How perilous was travelling in the Renaissance?

In my most recent book, The Apostates , my characters Bethia, Will and Mainard are forced to flee across Europe. I was curious to uncover their likely means of travel and just how perilous the journey would be.

Researching I came across a delightful book called Touring in the 1600s, and was surprised to discover that, even then, people chose to travel rather than have it forced upon them. Although the era of pilgrimage had faded – St Andrews in Scotland once a huge centre for pilgrims had seen a decline well before the Reformation – artists and a sterling few curiosity seekers did travel for pleasure, mostly to Italy.

Pilgrim Badge

But still virtually all journeys were taken out of necessity, either for business or on the orders of others. Thomas Dallam, for instance, was a master organ builder who Elizabeth I sent off to Constantinople with her gift of an organ to Mehmed III. Dallam was then required to play the instrument for the sultan which he did with great trepidation having been forewarned that to lay a finger on The Grand Turk meant instant death – and the sultan sat so close behind Dallam to watch that ‘I touched his knee with my breeches’.

Organ made by Thomas Dallam gifted to Sultan Mehmed III by Elizabeth I

Any journey, whether embarked upon willingly or not, was difficult, dirty and uncomfortable. Roads were likely to have great potholes, often dug by the local villagers for materials to repair their homes. Travellers were advised to never journey without food in their pocket, if only to throw to the dogs who attacked them, and to line their doublet with taffeta since it was lice proof.

Another excellent piece of advice was, ‘when going by coach, to avoid women, especially old women for they always want the best places.’ Although generally if you were a woman, or married, the recommendation was to avoid travelling.

A coach taking passengers to Bury Fair. Artist – John Ogborne. Engraving – Joseph Strutt

By water was the fastest means of travel, and the rivers and lakes of Europe were well supplied with boats. They were towed, or sailed, between towns with fares fixed by the local authorities, although there were complaints about drunken boatmen, who frequently landed their passengers in the water.

An account by an Italian priest en route to Amsterdam, tells how he and his fellow passengers travelled by night in an open barge unable to sit up, much less stand, because they were at risk of a severe dunt on the head from the low bridges which were invisible to the eye in the moonless night. He adds that they were forced to lie in the pouring rain, on foul straw as if they were “gentlemen from Reggio,” – a synonym for pigs. 

Travelling across lakes could be perilous too, because of storms, as this account reveals…

‘The boat was made of fir-trunks, neither sound, nor tarred, nor nailed. A storm came and the helmsman left his post and called out to all to save themselves, if they could; nothing was to be seen but rain and lake and perpendicular rock until a cave was sighted towards which all joined in an effort to row. We found a way up the rock and , at the top, an inn.’

Revelry at an Inn by Jan Steen

Yet finding an inn didn’t mean a traveller was in a place of safety. Inn keepers were often in cahoots with thieves, letting them know when those with an abundance of goods were in residence. Travellers were warned to check their chamber carefully and to look behind any large painting in particular, in case it concealed a secret door or window through which a robber might enter in the dark of night.

And as for Bethia, Will and Mainard’s journeys, they do have a tumultuous time… read The Apostates to find out more.

References:

Dallam’s Voyage to Turkey, The Musical Times 1905

The Sultan’s organ: presents and self-presentation in Thomas Dallam’s “Diary”: article by Lawrence Danson

Touring in the 1600s by E S Bates

No Such Thing as Goodbye – Guest Post by Karmen Špiljak

Karmen and I had a great blether recently about her writing process and what made her choose Mexico as the setting for her  gripping psychological spy thriller. This is obviously delving into a different genre from my usual historical fiction but No Such Thing as Goodbye is a cracking good read, and I wanted to learn more.

You’ve set No Such Thing as Goodbye in Mexico. What drew you to that particular country?

