about writing and life and God

Happy New Year!

As 2018 draws to a close, 2019 waiting on tippy-toes to arrive in just a few hours, I’m looking back over the year that’s been and enjoying the happy memories and the great photographs. I hope you’ve enjoyed my reports of my travels – and I’m hoping for many more interesting places to photograph and share next year.

My blog strapline declares it’s about ‘writing, life and God’ so let’s take those in turn:


I had a great time at the first John O’Groats Book Festival in April, where I made several new friends and was delighted to see my books well received!

KODAK Digital Still Camera

KODAK Digital Still Camera

I used some of my time in the north researching for the next book, clambering around ruins and over gates with my sister, and comfortably ensconced at Nucleus, the wonderful research facility in Wick.

Paul, my publisher at Zaccmedia, as usual did a wonderful job on my latest novel, book 3 in the Mizpah Ring trilogy: Ring of Truth. Set in 1964, it brings the story of the Cormack, Mackay and Sinclair families to, I hope, a satisfactory close.


This year saw me get back to writing poetry, and a short play on the life of St Valentine which will be performed in February.

All I need now is to decide which one of the story ideas currently tempting me is going to be the one for me to write next. How do you decide? I reckon a solid stint of background reading will reveal which one retains its fire.


When I began writing the blog many years ago, it was my way of making sense of, and sharing my experiences to help other people trying to cope with, a loved one’s dementia. My husband died in November 2017, so 2018 has been a year of discovering how to cope with bereavement.

‘Not waving but drowning’, as Stevie Smith described her life, certainly describes the early stages. And the waves were choppier than I had expected. But a year and a month on, I’m beginning to feel new hope and a new positive interest in the road ahead.

Digital Image

Digital Image

One of the unexpected results of the choppy waves is that they have taken away with them what was perhaps not helpful in my life, and cleared the way for new and hopefully better.


The big silver lining of this year has been the deepening of my relationship, love and trust in God. Life has been a rollercoaster with some shocking stomach-churning drops, but they served to hurtle me back into God’s arms, over and over again. And each time He was there to catch me. In truth, He simply never let go.

This is not to say that I was necessarily aware of it. In my lowest, most despairing moments, I did feel like a lost child crying in the darkness. But with hindsight, and a new depth of peace, I can state He never let go. And He worked through all that happened – the good, the bad and the ugly (and there was some of all three) – for good for me, just as He promises (Romans 8:28).

And so I can look ahead with hope. I hope you can too, so I wish you a very happy, healthy and fulfilling 2019. May God bless you, as only He can.


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Travels closer to home

And after a day for rest, I’m off again – this time just up the road to wonderful Earsham Hall on a special outing with my friends, the Sociable Ladies from the Waveney Valley Ecumenical Partnership.

Our guided tour was provided by lady of the house, Annabel Stretton-Derham, who regaled us with stories of the people who lived here in the past.

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Just time to spot a couple of the family peacocks before we entered the Hall for a cup of tea and a totally yummy cheese scone!

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The Hall and the views from the windows are quintessentially English after a fortnight in Scotland. The sash windows are some of the earliest in this country.

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Interiors are a wonderful mix of lavish gilding and ornate plasterwork,

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and a truly liveable space: here is a library that any bibliophile would covet.

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Outside, en route for the second stage of our afternoon tea, we encounter geese

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and more statuary, in a sunny corner.

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We were served our tea and home-made cake in the wonderful kitchen. The old bread oven remains – and the washing-up is evidence of satisfied guests!

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One last treat was spotting another peacock with a little train of babies on the steps to the front door.

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Our tour was one of two on offer, and there was keen interest in finding a date when we can do the other tour and see more of this fascinating house.

I’ve lived quite close for a number of years but had not visited before. It’s strange how so often we don’t go to the places near to where we live unless we have the incentive of entertaining visitors. After my fortnight in Scotland, I’m thinking maybe I should make more of an effort to really get to know this corner of East Anglia. I’m sure there are lots more delightful discoveries just waiting!

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Not the end of the road

So the suitcases are emptied and stowed away under the bed. I’m so glad that today is Sunday, a day of rest – just what I need after driving 386 miles yesterday. In total, 1785 miles this trip. Enough, I reckon, for a little while!

My driving day yesterday began with a splendid breakfast from the very recently opened Cornwall Bakery at Annandale Water. I simply love croissants! The view was wonderful too.

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I set off just after 9 a.m. and soon hit heavy rain , heavy traffic, and so much spray it was like thick fog. There is only one explanation for me getting through hours of such unpleasant and unsafe driving conditions: and that’s God’s travelling mercies and divine protection.

And He also provided excellent rest stops including one of the best chilli con carnes I’ve ever tasted – and I’ve always reckoned I cook a pretty good chilli myself. It was at what looked like a diner at a truck stop. That will teach me not to judge by appearances!

I had decided I wanted to cheat my sat nav and not go the obvious way home: via the A14 round Cambridge and Bury St Edmund’s. I simply do not like that road – and the stop-start nose-to-tail driving caused by never-ending roadworks makes it even less favourite with me. So I fibbed to my sat nav and said I was headed, not for Halesworth, but for my favourite Christian Bookshop, Green Pastures in Dereham!


It worked. Sat Nav lady directed me off the A1M onto the A17 towards Sleaford and then – joy of joys – the A47 towards Norwich. Mild sunshine, green fields, and the beginnings of autumn colours in leaves and berries were a treat to my eyes.

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There is always something special about those last miles at the end of a long journey, especially when you’re headed home to your own house, your own armchair, and your own comfy bed!

And so, I’m back, safe and sound, and very grateful. I’ve had a great time, I’ve sussed out the possibilities of properties in Caithness (conclusion: not this time, and maybe even not at all? We shall see), and done a bit more background research and book promoting.

The next thing on the horizon is publication of the new book, Ring of Truth, number 3 in the Mizpah Ring Trilogy. I’ve seen a draft of the cover.


So on we go! I may not have much of an idea of exactly what that will entail, but I know Someone who does, and I trust Him completely!

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Travelling mercies

332 miles and 6 hours 53 minutes of actual driving today to get from Wick to my overnight stop beside Annandale Water. I booked it online. Never again! I may have got a very economical price but not my usual view of the lake. Let’s hope it’s not too noisy.

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The drive started off in pouring rain. Lots of fun for loading all my luggage into the car. Self-catering always means you have to bring more stuff! But exactly one and a half hour’s away is the delightful Poppy’s in Golspie.

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There I tucked into a pot of tea (served with an extra teabag on the side in case I wanted a stronger brew) and a warm, freshly baked fruit scone.

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There were lots of other delicious goodies on offer and the girls were doing a roaring trade in bacon-filled potato scones. Yum!

Keeping on the culinary agenda, my next stop was for a sandwich lunch surrounded by beautiful silver birches, those elegant silver ladies of the forest.

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And close by,  lots of heather.

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Lay-bys do not come with essential facilities so the House of Bruar was a convenient stop.

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It has, in my opinion, one of the most luxurious ladies’ rooms I have so far encountered in what is essentially a shop!

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And of course, they don’t just do fish and chips:

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My last calorie top-up of the trip was a totally delicious banana pecan loaf cake with a pot of tea from Costa’s at Bothwell Services on the M74 – and then the sun came out! The last 54 miles of the drive was through golden scenery, the generous hillsides seemed brushed into softness and I found all my hurt and disappointment about having to return to England empty-handed had evaporated in the sunshine.

God is good.


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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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