As a writer of fiction, my stories are often underpinned by history. I love doing the ‘research’ which has included visiting a shore in the West Highlands which, when expanded at low tide, accommodated thousands of fervent worshippers who had abandoned church buildings in the ‘Disruption’ in the Church of Scotland in the 1840s. I’ve hung out amongst ancient books in Scotland’s first public lending library at Innerpeffray and handled the heft and shape of tools used by a 19th-century stonemason, all in the service of fiction and radio plays.
But research has the danger of providing a marvellous escape from the really hard work, which is of the imagination. Several drafts later, I may have to admit that this or that nugget, though interesting in itself, has nothing to do with the story, or the detail is getting in the way.
However with my latest book, The Other Side of Stone, the circumstances of one character amidst a cast who orbit a Perthshire tweed mill between 1831 and 2019, actually grew from what seemed a distracting research ‘accident’. It changed the course and scope of the book entirely.
I’d intended the novel to focus on a young male architect in contemporary times as he and his wife struggle to make a home for themselves in luxury apartments he’s creating in a redundant mill in Highland Perthshire. Once a great clanking thing dominating the skyline of a small village, it now has buddleia ranging from its holed roof and a hidden history may still permeate the stone. But what exactly had happened there? I needed to find out so I could understand the present-day reverberations.
In archived Perthshire Advertiser newspapers, a context of widespread labour unrest and sympathy actions in the years preceding World War I emerged. Amongst strikes of dyers, painters, plumbers and gas-workers, were adverts for emigration to Canada where there was ‘a guarantee of steady work’. An exodus from Scotland was anticipated.
Despite this climate of unrest, a report of a dance at the Palace Hotel in Aberfeldy for managers and workers at Haggart’s tweed mill suggested something different. ‘Joy’ was reported on the faces of employees, the ‘happy family’ were toasted, a prosperous relationship for both employer and employee applauded, and dancing went on until 2:30 AM. This aberration was definitely of interest to me.
Then I was distracted by another sort of headline:
KINLOCH RANNOCH MAN’S DOMESTIC TRIALS
LIFE WITH A SUFFRAGETTE
Curious, as I lived not too far away, I allowed myself to read on. The man was suing his wife for divorce. Following his refusal to sign documents ‘allowing’ her to train as a nurse, she’d stopped cooking his food, begun reading books including Tolstoy, and become a suffragette. Then she upped sticks and went to Canada! A suffragette… in tiny Kinloch Rannoch?
Not long after reading this, a headline from April 1913 sprang up:
DISASTROUS FIRE IN PERTH
CRICKET CLUB PAVILION DESTROYED
Rumours pointed to militant suffragists and the next day an anonymous communication confirmed it: ‘Justice before Cricket; let a democratic government play the game.’ Then in February 1914, shocking news of fires at three stately houses in Strathearn was splashed across several pages. The fires were started on the day Lloyd George, then Chancellor of the Exchequer, was due to speak in Glasgow.
I suppose I had assumed Perthshire too sedate for suffragette action, so my imagination was soon working overtime, putting together ‘my’ made-up woollen mill, a small, quiet village and a woman fiercely committed to political action.
I wanted to get the history right, or at least credible. I went to Alexander’s Mill in Nielston near Paisley to see where 5,000 cotton spinning lassies staged a strike and won their case. I read The Hard Way Up: Autobiography of Hannah Mitchell: Suffragette and Rebel. ‘No cause can be won between dinner and tea’, she said of the tyranny of the cooking stove and the expectations of her husband despite his tacit sympathy for women’s suffrage. Mitchell found village life dulled her intellect and marriage was bad for her ambition. She suffered what she referred to as a nervous breakdown.
I read about Jessie Stephen, the eldest of 11 children from a Glasgow family who became a working-class suffragette. I read around the origins of Red Clydeside and of course the rise and fall of the tweed industry itself and how little formal union organisation there was in Scotland, particularly in geographically isolated mills.
My character’s voice became more strident, more particular; she became ‘Catharine’. All the while I charted dates and historical events against her journey. What if she’d been part of that strike in Neilston? What if her beloved husband and political ally, once surrounded by his family in the village they move to and becoming part of the mill management, not only fails to support her wish to work, but undermines her suffragette cry with domestic demands? She may, or may not, have the strength to fight on alone. And her frustration and anger may leave scars.
I began writing this novel 20 years ago. Over the years I’ve developed the wider story of the mill, imagined stonemasons’ marks, mischievous folkloric figures, an old apple tree. A disgruntled weaver and characters in other periods made their way onto the pages, and the young architect stepped back into his more minor place. And so, with the help of my research, and a face of stone and glass growing in Catharine’s mind into an enemy, it gradually became The Other Side of Stone.
The Hard Way Up – The Autobiography of Hannah Mitchell Suffragette and Rebel
A Guid Cause: The Women’s Suffrage Movement in Scotland by Leah Leneman
The Tweedmakers: A History of The Scottish Fancy Woollen Industry, 1600 1914 by Clifford Gulvin
The Other Side of Stone by Linda Cracknell published by Taproot Press March 2021. Named as one of the ‘most exciting new releases coming in 2021’ by Scottish Book Trust. https://taprootpressuk.co.uk/product/the-other-side-of-stone/