I needed a place that would fit well with the development of the story, something far enough away to create an illusion of safety, but different from what Toni is used to (she comes from Amsterdam). One of my good friends is from Mexico and he’d often mention something that happened, or a food he liked and missed, so I decided to place the story in Mexico. Of course, this was also a good excuse to actually travel to Mexico and experience some of these things by myself, though I didn’t go quite as far in my adventures as Toni did. Luckily, the book is part of a series, so I now have a good excuse to visit Mexico more often and see if all those tacos and enchiladas still taste as good as they did a few years ago. One can’t be too thorough when doing research…

I must say I enjoyed reading a thriller which didn’t have a hard bitten detective at its centre, for a change. Your protagonist, Toni, is young and vulnerable. Can you tell us how she came into being?

Writing a spy novel is something I’ve wanted to do for a while, but I waited for the character to come and find me. Reading an account of someone who was involved in crime but came clean and angered their family lit a spark. The same day, Toni sprung to life and I barely had enough time to catch her story as it started to pour out. 

Making her young was intentional, as I knew I was writing a series, but I also wanted to leave enough space for Toni to develop and grow. Twenty-five seemed like an interesting age, with quite a few important life decisions ahead. She’s old enough to have gained some experience and insight, but still quite young and not yet properly cynical.

After writing the book, I discovered a bunch of spy-themed podcasts and found out that Toni’s age is within the age range for spy recruitment, which was a lucky coincidence on my side. I’m also looking forward to seeing how Toni will handle some of the obstacles in her way and whether her goals and desires will change as she grows older.

What was the most challenging thing about creating a psychological thriller, and the most fun part?

The most fun part is definitely writing the first draft, which I did during NaNoWriMo. At the time, I thought I was just writing a spy thriller, but after getting some feedback from advanced readers, it became clear the story had a strong psychological aspect. I really enjoy the freedom of this genre, to be able to make up stuff and build tension from within. Toni’s relationship with her two brothers plays an important part, too, and I love creating drama by pulling those relationship strings between the characters.

The most difficult part was revising and cleaning up. As this is my first crime fiction novel, I’ve had to learn quite a few things. The book went through several drafts and I had to do a lot of cleaning up afterwards, which was quite tedious, but also rewarding.

Karmen’s books are available to purchase at …

https://books2read.com/ToniMorretti1 , on Amazon or from any good bookshop.

More information about Karmen and her books can be found here:

Website: www.karmens.net

Twitter: https://twitter.com/karm3ns33ta

Instagram: https://www.instagram.com/karmenseeta/

Goodreads; https://www.goodreads.com/karmens

Do animals have souls?

In my current book The Apostates (due out early November), the reformer John Calvin features. My character Will is very happy to be learning at the feet of the great man, his sister Bethia, a Catholic, less so and her sister in law, who is determined to return to the faith of her ancestors, Judaism, even less so.

I was curious to learn about Calvin, a Frenchman who had a big influence on the Scottish Reformation, even though he never visited Scotland.

John Calvin

In the very early 1500s Geneva had a name as the dirtiest city in Europe. Calvin closed the gambling houses and brothels, introduced education for all, including girls and generally cleaned up the city.

Inevitably this didn’t make him popular with everyone, especially if they’d previously enjoyed gambling or made their living from manufacturing playing cards. Some Genevans derided Calvin, claiming they were being taken over by a Frenchman, and making his life difficult in many ways including: misnaming him Cain; ringing handbells beneath his window at night; playing skittles outside the church while he was preaching; and naming their pets after him.

The mention of pets named Calvin or otherwise left me wondering. Did people keep pets in the 1500s? Of course I knew they kept working animals, and we see enough of them in portraits: the hounds, hawks, horses and so on. But what about lap dogs or cats (other than those used as mousers or for their soft pelts)?

Leonardo da Vinci’s Lady with an Ermine

And it seems they did, although small dogs were considered the province of women and clergy For a non-celibate man to keep a pet indicated a lack of manliness and Henri III of France’s strong attachment to his lap dogs was derided as a sign of weakness unsuitable in a king.

