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.


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 is born in Essequebo or Demerara to a Black Isle father, Hugh Junor (who owns a timber business there in Guyana). Timber was much in demand for buildings associated with sugar plantations. Eliza’s mother is unknown; probably either a slave or a ‘free coloured’ woman.


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.’


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.


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.


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.


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.


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.


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?


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.


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).


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?


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.


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? How ever far away she moved, however she reinvented herself, childbearing would have risked her having a child of colour. 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.

#BlackLivesMatter in the rural Highlands too…

The only bad argument my family has had since Lockdown began has been about the #BlackLivesMatter protests: one person maintaining that it was all somehow ‘America’s problem’ and that there was no ‘serious racism’ in the UK, others taking very different viewpoints.

I believe all racism is serious and yet I wasn’t planning to blog about #BlackLivesMatter. Why? Good question. Probably, if I am honest, out of a fear of flack; that by saying anything at all, I might somehow ‘get it wrong’ and be vilified.

Then an incident happened to change my mind. The admin of a local Facebook noticeboard site I like – the one where people ask for help finding a plumber, thank the NHS, hunt for local property or post pretty pictures of local scenery etc – took down a photograph very like this one.

This may have happened for good but misguided reasons: the admin may have wished to avoid inciting riotous assembly during Lockdown, or may have perceived the posters as political statements. Both perceptions are wrong, as this is a Covid-appropriate protest unlikely to foment a desire to march along Fortrose High Street. The #BlackLivesMatter movement transcends politics. Yes, it may well be politically manipulated at times, but if that leads to the fall of any racist and corrupt political figure, I for one will not be shedding any tears.

What interested me in particular was the instinctive choice of the old mercat cross for this small act of corrugated-cardboard-and-sharpie protest. Please don’t be sanctimonious and say it is defacing an ancient monument. People have been taping or propping up notices on and against the mercat cross, myself included, quite literally for ever.

Once the mercat cross stood in the north-western corner of the cathedral grounds. It has not been moved: more extensive in the past, cathedral land stretched from the High Street to Rose Street, from Union Street to Academy Street. The main function of any mercat cross is to grant the right to free assembly, so market traders could come together and flog their wares. Whichever king granted one to a town made the calculation that its people were staunch good citizens unlikely to rise against him.

Mercat crosses became the Facebook noticeboards of their day. Here you would stand to seek employment, protest and share news. Perhaps, in 1833, Fortrose folk stood at the cross to be told that the beginning of righting an ancient wrong had come about with the Abolition of Slavery Act. We know the name of Wilberforce but that achievement was also in part brought about by a small, domestic act of protest: women in the main refusing to buy plantation sugar. People here in the Black Isle would have been among them.

There are echoes of slavery and the #ToxicColonialism which brought it about everywhere. Many of the great houses in the Black Isle and farmland were bought with or built on ‘black gold’, plantation wealth. Does it mean they should be torn down today? Of course not. They are happy 21st century family homes. Those who live there cannot and should not now be held responsible for the sins of our forefathers. But we do need to acknowledge those sins existed, talk about them, understand not just who and when but why, share the story with all local children. History lessons should include the shameful, the uncomfortable and the horrifying as well as the entertaining and the the progress and the military victories.

The toppled statue of the slaver Edward Colston in Bristol should surely now be removed to a museum intact and interpreted there as a warning. Melting down his effigy in bronze does not right his wrongs or punish him, for he, like those he oppressed, became dust long ago. I would keep this statue horizontal. Why? So that he can be looked down on, a powerful metaphor, so that the act of toppling him can also become part of the story, to be interpreted to every generation hereafter as the moment, perhaps, when viewpoints really began to change.

