about writing and life and God

Happy days

Heartsore to be packing for my return to England, but my sister came up with the brilliant idea of a visit to one of our most favourite places in the county – Berriedale, the village where we spent some of the most idyllic times in our childhood. So she and I and a friend set out.

The weather was superb. Vivid blue skies, fluffy white clouds, warm sunshine. Scotland at its best!

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We headed first for the shore. The single-storey cottages have been beautifully renovated and are let out through the Landmark Trust.

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Looking down from the swing bridge that crosses the river, the water though peaty brown is remarkably clear.

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I find the rock formations amazing. The angle of the strata reveal the upheaval of ages past.

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Close by was a bank of this season’s keynote flower for me: the rosebay willowherb.

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In one of the trees over the river were witches’ nests. I think this must be a Caithness name for this strange deformity of a tree where twigs grow from a single point in nest-like clusters.

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Because of the long dry summer, the rivers in the Highlands are running low this year. This one is usually an excellent salmon river.

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My sister and I could not leave Berriedale without a nostalgic glance in the direction of the old smithy – the smiddy where our grandfather was blacksmith – and the house where we as children spent so many happy times. The bright sunlight made the stags’ horns look almost more like scary spiders!

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The road layout has changed since we were young. In our time there was a field across the road with a patient old horse in it. Now it is full of rosebay willowherb, and has a beautiful old gate.

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As I pack up to go south again, I remember that you have to be careful to shut gates behind you in the country. I’m hoping the shutting this time will only be temporary.


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New energy and true aristocracy

Wick is the one of the towns benefiting from the offshore renewables industry.

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The harbour is being dredged to create new berths for support vessels and provided fascinating watching this morning.

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Afterwards, I took myself off to the Castle of Mey. The Queen Mum bought this old castle soon after her husband’s death as a place of peace and refuge, and it became one of her favourite homes.

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She was a keen gardener and the walled garden is a delight to wander round.

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I treated myself to a guided tour of the castle itself. It is a warm, friendly home. In the dining room, the carpet is threadbare, faded and frayed in places, but the Queen Mum refused to replace it! It had been a gift from her mother-in-law, and she said you don’t get rid of gifts from your mother-in-law!

The tour guide was Orkney born but had moved to the area when very young. She had gone to the local school and worked for many years in the local Post Office – background which meant she had interesting and authentic insights and stories to share with us.

The Castle of Mey is a simple, straightforward, traditional Scottish castle – unlike the Loire fantasy of Dunrobin Castle. It is a real home – not a fancy showpiece. There are paintings done by family members and purchases from the local art exhibition which the Queen Mum supported every year. There are no shooting trophies – no great stags’ heads on the walls – because the Queen Mum refused to have them. She said she preferred to see deer on the hills!

And the guide spoke of the Queen Mum with great affection. Which is how people up here speak of her. She moved into the Castle of Mey in 1955, and died aged 101 in 2002, long enough for people to get the real measure of the human being she was. The elderly lady in the faded pale blue mac and battered hat and wellingtons walking her dogs or doing her shopping, just like anyone else!

Before she died she set up a trust to run the Castle, to open it to the public and to provide jobs for local people. But her true memorial is her place in local hearts.

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The sheep were not to blame

It’s a while since I’ve driven across a cattle-grid on a main road! For those of you unfamiliar with them, it’s a metal grid stretching across the road to prevent livestock getting through. It means sheep can graze within those barriers with impunity, and that necessitates warning signs along the road: Beware of Lambs on the road.

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Today on my hour and a quarter journey to Bettyhill on the north coast of Sutherland, I reckon I crossed a dozen cattle grids, jarring me and the car each time. And I must have passed as many sheep!

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For those of you who are wondering why a county in the far north of Britain should be called Sutherland, allow me to explain. You’ll know that the political link between Scotland and England is a relatively modern invention (only since 1705, and the result of wheeling a dying MP on his bed into the Commons to vote and produce the necessary majority of one). But before that, Caithness and Sutherland, as well as Orkney and Shetland, belonged to Norway. And Sutherland is south when you’re setting off on a boat from Norway. This also explains why the local language is Norn: a mix of Gaelic and Norse.

