Friday, November 16, 2012

A Scottish Village Renaissance

It's been a long time since I posted on here, mainly because I've been concentrating on finishing a brand new novel called Ice Dancing, which you can find on Amazon Kindle, here in the UK, or here, if you happen to be reading this from the USA. There was a lot to do to it, to get it ready for publication, and I was also spending quite a lot of time travelling around Scotland for various talks, festivals and meetings. I've been acquiring and processing some textiles as well, mostly at auction, so I have lots of things to list before Christmas. They are all clean and sweet smelling and neatly piled up in my big stock cupboard. I look at them and think 'oh dear, better get started then!'

The new novel, which isn't really about Ice Dancing at all, is set in a small Scottish village, a lowland Scots village of the kind I know well, and like very much. The ice dancing is a metaphor for something else, although it does feature ice hockey in Scotland and an athletic Canadian hero with a dark past. 'A nice man to whom bad things have happened' as one of my readers says. And she's right. But essentially, this is a novel about village life, the good and bad, the closeness and familiarity of it all, the way in which everyone knows everybody else's business, the safety of it and the occasional frustration of it all as well. I think it's quite a loving portrait, because I enjoy living in the countryside - but I'm also aware that it can be a bit of a mixed blessing.

I was thinking about all this today when I popped out to our village shop. It was a fine morning, after days of rain, and the village was looking rather cheerful with lots of autumnal activity. And I was thinking that just three years ago, although the village was picturesque and friendly, things seemed to be on the slide. The pub had been closed for a while and was looking derelict. The one and only shop was on the verge of closing. The school was looking a bit the worse for wear. Some of the houses were empty and unkempt. Some of our annual events seemed to be falling into abeyance with nobody to organise them.

Cue forward a few years. The shop is now community run, and includes a cafe as well. This morning it was busy and full of the appetizing smell of home baking. Two young men were sitting in the cafe drinking tea and waiting for their breakfasts. The fruit and vegetables had just been delivered (by the local retired doctor, who does the veggie run every week!) and there were covered plates positively stuffed with the most appetising and enticing home baking imaginable, all made in time for the weekend. The village hall was ringing with the cheerful sounds of children playing. We are getting a brand new eco friendly primary school and while it is being built, the school has been transferred to the newly redecorated hall. The pub has been renovated and reopened with a fabulous new restaurant. The village is decorated with pretty tubs, already planted out with winter pansies - courtesy of our new and very successful gardening club. Last week, the attendance at our reinstated firework display was bigger than ever. We supplied soup and hot dogs for the assembled spectators, and collected a good contribution to the next village event. We have had all kinds of gatherings and events, ceilidhs, and parties, most of which have been well attended and enthusiastically received. The few derelict houses have been sold and are already under enthusiastic renovation. In short, the village seems to be 'on the up' all over again.

It didn't happen without a great deal of enthusiasm and commitment on the part of a great many people though! And it didn't happen without the usual grumbling and the odd dispute. Has it all been worthwhile? I think it certainly has. Communities need a lot of hard work and good will to sustain them. Let's hope we can keep it up in the future!

Tuesday, September 04, 2012

Brave Textiles

Went to see Disney Pixar's Brave in the cinema the other day with a couple of friends. We thought the cinema would be reasonably quiet, since the movie has been out for so long in Scotland, but in the event, it was almost full: lots of little children who were absolutely captivated and - apart from giggling a lot, which we were doing as well - were all as quiet as mice. And this is quite a long film for tinies.
A big plus was the fact that the Scottish accents were absolutely authentic - Billy Connolly, the brilliant and gorgeous Kevin McKidd, Kelly MacDonald, Emma Thompson. It was funny and clever and there was plenty to keep young and old alike entertained: plenty of slapstick for the kids, plenty of clever dialogue and subtle animation jokes for the adults.
In short, this was a thoroughly entertaining film, but what struck me most of all (well it would, wouldn't it?) was the sheer beauty of the textiles. They were the very platonic ideal of textiles. Lots of plaids, wound around warriors (which must have been sheer hell to animate) and Merida's dresses. Oh and the scenery, which was wonderful.
When I got home, I googled the subject, to find that the textiles were indeed a miracle of art and animation: have a look at the link for a lot more information - and, of course, Merida's astonishing red hair, which seemed pretty amazing to me.
Worth a look, whether you're into animation, film, textiles or - like me - all three at once!

