About Me

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I write well researched but readable historical and contemporary novels and some non-fiction. I live in a Scottish country cottage with my artist husband. I love gardening and I also collect the fascinating antique textiles that often find their way into my fiction. This blog is about all these things and more!

Friday, December 09, 2016

A little taste of spring, here in the Scottish countryside.


The days are very short here in Scotland at this time of year, but we comfort ourselves with the thought that in another couple of weeks they'll start to get longer. And by the end of January, they'll be noticeably longer!

Which is not to say that I want to skip Christmas, because I love everything about it. Always have. But all the same, it's cheering when the spring bulbs start to come through.

This is an old terracotta pot of white, scented narcissus bulbs I planted earlier this year, and hid away on a cool, dark shelf at the back of my office. Now, it's downstairs and they're growing and greening up on such light as is available. There's a pot of hyacinths as well, although they're a little way behind.

With a bit of luck, they'll be flowering not long after the Christmas decorations are put away for another year. I don't buy forced hyacinths at Christmas time, but I do buy them soon afterwards, if I haven't had the foresight to grow my own. I love to clean up and then bring springtime into the house in the shape of bulbs and - quite soon, here in the west - bunches of snowdrops and catkins.

I much prefer February to November. In November things are still sliding. In February and even earlier, you can feel the whole garden and the countryside beyond drawing breath, getting ready for spring. My favourite time of year.

It may be even earlier than usual, this year, since, after a cold spell that drove all the outdoor bulbs back underground, it has been incredibly warm for a few days. 'A pretty decent Scottish summer temperature' as my husband remarked! I gather it's due to get colder again pretty soon. Maybe in time for Christmas.

Wednesday, December 07, 2016

Aidan Turner, Poldark and Robert Burns

Anyone who knows me well, will know that I'm a big Poldark fan. But at least one of the reasons I watched it so avidly, is that it was perfect inspiration when I was writing the Jewel. The period, the costumes, the scenery, all of them were exactly right for the turbulent romance between Rab and Jean. And it needed only a small stretch of the imagination to see Aidan Turner in the starring role. (I know there are brilliant young Scots actors in plenty, suggestions welcome below, but I'm sure he could 'do' the lowland Scots accent if necessary!)

I thought it was just me, daydreaming while simultaneously working on a novel and watching what I thought was an excellent adaptation, beautifully filmed, brilliantly acted, (the first series coincided with a time when I was researching and writing the novel.) But last week, I was speaking about Jean to a group of volunteers at one of the local Burns museums and somebody else - a man, no less - said 'You know, Poldark put me in mind of this story. Whenever I watched Ross Poldark and Demelza galloping along that clifftop, I thought about Rab and Jean!'

Me too, me too.

There have been so many attempts to make a film about the life of Robert Burns, but most of them have come to grief or come to naught in one way or another. I realised, as I worked on The Jewel, that it may be because most of them have ignored the real, romantic heart of the story. Ross Poldark would be unthinkable without his brilliant, strong, spirited Demelza. There's a sense in which the novels, the dramatisations too, are Demelza's story. And there's a sense in which the story of Robert Burns is just as much Jean's story - another brilliant, strong, spirited woman. If you try to make it about Highland Mary - a short intense relationship - or Clarinda - another intense but short relationship, mostly conducted by letter - then you miss the real, dramatic, romantic heart of the matter.

The other problem is that too often, Rab is played by an actor who seems to be a bit too old for somebody who died at the age of 37. It matters. During one of this year's many excellent discussions I've had with groups of readers, somebody remarked on how young the couple were when all the drama of their relationship was at its height. And it's true. They had all the passionate recklessness of youth and you ignore that at your peril.

Meanwhile, as far as I know - because there has been interest  - film rights in The Jewel are still available. Contact Saraband if you want to know more. I'd truly love to see this book on the screen.

Jean's fireplace, in Mauchline.



Tuesday, December 06, 2016

Poems and Songs for Jean Armour


Back when I was researching my novel The Jewel, about the life of Robert Burns's wife, Jean Armour, I became aware that there were many poems and songs that had obviously been written with Jean in mind. I suggested to my publisher, Saraband, that it might be a good idea to collect them all together in one place, and they agreed. 

The book - For Jean: Poems and Songs by Robert Burns  - is now available for pre-order here. It will be published in January 2017, just before Burns night. I've collected together the songs and poems that are definitely about Jean with some more that might be about her, or where the poet clearly had her in his mind. Many are love poems although one or two are angry poems of thwarted passion! There are notes on many of them, and a glossary where necessary. 

This is a lovely companion volume to The Jewel, a nice Burns Night gift, and also, a very handy little volume for anyone looking for poems for and about 'the lassies' or for a recitation at the increasingly popular 'Jean Armour Suppers'.

Thursday, December 01, 2016

Writers and Notebooks - A Love Affair.

Some of the current collection
Today, a friend on Facebook posted about the way many notebooks are more expensive than actual printed books. She's right, of course. They are. But I still buy them.

I know lots of other writers who have a notebook habit. We accumulate them. Sometimes we sit and admire them without actually writing in them. The special ones are hoarded for some hypothetical future project that will be worthy of the perfect notebook.

I have very specific tastes in notebooks. First and foremost, the pages have to be blank. I hate lined paper. You'd be surprised how many shops seem to have stopped stocking blank paper notebooks altogether. Sometimes you have to hunt among the art materials to find them.

The paper has to be good quality, preferably off white or cream rather than bright white. I often write with italic or 'handwriting' pens, with broad nibs (yes, I know, but I was taught to write that way at school, a long long time ago and I can't help it!) and if the paper is nasty, the ink sinks in. It's so disappointing when you open a notebook with a beautiful cover to find that the paper inside is flimsy and impractical.

I quite like hard cover notebooks, especially brightly coloured hard cover notebooks: pink, turquoise, red, blue. Soft covers are OK though, especially for travelling. I have a couple of beautiful little notebooks I bought in Oxford last year, with Kraft paper covers, and ladybird designs, including an edge design like one of those wonderful old books that have a painting along the depth of the pages. I like them to be a decent size, although it's handy when they can also fit in my handbag. And if they have a little compartment into which I can slip notes for talks, train timetables etc, so much the better.

I have an ongoing love affair with Moleskine. I love these notebooks with a passion, which is a bit sad since they're not cheap. But they are the kings and queens among notebooks. Everything about them, including the quality of the paper, is wonderful. If any notebook might magically be able to make you into a better writer, these are the ones to try. (And no, they're not paying me to say this.)

