Behind Closed Doors

Last year, hubby and I joined the National Trust for Scotland and over the summer, we made a bloody good job of getting our money’s worth out of our membership.

holmwood1Many of the NTS’s sites are only open from Easter until the end of summer so our season of cultural visits is back in action. Last Saturday afternoon, we took a trip to the south side of Glasgow to Holmwood House. The property certainly has the wow factor from the outside and didn’t fail to deliver on the inside.

article-2596529-1CD0DD9000000578-920_306x417This unique villa has been described as Alexander ‘Greek’ Thomson’s finest domestic design. It was built in 1857-8 for James Couper, a local businessman. Many rooms are richly ornamented in wood, plaster and marble based on themes from the classical world. The decor is being uncovered thanks to the heroic efforts of the conservation team to remove the horrific woodchip (been there, done that so I could empathise!)

Holmwood passed through several hands before becoming a school, run by an order of nuns who used the house as their convent, with each set of folk leaving their mark, for good or bad.

The same thought crossed my mind on the ‘Lamplight Walk’ around Falkirk town centre that I went on with my wee sister and bestie. The walk was organised by The Stentmaisters, a local group of historians who lead tours around the town.

imagesOne of the most unusual buildings in Falkirk is the Tattie Kirk. It was built in 1806 for the so called Anti-Burgher congregation. Octagonal Churches, while unusual, are not unknown in Scotland and they are said to have been built this way so that there was no corner for the Devil to hide in!  Why the building is known as the ‘Tattie’ Kirk is uncertain, but it has been suggested that the site may have been a potato field before the church was built, or that the Minister’s stipend was paid in part in vegetables or that it was at one time used to store potatoes. The building is now used as a beauty salon, treating the bodies instead of the souls of locals!

Tcache_2411661739here were lots of other entertaining snippets of local history which our excellent tour guide, John Walker shared with us, in particular the alleged case of human spontaneous combustion. On December 16, 1904, Mrs. Gladys Cochrane, widow of the prominent local man Thomas Cochrane of Rosehall in Falkirk was found burned beyond recognition in her bedroom. She was found sitting in a chair surrounded by pillows and cushions which were not burned. She had not cried out, and there was no fire in her grate.

I don’t smell smoke when I hear paranormal stories, the cynic in me smells the stuff my dogs deposit in our garden. But there’s also the whiff of intrigue that no one ever really knows what goes on behind closed doors.

Have any buildings inspired an idea for your writing?

Using the Past to Write about the Present

images (3)Continuing with my summer series of posts on places I’ve visited for inspiration and determined to get my money’s worth out of my membership to the National Trust for Scotland, I recently visited Castle Campbell in Dollar, a 15th century fortress (I’ve also visited Falkland Palace and The Pineapple in Airth but I’ll maybe save those for another post…).

The castle has a dramatic setting high above Dollar Glen and unless your car brakes have been recently checked, don’t even think about trying to drive there as it’s a white-knuckle ride on the way down the steep single track road. Then there’s a 500m 1:8 gradient walk to the castle itself so don’t wear high heels!


Wondering who has climbed the spiral staircase all those years before me.

I’ve been to the castle grounds several times before but have been too tight-fisted to cough up the entrance fee as it looked like it was mainly ruins and the money would be better spent on lunch (food always takes priority!). But, although the castle is in the care of Historic Scotland, our NTS membership got us in for free so we’d nothing to lose by adding a wander round to our day out.

I don’t write historical fiction and I don’t read a lot of it either and yet that doesn’t mean that a Lowland stronghold for a Highland chief lacked inspiration for my own contemporary writing. People watching is a favourite hobby of mine and there was no shortage of folk to observe.

There was the dour faced dad who looked like he’d rather be in front of the telly than drag his weans round the ruin when all they seemed interested in was making ghostly,”WoooooooOOOOoooOOOoWwwwooooooOOOOOOOOO” noises running up and down the 85 steps of the spiral stairs. Thankfully, there was peace outside, the gardens are a lovely picnic spot and one brave family tried to ignore the black clouds overhead but the Scottish ‘summer’ beat them and it was soggy sandwiches all round.

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It was a dreich day but with a backdrop of the Ochil hills, the view from the Tower House ramparts over Clackmannanshire was still impressive. Up 20m high, we were surrounded by ancient trees and it felt like we were in the rain-forest, but with midges rather than monkeys surrounding us. A kestrel swooped right past us and down in the courtyard a swallow was nesting in the gap above a doorway.


A keek inside the creepy  ‘pit prison’ in the Tower House.

