Review: In the Blood by Margaret Kirk

Shorter version already published on the Radio 2 Book Club group on Facebook.

I have a confession to make. No, I haven’t hidden a body anywhere! It’s just that (hand on heart) I am not usually a huge fan of murder mysteries. There, I’ve said it. If I read them at all they are usually ones set in historic periods. I am rather more inclined to the likes of Brother Cadfael (remember Ellis Peters?) than John Rebus, I suppose. During Lockdown I found myself avoiding dramatised versions too (not watched a single episode of Line of Duty) – reasoning, with half-baked logic, that life was already quite grim enough without inventing someone fictional in order to murder them.

For this Highlands-based series, however, I have to make an exception. I stumbled across the first, Shadow Man, a few years back and surprised myself by enjoying it, so much so that I looked out for the next, What Lies Buried. It was even better in my view. In the Blood is the third in the series. Can you read it without reading the previous two first? Of course you can, but I am willing to bet you’ll want to backtrack and fill in the gaps afterwards.

The reason for this guilty pleasure is personified in Lukas Mahler, Margaret Kirk’s enigmatic and convincing ‘leading man’ (much of Kirk’s writing shouts screenplay – this is crying out to become a TV adaptation). There has been considerable discussion about political correctness in detective fiction recently – some of the hard-drinking, disgruntled dinosaurs who have been around for years are aging with their authors and struggling, unrealistically, with the red tape of modern policing.

Mahler is very different – a modern detective who both kicks against and understands the system within which he works. He has a complex back story which is only being revealed by cunning degrees. A traumatic childhood. A foreign connection. A disturbed mother. And – something so many of us can relate to – migraine when under stress. Which he is, of course. Constantly. Some of it the job. Some of it, undoubtedly, self-inflicted.

In the Blood sees Lukas facing up to the death of someone he admired, someone who inspired him. The victim has died – truly horribly – in a remote corner of Orkney. He quite simply should not have been there. The reason he is forms the backbone of a plot rich in local detail ranging from drug-dealing to botany (straight back to Brother Cadfael’s herb garden for a moment), folklore and the occult. There is the tantalising addition of a hanging storyline involving Lukas’ love interest, Anna, and the echoes of how they met, plus a plethora of Orcadian and Highland characters (I have an especially soft spot for Fergie and his highly dodgy motor).

This is a landscape I am fortunate already to know, love and dwell in, but if you have never explored the Highlands and Orkney this excellent murder mystery could well be the trigger for the holiday of a lifetime.

Highly recommended.

For visually impaired readers, this large paperback features a dramatic red and black cover with a distant seascape and standing stones – possibly the Ring of Brodgar on Orkney.

In the Blood is published by Orion Books priced £14.99 and is also now available as an ebook.

Review: Of Stone and Sky by Merryn Glover

I aim never to ruin a book for future readers through review spoilers but with a book of this complexity and depth that may prove a challenge, so be warned…

A cover the colours of a Highland autumn…

Equally challenging, I suspect, will be the bookshop head-scratching over which shelf to put this on (I have a soft spot for genre-busting fiction but booksellers prefer their wares to be more easily categorised).  Here in the Highlands, readers will find it displayed under local author, of course.

Elsewhere in the UK, if placed on the fiction shelf, the fans of landscape writers such as Rob MacFarlane may miss it and they would love the generous descriptions of Strathspey, as much a character within this book as the well-crafted family which carries the narrative. It is a mysterious read too – but will it sit entirely comfortably on the mystery table? And to place it in the murder mystery corner would be over-presumptuous, for it is that elusive hanging storyline, with its string of clues found, which forms the backbone of the book.

In my view, bookshop proprietors, the solution would be a small table of its own, bang opposite the entrance.

Nor is this a novel about farming, or families, or friendship, or even faith per se, although Of Stone and Sky draws on all these themes. It is certainly a book which explores love, both the love of people for one another – brothers, youngsters, couples – and love of the place in which they live, to the point of obsession, to the point of madness. And the borderline between madness and sainthood can run very thin.

Through the midst of all this messy, gritty rural Highland reality strides a shepherd, a good one: he says scarcely a word and yet his presence – and subsequent absence – is at the heart of this novel. An elegaic note for a whole hill-farming way of life is sounded here and yet the leaving off of possessions, the passing on of a shepherd’s crook feels somehow spiritually uplifting and hopeful. A strange and potent combination.

The word which surfaces and resurfaces as I reflect on this read is real. I know this place too. I have worked within it. I do not just see its landscape but, to some degree anyway, I feel it. To me Of Stone and Sky now seems less like a story I have read than one which I have been told at intervals, perhaps by an unlikely yet appealingly teetotal publican, leaning across the bar of some battered Highland pub in Strathspey or Badenoch (that’s bade to rhyme with spade not bad with sad, incidentally). To anyone who raises an eyebrow at the appealing and unorthodox ‘otherly’ priest-pagan who figures prominently within the plot, I would counter with the story of a real one: a priest who decided his faith would be better served by starting a printing press in a deprived city area, who has helped many local folk overcome their addiction through employment.

If you prefer your Highland fiction to be of the skin-deep Fifty-Shades-of-Tartan variety, this probably isn’t the book for you. It is no light read. Of Stone and Sky is set in the real Highlands, where folk have always struggled against the elements and adversity to survive; where farming (and hill sheep farming in particular) is no longer financially viable without subsidy; where the hands of the rich and powerful have grasped the great estates since the eighteenth century. The owners nowadays are often wealthy and shadowy absentees – and yet they too have their place in the story and should be seen for who and what they are, not as menacing outsiders. They too can heft to place as the generations start to forge more meaningful connections.

The book’s poetic title (reminiscent in more ways than one of Tolkein’s allegory Of Tree and Leaf) suggests a book about wild places and that is the stage on which Merryn Glover places a generation of compelling characters, some more hefted to place than others, to act out their lives. I like my characters flawed and here there are flaws aplenty: a kind of reverse Cain and Abel relationship, star-crossed lovers, physical disfigurement; tragic people, damaged people, broken people – all bound together by the stones and sky which both define and envelop them. And they all feel so real to me now that I could reach out and hold their hand – or in a couple of cases, slap them, as appropriate.

This is a book to which I will return: so few people write about the realities of life here. The highest Highlands is no easy nor ordinary place to live, a sanctuary to many but a prison to some. Which view you take depends not just on wealth (although these days every penny helps) but also on whether or not you ‘hear it in the deep heart’s core’.

A compelling and unusual read which explores the world which is to be found between the visions of the Highlands as heaven and as hell – and I highly recommend it.

Of Stone and Sky by Merryn Glover is published in hardback by Birlinn, cover price £16.99.

Double digging…

This battered little fork hangs on the wall of my toolshed in perpetuity, its tines now so worn as to render it almost useless. I would never part with it: as with so many of my unlikely family treasures, there is story or two attached.