I generally buy mine online, from Amazon or from T K Maxx, where you can find a good selection of notebooks and nice paper of all kinds. Although once you've discovered the Moleskine shop, you might well be enticed in. I use one every day, for lists of things to do. I've also been using one this year to keep track of the many events I've been asked to do, venues, contact details, train or bus times, hotel bookings  - and again, Moleskine provides the perfect notebook: robust, with a piece of elastic to keep it firmly shut, a bookmark and a wallet at the back.

Oddly enough, I use a Kindle for reading all the time, and although I love paper books and have too many of them, I can't say I feel excessively attached to them, can't say I miss them, especially when I'm reading fiction. I also write directly onto a PC and would never dream of writing a novel in longhand now. Too slow. It would drive me mad.

But when it comes to research, planning and plotting, or making my various lists, I prefer my notebooks. I really do love to use pen and paper.

I've a feeling that you can never have too many notebooks. I wonder what other people think. Do you have favourites, pet hates, perfect specimens?


Sunday, November 27, 2016

Excellent Events and a Wee Bit About Payment

Book Fair at the Carrick Lodge Hotel,
organised by the ever excellent Ayr Writers. 
This year, I've been snowed under with book events, and I've loved every minute of it, loved talking about Jean, and chatting to readers and signing books. Some events have been purely promotional, launching the Jewel at various venues, while others have come under the category of paid work, talks at excellent book festivals, workshops and visits to writing groups.The latest - the Pentlands Book Festival in Juniper Green - was a model of how to organise such things and a pleasure from start to finish. (Very many thanks to my hosts for their hospitality.)

I'm aware that I'm lucky and that many writers just starting out would be glad of the opportunity. But as a freelance writer married to a freelance artist, I've been trying to balance event payment with promotional value for years now. This has also been something that the Society of Authors has been tackling on behalf of all its members, although it has to be said that Scottish book festivals are extremely good at paying their writers.

So here are some general thoughts, ending with one plea in particular.

The vast majority of writers do not earn large sums of money from their writing.
Book events of all kinds are excellent promotional tools. We build our readership one satisfied reader at a time, hoping that they will tell somebody else if they've enjoyed a book.
Book events are, on the whole, extremely enjoyable.
Book events are also hard work!

The truth is that most writers are happy to do a limited number of free events in any one year, especially local events, so there's no harm in asking. Personally speaking, I'll do bookshop events when I can, especially with a new book, and I'll also do a number of freebies for local book groups, or even local non commercial organisations such as the WRI (although in my experience they are scrupulous in paying travel expenses and offering hospitality.) I'll also happily do some book events where - for example - travel and accommodation are paid by a proactive and enthusiastic host. There are no hard and fast rules. But out of sheer practicality the paid events and the actual writing will have to take precedence. If you take a look at the News and Events Page on my website, you'll find more details.

Many groups in Scotland can and do apply for writer funding under the Scottish Book Trust's excellent Live Literature Scotland scheme, and that's good for all concerned. The host organisation is funded, the writer is funded, and everyone's happy.

But when funding of various kinds is applied for and obtained or when it's offered by a festival, some starry writers (there are a few!) or perhaps even writers who have another and more lucrative profession, will waive their fees.
Which is very nice of them, but I wish they wouldn't.
The problem is that the cash may actually be ring fenced, so can't be used for anything else. But even more of a problem is that it sets a precedent, while most of us - however much we would like to be able to do the same - simply can't afford to do too many free events.

So my plea to the handful of rich writers out there is - please, for the sake of the rest of us, accept what's offered, and then if you really don't need or want the money, donate it to whatever worthy cause you choose - your local school library or one of a number of excellent book charities that help children all over the world to obtain books. Many of us would love to be able to do the same. One day, some of us will be able to.


Tuesday, November 15, 2016

Female Desire


Of all the feedback I've had about The Jewel - and people have said and written some very nice things about it, which is a great relief, because when you send your baby out into the world, you never know what the response will be  - I think the judgment that I found most gratifying was from a bookseller. Almost casually, she remarked 'You write female desire very well.'

I hope so but it was nice to have it confirmed by another woman. It got me thinking though. I'd be the first to say that women can write successfully about men, just as men can write successfully about women. But not always. Like all kinds of writing, it demands the ability to step outside yourself, crawl inside somebody else's mind, make yourself comfortable (or uncomfortable, depending on the character) and write from their point of view. Which is hard to do. So just as we have women writing impossibly romantic male characters, we have men writing women who gaze at themselves in a succession of mirrors, thinking thoughts that no woman I have ever known would think. Or - and this is a topic for another post - people write only about themselves, seemingly unable to see beyond the fascination of their own lives.

I found the 'female desire' remark so pleasing because that is one of the things I set out to do when I wrote The Jewel: to tell the story of why and how an otherwise sensible young woman might fall for and continue to love (but clearly not always like) an unsuitable man against all the careful counselling of family and friends. What is it all about: this web of connections and attractions, the pain of rejection, the physical and mental fascination verging on madness?

Unfortunately, any woman writing about female desire, even as part of something much larger, will be misunderstood by the literary establishment. No matter how well crafted the book, no matter how 'true' the depictions of said desire, a love story will seldom be taken seriously. Except of course by readers.

Fortunately, they're the ones who matter.



Tuesday, November 08, 2016

NaNoWriMo

It's national November novel writing month again. I'm not really taking part, even though I do have a new novel to write - well, actually, I have three - and I'll certainly be hustling to get that first draft of the first book onto the PC before Christmas.

If you're doing it, good luck. You're more than a quarter of the way through. If you're flagging, pick yourself up, dust yourself off and keep going.

I was thinking about this last weekend at a small gathering of friends, most of whom also happen to be writers. One of them asked me if I was disciplined and wrote at a set time each day.  To which the answer is, no, I don't. But I do try to write almost every day. And if I'm not writing, I'm thinking about writing, plotting and planning and getting to know my characters. But the truth is that some days, all kinds of other things get in the way. I find deadlines help. And when I have a fixed deadline, I find that my work rate escalates so that I might be writing for many hours in a day and half the night as well. Just not at the beginning. It all spirals upwards!

So why is this relevant to NaNoWriMo? Well, if you can do it, and stick to it, you'll get over the significant hurdle of the first draft, the horror of the blank screen. All writers work differently. Some of us are plotters and some pantsers - we write by the seat of our pants. That's me, more or less. I know the beginning and often the end, but a lot of the time I don't know how to get there. I write to find out. That's where the fascination lies. It's as though the characters have to tell me their story. On the few occasions where I've been persuaded to write more than two or three pages of a synopsis, I get bored and find myself writing something else. But not everyone works that way, and it's fine. We're all different.

