Madeira Mondays: Ben Dorain: a conversation with a mountain (Book Review)

‘Imagine/you’ve spent hours walking the mountain/deeper and deeper in/until you’ve come to know its paths/its rocks and burns, its deer trails/as well as you know the surface of the leaf/held all day between finger and thumb’ – from Ben Dorain, ‘Part Five: Colour’

This is an immensely special book. It’s the sort of book where, as I was reading it, I kept putting little sticky notes next to phrases or words I liked – until the pages were too cluttered up with sticky notes and I had to force myself to stop.

Frequently I post on this blog about ‘historical fiction’ i.e. fictional works set in a previous era (usually the 18th century!). This book is not historical fiction per se but it certainly concerns history and approaches history in some pretty unique, challenging and ultimately really fascinating ways. It’s a book of poetry which is at once a loose translation of an 18th century Gaelic poem by Duncan Ban MacIntyre AND an entirely new poem by author Garry MacKenzie. Both poems explore a highland mountain called Ben Dorain, and specifically a herd of deer who live there. Both the old and the new poems are positioned next to each other – side by side – on each page. They intermingle, as past and present often do, into one new whole where, as MacKenzie writes in his introduction, ‘various voices and traditions speak alongside each other.’

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Madeira Mondays: Return to The Highland Folk Museum

Long-time readers of the blog might remember a post from last summer when I visited The Highland Folk Museum, a wonderful little open air museum nestled in the Cairngorms National Park. Me and my traveling companions were so enthralled with the museum after that first visit that we determined we needed to return, as soon as travel was permitted again in Scotland. So, this June, that’s actually what we did!

If you’ve not had a chance to read that first post about The Highland Folk Museum, I’d recommend it. The property is massive (80 acres) and covered in buildings recreating different eras of Scottish history, from the 1700s through the 1960’s. There is so much to take in. I decided to cover different aspects in each of my posts. That first post covers the recreated 18th century village in the museum, where bits of Outlander was filmed, and where we spent most of our time during our last visit. Whereas this post will be more focused on the rest of the park, which we explored this time around.

This place is so unique and honestly doesn’t feel touristy at all. It truly does give you a slice of Highland life, and how ordinary people used to live. We marveled at not only how detailed all the recreated buildings were (so many little items from frying pans to kettles to quilts!) but also how well kept they were. We didn’t see any dust. Some of the surfaces were even cleaner than my own desk at home! It’s clearly a museum created and maintained with attention, affection and care.

Here are a few of the highlights from our trip this time around…

My favorite thing we saw this time was not actually a building. We were lucky enough to arrive at exactly the moment that they were shearing the sheep! I’ve never seen sheep sheared before and wow – what a process!

Those sheep were thrashing about and it really looked like hard work.

I was surprised that the wool came off in big swathes, almost like blankets, not little tufts.

We got to see the sheep hosed down afterwards with a pink spray, which it turns out was to ward off the flies (who could lay eggs in any cuts the sheep might have gotten, which could then get infected).

In addition to the sheep, we also met some Highland cows.

We saw so many great buildings too – a recreated post office, railway waiting room, sweet shop, and several homes (most of these were depicting periods from the late 1800s through to the 1950s).

Inside the recreated early 1900s post office

There was also a shinty field and we learned about the history of shinty (an ancient and historically very brutal Scottish sport which is still played now – in a more tame manner! Apparently Scottish emigrants also brought it to Canada, leading to modern ice hockey).

My favorite building that we saw on this trip was a 1930s school house. This was probably my favorite because the guide that we encountered there was so knowledgable about schooling during this period. We heard all about the (usually orphaned) ‘overspill’ children from Glasgow who were shipped away to the Highlands for a ‘better life’ and education in school houses like this. And we heard about the brutal corporal punishments used on students for all manner of offenses, and also about how students were beaten for speaking Gaelic (you had to speak English in schools).

(I appreciated how the guide didn’t sugarcoat any of this, and the Highlands does have a rather sad history: from the Highland Clearances, to forced emigration to the U.S or Canada due to lack of work and opportunities.)

