Madeira Mondays: Scotland’s best preserved 18th century town

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! 🙂

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Madeira Mondays: A Visit to Skara Brae (Orkney, Scotland)

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!

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Madeira Mondays: The Tenement House, Glasgow (Historical Site Visit)

I cannot believe that I lived in Glasgow for several years without ever visiting The Tenement House.

We decided to make the short (about 50 minutes) train ride over to Glasgow from Edinburgh to tour the house as part of my 30th birthday celebrations (slightly hungover from cocktails the night before!).

Described on The National Trust website as a ‘time capsule of life in early 20th century Glasgow’, this museum exceeding my expectations and made me (an 18th century lover) very, very jealous at how many wonderful, original items you could see there – including a jar of plum jam made in 1929! The house, located in the very cool Garnetthill area of Glasgow (also home to the Glasgow School of Art, numerous excellent coffeeshops, bars and pretty, residential streets). It was once owned by Miss Agnes Toward, who worked as a typist. She lived there from 1911 until 1965, and the house is full of the belongings of her and her mother. Agnes was a bit of a ‘hoarder’ and kept everything, which is to our benefit, since the house really feels like not only a snapshot of a time but also a quirky, personal archive. That makes the site very special. It’s one person’s home, filled with things they loved.

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Madeira Mondays: A Visit to Stirling Castle

‘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!

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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!

Writing Reflections: Thoughts on launching a book during lockdown

It’s officially been six months since my second poetry pamphlet, Anastasia, Look in the Mirror, was released out into the world! And what an unusual six months it has been…

I wanted to take some time today to reflect on the unique challenges (and opportunities!) of launching a book at such a strange time and a couple of things I’ve learned along the way. I hope this will be helpful to fellow writers who are launching their own books or creative projects right now and interesting to those who want a bit of a peek into the process of releasing a poetry book.

I won’t be talking too much here about what the book is about – for more on that, check out this blog post from July! But these are poems about lots of things I’m interested in: history, art, desire, the unexpected places where the personal meets the political. They’re mostly funny and lighthearted. Gutter Magazine’s Calum Rodger generously described it like this in a review:

Carly Brown’s Anastasia, Look in the Mirror (…) intersperses sharp and funny patriarchy take-downs with ekphrastic poems on the Scottish Colourists. It’s a brilliantly-crafted assemblage full of wit, warmth and panache, ‘a suitcase so full / it would not / shut’.

Thanks Gutter!

Ta da! Here she is! The cover is very fun to stare at, and it was designed by the very talented James T. Harding.

The book came out with Stewed Rhubarb in July 2020. Stewed Rhubarb are a Scotland based independent press which specializes in spoken word poetry. So a lot of their poets (myself included) have a strong performance background and either write for the stage or have performed extensively. It was published as part of a series of four pamphlets, all from emerging poets based in Scotland (like myself!), called The Fellowship of the Stewed Rhubarb. The whole project was the result of a successful crowd funding campaign in late 2019 and the books were all set to launch throughout 2020 and into early 2021. Mine was the second book in the series, the summer book.

Prior to the pandemic, Stewed Rhubarb had planned launches for my book in both Edinburgh and Glasgow in July 2020. AND there would have been launches for the other three books too AND there was meant to be a big party in December 2020 for all of the generous Fellowship subscribers who supported the whole project, as well as our friends and family. However, as you know, 2020…happened. All of those in-person celebrations had to be cancelled.

I was at a bit of a loss, quite honestly, about how I was going to be able to share this book with people – especially when a lot of the way that I’ve sold books (and found new readers) in the past has been at live performances. I’m a performance poet, after all!

Throw back to a live performance I did back in 2017, at the Quotidian Magazine Issue 3 Launch party.

So how the heck were we going to help people find this book?

First of all, luckily Stewed Rhubarb has an in-house publicist, the lovely Charlie Roy, who took the helm for the social media side of promoting the book (I am not the biggest fan of social media, quite honestly, although I do think it can be a useful tool. I’m not on Facebook, I’ve not updated my Instagram in about five years, and while I do have a Twitter profile, I often feel like that website drains my soul, distracts me from writing, makes me feel anxious and a whole host of other negative things. Basically, I use it sparingly!)