However, I've tutored a lot of writers over the years and the single biggest problem for most them when it comes to making the leap from short fiction to novels, from one act plays to full scale dramas - seems to be in finishing the first draft of something so dauntingly long. The temptation to stop, revise, rewrite, change your mind, is almost overwhelming.

That's where something like NaNoWriMo comes in. My advice to most people starting out on a big project such as a novel, has always been to forge on. Don't worry if you find you have to leave gaps, miss out chapters, realise that there are gaping holes in the plot. Don't worry if you find yourself writing passages of what seems like gobbledegook. Just keep going, tell the story, get to the end. Nobody else is going to see this draft, warts and all unless you want them to. Nobody but me ever sees my first drafts.

But it's so much easier to revise and restructure a draft, however rough and ready, than it is to face the blank screen.

A couple of other useful tips.
Stop each day at a point where you really want to go on.  I wish I could remember who first told me this, because I bless them. That way, when you come back to the project the next day, and reread the last few pages, you'll get into the story a lot more quickly and easily than if you've stopped at a nice neat chapter ending.
The second thing to remember is that novels, like bread and beer and gardening, need time. Once you've got your first rough draft done, set it aside, don't be tempted to go back to it for several weeks. It's another reason why November is a good month for a first draft. You can enjoy Christmas with a clear conscience, and then get back to some serious editing in the New Year.

Good luck. And if you've any questions, add them to the comments and I'll do my best to answer them.


Sunday, November 06, 2016

Remember Remember ...

 Last night we had our annual village bonfire and fireworks display. It's always well attended - especially since every year there seem to be fewer of the big municipal displays in the nearby towns. Ours is organised by the community - a lot of work. It's free, but we sell hamburgers and glow sticks and collect donations which go towards next year's event.

I love it, love the fireworks, love the primitive and enticing quality of the fire. It always has a feeling of something that has been going on for hundreds of years as of course it has, not always on 5th November but always around this time of year when people even now feel the need to fend off the encroaching cold and dark.

These last few years, though, it has felt just a little sad for me too. There are ghosts:  my dear late mum and dad, who always used to come - my dad just loved a bonfire and fireworks. Lots of other lovely people who lived in the village and are no longer with us but are always remembered. They're all missed, but at this time of year, you can almost see them and certainly feel them, drawn to the warmth of our fire, and the joy of the people watching.

And then, of course, there are all the grown up children. Some have come back especially for Bonfire Night, some are far away,  their places taken by lots more wee kids, scooting about, full of excitement. But if you look long and hard enough, I swear you can see all of them, all these people, as they once were, caught in the light for a brief moment in time.



Thursday, November 03, 2016

New Projects

I'm on the cusp of starting a new novel, and it's always a strange feeling. I know what I'm going to write and have even worked on the first few chapters. I've done the research, done the planning, know where it starts and where it's going - although I don't plot meticulously or in any great detail. I have an outline, but I'm the kind of writer who may know the beginning and the end, but not precisely how we get there. I write to find out - otherwise I'd get bored.

The other thing I do is forge on to the bitter end, even if it all goes to hell in the middle. The main thing is to get through it all. If I kept stopping to rewrite, I would never finish anything. That's another reason why I put off starting. Once I really get going, I don't much want to stop, no matter what. My current plan is to finish this first ragged draft by Christmas. Then I'll have a bit of time off for parties and celebrations (and - OK - maybe a bit of work on something else, another project very dear to my heart!)

Once the first draft has lain fallow for a few weeks, I'll go back to it, probably in February, and then start to work on it steadily through the spring and early summer, polishing away. It's the first novel in what I'm hoping will turn into a series. But that's all I'm saying about it right now. Most writers know that if you talk about a project too soon, it all dissolves, disappearing as certainly as fairy gold, leaving you with a few dead leaves!




Tuesday, November 01, 2016

A New Look for November


Just back from a flying visit to our beloved Isle of Gigha. I'd been asked to do a book event about The Jewel for the Tarbert (Loch Fyne) Book Festival which meant that we were so close that it seemed a pity not to carry on as far as our favourite island. The ferry at Tayinloan is only eighteen miles along the road. The festival, incidentally, was a real pleasure - a very positive audience, asking lots of interesting questions. I hope they invite me back some time!

The long drive from Ayrshire to the Kintyre peninsula is spectacularly beautiful at this time of year, so vivid, so dazzling, that it seems impossible to choose any single photograph. We generally take the car ferry from Gourock to Dunoon, and then drive along the side of Loch Eck, heading for Loch Fyne and Inveraray. This is a route pretty much lined with trees: birches and all kinds of conifers, so you can imagine the sheer beauty of the autumnal colours.

Along the way, we generally stop off at The Tree Shop, next to the Loch Fyne Oyster Bar. There's an excellent cafe (great cakes!) and a garden centre specialising in conifers and other trees, so it's well worth a visit. Frankly, whenever I browse there, I imagine myself moving to Argyll and planting a hillside garden. Well, I can dream, can't I?

You'll have noticed that I've been playing about with the look of this blog. Partly it's to cheer myself - and you - up because November tends to be my least favourite month, although the sun is shining brilliantly, as I type this. But here in Scotland it does 'get late early' as a friend used to say - soon darkness will be falling by four o'clock in the afternoon. We have to pay for all those long light summer nights.

Partly, though, it's because I plan to do more, shorter posts. I want to keep readers and friends up to date with all my new projects. And because I'm tired of seeing so much writing advice online that seems to me to be both discouraging and not particularly helpful I'll be including an occasional short post with a few professional hints and tips. I've been writing full time for the past 40+ years, more or less successfully, although I've switched from poetry to fiction and non fiction, to plays and then back again to fiction during that time. The truth is that you're always learning. But I quite often see dogmatic writing advice that I find debatable, and even dangerous for anyone starting out. The one absolute rule is that there are no absolute rules.

More as it happens.


Tuesday, October 11, 2016

The Bookmark, Grantown - a Bookshop in a Million

As usual, I'm talking with my hands!

Last month, I was invited to speak about my new novel, The Jewel, to a group in Grantown on Spey. To my shame, I'd never been to Grantown before but it's such a jewel of a little town in itself that I really hope to be back. The visit was organised by Marjory Marshall who runs the Bookmark, a fabulous independent bookshop in the centre of town. My husband came along for the trip - it was a mini East Coast book tour with more events planned in Dundee and St Andrews - and he did the driving, leaving me free to concentrate on my talks while admiring the scenery.

We had been booked into the Garth Hotel - a lovely traditional Scottish hotel only a stone's throw from the shop - and Marjory had told us that the event would also be held in the hotel, because the shop would be too small. Once we had checked in, Alan put his feet up in the comfortable room, with a cup of tea, and I wandered along the main street in search of the Bookmark. Grantown is exactly what a small town should be with lots of wonderful small shops, real shops selling everything you could need, plus cafes, pubs and hotels. It has a prosperous and well kept air, a pretty town too, and it must be a very good place to live.

