This month has been almost entirely given over to completing the first draft of my seventeenth-century novel, provisionally titled Flood, but there have been a few other diversions. Early in the month we went to a party with friends who live at Pitkerro House:
There is a tradition amongst the community living in Pitkerro that the land was originally granted by Robert the Bruce to the Durham family, who may have built an earlier house here, as the oldest part of the existing house dates from 1593:
In 1902-3, the distinguished architect Robert Lorimer (who saved many ancient Scottish buildings on the point of being lost for ever) restored it and added a new wing:
Then, like so many fine old houses throughout Britain, it nearly suffered death after World War II. I can’t remember the statistics of how many were pulled down in the post-war period, when no one could afford to maintain them, but I know the number lost is horrifying. Pitkerro was near-derelict, covered in ivy, and about to crumble away when a group of friends discovered and rescued it in 1954. It would have been too large and too expensive for one family to take on, but a trust was set up and it became a kind of lay Catholic community, with various families inhabiting parts of the building, occupying more as more children were born, less as children grew up and moved away. Originally there was no electricity and the water supply, fed from a spring, was blocked. Their water is still supplied from this spring.
The family we know (older university colleagues of David’s, no longer with us) had 12 children, some of whom still live there. David plays the cello in a music group with one of the sons. It meets part of the time in a magnificent hall with spectacular plaster work, and this is where the recent party was held. In the gardens, rhododendrons and azaleas were in gorgeous bloom.
There is a further royal connection. This tree was allegedly planted by Mary Queen of Scots:
Pitkerro has another particular connection for me. In June 1994 we attended their fortieth anniversary party in the grounds. At the time I was trying to come up with a framework for a novel and the idea of an anniversary came to me there, in these very gardens. My anniversary would be a fiftieth, commemorating the foundation of a community in June 1944, at the time of D-day, and it would be a community of artists, writers, musicians and refugees from war-torn Europe. It resulted in my first published novel, The Anniversary:
So Pitkerro means a lot to me.
Later this month, on 21 June, we were invited to the launch of the first ever Blairgowrie Book Festival:
The chair of the organising committee is Christine Findlay, an old friend of mine, and she and her committee have come up with a very varied and interesting programme, some of it for children as well as adults, and some reaching out into other venues in the glens. The festival itself will be held in October, and – if you live in this part of Scotland – details are on their website www.bookmarkblair.com
The launch was held to publicise and promote the festival and the guest speaker was another old friend, crime writer Aline Templeton:
Aline’s husband used to be Warden (i.e. headmaster) of Glenalmond College – another beautiful group of buildings in a spectacular setting – but when he retired a little while ago they moved to Edinburgh. I remember driving to the school once, along the remote country approach road. In the distance I saw the only car I would meet coming in the opposite direction. When we were a few yards apart, a deer leapt from the woods on my left, landed between us, then leapt into the woods on my right, somehow managing to avoid being hit by either of us. I was shaking when I arrived!
Aline used to write one-off crime stories, preferring to start afresh each time. However, a few years ago she was persuaded to think about writing a series. She came up with D I Marjory Fleming, a woman in a predominantly male police force in rural south-west Scotland, married to a farmer and mother of two children. The first novel in the series is set during the foot-and-mouth epidemic, with all the horror that entailed, and the particular tensions for a police officer married to a farmer. In Blairgowrie Aline was talking about the series, including the latest, Evil for Evil:
I’ve not read this one yet, but very much admire Aline’s writing, which is primarily concerned with the psychology of her characters, rather than convoluted plots. She says she has really enjoyed writing a series, because it has given her the opportunity to get to know her characters better and to develop them in greater depth. I found this particularly interesting, for reasons which may become more obvious in the future.
The third diversion which took me away from nose-to-the-grindstone mode took place yesterday (29 June) as part of the six hundredth anniversary celebrations of the founding of St Andrews University. Henry Wardlaw (c.1365-1440) was Bishop of St Andrews and a pioneer in promoting higher education in Scotland. At that time there were only two universities in Britain, first Oxford, then Cambridge, both about 300 years old in the fifteenth century. Wardlaw believed that Scotland needed a university of its own and gathered about him a small group of scholars who began teaching students in their own homes in the early years of the fifteenth century. In 1412, Wardlaw issued a charter to these scholars, referring to them as a ‘university’ and granting them certain privileges. However, this embryonic ‘university’ could not award degrees. This right could only be granted by the Pope or the Holy Roman Emperor. Wardlaw petitioned Pope Benedict, who issued six Bulls in August 1413 ordaining that there should be a university in St Andrews and confirming Wardlaw’s Charter.
