Wednesday 12 April 2017

What Louise Turner learnt when writing historical fiction set in late medieval Scotland

It has been a while since the latest "What I Learnt..." guest post, but I am delighted to welcome to the blog novelist, Louise Turner.

Born in Glasgow, writing has always been a major aspect of Louise's life and at a young age she won the Glasgow Herald/Albacon New Writing in SF competition. Her second novel, The Gryphon at Bay, which follows on from the events described in her first novel, Fire & Sword, is set in late 15th century Scotland and was published by Hadley Rille Books in March 2017.

What Louise Turner learnt while writing historical fiction set in late medieval Scotland

I came late to historical fiction.  I started out as a reader (and writer!) of science fiction. I first studied Archaeology at university as an interest-based subject because I thought it might help me write better science fiction. I soon became passionate about prehistory, to the point where I specialised in archaeology as an undergrad before continuing my studies at a postgraduate level, focusing in particular in Bronze Age metalwork hoards.

At that point, I regret to say that I had absolutely no interest in anything from the Claudian invasion of AD 43 onwards. My excuse at the time was that there was something lacking in the material culture of the Roman period, and I’d cite as examples the fluid ingenuity of La Tene metalwork as opposed to the regimented mass-produced consumerism of Samian ware... No doubt this attitude was only reinforced by the fact that I dropped history early on in school, so I could concentrate on geography.

With this kind of background, you may wonder what on earth possessed me to write a historical novel in the first place. At first, the motives were entirely self-serving. I was coming to the end of a short-term contract working for the local authority archaeology service, so I decided to find myself a writing project to keep me occupied in the downtime before my next contract.  Historical fiction seemed to be quite a good way to combine writing and archaeology, so I decided to give it a try.  I mean, how hard could it possibly be?

I soon realised that I knew very little about Scottish history.  Though born and raised in Scotland, I’d learned virtually nothing about our nation’s past at school. In fact, the only way I’d ever experienced medieval Scotland was archaeologically.  I’d worked on several important urban sites, but only at site assistant level. From this meagre experience I’d learned that Scottish medieval archaeology could be summarised by burgage plots and backlands, green-glazed pottery and oyster shells.

This gave some kind of a grounding, I suppose, and initial research at the local level soon revealed the kernel of a story. I’d stumbled across John, 1st Lord Sempill, a fairly unprepossessing minor baron who’d lived in the late 15th century and died at the Battle of Flodden in 1513. Right away,  I noticed something odd about his life story: he was made a Lord of Parliament just a year after his father died fighting for the losing side at the Battle of Sauchieburn in 1488, the battle which left King James III dead and his son James IV upon the throne.

Of course, at this point, I’d never even heard of the Battle of Sauchieburn. So there followed a very intense course of swotting up on Scotland’s past, a process which has, quite literally, changed my life. It’s easy to be secure in the assumption that Scotland’s past is simple, cut and dried.  The Scots fought the English, they got gubbed.  And so, ad infinitum, ad nauseam.

But it’s not like that. Not at all. Scotland’s history is rich and complex, and it’s well worth wandering off the beaten track in an effort to find out something new.  My fictional biography of John, 1st Lord Sempill did just that, rapidly transforming into a complex, twisting tale of intrigue and political manoeuvring. What began in Fire & Sword has recently been continued in The Gryphon at Bay and that’s not the end of it, either. What I’ve learned from this is that I don’t have to go to England or Florence to get caught up in the personalities or the complexity of the past, it’s happening right here, literally on my doorstep!

This moment of epiphany was, of course, just the starting point for a long journey of discovery.  It’s impossible to write about politics without understanding more about the people. Late 15th century Scotland is quite a tough call, in a way, because there are large gaps in the record. Perhaps that’s why there’s a tacit understanding amongst modern readers that Scotland – compared to England, say, or Italy – was backward and regressive.

I was equally guilty of making such assumptions at first.  But the more I find out about late medieval and Renaissance Scotland (because this process is still ongoing...), the more I realise that it was in fact a country which punched above its weight in a cultural sense. During the late 15th and early 16th centuries, the court of James IV allowed the creative genius of composers like Robert Carver and poets like Robert Henryson to flourish.  Architecturally, Scotland achieved great things, but its achievements in the design and execution of high status secular buildings (such as Holyrood or Linlithgow Palace) tend to be overshadowed by Henry VIII’s and Cardinal Wolsey’s achievements south of the border.  Scotland’s merchants were in with the bricks and mortar in important trading centres like Middelberg and Antwerp. And our rulers were Renaissance men to be proud of: James IV - remembered best for his untimely end at Flodden – was in fact an educated, articulate man who dabbled in astrology, dentistry and linguistics.  He also invested heavily in cutting edge military technology, financing the construction of Europe’s largest warship, the Great Michael.

