about writing and life and God

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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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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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 Eight: Snow, hail and daffodils

Spring is definitely here in Wick. The day began with a wander down to the library

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Wick Public Library

past the greatest mass of daffodils I’ve seen anywhere.

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Daffodils on the Academy Braes

I spent hours in the Caithness Archive Centre reading back copies of the newspaper I worked on during my gap year: The John O’Groat Journal – but I was researching the pre-war and war years. Wick was a busy place during the war. Because the aerodrome had been built before the war, it appeared on maps – so the Germans knew it existed and it received plenty of Luftwaffe attention – as did the houses nearby.

It began to snow as I walked back to my sister’s for lunch – the blurry bits are the snow!

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And then I went back to the library for more research and came back in fierce hail!

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Deep hail outside the house


Day Two: North!

Another long’s day drive. I set off in sunshine from lovely Annandale Water at 8.30,

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Swan on Annandale Water

and hove to at my destination in Wick, Caithness, Scotland at nearly 5 o’clock. Whew!

And yes, I’d forgotten Scotland has a different climate from the south of England! There is still plenty of snow on the hill-tops so I was glad I’d decided at the last minute to pack a vest!

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A9 south of Inverness

Then once I’d got north of the tree-line, the cloud came down and it was a challenging drive with full-beam headlights all the rest of the way on switchback roads. But within moments of arrival I was comfortably ensconced at my sister’s with a mug of tea in hand.

Who said it’s better to travel hopefully than to arrive?Nonsense!

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Planning a book trip

I’m off on the road again in a few days. Only ten days this time – a weekend at either end mainly taken up with travelling – but I’m booked to give three talks on the new book, The Mizpah Ring, up in my home town of Wick.

Today I’m at that lose-endish stage – too soon to pack, too close to launch into anything much. The excitement/anticipation is building nicely and I’m wondering should I do a daily trip blog like last time? It helped me process the experiences of each day and I printed it out when I got home so I had a lovely record of the places I’d been and the people I’d spent time with.

There were so many highlights last time – from spectacular scenery, hunting haggis in the rain, reunions with friends after far too many years… I’m hoping this time will be just as good. I’m planning to check out some of the locations I’m using in the new book. Wick was a very interesting place during the second world war with a large air base for Coastal Command and the war in Norway. My sister and I are planning some recce trips for authentic background.

I shall be driving (665 miles each way) because I need to bring books with me for sale. Last time I had sold out before the end of my trip so this time I’ll take more than I think I’ll need. I have a solid order for both When the Boats Come Home and Mizpah Ring from one rather special retail outlet: the last shop on the mainland of the UK- right at the end of the road at John O’Groats! If you’re ever there, do drop in for a browse. Their range of Scots-interest books is second to none.

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Harbour at John O’Groats

I’m hoping the weather will be reasonable – especially for the drive. But I was horrified to overhear a snippet of conversation this morning which concluded: ‘Oh yes,snow. The mountains are full of it.’ I hope they were talking about Switzerland!

Anyway, planning. The packing list looks like:

  • Smart outfit for talks
  • Comfortable,warm clothes and walking shoes for trips out with my sister
  • Books – to sell – and promotional postcards to give away – and a decent ‘signing’ pen!
  • Books – to read at all those solo stops along the road!
  • Notebooks and pens
  • iPad and charger for Facebook and soothing sudoku etc
  • Camera and usb cable
  • Laptop for emails and blog
  • Mobile phone charger
  • Kindle and charger – in case I run out of reading material
  • Diary, and address book (for sending post cards)

and much more besides!

I’ll pack tomorrow!




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Day Seventeen: Wick: Ambling in the sun

A day of ambling, strolling, and enjoying the lovely sunny weather, bringing back memories of childhood – and maybe I can claim much of it as research for the next book!

First a walk up the river.

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Looking away from town

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Looking towards the town

Then after lunch, we went down to the harbour where timber was being loaded onto a boat bound for Scandinavia and paper-making.

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The sun shone, the sea was deep blue,and the sky clear blue – so on we went round the south head.

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My sister pointed out to me the remains of the breakwater Robert Louis Stevenson’s father was commissioned to build out into the bay. Despite several attempts, the breakwater was never completed – storms kept tearing off huge lumps of concrete and stone weighing over a thousand tons – and the project was finally mothballed.

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Out to the Trinkie – the sea-filled outdoor swimming pool where our mother taught us to float when we were very small.

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And then back in to Wellington Street (and Granny Leslie’s house from my novel, When the Boats Come Home).

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We ended up with a cold drink (and a cake!) at the very impressive Pulteney Centre, which offers facilities, hosts courses and a wide variety of groups – all run by the Pulteneytown People’s Project.

This evening is more research – a visit to an old friend to hear about her trip to Buenos Aires. And yes, that does come into the next book!

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Day Sixteen: Wick: Raising the bar

Last planned book talk on the tour delivered to a lovely, responsive, appreciative audience at Wick Salvation Army Home League today.

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I’m so delighted they were able to fit me in.

But now I’m wanting to be back at home to get stuck into serious work on the next book so I’ve something else to share with them!

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I’ve had a wonderful time. People are interested in books that connect with them and are happy to purchase copies. It makes all the work that went into the book so worthwhile – and it makes me want to make the next one at least as good, at least as interesting, at least as connecting with them, at least as enjoyable…

In fact, I think they’ve raised the bar. And so there’s a real challenge.

But where there’s a challenge to do something that God calls us to do, there’s power available to do it. Just one of the many texts reassuring us of this is in Hebrews 13:21: ‘Now may the God of peace… equip you with everything good for doing His will’. ‘Everything good’. That will do nicely!

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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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