Today I would like to welcome Miriam Hastings to my blog. I have just finished reading her powerful novel 'The Dowager’s Dream'.
Welcome Miriam. I noticed that your book is dedicated to your great great grandmother Margaret McKenzie. Do you have any information about her life and if so did any of her experiences inform the book?
Were any of your ancestors directly or indirectly affected by the clearances do you know?
|Author Miriam Hastings
I started researching the highland clearances a long while ago when I spent a lot of time up on the north coast. I visited the clearance museum at Farr several times and they helped me look into my own MacKenzie ancestors. I can’t be sure how accurate it is, but they think the family were evicted from their croft in the early 19th century. It seems that Margaret, my great, great grandmother, came to London in search of work, probably with her parents. Sadly, she died young of tuberculosis in 1872, leaving her husband James Killick and three children. Charlotte was 7, my great-grandfather Albert was 5, and his sister Florence was 4.
James (like all the Killicks) had been a costermonger in Clerkenwell, but he went to pieces after her death and ended up in prison for child neglect while the three children were put in the workhouse. Then Charlotte went to live with James’ widowed mother (also Charlotte), while Albert and Florence were admitted to the London School for Destitute Children - which probably saved their lives since their sister died when she was about 11 (either with her grandmother or back in the workhouse) and their father died of tuberculosis in the workhouse.
It was all very sad and Dickensian!
Most of my ancestors were Welsh but I did have other Scottish ancestors, the Pattersons, but they were from the lowlands, probably from Glasgow - I don’t know much about them yet.
Thank you. Yes, it’s often surprising and frequently very tragic what genealogy can turn up. I'm also intrigued by your other dedication to Elizabeth MacKay who saw the the mermaid. Is this a well-known story told in the Highlands? Did you do a lot of research for this and is this why you chose Mackay to be the surname of Kirsty?
I became interested in the highland clearances after I discovered a strange and fascinating letter written by the daughter of the Minister at Reay, Elizabeth MacKay, describing a mermaid she saw in Sandside Bay in January 1809. She wrote the letter to the Dowager at Sandside who sent it on to her friend Sir James at Thurso, he in turn sent it to a journalist who published it in a newspaper. I discovered it in an old, 19th century encyclopaedia of animals for children. It had a section on fabulous beasts at the end, including mermaids, and it published Elizabeth MacKay’s letter. I wanted to know why a minister’s daughter might have seen a mermaid then - what was going on in the country around her at that time?
It was then I first began to read about the clearances.
Thank you, and readers will see the influences in the novel. Was there also documentary evidence of the Mackays seeing faeries or was this something you added to the story of the MacKay clan with your delicious imagination?
The MacKay clan have always had a reputation in the highlands for second sight and for being friends with the fairies. Kirsty’s mother and grandmother are MacKays but her father is a MacDonald.
The characters all seem very vivid, did you base any of them on real people?
I didn’t consciously base any of the characters on real people except the Patty-cat who was closely based on a cat, Petya, I rescued when I was an anxious and unhappy teenager. Most of the time she was far more gentle than Patty-cat in the novel, but she hated raised voices just as much and behaved just like the Patty-cat, patting people on the arm or the lips if they got angry. When I was 16, she once chased my mother out of the room because she thought she was making me cry!
|Petya - the original 'Patty-cat'
I thought she had to be based on a real feline! The setting is all so vivid too - it sounds as if you know these places intimately. Did you know them personally from ever having lived there or from regular visits or holidays? How long did it take you to research it?
Originally I wanted to write a non-fiction book about the lives of women in Sutherland during the clearances but it was really difficult to find out about them - even their names! So in the end I decided to write a novel about them instead. This means that altogether I spent many years researching the clearances in different parts of the highlands and islands, but especially in Sutherland.
While I was doing the research we spent a lot of time up on the north coast. Usually we would rent a cottage in Reay although once we stayed in Strathnaver (the valley I based Strath Kerrow upon). I love it up there, it’s very special to me, but I’m too disabled to go so far now.
I remember you having a short story published about a mermaid in an ice house. Did you have an idea then that you'd like to incorporate her into a longer story?
The first version of a novel I wrote about the clearances was a lot longer and great deal bleaker (it is a very bleak story, of course), it also covered a much longer period of time in real terms, with a harsher end so I think it was a more difficult and challenging novel to read. For a couple of years I had a literary agent who was very enthusiastic about it but he couldn’t find a publisher, then he left the company he had been working for to set up one of his own. At that point he only wanted authors who were selling really well so he ditched me! Not an unusual story, I know. So I gave up at that point.
After a while I wrote the short story, Mermaid on Ice, which was published by Fairlight, and when I first showed it to my friend, the writer Wendy Brandmark, she commented that it read like the beginning of a novel which encouraged me to start again. The Dowager’s Dream is totally different to the first novel I wrote and far more imaginative and fictional but it is still based upon the true history of the highland clearances. I allowed myself more licence to create and more freedom than I had in the first novel and I think it has benefited from that. I took out the real names of characters, e.g. William Patterson, who was originally based upon the ruthless land agent and factor who really existed. I also took out the real names of places and replaced them with names that were similar but not identical. I thoroughly enjoyed writing the book so I hope people will enjoy reading it.
Are you working on anything else and if so would you like to tell us more?
I have just finished a novella (my first, just 31,000 words long) about a poverty-stricken and neglected area in Spain, based upon the two areas that I know well and where we have spent a lot of time.
We shall all look forward to that very much, Miriam. I know I shall. Many thanks for being a guest on my blog.
|The Dowager's Dream
To find out more about The Dowager’s Dream and where it can be purchased, please follow the links below. You can also find out more about Miriam’s books at her website and social media links (below).
Links where The Dowager’s Dream can be purchased:
https://www.amazon.co.uk/dp/B0C43QJCHG/ref=sr_1_1 (both paperback and on kindle)
Links to website:
Social media links:
facebook author page: www.facebook.com/MiriamHastings.author/