about writing and life and God

Lament for the leaving

It’s my last full day in Wick – for this trip – and it’s going to be hard to tear myself away. I have had a fabulous time – as I hope the blog posts have shown.

Caithness is a beautiful county with a surprising variety of landscapes and a deep, deep wealth of history and archaeology. It’s a fascinating place. My sister and I are Caithness born and bred; she has traced our family back five or six generations for sure, and our roots go deep.

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It’s good to have roots and I have much enjoyed revisiting and remembering the places of my heritage, and of my own past.

Today we went to the Wick Heritage Centre (really needs a couple of days to ‘do’ properly!) where I was delighted to  see my books on sale, and machines (including typewriters) used on the John O’Groat Journal from the period when I worked there as a trainee reporter in 1967. I could still – just! – smell that wonderful evocative smell of printer’s ink!

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On the way home, we passed the poignant memorial garden to those killed in the Bank Row bombing in 1941 – when Wick suffered the first civilian daylight casualties of the Second World War. It’s hard to imagine now, a whole street of shops and houses, smashed to smithereens, as shown on the Johnston Collection photograph I used on the front of my latest book, Necklace of Lies.

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And now all there is to do is pack the car for tomorrow’s drive to Aberdeen (according to Google maps: 204 miles, estimated journey time of 4 hours 36 minutes). This part of the trip will be easier on the car: I brought 8 boxloads of books with me and I only have one unopened box and two half-boxfuls to bring home. No need for the back of the car to be flattened: those three boxes can perch on the back seat. And now there’s room for the books I’ve bought!

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And time for a few last pics of Wick – harbour views.

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And a great quote on a wall near the harbour. Such wisdom, eh? Maybe being an owld broom isn’t such a bad thing!

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I am hugely encouraged by the warm response I’ve found to my books up here and am really ready to set to and get the next one, the last in the Mizpah Ring Trilogy, written!






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Author day

A two-part author day, though the first half was planned simply to be social and delightful! But as all writers know, when you’re working on a project, serendipity provides lots of useful links and contacts, so our conversation over coffee and delicious, home-made butter shortbread at the Norseman Hotel, turned out to offer more ideas and what I’m hoping will be a very helpful contact for one aspect of the next book.


The afternoon’s programme has been booked for months: a talk to Wick Salvation Army’s Home League.

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Always a pleasure, they are a very receptive audience. Being mainly of local extraction, they catch all the local allusions, and are generous book purchasers. I didn’t take many photographs today, but was amused to be asked to pose for one with my sister – taken by a royal photographer!


Once again, I’ve sold out of When the Boats Come Home, down to only half a box of Mizpah Ring, and Necklace of Lies is selling fast. So encouraging – and the expressions of interest in the next one simply adds to my own internal ‘itch’ to get home and get writing – though the weather continues to be warm and sunny and the views are breathtaking!

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A gentle Sunday walk… not!

Sunday afternoon is traditionally walk afternoon and this Sunday my sister had a plan. So far her plans have been excellent so I put my walking boots in the car and climbed in happily.

We headed out westwards into the centre of the county where the scenery, still beautiful, is very different from the fertile fields of the east.

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Our goal was an old graveyard, built in a very strange shape (described in books as an arrow) and perched on top of a high cliff. The site of an ancient chapel dedicated to St Columba, it now provides resting places for over 40 burials (mainly Gunns), with a variety of stones (including table stones, flat stones, and ornate metal-railed enclosures). The oldest stone dates from 1726.

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Now, you may find this a little macabre but my sister and I were brought up to enjoy graveyards. Our grandmother used to take us for our Sunday walks to the local cemetery where she pointed out graves and regaled us with the stories of the inhabitants. We simply enjoy carrying on the family tradition. If need be, we permit our fiction talents to fill any gaps!

After the graveyard, we scrambled down the steep slope alongside the cemetery (the stone wall is the cemetery wall)

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to the bank of the peaty-brown, fast-flowing Thurso River. This stretch is a particularly fine salmon fishing beat.

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But we weren’t finished. The big rocky lump beside us is the site of 14th century Dirlot Castle, built by Reginald de Cheyne.

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On any walk with my sister, if there is an opportunity for a scramble and a fine view… I must admit I found the climb a bit more strenuous than I’m used to down in Suffolk, but the views from the top, encircled by the grass-covered walls of the castle ruins, were well worth it.

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and more views of this classic Highland river, looking south over the Flow Country towards Morven, Scaraben etc. And just enough energy to amble back to the car and drive home for tea!