So what I set to work doing was finding online places where I could share poems from the book, and actually connect with and talk with readers live – which is what I love to do most of all! I reached out to organizations, universities, and festivals I’d performed with before, and to organizations that I saw were doing very cool online events. (This is something I’d recommend, if you’re launching your own project right now. Think about what resources/connections you already have and also spend some time researching online events/festivals/places you might want to be part of – there might be more than you think!)

Happily, there were many events popping up throughout the latter half of 2020, and I was able to share poems from the book quite often, perhaps more often than I would have if it had just been at local in-person events.

And, on the plus side, I got to share the book at international events and festivals that I probably would not have attended in-person, just out of logistical challenges, such as the readings that I gave at the American University of Dubai!

I’m grateful for the ingenuity of so many event organizers, who rapidly transitioned their events online. Here are some of the places where I’ve shared poetry from Anastasia in the last several months…

The Anastasia Virtual Book Tour

(Or, events where I’ve READ poems from the book, in the last six months)

  • ‘Meet the author with Carly Brown’, University of St Andrews’ Countdown to St Andrews online program for first years, a half-hour poetry performance and then Q and A with St Andrews university students, organized by the university library (August 28, 2020)
  • Sonnet Youth #13 (September 13, 2020), an online performance with the other three other poets in the Fellowship of the Stewed Rhubarb (You can watch this entire event online here!)
  • London Center for Interdisciplinary Research’s Poetry Conference at the University of Oxford, ‘International Poetry Reading’ (September 20, 2020)
  • The Stay-at-Home Fringe Festival, University of Glasgow’s Creative Writing department Open Mic night (October 9, 2020), invited to share poems from Anastasia alongside current members and alumni of the University of Glasgow
  • Inklight: The University of St Andrews’ Creative Writing Society (October 12, 2020), a half-hour performance and then Q and A with Inklight members
  • ‘A Poetry Evening with Dr Carly Brown’ at the American University of Dubai (November 24, 2020), an hour long poetry reading then discussion with the students

Aside from performances, another good thing that happened after the launch of the book was that a poem from it – ‘En Plein Air’ – was republished in Scotland’s national newspaper, The Scotsman, as their ‘Poem of the Week’ in July. The poem is an ekphrastic poem, responding to a work of visual art, and the publication was accompanied by a very good description of what ekphrastic poetry is.

Excited me with The Scotsman

Two poems from Anastasia have also been re-printed in the American University of Dubai’s Poetry Journal, Indelible, in their issue on the theme of ‘Escapism’ (god knows, we all need a bit of escapism right now!). You can read the whole journal here. AND I’ve recently been approached by another writer about translating one of the poems from Anastasia into Spanish – so I’ll share more about that when I can!

It’s also gotten some very positive (and beautifully written) reviews, such as the one I mentioned earlier from Gutter, as well as this lovely piece in Sphinx Review.

Another delight, aside from these publications, reviews, and meeting people through the online performances, was seeing pictures and hearing stories of people reading the book in locations all over the world. While I’m not able to travel myself right now, Scotland is in serious lockdown, it made me so happy to hear friends from all over reaching out and telling me that they were reading the book. They sent me pictures of the book in their homes, with them at the park or on vacation, and told me stories of how they read it aloud to one another on camping trips. One friend shared that she had read a poem each morning with her morning coffee.

These stories were a joy and made me feel like I was connecting with people at a time when that’s what we all so desperately needed! It also made me happy that the poems could travel – even though I could not.

Anastasia hanging at the beach in Massachusetts, USA with my friend Emma

Anastasia chilling in my friend Miranda’s cozy window seat in rainy Glasgow, Scotland!

Anastasia travels to Bahrain! My friend Laala generously took this photo in front of the Bahrain World Trade Centre (which, fun fact, is apparently the first skyscraper in the world to integrate wind turbines. So cool!)

 

I don’t have any overarching take-away from this, except to say that I’m grateful to everyone who has bought and read the book, and everyone who has invited me to perform at their events.  While it is not the same performing over Zoom, it has opened up a whole new world of possibilities and I’ve certainly met new people, from all over the world, that I would not have encountered otherwise. And, in such a dark year, that was a beautiful and surprising thing.

I hope that Anastasia has brought some joy, entertainment, and even companionship to those who have read it. While most of our worlds are physically small right now, books can open up our intellectual worlds infinitely and remind us that we’re not alone.

Have you read ‘Anastasia, Look in the Mirror’ and, if so, which poem was your favorite?