Travel helps understanding. I am old enough to have visited South Africa under apartheid. I was taken to Soweto for a tour. We visited a school. Our group of all-white tourists was led straight into a classroom without knocking. The teacher stopped mid-lesson. The children stood, their eyes on the floor. How many times a day did this happen? My mother, a teacher herself, was outraged and tried to apologise but our white guide prevented it and moved us on. I was 14 but have never forgotten it.  I also visited Zimbabwe when it was Rhodesia, less oppressive than South Africa at the time but still a culture shock. The fact that both countries have suffered terribly in the aftermath of the overthrow of white rule does not make that white rule any more justified. One led to the other, both of them outcomes of #ToxicColonialism.

As a linguist and genealogist I know that there is no such thing as ‘pure’ race. Indo-European tribes journeyed north, settling as they went, creating fledgling languages and nations. My own bloodlines come from many places, including a ‘quadroon’ (mixed race) heiress from a plantation family in Kingston, Jamaica. Unusually there is a family portrait of her. A beautiful, dark haired and dark-skinned woman. Perhaps my own skin and hair owes a tiny debt to her. My DNA testing also shows me to be a real mixed bag, more European than British, more Scandinavian than Scots.  Am I still white, and privileged? Of course I am. But I have thought about all this, and thought hard, and quietly tried to become the best iteration of myself that I can. I met my best friend in France and her children are half French, half Congolese. My own children have grown up seeing them as part of the extended family.

Without my Sikh publishers Kashi House, Major Tom’s War would probably never have seen the light of day. Through them I was able to travel to India, to overcome many preconceptions and prejudices and, yes, fears, and to make friends for life. In India, I was often the only white person among Indians in a land scarred and severed by #ToxicColonialism. I was treated with immense curiosity at times but also with unfailing courtesy and such kindness I felt humbled. Strangers helped me, chatted, shared their food, just as I have often helped strangers myself, here in the Highlands.

As the way forward I believe in a world of small countries which interconnect, not in superpowers, who are still forcing #ToxicColonialism on us dressed up, for example, as vile trade agreements for importing chlorinated chicken.

It is heartening to see that some of the youngsters where I live are still capable of independent thought rather than living through the chillingly manipulative culture of Instagram and TikTok. So if you pass the merkat cross and see their notices, stop for a moment. Read them. Think. Pray if you are of a mind to. Don’t just tut-tut or accelerate past them or worst of all, take them down. Our beleaguered democracy may be on the ropes at present but we do, still, just, have the right to freedom of speech.

Long may it last.

Hefting to place during Lockdown 2020

Carved ‘Derby Ram’ at home in our garden and repainted during Lockdown

Here is an interesting thought: during Lockdown we are all ‘hefting to place’. Hefting is the term used for moorland-bred sheep which can be released on to the hill where they were born without wandering away – there is an internal boundary in their heads as to where they belong which they never cross.

Rosemarkie Beach

I think Lockdown will have two very different impacts on humankind. Firstly, many of those who have been imprisoned in cities and large towns will want to move out, seeking refuge in the countryside as a more natural place to live through a lockdown if it happens again. The population in rural areas will expand. People who cannot move permanently will wish to holiday here. Highland second home ownership and tourism will boom.

First bluebells

Secondly, those who already live in more rural areas like the Black Isle, including folk who commuted to work in towns like Inverness or Dingwall but live in the countryside, are hefting, perhaps unknowingly, to place.

Daily exercise

How? Well, we are walking our boundaries, a territorial habit as old as man. We are getting to know every tree, rock, hedge or wall intimately. We are watching the seasons change. We are learning to tend our gardens and to grow again: seeds, plants, ourselves. We are looking at the circle of our horizon with curiosity. We are getting to know and supporting our neighbours and local shops as would have happened naturally 100 years ago. We are slowing down, forced to live smaller and more simply.

Watching the skies, the horizon…

Some of this will evaporate when Lockdown ends of course and people gey back to work Some, but not all. The natural world has changed for the better during Lockdown. Let us hope the human world has learned from the impact of Lockdown too. It will be very difficult to live as we did before, without realising the harm we were inflicting through the effects of our previous fast-paced modern life.

When putting in a new planter yesterday I found this underneath an old bucket – a field mouse’s magnificent stash of hazel nuts and plum stones for the winter. Its whole small world comprises my garden. And for a few months my own world has not been that much larger.