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Second bite

Yes, I know I’ve posted something today, but this afternoon’s excursion offered such amazing pics, I couldn’t keep them to myself!

We’ve been to Thrumster House, just a few miles south of Wick. Th estate now offers country pursuits, self-catering and bed and breakfast accommodation.

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The gardens were open today, the sun was shining, and we were ready for a nice walk. My sister had been speaking about celandines – some of her favourite flowers – but nothing could prepare me for the blankets of yellow covering the ground under the trees.

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Another highlight was the broch: enough remains to show just what a substantial stone-built place it was. Originally it would have been a bottle-shaped tower several stories high, built during the Iron Age.

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You can see the double-skin walls and the steps of the spiral staircase that wound up inside the walls.

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Just to prove we do get lovely weather in Scotland, I’ll mention that when we came home, we sat outside with our tea!




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Nice kind of problem!

I took 86 photographs yesterday! I couldn’t use them all in the blog so had to be selective. I chose, for yesterday’s blog, to use the Berriedale pics that linked to my latest book, Necklace of Lies. But I’d really like to share some more pics and showcase a couple of brilliant museums we visited.

The first is the Dunbeath Heritage Museum a few miles north of Berriedale. There is an amazing resurgence in archaeology, social history research and conservation of places and artefacts in Scotland thanks, in part, to what might be called ‘heritage tourism’ as people come to discover more about their forebears.

Dunbeath has a lot to offer. At first glance, there is the pretty castle perched on the cliffs outside the village. There’s a harbour (Portormin Harbour), and lovely walks up the strath. That’s a Caithness flag below, and yes it looks Norwegian… for obvous reasons.

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But yesterday, we concentrated on the Museum. Located in the old school, it offers a wealth of resources for anyone interested in the history and prehistory of the area.

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Dunbeath’s most famous son, author Neil Gunn, he of The Silver Darlings, Highland River, and many many more seminal novels, is well represented. For me as a writer, the most evocative item in the display was his old typewriter!

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The Museum stocks all his novels as well as a wide range of local interest titles, both fiction and non-fiction. Dangerous! And yes, I succumbed… in the name of research!

It would be invidious to pick out what I liked best, but I must mention the painted floor in the main room: illustrating the local geography and annotated with quotes from Neil Gunn. Brilliant.

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By the time we dragged ourselves away, we realised we had missed lunch but the cafe at Laidhay provided us with a bowl of delicious Cullen Skink (a chowdery soup of potato and smoked haddock) and warm bread rolls, before we explored the Laidhay Croft Museum: the old buildings newly thatched and filled with all the kinds of things the previous inhabitants would have used in their work and their daily lives.

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Which had us exclaiming as we spotted things we recognised from childhood visits to crofter great-uncles and our grandmother’s home. Another treasure trove, but in a very different style of presentation.

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And outside the ever-present views of the mountains that form the southern borders to the county – always irresistible for the photographer!

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Scenes from a story

Some of us just like giving gifts, and today I had the rare opportunity to say thank you and give a gift at the same time. We were at Berriedale to present a copy of my latest novel to someone who had been of great help last time I was there for research.

During the second world war, a regiment from the Canadian Forestry Corps was deployed on the Langwell Estate at Berriedale and I wove that into my novel, Necklace of Lies. I’ll try not to slip in any plot-spoilers here but here are some locations from the book:

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The first pic is of the sawmill. The slot underneath the window is to allow very long logs to be pulled though.

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The second is of the incredibly tight hairpin bend at the top of the brae (behind the long wall: you can just see the top of a white vehicle) which features right at the end of the book.

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We stopped off for coffee and a delicious home-made fruit scone at the Riverside Bothy. Then we headed down to the beach  across the swing bridge. Vertigo-sufferers, I apologise for the view looking down!

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We found some modern cave painting! You can spot where it was tucked under a protecting ledge on the left of the second pic.

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We have happy childhood memories of Berriedale where we often stayed with our grandparents at the old smithy. It was lovely to revisit today – until the skies opened and torrential rain defeated us!



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Wandering down memory lane

I was born in the town of Wick and after school here,

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a year working on the local paper The John O’Groat Journal,  I left to go to university at Aberdeen – and have since only returned for family occasions and holidays. I reckon it’s around half a century since I really lived here – and now I’m catching up with friends I haven’t seen for years yet it seems like only yesterday we were meeting and chatting. And I’m surprised by how many people recognise me – maybe not so surprising when I’m with my sister who lives here, and folks say we look alike.