King Henri III of France, and dog lover

However, putting King Henri’s affection for his dogs to one side, one of the main purposes of keeping pets (and an animal becomes a pet at the whim of its owner, i.e. is kept indoors, is not eaten and is given a name) was to reinforce status. Only the wealthy could so indulge themselves. Their pets were fed the best quality food and were allowed into spaces where servants were forbidden or constrained. Indeed animals are often present in paintings of childbirth. Some medical texts of the period even recommend that those suffering pain of the belly should press their pet dog to their chest to ward the pains off.

Increasingly too, scholars kept a pet as their muse, to lie quietly at their feet while they worked and to provide a welcome distraction from study … much as the internet is a constant distraction for me, I should imagine.

When the animal died elegies were written, often in Latin, in their memory, as well as epitaphs on their tombstone. Here’s Robert Hendrick (1591-1674) ode to his deceased spaniel.

Now thou art dead, not eye shall ever see,
For shape and service, Spaniell like to thee,
This shall my love doe, give thy sad death one
Teare, that deserves of me a million.

Although it became common for bereaved pet-owners to erect tombstones and pen elegies, not everyone agreed that this was appropriate, indeed some considered it blasphemy. Others, like Aldina, the Dutch philosopher, talked of his dog’s little soul crossing into the underworld. And soon a debate arose as to whether animals did have souls.

St Augustine, and Dog, by Carpaccio

In the late 1500s Montaigne wrote that not only were animals moral and rational, they were more moral and rational than humans. He considered that, because they live in accordance with the dictates of nature, beasts possessed reason, affection, jealousy, hate, joy and grief and that those passions arise out of knowledge.

Followers of Aristotle disagreed, saying that animals have only a sensitive soul while humans have a rational soul. Descartes waded in denying that animals have the ability to reason and, although they have passions, they are no more than bodily functions. Beasts die because the body decays, humans die because the soul leaves the body.

Tug of War

So the jury is out on whether animals have souls but I’ll leave you with a photo of my neighbour’s collies playing tug of war – a very determined, if not soulful, pursuit.

Ps The Apostates will be released on 15 November.

References

Late Medieval Pet Keeping: Gender, Status and Emotions by Kathleen Fiona Walker-Meikle

The Virtues of Animals in Seventeenth-Century Thought by Peter Harrison

What would it be like to find yourself suddenly living in Tudor England? … Guest Post by Jonathan Posner

Delighted to have a blether with author of The Witchfinder’s Well Series, radio presenter, playwright and lyricist, Jonathan Posner, about his books, the setting and writing generally.

Your books are set in the Tudor period. What draws you to that era?

My original idea was to create a time-travel story with a modern-day traveller going back to the Puritan 17th century and being accused of witchcraft. But my concern was that she would be isolated in such an era, with everyone being too afraid of witchfinders to be on her side. As a story it would be less interesting, as she would have few, if any, allies to help her. So I decided to go back a few more years to Tudor times, where accusations of witchcraft were treated more even-handedly and there were those who were sceptical about such things. This would give my time-traveller potential allies – adding greater interest to the story. The 16th century was also a more colourful, flamboyant and interesting period than that of the Puritans, and is also when a more recognisably modern society started to emerge out of the medieval past.

Your Witchfinder Series shifts in time between now and the Tudors. How do you go about writing a time slip novel and what are the challenges of this genre?

The time shift is when my heroine Justine falls through a worm-hole caused by an electrical storm. Once she arrives in Tudor England, she soon realises that this is a freak event and will never happen again – and certainly not in reverse. So she has to reconcile herself to the fact that she is stuck in Tudor England with no way back for the rest of her life. The challenge was then to make her transition from a modern-day girl to a fully-functioning Elizabethan believable – showing how she learns to cast-off her modern ways and embrace her position in Elizabethan society.

Another challenge was to make the Elizabethan world itself seem real. This meant a number of things had to work – the language had to seem authentic without being clichéd (or so accurate that it’s impossible to follow); the lifestyles needed to be historically accurate yet still understandable to the reader, and the plot needed to flow from Elizabethan character – such as Hopkirk being driven by the religious fervour of the period, Melrose by the injustice of land enclosure and Lady de Beauvais by the need to marry her son off to the right girl.

