Britain’s ‘Little Ice Age’

It’s hardly surprising in the UK that we are notorious for talking about the weather, for it is nothing if not unpredictable. Take the last 2 weeks – where I live in the south of Scotland we have had temperatures ranging from -5 at lunchtime to +11 at eleven pm at night. Which makes the decision of when to change to winter tyres rather difficult, and which is perhaps the reason that the weather is not just the subject of casual conversation, but also of jokes and of picture postcards – I’m sure you’ve all seen the ‘Summer in the… (fill in your own county name) cards – which is of course just a picture of rain…

Recently though ‘weather’ or rather ‘climate’ (for I’ve been reliably informed by those who know that they are two different things) has become a worldwide topic of hot debate, with Greta Thunberg named yesterday as the Times Magazine person of 2019. Programmes abound of ice melting in the Artic and Antarctic and the potentially catastrophic effects that will follow for us all if it cannot be halted.

But melting ice hasn’t always been a problem – quite the reverse. For over 100 years within the late Tudor, Stuart and Georgian periods Britain was in the grip of what became known as the ‘Little Ice Age’ when winters were harsh and long. There is ample evidence, in writing and in pictures, of frost fairs on the Thames – carnivals on ice, the most famous occurring in the winter of 1683 / 84, when even the seas around southern Britain are said to have frozen for up to 2 miles from shore!

There were temporary booths selling everything from beer to bootlaces, hot food in abundance, entertainments of all kinds and sporting events – bowling matches and horse and coach races, (though quite how the horses managed on the ice I don’t know). Every trade and guild was represented – the city in miniature reproduced on the ice.

The frost fairs spawned souvenirs, which to judge by the advertising copy below, would likely have rivalled the seaside ‘tat’ of our modern era.

‘Here you PRINT your name tho’ cannot write
Cause numbe’d with cold: Tis done with great delight.

And lay it by: That AGES yet to come
May see what THINGS upon the ICE were done.’

‘To the Print-house go,
Where men the art of Printing soon do know,
Where for a Teaster, you may have your name
Printed, hereafter for to show the same’

It is the Thames Frost Fairs that have had all the press, but the ‘Ice Age’ wasn’t confined to the south of England, but to most of the Northern Hemisphere and so in my first Scottish novel I have set a Frost Fair on the Clyde – and what should have been a happy occasion for the Munro family, didn’t go entirely to plan – courtesy of William Cunninghame.

Here’s a wee extract from Turn of the Tide:

December came in hard, heralding a season of frosts that silvered the loch with ice a foot thick, so that Munro fashioned wooden skates for all but Ellie, the blacksmith fitting them with narrow blades. In January, when it was clear that the cold snap would last, frost fairs were held along the upper reaches of the Clyde and it took little persuasion for Munro to fit runners to the cart and take Kate and the two older children.

It was Maggie’s first experience of a winter fair and she hopped up and down on the shore, impatient for Munro to lace her skates. Kate and Munro each took one of her hands and they struck out towards the braziers burning on the ice and bought chestnuts so hot that even with mittens, they had to toss them from hand to hand until they cooled enough to eat. A flesher had set up a spit and was roasting a pig, the fat sparking like a scattering of bawbees. Maggie wrinkled her nose at the smell of mulled wine and roast meat and burning tallow, and wheedled three pennies from Munro to have her name and the date scribed on a card with a drawing of the fair.

Robbie came flying to drag them to see a man who played a whistle and had a monkey who danced and gibbered on the end of a rope. There were tents with ‘fat ladies’ and fortune-tellers and stalls selling simples: aloes, camphor and ginger, punguent salves of egg-white, rose oil and turpentine. One stall-holder brandished a pamphlet hailing tobacco as the cure-all for everything from toothache and bad breath to kidney stones and carbuncles.

Kate dragged Munro away. ‘Don’t even think on it. I have no wish to kiss a chimney, supposing it could do all that is claimed.’

