Putting the Story back into History

A guest post by Barbara Henderson

We like our stories atmospheric in Scotland, and who can blame us? Brooding hills, crumbling castles, poetry and song are the very fabric of our nation – and we have a history to match!

In 2016, a small independent publishing house was founded on the Isle of Lewis, about as north-westerly as you can get and still belong to Scotland. Anne and Iain Glennie’s office overlooks the Atlantic and is minutes away from the Callanish Standing stones, but they had a different vision for their business: publish quality Scottish children’s fiction, particularly historical books for their yesteryear series. 

I was their very first author signing.

Fast forward four years and Scottish publishing is bursting at the seams with creativity and innovation. Granted – the Covid-19 crisis is taking its toll with dips in both sales and literary events, but there is a reason Scotland makes for excellent stories. It’s a ‘story’ kind of country.

Author Barbara Henderson and her book The Siege of Caerlaverock.

All my books have been inspired by the Scottish landscape and by Scottish history. I particularly remember a family camping trip to Durness in Sutherland. We were simply passing the time on one of the most glorious beaches I know of, Ceannabeinne, when I noticed rubble and ruins on the hillside above. “I’m just going to check that out,” I shouted to my husband and children. Clambering up, I discovered a memorial walk. There had been a village of 50+ people here, with its own school. It existed in 1841, but was gone in 1842. During the infamous Highland clearances in many parts of the nation, rich (and often absent) landowners decided on the forcible eviction of all crofters from their land to make room for more profitable sheep-farming. There was a terrible cost, with homes often burnt over the very heads of their tenants. Forced emigration to the New World was common, but many died in the upheaval.

However, it turned out that this very village, Ceannabeinne, began a rebellion which became large enough to be covered by the major London newspapers. The local Master had waited for a day when all the men would be gone to cut thatch. On that day, he sent the ‘writ’ – the legal eviction document. Only women and children would be home. He presumed there would be no trouble, but he could not have been more wrong – according to historical records, the women and children of the village overpowered the man and forced him to burn his own writ! Story possibilities simply exploded in my mind! As a children’s writer, it was logical to place children at the heart of my narrative, and here was a perfect opportunity to do so. What if a girl was the first to recognise the danger? What if she began the fight? Fir for Luck was published and reached No 1 in the Amazon bestseller charts, but more significantly, it has become the go-to text in Scottish schools to teach this period in history. 

Another holiday, some years later, and the very opposite corner of our beautiful land. We were in Dumfries and Galloway, about as south-westerly as you can get on the Scottish mainland. I was there to fact-check my Robert Burns novella Black Water which was due for publication soon, but of course we had to keep the youngsters occupied on a day when the clouds hung low and periodic drizzle swept through the air. I discovered after a quick internet search that there was a castle nearby. “It’s called Caerlaverock,” I told the kids. “Let’s go there!”

The usual protestations from the now-teenagers ensued but we remained resolute – getting soaked while exploring a castle ruin was certainly preferable to a day in bed on their various devices. We set off and soon the well-preserved shape of Scotland’s only triangular medieval stronghold came into view. Even on a day the Scots call ‘dreich’, it was spectacular, by the coast and surrounded by a moat which reflected the dark clouds above. We set to explore. And that’s when it happened – I was unexpectedly assailed by story once more.

There was a siege here, in the year 1300, the displays told me. A siege in which the King of England crossed the border with 3000 men, but Caerlaverock Castle was only defended by around sixty. William Wallace, the rebel leader, was on the run at the time so the King sought to press his advantage and bring the rebellious Scots to heel – and it so happened that Caerlaverock was one of the first strongholds in his way. How do we know? By an extraordinary stroke of luck, a contemporary heraldic poem narrating the events of the siege survives, I read with interest.

I became obsessed, taking photographs of every angle of the building and every noticeboard. I had barely arrived back at the holiday cottage when my online order for a copy of the full text of the poem was placed.