The original buildings stood in this part of St Andrews, now the quadrangle of St Mary’s College:
And it too has a tree planted by Mary Queen of Scots:
As you can see, it’s in a rather frail condition, but still hanging on, just! The only surviving bit of the original university buildings is this gateway, with Wardlaw’s arms over the arch:
When consideration was being given to the 600th centenary, Dr Barbara Crawford suggested erecting a statue to Wardlaw as founder of the university. Curiously the university has largely ignored him and all that remains are fragments of his tomb effigy, defaced during the Reformation, and a stone found under the floor of a shop, inscribed with the initials HW, Wardlaw’s arms surmounted by a mitre, and the words ‘Fundator loci’ (‘Founder of the place’).
Well, the university decided to go on ignoring him.
However, Barbara Crawford was not so easily put off. She is Director of the Strathmartine Centre and, like David, one of the trustees of the Strathmartine Trust, which provides facilities and funding for those engaged in research into Scottish history. The Trust took up the cause and raised the funding for a magnificent bronze statue of Wardlaw. It was the unveiling of this statue which took place yesterday. At first the statue was hidden behind this enormous banner:
After an introduction by Barbara Crawford, the statue was unveiled by one of Wardlaw’s successors, the present Chancellor of the university, Sir Menzies Campbell, who said that if it took 600 years to erect a statue of a St Andrews Chancellor, he wouldn’t be holding his breath! He advanced with a pair of kitchen scissors in his hand, there was a loud bang, and the banner fell:
Here is a closer view:
We then had a brief but interesting history of the ‘Buildings, Bulls and Charters’ in the foundation of the university, by the archivist, Rachel Hart.
Proceedings were concluded with a prayer by another of Wardlaw’s successors, the Bishop of St Andrews, Dunkeld and Dunblane, the Most Reverend David Chillingworth.
I then managed to catch a picture of the current Chancellor taking a closer look at his predecessor
And a view of the statue from one side:
And from the other:
The statue, by sculptor David Annand, is really very fine. Back in my very first newsletter/column, in October 2010, I showed a picture of one of his other works, commemorating the Declaration of Arbroath. The Wardlaw statue is accurate down to tiny details of his mitre and chasuble and I’m sorry that bright sunshine from the south slightly ‘fuzzed’ the face-on pictures.
We finished with tea and biscuits in Parliament Hall (next door to St Mary’s quadrangle), not quite up to the lavish celebrations which greeted the arrival of the Papal Bulls and confirmation of the Charter – abundance of wine and bonfires in the streets!
Despite all this excitement, I finished the first draft of Flood on 17 June, at 100,279 words, and have been checking up on a variety of small details since, which has involved investigating traditional recipes from Lincolnshire, domestic furniture of the seventeenth century, and – most frustrating – the layout of Lincoln Castle in the mid-seventeenth century. Archivists at the castle, the council and the county were as helpful as they could be, but a plan of the castle at this period doesn’t seem to exist. The nearest I can get is the small plan in the corner of John Speed’s county map of 1610.
As there was fighting here in the Civil War, some of the buildings may have been destroyed, but I’m just going to assume it remained much the same. The walls and towers still survive, but the central area was taken over for a prison in the nineteenth century, so that has all changed now.
I only need this information for a couple of pages in my novel, and I suppose I am a bit obsessive, but I like to get things RIGHT! Anachronisms in historical fiction start me ranting and raving, I’m afraid. They’re just a symptom of laziness or of imaginative failure. Inexcusable!!
This is quite long enough for now, though I’ll just mention that this month I’ve reread the whole of C J Sansom’s Shardlake series, from Dissolution:
And I’ve now started rereading Dorothy Dunnett’s Lymond series with The Game of Kings:
I had Dorothy Dunnett once as a speaker at Dundee Book Events, which was wonderful. Before she came, I was discussing arrangements with her on the phone, when she said, ‘Are you the author of The Anniversary?’ When I said I was, and she started praising it (it was only just published) I nearly fell through the floor.
So we come full circle.
Until next time,