Fellow writers and artists, do you have any tips for me on how you’ve been sharing work with audiences during this unusual time? 

If you’d like to grab a copy of Anastasia, Look in the Mirror, the easiest way to do so is to order it online on the publisher’s website here (they ship internationally!!)

Further links:

  • My blog post from July 2020 about launching the book
  • A blog post where I explore the historical research behind one of the poems, which is about the Salem Witch Trials (this one is perfect if you want more of the nitty gritty of writing one of the poems!)
  • Lots more general info about the book and what it’s about here
  • My editor Dr. Katie Ailes wrote a really fascinating post about the processes of editing the pamphlet together, you can find that on her website here
  • Stewed Rhubarb’s website, where you can find lots of excellent poetry pamphlets and full-length collections (if you enjoyed mine, you’ll probably find many others there that are right up your alley!)

Stay tuned for more ‘Writing Reflections’ this year, my friends, as well as more of my ‘Madeira Mondays’ series about 18th century history and historical fiction reviews. Please do subscribe to the blog so that you don’t miss any of that – as well as for news of upcoming performances and publications. Hope you’re having a good day!

 

Madeira Mondays: 2020 Recap

I’ve had several discussions with friends recently about time and our perception of it during this very strange year.

It feels, to me, that January 2020 was about a thousand years ago – so much has happened since (a global pandemic, a turbulent US Presidential race, an altered state of life for everyone)! But it also feels that January 2020 was only a minute or two ago, considering that also so little has happened since (vacations canceled, jobs lost, a string of blurring and indistinct days as we’re all stuck inside).

Whether you feel like time has passed slowly or quickly for you – or if (like me!) you feel that it has passed quickly AND slowly – I’d encourage you to look backwards and think on anything you’re proud of this year. Even if what you’re proud of is quite simply just making it through this year!

For me, one of those things I’m proudest of is all of these Madeira Mondays posts. It’s brought me joy to write them, and the consistency of it has kept me sane during the ups and downs of the creative freelancer’s life. Some weeks are full of exciting creative work – writing, editing, researching, teaching, performing – while some weeks are full of the not-so-nice side of this work – constant rejections, negotiating contracts (thankfully with the help of my union!), tedious funding applications, and oh, did I mention the constant rejections?

Through all the highs and lows of this year, including launching a new poetry book, Madeira Mondays has been there for me. And I’ve heard from several of you that it’s been there for you too! A couple of you have reached out and said that it’s something you look forward to starting your week with, and that makes me so happy to hear – especially this year, when we quite desperately need things to look forward to!

I’ve done some reflecting on the year that has passed and pulled out just a handful of my personal favorite Madeira Mondays posts from 2020. We’ve covered so many topics, from 18th century underwear, to swear words, to the surprisingly interesting history of ketchup. I’ve reviewed tons of historical books, films and TV shows, as well as visited historic sites in Scotland and the US. We’ve covered so much ground this year despite, well, literally not covering that much ground!

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The Best of ‘Madeira Mondays’ (2020)

Most unexpectedly delicious recipe…

That would be absolutely be switchel! This ’18th century energy drink’ with lemon and ginger was delicious, and I’ve made it several times since. If you want to learn the recipe and how I made it, check out the post from June.

A very tasty glass of Switchel!

Best film I’ve watched set in the 18th century…

I’ve watched quite a few historical films this year, but my personal favorite (and this is quite subjective) was: Portrait of a Lady on Fire. It’s a queer love story set in 18th century France, and while it wasn’t perfect, I thought it was pretty darn good. Lots of broody, moody, melancholy shots of girls standings on cliffs staring out into the horizon. Yup, I loved it.

My ‘most read’ post…

This one wasn’t actually decided by me but by you and all the people who read Madeira Mondays, but by far and away one of my posts has been the most viewed this year: my analysis, from July, of Tracy K. Smith’s poem ‘Declaration’, which is an erasure poem based on the Declaration of Independence. The post talks about slavery and its ‘erasure’ from the declaration, as well as the power of poetry to explore historical silences and this has by far been the most viewed post of 2020.

Something that is especially meaningful about this is the fact that I can see that several people who read the post actually clicked the link to read the Declaration itself, from the US national archives. This brings me joy because if you’re an American, this document belongs to you, in a sense. I’m thrilled that my post is encouraging further engagement with it!

