dorothystewartblog

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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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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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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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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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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A northern Sunday

Sunday, so we go to church. Not such a nice day so I need my warm coat – and definitely not bare feet! My sister’s church family meet in the Episcopal church hall which is a cheerful, welcoming place, just like the Free Church of Scotland congregation that meets there.

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It takes me a few moments to get in gear with the beautiful unaccompanied singing of metrical psalms but soon find the concentration required enhances my absorption of the wonderful words, and the sense of reverence that pervades this service.

Sunday afternoon means walking, and so after lunch we headed off along the road south for Latheronwheel, a purpose-built village established in 1835. Originally called Janetstown after the owner’s mother, the name never caught on and the old Gaelic-derived name remained.

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First, we took a walk from the old road up the strath to the weir. Wonderful brown peaty salmon river underneath trees cobwebby with grey lichen:

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Then we crossed the main road and followed the course of the river through the Fairy Glen. This entrancing place is basically an estate of  fairy houses:

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Following the river took us to the harbour. Built in 1835 by D & T Stevenson – David Stevenson was Robert Louis Stevenson’s father – at the peak of the herring fishing, the harbour provided safe haven for 50 vessels.

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We rounded off the afternoon with tea and cake at Forse House. The lovely house was built in 1753 to provide more modern accommodation for the owners of Forse Castle. Now it is a luxury B&B, with craft shop and tea room.  And now, boots off, my sister and I are both yawning and relaxing!Another lovely day.

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Day Seven: To the end of the earth

That’s what it feels like – standing on the northernmost edge of the mainland of Britain, gazing out over island upon island studding the cold blue sea all the way to the horizon.

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View from the beach

John O’Groats. A tiny hamlet with hotel, harbour and a few shops – one of which has the best stock of Scottish-related books I’ve ever seen.

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Books and more lovely books!

And I’m delighted to say, they requested stocks of both When the Boats Come Home and Mizpah Ring so my sister and I went out there today to gaze at the view, deliver the books, buy some others and some gifts for the kind folk who have been feeding my cat Lucy while I’ve been away.

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This is the shop where you’ll find those fabulous books

And have lunch – with glorious views over the Pentland Firth across to Orkney.

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The Storehouse, John O’Groats

We also went exploring, round an old mill built in 1901 and fitted out by our great-grandfather, millwright Donald Miller.

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At Huna, near John O’Groats 

All useful background for the next book!

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Day Three: A Scottish Sunday

It’s Sunday so today’s activities are church and a walk with my sister and her friends. The weather is grey and not warm – unlike the glorious sunshine I left behind in Suffolk! But this does not deter us. We wrap up like Arctic explorers and set out for Keiss.

What surprises me is how much of the old World War Two tank traps are left lining the beach.

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Clearly the threat of invasion was taken very seriously, and as we walk along, I’m thinking about the effect of the war on local people – and this section in the new book. All useful research!

I love little harbours so we drove round to Keiss harbour

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and found some lovely splashy waves coming in round the harbour wall!

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And then it was time for tea! And home in good time for evening church.

 

 

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Day Fifteen: Sunday afternoon walk in Caithness

Yes, it rained. On and off. But the sun also shone, beautifully. So my sister, her friends and I were able to have an excellent walk at Dunbeath, south of Wick.

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I remember Dunbeath as the place with the amazing hairpin bends on the way to my grandparents in Berriedale. Now a wonderful swoop of modern road cuts across the old road. Today my sister and I first took a look at the restored watermill by the wonderful peat-brown river at the start of Dunbeath Strath.

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Then we parked by the harbour and met up with her friends.

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With Tipsy the dog, we walked along the shore towards beautiful Dunbeath Castle.

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And then the batteries in my camera gave up so no more pics! But we walked all the way along to the huge rock to the right underneath the castle,and then all the way back and up the hill, over the bridge and back to the cars parked at the harbour. And then we went for tea. Of course.

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Day Thirteen: Wick: Pilots’ Houses, Printers’ Ink, and Public Libraries

Quiet start to a busy day with lots of surprises. Walking to post my large number of promised postcards, we noticed that the pilot house was open.

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Wick Pilot House

What, you may ask, is  a pilot house? Not a place where a pilot lived but the small building on the top of the cliff where the harbour pilot watched to see if boats approaching the harbour were requesting pilotage to enable them to enter the harbour safely or already had a pilot on board.

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Flag showing pilot on board

Here’s the link with my book: Sir Arthur Bignold, the man who bequeathed the building to the town was MP of Great Yarmouth!

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After lunch, I popped in to my local newspaper offices – where I worked as a trainee reporter 1967/8.

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John O’Groat Journal Offices, Union Street, Wick

Digitalisation has transformed the place – where once there were typesetters working on Monotype and Linotype machines and compositors painstakingly making up wedding invitations with single pieces of lead on a forme, there are now computer screens and keyboards. And downstairs where once the huge presses rolled, are empty rooms that still smell of printers’ ink.

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Press room: note floor bolts

I remember the big lorries arriving with the huge rolls of paper for the presses and the rumble that thrummed through the building when the presses rolled.  I remember how everyone on the staff got a copy of that week’s paper fresh off the presses before we went home the night before publication day – and how exciting it felt.The smell of printer’s ink still thrills me!

And then at seven o’clock, I gave a talk about When the Boats Come Home at the wonderful local library that began my journey as a writer – it provided the books that inspired me to want to become a writer, to write books like the ones I borrowed. Wick Library played a crucial role in my life as a writer. But more about that tomorrow!

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Wick Public Library

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