What do you enjoy about being a writer and how do you keep yourself motivated?

I love the process of creating a story. I work from a broad outline, then build the early part of the book by opening up a number of possible plotlines. Then I explore which of these I am going to develop further, and follow them through to the climax of the story. I love it when little plot or character devices that I set up in the early part of the book come together and resolve themselves by the end – I find that very satisfying!

I keep motivated by getting feedback – good or bad – as it shows me how people engage with my work. Something I write when sitting on my own seems real to me, but only truly becomes real when other people read it and react to it. I remember once directing a play I had written, and explaining the meaning of a line to a couple of actors. I was amazed when they disagreed with my interpretation! It made me realise that even as the writer, mine is only one possible interpretation of the text – not the exclusively ‘correct’ one.

First in series The Witchfinder Well is on offer until Monday. It’s an exciting read… ‘when a girl in 2015 falls through a time-travelling worm-hole she finds herself in 1565. Accused of being a witch, she has to use her wits, her cunning and her ingenuity to survive. The trilogy then takes her –and readers of all ages –into a dark world of assassins, subterfuge and plots, involving Queen Elizabeth, Francis Walsingham and Mary Queen of Scots.

You can find out more about Jonathan at https://jonathanposnerauthor.com and he also produces a regular and fun 5 minute break quick read.

Jonathan can be found at …

Goodreads 

Facebook 

Twitter 

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What did it mean to be ‘worth your salt’?

In my saga The Seton Chronicles the family make their money through trade. I spent a fair amount of time trying to unpack just what Scotland would be trading across the North Sea (which was known as the German Ocean until just after WW1 ). In the 1500s hides, wool and fish were the main exports but increasingly salt became important too.

National Library of Scotland – An illustration by William Brownrigg showing 18th Century salt making

The production of one ton of salt required six tons of coal to keep the fire beneath the iron pans, which contained the sea water, burning over several days until the water evaporated. Several villages dotted around the Forth Estuary in the east of Scotland had the perfect combination of sea and coal seams needed.

Culross Palace home of Sir George Bruce, a salt entrepreneur of the 1500s

In Culross, the coal was mined from beneath the sea, always a dangerous process but even more so in the 16th century. The owner of both mine and salt pans, Sir George Bruce, invented a horse drawn bucket and chain system that continually drained the seawater from his underground mine allowing the coal to be extracted. It was such a curiosity that visitors, including King James VI, came to Culross especially to see it.

Sir George Bruce of Carnock

Culross has become part of the Outlander tour circuit since scenes from the series were filmed there, so welcomes quite different visitors from the time of Sir George’s invention. Although the geographical information being given to Outlander tour groups seems a little hazy; visiting Culross the other day I came across a lovely American who was under the impression that she was in the Highlands.

Inevitably the salter serfs, who worked the salt pans had a hard life. The 1606 Act placed both salters and colliers in permanent bondage to their employers and anyone who absconded was to be punished as a thief – which could mean anything from having their ears chopped off to a hanging. Not only were they bound to their place of work for life, but any children they had were too. They were paid in salt and if you visit Culross palace you will see the small window they reached their cupped hands through to receive their ‘handful of salt’.

However to be worth your salt is an expression that pre-dates the poor salter serfs of Culross. It goes back to Roman times when their soldiers were paid in salt, and buying salt was seen as a shrewd investment. The origin of the word salary harks back to then. Sal was the Latin for salt, the soldiers month payment was called a salarium, which in French became salaire and then in English, salary.

Ornate Salt Cellar 1660

To sit below the salt refers to your lowly status. As a valuable commodity, the salt cellar was placed on the high table of the Lord of the Manor and was readily available to him and his high ranking guests. And salt cellars were often very ornate underpinning the value of the commodity and the status of its owner.