The shop, for a bookaholic like me, was paradise: small, for sure, but absolutely crammed with all kinds of books you really want to read. Marjory - a small bundle of energy - was instantly friendly and welcoming. I could have spent ages browsing in there, and immediately vowed to go back when I can spend longer.

When the time came for the event, I looked at the (large) size of the room and the number of chairs and couldn't believe that so many people would turn out to listen to me. But, as you can see from the pictures, people did. Marjory runs three book groups and most of them came, plus a few more. 'I'm very persuasive,' she remarked, and she certainly is! A lovely lady played the celtic harp and sang Burns songs beautifully, to get us all in the right mood. I chatted about Jean and all the research that had gone into the book, answered the excellent questions, signed copies, drank wine, ate nibbles and was buzzing from the event all night and most of the next day. In the morning, after a very good breakfast, we managed to spend a bit more time in the Bookmark. Then I browsed the charity shop, the antique shop and the hardware store before we - rather reluctantly - headed off to Dundee. I love old fashioned hardware stores almost as much as I love bookshops, and Grantown's is wonderful. There's even a dedicated shortbread shop, as well.

I'd go back again in a heartbeat. Meanwhile, if you're interested in Crime Fiction, they are holding a
Wee crime festival  at the end of this month and more Saraband authors will be involved. I'll be heading the other way, to the Tarbert Book Festival and thence to my beloved Gigha, weather permitting, but if you're anywhere near Grantown, go along. You won't be disappointed. And if you're anywhere near Tarbert, you could come along and see me instead!





Thursday, October 06, 2016

National Poetry Day: Aliens

Me and the alien.
Happy National Poetry Day!

Years ago, I wrote more poetry than anything else. Did readings in Edinburgh and various other places. Even had a couple of collections published. Then I started to write fiction and plays and found myself writing fewer and fewer poems.

I've very occasionally gone back to poetry, so over the years I've found myself with a collection of poems, some of which have hardly seen the light of day. But mostly, all the impulse that went into writing poems seems to have gone into fiction and plays, although I'm sure it informs a lot of what I write, which critics occasionally tell me is 'lyrical' whatever that means.

Anyway, here's a poem I wrote some years ago, but it seems peculiarly apt today when I feel that I no longer recognise England as the place that gave shelter to my dad at the end of the war. My grandad was from a Yorkshire Dales family - 18th century lead miners in Swaledale - and had probably come over with the Vikings. My nana was Leeds Irish. Dad reckoned there was some Hungarian in the family tree as well. So, I'm a citizen of Europe, if not the world.


ALIENS

I am small in springtime
on my father’s shoulders.
I can see everything even the
bald patches on the
heads of passing men,
a precarious and thrilling position.


My father’s hair is coal black and curly,
Polish hair as foreign as he is.
The word refugee is as familiar
to me as my own name.
I hold his ears for balance,
while he trots with me aloft.


My father’s papers proclaim him alien
which makes me half alien too.
Poland might as well be Pluto but
the iron curtain is real.
I see it sweeping across Europe
made of polished metal,
dividing kin from kin,
as unfathomable as space.


Small and safe on his shoulders
his hands steadying me,
I grip his ears and laugh.
We are what we will always be
to one another:
complicit and loving
alien invaders of
a mystifying new world.

Thursday, September 22, 2016

Book Events Galore

Last week, I did three book events in quick succession, all of them enjoyable. But the first one, in Grantown on Spey, organised by the wonderful Marjory Marshall of the Bookmark, a splendid independent bookshop in the town, was extraordinary.

The shop is small, crammed with the kind of books you really want to read - if I lived there, I'd be in there three or four times a week - so the event was held in the Garth Hotel, just along the road, which was also where we were staying. It's a comfortable, typically Highland hotel and we'd go back in a heartbeat.

The audience, especially given that Grantown in reasonably small, was massive - the room in the hotel was crammed with people. Some had even travelled from Inverness. ('I'm very persuasive,' said Marjory, with a smile.) There was a singer too, a beautiful singer who accompanied herself on a Celtic harp and gave us all an idea of what Jean herself must have sounded like. Marjory runs three book groups connected to the shop, which means that there is an excellent baseline group of enthusiastic people to attend any events she organises. Grantown itself is wonderful, a neat little town, 'the kind of town where people seem to care about the place' as my husband pointed out, with lots of interesting little shops, real shops of the kind that disappeared from many lowland high streets a long time ago.

Our next stop was the Apex Hotel at the City Quay, in Dundee - a place we've visited many times, and love. It always feels like coming home, except that home doesn't have a spa, with a pool, a hot tub, and a sauna. And we don't have such a massive bed with fresh, cool cotton sheets, feather pillows. Oh, and a bedroom with a fabulous view. And another nice little duck to take away with us.

My events were in Waterstones, St Andrews - friendly and welcoming. The Jewel has been selling very well to tourists over the summer. And the following night, with lovely Peggy Hughes in the excellent Verdant Works museum in Dundee - a place that should be on any visitor's must-see list. All in all, it was a thoroughly enjoyable trip, and I would do it all again in a heartbeat. Sales of the book are going well too!

Tomorrow, (Friday 23rd)  I'm heading off to Wigtown, to the book festival, to discuss Jean with Lee Randall, over tea and cakes - and then on Sunday, I'll be going to Irvine - closer to home - to take part in the Tidelines Book Festival at the Harbour Arts Centre.

After that, I'm a bit relieved to have a break before the next event! I have a big new project to work on, of which more in due course. But I should be able to get a good month's intensive writing done, before we head off to the Tarbert Book Festival at the end of October. Late November brings a clutch of events to mark Book Week Scotland, but not before I've visited Melrose Writers to talk about drama. A busy autumn ahead!

Friday, September 09, 2016

On Cleanliness

The author, back in the fifties. I look quite clean. 
We have been without a shower for three weeks and counting. (Mega building work in the bathroom) It has taken me right back to the fifties in industrial Yorkshire, when you had a bath every week (whether you needed it or not) and a lick and a promise at the sink for the rest of the week. I don't remember that we felt either dirty or smelly, and our clothes were certainly kept very clean, but we have got so used to the daily shower that if we don't have it we begin to feel incredibly downhearted.

God bless our lovely neighbours who have been letting us use theirs. What would we do without our friends?


Thursday, September 08, 2016

New Projects and Old Houses



I have a couple of new projects on the go, one of them at least involving plenty of research and plenty of writing.

