The day dawns bright and clear, and I jump into the car for a leisurely 8 mile car trip to the location of the latest book festival in the Scottish calendar – the UNESCO world heritage site of New Lanark.
The programme, spanning 4 days, is at its most intense on the Saturday and I decided to sample its delights from beginning to end. (6 events in all)
Given the location the first strand is very much centred on local history and begins with C A Hope presenting on the investigations and research she undertook while penning her historical fiction trilogy of life at New Lanark in the period of David Dale and Robert Owen – the period that made the site world famous. Hope came to New Lanark by way of her work at the Scottish Wildlife Trust in the New Lanark nature reserve. The known facts of these famous men can be found in history books, she said. I’m more interested in the impact they had on the common man, the relationships with their spouses and other family members, their emotions, sensations and feelings. The characters in the trilogy are a mix of real historical personages and fictional characters whose experiences are an amalgam of multiple existences. Outlining her case for meticulous research, she gave insights into the weather of the age – a mini ice-age – 1814 was colder even than the infamous deep freeze of 1962-63; the fashion of the day – the empire line became fashionable because, following the French revolution, it was not done to show excess; nature in the Clyde valley, which would have been prolific in Dale and Owen’s day, before the Victorians decimated it with their passion for hunting. “I need to know enough to get my character to do the right thing and think the right way for their time”, she said. “And I have to do the research, even if they only have one line in my novel”. When asked which of her characters she would invite to a dinner party, she answered without hestitation “David Dale. Everyone knows about Robert Owen and overlooks David Dale, the generous, deep-thinking philantropist who put in 15 years of hard wok before Robert Owen arrived.”
No doubt the next author would subscribe to that view. David McLaren has just published his second book on David Dale. It’s a complete rewrite of his previous book, as it draws on research and knowledge which has come to light from various digitised sources, now available on the internet. Mclaren also emphasised that Dale lay the foundations for Owen’s future triumphs, that between 1795-1799 New Lanark, established as a model factory community, was visited by over 3,000 of the then great and the good. (Owen took over in 1800.) New Lanark wasn’t his only concern – he founded Blantyre Mills near Hamilton, Catrine Mills in East Ayrshire, and Spinningdale in Cumberland, the latter never anything but a charitable, loss-making venture, founded to help the community. He was a major player in the Glasgow business community: a property magnate, director of the Glasgow Fire and Insurance Company, director of the Royal Bank of Scotland, founder of the Glasgow Royal Infirmary and other things besides. Saintly even? Considering his wealth was founded on the spinning of slave-produced cotton from the West Indies, in 1781 Dale chaired the first meeting of the Glasgow Society for the Abolition of the Slave Trade. Considering he stood to lose much influence, it was a brave move, said McLaren.
At the end of these two sessions, I wanted to know more about Dale, and purchased both books pictured above.
In need of lighter fare, I then went to Ian Crofton’s presentation on Scottish history without the boring bits. It was an hour of devils, mermaids, dragons in which Adam and Eve battled the cannibals, and colourful but lesser known characters from the past made an appearance: Black Agnes, The Wolf of Bagmoor, Earl Beardy, The Bride of Lammermoor and Half-Hangeth Maggie: a talk proving that fact is frequently stranger than fiction and ending with the tale of Bruichladdich, the distillery on Islay, which in 2003 was identified by the CIA as a lethal threat to world peace. (Read the book for more detail.)
I had been hoping for a beautiful autumnal day, and I received one. Following a quick lunch, it was time to stretch my legs with a walk in the woods that run by the River Clyde, starting here ….
to emerge at the Corra Linn, the Clyde’s most majestic daughter.
There’s not many literary festivals that can offer scenery like that!
Time to return to the village and Kerry Hudson, a Lanarkshire lass from Coatbridge, inveterate traveller, now living in Berlin, who kicked off the fiction strand. The event had a lamentably small audience. (12, if that.) Still, this turned the event into an opportunity for a cosy chat with the author, who proved a gracious, charming and engaging conversationalist. I can’t say her novels appealed before, but Thirst does now, even though it may be a little gritty for my taste.
Audience numbers grew for Peter Ranscombe’s talk on the facts and fictions of Scotland’s most notorious criminals, Burke and Hare. Fiction: They weren’t graverobbers. Fact: They remain Scotland’s most prolific serial killers with 16 murders to their name, and are immortalised in the following rhyme.
Up the close and doun the stair,
But and ben wi’ Burke and Hare.
Burke’s the butcher, Hare’s the thief,
Knox the boy that buys the beef.
Fact: They were paid £7 10s for the corpse of Donald, a man who died of natural causes. That’s £600 in today’s money. No wonder they were tempted to the dark side. Their trial and Burke’s execution is well documented but what isn’t known is what happened to Hare, after he was last seen on the moors, heading toward Carlisle. So Ranscombe has speculated in his debut novel Hare. Yep, another one for my wishlist.
And so to the final and best attended event of the day. You can’t expect anything less in Scotland, when James Robertson appears, and it was a terrific event, pulling together themes explored throughout the day. Where does the truth lie? When does the present become history and vice versa? Questions Robertson attempted to answer with examples from his own back catalogue of historical fiction. (I say attempted because the questions are slippery and so were his answers in some respects.) Nevertheless the event gave insights into the dark history of the C17th, The Fanatic (added to wish list), his wonderful novel about slavery, Joseph Knight, and his objectives when writing his controversial novel, inspired by the Lockerbie bombing, The Professor of Truth. “The past doesn’t only influence the present and future” he said. “History shifts because our lens and filters change. We can also influence the past.”
At the present moment Scotland is re-evaluating its past, particularly with regard to the role it played in the slave-fettered plantations of The West Indies. “This,” said Robertson “is due to having our own parliament. When you take responsibility for your present, it’s hard to avoid the responsibility for your past.” Interesting thesis, watch this space.
And so ended, a very Scottish and, at times, very local book festival day. It was an interesting inaugural programme. I look forward to developments in 2016.