The first mention of status defined by the salt cellar is credited to Bishop Joseph Hall, in verses he penned in 1597 …

A gentle Squire would gladly entertaine
Into his House some trencher-chapelaine,
Some willing man that might instruct his Sons,
And that could stand to good Conditions:
First that He lie vpon the Truckle-bed,
Whiles his yong maister lieth ore his hed;
Second that he do, on no default,
Euer presume to sit aboue the salt.

But writing satire was a risky business as the good bishop discovered when, in 1641, his levity led to a charge of high treason and he was imprisoned in the Tower of London.

References:

The Scottish People 1490-1625 by Maureen M Meikle

The Salt Industry and its Trade in Fife and Tayside c1570 to 1850 by C A Whatley

What is a comma splice

Comma Splice

… and how have I remained in happy ignorance

of them for all these years? I’m sure Miss Redford never mentioned splicing when she was teaching us how to parse sentences in P6. But then the memory fades – I’ve just had to look up how to parse a sentence. And Miss Redford would certainly have never countenanced beginning a sentence with ‘and’ or ‘but’.

And there’s another thing the dash – well that’s what I always knew it as, but it would appear that we have an abundance of dashes and using the wrong one in the wrong way brings down the punctuation police. I understand, I really do. If you know your grammar it must be annoying to see lazy, arbitrary slap-dashing (and get in the way of the story, which is certainly not what a writer wants). Actually overusing brackets gets in the reader’s way too, must remember that! And the horrible overuse of exclamation marks these days has spoilt it for when they are appropriate.

Where was I …

So to clarify on the dash … there are three types (she writes using an ellipsis – I never knew that dot, dot, dot were called an ellipsis until recently, and I think I prefer saying dot, dot dot anyway) oops brackets again. And I’ve only just discovered that ellipsis have a specific use and should not be scattered arbitrarily and liberally like confetti throughout my books … yet another bad, and wrong, habit to correct.

Back to the dash – so we have:

The hyphen – the wee shortie
The en dash – little bit longer
The em dash — the stretchy one

But it’s easy really. The em dash is described by some as an Americanism so this British writer can discard it, the hyphen is for linking two words together and the en dash is for any other dashing required. See I can do grammar.

Now back to the comma splice, I don’t fully understand it.

And the sentence above is an example of a comma splice which happens, I am reliably advised, when two independent clauses are joined together by the incorrect application of a comma. One solution is to make them into two sentences, another is to bring in a joining word – which is a correct application for and or but. Yet another is to make use of colons … but I’ll leave it to another day to get to grips with them.

If you’d like to test yourself on recognising a comma splice click here.

Ps The above is how I make sense of grammar, I’m no expert. (Oops just spliced another comma )

Wonderful insights into early 16th century Spain: Guest Post by M Lynes

I was delighted to have a blether with Michael Lynes, who writes The Isaac Alvarez Mysteries under the pen name M Lynes, about his inspiration for writing, and his next in series Heretic’s Daughter which is about to be released.

Your novels are set in Spain. What drew you to write about this period in Spanish history?

I’ve always been fascinated by periods of immense social and political change. And the turn of the 16th century was an extremely turbulent time in Spain’s history. It’s a very rich period to set a series of historical mysteries in. But I also wanted to explore what that meant for a specific family. I was really drawn to the period after learning some of the human stories when I visited Andalusia in 2013 and was inspired by the passion and expertise of Moisés Hassán-Anselem who showed me around the Jewish quarter of Seville.

Jewish Quarter

It was fascinating to hear the story of the blood libel which I used as a seed for the first book and then created the Alvarez family from there. Moisés very kindly read the book for me to check the historical accuracy. If you are ever in Seville he is a wonderful guide… http://www.jewishsevilla.com.

The first book, Blood Libel , tells the story of the Alvarez family focusing very much on Isaac’s point of view. The second book, The Heretic’s Daughter , which will be published in May, continues the story in Granada and focuses more on Isabel’s view of events.

