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…
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! 🙂
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.
‘Who does not know its noble rock, rising, the monarch of the landscape…’ – James Johnson, 1834, on Stirling Castle
A few weeks ago my partner and I escaped Edinburgh for the first time in a long time, and we decided to take a jaunt to the nearby city of Stirling. Stirling was the medieval capital of Scotland and historically it was like a gateway between the Highlands and the Lowlands. There’s an old saying that ‘He who holds Stirling, holds Scotland’. So it was a strategic site…the perfect place to build a castle! And Stirling Castle was our first stop on our visit there. A mighty fortress perched on a craggy hilltop which, I have to say, exceeded my expectations!
Almost two years ago, I sat down to write the first ‘Madeira Mondays’ post. I had just finished my Doctorate of Fine Arts (which was looking at 18th century historical fiction and forgotten women in the early American South), was working on a historical fiction novel, was volunteering as a costumed historical guide…basically my life was: all 18th century, all the time. This blog series was meant to be a fun way to share my research and passion by writing about all the cool (and bizarre) stuff I’d learned about during my PhD. I would share 18th century recipes and strange facts about 18th century underwear! My first post was on one of my favorite novels about this period of early American history: Johnny Tremain by Esther Forbes.
A few weeks ago, a billionaire went to space in a rocket. I’m really not impressed. What does impress me is the work that scientists and actual astronauts have been doing for years to map the heavens and better understand our place in this vast, incomprehensible universe. On that note, I wanted to recommend a book which I read last summer that combines two interests of mine: history and outer space. It’s a non-fiction book about the first ever global scientific collaboration conducted on Earth, which actually happened in the 18th century!
The book is Chasing Venus: The Race to Measure the Heavens by Andrea Wulf. It has adventure on the high seas, it has danger, it has rivalries, and best of all it has international cooperation (something that we could use a lot more of these days).
‘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.’
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).
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’!
Another Highland site that I’d recommend visiting is Culloden Battlefield. My post about visiting that is here.
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!