There were entertainers of all kinds: tumblers in rainbow colours, spinning and wheeling like human kaleidoscopes. Jugglers spinning plates on the ends of long poles balanced on their chins. Musicians who scraped and beat and blew, so fine and so fast that those who hadn’t skates hopped and jigged on the ice around them. Best of all, a conjuror: his silver hair corkscrewed around his face, who began his act by plucking a groat from behind Maggie’s ear.

She was entranced: tipped forward onto the toe of her skates, leaning into Kate that she might not lose her balance; as he spun cards into spirals of kings and queens, aces and jokers, hearts and spades and clubs. He made coins appear and disappear from his hands, under pewter tankards, into a tiny, brightly coloured wooden box with a sliding lid. A dove placed in a tall-crowned hat was gone in a puff of smoke, replaced by a multi-coloured streamer yards long. And best of all: the rabbit that hopped from his sleeve. The act was finished, the conjuror bowing and smiling, Munro fishing for a penny for Maggie to drop in the bonnet he shook.

A slow, contemptuous clapping; a voice impossible to mistake. ‘Well, well. Munro . . . and family. This is an unlooked for surprise. Enjoying yourselves? I daresay this is cheap enough entertainment, even for you.’ William’s eyes raked over Kate, lingering on her breast and she tensed, but tilted her chin and returned his stare.

Beside her Munro smouldered, ‘You’re a step from Kilmaurs. Are you likewise straightened, or is it that Glencairn does not countenance the aggravation closer to home?’

‘I play where I choose and tonight I chose here, and might have been the sooner had I anticipated so pleasant company.’

A gust of wind lifted Kate’s hair, whipped her skirt around her legs, and against her will she shivered.

William leaned close. ‘But come, Munro, you do not treat your wife well. A pretty piece deserves to be kept warm . . . I have a horse-blanket that would serve.’

She was rigid with defiance, determined not to rise to his goading. ‘Thank you but no. I am not truly cold, and if I was I have a shawl in the cart I could put to use.’

‘Some mulled wine then? You will not refuse to drink with me?’

‘We would not, but that we have already had our fill and the bairns hope to see the conjuror’s next act.’

‘This fellow? He is scarcely proficient, or not to a discerning audience at least.’

Maggie, who had followed the sense of William’s comment, though not all the words, shot out a foot and caught him on the shin with the blade of her skate. ‘He is clever and magic and . . .’

Kate caught her round the waist, pulled her back, and though she would have dearly liked to kick William herself, reproved her. ‘Maggie! It is not well done. Apologize this instant.’

‘Shan’t.’ Maggie escaped from Kate’s grasp, her eyes fixed on William, hard and bright.

‘Already feisty . . . like mother, like daughter.’ William was rubbing at his leg. Have no fear Kate, I take no account of a child’s pettiness, how ever ill-bred. When she is grown, I shall take an apology then, no doubt the sweeter for the wait.’

Munro thrust Maggie behind him to turn on William, but Kate had beaten him to it, her hand whipping out, the crack as it met his cheek, echoing like a pistol shot. Off-balance he staggered and then Robbie was hammering at him with his fists, Maggie, who had ducked round Munro, kicking furiously at his shins. A small crowd was gathering, the conjuror, with an eye to further profit, offering odds on the bairns. Kate dived for Maggie, Munro for Robbie. William straightened, and then as if suddenly aware of the folk who gawked, that they made of him a laughing stock, ground out, ‘Ill-mannered as well as ill-bred. You would do well Munro to train your children better, or you may live to regret it.’ He spun on his heel and thrust his way through the crowd, daring any to stop him.

The silence lasted only as long as it took for the conjuror to re-start his show for the new audience that the confrontation had drawn. Maggie, no longer fighting Kate, was craning to see, but Munro, recognizing the wisdom of putting as much ground between themselves and William as possible, said, his voice brooking no resistance, ‘Home.’

They found their way to the cart in silence, the children unusually subdued, Munro and Kate, though both occupied with this new danger, neither wishing to air it. On the hill they stopped and turned to take a last look. Maggie, pointing to the moon riding high and full in the sky, whispered,

‘There is a man. I see his face.’

