Saturday, November 9, 2019

Review: Scottish Series by Clio Gray

Down in the coalmine, underneath the ground
Where a gleam of sunshine never can be found
Digging up the dusky diamonds all the seasons round
Deep down in the coalmine, underneath the ground

I came to this series after reading Gray's "Legacy of the Lynx" so was looking forward to a change of scenery - 1860s Scotland - a time of pivotal change in the Scottish Highlands. Poverty had always been one of the main reason for Scottish emigration. Two-thirds of the land is harsh – rocky, ill-drained, swept by rain-bearing winds off the Atlantic, and far from the centre of Mediterranean and European trade and culture. The first Scottish communities away from home were founded by traders.

In the 1800s, Scotland's population was on the decrease - until about 1855, when a vast number of the local population of the Highlands were forced to leave the land because of enforced evictions. In the Lowlands, emigration was almost always the outcome of wanting to improve one’s living standards. 

Scottish MysteriesThe eviction of Highlanders from their homes peaked in the 1840s and early 1850s as the Highland economy had collapsed, while the population still rose. When the earnings from kelp production and black cattle dried up, the landlords saw sheep as a more profitable alternative. The introduction of sheep meant the removal of people, and this become known as ‘the Clearances’. Combined with the prospect of starvation faced by much of the crofting population when the potato crop failed in the late 1830s and again in the late 1840s, emigration seemed the only option. 

The Emigration Act of 1851, however, made emigration more accessible to the poorest, with the Highlands and Islands Emigration Society set up to manage the process of resettlement. The Duke of Sutherland was one of a number of landlords who financed emigration schemes. The main exodus occurred in the islands, particularly Skye, Mull, the Long Island and the mainland parishes of the Inner Sound. After 1855, mass evictions were unusual and emigration became more a matter of choice than compulsion. Between 1855 and 1895 the decline in the Highland population was actually less than in the rural Lowlands. 

So a little bit about each of the books in the series and the historical background before I get down to the review. 

Book One: The Broro Murders (aka: Deadly Prospects) 
Deadly Prospects: A gripping historical thriller with a brilliant twist (Scottish Mysteries Book 1) by [Gray, Clio]1869, Sutherland, Scotland, and the Kildonan Gold Rush is in full swing. And then one of the panners is murdered, and strange scratchings left on stones where he is found. Brogar Finn and Sholto McKay are on hand to investigate the extent of the Gold Rush, and it falls to them to solve this murder, and the others that soon follow. 

Historical Background: 
Sutherland: isolated, remote, with rugged mountains, steep cliffs and deep fjords, dates from viking times. This was the home of the powerful and warlike Clan Mackay, and was considered relatively poor compared to rest of Scotland, with the majority of its people eking out a living from fishing. 

Sutherland is perhaps best known for the Highland Clearances, the eviction of tenants from their homes and/or associated farmland in the 18th and 19th centuries century by the landowners. Typically, this was to make way for large sheep farms (see above). The Sutherland Estate (consisting of about two thirds of the county) had the largest scale clearances that occurred in the Highlands, much of this being carried out in 1812, 1814 and 1819-20. In this last period (the largest of the three listed), 1,068 families were evicted: representing an estimated 5,400 people. This population was provided with resettlement in coastal areas, with employment available in fishing or other industries. However, many instead moved to farms in Caithness or left Scotland to emigrate to Canada, the US or Australia.

The Brora Mine was indeed owned by the Dukes of Sutherland up to 1873. Although the area was already being mined, this particular colliery came into existence (c.1810) as a result of a partnership between William Hughes, a mining engineer and William Young, lawyer and a sub factor of the Sutherland Estate (who became infamous for his part in the Clearances under Elizabeth, Countess & Duchess of Sutherland d.1839). Work continued in 1814 and 1815 not only on the mine but on the surrounding infrastructure, including a distillery, the development of a harbour and a railway to take the coal down to the sea. It was, however, during this period, financial challenges, mismanagement and accidents beset the mine before a survey by mining engineer, William Bald, reported favourably about the coal. Despite some misgivings the Sutherland family continued to back Young financially even though expenditure was vastly exceeding estimates. It all soon fell apart. The salt tax was abolished in 1823; its production then became unremunerative, and as coal was not in much demand among a people who were accustomed to, and could easily get, plenty of peat, the Brora works, after languishing for nearly five years with the 2nd Duke unwilling to sanction further expenses, were closed in 1828.