Truth to tell, I can't wait. I'm at that stage of enchantment where I'm living with my characters and where I just want to leap right in, but I know that I'll need time, peace and a certain amount of quiet to devote to it all. And at present that's in short supply.

There are various reasons. I'm involved with a great many events, here there and everywhere, for The Jewel, and I'm certainly not complaining about that. Lots of people want to know all about Jean Armour and that's fine by me. If you check the events listing on the home page of my website you'll see exactly what I mean.

The other problem is that we've been having some work done on this old house. It's a lovely house, we've lived here for years and we love it to bits, but truth to tell, we could do with somewhere just a little bit easier to manage and with a slightly smaller garden. But there's work to be done and a massive decluttering exercise to be undertaken before we can even think of putting it on the market. I've already taken out four large boxes of books and guess what? I seem to have exactly the same shelf space as before.

Anyway, the net result is that I'm desperate to get started, and have set aside pretty much the whole of October so that I can make big inroads into the work. After that, I've a few more book events lined up throughout the winter, but I should be able to work steadily, all being well, through the dark days. I always feel better once I get the first draft of a new novel down. Then I can leave it to lie fallow for a little while before starting the long but - for me anyway - pleasurable process of editing and rewriting through the spring of 2017.

There will be a couple more publications from me in January and February of next year as well. Can't wait to spill the beans, but as soon as I'm allowed, I'll tell all. Meanwhile, the picture at the top of this post is a small clue.



Wednesday, August 03, 2016

Writing and Speaking

The Secret Commonwealth, my last stage play. 
Many years ago, when I first started out on this switchback of a writing career, I made the decision to try out all kinds of things to see what suited me best.

Back in the 1970s I wrote poetry and did quite well with it, having a couple of collections published and being invited to do various readings. I also wrote radio drama which was a reasonable way to make a living once you had learned your craft. I wrote original plays but also did dramatisations of classics. And because it was hard to say 'no' to paid work, I also did some writing for schools radio and television, wrote a young adult television series and then wrote a novel (called Shadow of the Stone) to go with the series.

After a while, though, I realised that it wasn't what I wanted to pursue. This isn't any kind of value judgment, incidentally - but we all have our own aptitudes and interests and this wasn't mine. So I moved on, still writing radio drama, but beginning to explore other options in fiction, as well as writing for the stage.

Then it struck me that I was still being asked to talk to writing groups about 'writing for children' even though I hadn't written for children for about a decade. I had to gently and politely suggest that I might be of more use in talking about radio drama, since it was a hungry medium that was willing to engage with beginners and help them to learn a very specific craft.

Cue forward another ten years and I found myself writing less and less for radio, and more for theatre, while - at the same time - starting to spend even more time on fiction, long and short. But by then, I was being asked to speak almost exclusively about radio writing. Since most writers are delighted to be asked to speak about anything, especially when being paid, I carried on doing occasional workshops but tried to point out that my radio knowledge was somewhat out of date, although I still knew quite a bit about writing for the stage. It worried me that I could be giving people the wrong advice, which is often worse than no advice at all. The whole submission and rejection process had changed out of all recognition in the intervening years.

Now, for the past ten or fifteen years, I've concentrated almost wholly on fiction, especially novels, with a some historical non-fiction thrown in for good measure. I divide my time between historical and contemporary fiction. I've had several well reviewed novels published, the last two by the same excellent independent publisher (Saraband) with a third novel due to be published by them later this year and another one in progress even as I write this.

But I'm still sometimes being asked to speak about writing drama. Well, I can do that. But the truth is that I haven't written a stage play for years now. Haven't even tried. It has become incredibly difficult to get any kind of professional production unless you're willing to stage one yourself, with all the time and expense involved. And it strikes me that writing groups would get better value from a working playwright, if that's what they want to know about.

Of course, I'm generally very happy to speak to writing and book groups so this isn't a complaint. It's just that for some years now, I've been working exclusively on fiction. You never say never in this line of work and if somebody, somewhere wanted me to dramatise one of my own novels I'd definitely consider it. I still have those essential skills. But I'm much better value as a speaker if you ask me to talk about historical research for fiction - how much you need to do and when to stop - or the current state of publishing or getting to the end of your novel, or writing convincing dialogue, or using your family history as a source of fiction or 18th century Scotland or Robert  Burns and Jean Armour or using social media or ... well, you get my drift. Any or all of those and more.

Given that many writing groups will be starting their new programmes soon, it's worth thinking about what you want from a visiting writer, and what might be genuinely useful for your members. Sometimes it's our own fault as writers. We move on but forget to 'brand' ourselves in the new way, forget that we need to tell people what we are doing now. Most writers have websites these days or are listed with arts organisations. It's worth checking up on your potential visitor to see what he or she is working on. You're looking for an enthusiastic speaker, somebody to talk about what's obsessing them right now, somebody to communicate not just their skills and their excitement, but also the current state of play in that particular aspect of writing.

A few years ago, I remember hearing a successful television writer delivering a brisk 45 minute talk + question and answer session to a writing group. Afterwards, somebody said to me 'I learned more from that talk than from any book I've ever read on the subject.' She was right. The speaker knew exactly what he was talking about because that's what he was engaged with there and then and it showed.


















Tuesday, July 26, 2016

The Poet's Funeral

Yesterday was the day on which, in 1796, Robert Burns was buried in Dumfries, in a simple grave in St Michael's churchyard. The big, ostentatious monument only came later. The funeral was far from simple. Invitations were sent out in Robbie, the poet's eldest son's name, as was the custom. The night before was showery but the day of the funeral turned out to be sunny, just in time for the grand procession. The weather this week, here in the West of Scotland, has been much the same. All those fine people who had crossed the street to avoid Rab a little while before, when the adulation had changed to small town disapproval, came out to show how much they had loved the great bard. And in spite of his wishes to the contrary, the 'awkward squad', the Dumfries Volunteers, not very efficient or soldierly, did indeed fire over him.

Jean was at home, giving birth to his last child, a son called Maxwell. The night after the funeral, Jean's husband came home, briefly. That's what she recounted later. And here's my version of it.

'The whole house was quiet, Maxwell swaddled in her arms, She had been singing to the new wean until he slept and she saw Rab coming into the room. He was as bold and clear as though he had still been in life and, she thought, rather more healthy than the last time she had laid eyes on him, a gleam in his eye and a flush of sunlight on his cheek. 
She was not afraid.
When had she ever been afraid of him? Rather she felt the wee bubble of laughter, even in the most serious of situations, at the general absurdity of everything, even the worst of things. She looked up at him while he gazed down at her and, in particular she thought, at the baby. Well, why not? He had aye loved the weans best, loved the curve of their cheeks, the soft, vulnerable place at the back of the neck, their perfect wee fingers and toes. Then he shook his head sadly, as though regretting that he could not stay, and disappeared, so suddenly that it seemed like a snowflake, melting away in your hand.' 