The lights of the lanterns twinkled all along the shore, the flames from the braziers flaring spasmodically, figures like dolls still skating on the ice.

Kate leant back against Munro, risked, ‘If it were not for William, I could have stayed all night.’‘If it were not for William . . .’ it hung between them, the thought of Anna: of what they had lost; the fear for what they still had.

If you have enjoyed this extract the remainder of the story and the two novels that follow it can be found on Amazon on kindle and both online and via UK bookshops in paperbacks (ideal Christmas presents?)

This is part of a series of seasonal blogs – all of which can be enjoyed this month – the dates are below – do visit them all!

When History came to Life – Scotland’s History Festival 2014

After many years as the ‘Cinderella’ subject, history has been making a comeback. Authors of historical fiction are beating all comers in the big prize stakes, our TV schedules are full of (less than accurate) dramatizations such as The TudorsScreenshot 2015-02-05 09.05.46 and Reign, and currently the excellent adaptation of Wolf HallScreenshot 2015-02-05 09.07.09 and accessible documentary-style histories abound – who wouldn’t immediately recognize Neil Oliver’s flowing locks? Interest in history is alive and well and perhaps never more so than in 2014 when we remembered the start of The Great War.

There are now at least six festivals devoted to history in the UK, and they bear little relation to the dull history lessons I remember from my school days. From History Live at Kelmarsh Hall – an all-round ‘experience’ including the sights, sounds and smells in the living history encampments and re-enactments; to Harrogate’s History Festival, focusing on writing and writers. North of the border November is History Month, with PreviouslyScreenshot 2015-02-08 11.22.11 – Scotland’s History Festival delivering 140 events over 18 days in six towns – Edinburgh, Glasgow, Stirling, Dunfermline, Moffat and St Andrews. I was proud to be part of the programme.

As the introduction to the 2014 programme said: ‘History can shake the entire world – or just yours. It’s the story of nations, the clash of armies…and the scar on your knee where your brother pushed you on the rocks when you were seven. History hasn’t finished, and neither have we.’

That comprehensive view of history was reflected in the variety of events which were on offer, from workshops and walks, to tours and talks, from exhibitions and discussions, to music, art and theatre. It’s impossible to cover them all, but to give you a flavour…

Walking tours included Edinburgh’s atmospheric, underground Vaults;Screenshot 2015-02-08 11.27.48 the Secrets of the Royal Mile explored the closes, wynds and Screenshot 2015-02-08 11.31.07courtyards of Old Edinburgh; and the Dean Cemetery Screenshot 2015-02-08 11.29.08explored the host of fascinating characters interred there.

Historical novelists Andrew Williams, William Ryan and Edward Wilson discussed the shadow world of spies and secret policemen from WW1 to Vietnam; Shona Maclean, Marie Macpherson and Louise Turner talked about riot, murder and reformation; and Register House unveiled the story of the Kaiser’s Spy and the landlady who help the authorities to snare him.

Politics in Rhyme was much more entertaining than the real thing; and Stirling Castle hosted the FlytingScreenshot 2015-02-08 11.46.12
a verbal war between two of James IV’s makars, described as ‘a brilliant, beautiful and bawdy battle of verse and verb, originally written to please a king’.

There were four days of events celebrating the life, work and travels of Robert Louis Stevenson,Screenshot 2015-02-08 11.35.21 this quote is definitely one to live by, and a series focusing on significant women- in war: Weapons and Wounding; in education: Watt Wonderful Women – a talk on Heriot Watt University’s trailblazers; in trade: Women in 17th Century Fife Trade; and in drama: Miss Julie, Strindberg’s classic play.

As you might have expected in this centenary year, war was well represented; Leaving it all– Scottish soldiers’ wills and appeals against military service in WW1 a refreshingly different angle.

Food and drink weren’t forgotten: from The History of Gin and Distilling to Fireside Feast a three course banquet served in Riddle’s Court, in Edinburgh’s Old Town, similar to one that was served in 1598. (One I was sorry to miss.)