I replaced the bucket and put my planter elsewhere…

Prizewinning toffee…

…or cold? Tough to tell them apart!

Why is it always so hard to announce that you have won a competition (and yes, thank you, I know it should be ‘one has won’, but it already sounds pompous enough to say ‘I have won a prize’)?

As a Brit I am hard-wired to be self-deprecating. I had my first taste of this when Major Tom’s War won that prize at the SAHR Military History Fiction Awards last year. I found myself saying things like ‘oh, it was nothing really,’ when in actual fact it was a huge, life-changing deal to have someone outside my publisher and my immediate family acknowledge that the last ten years of my life had not been a complete waste of time.

I have been writing professionally for over 20 years as a hired pen. I know I am reasonably good at it, as I have been doing it for long enough. Wordsmithing for my clients where text is often approved by committee is however a very different kettle of fish from the flying-without-a-net world of creative writing.

The view of Lochan an Ais opposite Knockan Crag and the hills beyond

So you know what? I am going to admit here, quite openly and honestly, that winning the Hugh Miller Writing Competition 2020 means a lot to me.

This time the prize is not for a novel but for a fictional short story, Cinder Toffee. This means I can believe that Major Tom’s War was not just a fluke or a one-off. It means my publishers Kashi House can call me a prizewinning author and I will not immediately succumb to imposter syndrome. So thank you, judges. This really does make a difference.

Knockan Crag

The Hugh Miller competition is rooted in Scottish geology, inspired by the remarkable writer, geologist and man of science Hugh Miller, born in Cromarty on the Black Isle. I am not a geologist but always have pebbles in my pockets and still walk along nose to the ground, always looking for my dream ammonite or the perfect geode to crack open.

This season I should have been joining the National Trust for Scotland’s team at Hugh Miller’s Cottage and Birthplace Museum in Cromarty as the property’s summer assistant. Then along comes coronavirus to derail the whole of humanity. This prize is also a surprise compensation for that disappointment (I hope to pop up there next year, ‘if we’re spared’, as it soon may become traditional to say once more.) So do come in and say hello.

My short story is set, in part, in a claustrophobic Edinburgh University vestibule, and, in part, in the wild, wide, open spaces of Knockan Crag, on the border between Ross and Sutherland. The photographs were taken on a day-job heritage conference in Inverness a few years ago. I returned to Knockan Crag for the first time in many years then, on an excellent field trip organised by Scottish Natural Heritage. It rained, of course, but not all the time, and the excellent fresh interpretation on site intrigued me.

Life-size interpretive figures of the geologists Ben Peach and John Horne

Peach and Horne are two names weel-kent within geological circles. Now, I hope, they will become more widely know as a result of people reading Cinder Toffee. These two represent an extraordinary flowering of largely male expertise in the 19th century in the field of the ‘outdoor’ sciences: geology, biology and botany in particular. Their sweet tooth is entirely fictional. The rest of their story is as close as I could come to how it must have felt – within the 2000 word limit and the three days I gave myself to write it.

What did they discover at Knockan Crag? You’ll need to read the story to find out – but this recipe provides a clue!

You will find Cinder Toffee here, among the other excellent prize-winning entries (good to see Cromarty Primary pupils keeping their end up for Hugh Miller). Soon there will be an audio file of me reading it aloud too. https://www.scottishgeology.com/hughmiller/

The impact of coronavirus means that there can be no prizegiving. It would mean a lot to the gallant committee of competition organisers if my own story and the work of all the other prizewinners could be passed on by word of mouth as worth a read.

If you enjoy my writing style and would like to read Major Tom’s War, it is now available on Kindle (as a revised and expanded second edition) for under £5 and there are still hardback first editions available direct from myself (if you would like a signed copy get in touch via www.majortomswar.com) or my beloved independent publisher www.kashihouse.com.