The characters you write about are sometimes blood-thirsty and cruel. How do you make them appealing to the reader (and to you as the writer)?

Some of the characters are blood-thirsty and cruel but there are also acts of great kindness and sacrifice. The reader spends time with each member of the Alvarez family getting to know them as individuals and, I hope, empathising with their situation. Their moral dilemmas are set in far more dangerous times than our own, but I think their concerns are universal and have contemporary resonance.

Sentencing

I tried hard not to make the two central antagonists in Blood Libel – Alonso and Torquemada – just pantomime villains. I spent a lot of time in their heads looking at it from their point of view, which wasn’t always a comfortable place to be. They believed that the Inquisition’s mission was to save souls. They saw themselves as shepherds protecting their flock and ensuring that as many of them as possible would get to heaven. Were they misguided and did they do great damage to many families? Absolutely. By putting the Inquisition’s side of the story, I hope the reader will get a more nuanced, three-dimensional view. But I certainly don’t downplay how unjust and repugnant the Inquisition was.

What’s the biggest challenge in writing about people and events from over 500 years ago, and what’s the most fun part?

If you write historical fiction then you have to do a lot of research, which I did. I’m still trying to persuade my wife that I desperately need to return to Andalusia to do some more ‘research’ into the wine and food of the region …

Alcazar – The Royal Palace

But once you start writing you need to let a lot of the detail go. I found that very difficult in my early drafts where I was guilty of trying to show off how much I knew. I think I’ve become better at taking a much lighter touch. Now that I’ve got an established world and set of characters it is fun thinking about what they might do next. And I’m at the point now where they are starting to surprise me, which makes writing really enjoyable. I think of the characters as just people who loved, laughed and worried in much the same way as we do. But they just did it in a very different context, particularly religiously.

La Giralda – the cathedral clock tower, formerly where the muezzin would call the Muslim faithful to prayer

Would you give us a wee peek into what you’re working on now?

I’ve just completed The Heretic’s Daughter which I’m really excited about. I think the cover design by Jennie Rawlings, ( http://www.serifim.com ) is stunning.

The Heretic's Daughter by M LYnes

The Heretic’s Daughter is available for pre-order at a special price until the end of April, https://books2read.com/u/mKpnDE .

I’ll be particularly interested to hear from readers about how they feel about the ending of the book. There are a lot of changes in store for the Alvarez family. This book naturally leads on to the third instalment which I can exclusively reveal is provisionally entitled, The Last Apothecary of Granada.

Blood Libel is available here amazon.co.uk/gp/product/B08TMHRPYW .

Blood Libel by Michael Lynes blog post VEH Masters

You can find out more about Michael at, www.michaellynes.com , where you can sign up for his newsletter and receive a free short story.

You can also write to him at michael@michaellynes.com

shepherds protecting their flock and ensuring that as many of them as possible would get to heaven. Were they misguided and did they do great damage to many families? Absolutely. By putting the Inquisition’s side of the story, I hope the reader will get a more nuanced, three-dimensional view. But I certainly don’t downplay how unjust and repugnant the Inquisition was. 3.

Why did men wear codpieces?

I went to see the rock group Jethro Tull perform on several occasions when I was a lot younger. The front man, Ian Anderson, would stand on one leg playing the flute, which was fairly impressive, but what really drew the eye was the glittering codpiece he wore while doing so.

Ian Anderson lead singer, Jethro Tull

The next time I encountered a codpiece was many years later amongst the dressing up clothes at Stirling Castle. This was on a whole different level to Anderson’s which seemed remarkably discrete by comparison. Indeed, to my 21st century eyes, it was so immodestly large and protruding I was embarrassed to be caught staring at it, and moved swiftly on.

Stirling Castle’s display model

When I came to write my first novel I debated whether my characters should don them or not and wondered if they were indeed commonly worn by the men of Scotland in 1546. I decided to delve, metaphorically, into the codpiece further.