My favorite site visit…

I love visiting historical sites (if you work at or run one in the UK and would like to chat about the possibility of me visiting, please do get in touch!), but of course this year didn’t allow for many! I think my favorite site visit though was from this summer, when I went to the Highland Folk Museum, and saw a recreated rural 18th century village. I was glad to be able to provide a sort of virtual ‘tour’ of it, for you.

One of the turf houses we explored on our visit to the Highland Folk Museum!

My favorite historical fiction novel I read this year…

This is, again, purely down to personal tastes. I don’t know if this book is objectively the STRONGEST (in terms of style, structure, etc.) but it’s certainly the one that has stuck with me most and that’s: Celia Garth by Gwen Bristow. This was written back in the 1950’s and while it has its limitations, it’s suspenseful, punchy, and totally sucked me in. I really enjoyed this sweeping drama about a plucky young seamstress in Revolutionary War South Carolina. It’s got some good characters and thinking of the last line still gives me chills (I’ve actually got chills as I’m writing this now!).

Best non-fiction history book I read this year…

I’d say that’s: The Five by Hallie Rubenhold. This popular book (which I believe came out in 2019 or 2018) follows the lives of the five women who were killed by Jack the Ripper in Victorian London. It’s an excellent portrait not just of them, but also of the society in which they lived. I think the historical research also seemed pretty sound (I’m not a historian, but I’ve worked with historians and read many books by both historians and journalists about history, and this was just my impression!).

Most fun post to write…

That would probably be my post talking about how I researched/wrote one of the poems from my second poetry pamphlet, which was released in July: Anastasia, Look in the Mirror. These posts looked at how I researched the Salem Witch Trials, and what influence had had on my poem, ‘The First Afflicted Girl’. Since I wrote this poem a while ago, it was fun to reflect back on how it was built. Much of my PhD focused on how creative writers access the early American past (through primary sources, like letters and diaries, but also secondary sources, other media etc) and so it was great to reflect on that poem and its beginnings. Hopefully that post is inspiring for fellow historical fiction writers, especially.

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And that’s it, folks! My favorite posts from 2020.

What have been your favorite ‘Madeira Mondays’ from this year? 

What are you proud of having accomplished this year, even if (especially if!) it’s something ‘small’ (i.e. keeping a plant alive, talking regular walks, learning a new skill etc.)?

This was taken in the Museum of the American Revolution in Philadelphia, during my trip to visit my step-sister there in October 2019

Also, I wanted to let you know that this will be the last Madeira Mondays for 2020. But I’ll only be away for two weeks, and then back on Monday January 4th, with a whole new batch of these posts for 2021!

If you’ve enjoyed this series, please do recommend this blog to a friend, or share with them any of the posts you’ve enjoyed! That really means a lot to me, as our little community of curious minds grows. And if you want to further support me and my work, a great way to do that is to order one of my books! There is more information about all of them on my publications page, and you can order my latest, Anastasia, Look in the Mirror, on the publisher’s website here.

Most of all, I want to thank you all SO MUCH for reading. Many of you have blogs yourselves and thank you for writing those, as they’ve provided so much solace and entertainment for me during this really difficult time.

Have a wonderful holiday season, and see you all in 2021 my friends!

PS Today’s Featured Image is: ‘A British man of war before the Rock of Gibraltar’, By Thomas Whitcombe. (This ship represents us sailing off, towards 2021 and new adventures together in the new year!)

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

 

Madeira Mondays: The Yule Candle

I’m really into Christmas, which is usually a time for me to travel back to the USA to visit family and friends (although, alas, that cannot happen this year). But I’m also into the ritual of the holiday (and holidays in general) and using this time, every winter, to check in with myself and think about the year to come. And I think that’s especially pertinent this year, when it has been a pretty rough year globally (I think we can say!). It’s useful to reflect, right now, on where we’re coming from and moving towards.

I also love that Christmas traditions don’t just give an opportunity to connect with ourselves and our own family/friends, but also with other people who have celebrated the holiday (and more generally, this entire time of year) for centuries.

The drawing room of The Georgian House in Edinburgh, where I volunteer as a historical guide

The next couple of posts are going to be suitably Christmas/wintery themed (I hope that’s okay with everyone!), focusing on different traditions/recipes/things to do with the Georgian/Colonial period. The first one I wanted to mention was: The Yule Candle.