Sunday, August 05, 2012

Embroidering Lives - Researching Costume History for Novels

When I'm not buying and selling antique and vintage textiles (or deciding to hang onto them, because I love them so much!) I'm a professional writer and these days, I mostly write novels. You can read all about me and them on my Amazon Author Page, here.   A lot of what I write is historical. The Curiosity Cabinet is partly set on a small island in early 18th century Scotland while The Amber Heart is a big romantic family saga, set in 19th century Eastern Poland.

I often find costume and embroidery figuring in my fiction. Central to the Curiosity Cabinet is a little raised work cabinet, such as can be admired in Glasgow's Burrell Collection. The heroine of that novel, Henrietta Dalrymple, finds herself having to alter and wear another woman's clothes, and they are described in some detail. I can remember having to point out to my editor that yes, bright Indian cottons would have been imported at the time, and might well have been worn by a lady of quality. Similarly, in The Amber Heart, Maryanna's mid nineteenth century clothes are described in some detail and on one occasion at least become quite central to the plot. Such details - so long as they aren't overdone - bring a scene to life and for me, are part of the joy of writing fiction.

In fact, for me, one of the chief pleasures of writing historical fiction is the research involved. I love finding out about things, how people lived and what they ate. I particularly love finding out about how they dressed and how things were made. One of the best books I ever found at a library sale, was a volume called Costume in Detail, 1730 - 1930 by Nancy Bradfield. It is stuffed full of detailed line drawings of the way men, women and children dressed over 200 years, from underwear outwards - an absolute gift for a writer and I've used it more than once.

A few years ago, I attended a session at the Royal Scottish Museum in Edinburgh, designed particularly for writers. The curator of costume at the time allowed us to see various items at close quarters and even to handle some of them. It's always a revelation to me to handle these items, to see how they were made and to realise that sometimes dresses which appear beautiful on the surface are cobbled together underneath! They have a sort of theatrical quality to them. The curator also pointed out that the wealthy were cleaner than we might suppose and changed their 'linens' - their shirts and underwear - often, as can be seen from the inventories of possessions, including clothes. It was the top garments which weren't washed (and sometimes had to be unpicked for cleaning.)

Also interesting for me is when I buy boxes of old textiles at auction, and realise just how treasured some of these possessions were. I'll find little baby gowns, for example, which have been mended and patched, carefully and beautifully, over a number of years.

The picture above (and detail right) is an embroidered christening cape, dating from the very early 1800s. I bought it years ago with the intention of selling it and then couldn't bring myself to let it go. It is so very beautiful, in silk and satin, embroidered with tiny, delicate but wholly realistic flowers. I found myself wondering all the time about the woman who might have made it. Who she was. What became of her. The result was a new novel called The Physic Garden, set in early 1800s Glasgow: a story of friendship, love and betrayal, much of it set in and around the 'physic garden' - the medicinal garden of the old college of Glasgow University. It will be published as an eBook before Christmas 2012 and as a paperback some time in 2013.

Wednesday, May 23, 2012

The Rocking Horse Man

The horse that came home again.
Years ago, when our son was born, my professional yacht skipper husband, Alan Lees, decided that he no longer wanted to be away from home for months on end. He didn't want to miss Charlie's baby years - all those milestones. Alan's last long trip was to the Canaries to skipper a charter yacht for the winter. The baby was six weeks old when we borrowed a small apartment in Los Cristianos on Tenerife. (It was a quieter place back then - not quite the extension of Las Americas it has since become.) I flew down with the baby in January and spent several months living there - blissfully - with Alan joining us whenever he could. My parents came for a couple of weeks and later on my mother-in-law joined us for another fortnight. I remember it as one of the happiest times of my life: warm and sunny, with a gorgeous and thriving new baby in a country where children were always welcome.