All in all I’m so happy that we travelled back to the Highland Folk Museum and were able to explore it in its entirety. The fact that it’s an open-air museum which allows you to be in the breathtaking landscape as you explore all the buildings is a major bonus. And, in a place where the landscape is so linked to the people, the buildings and the culture, being outdoors is another way to learn about Scotland’s past and present. (And maybe you’d get lucky enough to catch a sheep shearing like we did!)

My recommendation if you visit is to buy a guide book: they’re only a fiver at the door and, without it, you wouldn’t get as rich an experience. There aren’t plaques or explanations outside every building, and, when we visited, not many staff about (possibly due in part to Covid), so it’s basically essential to get the guide, which is packed with great information about how each building was recreated. And I wanted to buy one too: it’s extremely cheap to visit the museum (we only paid a five pound donation total for entry for all three of us!!). We also stopped into the delightful little cafe on site and the gift shop too – wanting to support the work of the museum. (Also, the baked goods were tasty!)

If, like me, you enjoy learning about social history and people’s daily lives in the past, you’ll love this museum. I hope that you enjoyed this virtual ‘visit’, and let me know what you think of it. I’ve linked some info below if you are planning a visit, as well as some more resources if you want to learn more. 🙂

Stay tuned for another Highland-themed post in the next ‘Madeira Mondays’!

Links:

PS Not Highland Folk Museum related, but last week I had the pleasure of being interviewed by the Loud Poets on their wonderful podcast The Loudcast. As most of you know, part of my job is writing and performing poetry, and this interview was an in-depth conversation about my experiences writing for different audiences, bringing empathy and humor to ‘political poetry’ and lots more. They released the podcast episode just yesterday so wanted to pop it here if you’re interested in checking it out!

‘Madeira Mondays’ is a series of blog posts exploring 18th century history and historical fiction. Follow the blog for a new post every other Monday and thanks for reading!

Madeira Mondays: The best songs from ‘1776’

Before there was Hamilton, there was 1776.

I honestly can’t believe that I’ve been posting on this blog regularly for about a year and a half and I’ve never once dedicated a whole post to the musical 1776. This makes no sense to me. Surely I’ve written about this before? But I looked back at my records and while I’ve definitely mentioned 1776 (for example in this post about queer activism and Grace and Frankie), I haven’t done a whole post about it. It’s time for that to change! Especially since this is one of my favorite films and 100% falls into the ‘Madeira Mondays’ remit (it’s historical fiction AND it’s about one of the most significant political events of the 18th century: the signing of the Declaration of Independence in America).

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Madeira Mondays: Why 18th century pockets were pretty great

Lucy Locket lost her pocket

Kitty Fisher found it

not a penny was there in it

only ribbons round it.

When I first heard that nursery rhyme as a kid, I was confused. How could somebody lose a pocket? Aren’t they like…sewn inside your clothes? A pocket is not the sort of thing that could fall out of a pair of jeans.

It was only much later when I was researching 18th century women’s clothes that I discovered that women’s pockets of yesteryear were very different to the pockets that were sewn into my modern clothes. In the 18th century, women did have pockets, but they were separate pieces of clothing – they looked like little sacks that you tied around your waist with a bit of ribbon or string. Kind of hard to explain verbally, but it makes sense when you see them! Check out this image below.

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Madeira Mondays: Reflections on the Stay-at-Home Literary Festival

As some of you may know, I’ve been working for a literary festival this spring called the Stay-at-Home! Festival.

The festival is entirely virtual and was founded last year by CJ Cooke: a professor at Glasgow Uni (I met her during my Masters and PhD there) and an author of popular psychological thrillers and poetry as well. She founded the festival last year during the first lockdown: at a time when few people knew what Zoom was, let alone how to use it! It was really well attended in year one (145 events, 220 authors over 2 weeks) and debuted as one of the biggest literary festivals in the UK. This year, the festival received some generous funding from various sources and was able to run again for a second year and Carolyn (aka CJ Cooke!) invited me to join the core festival team.

Throughout the two-week festival, which ended last week, I kept thinking about Madeira Mondays and what aspect of it I wanted to share with you. There were writing workshops, talks on all sorts of topics (fossils, motherhood, death and grieving, monsters, the environmental crisis, happiness, the body…) with a focus on diversity in the publishing industry as our central theme this year. Since most of our events are now available to watch on our YouTube Channel, I have decided to pick out a couple of events that are inspired by and centered on history or historical fiction to share with you.