I mentioned yule candles in my post last year, Christmas in a Georgian Townhouse, which is a good general look at Christmas in the 18th century. If you’ve not read that one, definitely have a look for a broader sweep of Christmas traditions in this period.

Here’s what I wrote about Yule Candles last year, in that post:

One tradition practiced by many in this period was the Yule Candle. It was a big white candle lit by the head of the household at sunset on Christmas Eve and then allowed to burn throughout the night. It was believed to be bad luck if it burned out before Christmas morning. In Scotland, the Yule candle was not to be purchased, but given as a gift to the family and typically sat on the dining table where Christmas Eve dinner was eaten.

What I didn’t go into last time, was the deeper historical origins of The Yule Candle, and how it – like most of the 18th century Christmas traditions – had it roots in pagan traditions. As Kathryn Kane notes in her blog post on ‘The Yule Candle in the Regency’:

Yule was a pagan celebration around the winter solstice in which many peoples of Northern Europe had engaged for centuries, long before the birth of Christ. Because this was the time of year with the shortest days and the longest nights, much of the celebration was centered on fire, seen as substitute for the Sun (…)

Basically, pagan ‘Yule’ celebrations were all about fire – bonfires, burning logs. This celebration was calling light back into the world, during these really short, dark days. The Yule Candle was later co-opted and repurposed for Christian celebrations as a symbol of Christ, the ‘light of the world.’ And by the 18th century, the Georgians burned yule candles, yule logs, etc. to celebrate this Christian holiday and the whole festive season. (You can even hear mention of Yule logs in the famous Christmas song ‘Deck the Halls’ written in 1862. ‘See the blazing yule before us…fa la la la la…‘)

If you want to learn more about the ancient rituals of Yuletide, I’d suggest an absolutely beautiful picture book by Susan Cooper and illustrated by Carson Ellis: The Shortest Day. 

It was published last year and it’s a lovely book about celebrations of the winter solstice and also how rituals connect us with previous generations. I loved the grey, wintery colors – which really reminded me of two Decembers ago, when I went to Sweden at Christmas time – contrasted with the warmth of the flickering fires and candles. It’s a perfect seasonal read.

From ‘The Shortest Day’

While I don’t think I’ll be lighting a Yule Candle this year, I do think it’s a very interesting tradition, and I’ll definitely be lighting candles generally! And enjoying their soft glow – welcoming back longer, brighter days into the world.

Recommended further reading:

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

 

Madeira Mondays: Rob Roy (Film Review)

I rewatched Rob Roy (1995) yesterday for the first time in about twenty years. As readers of this blog will know, I recently went on a trip to the Highlands and toured the Highland Folk Museum, as well as Culloden Battlefield. During this trip, one of my friends kept bringing up the film Rob Roy. She insisted that it was full of gorgeous Highland scenery and that it touched on a lot of the topics that we’d been learning about during our museum explorations – the Jacobite uprisings, the dissolution of the Highland Clans etc. I’d seen Rob Roy as a kid, but couldn’t remember much about it.

After returning from our trip, I hesitated, at first, to re-watch this film because the only thing that I did remember about it was that it contained a very hard-to-watch rape scene. This particular scene has really stuck with me since I first viewed it, perhaps because it was one of the earliest depictions of sexual violence that I saw on screen. (I’m honestly not sure why my dad let me watch Rob Roy – I think he had probably forgotten this scene was in it!) But, in any case, I was missing the Highlands and I was curious to see how all these topics that we’d been learning about played out in the film. So I watched it.

One of the gorgeous sights from our recent Highland trip. This was taken on the drive from Fort William up to Mallaig (where you catch the ferry to Skye).

The best and the worst thing that I can say about Rob Roy is that it does what it says on the tin. It’s a sweeping adventure story about a Robin Hood-like figure who fights to retain his family’s ‘honor’ in the changing landscape of early 18th century Scotland. The film even begins with effectively a thesis statement that explains exactly that to the viewer. The opening text reads:

At the dawn of the 1700’s famine, disease and the greed of great Noblemen was changing Scotland forever.

With many emigrating to the Americas, the centuries-old Clan system was slowly being extinguished.

This story symbolizes the attempt of the individual to withstand these processes and, even in defeat, retain respect and honor.

Not many films start out with such a precise thesis statement, or baldly admit that their story ‘symbolizes’ anything. I don’t actually think that this explanation was necessary either, because all of that becomes quite clear as the film transpires.