The town has changed, of course, and yet it is essentially familiar. We went for a wander around a couple of the places we used to live. Both appear in my latest novel, Necklace of Lies. One is the bungalow Hugh and Ruby live in, the second is where the final scenes in the novel take place.

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That top bedroom, at various stages my sister’s and then mine, is the one that belongs to young Georgina. ‘She liked her new room tucked away at the very top of the house. It had the sweetest little fireplace and a window that stuck out of the roof and looked out over the bay and the harbour. Georgie loved to stand there and watch the boats and the lorries and the people.’

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In our time, the land beyond the tall houses was given over to allotments and rough grass sheering off into cliffs where I used to scramble as a child. Looking at it today, I am horrified!

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There’s a whole housing estate perched on the cliff now with wonderful views across the bay.  And as I finish writing this, the sun comes out.




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Flying the flag (stones)

First we had hailstones. Today we had flagstones. So far no gallstones.

Dick Whittington thought the streets of London were paved with gold but when he got there, he discovered, as did everyone else, that they were paved with Caithness flagstones. So today we visited the Heritage Centre at Castlehill, the cradle of the Caithness flagstone industry.

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Begun in the late eighteenth century by James Traill, flagstones were dug out of the nearby quarries, processed then shipped out from Castletown Harbour.

The Heritage Centre provides exhibitions, workshops and info about the industry and the local area, and outside is a colourful garden, the hard landscaping provided by the local flagstones.

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But the loveliest highlight of the day was an amazing diffused rainbow over Dunnet Head.

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The white house on the hilltop bears what in my opinion is the most romantic name ever: the House of the Northern Gate.

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NUCLEUS: a northern treasure trove

Maybe you have to be nosy to be a writer. When something interesting crosses our path, we always want to know more. What it’s really about. Where the name comes from. What it means. And last but not least, that glorious fiction trigger: what if…?

So today definitely offered me one of my ideas of heaven: a friendly and welcoming  establishment set up specifically to enable research.

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Set on the bleak windswept land next to Wick Airport is NUCLEUS: the nuclear and Caithness archive. It has in store everything they can get their hands on about the nuclear energy industry in the UK, and absolutely everything about Caithness: parish records, family genealogies,  private papers, books, maps, bound copies of local newspapers, drawings and artworks, research notes – including my own second year University project about integration in Thurso after the influx of folk to work at Dounreay – and much, much more. The Caithness material is available to anyone who makes the journey – and you will receive a warm welcome and as much help as you need. The nuclear stuff is in process of being catalogued. Find NUCLEUS on Facebook and their website.

I was brought the bound copies of the John O’Groat Journal for 1964 and 1965 which I needed to help me research book 3 in the Mizpah Ring trilogy. It was surreal to read articles about people I knew – not to mention see pictures of friends, my sister, and even one (ouch!) of myself receiving my Queen’s Guide Badge in 1964!

Sometimes browsing back numbers of newspapers offers real treasure trove and I have come away with pages of useful notes for the new book and a definite decision that it will begin in 1964.

We popped into the tiny airport to find lunch.

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So important in the second world war, as mentioned in book 2 of Mizpah Ring, Necklace of Lies, there are still traces of wartime activity.

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If it’s Scotland, it’s not trespass

Well, we didn’t notice the ‘Private Road’ sign until we were halfway down the drive… and anyway a) there’s no law of trespass in Scotland and b) we’d just driven down for a wee look!

Today was a bit dreich but we braved the weather and took ourselves first to Ackergill with its pretty little harbour and amazing white shell sand.

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To the right, wonderful views of Sinclair and Girnigoe Castle (as featured in my novel Necklace of Lies) and the bright, white lighthouse at Noss Head.

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To the left, views of Ackergill Tower (late 15th/early 16th century, remodelled 1851-2, and now a luxury hotel and wonderful conference and wedding venue).

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From there we took a nostalgic drive to Alterwall and a look at the deserted croft where our grandfather was born, then to the Lyth Arts Centre in the old school where he received his education. Turning north, there are wonderful views of Stroma, and white-painted Canisbay church where the Queen Mum always went to church when she stayed at nearby Castle of Mey.

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The homeward road led us to Freswick, an area with long links to the Vikings. Sweyn the Pirate had his 12th century stronghold here, though the present house was built in 1791. Built into the old bridge is the ‘Cruelty Hoose’ used as a prison!

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The dovecote dates from the 17th century and the mausoleum is on the site of a chapel dedicated to St Madden/Moddan, who came to the area with St Drostan in around 561 AD.

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Tomorrow, plan A is time in the archives and a start on research for the next book!



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