The poetic text, now dog-eared and highlighted from many readings, was a gift of a story opportunity. Once more, it would seem that most of the men were from home – and that the Lady of the castle was in charge at the time. Here was a rare opportunity to put some female characters centre-stage in a medieval adventure story. My narrator is a twelve-year-old castle laundress, and her friend an eight-year-old page boy who has been sent to Caerlaverock, the Clan Maxwell stronghold, to begin his training as a knight.

Two and a half years later, and The Siege of Caerlaverock is published this August. Not everyone may be able to travel to Scotland’s story places with ease. But in books, we can book a front seat for Scotland’s landscape and history. 

 Where will you let a story take you?

Five other atmospheric children’s and young adult books with Scottish settings:

1.       Girl in a Cage by Jane Yolen and Robert Harris: Set during the Scottish Wars of Independence, like The Siege of Caerlaverock. DAUGHTER OF THE OUTLAW KING. PRISONER IN THE LAND OF THE ENEMY. When her father, Robert the Bruce, is crowned King of Scotland, Marjorie Bruce becomes a princess. But Edward Longshanks, the ruthless King of England, captures Marjorie and keeps her prisoner in a wooden cage in the centre of a town square, exposed to wind, rain, and the bullying taunts of the townspeople.

2.       Callum and the Mountain by Alan McClure. It’s a quiet wee village in Argyll, Skerrils. Not much going on. Shingle beach, pretty walks, peaceful library, exploding school, talking dogs, carnivorous monuments, interfering all-powerful nature spirits and a mountainous secret too baffling to tell… Callum Maxwell and his pals are in for the strangest, scariest, most exciting summer of their lives. I love how the author sprinkles in Scots words throughout. It’s a contemporary, unique and compelling book with an utterly distinctive voice!

3.       The Beast on the Broch by John K. Fulton. A lonely girl. A wild beast. An unforgettable friendship. 12-year-old Talorca is a Pictish girl living in North-east Scotland in 799 AD. When Gaelic-speaking Dalriadans arrive in her village, her world is turned upside down. Her only friend is the mythical Pictish Beast, who has been injured by the Dalriadans. This is one of my favourite children’s books, steeped in folklore and magic.

4.       Silver Skin by Joan Lennon, shortlisted for the Scottish Teenage Book Prize. Skara Brae, Orkney, the end of the Stone Age. The sun is dying, storms batter the coast and people fear the end of the world. When Rab crawls out of the sea wearing the remains of his Silver Skin, he throws the islanders into confusion. Who is he? Why has he come? Voy, the village wise woman, is certain he’s a selkie, a source of new power. Cait isn’t so sure.

5.       Where the World Ends by Geraldine McCaughrean. This novel won the prestigious Carnegie Medal. Set on the remote Islands of St Kilda, every summer Quill and his friends are put ashore on a remote sea stack to hunt birds. But this summer, no one arrives to take them home. Surely nothing but the end of the world can explain why they’ve been abandoned – cold, starving and clinging to life, in the grip of a murderous ocean. How will they survive?

Inverness-based Barbara Henderson is the author of historical novels Fir for Luck and Punch. Her energetic school visits are increasingly taking her across the length and breadth of Scotland, and sometimes beyond. Barbara has won several national and international short story competitions and was one of three writers short-listed for the Kelpies Prize in 2013. Find out more about Barbara and her writing at http://www.barbarahenderson.co.uk/ and follow her on Twitter @scattyscribbler and Facebook.

3 Comments Add yours

  1. Reblogged this on write4bairns and commented:
    Making the case for stories set in Scotland: A wee guest post on a US blog. Thanks for hosting me, Simply Scottish!

  2. This sounds like one of our holidays – seeing inspiration everywhere and over filling our minds with story ideas!
    Good luck with the book launch. I bought a signed copy at the Ullapool bookshop the other day and I’m looking forward to reading it!!

  3. Fiona Duigan-McKay says:

    Thank you Barbara for your interesting information. I shall send this to Don.

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