A host of events focused on family history: Getting Started with Family History Research, and the more unusual Hospital Records for Family Historians.

If your taste was for the creepy there was the Dark Truth Tour, Screenshot 2015-02-08 11.37.57or Ghosts and Ghouls.

Glasgow focused on the Irish connection; Dunfermline, on Andrew Carnegie; and St Andrews hosted a variety events in honour of St Andrew’s Day.

For children there was The Reluctant Time Traveller with Janis McKay (21st) and a varied schools programme; and two events for writers: Writing Your Story, Writing History with David Simons and Chris Dolan; and my workshop event: Screenshot 2015-02-08 11.40.17
History in Historical Fiction – Icing the Cake or Main Ingredient. I had the opportunity to present it twice – once in Edinburgh and once in St Andrews, the latter a particular pleasure for me returning to the old haunts where I’d spent my student days. And amazingly, one of the participants had gone to the same school as I had in Ulster, though not at the same time. I thoroughly enjoyed both events – I hope the folk attending did too! The feedback was good, so I guess they did.

All in all an exciting 18 days – I’m already mulling over options for a workshop or talk that I could present this year…roll on November!

Charles I and a very small coffin…

It isn’t every day I find an intriguing little snippet, but today was one of those days. This article tells the tale of the finding and opening of Charles I’s coffin- fascinating in itself, especially as it was found in vault considered to contain the coffins of Henry VIII and Jane Seymour, though the two coffins in question are not inscribed as such.

Screenshot 2015-01-30 15.37.09

Screenshot 2015-01-30 15.37.46 Screenshot 2015-01-30 15.38.19

Charles I’s though does have an inscription and when opened the facial features relate to portraits of him, and the head was clearly severed, execution-style. So no reason to doubt it’s provenance.

But for me the part that really intrigues is the mention of a small coffin placed on top of Charles’ pall, covered in crimson velvet. A child clearly, but who?

The suggestion that it was a stillborn child of Queen Anne, (Charles I’s mother) while she was a Princess in Denmark seems, in my opinion, preposterous. Screenshot 2015-01-30 15.45.31

1) She required to be a virgin when James VI married her and there has never been any suggestion that she wasn’t.
2) Why would the coffin of a child likely born many years earlier have been kept and re-buried along with Charles I?
3) (Most intriguing of all) Why would this be suggested?

If anyone can shed light on this for me, or point me in the direction of further information I’d be grateful – little snippets like this can be very useful, but they can also be VERY distracting…

Kindle 1600s style.

If you think that the idea of being able to travel with a whole library of books came in with the invention of the Kindle, think again. The Bodleian Library in Oxford has just received a rather special Christmas present, which once belonged to Charles I. I so want to see this…

Screenshot 2014-12-19 20.18.11

What fabulous little books – I wouldn’t be able to read them all of course, even if I was allowed to touch which I imagine I wouldn’t be, but just to look at them would be great. The nearest we came to something like this was the set of all the individual Beatrix Potter books in their own case – still a treasured possession of my daughter’s.

First ever Freebie

This weekend my publisher has set the ebook of Turn of the Tide to free. It’s been exciting watching it rise up the rankings on Amazon – currently at #4 in the US rankings and #28 in the UK. Of course these are the Free Kindle rankings and I’ve no idea what (if any) the longer term benefits might be, but I have got a screen shot!!so something to look back on at least. I do hope some of the folk who have downloaded start reading soon and maybe even review – that would be fabulous.

I’ll keep folk posted as to how it goes / what happens next.

And for those who might want to download it here are the links. UK and US

Is there or isn’t there? A Guardian take on Literary Fiction.

One sentence in the opening of this article jumps out at me – ‘Jane Austen…wrote fiction to entertain and to make money. And that is what we novelists have been doing ever since, or should have been doing.’

Do you agree? Should these be a novelist’s two primary aims – 1) to entertain

2) to make money

Let me know what you think.