Nonagenarian Novelists : Spur of Light by Tonie Ritchie

I created a new hashtag on social media yesterday, #NonagenarianNovelists. I created it to celebrate the publication of a debut novel written by my amazing 97-year-old great-aunt! Aberdeen-born and Huntly-bred, Tonie Ritchie completed her first novel this year. A great achievement for anyone, let alone a nonagenarian!

The novel, Spur of Light, was begun after attending a creative writing course on the Scottish island of Iona in 2002, but lay unfinished for many years until Tonie’s eldest daughter encouraged her to finish it and now, at the age of 97, she has finally completed the task.

Tonie’s life certainly hasn’t been quiet or uneventful. Just the opposite in fact. And perhaps that’s where some of the ideas in her novel came from! She was born in Aberdeen in 1923 and grew up in Huntly, attending Gordon School until she was 16. She then worked for the Clydesdale Bank before joining the WRNS (Women’s Royal Naval Service) in 1943. She lived in Hong Kong, Malta and Gibraltar with her husband Jimmy, who was a Naval Surgeon Captain, and while in Hong Kong she worked for BFBS (British Forces Broadcasting Service) as a radio announcer. They had five children – at one point she was left looking after them all plus two aged parents while her husband was away at sea.

She now lives in Plymouth where she’d returned in 1990 after Jimmy died. She then studied English at GCSE and A Level, before taking up creative writing and having several short stories and poems published.

When I was a child one of my favourite books was Joyce Lankester Brisley’s Milly-Molly-Mandy Stories. Milly-Molly-Mandy, properly Millicent Margaret Amanda, had a great-aunt and I envied Milly-Molly-Mandy for this. Imagine my delight, therefore, when I discovered that I had a great-aunt of my own! Though there, it has to be said, the similarity ended, for while Mily-Molly-Mandy’s Great Aunt Margaret was a “little, little white-haired lady in a black bonnet and dress spotted with little mauve flowers,” mine was the complete opposite. Not remotely a little old lady, but rather a woman of great energy and full of fun and laughter, my Great Aunt Tonie.

Tonie and Vivien in Plymouth, September 2019

Tonie and my Great Uncle Jimmy seemed very exotic to us. They had travelled the world and had many marvellous tales to tell. Including terrifying encounters with the Triad in China, where, despite living through events that could vie with The Third Man for their menace, they lived to tell the tale. Perhaps even ruthless Chinese gangsters recognised that Aberdeenshire folk have iron in their souls!

Now, very many years later, Tonie has another tale to tell and this is it, Spur of Light, her first novel, completed at the age of 97. A remarkable achievement by a remarkable woman.

Spur of Light is published by Vival Publications and is available from Amazon both as an ebook and a paperback and also from Waterstones. 

Death in Tallinn

The computer keyboard is getting well worn! From the author of The Peat Dead and The Dead of Jura, comes the first book in a spectacular new series – Death in Tallinn.

Set in a newly independent Estonia, poised precariously between the growing threat of Nazi Germany and the menace of the Soviet Union, Chief Inspector Jüri Hallmets has to tread a fine line between political opponents. A man of integrity, he’s determined to see justice done. But that’s not always as straightforward as it might seem.

The 1930s were a time of great unrest and turmoil throughout Europe. The so-called War to End All Wars seemed to have failed to be just that. Stormclouds were everywhere and the rumblings of future conflicts never far away.  In the midst of this, the small republic of Estonia is trying to find its feet and decide what sort of country it wants to be after centuries of foreign suzerainty.

Against this backdrop, Tartu-based Chief Inspector Jüri Hallmets is invited to head north to Tallinn to take over the investigation of the suspicious death of a senior policeman. But his presence is not welcomed by all.

To mark the launch of Death in Tallinn, Sharpe Books are offering, for a limited period only, the eBook at a special discounted price of 99p! Details here:  Death in Tallinn

Lockdown living – the virtual launch of The Dead of Jura

It’s not that long ago that virtual reality was the domain of science fiction writers. The idea of communicating via our computers wasn’t something we took that seriously. But how quickly that’s changed and how quickly we’ve had to adapt to our virtual lives!