When we returned to Scotland - although Alan carried on working as a professional sailor from time to time, he was also looking for a way of working which would allow him to spend more time at home. He had always been artistic and creative, always been good with his hands and as a sailor he had undertaken a certain amount of shipwrighting work when and where necessary. So he became a woodcarver. Sometimes the two professions joined together in wholly unexpected ways as when this large carved monkey (left) was transported to Largs, for installation at Kelburn Country Park - by water!
I don't know where the idea of rocking horses came from, but I do remember his first attempt which was a rather basic outdoor horse that our son played with until it fell apart. After that, came a carved and painted pony, still going strong all these years later. It's a vintage item now and lives at the house of some friends where it was ridden by their four daughters and assorted visiting kids, our own son included, over many years.

Soon though, Alan was making the most wonderful carved sculptural horses: a string of them in oak and ash,  gessoed or polished wood, all with starry names: Rigel, Alpharatz, Andromeda, Cassiopeia, Pegasus, Orion, Sirius... we lost track of where they went, although Zuben'ubi, a huge and wonderful creature on bowed rockers, stayed at home and lives with us still.
Mostly they were commissioned by grandmothers, ostensibly 'for the grandchildren' - but people would quietly admit that they themselves had 'always wanted one.'
We didn't make any fortunes.
Horses are hard, heavy, time consuming and expensive to make and whatever Alan was paid was never enough to give him a decent hourly rate - but that's the nature of the arts and crafts sector.
People did, however, start to call him 'The Rocking Horse Man.'

Just how sad can an old horse get?

Advanced surgery

After a while, he began to be asked to restore old horses so - having researched the whole subject - he added this work to his portfolio. We're not really talking conservation here, since most of the time, there was little to conserve. These poor beasts were battered beyond recognition: worm eaten, tattered and torn, falling to bits, sometimes badly restored by well meaning individuals, covered in thick gloss paint and with plaited wool or rope manes and tails. One actually arrived as a bundle of sticks in a box. Often, they had lost a jaw. Another had been burned on a bonfire by the 'nice' people to whom it had been lent by its previous owner, and had been rescued only just short of total dissolution. That one - restored to its former glory as a surprise gift for a retired owner - provoked tears of joy, and almost made us cry as well!


A brand new horse, leaving in a horse box!
Now, two of these restored horses have come back to us. On both occasions, I saw them in a saleroom with a jolt of surprised recognition. One is small, one is very large, and both are Ayres horses: the Rolls Royce of rocking horses. The large one has a rare and unusual side saddle, and probably dates from the late Victorian or early Edwardian period. The smaller of the two is a bit newer - probably 1930s or 40s. Both of them were restored with a great deal of loving care. It's kind of sad to see them on the market again - but perhaps people simply didn't have the space. We're in the process of rehoming them - you can find them listed in our eBay shop, The Scottish Home.
Alan carved other items, of course, not just horses. He spent many years working on massive outdoor sculptures of all kinds. Sadly, crippling arthritis finally caught up with him and he can barely walk these days, let alone carve. Instead, he paints in acrylics - bright pictures, full of life and movement and human figures- indulging a love of colour which sculpture seldom permitted - except where these lovely cheerful rocking horses were concerned.

Monday, May 07, 2012

Antique Textiles, Scottish Islands and eBooks on Amazon Kindle

When the gorse is in bloom, kissing's in season.
As many readers of this blog probably know by now, I have two jobs although I'd find it hard to say which is the  'day job' because I'm fairly obsessive about both of them. I buy, collect and sell (when I can bear to let them go!) antique and vintage textiles of all kinds - and research and write about them whenever possible. But the other half or more of my time is spent writing mostly fiction, mostly novels as well as the occasional stage play. Two of those novels are set on small Scottish islands and in both of them, the landscape of the novel is an essential part of the story.

