MarySmith’sPlace ~ Writing under lockdown

I’m excited to be a contributor in a new anthology which provides a unique record of life in my Galloway, my own wee part of Scotland, during the first 12 weeks of lockdown.

Writedown: Lockdown in the Galloway Glens at the Time of Covid brings together the work of 22 writers, each with a Galloway connection. It is a collection of prose and poetry, hopefulness, hopelessness, anger, humour and quiet endurance in which the writers tell the story of a community dealing with life in unprecedented times.

The idea behind the project came from author Margaret Elphinstone, when her writing classes could no longer meet. Inspired by the Mass Observation project which encouraged ordinary people to keep wartime diaries, she invited anyone interested to contribute – 22 of us did.

Margaret said: “In times of trouble people want to be together but with lockdown people had to isolate, sometimes living alone. Writing met their need to communicate. Through our writing we entertained and supported each other, sharing fears and unexpected joys and daring to hope for a better future.

“None of our writers was on the ‘front line’ and most were aware life in Galloway was better than in many places. But there was mounting anxiety for absent friends and family, and for what would happen to our communities.”

Now, with the book in my hands, looking back to my early contributions, I’m astonished at how hopeful I felt. Not only would this lockdown bring the virus under control, stopping the cases – and the deaths – from rising – it would surely lead to a fundamental shift in how politicians worldwide treated the environment. There was a feeling of all of us pulling together, accepting the restrictions for the good of everyone. Dominic Cummings put paid to that, didn’t he?

At the beginning of lockdown, I thought I would use this huge bonus of ‘me’ time to tackle my own outstanding writing projects – starting tomorrow. Always starting tomorrow! I am so pleased I signed up to take part in Writedown because it was almost the only writing I did do over those 12 weeks.

The writers never – and still haven’t – met as a group. They come from diverse backgrounds and many were strangers to each other at the start of the project, but they shared their writing week-by-week and bonds and friendships were forged. It was to the group I turned late one night when an Afghan friend messaged me about a brutal terrorist attack on the Kabul maternity hospital in which her sister worked.

Even the editorial team met on Zoom, both as a group and in pairs as we worked on our allotted chapters. It was an interesting experience as we discovered each other’s pet hates and particular foibles. I hate the word ‘that’, others don’t mind, some even really like it. Some love commas, others don’t. Exclamation works made some shudder while others didn’t notice them. Everyone, however, was working towards the collective aim of making the book as good as it could be.

The paperback edition came out first and is available locally in many outlets. Readers from further afield will be pleased to know the ebook is now available on Amazon. Here is the universal link for anyone outside the UK :

Writedown is available for members of Rosie Amber’s fabulous review team. If you are a reader who would be interested in becoming part of Rosie’s team and sharing your reviews, all the details are here.

And here is the flyer for the paperback (I think UK sales only) if you would like the paperback:

I’ll finish with thoughts from some of the other contributors to Writedown. Cath Monk remembers how positive we all felt in the beginning, something which changed over the weeks. “All the sad stories started coming out. It’s not easy to stay upbeat. We were all missing the contacts and the hugs. At least we knew, ‘it’s not just me.'”

Leonie Ewing said: “We were united by the project – it gave us focus. We brought different life experiences and points of view. It gave us a finger on the pulse of Galloway as the pandemic took hold so we could encourage each other and uplifted.”

MarySmith’sPlace – Secret Dumfries – a wee taster

I thought I’d be fully back in the blogosphere by now. Last week I’d written up all the chapters for Secret Dumfries and most of the ‘Did you know…?’ boxes leaving only the acknowledgements and bibliography to finish. The sun was shining so I went off for a stroll round the Osprey walk feeling ridiculously happy with life. Big mistake!

I sent off an email query to the publishers to check how much leeway they give on the word count. The guidelines say between 20-25,000 words and mine was likely to be a little bit over by the time picture captions were added in. Even at the ‘no more than 10 words per caption’ that adds another 1,000 words. Back came the reply to say the maximum text allowed is 20,000 words. I say but the guidelines states 20-25,000. They say, ‘Please check your contract.’ Oops! Much cutting and chopping and grinding of teeth followed. They did give me an extra couple of thousand words so as long as each caption is under – well under – ten words each, I’ll do it.

I thought I’d share one of my favourite ‘secrets’ from the book.

‘Around Dumfries the land is littered with prehistoric sites from Bronze-Age burial sites to cup and ring markings. The Twelve Apostles, the largest stone circle in mainland Scotland, is only a couple of miles from the town.

One Druid circle, however, is not what it seems. Half a mile from Friar’s Carse Hotel, a few miles from Dumfries, on a hilltop is a stone circle. Although the trees make it difficult to see it in its entirety, the circle is about 31 metres in diameter with some thirty-three stones ranging in height from 1 to 1.5 metres with a 1.8 metre pillar in the exact centre. Outside the circle is a rectangular cist.

Druids Circlenear Friars Carse090320184-HDR (Small)

The circle is a folly created by Captain Robert Riddell (or Riddel), an enthusiastic antiquarian, when he owned Friar’s Carse in the eighteenth century. During the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries there was an obsession with building follies: from towers to classical ruins.

