dorothystewartblog

about writing and life and God

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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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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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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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 Nine: Serious snow, and evening sunshine

On the road again – and by 5.30p.m. I had clocked up 330 miles – and I’m not out of Scotland yet!

It’s been an interesting and challenging drive. I left Wick in sunshine but by the time I reached Berriedale, it was clear that there had been significant snow, and it was still falling.

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Looking back towards Berriedale

And the snow continued all the way, varying from white-out to pretty fluffy showers.

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Temperature dipped to 1 degree Centigrade

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At least the sheep have warm fleeces!

Even the hills of Perthshire were topped with snow, but down in the sunshine the temperature managed a balmy 9 degrees – very briefly!

I was glad to arrive at Annandale Water in sunshine and had a relaxing walk around the lake before tea.

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The prettiest service station in the UK?

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The terrace will be brilliant in the summer

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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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