Cod, in this instance, has nothing to do with fish but was the slang for scrotum. Codpieces began as something quite practical to fill the space between tunic and hose and preserve men’s modesty. But as the fashion in doublets became shorter, greater covering was required and the codpiece became a fashion statement of itself, and a sign of virility in the early 1500s.

Pietro Maria Rossi, Museo Nacionale del Prado, Madrid

Often they were decorated with tassels, bows or jewels. Some were large enough to store coins, a handkerchief or even a handy snack. The increased padding provided protection from swords, lances and other implements of war. Here’s King Henry VIII’s armour, with protective appendage

King Henry VIII’s armour

But the era of the cod piece was also the period when the pox was rife throughout Europe. Treating syphilis involved a range of herbs, sticky unguents and decoctions. Containing it all within a large codpiece helped protect clothing from stains, as well as keeping the poultice in place.

By late 16th century the cod piece had had its day and was replaced by the well padded stomach, known as a peascod belly; the codpiece beneath gradually shrinking in size.

Pointed Peascod Belly, Rijksmuseum

As for why Ian Anderson sported one I suspect it was a piece of flamboyant fun that fitted with the overall romance of the clothes of the 1970s. And his was modest by comparison with the ‘packages’ some other rock stars were creating.

And did I have my male characters sport codpieces… they have gone unmentioned so far, but in book 3 one does pop up.

References:

Grace Vicary, Visual Art as Social Data: The Renaissance Codpiece

https://www.cam.ac.uk/research/features/what-goes-up-must-come-down-a-brief-history-of-the-codpiece

Who was La Belle Écossaise?

La Belle Ecossaise, complete with face mask, in Mary of Guise's throne room
La Belle Ecossaise, complete with face mask, in Mary of Guise’s throne room

On a recent visit to Stirling Castle I met La Belle Écossaise hovering in Queen Mary of Guise’s chambers. She was not as discrete as one would expect from a lady in waiting and even told me that the queen holds her most intimate audiences in her bed chamber, where she chats from behind a screen as she washes and dresses. The queen, she said, does not sleep there but in a much smaller room up a private staircase. I was wild with curiosity to be shown the secret room but on this The Beautiful Scotswoman’s (doesn’t it sound much better in French) lips were sealed.

Stirling Castle

My character Will (in The Conversos) also has sight of La Belle Écossaise while he is a galley slave on the ship that transports the infant Mary Queen of Scots to France. La Belle Écossaise was amongst the wee queen’s retinue, even though as she herself told me, she could not speak French. Yet she is quite the demanding lady as Will observes.

After three days of riding at anchor during the storm La Belle Écossaise is seen arguing with the Captain. ‘It is too much, this swinging aimlessly in the sea. Take us ashore.’

The captain shrugs, Will doubts if he even understands what she says since she speaks in Scots. A gust of rain sends her scurrying undercover.


She’s back the next day demanding, ‘let me off this boat immediately. I must repose myself, and the children too.’


The captain evidently does understand Scots for he bows low saying, ‘I give you the choice my lady. You can either stay on board, or leave and drown.’


She stands for a moment clearly not believing what she’s heard, then the ship lurches rocked by a large wave. She staggers and is only saved from falling overboard by Logie who has appeared in time to catch her. He escorts her below, and Will can see she has much to say.

Unicorn above the fireplace

Some remarkable restoration work has been carried out at Stirling Castle and the rooms are bright with colour, the tapestries have been recreated based on what would have hung there during the time of James V and Mary of Guise. The symbolism is everywhere as powerful images were used to convey the king’s droit de seigneur. The unicorn above is sign of purity and strength.

Carved Head of James V

Other restoration work includes the carved heads found on ceilings – and a replica of every known head has been hand carved in oak and then painted after the worn originals were studied in detail. The imagery and choice of heads including Julius Caesar is again all about underlining James’s power as king.

Outside the block which contained the Great Hall has been magnificently restored. It was used (and rather abused ) by the army for many many years, and they inserted sash windows, removed others and cut holes in wall.

