about writing and life and God

Home is where…?

So I’m back… home?

I moved house twice last year. First from a three-bed terraced house with its microscopic garden:

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Then from my gorgeous garden apartment in the old house (some of it dating from 1792) with the amazing garden:

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To tell the complete truth, I was evicted! The elderly lady who owned the house died and the legatees wanted vacant possession so they could sell. So I and my fellow residents were ousted. Each of us, I’m glad to say, found somewhere else to go. But I can’t say where I am now feels like home – and my three-week trip to Scotland has raised questions for me about ‘home’.

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I always used to say I was like a Snail, carrying my sense of home with me, able to make ‘home’ wherever I landed. Which is just as well, when one considers that the move to the current place is my 22nd move!

Suffolk is very beautiful. Scotland, as this blog has demonstrated, is also very beautiful in a different way. Both have offered me places to live and grow and I am grateful to both.

There’s an old song: ‘This world is not my home, I’m just a-passing through.’ And that’s true. Home will always be temporary on this earth.  But for those of us who have entrusted our lives and our eternal futures to Jesus Christ, there’s a security in knowing that ‘home’ is sorted now and in the future – short-, medium-, and long-term!





Two in one

I had some great pics for yesterday’s blog and some ideas for today’s – but ran into internet difficulties both evenings. Most weird. Anyway, internet connection appears to be back, so here are some pics from the last 36 hours:

First off, King Street United Free Church in Tayport where I found myself taking part in a Q&A about being a Christian writer. (The church is perfectly level: my camera clearly wasn’t!)

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Much more impressive than my contribution to the service was the wonderful rhododendron outside!

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Because the weather was so gorgeous,  my kind hosts took me off for a jaunt to Broughty Ferry and a fascinating amble round the Castle.

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We joined a long queue that snaked several blocks to get our genuine Italian ice cream afterwards. Vanilla? Chocolate? Those were available but also such exotic flavours as dragon fruit, and Scottish shortbread ice cream!

But all good things have to come to an end, and this morning they waved me off and I set course for England. Tonight, I’m at Wetherby after a 299 mile drive in roasting heat but surprisingly light traffic for a bank holiday. Probably another 250 plus miles tomorrow!



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Full marks

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Yesterday, late afternoon, I popped in to Aberdeen’s Central Library and told the Reference staff what I was looking for in the way of research for the next book. I returned this morning – to find a stack of papers and books and newspaper cuttings waiting for me.

Brilliant! Everything they had found was relevant and I spent  a happy morning poring over the materials and taking copious notes.

The material documented the typhoid outbreak in Aberdeen in 1964 – so it’s no surprise, I’m not illustrating the blog today with subject-specific photographs!

The story is one of brilliant PR by the medical officer in charge, and brilliant detective work that identified the source and the cause: one 6lb can of corned beef from an Argentinian  canning factory whose chlorination plant had failed for eighteen months, allowing sewage-polluted water to be used to cool the cans of processed meat – which was later, when opened, placed on an unheated window in sunlight during the day in one grocery shop in Aberdeen. The preponderance of female victims was put down to diet-conscious women eating more cold meat and salad than their male counterparts.

So the moral of the story is… perhaps not!


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South, then turn left

It should have taken 4 hours whatever, but I’m supposed to take a break every hour and a half to ease and exercise the arthritic knee so that extends the journey. In this case delightfully. My first break was at Poppy’s in Golspie, an old favourite. Looks like they have a new chef and I arrived just as he was setting a tray of golden cheese scones  on a cooling tray on the counter. Yum!

Continuing south to Inverness then a sharp turn left onto the A96 took me almost to Forres in time for my lunch break at the wonderful Brodies Countryfare. As well as offering a delightful restaurant where I had quiche with some very inventive and delicious salads, it is stocked full of tempting Scottish gifts, clothes…

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Driving onwards to Aberdeen, I noticed the road was not a yellow brick road but a pink one: because the road chippings are of course made of local granite which is pink!

Aberdeen has vastly grown since my student days here in the late 1960s/early 70s but after I checked in at my hotel, I took myself off for a wander round notable places. The hotel is in Union Terrace and right at the end of the road is this wonderful statue of William Wallace, and His Majesty’s Theatre, home to so many great productions.

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Aberdeen University began as two different institutions: King’s College in Old Aberdeen, a Catholic establishment in 1495, and Marischal College, the Protestant establishment in 1593. The two merged in 1860. In my day, the Arts Faculty was mainly housed in the buildings of King’s College. Marischal’s buildings are generally accepted to be the very best examples of neo-gothic architecture in the UK and as the picture below shows, they are truly beautiful.

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While Marischal never fails to delight, I was taken aback to discover the old Students Union building has been taken over by Starbucks!

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But another very popular student haunt, Ma Cameron’s, appears to continue to thrive! Lang may her lum reek!

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I am here in Aberdeen to do some serious research, first in the hotel where I’m staying (I’ve had a nice tour of the ground floor and the conference rooms), and secondly in the library where a very helpful young woman took notes of what I need to discover and I’m booked to turn up tomorrow morning and see what she has managed to find for me.

After breakfast. I love hotel breakfasts!

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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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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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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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