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Madeira Mondays: ‘For I will consider my cat, Jeoffry’

‘(Christopher Smart’s) poem about his cat is to all other poems about cats what The Illiad is to all other poems on war.’ – TS Eliot

These days, lots of people post pictures of their pets online. We can see these pictures as little tributes, little celebrations of these animals – their cuteness, their ridiculous quirks, their personalities. Back in 18th century London, Christopher Smart, a ‘mad’ poet living in an insane asylum, wrote a tribute to his feline companion, an orange cat called Jeoffry, in the form a poem. The lines that he wrote about Jeoffry became some of the most famous words ever written about a cat in all of English literature, and over the ages, Jeoffry has become a bit of a literary celebrity.

Oliver Soden’s delightful little gem of a book Jeoffry, The Poet’s Cat: A Biography (2020) imagines the life of Jeoffry the cat himself and his misadventures in Georgian London.

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Madeira Mondays: The Lost Pirate Kingdom (TV Show Review)

This was really awful. 

You’re very welcome to stick around for the rest of this post (and I hope you do!!) but if you’re going to take one thing out of it, it’s the above sentence. Netflix’s new ‘docuseries’ The Lost Pirate Kingdom (2021) was really, really awful. 

It’s one in a new trend of ‘history’ documentary films which features interviews with historians interspersed with extended live action reenactments (aka imagined fantasies) of historical events. This format worked surprisingly well in The History Channel’s Washington last year (which I reviewed here). Washington worked because it had a really star-studded line up of leading historians. It also worked because it had, if I remember correctly, a higher percentage of historians talking and a lower percentage of reenactments than Pirate Kingdom has, although I could be wrong. In any case, I enjoyed Washington just fine and found the reenactments there quite restrained and engaging…rather than the sensational, graphic, needlessly violent and terribly CGI-ed reenactments we find here.

I can’t speak at all to the calibre or credentials of the people interviewed in Pirate Kingdom because I’m not as familiar with this historical community. The period that this ‘docuseries’ looks at is the early 1700s, after the War of Spanish Succession, when piracy flourished in the Caribbean. It looks at the lives (and, more likely, the legends) of some of the most famous pirates who lived then: people like Blackbeard (who was a real guy), Samuel Bellamy, Anne Bonny etc.

And, like I said, I’m no pirate expert, but I smelled a rat even in the show’s introduction, when a voiceover that sounds exactly like David Attenborough (but thankfully wasn’t!) told me that this series was about pirates who were the ‘real forefathers of modern America.’ What? I only watched the first episode, so I didn’t stick around long enough to find out what exactly that means, but are they trying to suggest that America was founded not by like, the actual founders, but…pirates? I don’t know, and I really don’t care. By the time they said that, which was about five minutes into the episode, I was already experiencing sensory overload from all the random action on screen and still reeling from the fact that I’d just seen shots of a woman being raped. In the introduction!! (This is how we’re introduced to the famous female pirate Anne Bonny. The not-David Attenborough voiceover says that ‘not all pirates were men!’ and then we see shots of a lady being raped, before holding a knife to her attacker’s throat. Presumably, this is Bonny.)

In addition to the sexual assault moment, there’s also a pretty lengthy torture scene and lots more violence. And I’m not averse to any of these things in film. In fact sometimes they’re necessary to tell a story! And I’m sure that life aboard pirate ships really was awful. But these things just seemed like sensational set pieces there to hold your interest. I felt so patronized by it: like the filmmakers thought I would lose interest if another violent thing wasn’t thrown at me every five minutes.

I actually wanted to hear what the historians were saying, but they cut away from them so quickly I had trouble keeping up. 