The first of them, The Curiosity Cabinet, was published in the conventional way first (you can still find the odd paperback copy on Amazon) but when it went out of print, the rights reverted to me, and last year I published it on Amazon's Kindle Store. You can find it here, if you're in the UK and here if you're in the US.

Gorgeous cover art by textile artist Alison Bell
This is essentially a historical novel, in which the troubles of the past are in some way resolved in the present. The gorgeous cover was made for me by my friend and mentor, Scottish textile artist Alison Bell - it's as beautiful as a piece of lace, and I'm eternally grateful to her for it! The Curiosity Cabinet will almost certainly be of interest to textile nuts like me, because the 'cabinet' in question is an embroidered, raised work Jacobean box, and there is also a certain amount of description of period costume within the novel.

My other 'Scottish Island' novel is called Bird of Passage. (Or look here, if you're reading this in the US) Dealing sensitively with the shocking realities of state-sanctioned physical abuse and its aftermath, this is a powerful story of cruelty, loss and enduring love. In 1960s Scotland, young Finn O’Malley is sent from Ireland to work at the potato harvest and soon forms a close friendship with Kirsty Galbreath, the farmer’s red-headed grand-daughter. But Finn is damaged by a childhood so traumatic that he can only recover his memories slowly. 
What happened at the brutal Industrial School to which he was committed while still a little boy? For the sake of his sanity, he must try to find out why he was sent there, and what became of the mother he lost. As he struggles to answer these questions, his ability to love and be loved in return is called into question. 

Why am I posting about all this on The Scottish Home now? Well, if you're reading this blog during the week beginning 7th May, you can download Bird of Passage to your Kindle - free - on Thursday 9th and Friday 10th May. And if you fancy reading The Curiosity Cabinet as well, I suppose that means you could get two novels for the price of one. Other books are available, especially my big new romantic historical novel set in Poland. It's called The Amber Heart and there's lots of lovely period costume detail in that one as well. I'd be grateful for any reviews, especially if you enjoy what you read. And please do spread the word to anyone else you think might be interested in these novels. And if you want to read a bit more about my 'other day job' have a look at my website: 


Friday, May 04, 2012

Who is this Elegant Edwardian Gentleman?

This is a departure from my usual Scottish Home posts which tend to be about textiles, my other passion in life along with writing. And as regular readers will know, I quite often manage to combine the two, as in my novel The Curiosity Cabinet! As an interesting aside (well, interesting for textile and vintage nuts like me) when the Curiosity Cabinet was being prepared for its first publication as a paperback, rather than the Kindle edition, the publisher's editor queried my reference to 'bright Indian cottons' as anachronistic. It wasn't. It was about right for the time and place of the novel. She was fully entitled to query things she didn't understand, but this was one area in which I had done my homework, mostly because I'm fairly obsessed with such things!

However, this isn't a post about antique textiles, for a wonder, but instead, it's a post about antique and vintage... er... people. I buy lots of my textiles at auction, in various salerooms, as well as at antique markets, car boot sales and charity shops. But sometimes, I get a little more than I bargained for. This handsome chap - a head and shoulders portrait in oils - came with a bundle of very beautifully embroidered pictures - not hugely old, but well executed.  There is no name on it, and no signature either, but you can tell from the back of it that it's rather old and very nicely done. I mean he's a real person, isn't he? Unfortunately, I have no idea who he is - a Scottish Edwardian gentleman. He could be a politician, I suppose. He seems like a gentleman of consequence. Maybe he was an artist or an architect. Maybe he designed some of those splendid Glasgow buildings. If he was my great grandfather, I would want to know, but somebody cleared him out along with various household possessions, and put him up for auction in among a heap of other things. I'll probably try to 'rehome' him on my eBay shop. There are people out there who collect portraits even if they don't know who they are - although he's sustained a little damage over his years spent in somebody's attic, and could probably do with some professional cleaning. I like him though. I like his wide set eyes and that fine moustache!  Writers like this kind of thing - we're free to invent whatever we want, and that makes him intriguing. What do you think?