My target today was the Strathnaver Museum – the Museum of the Clearances of the Clan Mackay from their ancestral lands in Strathnaver. Two ladies from England who were visiting the museum at the same time as me, stopped in horror at what they were discovering and one exclaimed, ‘But that’s evil!’ I have to agree.

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The Highlands were once well-populated and provided a good living for the folk who lived there.

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The depopulation was not voluntary, the farming families driven off the fertile land they had cultivated for generations, their homes burnt down.

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Many emigrated to Canada, Australia, New Zealand, South Africa. Those who tried to stay were at the mercy of the landlords.

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Some, resettled on the rocky north coast, had no money for boats or fishing gear – but, surprise, surprise, those could be provided by their landlords, at a price.

This is the land they were sent to:

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It was all done in the name of improvement. But putting sheep on the evacuated Highland valleys ruined the ground which is now fit only for deer and the reintroduction of ospreys and wolves. It certainly did not improve the lives or livelihood of the evicted tenants.

Still, the sheep weren’t to blame…


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Sunday surprises

Loyalty to the denomination I belong to in England took me to the only URC (United Reformed Church) north of the Highland Line: in Thurso, approximately 20 miles away from Wick.

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Reformed churches are few and far between in Anglican (episcopal) England whereas Scotland is the home of Prebyterianism. The Church of Scotland is a fully reformed church with a long history and links with Calvin and Geneva and John Knox. There is a small Episcopal denomination linked to big brother C. of E. (i.e. part of the Anglican communion) but most folk who go to church in Scotland go to one of the reformed presbyterian denominations. That means, unlike in England, I have lots and lots of choice!

The congregation at Thurso URC were warm and welcoming. To my surprise, the preacher hailed from Newcastle. I actually found his accent hard to follow!

After church and lunch back in Wick, I joined my sister, her daughter-in-law and friends for our Sunday walk. We started in Latheronwheel – Gaelic derivation means “muddy pool” though I found the waters of the strath beautifully clear though peaty brown.

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We walked up the hill and past the field where often you can see a herd of deer,  then down steep steps to the Fairy Glen.

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Here stones and trees have been transformed into homes for fairies and pixies!

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It was delightful to see young children enchanted by the little houses. What a brilliant way to get children to really look at the world around them. There’s plenty to see if you know where to look!

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From Latheronwheel, we went to Tidelines in Lybster for afternoon tea. I love the little working harbours that stud the Caithness coast. I could have stayed all afternoon! And as you can see the weather was amazing. Almost too hot!

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Thou shalt not hate

As a Christian and as a lay preacher, I generally enjoy the Book of Psalms but find myself uncomfortable with the bits where the writer wants God to zap enemies so they get their just deserts. But today, I have to confess to being in uncomfortable sympathy with that attitude!

I was playing tourist again – and doing research for possibly the next book. My first visit was to Badbea, the remains of a historic Clearance village.

Landlords, often absentee, in many places in Scotland (and probably elsewhere) rode roughshod over the local tenant farmers, driving them and their families out of their homes and the land they had painstakingly worked and made fertile for generations – so the landlords could make more money by putting sheep on the land. And when that didn’t work, imported herds of deer for rich folk to shoot.

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The families who were cleared were forced on to rough, barely cultivatable land, or driven up to the rocky north coast where they were supposed suddenly to be able to make a living out of fishing (again in wholly unsuitable places).

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Where the inhabitant of a house was too old or ill to move, the thatch was set fire to encourage them. And of course people died. The stories are many and harrowing. My own grandmother had stories about the local Clearances – about stakes driven into the cliff edge and children tethered to them to stop them falling off.

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There is a memorial at Badbea to the families who were driven off their land and forced to settle there.

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After Badbea, I visited Dunrobin Castle. Like a Loire chateau, this luxuriously furnished home of the Sutherland family was often visited by their friends, Victoria and Albert. The Countess of Sutherland and her English husband, the Earl of Stafford, were responsible for the most extensive Clearances in the Highlands. Their factor Patrick Sellar even stood trial for murder as a result of the way he carried out his instructions.

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The gardens are very beautiful but frankly, I could not stomach the place long and took myself to the Brora Heritage Centre and a cup of tea and a double chocolate muffin to take the bad taste out of my mouth.

