Madeira Mondays is hitting the road for this one, folks! In early January, I headed to Italy to visit my partner’s family (he’s from a town outside Milan). We spent a few days in the nearby city of Turin. Turin is a beautiful northern Italian city, nestled at the base of the Alps, and it’s home to a unique museum: The National Museum of Cinema.
While I was impressed with several aspects of the museum, the coolest thing about it was its collection of old pre-cinema devices, the 18th and 19th century inventions that were popular right BEFORE cinema became a thing. So if you’re wondering what sort of moving images people watched before they went to the movies, then step on into the museum with me…
If you’ve been to Edinburgh, then it’s very likely you’ve been to the Royal Mile. It’s right smack dab in the heart of the city and it’s where most tourists flock to, evidenced by the abundance of souvenir shops called things like ‘Thistle do nicely’. If I’m quite honest, it’s an area that many locals (myself included) tend to avoid, especially during the Edinburgh Fringe Festival when it’s full to the brim with actors in face paint or wigs or funny costumes asking you to please please please come see their show (I’ve been one of those actors too, by the way). All this to say: I don’t hang out on the Royal Mile too often.
But when my friend Alan, who I know from the Georgian House, offered to take me on a private historical tour through the ‘hidden’ aspects of the Royal Mile, I jumped at the chance. Turns out, there was a lot I didn’t know about this famous street.
Longtime readers will know that I often spend my weekends volunteering as a costumed historical guide at The Georgian House here in Edinburgh. It’s a beautifully restored 18th century townhouse, where you can visit and see what life was like for the family who owned the house, and their servants who kept it running, in the late 18th/early 19th century.
I’ve written posts inspired by several spots in the home already: including the bedroom, the parlor and the drawing room. BUT I don’t think I’ve done a post yet about the dining room, which is often a favorite of visitors when they come to tour the house. I was in there last weekend telling people all about dining and food in Georgian Edinburgh so I thought this would be the perfect time to spotlight the dining room on the blog.
Hello everyone! Long time no see. It’s been a while since I posted on this blog and there are a couple of reasons for that. After I got home from my writing residency in March up at Moniack Mhor in the Scottish Highlands, I’ve been full speed ahead with various things including: applying for and becoming a permanent UK resident (which involves studying for and passing a TEST about UK history, law and trivia, harder than it sounds…), teaching at the Scottish Universities International Summer School (SUISS) at Edinburgh Uni and also editing my NEW BOOK, a novella, which will be published with Speculative Books this autumn (more on that in a future post!). I also finished a draft of my first full-length poetry collection, about cosmic wormholes, and the first very rough draft of a science fiction novel. Whew! All of this is to say: I have missed you and I definitely wanted to work on this blog, but other things had to take priority.
I want to work on this blog more in general but – to be very frank with you – one of the reasons that I don’t is simply because it’s a hobby and I don’t earn anything from it. I write this blog for love and because I enjoy talking about these topics (history! books!!). But, sadly, I have considered stopping it altogether, as things have gotten busier since lockdown ended and other projects are always vying for my attention. Still, I had people asking me where the blog has gone and expressed that they loved reading it. SO I have set up a Ko-fi account here, which, if you’re not familiar with it, is a place where readers can ‘tip’ writers for their work by ‘buying them a coffee’ 🙂 It’s a really easy, casual system. So if you’ve enjoyed this blog through the years, if it’s meant something to you, if you’ve learned something from it and want to keep it alive, please do consider ‘buying me a coffee’ on Ko-fi to show your support for it. It would mean a lot! You can also leave a message with your donation and please let me know what you enjoy about the blog (a favorite post maybe or what you’d like to see more of!). Thanks very much, friends!
And now back to our regular content! 🙂 Today’s post is about my visit to the Isle of May, a gorgeous and desolate island in the North Sea, off the Scottish coast. You can get a boat there from the quaint fishing village of Anstruther that takes about an hour. Although be forewarned that it’s a journey on open seas so the waves can be choppy! If you suffer from motion sickness, this may not be the adventure for you. Both me and my partner felt a little queasy when we arrived, although, on the plus side, it was seal season when we went in August and there were dozens, maybe a hundred, slick seals lounging around and playing on the rocks which we saw from the boat. (I didn’t get any pictures, they were too far away, but the wildlife is one of the best things about the island).
If you take the boat out (which is probably the only way to access the island) you are given a few hours to explore before needing to head back. Something about the tides means that the visiting windows are sadly pretty limited. We high-tailed it to the ruins of the old medieval monastery first, before checking out the Stevenson Lighthouse (did you know Robert Louis Sevenson’s family built lighthouses? Famously so! They were the ‘Lighthouse Stevensons’. Visits with his father to remote lighthouses are thought to have inspired his books Kidnapped and Treasure Island).
From this lighthouse, you could see an even older one, The Beacon, Scotland’s first lighthouse, built in 1636. You can’t go up The Beacon, but it’s visible from many places on the island.
Honestly the best thing to do on the island though was just to walk around and take in the awesome and desolate landscape. The wind is fierce out there and if you’re lucky you’ll be there during puffin season and can see all the puffins who make the island their home. Aside from them, it’s a home only for some scientific researchers, so when you visit it’s quite bare! There were no puffins when we went, but we saw their homes, burrows, in the ground on the sides of the path and you’re asked not to step on them, because the puffins return to the same home each year when they come back. So wouldn’t be nice for them to arrive back and have their house destroyed!