This is the garden fork with which my mother prised a new vegetable plot out of a raw field of twitch (couch-grass) at Drumcudden, the house she built in Cullicudden on the north side of the Black Isle, which was to became my childhood home. She levered so many boulders out of the thin soil that a small cairn rose in one corner of the garden to mystify future archaologists. Every time the fork struck another sullen lump of glacial quartz or granite (rounded and pounded by the river of ice which flowed from Ben Wyvis to Rosemarkie 13,000 years ago) it wore away the steel tines, just a fraction more. Mum said the sound of it, the feel of it, made her heart quail and her spine jangle – but she was, in this, as she was in all things, indomitable. Her garden kept us fed with delicious fruit and vegetables (and sprouts) all year round.

In retirement Mum moved to Fortrose and the fork went too. Her garden was smaller and less challenging so she took on the restoration of a dowdy area of rough ground on a new roundabout at Chanonry Point. With the help of a team of local people over several years, she planted wild bushes and flowers and grasses, creating a haven for wildlife; she found her fork could easily vanish into the undergrowth, so she added a circle of red insulation tape to the handle to make it more visible.

Then one day the fork toppled over and its handle split. She bound that up with black insulation tape – insulation tape always her go-to mend material. Why not just replace the handle? She was frugal, of course, but it goes deeper. For the same reason that I cannot take the fork to the Smiddy to be re-tined, she could not reheft it either. This wasn’t ever just her fork; so it is doubly not just mine.

As readers of Major Tom’s War will know, Tom, my mum’s father, returned to England from Germany some months after the end of the Great War. His wife Evie had already secured them modest rented accommodation on a farm in Burmington near Shipston-on-Stour (where both my aunt Libba and my mother Numpy were born in 1920 and 1922). It was at Burmington Cottage that Tom was finally, after an absurdly long wait, re-promoted to Major.

Five years of warfare had taken their toll on Tom; he was not yet fit enough (mentally or physically) to continue working as a solicitor. Instead he became a farmhand, operating a mechanical steam plough. Perhaps that is when he acquired this small fork – not too heavy, a tool he could handle without his damaged lungs struggling for breath. He has routed his initials, T.H.W., deep into the handle, perhaps to avoid confusion with those of others working on the land.

Eventually Tom recovered enough to take up a country solicitor’s practice in Manningtree, Essex. He and Evie bought a burned-out shell of a mediaeval house called Abbot’s Manor in Lawford. Restoring it must have been cathartic after the devastation Tom had witnessed in villages and towns in France. Together Evie and Tom made a garden, planting an espaliered Doyenne du Comice pear against one wall. The fruits were plump and green-golden, speckled with russet. Against another wall nodded the fat and floppy egg-yolk heads of an old rose named Climbing Lady Hillingdon. Doubtless Tom’s fork wore down its tines a little more in planting those.

Thirty years later, my mother left my father, in the bitter winter of 1968. She drove north through blizzards in an old blue Austin A40 which leaked oil the whole way to be reunited with her sister at her home at Drynie Mains on the Black Isle. Bobby, our feckless Dalmation and myself slithered on the beltless back seat, squeezed between an assortment of Mum’s most precious possessions: the family portraits and photograph albums (though she left one propping open the door of the marital home she fled), a silver teapot, some porcelain and this garden fork.

My turn now to have planted a Doyenne du Comice pear, a Climbing Lady Hillingdon rose and to add another, an old black-red French rose named Guinée, a gift from my own beloved sister. I think of it as Harnam Singh’s rose, the rose which represents all the Indian troops alongside whom Tom served: valiant and dutiful warriors, but also sons of farmers, who loved the countryside and who admired roses. It is a Guinée rose which graces the cover of Major Tom’s War, shedding its blood-coloured petals over the steel-grey cover.

These days I seldom use the fork, but once in a while I will take it down from its peg on a sunny day just to press it into the soil as far as it can go. It pleases me to think of its short tines being reduced still further by my own land.

My genes, precious gifts from Tom and Evie and my Mum, have taught me always to dig as deep as I can.

Happy gardening – and if you have a garden tool you also love irrationally, do share it…

Review: Islands of Abandonment by Cal Flyn

The greatest adventure story, the best thriller I have read over the last twelve months is not a work of fiction. It is this book by Cal Flyn, ‘Islands of Abandonment.’

With everyone from David Attenborough downwards warning us that the apocalypse is nigh if we human beings do not mend our polluting and over-populated ways, there is a risk that we become de-sensitised to the urgency of the message. This risk is doubled during a time of pandemic when the psychology goes ‘Look, no, sorry, can’t take any more doom! Pass me a slice of pizza and something entertaining to read, for God’s sake!’

It is essential therefore that authors like Cal Flyn come at the same subject from a fresh viewpoint and that some readers do engage with what she has to say, because it is essential reading, if frightening (her work is subtitled Life in the Post-Human Landscape).

Each chapter is an edge-of-the-seat adventure story. Alongside Cal, we crawl into dark tunnels by torchlight; we hear footsteps in the attic of the long-derelict house; we encounter a variety of ‘abandonment’ zone hosts, some more stable and trustworthy than others; we slither under the fence of a WWI woodland surrounding an area so toxic nothing has grown there since (this one had particular resonance for me, having visited the battlefields and read Lars Mytting’s ‘The Sixteen Trees of the Somme’). There as elsewhere, Flyn bends or breaks the law in pursuit of her goal – access to the unthinkable; to areas of our planet today which foretell what it may all become tomorrow.

There is a Mad Max dimension to her encounters with the often-below-the-radar human inhabitants of these strange, off-limits places. There are those who need to stay out of sight of authority for a plethora of hair-raising reasons, those who are waiting, waiting, feeding white mice for scientists who will never return; those who have become obsessed with the volcano which has robbed them of their home.

Humans are not however the main focus of ‘Islands of Abandonment’. Flyn instead shows us that our planet really does not need humanity to survive, which we may or may not find comforting (I most certainly did). She argues that sometimes even well-meant human intervention is less positive than leaving Earth alone to mend itself. Nature is reclaiming even impossibly contaminated places such as Chernobyl and somehow species which live there are adapting and surviving. This does not mean they are not sick, changed, poisoned, but they are still here. Fragile humankind is however much less resilient and able to change in these circumstances, although some are trying hard to bring about that change.

This book should be read by anyone with an interest in rewilding (it is in a way a global take on Isabella Tree’s ‘Wilding’, about the Knepp Estate near London). My favourite chapter focused on the island of Swona, which you can see en route for Orkney from the mainland. Cattle were abandoned there and have defied all attempts to ‘help’ them by herding them on to boats. They are now many generations wild and have become the focus of study by scientists. Their behaviour is entirely unregulated by farming and they have become a true herd again, led by a bull who, when deposed in old age, departs to dwell in peace on an isolated area of the island, and around whom, when he sickens and dies, the whole herd gathers to pay its respects.