One of the fascinating discoveries near Brora is the well-preserved remains of what is certainly ancient and possibly a wolf! Currently being investigated in Edinburgh, there is a fun ‘wolfie’ at the Centre which I could not resist stroking!

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Brora is an interesting town: Highland and industrial! It had the first electric lighting in Britain, a coal mine, brickworks and distillery, as well as a tweed mill and the now famous eponymous Scottish designer, Brora. The town seems to be thriving, and is gloriously sited on a curving golden beach.

One of these days I must visit the town properly. It is too easy to just drive through places and do little more than scratch the surface – like the German tourists at Dunrobin – resulting in mistaken impressions, perhaps.



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Playing tourist

To my amazement, Doreen Leith managed to edit, tweak, and cut my ramblings into a usable contribution to Wick Voices. Click on the link to listen. Mine is the 150th addition to the family! I went over to the Heritage Centre this morning to sign the relevant form and have my picture taken.

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I chickened out of going to view a bungalow to the south of the county where the only instructions were coordinates, not post code. I was sure I’d get lost! It was so far away and out in the wilds, I realised if I was too scared to go to view, I’d certainly not be comfortable living out there all on my own (even with one cat or two).

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But Emma the Estate Agent was understanding and forgiving, and reckons she may have something more appropriate that might be of interest. So that meant I had today free, so I took myself off to the Lyth Arts Centre to look at the exhibition, “From Wifey to Wifie”, celebrating the centenary of the 1918 Act which gave some women the vote and charting the journey Caithness women have been on over those hundred years, in artwork of various kinds.

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For those who don’t speak Norn (the language of Caithness), ‘Wifey’ or ‘Wifie’, same word different spelling, simply means a human female. There is no reference to marital status.

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After Lyth, I took myself to Dunnet and a wander round Mary-Ann’s Cottage. Mary-Ann Calder lived there until 1990 when, aged nearly 93, she moved to a nursing home.

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Because of the historic nature of the buildings, she sought to have them preserved as they were – and the Caithness Heritage Trust was formed to carry out her wishes. Today, it is just like visiting a real home out of the past. Nothing has been added. Everything is as Mary-Ann would have known it, and used it. A real treat!

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Topped only by the delicious tea at the Old Schoolhouse Tearoom, John O’Groats, on the road to Duncansby Head.

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Or perhaps the sheer breathtaking beauty of the journey back to Wick.

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Serious house-hunting

Properties up here in Caithness are very varied in style – ranging from ancient castles and tiny whitewashed croft-houses to modern bungalows and innovative architecture. Here is a sample of what I saw and photographed today:

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In fact I actually viewed only two properties, neither of which is pictured above! But what potential for stories those photos offer. The first three are from John O’Groats: the white-washed cottage is a wonderful gift shop; the imposing towers belong to the John O’Groats House Hotel; and the distant house is simply along the coast from Groats. The hobbit house is part of the barbecue facility at the Nethercliffe Hotel in Wick, shown in the next picture, where my sister took me for supper tonight.


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Mens sana in corpore sano

After a long, long comfortable night’s sleep, I made a start on the house-hunting this morning with visits to  two local estate agents. There are some properties I’d like to take a look at so I hope we can arrange some viewings for the next few days. I’m going to have to remember to keep my phone switched on so I can pick up messages!

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I found a smallish convenient supermarket in the main street, quite near to my lovely rented flat, and to my delight discovered an Aberdeen delicacy I haven’t tasted in years: Butteries! These are a Scottish kind of croissant. Not crescent-shaped but round and flat. Buttery, as the name suggests, and salty and very delicious. I’m planning on having two with some hot soup for my supper.

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After lunch, I headed up to the amazing Caithness archive facility, NUCLEUS.

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I’m not really ready to do much more than wide reading round the period (1883?) and topics I think might appear in the next book, so I only wanted to discover what resources might be available to me. And catch up with the team, of course!

From there I took myself on my first ever visit to the very wonderful new public library, where the reference librarian gave me a guided tour of the vast and eclectic store of books and materials in my subject area – and of the huge swimming pool and workout facilities located in the same building. I reckon it’s a great idea to have them side by side. I can imagine myself working on research till my shoulders cramp, then going for a swim, or maybe a workout on an exercise bike or rowing machine!

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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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Necklace of Lies cover







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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