Saturday, April 14, 2012

An Antique Honiton Lace Handkerchief

Isn't this beautiful? I knew that it was hand made bobbin lace, but thought at first that it came from Belgium, until a lace expert pointed out that it is, in fact, old hand made Honiton lace. I should have known, because I've been to the lovely lace museum there - on my honeymoon, a long time ago! It is as light as a feather and just as delicate, a will o' the wisp of a piece which must have taken a long time to make. The details of flowers and leaves and ferns, with tiny wheat-ears among them, is just stunningly lovely. I'm privileged to have been able to admire it for a while although I'm in the middle of 'rehoming' it now.

I love lace but don't feel that I know enough about it. If somebody in Scotland would organise a day's hands-on lace identification workshop, I would definitely sign up for it. There is nothing quite like seeing and touching the real thing. You can read a dozen reference books, and gaze at photographs until your eyes ache, but what you really need is somebody who knows all about a particular textile, the work itself and the history behind it - and you need to see and handle examples.

Some years ago, the Society of Authors in Scotland, of which I'm a member, organised a visit to the textile department of the Chambers Street Museum in Edinburgh - with a talk from the textile curator at the time. She had got a number of items out of storage and - as a very small professional group - we were allowed to look closely at them and handle them carefully. The linen shirt in particular made a huge impression on me. It was some 200 years old and as beautiful as the day it was made. Historical novelists like me often need to describe clothes and other textiles and researching these is - for me, anyway - one of my greatest pleasures in life.

Years ago, I also attended a talk about Ayrshire Whitework and now - with a small collection of this wonderful embroidery myself - I'm occasionally asked to do talks about its history to local and family history groups. I take a number of examples and allow people to handle them. The talks always go down very well, even with men, who generally arrive reluctantly, dragged along by their wives, and then realise that they are enjoying themselves. I don't want to do a lace making course. But I would really love to know more about bobbin and needlelace - not from a book, or a website, but from a real live expert!

Tuesday, April 03, 2012

Another Lovely Old Scots Sampler

I came across another lovely old Scottish sampler the other day, made by one Agnes Renwick Ballantyne in 1870. I love these samplers - they always lead me to speculate about the girls who made them. This one is very neat and still quite bright (I had to photograph it under glass, so it doesn't show up too well) with a characteristically Scottish 'strawberry border', cornucopias of flowers, two royal crowns and lots of family initials, including a D McD.

There's an excellent little book about Scottish samplers by Rebecca Quinton, the curator of costumes and textiles for Glasgow museums. It's called Patterns of Childhood. - specifically about the samplers from Glasgow Museums - and what very interesting samplers they are.

In fact Glasgow and its surrounding area is full of interest for textile devotees - visit The Burrell Collection for tapestries, and Jacobean raised work, as well as fascinating costumes. Go to the Kelvingrove Museum for some wonderful embroidery by Margaret MacDonald (Charles Rennie Mackintosh's wife).  Paisley has a museum stuffed with shawls. And if you want to go a little further afield, to Shambellie House outside Dumfries, you'll find a whole enchanting costume collection.

Thursday, February 09, 2012

Our Belated but Beautiful Designer Burns Supper (And a Spooky Picture!)