Enjoy your next steak…

I envy Flyn her (pre-Lockdown) travel budget if not the focus of her writing. Stand by to visit Scotland, Cyprus, Estonia, Ukraine, Detroit, New Jersey, Staten Island and California in the USA, France, Tanzania and Montserrat. Everywhere she visits has been abandoned by humanity for a variety of reasons: natural phenomena such as the eruption in Montserrat; social, military and political change; and sheer inhabitability caused by human pollution, sometimes brought about decades ago. Our human inability to think/care about beyond one’s own lifetime/benefit has already served the planet very badly.

Some scientists are already predicting the end of human society as we know it within the next decade. This is no longer the potential problem of future generations, it is our own. Flyn tells us that there is already a ‘Voluntary Extinction Movement’ – which makes more sense after reading this book than it did before. Our human future will now involve an increasing number of ‘no go’ zones due to global warming, pollution, radiation and over-population. It is a bleak prospect for us – but as Flyn shows us in this fine piece of writing, it is not so bleak for a planet which has infinite potential for reinvention.

Like Rachel Carson before her, Flyn sheds a brilliant light on the unspeakable and unthinkable future of humankind. It is a warning but not one altogether without hope. An important and beautifully written book, this is a ‘Silent Spring’ for the 21st century.

Would make an excellent book club read.

Review: Empireland by Sathnam Sanghera

#Longread review alert! NB a shorter version of this review appeared in the Radio 2 Book Group in February 2021.

Every now and then a book comes along which stops you in your tracks: one which really matters. Empireland by Sathnam Sanghera is one such read. It is currently out in hardback and (soon, doubtless) will appear in paperback. Its cover is adorned by a fat British bulldog crouched at the top of a lofty column. I found myself wondering how author and publisher arrived at both title and cover image. The book could have been called The Empire Still Strikes Back. Its cover could (should?) have been blood red.

Sanghera is a well known author, journalist and broadcaster and so is accustomed to being in the public eye: with this book he has however experienced trolling as never before.
Although some Lockdown trolling can be attributed to isolation and frayed nerves, Sanghera has been trolled for a different reason: he has dared to ask his readers to think – that’s it, just think – about the legacy of Britain’s colonial past.

Empireland questions the often fervently-held but misguided and anachronistic belief that we are a godly nation which has unfailingly brought British ‘values’ (whatever they may be) to inferior countries, always to mutual benefit. We still justify our imperial past with a cry of ‘oh, but we gave them the railways…the civil service…the legal system…’ etc; but this notion of a munificent and altruistic British empire is a long-standing self-deluding lie.

As a colonial nation we brought countries (to which we had no legitimate claim) into the Empire by stealth or by force. We deposed legitimate leaders. We murdered people, often in cold blood, for imperial gain.

We eradicated first peoples (Sanghera describes, chillingly, how a long line of British soldiers walked across Tasmania, shooting its original inhabitants with no more concern than you would a rabbit). We sold others into slavery and took what was not ours to take: people, wealth, produce, property, territory. The word ‘loot’ is an Indian one for a reason. Our museums and our stately homes are still full of this imperial plunder.

Not every plundered object held here could or should be returned to where it came from – but if return is not possible then the story of its theft needs to be given equal weight alongside its origin, its antiquity, its craftsmanship or its value. Institutions such as The National Trust should be celebrated for exploring this issue, not criticised, as has (unbelievably!) been the case in recent months.

I would like to have seen an additional chapter in Empireland which showed how religion and empire co-operated to lethal effect (supplanting the valid belief systems of first peoples with Chistianity, often brutally imposed) but perhaps the author will explore this in a separate work, as it is a huge subject.

BlackLivesMatter opened up discussions about the legacy of slavery worldwide. In the UK it will be remembered for the toppling of statues of slave traders such as Edward Colston in Bristol. Sanghera stops short of describing such actions as futile but does urge far greater positivity and creativity of response. His lively suggestion would be leaving such statues in situ and pelting them with rotten fruit once a year. My own would be to topple them without damage but then to leave them in situ, suitably interpreted, removed from their literal and metaphorical pedestal – so that our children can look down on them and see they were, after all, just men.

In a local museum two dull but worthy Victorians portraits have always hung in a quiet corner. After reading Empireland I looked at them with fresh eyes.These were ruthless merchants, opium barons, the drug royalty of their day, who were in it for the money. They spent no time reflecting on the ethics of their enterprise and merit no respect.

Sanghera points out that Empire was built on action – often bold, reckless and dangerous action – and not on intellect. The legacy of this today is catastrophic.

Reading Empireland coincided with my studying the history of the North West Frontier, where generation after generation of not especially bright but bold and brave boys who joined the army were massacred by the local residents who not unnaturally objected to their alien presence.

These actions are still being written up as heroic by historians today but they were anything but: at best they were inadvisable and illegal, at worst suicidal. 21st century military historians are generally male and they love their subject, which can lead to a dangerous fondness of the past. Sanghera’s book works because he is NOT a historian.

Sanghera points out that we have been conditioned to value such heroic failures as the Massacre at the Khyber Pass in 1842 more than success. A retreat from Kabul without loss of life would not have caused the flicker of an imperial eyelid.

And who reached the South Pole first? Not the ill-equipped and poorly-led Robert Falcon Scott – but the clever Norwegian Roald Amundsen, who listened to indigenous locals and planned accordingly. And yet as Sanghera points out it is Scott’s ‘heroism’ – which led to the horrific and untimely death of his entire party – which is commemorated and celebrated.

We are all damaged by this colonial legacy. The imperial past continues to affect our psychology today. Sanghera shows how we like our politicians to be jovial buffoons. We (and they) still use the phrase ‘too clever by half’ as a criticism of intellect. At Oxford David Cameron was a bright outsider, while Boris Johnson, his inferior academically, was somehow the golden boy. This attitude pervades our politics too and recent catastrophic political decision-making for Britain stems largely from a popular mistrust of clever people and institutions. Bring back the intelligent, dull politicians whom we can trust!

I know Lockdown is hard on everyone, and that comfort-reading novels is entirely understandable – I do it myself (and I’m even writing one…). We are all going to be changed by our experiences over the last year and few of us for the better.

Please, though, consider reading this remarkable book. Especially if the first thought which springs to mind after hearing the word ’empire’ is ‘biscuit’. If enough of us read books such as Empireland, it could just change Britain, and the world, and our children’s futures, for the better.

Review: A Promised Land by Barack Obama – review

#LongRead review alert!

NB a shorter version of this review was first published in the Radio 2 Book Club Discussion Group.

I generally never read political memoires but was given this enormous first edition for Christmas. I have had to prop it up on a pillow to read it as my hands are quite small!

If you want to understand how Donald Trump came to power, make yourself read this book too. From the moment Obama was elected the Republicans closed ranks and opposed everything he tried to do – even when individually they often admitted they could see the benefit in what the first Black president of the USA was trying to achieve.

Parts of it made me want to cry out of sheer frustration that grey and blinkered bigots like Mitch McConnell could behave as they did. Attempts to derail new policies aimed at reducing climate change make particularly painful reading, especially since we know who it was who succeeded Obama and what Trump attempted during his toxic presidency.

