Those who know me from Social media will probably realise that I have moved. A big move. Massive. After 30 years in one house I have moved to the Scottish Highlands. To Wester Ross. It has been described as Britain’s last great wilderness, and with good reason. Moving here is not just another country, it is another life and a very different one. The language is almost the same. Almost, but not quite. One has to think more about it. No one asks where you live, it is where are you staying, as if you are just passing through.
Hospitality is generous, tea, cake or biscuits are often offered as a matter of course. Which means I need to brush up on my baking skills.
The Scottish Highlands from a writer’s point of view
I travel through this land with my writer’s hat on. The landscape feels old. The rugged hills and mountains are indeed ancient. Guide books mention Lewisian Gneiss that is billions of years old, covered with more recent Torridonian Sandstone laid down a mere 900 – 750 million years ago. Many of the mountains are topped with even younger (500 million?) Cambrian Quartzite, that can often be mistaken for snow as it glints in the sunlight.
There are ancient forests of oak, ash and birch, gnarled, stunted trees covered in lichen that one can imagine as the haunt of witches or fairies. On a more mundane level, there are churches. Solid, stone edifices, or small buildings with corrugated roofs – and corrugated walls, in some cases. Dwellings are often gathered together around a village or township. Sometimes one will see a tiny dwelling literally in the middle of nowhere. Then there are castles, or rather castle ruins, in abundance.
And space. Mile upon mile of moors and barren landscapes. Shaggy cattle and wandering sheep. Suicidal deer who will run out into the road without warning. One can drive for miles without seeing a dwelling – or another car, for that matter. It is a vast wilderness that makes me want to write some epic saga, but history here is, well, different.
So what is it with history?
For years, nay, decades, I have been absorbing history. It began at school with the history lessons. Since then I have absorbed it through books, plays and poetry, visiting old houses, stately homes.
I have put that interest to good use in writing my historical novels. There is always research, something new to learn and I make mistakes, yes, but basically, I am comfortable with it.
BUT – That was when I lived in England. Here in the Scottish Highlands, history is a whole new ball game.
Many of you may recall the quote from Donald Rumsfeld, about known unknowns. Perhaps it is because I spent so long researching my subject that I am now alarmed by the fact that I know so little about Scottish history. If I want to write books set in this wild and rugged land, I will have to start researching all over again.
When I give talks to new writers, I say that a good place to start, if you know nothing about a historical period, is with children’s history books and maybe even tv documentaries – get a good basic overview. From there you can move on to the history that is relevant for your story, the costume, food, events, politics. Whatever. It looks like I am going to have to follow my own advice!
Even if I never write a novel set in Scotland, there is much that is useful for writing about the past.
Travel has always fascinated me. Roads in the past were a hit and miss affair, many were rough tracks and it wasn’t until the late 18th century that they were good enough for carriages to travel at any speed. In many places they were barely discernible tracks used by man and animal.
Walking on springy, heather-covered moors may be romantic and it is very enjoyable as a leisure activity, but it takes more effort than walking along a flat, beaten track or a road. You are constantly watching your step for uneven ground or areas of bog. It slows you down. It is tiring, even with modern lightweight walking boot. Imagine Roman soldiers in their sandals, 18th century soldiers marching in leather boots and wearing uniform. Women in long, full skirts and petticoats. And no waterproof clothing.
Wade’s military roads, built to move troops quickly through the Highlands to subdue rebellious Scots, form the basis of many of today’s roads in the north of Scotland, but there are vast tracts of heather covered moors, huge lochs and high mountains in between. Many townships around the coast were only accessible by boat until well into the 20th century. I am in awe of Boswell and Samuel Johnson touring the Highlands and islands in 1773 – that was even before the heyday of the mail coach!
The importance of good neighbours
We live 7 miles from the nearest small grocery shop, 70 miles from Inverness. It is over 50 miles to the nearest supermarket. In the Highlands it is often 20 miles (or more) between villages, that takes 30 minutes on the winding roads. Translate that to 18th century England, where villages may be a little closer: walking briskly might achieve, say, 4mph, so getting to a neighbouring village only 7 miles away could take best part of 2 hours on foot.
Even for Heyer’s Regency characters, with the luxury of a racing curricle pulled by matched bays that could reach a speed of sixteen miles an hour over a good road, it would take at least half an hour. So no “nipping out to the shops” for a pint of milk or a paper – you forget something from your shopping list at your peril. However, it encourages neighbourliness. When my neighbour needed kitchen foil for her baking I was happy to lend her mine, saving her a 14 mile round trip to go and buy more!
These details matter. Large urban sprawl, retails parks linked by fast arterial roads, they make us forget how difficult travel could be for those living outside the towns. That’s why cities such as London and Bath were so popular with those who could afford to live there in comfort. Cobbled streets that did not turn into muddy rivers in the rain. Even, joy of joys, pavements to walk on! There were shops, goods of every variety on hand to buy (if you had the money), entertainments and even street lights for dark winter evenings. It was a whole different world.
..and back to civilization!
I have just made my first trip to London in a year. The experience is stored away to use for my Regency characters. The excitement, even slight apprehension. So many people, the different smells, traffic, smoke, dirt and dust. Okay, I admit it is nothing like the past, when open gutters were filled with all sorts of unmentionable rubbish, but everything is relative.
Remember when Austen sends her characters to Lyme?
They must have noticed the clean, salty tang of the sea air that is carried onshore with the incoming tide on a breezy day.
So, will living in such a remote place inspire my writing? I hope so!
When I take the dog on his morning walk to the point and I see a fishing boat on the water, it is not the modern trawler that I am thinking of, but a small English galleon setting off to harry the Spanish Armada. I imagine cattle being driven over the famous Bealach na ba from Applecross. The twilight can be misty and murky, filled with danger, night is often as dark as velvet. But will I venture into writing a kilted hero? Well… watch this space!