Interpretive carvings in two of the many rocks to be found at Knockan Crag

The guilty pleasures of #Lockdown as at Easter 2020…

I am about to dip a toe… no, to wade… oh hang it, to plunge… into some very choppy waters. So here are some gratuitously pretty Easter pictures for you to enjoy, even if you hate me for what I am about to share.

Many professional writers are confessing to finding themselves ‘blocked’ during this lockdown (while poets are producing some sizzling work, but that is another story). I am, alas, no great shakes as a poet. After all, why use 3 words when 300 will do?

My own major work in progress, Brother Joe, is therefore in limbo (sorry Joe. Your time will come, your story told. Just not quite yet.) This is partly because the storyline, planned long before the outbreak of COVID-19, covers the 1919 Spanish influenza pandemic and dealing with that feels a little too prescient at present.

One of my creative writing ‘tutees’, whom we will call Joanne, confessed last week to finding it hard to settle down and write anything. I decided that a simple diary piece would be an appropriate goal for our next ‘literary encounter’. I then opted, somewhat rashly, to support Joanne by writing one myself.

Well. At first, of course, I avoided the task altogether. I felt guilty, too, for wanting to do other things; everything, anything but write, in fact. Then I tried a step-by-step documenting of my day, as agreed with Joanne. I reread it the following morning to discover that I had risen, dressed, walked, gardened, read, spoken, eaten at punctuating intervals and then gone to bed. Exactly the same everyone else? Not quite. Not in one majorly significant way.

Only once I began to wonder why this should be the case did words began to drip, and trickle, then flood out of me. What you have here is a distillation of that.

Joanne soon contacted me to say that something similar was happening to her. Should she stop? No, I replied. Let’s surf the wave and see where it takes us. I have to say that what she has produced is far, far better than this piece, which amounts to an expiation.

The thing is, you see, that I am happy. There, I have said it. Happier than I have been for years. Isn’t that just appalling? Especially when those around me are increasingly stressed and miserable. I realise that it is an entirely peculiar and selfish happiness, but it is also the honest truth.

Yes, of course part of me is still very much afraid. I know more and more people are dying, many in grim circumstances, unacknowledged in the official statistics. I know our beloved, beleaguered NHS, starved of political empathy and funding for so many years, is on its knees. I know I may also in part only be feeling this way because I am locked down in a beautiful, tranquil rural part of the Scottish Highlands little, as yet, affected by COVID-19. I also know that I may hate myself next week or next month if the situation worsens.

Why is it I cannot bring myself to scurry around the local paths during my exercise hour, eyes fixed grimly on the ground, as many seem to? Why do I find myself stopping, standing, staring at the clouds, noticing the subtle daily changes in nature?

Happiness in my life up until now has often been counterbalanced by extreme pressures (for various reasons) in both my family and my professional life. This paradoxical #lockdown contentment is a different kind of happiness. This list is my best guess at the reasons for it.

1. My closest family are here at home with me and all are well. In the past I have taken this for granted. Not any more.

2. I never again expected to have both my daughters, now young women, living with me under one roof for any length of time. That feels like a miraculous gift.

3. I have time to keep in touch with others I love via social media, phone and email. I am using my writing skills on digital platforms, a new adventure for me, and enjoying it. I am using my French to bring together French speakers from all over the country. I have always been happy to communicate by the written or spoken word, often more so than face to face.

4. The four of us locked down together (age range 17 – 74) are taking time to understand each other’s needs far better than we have done before. We are being honest with each other, possibly for the first time ever.

5. The daily hour’s exercise forces me to concentrate on my fitness. I am convalescing from surgery. Under normal circumstances I would probably not be taking time to recover properly. I am exercising gently but I am also resting. It feels so good.

6. After the initial shock and panic of no work (which for me means no AirBnB bookings, no teaching and no heritage consulting) we have worked out how much we can live on. It is surprisingly little. We will survive. Travelling as much as we did for work and for pleasure generates the need for more and more income generation. It is an unnecessary cycle.