Sunday, July 10, 2016

The Drizzler

Armour's the jewel for me of them all.
Somewhere in my new novel about the life and times of Robert Burns's wife Jean Armour, there's a reference to the practice of 'drizzling' and 'drizzlers'. When I first heard about this, the eighteenth century – and largely female – practice of snipping precious metal embellishments from male garments, with or without the wearer’s permission, and selling the gold and silver to be melted down, I was intrigued by the notion and of course, it found its way into the novel. You'll have to read the book if you want to know who, when and where! I say in the end note to the book that everything either happened or could have happened, so you'll have to make up your own mind about certain events. Although you might be surprised ...

Anyway, a good long while before I wrote the Jewel, I was so intrigued by the notion of drizzlers that I wrote a poem in the persona of one of them. I thought you might like to read it, so here it is.

THE DRIZZLER

The play’s the place for this game,
crowded halls, assemblies, balls.
I keep a pair of scissors in my
needle case, birds of steel, their
beaks as sharp as my tongue and
a spool for winding my booty on.
My skirts are a garden,
how my nimble needle flies.
A froth of smuggled lace at my wrist
hides my hand from prying eyes.

Peacocks are my prey.
Rich young men or old no matter
so long as their coats are fancy.
Roses, purls and picots are good,
dangling spangles are easy,
acorns are fine, fringes are better
but I have grown so bold that
I have slit silver buttons from their
waistcoats beneath their noses
and I remember one young buck who
wore medallions of beaten gold
with cupids and I had them I had them but
I was sorry to send such cherubs for melting.

Some women call their pillage flirtation.
What can their gallants do but submit?
But the covert assault excites me more.
I gauge them from behind my fan.
Up close, their hearts beat far too loud to
hear the slice of blade on blade.
They never see my work.
They’re watching the shady cleft
between my breasts, they never catch
the swiftness of my hand
between their baubles but
with their warm lips on mine
I’ll palm my shears and
clip their treasures one by one.

My mother died when I was
much too young to grieve.
My father pays lip service to thrift while
donning his powdered wigs, his velvets,
his hose, his ruffled linen shirts.
So I’ll take what’s offered elsewhere
snipping in secret, concealing my
rich pickings in my sleeve.

Later, I’ll tease my stolen gold from
silken thread and take it to the old woman
who weighs it on her scales and
hands me a few coins instead.
Pin money. It’s never enough
but the thought of this subtle robbery
makes me flush and catch my breath.
I’ll prick their vanity with my tiny shears.
A small piracy.
We are drizzlers.
We are buccaneers.




Monday, July 04, 2016

The Way It Was: A History of Gigha


Sorry for the rather long silence between posts, but there's been an awful lot going on here in the UK. Wish there wasn't. Glad I'm in Scotland.

Foxglove and fuchsia at Keill.
Anyway - my old/new book about Gigha is out now, and what a smashing cover (painted by Pam Carter) they've come up with at Birlinn. Lots of the research for this book was actually done in the little white cottage on the right of the picture, which is where we stayed for a number of summers: Ferry Croft One, very close to the beach.

This is an update on God's Islanders that was published some years ago, in hardback: a revised and updated paperback, just the right size for you to slip into your pocket and carry around the island with you. Gigha is one of my favourite places in the whole world, and I've set some of my fiction on an island not a million miles from Gigha as well. I'm already planning a new project with an island setting.

Misty morning at the ferry terminal. 
This morning, Undiscovered Scotland features a lovely review of the book. Once you've read the review, perhaps you should also visit the island. We were there for a few days - not nearly long enough - in early June and I wish we were back there now: it's a gem, small, but very beautiful indeed.






Monday, June 20, 2016

Bad Advice

A room with a view.
I'm at an age where - although not even considering retiring  - I've been looking back and taking stock of my career so far, wondering how and why I got here, what I'm planning to do next (that's easy - write a lot more novels) and what advice I might give to younger writers.

I do a lot of reflecting as I sit up here in my room-with-a-view, indulging in a certain amount of displacement activity before I get on with the next project. But regrets come when you wake up at four in the morning and can't get back to sleep, and fret over roads not travelled, decisions made or not made. Well, we do the best we can, and we forge on. I'm an optimist at heart.

But just sometimes, I think that I ought to try to pass on a little of my own experience because the internet is awash with advice for writers and so much of it seems to come from people with not as much wisdom, to quote my beloved Robert Burns, as 'a midge could rest its elbow on.'

Bad advice. My biggest regret is that over the years, I've heeded too much of what turned out to be bad or inadequate advice, even when my heart was telling me to ignore it. Often, it came from professionals. Often, they were wrong and my instincts were right. I should have taken the leap of faith and done what my impulses told me to do.

So what do I mean by 'bad advice'?
I mean situations where I trusted a fellow professional, but didn't pause to examine their motives and didn't give enough weight to my own instincts, the small voice inside me that told me to think again.
Examples?
Plenty, and not just about writing. But that's what this post is about. So:
Being advised not to go along with a request to adapt a piece of work for the stage because of the sensitive subject matter. I agreed with the advice, but it was the wrong decision.
Being saddled with the director from hell for a major stage production and being advised not to talk to the press and not to take my script and leave. Weeping in the loo was not a helpful option but it was the one I chose.
Was advised to stick my head above the metaphorical parapet on behalf of a certain organisation. Got shot down in flames. Said organisation decided there was nothing they could do about it.
Was advised by my then agent, producer and script editor, to work without any payment on a detailed proposal for a television serial because 'something' would come of it, it was such an original idea. Wasted the best part of a year on treatment, episode breakdown, pilot episodes. The whole thing was kicked into touch - then I saw the very same idea emerge as a successful movie for somebody else, years later.
Worked on another television idea, this time suggested by a large commercial organisation, again with no development money, revising it many times to suit their changing requirements, attended endless meetings, only to have it kicked into touch again. Unpaid because another adviser had told me that it would be worth it in the end.
I could go on.

Was I culpably foolish? You bet I was. Especially since in all these cases, the various organisations had approached me. I was still quite young. Very hopeful. Are writers doing exactly the same thing right now? Of course they are.  A career in writing is always the triumph of hope over reality. The only way to avoid some of the pitfalls (you'll never avoid all of them) is to step back and assess everything on its merits for you, personally. Even then, you'll make mistakes, but perhaps not quite so many as I did.