In addition to puffins, the island has played host to many different characters. It was the hiding place of a group of 300 Jacobites for eight days in 1715 (for more on the Jacobites, see my visit to Culloden). It was also a hotbed of smuggling in the 18th century, with all the wee coves and caves making it a good place to hide out. It was also home to a small fishing village in the 17th and early 18th century. And an 18th century innkeeper’s daughter even claims to have been attacked in a cave by kelpies, the legendary Scottish water horses.
We saw mostly seagulls on our trip, but I would definitely come back again (despite the queasy boat ride) to see more of the unique and dazzling landscape and explore more of the rugged, mysterious island.
‘Madeira Mondays’ is a series of blog posts about 18th century history and historical fiction. Subscribe to the blog for a new post every first Monday of the month.
I was hesitant to write this month’s ‘Madeira Mondays’ because the town I wanted to write about, Cromarty, is something of a ‘secret’. By this I mean: it’s an off-the-beaten path stop for international tourists. I (selfishly) didn’t want to share it! However, it’s an absolute GEM of a town: which manages to encapsulate Scotland’s past in numerous ways – ancient myths, Georgian prosperity, industrial decline, and a heck of a lot in between. Not to mention the beautiful natural environment, including breathtaking walks and dramatic sea views everywhere you turn.
The town was recommended to me by one of the staff, Isobel, at Moniack Mhor, Scotland’s National Writing Centre, where I had been staying for their International Writers Residency during the month of March. My partner and a friend were coming to pick me up at the end of the residency and we wanted to go somewhere in the Highlands. I asked for a recommendation for a pretty small town, that had some history and opportunities for walking nearby. Cromarty fit the bill.
So, even though I’m reluctant to ‘share’ this special place with the wider world, this ‘Madeira Mondays’ blog series is all about celebrating history and especially 18th century history, so it would be kind of unfair of me not to! 🙂
Orkney is unlike any place I’ve ever visited before. It’s a wild, somewhat desolate island, with jaw-dropping views of windswept cliffs and rolling hills dotted in ancient stone circles. It’s a peaceful place that feels like it’s at the edge of the world, and where, if you’re lucky, you might catch sight of a giant or a fairy or some other type of mythical creature. While I didn’t see any of those, what I did get to see, on a recent trip there, was Skara Brae, the best preserved Stone Age village in Europe. Over 5,000 years old!
The only thing I knew about ‘dance marathons‘, prior to reading Sarah Bird’s new novel, was that Lorelai and Rory took part in one during that episode of Gilmore Girls. Turns out, they were all the rage in the 1930’s during the depression in the USA. It was a time when people were down on their luck and wanted something to root for, someone to cheer for, and ultimately something loud, ridiculous, chaotic and fun to distract them from their troubles.
This is the world that Bird’s heroine – Evie Grace – finds herself swept up in. Although Evie dreams of becoming a nurse, when her previous life in vaudeville catches up with her, it’s through dance marathons that she finds a glimmer of hope to regain the future that she lost. This book was fun, picaresque and full of adventure in a way that perfectly suits this glitzy, turbulent time period.
It’s hard for me to describe how excited I was when I first saw the trailer for Marie Antoinette directed by Sofia Coppola. I was about 15 when the trailer came out and I was riveted: cool punky modern music mixed with 18th century fashion and this glamorous story about a doomed queen in revolutionary France. Sign me up!! Remember, this was many years before Hamilton and while I totally found the 18th century cool and exciting and hip, I don’t think that was the consensus and a lot of period pieces I’d seen felt really staid and kind of stodgy. The idea of a fun, edgy, period film with a rock-and-roll vibe about, and presumably for, young people was really, really exciting.
When I saw the film though, I was disappointed. Assuming my expectations might have been too high, I watched it again a few years later: still didn’t like it. Now, when I was at home sick with a cold (not Covid btw if you’re wondering. I tested a lot), I decided that I’d give it a THIRD try, over 15 years after its original release, to see if the film, which had failed to win over fifteen-year-old Carly could win over thirty-year-old Carly. The answer was, sadly, no. It didn’t.
‘Floating among the stars, that is my objective.’ – Wally Funk
I didn’t know about the Mercury 13 until recently, when I read the sci fi thriller Goldilocks and saw that the book was dedicated to them. I looked them up and learned that they were a group of 13 women in the 1960s who wanted to become astronauts. They aced the same grueling physical tests as the male astronauts, but their careers were cut short before they even began when it was decided (in the USA, at least) that women shouldn’t be astronauts at all. What a tragic story, and equally more tragic when I watched this documentary, Mercury 13, and saw how qualified, capable and enthusiastic these women were.
I think stories – and books, and songs, and movies – should more or less ‘stand on their own’ without any context or explanation needed. I love reading something and forming my own interpretations and impressions of it. When you publish something, be that a book or a single poem, you relinquish control of it and let others take from it what they will. Writers can’t be there standing over readers’ shoulders whispering: ‘Do you see what I did there?’ ‘That’s a symbol! Get it??’ ‘This bit is meant to make you cry. Are you crying yet?’ That would be very annoying indeed.
However, I think that there are certain stories that are really enriched and deepened when we peel back the curtain a little and see what the author was thinking about when they wrote it. For example, maybe it’s an autobiographical novel, or it’s an homage to another novel, or maybe there’s a particularly unique origin story or ‘lightbulb moment’ when the author came up with the idea, or maybe it’s the product of a particular time in the author’s life or a particular historical event inspired it etc. These things shouldn’t be essential to the reading experience, but they can be a really worthy addition. I love reading ‘afterwords’ of historical novels in particular where authors talk about the research done, or their travel to historical sites, all that jazz. As a writer myself and a curious person, it’s super interesting!