Racism, often unspoken, floats just beneath the surface of politics in America like a slick of toxicity, often extinguishing all energy for positive change. Obama, an able and decent man (whose memory for names, places and the detail of his campaign and presidency is extraordinary) tried hard to make the world a better place. He and his remarkable team were, to a degree, successful. That they were not entirely successful is largely down to a political system no longer fit for purpose, which has sought to derail democracy itself using democratic processes – and institutionalised political racism.

Obama makes a valid comparison with the rise of fascism before WWII in the way Republican opposition evolved over his tenure. I could not help wondering if, had Hillary Clinton won instead of Obama, we might have had Biden next and be looking at Obama only now? Trump might then never have reached the White House: I think the racist Republican response to Obama was greater than would have been the sexist Republican response to Clinton, who as Obama admits was the tougher and more experienced politician at the time.

The global erosion of democracy by the far right is far from over. Trump may be out of the White House, but the Hydra has many heads.

Top reader tip – there are loads of unfamiliar-to-Brits acronyms (like TARP – nope, me neither) only defined in the index – so keep a pen and paper handy.

Vee Walker is an author living on the Black Isle the far north of Scotland. Her WWI novel Major Tom’s War was a prizewinner at the 2019 SAHR Military Fiction Awards.

A tale of two covers…

Left, the hardback cover; right, the paperback

This blog post was inspired by my Canadian cousin Cathy Brydon, who is related to me through my grandmother’s side of the family. After congratulating me on the paperback of Major Tom’s War, she asked, slightly ominously – ‘but – the cover – whatever has happened to Evie?’

What indeed. One minute my beloved grandmother is there on the hardback, clutching a rose, and the next, on the paperback edition, she has vanished.

Cover anxiety is a very real thing!

A cover exists to protect the book within, but should also to communicate the essence of the book to the reader. The original cover’s beautiful artwork is by the Canadian Sikh artist Keerat Kaur (www.keerat-kaur.com). Evie stands tall in her red cross uniform, offering a (highly symbolic) rose to Tom. He gazes down at her through rather spooky white spectacles.

We had a tight launch date for the hardback and the last editorial and cover choices had to be made at a bewildering speed. I remember seeing the final version for the first time at the book launch at the National Army Museum and it being a bit of a shock. The whole process had felt, understandably, rather rushed, and I was jittery (and authors very seldom love their covers at first, apparently).

The process of cover design had however begun months before, with a completely different concept – a bright red background with the silhouette of a horseman emerging from it, face on. It seemed oddly familar and yet I could not work out how. I posted it on the Women In the Arts Scotland Facebook Group and the answer soon came back – it looked (entirely coincidentally) very like the cover of this popular edition of Michael Morpurgo’s fabulous book War Horse.

The WIAS responses were divided in those early days on whether this similarity would be a good thing or not. Some thought the instant gut response – WWI! Cavalry! Man and horse! – was appropriate. I felt, probably a bit arrogantly, that I wanted the cover for Major Tom’s War to be unique, just like the book.

A word here about my extraordinary publishers, Kashi House (www.kashihouse.com). Their creative team had quickly come up with the initial Morpurgo-esque cover based on a photograph they had and some clever computer design. If I had just said yes to it – and I almost did – it would have saved them all time, stress and money. And yet, even though Parmjit Singh and his team were already operating beyond full stretch (setting up for their massively successful London exhibition, Empire of the Sikhs), they politely took on board everything I had said and scrapped the prototype. We started from scratch, and Parmjit commissioned Keerat to produce something far more original and memorable. Not just that, but they also added shiny copper lettering for the title – and a silky dust-jacket. Both hardback, and, now, the paperback, look – and feel – sensational.

As I mentioned above, Keerat’s initial design did not in fact have Evie on it – her figure was added in response to my feedback. Back in 2018 I had been anxious about going with Tom alone – would it alienate my female readers? Would it look like a work of non-fiction?

I have learned a lot about the process of bringing a book into existence over the past two years. I now understand that a book cover’s job is to make you want to pick it up/click on it and ideally take it home/order it, simple as that. We were trying to do a bit too much with the first edition cover – and that was my fault.

The paperback gave us the perfect chance for a rethink. No-one wanted to start from scratch, thank goodness – the hardback cover had built the foundations for the book’s identity well – but it was clear that shrinking it to fit the paperback would result in some detail being lost and would not work.

After Major Tom’s War won a prize at the SAHR Military History Fiction Awards, and several other reviewers had Said Nice Things about it, there was also the need to give space to some of those Nice Things Said on the paperback cover. Dame Penelope Keith DBE, DL wrote me a beautiful letter from which we quote just one compelling word on the front – ‘Unputdownable.’ This is also a subliminal suggestion of course – ‘please don’t put it back down – take it to the till instead!

When I realised we would have to lose Evie to make way for the Nice Things Said I thought the rose would have to go too – and that made me sad. As you will know if you have read it, roses crop up as a bit of a leitmotif in Major Tom’s War. The rose is also symbolic of the unlikely tenderness which blossomed between Tom and Evie. Designer Paul Smith (www.paulsmithdesign.com), who gave both editions their classy overall look and feel, cleverly isolated the rose and lifted it to the title above, allowing its petals to fall, and settle, on Daisy’s neck.

The single petal lying on Daisy’s neck, to me, symbolises all the horses who died or were injured in the Great War.

The beautiful SAHR prizewinner’s rosette, bottom left, matches the title colour and catches the eye – but sadly would not do so as much if set against Evie’s dark uniform.

Still pinching myself!

The spooky specs were a bit of a surprise at the book launch and were possibly the result of crossed wires between my desire to make Tom look more human and last-minute discussion with Keerat or Paul. Again views on the specs are divided: Daniel Scott at the book’s distributors, Allison & Busby, said he thought they might draw the eye and so attract sales.

Now you see them…

Others thought they were ghostly and offputting, myself included, and so Tom’s specs are less intimidating on the paperback. Who is right? Who knows?

…now you don’t.

The first paperback I lifted out of its nest of tissue paper (and stroked, crooned over and sniffed – come on, don’t we all with a new baby?) convinced me that the book is now, if not perfect, certainly as I had always imagined it. I think we have taken the right cover decisions – but of course only time – and future sales – will tell.

Enjoy the read – within whichever set of covers you have chosen. And thank you to Parmjit and Keerat and WIAS and Paul and Daniel and everyone else involved in the wild ride thus far 🙏🌹.

Major Tom’s War by Highland author Vee Walker will be out in paperback via all good booksellers from 19th November priced £9.99. It is already available as an e-reader edition and in hardback.

Vee will be signing advance copies of the paperback at Storehouse of Foulis near Dingwall from 11am to 3pm on Saturday 14 November 2020.

Remembering remembrance…

The poignant CWGC war graves of those British soldiers who died liberating the town (Bavay cemetery). They so nearly survived the war.