The reality is that you'll always have to do some work up front. Every creative entrepreneur does. Small companies go in for competitive tendering. Writers and artists work on proposals. Novelists write whole novels on spec. I know I do. Now that self publishing is an option, even if you're trad published, or hybrid, there's no real reason not to. But you need to know the limits, know when the game isn't worth the candle. If - for example - a large commercial media company wants a significant amount of work from you beyond that first detailed proposal or first draft, work that you can't really take anywhere else, then they should pay development money. If they aren't prepared to pay something, they don't want you enough and you've lost nothing by politely walking away.

The single most important thing you can do in all areas of writing, is to take charge of your own career, and make decisions based on what feels best for you. Expect to be a partner in any enterprise that involves your work. But remember that being a business partner involves significant responsibilities as well as rights: keeping to deadlines, keeping promises, not throwing toys out of the pram when you can't have everything your own way. In other words, you should be as professional as you can be.

Finally, take all advice with the largest pinch of salt possible. Including - I might add - this post!







Saturday, June 04, 2016

A Treasure Hunt and a Slightly Spooky Experience.


Last night was our annual village 'Car Treasure Hunt'. We've been doing these on and off for years. In fact it's a testament to the relative peacefulness of Ayrshire's roads, that they are still possible in these parts. For anyone who has never participated before, you pay a small sum towards whatever good cause has been nominated, get a sheet with a set of 'clues' and instructions - and off you go, filling in the answers to cryptic (sometimes very cryptic indeed) questions and directions as you go.

Last night there were four of us in a friend's car and the hunt involved an hour or so's drive along the winding back roads of Ayrshire, through the kind of countryside that Robert Burns would have known. It was a sunny night, and the countryside was looking its very best - in that wonderful time between spring and summer, when the verges are full of pink campion and a few remaining bluebells, where the hedges are creamy with sweet scented may blossom, and the gentle hillsides are ablaze with whin (gorse) blossoms. Everywhere, farmers were working hard at the silage while the weather was so congenial and the nights so long and light. It doesn't get dark till well past ten o'clock now and even at eleven there is still light in the sky.

In truth it seems very little changed in the 200+ years since Robert Burns roamed these hills and lanes with his current squeeze. It was a clear and very warm evening and it seemed as though around every corner was another stunning perspective across woods and fields, white farmhouses huddled into hillsides, and long vistas west towards the glittering sea and the hills of Arran, with Kintyre behind.

It often strikes me that the powers-that-be in Ayrshire do not know what they have in terms of scenery. If this kind of vista was anywhere else, it would be proudly promoted - the 'garden of Scotland', unspoilt landscapes of the Burns Country, and so on. I have no idea why there is, instead, a relentless focus on golf. I've no problem with golf, but there is so much more to Ayrshire and it's odd that even the people who live amid such beauty and such historical interest don't seem to notice it.

Anyway, there we were, driving slowly along yet another of the intensely pretty back roads when we passed an old farmhouse that seemed to be peculiarly sunk in time. It certainly leapt out at me and I couldn't quite say why. It wasn't part of the treasure hunt. There were no clues to be had here, and yet as we passed, I had the urge to ask our driver to stop so that I could go back, have a closer look, find out more. It just seemed ancient and interesting and for some unaccountable reason, it drew me. But, we were on a treasure hunt and we drove on.

Later, back at home (we didn't win, but we didn't do too badly either!) I followed the route we had taken on a map - not easy because we had been on a road that I didn't remember driving along before, even though I've lived here for many years - and there it was. To my amazement, I discovered that the house was Mount Oliphant. Which was the place where the Burness family moved from the cottage in Alloway where the poet was born. Rab later changed his name to Burns. It hadn't been a particularly happy place for the family - the land was, as ever with these small tenant farms, particularly bad. Landowners would rent them out and the poor tenants would be responsible for 'improving' them, often at the expense of their own health and strength. It was this kind of work in conditions much less warm and congenial than last night, that the poet described as the 'toil of a galley slave'. And so it must have been. It helped to destroy his own and his father's health.

The place is, of course, changed. But there is still something recognisable about it when you look at old pictures such as this one.

Mount Oliphant
There's something about the total immersion of researching a historical novel - which is what I've been doing for the past two or three years - that makes the researcher oddly sensitive to places. Whether it is or not, it feels supernatural.  And you find yourself meeting with slightly odd and unexpected coincidences like this one!

If you want to know more about exactly what I have been researching, you could seek out a copy of my most recent novel, The Jewel - all about the life and times of Robert Burns's Ayrshire born wife, Jean Armour. It's available in all good bookshops, as they say - and on Kindle of course, and in other eBook forms as well.





Sunday, May 22, 2016

Musing About Muses

Burns House Museum, Mauchline
I've been musing on the notion of the poetic muse. I did a bit of thinking about muses in The Jewel, given that Burns is on record as describing his wife, Jean, as his muse, but later commentators seemed determined to personify his muse in other, more majestic and less domestic ways. Actually, the poet himself also described his muse as 'Coila' - the spirit of the Kyle district of Ayrshire that had nurtured him, and given that he wrote so vividly about the natural world, this is entirely understandable.

Just as an aside, one or two people at various book events, have mentioned to me how pleased they are not just that Jean has been given her due, but that for much of the novel, the poet himself is depicted in summer. Not exclusively, of course, since the novel covers many years. But it's a sunny, spring and summer book and there is a sense in which Rab was so often a sunny spring and summer poet. He wrote about winter, for sure, but it's clear that he wasn't at his best in the winter months. I reckon now he'd probably be diagnosed with Seasonal Affective Disorder!

One of my favourite Burns songs is O Were I On Parnassus Hill, here in a delightful version by Ceolbeg. 'My muse maun be thy bonnie self,' he says, of his wife. 'Then come sweet muse, inspire my lay, for all the lee lang simmer's day, I couldna sing, I couldna say, how much, how dear I love thee!'

This poem has been dismissed as a 'vapid lyric' - by a man, obviously. I've read it to largely female audiences, all of whom seem to appreciate it immensely as a 'honeymoon poem' which is exactly what the poet intended. You know, that intense feeling when you can't bear to be apart from the beloved for any length of time? But perhaps modern men prefer more stately and intellectual muses.

muse
myo͞oz
noun
(in Greek and Roman mythology) each of nine goddesses, the daughters of Zeus and Mnemosyne, who preside over the arts and sciences.
synonyms: inspiration. creative influence,  stimulus.
formal
"the poet's muse"
a woman, or a force personified as a woman, who is the source of inspiration for a creative artist.
noun: muse; plural noun: muses

Anyway, I got to thinking - what about women? I've never had a muse.  Have you? As a writer, I've had - and still do have - a very supportive husband. Before that I had a wonderfully supportive father. On the other hand, I've known men who have been downright counterproductive as sources of inspiration although female friends have sometimes inspired me. 