7. I have set up a support group for my neighbours, and as a family we are helping them practically in any way I can. We are getting to know some well, one or two for the first time ever. We have not been near a supermarket or even placed an order online for over a month. I do not miss it. It is perfectly possible, here, to live locally. People are bartering skills, food, plants. This is the world I want to live in.

What these seven points have in common of course is the feeling of my world shrinking, of enjoyment derived from slowing down, of taking the foot off the pedal, hitherto so rare in life. There is also gratitude, not to terrifying COVID-19, but to the beneficial impact our response to it has had on our home planet.

Looking back at life before the epidemic, I feel like we were already collectively holding our breath, waiting for something to happen. Our excessive lives whirled ever faster, out of control. Planet Earth has been sickening for years and we have known this – and ignored it. The planet has now taken action to heal itself. Unless we heed this shot across our bows, we risk entering the Age of the Pandemic, of which COVID-19 is merely a mild foretaste. This virus could depart only to wheel, adapt, mutate, return. If it does, humankind could become a short and grubby footnote in the history of this ancient planet.

Will I be glad when this #lockdown ends? Of course I will, but again, not entirely. I have greatly valued this time of being able to stop, draw breath, think. All I pray is that those in power realise that things must never go back to ‘normal’; that the old ‘normal’ was slowly killing us and destroying the planet on which we live.

Humanity now faces a stark choice: mend our ways – or become extinct. I am a resolute optimist and I believe it can and will happen – providing others, like myself, can also begin to say ‘Enough! We need a better way of life.’

Reflecting on all this, my heart still wants to dance. Yes, my logical brain knows that I too may catch the COVID 19 virus and die; but somewhere deep inside me a small voice, which may or may not be called faith, is saying yes, but you were always going to do that anyway. You were never immortal, even if your species likes to pretend it is. So live while you can, but live better.

Foolproof flourpot cheese souffles

There is this whole bonkers mystique about souffle-making. ‘It’s hard’ (no, it’s not). ‘It won’t rise’ (yes, it will). ‘It’s extravagant’ (six eggs to feed four? Don’t think so). Any cook who can make a thick white sauce and beat egg whites into stiff peaks can make a souffle. This mixture is based on my 4 x GGrandmother’s recipe from 1810.

Two hot, feather-light souffles just out of the oven

Why flowerpots? Well, when I was a kid a famous TV chef and MP named Clement Freud (back in the days when politicians had integrity, talent and personality) made bread in the shape of flowerpots. It was one of my mother’s favourite recipes. I kept the medium-sized flowerpots she used and now I make souffles in them as well as bread. If you try it make sure yours are clean – sterilise them using boiling water – or better still use new ones.


Wooden spoon, large non-stick pan.

2 medium-size clean terracotta flower- pots (or two straightish high-sided ovenproof dishes will do fine too)

2 round greaseproof cake liners or just greaseproof paper


3oz unsalted butter

4oz grated mature cheddar cheese (or any cheese you fancy, stilton is good if you are a fan)

6 eggs, separated into yolks and whites (don’t get even a drop of your yolk in the whites, or they won’t beat to stiff peaks). If you do have a mishap use an eggshell to scoop out the bit of yolk and plenty of white around it – just add it to the sauce instead. If you want to make doubly certain your souffle will rise, add an extra egg white (and save the yolk covered in the fridge for something else).

About 1/3 litre milk (I said a half at first but depends on flour, oven etc – sauce is better too thick than too runny)

4 – 5 heaped tablespoons plain flour

One tablespoonful Dijon mustard

Freshly-ground black pepper

1/4 teapoonful freshly grated nutmeg


Line two flourpots or ovenproof dishes with your greaseproof cake liners. If you don’t have any liners put a circle of greaseproof paper in the bottom of the dish but DO NOT grease the sides. You souffle needs something up which to climb.

Make your white sauce in the non-stick pan over a medium to high heat: melt your butter and add the flour a little at a time. Fry off the flour in the butter (if it goes a little brown in places no problem) and keep mixing until it smells a little of toast.

