry for you and your family, you will be much put about, but you have brought it all on yourself. …. Kind compliments to Mrs McLeod.
Within a few years, of course, many of Norman’s congregation would also have been evicted from their homes and land, with fewer resources to survive and far more drastic consequences.
Seumas Ruadh was the father of Jessie of Balranald, whose story I told here. It was recently fictionalised in the novel The False Men by Mhairead Macleod.
Shaping the Landscape is an exhibition currently running at New Lanark Visitor Centre. It tells the story of the dramatic geology of the Clyde and Avon valleys, and how this has influenced all aspects of life in the area. I worked on this exhibition as part of the work I do for CMC Associates, carrying out research, organising content and writing texts for display panels and digital installations.
New Lanark World Heritage Site
Geology may or may not be your first interest, but it’s fascinating to consider how it (literally) underlies everything else. As well as telling the geological story, the exhibition covers topics as diverse as Roman roads, Sir Walter Scott’s ‘Tillietudlem’, coal mining and ancient woodlands. It’s well worth a look if you’re in the area – and there are some stunning walks through the gorges and woodlands too.
My one and only resolution of 2018 is to keep a note throughout the year of what I’m reading. (I could have many more resolutions, but hey, another year, same dream.)
I don’t intend to share what I’m reading unless it’s of particular interest, but I’ve started the year with Zadie Smith’s Swing Time, and it’s going to be hard to beat. I was lucky enough to win it just before Christmas in a Twitter competition, along with Outriders, The Lesser Bohemians by Eimear McBride and The Fatal Tree by Jake Arnott. Thank you, Edinburgh Book Festival!
I read and enjoyed White Teeth years ago when it came out, but I haven’t read anything else by Zadie Smith. That may soon change, as I loved Swing Time. I like to read a book which is not my experience yet is so convincing and so human that I can enter into that experience. And I particularly like to read a book where I’m not marvelling with every sentence and every plot twist at how wonderfully clever the writer is, because the writer has pulled me in so far that I have forgotten all about him or her – but nevertheless every now and then I’m drawn up by the beauty or poignancy or truth of what I’ve just read. That’s what happened with this book – like this, which foreshadows #metoo so evocatively:
I remembered my own classrooms, dance classes, playgrounds, youth groups, birthday parties, hen nights, I remember there was always a girl with a secret, with something furtive and broken in her, and walking through the village with Aimee, entering people’s homes, shaking their hands, accepting their food and drink, being hugged by their children, I often thought I saw her again, this girl who lives everywhere and at all times in history, who is sweeping the yard or pouring out tea or carrying somebody else’s baby on her hip and looking over at you with a secret she can’t tell.
Next on my list is Matt Haig’s How To Stop Time which my children gave me for Christmas. I’m looking forward to it, but I always prefer to have a breather after a really good book – to stay in its world for a while before moving on. I have some research materials on standby for a possible new project, so that’s where I’ll go next.
I researched and wrote the display boards for this project on Holy Island last year. It’s an exhibition about the history of the lifeboats on the island, with stories of dramatic rescues and the strong links with the community. Nice to see it has now opened – take a look if you’re ever on the island.