This is a story (based on stories about a historical figure turned folk hero) where wider societal change is, in a sense, embodied in the struggles of one ‘traditional’ Highland man (Rob Roy aka Liam Neeson) who refuses to cope with the ‘modern’ avarice, corruption and greed of those around him (as if greed was a new thing haha!).

Tim Roth as Archibald Cunningham (left) and Liam Neeson as Rob Roy (right). I can’t remember precisely when this moment is from in the film, but it’s a safe bet that Rob Roy is ‘defending his honor’ from the smarmy Englishman.

This film is all about ‘honor’, which was quite an important concept to 18th century men -remember that the signers of the Declaration of Independences pledge their ‘lives, fortunes and sacred honor‘ to the cause. ‘Honor’ is actually the last word of the Declaration of Independence. (There’s a very interesting article here on Mount Vernon’s website exploring the changing concepts of honor in Colonial America, from something that was linked explicitly to upper classes, to something that ordinary citizens could have, as well).

In writing this blog post, I’ve realized that ‘honor’ is actually a rather tricky concept to explain or to define. In the 18th century, I think it sort of equates to ‘reputation’. But the way that it was defined also depends a lot on gender. When we think of a woman’s ‘honor’ there’s a sexual connotation and we think of chastity, ‘purity’.

‘Honor’ is defined by Rob Roy in the film as something like morality and ethical conduct. Rob Roy explains to his sons that his ‘honor’ prevents him from ever ‘mistreat(ing) a woman or malign(ing) a man’. It is ‘what no man can give you and none can take away’. It is, in short, his moral compass and system of personal ethics.

Throughout the film, Rob Roy’s code of honor is set against the dishonorable behavior of the nobles who effectively cheat him out of quite a lot of money and engage in other sneaky and also violent actions against him, most notably the aforementioned rape of Rob’s wife Mary MacGregor (Jessica Lange). Yet even that horrific act is part of this larger narrative of ‘honor’. The principal reason that the glib aristocrat Archibald Cunningham (Tim Roth) rapes Mary is to drag Rob Roy out of hiding. Now that his wife has been assaulted, Rob Roy’s ‘Highland honor will have to be satisfied,’ Cunningham remarks.

I actually quite liked this emphasis on ‘honor’ as a theme and how, at every turn, Mary MacGregor’s approach to life is much more sensible and pragmatic. In a way, she’s the foil to Rob and his obsession with honor, even more so than the amoral Cunningham. She sees that Rob’s inability to do or say anything bad about anyone ever, or to do anything sneaky or under-handed at all, will get their family into trouble one day. And, indeed, it does.

Lange gives a dignified and emotive performance as Mary – I really believed that she was a sturdy lady who had borne several children, survived rough Scottish winters and was more than capable of stabbing people in the throat (no spoilers, but she may or may not stab someone in the throat).

When the film succeeds, it does so based on the performances of Lange and also Roth, whose despicable character of Cunningham is far more interesting to watch than Rob Roy ever is, because – unlike Rob – he has flaws (quite a lot of flaws – he’s a murderer, rapist, thief, abandons his pregnant girlfriend, only cares about money etc.). Rob seems to already BE a folk hero – always doing good, always caring for others – not someone whose actions inspired legend.

Another area in which the film succeeds is the choice to show extended sword fighting sequences which were really marvelous to watch. Roger Ebert apparently called one of these sword fighting scenes ‘one of the great action sequences in movie history’ and I’d buy that. The final climactic sword fight is long (ten minutes?) and tense – lots of intricate choreography.

Tim Roth as Archibald Cunningham (right) shows off his fancy sword fighting skills

The landscape is also, of course, breathtaking and it gets plenty of screen time. The whole thing was shot on location in the Highlands and you can absolutely tell. I can’t fault Michael Caton-Jones on the direction – he gets good performances out of his cast and really lets the setting shine.

So would I recommend it? Well, if you’re a fan of Braveheart or Outlander or be-kilted dudes, you’ll certainly like this. And if you’re someone, like me, who enjoys 18th century history and sweeping period dramas, in general, then there’s plenty here to like. It’s just nothing special, largely because of the lack of humanity in the central character. When someone is such a good person, a righteous person, a caring person, they eventually stop seeming like a person, at all.

Let me know what you think of this movie, if you’ve seen it. If not, let me know if it sounds like your cup of tea (or dram of whisky)!

Recommended Reading:

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