Adding the milk

Now add the milk a little at a time. It will look horrible and lumpy and you will think you have failed but persevere (or cheat and give it a whizz with an electric hand blender). Put it to one side in a warm place it it’s not working and wait 5 minutes – the lumps will gradually soften and help thicken the sauce. The trick is just to keep beating it like crazy until it gives in.

Keep beating when it looks like this, you are halfway!

When it is smooth, stir in the black pepper, nutmeg and the egg yolks. Finally, add about 3/4 of the cheese, stir well and set aside.

Nice glossy rich sauce with egg yolks and spices added.

In a separate clean dry glass bowl, beat your eggs with an electric whisk (the only reason to do it by hand would be if you employ an idle kitchenmaid with massive biceps). Stiff peak is when the egg whites look solid and become more like meringue. Pour your warm eggy cheesy white sauce on to the side of your egg white. This will push it up rather like an iceberg.

Tonight my egg white mountain looked a bit like El Capitan!

Take a warm dry metal spoon and gently, using an up and down circular motion from the bottom of the bowl to the top (so not normal round and round stirring), pull the egg white into the sauce. It may not look very even, but don’t worry too much about that.

All ready to go in the oven. The one on the right has added chopped mushrooms.

Pour your mixture evenly into the two dishes on a baking tray and sprinkle with the rest of the cheese.

Pop into a hot (210) oven for 35 – 40 minutes. Keep an eye on them and if tbey brown early quickly cover them with a piece of foil. Souffle myths include not opening the oven door but you can if you are quick and the kitchen is not too chilly.

Make sure your family is seated before you serve the souffles, as then you get a nice oo-moment before they sink. Using liners means the kids can lift them out and peel off the nice crunchy bits at the end.

You can flavour souffles with anything – spinach is good, one of tonight’s was mushroom, and for a naughty dessert try melted chocolate swirled through (adding a little dark brown sugar and leaving out the cheese and spices of course!).

One overflowed as it rose so high but the ‘baby’ was eaten too!

Tonight I served the souffles with a warm broccoli and orange salad with bacon, rosemary and balsamic vinegar.

Bon appetit!

Dandelion bhaji and salad recipe

I have always loved foraging and free food. You must however make sure you pick from a clean location where no herbicides or pesticides have been used. If you are not 100% sure of a plant’s identity, do not pick it. And always leave some for the bees.

Dandelions are beautiful, useful little plants (yes, beautiful. The designation ‘weeds’ is a marketing ploy to flog weedkillers which can blind you if you get them in your eyes and garden tools which look like instruments of mediaeval torture). And they are delicious to eat. We need to rethink our garden priorities. Just imagine you hold the National Collection of dandelions and be proud!

Dandelion means ‘lion’s teeth’ although I have always thought lion’s mane would be a better name. In French they are pissenlit: from pisse-en-lit – wet-the-bed, the old Highland nickname too. I remember echoes of this in my Highland primary school when the Bad Boys used to chase us with dandelions, shrieking with glee, if they touched us with one, that we were going to wake up to soggy sheets.

There is a useful folk-memory here though as the dandelion plant is a diuretic and helps eliminate water retention. The long (and loathed) tap-roots were once washed, roasted and ground as a sort of coffee during the World Wars. And if well made, dandelion wine is a pale golden joy which releases a fragrant early summer bouquet, even in the depths of winter.


To make bhajis for 3 – 4 people you will need a large mixing bowl, 12 dandelion heads picked in bright sunlight, a spoonful of curry paste, a large finely chopped onion or leek, a good cupful of flour (half plain, half self-raising) and two lightly beaten eggs, plus a little sunflower oil and a little butter for cooking.

If you have no curry paste, you can use freshly grated ginger, finely chopped garlic, finely chopped chilli or chilli powder to taste, ground cardomum, cumin and turmeric instead – fry together lightly then add at the flour stage before the egg.