My earliest memory of Remembrance Sunday involves my mother at the wheel of her green Morris Traveller, a redoutable half-timbered vehicle, half car, half cupboard. We lived in Kirkhill then, it was Sunday and we were late for church in Fortrose and so she was driving faster than normal. We came round a bend and there, to our mutual horror, was the Remembrance Sunday ceremony at the war memorial at Tore. Dignified veterans scattered as we unintentionally roared through the centre of the parade at precisely 11am. Mum was so mortified she wept – but she kept her foot and head hard down for fear of being recognised as a respected local teacher. ‘Oh, what would your grandpa have thought?’ she gasped.

This was over fifty years ago now. The road layout by the church has been changed to correct the blind bend, and the church is no longer even a church. Things change. Life has moved on and yet, at this grey time of year, as autumn crumbles into the cold earth of winter, we continue to remember those who have died as a result of war.

Evie, daughters Libba and Numpy my mother, Tom

The Armistice is commemorated with even greater solemnity in France than it is here. 11th November is a national holiday. In Bavay, a small town devastated by two world wars, children lay bouquets adorned with tricolor ribbons. The difference is invasion. Channel Islands apart, the UK did not suffer the agony and humiliation of military overthrow and control by a hostile foreign power. In France they remember the fallen but also the relief of a double liberation just 26 years apart.

Tom, my mother’s father, was in Bavay for the very end of the war. Even though he was then married, the last year of WWI was the hardest of all for him: he returned from convalescence after gassing to find his Indian cavalry brothers had all been sent to Mesopotamia. He was now an Assistant Provost Marshal (a military policeman) for a division and could not accompany them. He would never see his Indian cavalry friend Amar Singh or his right hand man Arjan Singh – or any of them – ever again.

The statue of Risaldar Major Amar Singh near Takkapur in Punjab, with my poppy cross.

During the retreat from the Somme in March 1918, Tom held back men fleeing in chaos at gunpoint and tried to stem the flood of desperate refugees. These scenes remained with him as recurring nightmares to the end of his life.

When the Armistice was announced on November 11th he was one of the first to know via a signal he then copied out by hand and distributed to the maires within the area.

Talking with the pupils of Amar Singh High School

How do I know this? Back in 2018 during my Armistice Day visit to Bavay, an elderly lady knocked on the door of the Auberge de Bellevue where I was staying. She was the grand-daughter of Gaston Derome, the maire of Bavay, who wrote my grandfather the thank you letter which led me to Bavay on the first place. She handed over a cardboard box. Inside were Gaston’s diaries.

Short of time before my departure I found the entry for 11th November. This paper fluttered out at his feet – and I bent and picked up Tom’s note to Gaston giving details of how the Armistice was to be conducted.

Gaston’s war as a civilian was arguably worse than Tom’s as a soldier. Widowed just before the war, and with four young children, he was arrested, threatened with execution more than once, imprisoned and interned.

Tom rode into Bavay on 7th November and the battle to liberate the little town lasted two days. A shell exploded at Gaston’s house, narrowly avoiding both Gaston and Tom. I have stood beside the door where it happened.

Tom’s name in Gaston’s cramped handwriting – a little misspelled but no doubt about it- appears under the words le prevôt maréchal – the provost marshal

In a way the writing of Major Tom’s War has been a personal journey of commemoration. I hope the paperback will soon reach the descendants of Amar Singh and Arjan Singh in India, and, one day, once the French translation is complete, of Gaston Derome in Bavay.

Over 74,000 Indian Army soldiers died in WWI. And of the 40 million casualties worldwide, 10 million were civilians. Lest we forget.

Vee Walker’s award-winning novel Major Tom’s War can be ordered now from the publishers Kashi House (www.kashihouse.com), Waterstones and Amazon RRP £9.99.

A moving museum in all senses…

‘Mum, how far is it to Gairloch?’ piped my younger offspring from the back seat.

‘Oh, only about an hour,’ I lied cheerfully, as we drove west along Fortrose High Street.

The museum’s striking new Pictish Fish branding…

As soon as I had heard that Gairloch Museum, recently relocated to new premises, had won the 2020 Art Fund Museum of the Year Prize, I had told them that like it or not, We Were Going.

Out of the corner of my eye I could just see my husband rolling his eyes from the front seat but chose to ignore it. ‘I shall probably just sit in the car and listen to sport,’ had been his main contribution to the discussion of the trip the night before. My younger daughter really wanted to stay at home and crochet hats, a new-found lucrative (she hopes) hobby. I told her she could crochet in the car. My elder daughter had shown rather more enthusiasm for the trip although I think the magic words ‘sandy beach’ and ‘lunch out’ may have had a lot to do with that.

In fairness to my beloved family, their response to a potential museum visit is probably of my own making. Years working in museums (notably HMS Belfast in London, the Imperial War Museum’s largest collection item) and heritage (‘Look darlings! Another lovely old house. Yes, with columns…’) even before I started my consulting business meant they had probably reached cultural saturation point long ago. Or so they thought.

Breathtaking views from the roads to and from Gairloch…

It was a beautiful autumn day, which helped the drive, and the colours and reflections were breathtaking. We had timed our visit to allow for lunch and first enjoyed a meal at the Barn Restaurant at Big Sand – recommended by the museum team. We had already passed the new museum site on our approach – if Gairloch is spread along the coast road like a long, slow smile, the new museum is a rotten tooth made bright and white and whole again.

The museum sporting its Museum of the Year winner’s banner

At some point during the journey I had let slip the fact that the new museum had been created in an old nuclear bunker. The responses to this were predictable: will it be radioactive, then? All the old che sera sera prejudices. Will it be chilly? Will it be kitsch? Libraries are silent. Museums are cold. And bunkers glow in the dark…

The initial impact of the museum is one of new-build modernism, a stark white cube with one of the key exhibits from the collection, the great russet foghorn from the Rubh Re lighthouse, jutting up in the foreground. It looks much bigger than it did at the old museum site. In fact, everything does. I longed to know what it might sound like. Would it be feasible to have a once-a-day foghorn blast, I wondered, a bit like the One o’ Clock Gun at Edinburgh Castle?

The mighty and Monty Pythonesque Rudha Re Foghorn…

I did not know the old museum well but visited on a couple of occasions for meetings with its doughty curator, Dr Karen Buchanan. It had long outgrown the wee croft of its original site with various larger exhibits spilling over into the area outside it. Inside the original was a couthy jumble of contents, affectionately assembled over the years. It was lovely in its informality but it also resembled oh-so-many others – and the heating and lighting were so poor that conservation conditions were the stuff of nightmares. I remember, for example, glancing without great interest at a large ridged glass object tucked into a dark corner.

The kind and welcoming reception team at the new museum…

Well. The lens from the lighthouse at Rubh Re now provides the brilliant heart of the new museum. As with so many other exhibits, improved display, giving objects more room to breathe, now stops visitors in their tracks. You can see the top of the lens peep, enticingly, from behind the reception desk. It dazzles in the first museum space entered (my elder daughter kept looking at the small lightbulb inside it, unable to believe the impact of its multiple reflection, which once saved so many vessels from the rocks). Audio here (with sanitiser) provides first hand accounts of lighthouse life. And the hanging galleries suspended around the first floor also provide a view of the lens from above. This is how to celebrate an iconic object.