The Rustic Supper Table
We hosted a somewhat belated Burns Supper in our house last weekend. Our friends, John and Brenda Kevan, travelled from their home in the North of England, (although John is very much an Ayr lad) with a car full of tartan throws, cushion covers, and various other textiles, candlesticks, lanterns, and half the greenery in the Lake District. A bit like carrying coals to Newcastle, remarked Brenda, bringing Scots pine to Scotland!
John and Brenda have been wedding photographers for much of their working life so far, but Brenda has always had an interest in antique and vintage interiors and crafts and has a huge talent for interior design. 
This is a skill which I hope and trust she is finally going to begin to exploit in a number of exciting ways. Watch this blog for some interesting links coming towards the end of this year. Brenda brings a little magic to even the smallest of projects. Her Christmas gifts, for example, are invariably wrapped so beautifully that you can hardly bring yourself to open them! But she can also work on a grander scale - as she did here, last week.

Brenda spent all day Friday and most of Saturday transforming this old cottage (built only a few years after the death of Robert Burns, and while Jean Armour was still very much alive) into a rustic idyll - a perfect setting for a Burns Supper. These pictures give only some idea of just how magical it was. One of our guests, a young German visitor, was particularly enchanted. The long dining table (we were hosting some eighteen guests) was adorned with one of my gorgeous old damask tablecloths - I've had this for years and can never bring myself to sell it. I think it came from a country house, since it's enormous and it has deer and pheasants in the weave. Brenda had made a subtle tartan runner, and matching napkins. There were home-made lanterns, with moss and tartan ribbons, as well as rustic wooden candlesticks, miniature pine trees, and tiny pine cones. Hand-made menu holders, with Burns' portrait, and place cards with pictures and manuscript completed the look.

Fireplace trimmed with greenery, roses, feathers. Note spooky 'orbs' on TV set!

For the rest of the house, she mixed red roses (of course) with a variety of greenery and pheasant feathers in a selection of my own large earthenware jugs and vases, as well as a few jars she had brought herself. There was a statue of the poet, a quill pen, piles of old books of his poetry and even a couple of facsimile manuscripts, as well as more lanterns and candles - in short, it was a magical transformation of this cottage. As another friend remarked - you almost expected Rab to show up himself! Well, if you look closely at the middle picture, of the old fireplace, you'll see a profusion of 'orbs' on the right, in front of the television. Of course it could just be the flash from the camera bouncing off the screen, but I have another picture taken from the same spot and with the same flashlight, with nothing showing. So who knows? Maybe he did!

Rab himself with facsimile manuscripts, quill etc

Tuesday, January 17, 2012

Spring Pruning

Late Springtime Shrubbery

Our still very wintry garden has been pruned to within an inch of its life. Actually, that isn't strictly true, and the wonderful local gardener who has done the work has made a fine job of it. But it won't really look right till the leaves start to come through - by which time everything will grow at such a rate that you won't be able to see exactly where the cutting has taken place.

We have a lot of mature shrubs and trees in our cottage garden, and there comes a time, every few years, when you really have to chop most things back a bit, otherwise no light gets in, leaves choke everything and nothing does very well.

At the same time, we're always very aware of the small birds at this time of the year, and their need for shelter, so when we arranged for the pruning, we left lots and lots of cover lower down, as well as feeding them with a good mixture of small seeds and other things in what I see Dobbie's Garden Centre is calling a 'Bird Abode' presumably a more up-market version of a Bird House.

All this, though, has lead me to reflect on the difference between men and women in their attitude to pruning. On the whole, men love to hack and chop while women like to snip about a bit, and generally conserve. The sight of somebody chopping down a tree, even if it is clearly diseased and dangerous, is always a bit painful to me. The only rows my husband I have ever had have been to do with pruning - and I have vivid memories of my lovely late mum and dad, always the most loving of couples, engaged in fairly furious rows about the way he had chopped down some of her cherished plants. In fact, I seem to remember mum chasing dad down the garden with a pair of shears. Men so often seek to control, where women are happy to allow a bit of chaos.

Which explains why my dear husband made me give specific instructions as to what I did and didn't want chopped down. With a bit of luck, all will be well by spring - everything has been carefully and beautifully done and nothing has been hacked at or vandalised. But it does look a bit sad out there.
All the same, there's more light in the garden while still leaving plenty of shelter for all the wildlife that comes to visit. Roll on spring.