Not least when it comes to the launch of a new book. Instead of being in a bookshop, surrounded by every type of literature, chatting over a glass of wine while books are signed, you’re sitting in your own home and interacting with people through a microphone and a tiny camera. A different kettle of fish altogether. Especially when the technology decides not to play along and you’re faced with a last minute change of plan – and room!

However, although it may be different, it’s actually as much fun in its own way! And that certainly proved to be the case last night at the virtual zoom launch of The Dead of Jura!

With good hosting from Thunderpoint’s Seonaid Francis, a good audience, good questions, and good answers from both Allan Martin and fellow crime writer Marion Todd, it was an evening to savour and one that left us with lots to think about. Especially as crime covers such an astonishing array of scenarios: everything from the petty thief to the corporate criminals who do so much damage to so many.

It doesn’t look like Covid is going anywhere fast anytime soon, so it’s more than likely we’re going to be living online for the foreseeable future. But, it has to be said, there are some compensations. After all it’s quite pleasant not having to out on a cold, dark night. And to toast the author with a glass of wine without the thought of that long drive home. And of course, you can’t beat being able to sit there and enjoy it all with your slippers on!

Sea Roads of Wester Ross

The Covid pandemic has turned life upside down. So many things that we took for granted suddenly became impossible. For the benefit of everyone, we’ve had to curtail travel and holiday plans. Frustrating perhaps, but a frustration that pales into insignificance in light of the horrendous loss of life all four nations of the UK have sustained.
.
We may not have been able to go out while lockdown restrictions were in place, but for many of us it’s been an unprecedented opportunity to spend time at home and discover new interests and abilities.
.
Yet even when we’re not in the midst of a pandemic, we’re still in a position to travel and explore ‘virtually’. To read and think about places we want to see again and to discover new places that we can look forward to visiting when the time comes. For me, one of those places is Wester Ross. We’ve visited many times before and hope to visit again when circumstances allow.
.
For those of us who live in more densely populated areas, Wester Ross is often regarded as remote or isolated. But that’s a misconception. Not only is Wester Ross no stranger to excitement or danger, it’s also an area of outstanding scenic beauty. And rich in history. Everything from Russian Arctic Convoys to Gruinard (Anthrax) Island, to the Summer Isles and to what was the smallest distillery in Scotland. Be in no doubt there’s plenty to discover!
.
In the first part in a new series, I’ve taken a look at the coastal area from Ullapool down to Loch Ewe. And even in lockdown I’ve discovered plenty to interest, and even surprise, me on the way!
.
It’s all in issue 63 of iScot magazine.
.

The Dead of Jura

Angus Blue and his team are back. A shooting on a Scottish island opens up a can of worms. Those in power want to keep it closed. But DI Blue’s not one for giving up. 

The Dead of Jura is the second novel in the Inspector Blue series and will be published on September 27th.

Inspector Blue is called to the island of Jura after a  junior Defence minister is shot by a sniper at his estate. However, they find security personnel at the site less than willing to co-operate, especially Special Branch Chief Inspector Ffox-Kaye. The crime scene has been tampered with, the victim has been whisked away, and no witnesses will talk. There is more to this than meets the eye, and Ffox-Kaye has his own agenda, but Blue and his team will not be deterred. And forensic archaeologist Alison Hendrickx is back too.

The action moves between Scotland, England, Ireland and Germany, as Blue and his team home in on a crime covered up by those who should know better.

“A ‘must read’ for fans of Scottish crime fiction.” Marion Todd

“Subtle, complex and intense as a fine island malt.” Olga Wojtas

It’s a brilliant follow-up to The Peat Dead, which was shortlisted for the McIlvanney Debut Prize 2019!