1. Wash your dandelion heads and pat dry. Pick the golden ‘teeth’ away from the green ‘head’ and place in a large bowl. Add the flour and onion and mix until evenly distributed. Beat the curry paste into the egg and then pour into the flour mixture. Mix thoroughly until it forms a loose dough.

2. Drop tablespoonfuls into hot oil/butter mixture in a frying pan and cook until golden brown on all sides. It will take 4 – 5 minutes at most. Keep cooked ones warm as the others sizzle away.

For the salad allow 6 young dandelion leaves per person (they look like swords with serrated edges) and wash and dry well. Add a few crumbled walnuts, a finely chopped apple and some chopped hard boiled egg or blue cheese if liked.

Make a creamy dressing with a spoonful of mayonnaise, half a cupful of olive or good rapeseed oil, quarter of a cupful of balsamic vinegar, the juice of a lemon, a teaspoon each of honey and Dijon mustard. Place in a warm dry jam jar and shake vigorously – then pour over the salad and serve with the warm, crisp golden brown bhaji.

Bon appetit!

If you fancy trying this recipe, please first promise never to use herbicides or pesticides in your garden again…

A one-night honeymoon…

It has been a very strange 24 hours. When P and I married in January we mentioned postponing our honeymoon to October for a memorable journey to Canada to some of our friends because we expected such a busy AirBnB season.

One kind family decided this Would Not Do and gave us a voucher for the lovely Torridon Inn. We should have gone over in February but I was ill, then I had my op and so last month we rescheduled for this weekend.

Since then of course the whole world has changed. We were in two minds about going at all but after discovering that our rooms were direct access off a courtyard rather than through a building we decided we would, since we could continue to social-distance ourselves.

I cannot find words for the beauties of the drive over – better just to share them with you pictorially. The news then came in shortly after our arrival that all hotels would close the following morning.

The charming French staff at the Inn cannot return home but their employers are being very supportive (unlike the heartless Britannia Hotel Group at Coylumbridge which kicked out its mainly foreign national staff without notice or any provision for their accommodation).

The meal last night (attentive if of course physically distant staff, well spaced tables) for the few of us present had a weirdly Last Supper feel, with much hilarity across the divides. This morning was more muted as people crept into their vehicles and drove off sombre-faced.

On the roads (not so much at the Inn) there are a lot of non-local and foreign vehicles out and about. We also saw many wild-camping tents, especially in Glen Torridon. That is a worrying trend as an asymptomatic carrier from outside the area could spread the virus so easily.

What is the solution? Applecross is already discouraging access to its peninsula. Checking postcodes for shop purchases and limiting fuel purchases might be another way?

I am glad we managed our single, precious night away – but I was also very glad to get home and prepare to batten down the hatches.

In the footsteps of Evie in Ross-on-Wye and Bridstow

This is the third and final instalment of my April 2019 Major Tom’s War book tour blog. We have already visited London and Worcestershire – now for a quick jaunt to Herefordshire. Please scroll back for the other stories!

View from near Westfield VAD Red Cross Hospital across the river

We have moved forward in time again, this time to the First World War and the actual period of the main action in Major Tom’s War. After the tragedy of Bessie’s early death in Bewdley, Edward and his five children (ranging from Maud at 12 down to Arthur at 4 in age) were moved, probably on compassionate grounds, away from the family turf in Bewdley to a completely new parish at Ross-on-Wye. Evie would still only have been seven or eight when she arrived in the town. Here the children were looked after by an elderly spinster cousin named Annie (Marianne) until Edward unexpectedly remarried parishioner Harriett Bernard. The town rectory where they all lived initially appears to have been demolished now – but otherwise the town is very much as it was.

Ross-on-Wye has a more open, airy, spacious and perhaps, then, healthy feel than Bewdley, with its cramped, dark streets. The silver Wye flows slowly beneath the long spans of the bridges: it is so easy to imagine Maud and Evie leaning over to drop pine cones into the water from above after market day.