One small bulb to light up the sky…

There was sound here too. The gallery to one side of the great lens is dedicated to the early protesting outdoor worship of the Free Presbyterian Church (I confess the phrase ‘have you seen the light?’ flitted through my mind at this juxtaposition). The best preachers could attract hundreds and sometimes thousands to their open-air services. A recording of Gaelic psalm-singing led by a precentor filled the space. My younger daughter said it reminded her of something – but she couldn’t remember what, and the moment passed.

On the opposite side, a polished axe and arrow heads floated beautifully within their cases. ‘So you can just find those in the dunes?’ asked my elder daughter, with a gleam in her eye (we did try later, but no luck). I remembered finding a similarly-marked clay pot at Kindrogan Field Centre when I was my younger daughter’s age, during a brief spell when I fancied archaeology as a career. We found ourselves talking, really talking, about something other than COVID 19 and what was for dinner for the first time in way too long, and it felt good.

Both girls and husband loved the upstairs interactive gallery and the sight of them bouncing repeatedly on the foot plate to try to cause an even greater earthquake was highly entertaining.

Making the earth move…

I liked the display of taxidermy here. One school of thought suggests that stuffed birds etc should now be confined to the flames out of a sense of respect – but this would not bring them back to life. Isn’t it more respectful to see them contribute to learning? Artful display at small person level means a child can now look straight into the wild face of a golden eagle. That engagement could trigger a lifelong fascination for these fabulous birds. This is not to endorse the killing of wildlife today, just making respectful use of the taxidermy we already have.

Eyeball to eyeball with aquila aurea…

We liked the crofthouse recreation (much discussion over the pros and cons of a box bed) but I found the lack of a sustained period of illumination without keeping your finger on the button a wee bit irritating and photography here was a struggle. 20 seconds would do fine.

The crofthouse interior

The little school display after this was every inch my own Highland primary school at Inchmore. It made my palm itch and had me wondering where the tawse was, but perhaps I missed it.

The Dominie’s fearsome desk…

It is not often my husband sings, but he did so when he found the little grocery shop recreation. The gallery was soon reverberating to ‘Zubes, zubes, zubes, zubes, zubes are good for your tubes…’. Good thing he was wearing a mask. ‘Oooooh, but they were rough…’ Savouring the memory, he wandered on, the man who had just been going to sit in the car outside and listen to sport.

Longest exhibit stay time here in the shoppie…

Nearby, ‘Yarn!’ exclaimed my youngest, admiring twisted hanks of hand-dyed wool in the exact shades of autumn visible outside. She wondered if she could crochet the stockings on display instead of knit them and suddenly we we were discussing the relative merits and even the mathematical properties of the two techniques.

You can buy the pattern for the famous Gairloch stockings in the shop…

In the final gallery before redescending the stairs, I found myself confronted by a familiar sign warning trespassers not to set foot on Gruinard Island, site of a  misguided experiment in biological warfare using anthrax. My mother had told me the story as a child and I vividly remember the shock of this sign in situ. I still find the concept of deliberately poisoning soil to gain military advantage profoundly disturbing.

The chilling anthrax warning sign for Gruinard Island…

The use of the space is clever – elevating the bicycle and spinning wheel reminded me of Alan Borg’s groundbreaking refurb of the Imperial War Museum in the 1980s, when large collection items were suspended from the roof for the first time. I liked the temporary exhibition area too, currently housing an attractive art exhibition.

Local art for sale…

How the designers have contrived to make a concrete bunker feel so warm and welcoming is anybody’s guess. The staff/volunteers at the reception desk were a delight both over the phone in advance and in person. (They could maybe mention that the loos are halfway through the visit not near reception in that arrival briefing? Or perhaps they did but I missed it).

The view from the upper galleries…

One thing I should have asked, but failed to, was how much of the site we missed because of COVID closures. There is a good one way system based on simple sticky arrows on the floor with social distancing and sanitising in place where there were objects which could be handled.

Audio is still available and can be sanitised before/after use. ‘Touchable’ items are clearly indicated.

I glimpsed a bright and spacious research room and the café is not yet up and running for COVID-related reasons. If there were outdoor spaces the route did not include them. We browsed the classy shop and bought a few nice bits and bobs, then went on our way rejoicing, to risk our necks on a steep and slippery track down to the superb sandy beach nearby.

One of Gairloch’s many magnificent beaches

Both girls fell fast asleep on the way home, just as they used to when they were small – but as she was drifting off the younger suddenly remembered what it was the Gaelic psalms reminded her of. ‘Istanbul,’ she said. Absolutely true. I am not sure what the local Free Church minister would think, but to us the Gaelic psalms sounded very like the imam’s plaintive call to prayer at Agia Sophia in the centre of Istanbul, ancient Constantinople, which Viking settlers hereabouts would have called Miklagard.

We drove home without mentioning COVID once, the girls dozing, my husband still singing the Zubes song under his breath and myself thinking warm and fuzzy thoughts about the universality of worship. We have promised ourselves a return visit to Gairloch’s Museum when all areas (and its own café) are fully open. What an asset for Gairloch – and for the whole of the Scottish Highlands.

Shoals of Pictish fish acknowledge individual donors…

Looking for Eliza

Georgian silver spoon with family crest, soft dark brown Demerara sugar

Before I begin this blogpost, I should acknowledge that several others before me have ‘looked for Eliza.’ Black Isle historian David Alston has spent many years studying the murky connections between the Scottish Highlands, plantation owners and the slave trade. Twenty years ago he found the beginnings of Eliza’s story. I have drawn extensively on David’s meticulous research work for the timeline section in this blog (see also https://www.spanglefish.com/slavesandhighlanders/index.asp?todo=redo&pageid=222591) and he has kindly checked my text. I am further endebted to local historian Elizabeth Waters and her neighbour Sharon Jallow in Union Street and to Sheila Wickens in Seaforth Place for their interest and support and to members of the Fortrose and Rosemarkie Past and Present Facebook Group for their kind help. I have gone out of my way to check that local house owners are happy with all images used. I am also most grateful to Gavin Maclean at Fortrose Academy for sharing the blogpost to his school’s Facebook page.

My reading of Gerda Stevenson’s moving poem Demerara was the starting-point for this short project. I am most grateful to Gerda for allowing her work to be quoted here (it follows as an image). The idea was triggered by an animated discussion within the Black Isle Noticeboard page on Facebook related to the display and later removal of #BlackLivesMatter posters from the mercat cross in Fortrose – coincidentally a significant location, as you will see. Someone asked me then if I had read Demerara – and I hadn’t.