The Hydro Boys: the men who brought power to the glens

Clunie Arch, a memorial to some of the men who lost their lives building the hydro schemes

The dramatic story behind ‘Power to the Glens’ has interested me for years. So widespread was the scheme that you don’t have to go far to find a dam or power station linked to the Hydro. Wonderful feats of civil engineering, with clean and beautiful designs that leave no scars on the landscape.

The scheme was designed to bring power to the glens through the work of the North of Scotland Hydro-Electric Board (1943–1990) and was masterminded by Kirkintilloch-born politician Tom Johnston (1881-1965). Johnston was a Labour MP and Secretary of State for Scotland during WW2, and was determined to improve life for the people of the Highlands and Islands.

Pitlochry Dam

The Hydro Board was tasked with the enormous challenge of designing, constructing and managing hydro electricity projects throughout the Highlands of Scotland: an expanse that covers almost a quarter of the total land area of Britain, yet with only about three percent of the population.

However, as it’s an area with the highest mountains, largest inland lochs and most bountiful rainfall in Scotland, it definitely has the perfect ingredients required to create hydro electricity!

The Hydro comes to Out Skerries, Glasgow Herald, October 29 1983

Think how much we take heat and light for granted. It may be wet and miserable outside, but we know we have bright, warm homes waiting for us. Every now and then an unexpected power cut might serve to remind us what life was like before everything was available at the flick of a switch. But it’s not a situation we’d want to last for long! And I suspect most of us would be hard put to really understand what life was like before mains electricity was available throughout Scotland.

Incredibly, it wasn’t until the 1960s, and thanks to the work of the North of Scotland Hydro-Electric Board, that 90% of the Highlands were finally attached to the national grid. A figure more than double pre-war provision. And many more years passed until that connection was nationwide. It’s an inspiring story of how belief in a better society for all can change the lives of so many. If there’s a will to do so.

And Tom Johnston had that will. I often wonder what he and his contemporaries would make of Westminster today? Not a lot, I suspect. But without a shadow of a doubt, there’s much that today’s politicians could learn from Tom Johnston!

My article about the advent of hydro-electricity, Tom Johnston, the North of Scotland Hydro-Electric Board, the Hydro Boys and those extraordinary Tunnel Tigers, appears in issue 62 of iScot magazine. And what a story it is!

Fort of the Skulker: Dun an Sticir, North Uist

There’s no doubt about it – North Uist can be windy! But that didn’t really bother us when we spent our summer holidays there a year or so ago. We’re used to Scottish weather, whatever the season. And we know how to dress for everything Scottish weather can throw at us – be it spring, summer, autumn or winter (and sometimes they can be hard to differentiate!)

That summer we walked, drove, climbed and explored this strange, at times almost lunar landscape, but one place in particular caught our attention: Dun an Sticir – Fort of the Skulker. I’m not sure if that’s the original Gaelic name, or one that came about much later due to dark and dire deeds that took place on the island. Whatever the truth may be, though, there’s a strange air to this island within an island.

Not just one island though, but three, all linked together in a small tidal loch. Leaping from ancient causeway to ancient causeway with the water rising around us, was excitement in itself. But definitely not as exciting as some of the events that took place here! From an Iron Age Dun to a medieval hall, (along with a Viking interlude!) life was seldom static, nor without risk. And we probably don’t know half the story even yet. If you’re familiar with Finlaggan on Islay, the medieval seat of power of the Lords of the Isles, then you’ll get an understanding of Dun an Sticir.

The last resident of the island came to a sticky end – thrown into a dungeon in a castle on Skye and left, not to starve to death, but given salted beef with nothing to drink and left to die slowly and agonisingly of thirst. Not a pleasant way to go!

If you want to find out more, there’s plenty to get your teeth into in issue 60 of iScot magazine!

Museum of Islay Life: home to an island’s memory

When we come out at the other end of this corona virus pandemic, just how will we look back at what happened to us, to our families, to our communities? Every generation lives through history in the making, but when you’re in the middle of events the end result is unknown: you don’t have the luxury of hindsight. And that uncertainty isn’t just unsettling. It’s frightening.