Honestly, don’t watch this. I don’t blame the historians, and I don’t blame the actors (who all seemed fine). I actually don’t even blame the people who scripted the reenactment scenes because sometimes the dialogue in them was pretty good, when it slowed down long enough to let people speak to each other. I blame the entire concept and the overall execution. I don’t need some guy yelling ‘I’m Blackbeard! Arrg!!!’ directly to camera for me to be interested. And I’m not alone. People like pirates. The material is inherently interesting. If they just slowed down and let it breathe (and let us breathe) for one minute, maybe we could have engaged with that material in some sort of real way. 

I didn’t even touch on the ‘historical accuracy’ of this because I don’t feel like there’s any need. Hopefully people know that what they’re watching is as ‘historical fiction’ as any novel, despite the historians present. 

I wish I could say The Lost Pirate Kingdom was ‘good bad’, because I love films that are so ridiculous they are good (see my review of Beyond the Mask). But this is tasteless. Can we call it an exploitation film? Maybe. I’ll say it’s exploitation adjacent. But, then again, that’s too high praise because the ‘exploitation’ in those films is often done in a knowing way and as part of a genre. This is just blood and guts, murder and mayhem which is un-self-aware and no fun. And in the guise of ‘education’ no less!! No thanks. 

I can confidently say that this is my least favorite thing I’ve ever watched for Madeira Mondays. At least nobody talks in ‘pirate speak’? Although I wouldn’t put it past them in future episodes. 

Recommended Further Reading/Viewing: 

PS Today’s Featured Image is ‘A French Ship and Barbary Pirates’, a painting from 1615, accessed via Wikimedia

‘Madeira Mondays’ is a series of blog posts exploring 18th century history and historical fiction. Follow the blog for a new post every other Monday and thanks for reading!

Madeira Mondays: These Shallow Graves by Jennifer Donnelly (Book Review)

”I merely wish to smoke. Sparky can forgive that. You, on the other hand, wish to know things. And no one can forgive a girl for that.” – These Shallow Graves

One of my favorite films growing up was Martin Scorsese’s Gangs of New York. Not typical fare for a teenage girl, sure, but I liked seeing old New York – the glitzy and the grimy. I don’t have any particular desire to live in New York City but it really is a fascinating place, isn’t it? A little Colonial Dutch outpost that slowly became a commercial mecca and now a world center of finance, culture, food, fashion, you name it. And seeing old New York (specifically 1890’s New York) was one of the coolest things about reading These Shallow Graves by Jennifer Donnelly. The book is a Young Adult mystery novel, published in 2015, which follows an upper class society girl who dreams of becoming a reporter and gets mixed up in the city’s underworld when she starts investigating her father’s mysterious death. 

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Madeira Mondays: The Devil and the Dark Water by Stuart Turton (Book Review)

What if Sherlock Holmes boarded a 17th century ship? What if, on this ship, there was a series of dark and unexplained happenings: animals slaughtered, strange marks appearing, and, eventually, people murdered. How would Holmes go about solving these crimes and unmasking, as it were, the ‘devil’ lurking in the ‘dark water’?

While Stuart Turton’s novel, The Devil and the Dark Water, of course doesn’t actually feature Sherlock Holmes, it’s obvious that’s what he’s referencing with his central character of Samuel Pipps (who calls himself a ‘problematary’ because, as Turton clearly knows, the whole concept of ‘detective’ wasn’t around in the 17th century, when this book is set). Pipps, and the other characters in the novel, use deductive reasoning to solve the mysterious murders happening on their ship, as it travels from Batavia (present day Jakarta), in the Dutch East Indies, back to Amsterdam. They follow clues, they speak and think very much like Holmes himself. Continue reading

Madeira Mondays: Yellow Fever in Colonial Philadelphia

“The horrors of this memorable affliction were extensive and heart rending.” – Samuel Breck, 18th century merchant, on Philadelphia’s 1793 yellow fever epidemic

In mid August, 1793, the first Philadelphian died from what would become a devastating epidemic of yellow fever. By the end of October, the city had lost nearly 5,000 people – 10% of the entire population.

In the last Madeira Mondays, we looked at 18th century medicine in general – how people thought diseases spread and what they did to try and fight them – and this week we’re going to be diving into how that looked in practice with one specific and fascinating example: Philadelphia’s infamous yellow fever outbreak.

What was the disease? Who were the major players trying to combat and contain it? And how did it change the city afterwards? Continue reading