The old covered market, still the heart of the town

St Mary’s Church, with its massive spire, is where, in Major Tom’s War, I set the wedding of Tom and Evie (I have been unable to find any marriage certificate for them anywhere thus far). Even if I find they married elsewhere (many wartime weddings were rather rushed jobs in London) Chapter 36, Double Vision, is staying as it is! There is little trace now of Edward’s tenure at St Mary’s as priest, not even a list of priests, and in fact as his Hereford Cathedral duties increased (as Arch-Deacon) he soon moved on to Bridstow Vicarage, and even more airy and open home.

Bridstow Vicarage

The Georgian vicarage at Bridstow perches on a hill-top looking back over the river to the town, a lovely site.

View from one of the main Vicarage reception rooms, possibly once the library

It has been beautifully restored and John and Sally Ward, the current owners, kindly invited us in for a look round when we timidly knocked on the door. There were little corners – outbuildings, a staircase in particular – and one area of the garden, now laid to lawn, where the vegetable patch once was, which felt very familiar.

Outbuildings, Bridstow Vicarage
Restored staircase, Bridstow Vicarage

Best of all was when our host and hostess opened a door to reveal this stunning Broadway piano. How Evie would have appreciated that!

St Bridget’s Bridstow, a lovely wee sleepy English church

Bridstow Church (St Bridget’s) over the other side of the river is where Edward must have preached on the day war broke out, where I have Evie (in the novel) sit and contemplate the futility of her life as the sunlight pierces the stained glass and catches motes of dust. I walked up the aisle and since no-one was about, sang a hymn or two. The old stones hummed back.

The nave, St Bridget’s

Once back in Ross-on-Wye itself we tried to find Westfield House, site of one of the two VAD hospitals in Ross-on-Wye during WWI in which Evie worked and eventually glimpsed it behind a door and wall right in the centre of the town. It looks like it has been extended and other, later buildings may have filled some of its grounds, but it is still a most healthy site overlooking the river, good for convalescent, weary men.

Westfield House, Ross-on-Wye

The location of the second VAD hospital, Caradoc Villa, has been identified by a local historian, but we only found this out that night at my book talk at Rossiter Books in Ross-on-Wye so did not have the opportunity to visit. Rossiter Books is rather a special place, far more than the sum of its parts. And how wonderful to hear of a bookshop which is actually expanding its number of branches rather than closing them!

Clearly seeking divine inspiration at the end of a long tour!

Andy Rossiter and his team made me most welcome and I so enjoyed the talk, as I did every leg of the tour.

Rossiter Books in Ross-on-Wye. Tom’s specs always enjoy finding a new face to try on!

I was fascinated to see that the same historian (who unfortunately was unable to attend that night) had found a fuzzy picture of a group of VAD nurses which actually included Evie. Even more than that one, however, I was thrilled by a picture she provided showing a nurse tending a patient’s arm in an orchard. Neither of these is Tom or Evie, but this is exactly the scene I imagined in Chapter 31, A Question and an Answer, where Tom and Evie share the joy of hearing a wren singing from a rosebush in the orchard.

If I knew the identity of the town’s historian who assembled these pictures, I would be able to say a proper thank you!
This picture of my own shows ‘Puff’ Maud Currey, Evie and Consie Allen sitting on the hospital steps at what I know now to be Caradoc Villa – see picture below for comparison

Well, what a lot I packed into ten long days away. Book tours are hard work but always so rewarding – this is my second. My greatest fear was to find that I had somehow made some kind of locational errors in the book once I visited the real places concerned, but that is not, thank goodness, the case. I am so grateful to all who bought books, to the Kashi House team for their support and encouragement, to Mark Walker and Eleanor Bird for providing me with accommodation and transport, and particularly to Charlie Welch, Kate Groenhelm, Mary Arden-Davis, Paul West, Sally and John Ward, Andy Rossiter and all the strangers who have become friends along the way.

If you have enjoyed this #longread, please follow this blog, comment and share it with others. You’ll find my website at http://www.majortomswar.com if you would like to get in touch. Thank you so much for joining me.