Life is very strange right now. On one level, everything looks just the same, be it your house or your street: but in reality it’s very different indeed. The silence for one thing. Virtually no traffic, or planes; even the sound of children playing is diminished.

Fishing and ferries – an island’s lifeblood

In an earlier article I looked at how vital our memories are for our personal identity. You only need to see the devastating effects of dementia on a loved one to appreciate that. The writer Julian Barnes puts it very succinctly: “Memory is identity….You are what you have done; what you have done is in your memory; what you remember defines who you are; when you forget your life you cease to be, even before your death.”

The Tuscania Bell and the flag sewn by Islay women for the burial of the young American dead

But equally, we are social beings and the collective memories of our communities are an integral part of our existence too. Who we are today is influenced by the lives of those before us. Japanese author Haruki Murakami examines this in his unsettling novel 1Q84, with his protagonist Tengo saying, “Robbing people of their actual history is the same as robbing them of part of themselves. It’s a crime. Our memory is made up of our individual memories and our collective memories. The two are intimately linked. And history is our collective memory. If our collective memory is taken from us – is rewritten – we lose the ability to sustain our true selves.” Powerful words.

Bottles recovered from the WW2 airbase, including Brylcreem!

We can contribute to, and access, that vital collective memory in many different ways: books, films, photo albums, family history and tales told us by our parents and grandparents. But we’re a tactile species and sometimes seeing and touching objects brings the past to life in a very immediate way. And that’s where local museums come in.

One of my favourites is the wonderful Museum of Islay Life. In the current issue of Scottish Islands Explorer I look at that museum and how its contents reflect the life and times of the people of that island. From the mesolithic right up to the present day, Islay’s people, places and history are there to discover in the Tardis-like building. The good and the bad. The joyous and the heartbreaking. Bravery in the face of war and cruelty. Kindness and generosity in times of adversity. The exciting and the mundane. The patterns of day-to-day life.

We’re all in limbo at the moment. We can’t go anywhere. Yet, inadvertantly, we’ve been given a unique opportunity to pause and take stock. To be inventive. To realise what we can actually do without and what really is essential. To create positive memories for ourselves and our families, even when that’s not easy. And be ready for the time we are once again free to go!

Crime Scene Investigation

What connects a Highland wilderness, a former east-coast fishing town and Glasgow’s respectable West End? The answer? Crime! But fear not, it’s fictional crime I’m talking about!

Assynt, Arbroath and Glasgow’s West End are the settings used by three crime writers in their latest novels. And the locations could hardly be more different. Yet even though they may not have much in common geographically, each one is shaped by the passage of time and the layers of history that add, bit by bit, to their unique heritage.

Whether the stark – and at times terrifying – beauty of Assynt, or the long, low, narrow streets of Arbroath, or the grand, self-important buildings of Victorian Glasgow, location plays a huge part in a successful novel. An authentic setting will draw readers in, help create a gripping atmosphere and be a believable backdrop to the twists and turns of the author’s tale. Readers have to believe in the setting as much as in the plot and the characters. Credibility matters.

Surprisingly, though, settings don’t necessarily have to be dark and Gothic to create a menacing atmosphere. That impenetrable Victorian fog, or the flickering candlelight, or the howling of a gigantic hound out in the mire aren’t the only ways to create suspense. Just the opposite in fact, for in the hands of a skillful writer, even the most ordinary, everyday settings can become something very much more sinister. We all like to feel safe in our home territory, but what if that’s the very place where the threat lies? In fact, sometimes that’s the most effective way crime writers can unsettle us: take the familiar – the known – give it an unexpected twist and suddenly it becomes very menacing indeed!

In the Highlands I’m often struck by that curious juxtaposition between the breathtaking landscapes and the tiny settlements scattered across them. Towering mountains and huge skies. All that space and yet so few people. What made Gareth Halliday chose this place for his debut novel From the Shadows?

