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…
‘One morning, as Gregor Samsa was waking up from anxious dreams, he discovered that in bed he had been changed into a monstrous verminous bug.’
– The Metamorphosis, Franz Kafka
I wrote a ‘Writing Reflections’ post recently about why my recently-published book, All the Orphans in the Galaxy, was a novella and not a novel. There’s a lot more in that post about what exactly a novella is (essentially, longer than a short story, shorter than a novel!) and why I think it’s such a good form for experimentation. You don’t have to ‘commit’ to one thing for too long and you can really focus and zoom in on just a couple of characters (or a really unique premise!).
In that post, I also mentioned that lots of my favorite books are actually novellas. I thought I’d recommend a few of them here!
This is the most common question I got when I told friends and family I had a novella coming out. And, honestly, it’s not a question I probably could have answered myself until relatively recently. However there’s a fairly short answer.
Put simply: a novella is longer than a short story and shorter than a novel.
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.
Over the 2020 lockdown, a lot of people learned how to bake sourdough bread. Some took up knitting. Others got very into gardening, or puzzles, or reorganizing their closets. I, on the other hand, got very into 1990s’ sci-fi TV and, specifically, Star Trek: Deep Space Nine. These far off worlds were my escape. My world had become so small. I really wanted to go BIG in my imagination. Space operas felt perfect.
I had started watching Star Trek during my PhD, a few years back, and it had become a comforting escape for me during stressful periods. But Deep Space Nine hit differently somehow. I’ve heard people say that it’s the ‘grittiest’ Star Trek series and, from what I’ve seen, that’s definitely true. During the lockdown, it particularly resonated with me because of its themes of grief, loss and people trying to pick up the pieces after dark and difficult things.
Keeping historic houses in good condition isn’t always an easy job. And the folks at The Hill House in Helensburgh have had a particularly challenging time. This quirky and unique house – designed by the wildly creative Charles Rennie Mackintosh in 1900 – has been threatened recently by water damage. You’ll know if you’ve been to Scotland, but it can get pretty wet here!! Water got into the walls of this beautiful house and was threatening its existence. So that led them to a drastic and very inventive solution to save the house.
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! 🙂
‘I, Doctor Michael Claybridge, living in the year 1926, have listened to the description of the end of the world from the lips of a man who witnessed it; the last man of the human race. That this is possible, or that I am not insane, I cannot ask you to believe: I can only offer you the facts.’ – from ‘Omega‘, Amelia Reynolds Long
The fact that we cannot see the future is perhaps a very good thing. But it means that we sometimes find ourselves in surprising positions, doing things we never would have expected. For example, just a few short years ago, if you’d asked me if I enjoyed science fiction, I would probably have said ‘meh, not really.’ But I find myself currently on a writing residency working on a collection of, as I’m calling it, ‘science fiction poetry’ about cosmic wormholes, and reading books about astrophysics, and Einstein, and time travel.
One of the more interesting fiction books I’ve read during this period was called: Beyond Time: Classic Tales of Time Unwound, edited by Mike Ashley.