The authenticity of the circle, though, has fooled people over the years – and possibly still does. Alexander Thom, famous for his studies of Stonehenge and other megalithic sites, surveyed the circle in 1939. He said: ‘This is reputed to be a fake but we believe it to have been an original megalithic site. The workmen who re-erected it could not have determined the azimuth of the small cist within 0.2 degrees of due east.’ In 1948, naturalist W. Balfour-Browne said: ‘it is now so weathered as to take in anyone. It should be a warning to all antiquaries.’

Even though the stone circle is a fake it has been built on top of a genuine iron-age fort with moat banks and ditches and although the circle only appeared in the 1780s its stones are ancient. No one, however, knows from where Captain Riddell took them. Similarly, a medieval cross standing outside the hotel is another mystery – a genuine cross but, again, not belonging to Friar’s Carse.’

We are nearly there. Photographer Keith Kirk is taking some last minute photos and then all (!) we have to do is match the images to the text.

I’m taking time out tomorrow because the osprey is back! He has circled the nest a few times so I’m going to go and see what he’s up to tomorrow.

MarySmith’sPlace – Still writing

I thought I’d take a wee break from my self-imposed blogging and social media embargo to let everyone know I’m still here. I’ve really missed reading posts and being on Facebook, but have to admit it has freed up a lot of time for Secret Dumfries.

I’ve   still a lot to do so after this it’ll be head down and crack on. The finishing line is in sight – has to be as the deadline is fixed.

Anyway, I thought I’d share a few little snippets from the chapters I’ve been writing. One chapter called ‘Hidden in plain sight’ is about the Whitesands along the River Night which runs through Dumfries.

Walking on from the kinetic hangings and the curved railings beyond the Devorgilla Bridge, we come to Matt Baker’s granite sculpture of Lady Devorgilla. Many people must walk past without realising a sculpture is on the river side of the wall beside a flight of steps. She is set into the sandstone wall, looking across the river. The figure was inspired by Lady Devorgilla Baillol who reputedly had the first wooden bridge across the bridge built in the thirteenth century.

Matt Baker’s sculpture of Lady Devorgilla looking across the River Nith, Dumfries

She was the daughter of Alan, Lord of Galloway and married John Balliol when she was only 13. In her own right she was a wealthy and powerful woman. Although her husband founded Balliol College, Oxford (for poor scholars) she made a permanent endowment to the college to secure its future. She also founded Greyfriars Monastery in Dumfries. On the death of her husband she established a Cistercian Monastery at New Abbey, a few miles from Dumfries. She had his heart embalmed and carried it with her in an ivory casket. When she died she was buried at the abbey church she had founded, with her husband’s heart beside her. Is this a romantic tale, or is carrying your dead husband’s heart around a bit weird? The monks clearly decided on romantic, calling the abbey Dulce Cor, meaning sweet heart.

Lady Devorgilla frozen in time

Now, carved in granite from salvaged harbour kerbs, Devorgilla stands gazing serenely across the caul. When the River Nith floods, which it does frequently, the sculpture is partially submerged and becomes part of the river in a powerful way.

Originally, a second part of Matt Baker’s installation was situated on the other side of the river. It was a translucent etching of a woman about to cross the river, laminated in glass with an oak frame. She was there for nine years before being destroyed, in 2007, by spring floods.

I heard the story of William Peck while on a tour of St Michael’s Churchyard – you meet such interesting characters in graveyards – I knew we had to use it in the book. The tour was conducted by the Mostly Ghostly team, best described as a combination of ghostbusters and local history guides.

St Michael’s Church built between 1741 and 1746. Pillars supporting the roof are from an earlier church and date back to around 1500. Poet Robert Burns worshipped here and is buried in a Mausoleum in the churchyard.

William Peck was not a native of Dumfries but he died in the town and is buried in St Michael’s churchyard, in the military corner to the left of the entrance. The words on his flat gravestone are scarcely legible now and don’t give much hint of the incredible story behind them. It reads: ‘In memory of William Peck, Esquire, late Surgeon of the King’s Own or 4th Regiment of Foot, a man of amiable character and good dispositions, eminent and useful in his profession. He deceas’d at Dumfries the 11th day of January 1769, in the 52nd year of his age. This monument is erected by Robert Riddick, Esq. of Corbeton, as a testimony of friendship, and in gratitude for valuable professional services.’Robert Riddick had good reason to feel gratitude for William Peck’s professional services. Mrs Riddick had a serious problem with her leg, described as a ‘dangerous malady’ which none of the physicians she consulted was able to alleviate. One night she dreamed that someone saved her life by amputating her leg. In the morning she told her husband of her dream and described the man who had carried out the surgery. Some weeks after this, the King’s Own Regiment or 4th Regiment of the Foot came to Dumfries and crowds lined the street to watch them march through. Amongst the crowd were Mr and Mrs Riddick and she recognised William Peck as the man who had appeared in her dream. Her husband approached the surgeon who agreed to examine Mrs Riddick’s leg.

As in her dream, the only solution was to amputate. She must have been in agonising pain to undergo such treatment. This was in the 18th century, before anaesthetic was available and when the risk of dying from infection following any surgical procedure was extremely high. The surgery was successfully carried out; Mrs Riddick survived and went home restored to health.

Some years later, Mr Peck, still serving with the regiment, took ill and, hoping a change of air would aid his recovery, returned to Dumfries to visit his friends the Riddicks. Here he died and was buried in St Michael’s under the monument erected by a grateful Mr Riddick.

Secret Dumfries will be published in mid-June.  Better get back to it.