The building itself must hold 600 hundred years of stories and secrets within its stone walls. I admire writers of historical fiction for their ability to research the facts as well as create an interesting tale. At Castle Campbell, I found it hard to truly imagine what life would’ve been like behind the castle walls and wouldn’t dare attempt to write about that period in history. But I was inspired to write when I got home, although it was from a contemporary perspective.

I scribbled something down and on the spur of the moment, I submitted it to Paragraph Planet, a creative writing website which publishes a different 75 word paragraph daily (I haven’t heard yet if it will be used although only 1 in 8 submissions appear on the website. But published or not, and however short, every scrap of writing is good practice). Here’s my wee mini story, not a ghost story but just as dark.

Say Cheese

The castle’s information panel described it as a ‘pit prison’. It was a hole underneath the floor with a trapdoor. It was no bigger than a double wardrobe. He marvelled at how anyone could survive in such a small dark space. He shoved me up against the wall to pose for a photo of our day out and told me to smile for the camera. I knew how it felt to be trapped.

Are you a reader or writer of historical fiction? Do you find old buildings inspiring too? Where have you been over the summer that has influenced your writing?


The Name Game

This is not a travel and tourism blog but it’s my blog so I make up the rules, okay! I’m planning to blog about places I visit over the summer and hopefully make even a tenuous link to writing at the same time. Still with me?

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The Hill House is a great example of Mackintosh’s work.

Last week, I blogged about going on a Glasgow Women’s Library heritage walk and it reminded me how interested I am in Scottish history. The walk also encouraged me to do something I’ve been meaning to do for ages, no, not get fit for the next walk I’m booked on, but to join the National Trust for Scotland. The NTS website lists 129 properties you can visit and it was hard to choose, but the one that caught my eye was The Hill House in Helensburgh.

I wanted to visit for two reasons. One, I love art and have a particular interest in Art Nouveau and the work of Margaret MacDonald, the wife of Charles Rennie Mackintosh (you can see more of her work and The Mackintosh House at the Hunterian Art Gallery). And two, I’ve never been to the town bearing my name and thought after forty odd years it was high time I put this right.


The beautiful Sleeping Princess gesso panel by Margaret MacDonald.

The Hill House is the finest of Charles Rennie Mackintosh’s domestic designs and the iconic house and gardens date back to 1902. It sits high above the Clyde in Helensburgh, with impressive views over the river. Walter Blackie, director of the well-known Glasgow publishers, commissioned not only the house and garden, but much of the furniture and all the interior fittings and decorative schemes. Margaret MacDonald, contributed fabric designs and a unique gesso panel which still looks stunning. Allegedly Mackintosh suggested the colour of flowers the Blackies should place in their living room to guarantee nothing clashed with the décor. And I thought I was a control freak!


Helensburgh-been there, done that!

Any day out for me is always an excuse for eating out but the tea room was packed full of pensioners on a bus trip so we headed into town. I’d have thought that every Helen visiting should at least get a free glass of wine and souvenir ‘Helen hits Helensburgh’ T-shirt but disappointingly there was no welcoming party for my arrival. We had a wander round the main drag and finally found a decent café in among the rash of charity shops but let’s just say that I can’t see any reason for me to rush back. That’s one thing off the bucket list.


Me and my namesake.

The visit to Helensburgh made me think about my name. Fortunately, I’ve always liked my name, maybe because I was named after my beloved gran although she was known as Ella and I rarely heard her called Helen unless it was in a formal scenario. I’m fascinated with names and waste take time playing the name game deciding what to call characters in my writing.  I try to think about the age of the character and their background but it’s easy to stray into stereotypes. And then there are names like Adolf which are loaded with negative associations or names like Whitney which automatically make you think of a celebrity.

downloadAs a reader, the name of a character can really put me off if it doesn’t seem to suit the image I have in my mind. I also don’t enjoy reading a name that’s difficult to pronounce as it seems to slow down the speed of my reading. Two books I’ve recently read had names in them which bugged me for different reasons. The first one was Raph in Night Waking by Sarah Moss. I appreciate the choice of name was to highlight the middle class status of the family but my brain kept wanting to see Ralph instead. The other name was Aoife in Instructions for a Heatwave by Maggie O’Farrell and although the unusual pronunciation is acknowledged in the narrative, again I found my brain stalled each time it saw a name it had never before encountered. Neither of these examples spoiled the enjoyment of the books and I wouldn’t want to only read books featuring familiar names. But for me, it does make the story stick rather than flow.

Am I the only one with a problem reading unusual names in novels? Does a name affect how you react to a character in a book? Do you also take a long time to choose the names of the characters in your writing?