In short, Scotland was not a backwater.  Scotland was a small player, perhaps.  But as a nation, she tried very hard to be up there with the big boys.  As for the, savage, uncultured Scots...  Well, documentary evidence tells us that royal decrees were required during the 15th century to try and prevent Scotland’s urban populations frittering away all their wealth on the medieval equivalent of designer clothing. They liked to look good. They had a penchant for claret, and altogether, they seem to have been quite a sophisticated bunch.

But ambitions at the national level were constrained by what was happening locally, and this was where I made one of my most exciting discoveries.  Just about everything that was reported locally as an episode of small scale violence and local feud was a response to something much larger, an echo of grievances and differences being played out in Edinburgh, where the king and his government were largely based.

For example, one of the recurring themes in my novels is the feud between the Montgomerie and the Cunninghame families, which culminated much later in the cold-blooded murder of the 4th Earl of Eglinton during the 1580s. While this tends to be dismissed as an ongoing clash between a succession of personalities who just couldn’t put their differences aside and get along together, the truth is much more interesting. Between the 1480s and the 1540s, the Montgomeries were led by the hawkish, uncompromising Hugh, 2nd Lord Montgomerie (later 1st Earl of Eglinton) who served as a Privy Councillor and was briefly appointed Vice-Regent of Scotland by James V. Hugh was 87 years old when he died, and during his life, he’d been ruled by five different monarchs: James II, James III, James IV, James V and Mary.  That’s actually quite mind-blowing, especially when you’re trying to balance this realisation against the fact that we always see life in the past as being nasty, brutish and short.

Hugh murdered a few folk in his time, and yet at the same time, he appears to have been one of the first secular, non-royal householders in the west of Scotland to have window glass installed at his residence, Eglinton Castle. All this suggests a level of sophistication (and wealth) which we wouldn’t necessarily expect from your average late medieval/early post-medieval Scottish nobleman.

Balanced against this evidence of conspicuous consumption on the part of the wealthy, I’ve been intrigued to learn that the society we dismiss as ‘medieval’ was in fact tightly regulated in order to help protect the poor and disenfranchised from exploitation. The burgh councils did their best to impose trading standards, stipulating the size and quality of loaves and fining dodgy tradesmen. I’m sure the system wasn’t perfect, and that corruption was rife amongst the ruling classes, but at least they were trying to make things equitable and fair.

I suppose what this whole process has taught me more than anything is that Scotland’s history remains very much underappreciated and unknown, and that, if you ask me, is a great pity. But there have been some other, unexpected, surprises, too. Born in Glasgow of Welsh parents, for years I’d always felt a bit of an outsider.  My friends used to think I sounded ‘English,’ and my Welsh relatives used to say I spoke ‘proper Scots.’  I can’t read or write in Scots, and I don’t expect many of my readers can, either. So I translate narrative and dialogue into something which I consider to be English.

But the thing is: it’s not really English.  The way I speak, and write, is full of idioms that I couldn’t erase if I tried. I’m always using Scots words like ‘burgess’ (as opposed to ‘burgher,’) ‘tron’ (the burgh weighing machine), ‘laverock’ (skylark) and even ‘outwith,’ which I’m told is peculiarly Scottish parlance. So yes, after all these years of assuming I’m an outsider, I’ve now learned that I am, actually, Scottish. The country of my birth has shaped me, made me who and what I am today.

It’s been quite a journey, and it’s taken me a long, long way from burgage plots and backlands, green-glazed pottery and oyster shells….

Louise Turner
March 2017

Buy Louise Turner's books on Amazon:

Gryphon at Bay
Fire and Sword

Gryphon at Bay
Fire and Sword

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  1. Yeh for the Montgomeries! I quite like your Hugh, bad and all as he was (as my grandfather would have said). Food standards in medieval Scotland are fascinating -as are some of the issues discussed in Mary's parliaments - the credit crunch, the devaluation of the pound scots and the problems of binge drinking on Edinburgh's High Street. Some things don't change...

    1. Thanks for stopping by, Margaret, and glad you enjoyed the post.

    2. I always remember reading in Antonia Fraser's Gunpowder Plot non-fiction book how the English despised the Scots courtiers because they smelled of garlic! It was one of those little details which set my mental cogs whirring - symptomatic of the Auld Alliance, perhaps, and of lingering French tastes persisting after the Mary de Guise regime? Discuss.....

  2. Great article, Louise, and deserves to be circulated as widely as possible to illustrate how richly complex Scottish history is and the contributions the Scots have made to the world. time to knock the Tudors off their thrones!

    1. Thanks, Marie. It would be nice if the Tudor's were pushed aside for a while in the publishing world! :-)

    2. Oops! I have fleeting references to a Tudor (Henry VII...) in both books. Can't seem to jump on the Tudor bandwagon, mind!!!

  3. Very enjoyable able article. My thanks to Matthew and Louise.