Demerara

by Gerda Stevenson

Eliza would have been as familar with the view from Greengates, the ancient Pilgrims Way from the Chanonry ferry to the Cathedral as we are today

I decided then to try to pull together in one place, this blog, what evidence remains today of the life of Eliza Junor (1804 – 1861). At present it is in draft form and I plan to update it as new discoveries/corrections come to light – David Alston’s research into Eliza is ongoing. All feedback is welcome and I will happily include the discoveries of others here.

It is unusual and pleasing to be provided with such detailed context material for a poem. The title is often the only clue as to meaning other than the words themselves. The aim of Quines is to celebrate and commemorate ‘the women of Scotland’. This is a wonderful anthology: thought-provoking, full of contemporary meaning as well as period detail and language. The women of Quines are real women, not always famous women: saints and poets and astronomers and dancers and folklorists but also ordinary folk, like Eliza, to whom extraordinary things happen. She differs from the other subjects in one significant respect. Her prize for ‘penmanship’ would be unremarkable, were it not for her birth: an accident of parentage in which she had no choice.

Gerda interprets Eliza as a young woman, a victim of casual early 19th century racism, in particular from the harsh tongue of a female host who has invited her to take tea.  There is also a clever nod to the sugar ‘strike’ which helped to speed the abolition of slavery. This modern use of Eliza’s memory helps the poet shed light on the deep and knotted roots of modern racism. It is a poem which should encourage us all to reflect on ‘then and now’, inclusion and exclusion and the pernicious myth of ‘us and them’.

ELIZA JUNOR’S TIMELINE

1804

Eliza is born in Essequebo or Demerara to Black Isler Hugh Junor and an unknown mother, probably either a slave or a ‘free coloured’ woman.

1816

The Demerary & Essequebo Royal Gazette reports on Saturday, June 8:

‘This is to inform the Public that the following Persons intend quitting the Colony:

Hugh Junor in 14 days or six weeks from April 29.

William and Eliza Junor, free coloured children, in 14 days or six weeks from April 29.’

Eliza is therefore 12, her brother or half-brother four years younger. They may or may not have shared the same mother.

These notifications of departure and arrival are sometimes found in colonial newspapers of the period, aimed at preventing ‘a moonlight flit’ leaving unpaid debts. The dates suggest it took Hugh, Eliza and William two and a half months at most to travel the 7,500 nautical miles to the Black Isle from Guyana. The journey was perhaps broken in London, where Hugh Junor, Eliza and William’s wealthy plantation-owner father, may have kept a town house. Or perhaps they broke the journey back at Greenock.

Eliza and William were christened on August 21st at Rosemarkie Church. It is likely this would have happened very soon after their arrival home in order to speed their acceptance locally. The records show that ‘Elizabeth, daughter of Hugh Junor Esq of Essequibo, was born on the 11th September 1804, and baptised by Mr Wood on the 21st August 1816,’ and ‘William, son of Hugh Junor Esq above designed was born on the [left blank] and baptised by Mr Wood on the 21st August 1816.’

1817

On 19 September Hugh marries Miss Martha Matheson, daughter of Colin Matheson of Bennetsfield, who was the chief of Clan Matheson, so Eliza and William acquire a Highland stepmother.

1818

The metal bar above the school gate into Seaforth Place (NB no public access) once carried the school bell. It was highly unusual for a girl to attend a grammar school, normally only for boys, but attend it Eliza did.

In 1818, the school records for Fortrose Academy show that Eliza wins a prize: ‘Fortrose, 15 December 1818: For Proficiency in Penmanship, Miss Elizabeth Junor, from Demerara.’ It is interesting that the Rector or whoever wrote the entry has appended her place of birth, when she had already been living in the area for over two years. Still seen as exotic, then, not local? Was Eliza herself keeping the memory of her homeland alive, or were others intent on not allowing her to forget?

No one building within Seaforth Place (NB no public access) is known as Seaforth House today. The building on the left was the Academy building. The building just visible on the right was where the hardworking masters lived: paid very little, they were expected to teach both school and Sunday school and to care for the boarders too. The school syllabus was on a par with that taught at Eton.

To compare this with an archive pic of Eliza’s former school in the late 1800s, see https://www.ambaile.org.uk/detail/en/39234/1/EN39234-old-grammar-school-and-teachers-house.htm

Eliza may also have attended some classes in the gloomy Cathedral Chapter House, which was also used by the academy during her lifetime.

1820

Eliza is 16 and her schooldays may be at an end. David Alston has found that Hugh Junor pledges a donation of £20 to Fortrose Academy, but appears never to have paid it out.

1823

Hugh Junor dies (perhaps in Demerara, as no sign of a grave or memorial in Rosemarkie kirkyard). Eliza is just 19 years of age, so not yet independent of her father’s family. Hugh leaves her a legacy of £500, but she would have been unlikely to be able to control it until she turned 21. David Alston points out that if invested this would have paid out £25 per year so while useful, not enough to live on without other income.

1826

Eliza is 22 when her step-mother Martha remarries the Rev. Archibald Browne, the first Presbyterian chaplain in Demerara. He is a supporter of slavery who has published three sermons in pamphlet form in 1824 ‘On the Duties of Subjects to their Sovereign and the Duties of Slaves to their Masters’. The Brownes then travel to live in Demerara, as we know a step-sibling (no blood relative to Eliza) is born there.

1828

Eliza does not go back to Demerara with her stepmother and her new husband. She pops up again in Edinburgh, calling on a friend or acquaintance there, accompanied by a Miss Gregory. Could Eliza already be learning the dressmaking trade in Auld Reekie?

1833

Slavery is finally abolished throughout the British Empire, although in practice slavery continues in many forms. Eliza has never herself been a slave, but must retain some memory of her early childhood on the plantation. We know nothing of her own attitudes towards slaves or slavery, or how she views her own origins. What we imagine of this aspect of her life will always say more about us than it will about Eliza.

1837

Eliza’s 33rd year sees an abrupt change in her life and location. Unmarried, she gives birth to a daughter, Emma, on 15 November at 18 Great Hermitage Street, Wapping. This is London’s noisy and bustling East End, close to the docks. The father is recorded as Thomas McGregor or McGrigor, gentleman (according to David Alston, possibly a Thomas McGregor, born Kirkhill in 1803, who later lived in Brighton).

1841

Eliza is now 37 and living in Brixton. with (we assume) her 3-year old daughter Emma McGregor – but according to David Alston she may now using a false surname [Menn? Mann? Nunn?]. Possibly Mann if she chose a known Fortrose name as an alias?

Why Brixton? At the time, it is a relatively quiet semi-rural area on the outskirts of London (complete with a windmill). Healthier than Wapping for a child, perhaps. In the eighteenth century, London had a high population of slaves and former slaves. By Eliza’s time their numbers were dwindling, mirroring the decline in support for slavery, but some of their descendants must have remained.