However, in 1872, the 3rd Duke of Sutherland re-opened Brora Colliery, and for a number of years had it under estate management. Queen Victoria visited the mine just after its reopening, travelling on the newly completed railway pulled by a locomotive named “Florence”. The colliery was managed by M.Crowe in 1893 before being leased to a Mr John Melville (c.1896). From this point, coal was mined for manufacturing purposes - specifically salt - and was eventually abandoned in 1975. It was the only Jurassic coal mine in Scotland and was never taken into state ownership. 

The Kildonan Gold Rush was a gold rush that occurred in the Strath of Kildonan, Sutherland, in the Highlands of Scotland in 1869. Gold was first discovered in the area in 1818 when a solitary nugget of gold weighing about ten pennyweights was found in the River Helmsdale. It is claimed a ring was made out of this and is in the possession of the Sutherland family. But when public interest was sparked following a newspaper announcement in 1868, a gold rush started. 

The credit for the discovery goes to Robert Nelson Gilchrist, a native of Kildonan, who had spent 17 years in the goldfields of Australia. On his return home, he was given the permission by the Duke of Sutherland to pan the gravels of the Helmsdale River. Many of the prospectors were novices but a hard core of miners from Australia and America helped to provide some much-needed expertise in gold recovery. In April 1869, however, the Duke of Sutherland introduced a system of licenses which cost one pound per month for each claim measuring 40 square feet. In addition to this, the prospectors were expected to pay a royalty of 10% on all gold found; not surprisingly, much gold was never declared but was used in barter for food, tools and accommodation. Two small 'towns' had come into being. Baille an Or - a settlement of huts (shanty town) catering for over 600 prospectors - was established by the banks of the Kildonan Burn, and Carn na Buth (meaning Hill of the Tents) served the workers on the Suisgill Burn. Very soon a 'saloon' was added to the Town of Gold (Baille an Or) and provided meals and accommodation for the mining fraternity.

However, the falling price of gold coupled with diminishing levels of finds and better opportunities in the local herring fishery, meant numbers fell to around 50 by the autumn. The Duke was losing potential income from salmon fishermen and deer stalkers, so in December he announced that “all exploration for gold would cease with effect from 1 January 1870"; despite this, the lure of gold tempted several opportunists over the following years.

Book Two: Burning Secrets 
Burning Secrets: A gripping historical mystery (Scottish Mysteries Book 2) by [Gray, Clio]1869, Strontian, Scotland, a village on Ardnamurchan Peninsula, is inhabited by mining folk and crofters, eking out a living from the unforgiving land and turning a blind eye to the smugglers who plague the coast. But one man sets himself apart from the rest – Gustav Wengler, the owner of the mine and an eccentric mathematician, who isolates himself on Havengore Island with a collection of unexplained white monuments. His assistant Archie Louden acts as his only envoy to the outer world; however Archie never makes it home from an important mission to Copenhagen. 

Historical background: 
In 1830 sources write that "The village of Strontian is very pleasantly situated, directly at the head of Loch Sunart, the hills adjoining to which are crowned with beautiful and very thriving plantations. The Loch itself is here extremely picturesque ... In a neighbourhood civilized and populous it would speedily become a favourite retreat." 

In the 1830s, residents from Strontian and the surrounding area were among the first to use the "Bounty Scheme" to emigrate to Australia. The Brilliant, a Canadian-built ship, sailed from Tobermory to New South Wales in 1837 with 322 passengers, 105 of whom were from Ardnamurchan and Strontian. The Bounty Scheme, which ran from 1835 to 1841, was proposed by Edward Gibbon Wakefield as a way for Australian settlers to subsidise the emigration of skilled tradespeople from Britain. 

In the hills to the north of Strontian, lead was mined in the 18th century and in these mines the mineral strontianite was discovered, from which the element strontium was first isolated. The history of mining in the Strontian area dates to 1722. The first large-scale application of strontium was in the production of sugar from sugar beet. Although a crystallisation process using strontium hydroxide was patented by Augustin-Pierre Dubrunfaut in 1849, the large-scale introduction came with the improvement of the process in the early 1870s. The Strontian mine was abandoned by June 1889.

Book Three: Hidden Pasts 
Hidden Pasts: A gripping historical thriller (Scottish Mysteries Book 3) by [Gray, Clio]Hestan Island, marooned in the Solway Firth, is tethered to the mainland at low tide by a causeway called The Rack; Hestan was home to two men quietly living out their lives, until a boy is almost crushed to death in their tiny copper mine, when their shared past begins to unravel. Over at Balcary House, Brogar Finn and Sholto McKay arrive, and soon become involved in the affairs on Hestan, which in turn leads them back through the bloody wars of Crimea and the lands of the Tartars. 