Now repaired and painted in ochre mixed with lime, as it would have been when La Belle Écossaise walked these courtyards, giving a soft golden hue – and the gold confirmed the king’s wealth. It’s fascinating to see the contrast with how faded the rest of the buildings are.

The statutes which line the outside walls would also once have been colourfully painted. The castle is a dull place nowadays in comparison to its one time splendour.

Statute of James V which would once have been brightly painted – with lots of gold leaf

As for La Belle Écossaise she was Lady Janet Fleming who caught the attention of King Henri II of France while she was in attendance on the infant Mary Queen of Scots – despite her lack of French… but then it wasn’t her language skills the king was interested in.

Lady Fleming

She had a son by him, but was decidedly indiscrete about it which led to the Queen of France, Catherine de Medici, and the king’s mistress, Diane de Poitiers, uniting in their dislike and arranging for Lady Fleming to be shipped back to Scotland, without her son. The rather unkind nickname of The King’s Whore was bestowed upon her. The king however did make sure this son was well provided for.

Ps If you are in Scotland and only have time to visit one castle then make it Stirling Castle – the restoration is remarkable and gives a fantastic sense of time and place …and the actors are a lot of fun.

Ref: Mary Queen of Scots by Antonia Fraser

Why is it called a Thunderbox?

Recently we had the absolute pleasure of a few days stay for a family celebration at Abbotsford, the home of Sir Walter Scott – one of Scotland’s most famous writers. Among the many wondrous things of this wondrous house was the thunderbox, found amid the maze of corridors off the kitchen.

Thunderbox at Abbotsford
Thunderbox at Abbotsford

An object of fascination and some fear for the children of the party, they were curious as to why it was called a thunderbox. The answer was much more mundane than I expected. It is a thunderbox because of …er… the noise it makes when in use. I’ll leave the rest to my reader’s imagination, although I do have one final thought to add – which you’ll find at the end (appropriately enough) of the blog.

The Guest’s Staircase

There were three staircases in this maze of a house and according to my fitbit I managed to climb 111 floors in three days. It felt like much more. By the final day I was beginning to get some sense of the layout but the chances of getting lost on any journey between lower ground floor kitchen and top floor bedroom were always considerable. The kids loved it – actually we all did.

Bath at Hope Scott Wing Abbotsford home of Sir Walter Scott
Quirky bath

The house was designed by Sir Walter Scott and, after his death in 1832, was opened to the public who came in their droves. We stayed in a wing which includes the oldest part of the building, as well as the library where Scott worked before the main house was built. Of course I went there to write and actually had quite a productive time – I’d like to think I was channelling Scott …who knows!

The Library Sir Walteer Scott Abbotsford
Scott’s library before the main house was built

The house is built with all Scott’s vivid imagination, baronial splendour and love of Scotland. Below is a door he rescued from the old Tollbooth in Edinburgh, demolished in 1817, and which he had inserted high into the wall of his home.

Door rescued from demolished Tollbooth in Edinburgh

In the garden there are several sculptures including this of  Morris, one of the characters from Rob Roy. Morris is on his knees begging forgiveness from Helen MacGregor-Campbell after betraying her husband, the eponymous Rob Roy, to the authorities. The hands are still a solid block because the sculptor, John Greenfield, died before he could finish the work.

Morris begs for forgiveness

But his determination to create his dream house, gardens and estate (he was an early conservationist and planted hundreds of trees) nearly destroyed Scott. He ended up in debt to the tune of £10 million in today’s money.

And my buy of the short break was a tea towel with some quotes from Scott’s novels which are now common parlance…

Some famous sayings from Scott's writing
Some famous sayings from Scott’s writing

This is a magical place to stay, lovingly cared for and remarkably warm for an old house during a storm ridden few days in February.

Sir Walter Scott

PS The original thunderboxes, in the days before indoor plumbing, would have consisted of a metal bucket beneath the seat – which no doubt made a fairly thunderous noise when used!