To see William Hogarth’s illustration depicting an African in 18th century London, see http://www.bbc.co.uk/history/british/abolition/africans_in_art_gallery_01.shtml

This Brixton period, which may have lasted up to a decade, is the biggest questionmark of all in Eliza’s story. Why did she do this? If in the mid 1800s Brixton is already a place to which people of colour are gravitating, is she hiding herself and her daughter among them? Why? Is Emma’s father contesting her right to keep his child? Or is Eliza simply wanting to be free of his control? Could it be a positive choice to live among people with similar stories to her own?

1851

Ten years later, an Emma McGrigor is to be found enrolled as a pupil at a small private school in Pennard, Somerset. Is it Eliza’s daughter? If so, why so far away, when 47-year-old Eliza, who has become a dressmaker, is now living with her married aunt Catherine Mackenzie (60) on the south side of the High Street in Fortrose? It was not uncommon for children to be ‘boarded out’ in awkward parental circumstances.

At this time Eliza and her aunt are known to have occupied a house on the south side Fortrose High Street, where, given Eliza’s trade, they quite possibly ran a dressmaking/clothing business.

1861

The long, low grey slate roof is all that now remains of ‘Greenside,’ No 3 Union Street

On census day Elizabeth Junor, 57, dressmaker, is now recorded as living at 3 Union Street, Fortrose, still with her aunt Catherine Mackenzie, now a widow aged 70 – and a visitor, Emma McGrigor, a governess, aged 23, who was born in England. The wealthy Junor family owned a row of several houses at the top end of Union Street. ‘Greenside’ is likely to have been the long, low one to the north of the fine old pink manse St Katharines, formerly accessed from Castle Street. (In the 1881 census the same house is occupied by another Junor, Penelope, a widow and her children plus other occupants, possibly lodgers or sub-lessees).

Only the roof now remains of ‘Greenside’ (a connection with Greenside Farm at Rosemarkie?), as part of it was demolished a few years ago to make way for the construction of a larger modern house on its garden plot.

Elizabeth Waters’ image of part of 3 Union Street while being demolished a few years ago. The roof was later replaced to form an archway. Note the fireplaces on the upper and lower floors

Emma is perhaps visiting Union Street in 1861 because her mother is unwell. Eliza dies on 20 April – her death certificate gives her father as Hugh Junor, West India Planter (deceased) and names no mother; the cause of Eliza’s death is unknown, so it was not perhaps ‘expected’; and the death was reported by her daughter Emma McGrigor.

Eliza’s tombstone also commemorates her brother William

Eliza is buried in Rosemarkie Kirkyard, surrounded by other Junor relatives, not far from the main path and the west end of the kirk. Her brother William’s death in Buenos Aires is commemorated on the same stone by the hand of a different mason. Eliza’s inscription is cut larger and deeper than that of William: carved to last.

Telling Eliza’s story today

Many people of colour feel that the challenges they face in modern life are no longer connected with slavery. Some find this continued automatic association offensive. Whoever tells Eliza’s story must understand this and proceed with due respect and caution. Inclusion is vital. Eliza did exist. Not to tell her story for risk of offence is in itself a form of censorship. This is a fine and difficult line to tread.

Eliza’s school, Fortrose Academy (where she won her precious prize for penmanship) was not in the current building. At the time it was located in Seaforth Place, a stone’s throw from the mercat cross – where local youngsters were to put up their sharpie-and-corrugated-cardboard #BlackLivesMatter posters some 200 years later. A poignant reminder of the freedom of speech fundamental to democracy which risks erosion today.

The current Academy building, founded in 1891, has echoes of its predecessor in the 1791 date on its clocktower.

For a novelist, the temptation to read between the lines of Eliza’s life story is almost overwhelming. Even though I have tried to resist, a number of rhetorical questions have still slipped into the timeline.

Hugh Junor’s relationship with Eliza and William’s unnamed mother, for example, range in possibility from the casual rape of a slave by a master to a loving or at least tolerable relationship with a ‘free coloured’ woman: although the lack of any indication of her name may make the latter unlikely.

There is also the small matter of a 7,500 mile journey to school. It was unusual for any girl to be educated at a grammar school of the time but not unheard of. Hugh must, at the very least, have had some feeling of responsibility for his children, to bring them home to the Black Isle for their schooling. We do not know if he was also fond of them, but must hope he was. Living with her Aunt Catherine for as long as she did would, I hope, indicate affection as well as expediency. She need not have returned to Fortrose from London. And yet she did. Racism began to consolidate in society from the 1830s onwards after the abolition. Could experience of that have hastened her return ‘home’?

Likewise, we know nothing about Eliza’s relationship with Emma’s father. He may already have been a married man. She is 33 when she has her baby – no slip of a girl to have her head turned. They may not be married, but Thomas MacGregor or McGrigor (who may or may not have been a gentleman from Kirkhill, near Beauly) appears to have been present at Emma’s christening, even if the clerk still registers the birth as illegitimate (in flowing copperplate, nicely ironic). At the time Eliza’s own illegitimacy may have been as great an obstacle to any ‘good’ marriage as her Guyanan bloodline.

And why then does Eliza relocate from Wapping to Brixton, apparently to live under an assumed name? The range of options here extends from fear to proto-feminism; a woman fleeing a man who has raped her and with whom she felt for a time obliged to live – to a strong woman’s desire to be rid of a controlling lover. In between is the possibility of a woman seeking a better place in which to raise her child.

We do not know what Eliza and William looked like. A portrait (possibly still in the possession of a Junor or McGregor/McGrigor descendant) would be an extraordinary find – by no means impossible. Again, there is a whole range of genetic possibility. In the 1800s the colour of Eliza and William’s skins, eyes and hair would have greatly impacted on how the children were perceived and accepted here. Resemblance to a Highland father or to a Guyanan mother could have meant the difference between remaining in Guyana on the plantation and a new life in Scotland.

Eliza’s grave on the left, close to the path and kirk; her stone is also the memorial to her brother William who died in Buenos Aires

As to Emma McGrigor, Eliza’s only child, her appearances in the 1841 and 1851 censuses may be coincidental. After her appearance in the 1861 census, there seems to be no further trace. Did she marry? Emigrate? Change her name? So far I have been unable to find anything of her later life although I have looked hard. I hope others will keep looking.

It is very hard to tell Eliza’s story without either politicising or romanticising it. In my view we can however deduce from the position of Eliza’s neat tombstone in Rosemarkie burial ground, so close to the kirk and main path and surrounded by other family members, that she was accepted here in the Black Isle, if not respected and, perhaps, loved. Interestingly, Gerda Stevenson has not yet been able to visit Eliza’s grave. I wonder if doing so might have changed her poem in any way?

We can never understand Eliza’s now-distant life in full – but the fragments gathered together in this blog should at least encourage us to question closely our own attitudes to race and otherness. If all youngsters going through Fortrose Academy could be taught Eliza’s story and be encouraged to share it with others – one Eliza Assembly every year for all First Years, perhaps on the anniversary of her death? – that would be a good practical outcome. So would the creative use of Eliza’s story in any way which ensures it continues to be told and retold.

Eliza Junor’s life mattered – and it still does.