Historical Background: 
The isle of Hestan lies at the mouth of Auchencairn Bay in the region of Dumfries and Galloway in the former county of Kirkcudbrightshire. A lighthouse was built on the eastern side of the island by Alan Stevenson in 1850, with a small cottage of the light-keeper. Other notable buildings in the are include Balcary Tower, built c. 1860, for the french mistress one one Colonel Johnstone when he was Laird of Auchencairn House, which itself was built around this time for Ivie Mackie, Lord Mayor of Manchester (1857 - 1860) - though I can find very little on any of these real-life characters! 

At certain conditions of low tide the island is accessible on foot as there is a natural causeway of shingle and mussels from Almorness Point to the northern tip of Hestan (known as The Rack). The island can also be reached on foot from Rockcliffe during the time of spring tides, but requires wading knee deep across the lowest parts of the river Urr out on the mudflats. 

At the southern tip of the island are the so-called “Daft Ann’s Steps”, a series of rocky outcrops that jut out into the sea and are permanently submerged. Apparently they take their name from a girl who lived in the nearby village of Auchencairn. She drowned while attempting to reach the mainland from the south end of the island via the “steps”, instead of using the longer but safer approach from the north. 

In the 18th century the island was used as a centre of smuggling activity, with goods being stored in the caves on the south west of the island where there was reputed to have been shelves cut into the rock. Balcary House, on the opposite shore, now Balcary Bay Hotel, was used by a firm of smugglers - the Mull of Galloway Smuggling Company (established by Messrs Thomas Clark, Hugh Crain and Matthew Quirk, and Englishman Richard Barton). These smugglers used its cellars to conceal their contraband (mainly salt) and was said to have been large enough to house 200 horses!. One of the more colourful local characters of this period was Johnnie Girr and the Stewartry of Kirkcudbright was the birthplace of one John Paul Jones, whose friends and enemies alike would accuse him of piracy!.

As Walter Scott observed: “Smuggling was almost universal in Scotland for people unaccustomed to imposts and regarding them as an unjust aggression upon their ancient liberties; made no scruples to elude them where it was possible to do so.” Solway Firth and Galloway is said to have provided some of the most active smuggling routes in the country, with the proximity to the English Border making it the stop-off of choice for those shifting illegal goods. Much of the contraband was stored on the Isle of Man - which was independent during the 18th Century - and brought in fast moving smuggling fleets to the Scottish mainland. The poet Robert Burns was amongst those trying to halt the free traders in the area after being appointed an excise man at Dumfries in 1791.

Now the mining theme for this outing is copper. Hestan has had copper mines on the eastern side of the island since the 1840s, though this could hardly be considered as a large-scale operation as the island itself measures approximately 460 by 270 metres. The copper mined from Hestan was shipped to Swansea.

The stories in Clio Gray's "Scottish Mysteries" are spread across both the Scandinavian world and northern Scotland. For centuries there were political links across the North Sea. The first Viking raid on Iona is thought to have taken part in 794, and much of the Hebrides and Caithness would come under Norse rule. Orkney and Shetland continued to be earldoms under Norway until 1468. This settlement resulted in the Scandinavian-derived Norn language being spoken on Orkney and Shetland until the 18th Century, and influencing the Shetlandic and Orcadian dialects to this day.

As RM Ballantyne in Erling the Bold (1869) says: "Yes, there is perhaps more of Norse blood in your veins than you wot of, reader, whether you be English or Scotch; for those sturdy sea rovers invaded our lands from north, south, east, and west many a time in days gone by, and held it in possession for centuries at a time, leaving a lasting and beneficial impress on our customs and characters. We have good reason to regard their memory with respect and gratitude, despite their faults and sins, for much of what is good and true in our laws and social customs, much manly and vigorous in the British Constitution, of our intense love of freedom and fairplay, are pith, pluck, enterprise, and sense of justice that dwelt in the breasts of the rugged old Sea-kings of Norway!"

Each of the books feature a mining theme: coal and gold, strontium, copper; as well as links to events in the past. As we are taken on a journey over the northern parts of Scotland, what I appreciated in the all the books was the location map - for whilst I was familiar with a few of the place names, the maps help put things into perspective. 

The author makes use of the chapters to introduce characters that form part of the narrative - whether fleetingly or on a more permanent basis - so the setting of each scene is crafted before things begin to take off. I especially enjoyed the characters of Brogar Finn and Sholto McKay, trouble-shooters for the Pan-European Mining Company, who make a nice change from your standard fictional amateur investigator.

With each book, Gray tempts us - the reader - with a story peppered with well researched historical fact and a carefully woven plot, that like the dangerous quicksand of the Solway Firth mudflats, can suck the reader in unawares, escape being nigh on impossible.

further reading:
Scottish Mining website
Smugglers Britain
Scandinavian Scotland

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