But I never felt the need of a muse and wouldn't know where to begin searching for one. Maybe it was a good excuse for writer's block. The man could blame the woman (or muse) for deserting him. All the fault of her indoors as usual. 












Thursday, May 19, 2016

Launching a Novel: Pausing for Breath

Research material.
Last week was a whirl of train travel and book events for me: the Boswell Book Festival, followed by Blackwell's in Edinburgh followed by Waterstones in Argyle Street, on a warm and sunny evening in Glasgow. In between I managed to spend a very happy couple of hours chatting to my son - who had come down to Edinburgh  from Dundee for the occasion - in the gorgeous Cafe Royal in West Register Street, a place I used to visit occasionally with radio producers and other 'media people', back when I was writing radio drama for a living.


'You look very comfortable in here,' he remarked.

I studied at Edinburgh University and I lived in Edinburgh for five years in total, two of them in a big, shabby, cold, but beautiful flat in the New Town, and I still love the place. One of these days, I keep promising myself, I'll move back there.

Truth to tell, I love the book events as well. What's not to like about chatting to nice people about a subject you love? And this time, the questions have been fascinating, perhaps because so many people know about Robert Burns, have wondered about his wife, and are now really interested to hear more about her.

But it's also good to have a breather this week, if only to catch up on the mountain of paperwork that seems to have accumulated on my desk in a short space of time - as well as tackling the garden that was awash with mare's tail and ground elder. Besides, I have letters to write, books to post, people to email. And a husband with an art exhibition coming up next month to add to the confusion.

The book is going very well, I'm pleased to say. It is Scottish Book of the Month for May in Waterstones and Blackwell's Book of the Month too. I feel an extraordinary sense of pride in Jean, my long neglected heroine. You can't live with such a fine character for so long - a couple of years of intensive research and writing - without growing to love them.  I feel as though Jean is a friend. Rab too, although you'd find yourself coping with the warm blast of his charm.

Next week I've an event in Ayr and then what promises to be a really fun evening at the Globe Inn in Dumfries - where the poet bedded Ann Park - on 22nd June. (In conjunction with Waterstones)  I use an academic year planner - August to August - so yesterday I pinned up a new one because I'm beginning to be booked for autumn and winter and even a few dates for next year.

In between, there's a new project or two nipping at my imagination. Meanwhile, I've been thinking about muses. Of which more in the next exciting post!

Tuesday, May 10, 2016

Three Common Misconceptions About Jean Armour's Husband - and the Probable Truth.


In among various conversations about The Jewel, Jean and Robert Burns, over the past few months, both with individuals and with groups, I’ve realised that three misapprehensions about the poet are still current. These are beliefs I thought had been disproved by more distinguished academics than me years ago. Let’s look at them.

So many people have repeated the judgement that Burns was a drunkard. He wasn’t but it goes back a long way. A mean spirited Dumfries draper called William Grierson attended his funeral in 1796 and wrote that the poet was ‘of too easy and accommodating a temper which often involved him in scenes of dissipation and intoxication which by slow degrees impaired his health and at last totally ruined his constitution.’

Well, he was as fond of a drink as the next man at a time when a prodigious amount of alcohol might be consumed by the gentry perhaps even more than the poor. Partly this was because in the cities at least – less so in the countryside where houses might have a well – fresh water was at a premium and it could be safer to drink ale, although ‘small ale’ contained very little alcohol. Actually, Rab was probably less inclined to overindulge in hard liquor than most, although he certainly had his moments. But when you look at the body of work he produced, alongside a vast amount of clever, entertaining, thought provoking correspondence, as well as hard physical work, first as a farmer and then as an exciseman, riding some 200 miles each week, winter and summer alike – and being a loving father to a great number of children - you can see that the occasional spree is much more likely than any persistent problem. He was a social drinker on high days and holidays. He also thought the odd ‘session’ contributed to his creativity (as perhaps it did). He was occasionally led astray by men who ought to have known better. And during his last grave illness, alcohol seems to have given him some slight relief, if only as a painkiller. But it wasn’t what killed him.

He didn’t die of the drink, and he didn’t die of consumption either. The evidence seems to point to a diagnosis of endocarditis – chronic inflammation of the heart muscle – which would certainly have been a challenge to his ‘constitution’, especially for a man involved in hard physical work in all weathers. Then, in Dumfries, he had a painful tooth abscess, and it’s now thought that the resulting massive infection, at a time when there were no antibiotics, would be enough to trigger acute endocarditis. He became gravely ill, with all the symptoms of that painful condition and died the following summer. During his last few weeks, he seems to have been able to eat nothing. Milk mixed with a little port wine was all that gave him any relief. But the ‘flying gout’ diagnosed by the doctors of the time was only a way of describing the dreadful widespread pains that beset him during his last few weeks.

Finally, I’ve been asked more than once if I thought Rab was a violent man. Well, I reckon he was a lover not a fighter. Fond of fishing, he was no fan of shooting and once took a neighbour to task for wounding a hare on the borders of his land (and wrote a scathing poem about it afterwards). He was, nevertheless, a man of significant presence, physical and intellectual. He was a better friend than an enemy and was known to threaten to ‘skewer in verse’ anyone who overstepped the mark, like the Celtic bards of old. But his reputation was always for non-violence, for tolerance and good humour and there is no evidence that he was ever violent towards any of the women with whom he was associated.

Who knows just what went on with Jean in the stable in Mauchline when the couple were, frankly, at their lowest ebb in a great many ways. Was it overwhelming passion or something verging on assault? We have Burns’s own version in a letter to a friend, bragging about a coupling he had persuaded himself Jean enjoyed as much as he did. But Rab was a chameleon and could write what he thought might most impress an individual correspondent. We would know nothing about this episode if Rab hadn’t chosen to brag about it himself. We have the fact that Jean was struggling with a mass of intractable problems not least a second unwanted pregnancy, and she went into labour very soon after the incident. But even then, she undoubtedly loved this man. The tension between desire – theirs was clearly an intense mutual physical attraction – and Jean’s obvious vulnerability presented me with some problems as a novelist. My interpretation may be slightly shocking, but I suspect it may be closer to the truth than the poet’s version. Of course we should remember at all times that we are reading and writing about an 18th century man. Laddish he may have been, but for his time, the poet’s ability to project himself into the minds of the ‘lassies’ – to defend them and appreciate them and befriend them – is one of the things that most endeared him to me when I was writing the Jewel. I suspect Jean loved him for it too.