Moving south-east, I suspect that even if you’ve never been to Arbroath, you’ll have heard of its abbey. Arbroath Abbey is special. Without doubt it’s lasting importance rests on an event that took place 700 hundred years ago, yet one which still resonates today. In 1320 Bernard, the Abbot of Arbroath and Chancellor of Scotland under Robert the Bruce, drafted a document which became known as the Declaration of Arbroath, one of the key documents in Scottish history. A document that contains the famous lines, “For so long as but a hundred of us remain alive, we shall never under any circumstances submit to the domination of the English. It is in truth not for glory, nor riches, nor honours that we are fighting, but for freedom alone, which no honest man gives up but with life itself.” And this is the ancient town where Jackie McLean sets her crime novels.

For Michael Mackenzie, it’s the University of Glagow, one of the oldest in the country that lies at the centre of his work. And with good reason! But to find out what that reason is, you’ll have to read the article in the Jan/Feb issue of iScot magazine!

John de Graham’s Castle

The view might be very different from John de Graham’s time, but the setting is still as commanding. De Graham, friend and ally of William Wallace, is believed to have had his home on this spot, overlooking the Carron Valley in Stirlingshire. There’s a picture on the information board showing what the ‘castle’ would have looked like: a medieval earthwork with a substantial timber-framed hall, defended by an impressive square moat. The line of the moat is still very much in evidence, though nothing remains of the hall, and today the mighty Carron Reservoir fills much of the valley below.

John de Graham of Dundaff (another name for this fortified site), was a 13th century Scottish noble who fought alongside Wallace in the First Scottish War of Independence, and who fell at the Battle of Falkirk on 22 July 1298. On that terrible day the Scots, unable to withstand the force of the heavy English armoured cavalry and the deadly Welsh longbows, were defeated by Edward I of England. De Graham died but Wallace survived and is said to have sought out de Graham’s body and carried it from the battlefield himself. De Graham was the most notable casualty of that terrrible day and is buried at Falkirk Old Parish Church. Wallace then retreated to de Graham’s home by the Carron Water.

Many years later a famous narrative poem, The Actes and Deidis of the Illustre and Vallyeant Campioun Schir William Wallace (also known as The Wallace), was written by the poet Blind Harry. It portrays Sir John de Graham as one of William Wallace’s principal supporters and describes Wallace’s feelings of loss and sadness at the demise of his friend. There’s no doubt that de Graham’s death was a sore blow to Wallace, who lost not only his right-hand-man, but also a close friend.

How certain can we be that this was John de Graham’s family home and that he was the man so close to Wallace? Matthew Ritchie, an archaeologist with the Forestry Commission Scotland who manage this site, writes, “A 13th century charter records ‘the whole waste lands of Dundaff and Strathcarron, which was the King’s forest’ being granted by Alexander II to John’s father, Sir David de Graham. That a John de Graham was the third son of Sir David de Graham is not in doubt – but was this the same John immortalised in The Wallace as having fallen at the Battle of Falkirk, or perhaps a son or relative?”

Ritchie continues, “Although Blind Harry’s poem was written long after the event, it does clearly link his Sir John de Graham to the area; and although the earthwork was likely built some years beforehand, it does mark the feudal estate of Dundaff, property of the de Graham family. Fact and fiction do seem to meet at Sir John de Graham’s castle to tell a story of place that is firmly rooted in the past.”

In the past spelling was not fixed or final and you’ll find that John de Graham’s name appears in different forms. In Blind Harry’s The Wallace his name is given as ‘Schir Jhone the Grayme’, while his tomb has him as Sir John the Grame. Then there’s the Society of John de Graeme, a group set up in 2016 to highlight the role of de Graham and Scottish history in general. But that’s not all. His name also survives in the Grahamston area of Falkirk – even in Falkirk Grahamston Station!

The Carron Valley

This site in the Carron Valley is an important part of Scotland’s story and heritage and as as such is a protected Scheduled Monument. We may never have known the man, but we can stand where both he and Wallace stood, and that’s a fine thing.

The Society of John de Graeme