Earlier this year I had the privilege of staying in with lovely Mary Smith to discuss her book No More Mulberries in a post you can read here. I have also been lucky enough to read and review (here) Mary’s short story collection Donkey Boy.
I have so enjoyed Mary’s writing and she is such a wonderful supporter of Linda’s Book Bag, that when I heard she had a new book out with photographer Keith Kirk, Secret Dumfries, I just had to invite her back to the blog. Today Mary has kindly written a guest post all about writing what you know and even better, it’s Mary’s birthday today so happy birthday Mary!
Dumfries, in south-west Scotland, has a long history, much of it well recorded. However, as with most places there are more than a few secrets hidden away.
First referred to as the Queen of the South by local poet David Dunbar in 1857, the name stuck and was later adopted by the local football team. Not many know that this makes it the only football team in the world mentioned in the Bible.
Darker aspects of the town’s history include the burning of nine witches on the Whitesands in 1659 and the last public hanging of a woman in Scotland, Mary Timney, was held in Dumfries in 1862. There are tales of plague victims being exiled to Scabbit Isle, of murderers and grave robbers.
Not all its secrets are so dark: there’s Patrick Miller and his introduction of turnips courtesy of King Gustav III of Sweden, and the exiled Norwegian Army making its home in Dumfries during the Second World War. And what is the significance of the finials depicting telescopes and anchors on the railings along the Whitesands?
Local author Mary Smith and photographer Keith Kirk take the reader on a fascinating journey through the town’s past, unearthing tales of intrigue and grisly goings-on as they provide a glimpse into some of the lesser-known aspects of the town’s history.
Write What You Know
A Guest Post by Mary Smith
All writers are familiar with the ‘write what you know’ adage. It doesn’t mean you have to have been confronted in real life by an axe-wielding murderer to know how such a situation would feel. We’ve all experienced fear (whether it was being bullied at school or being driven round corkscrew bends up a mountain by a heroin addicted driver) and a writer’s imagination can take that emotion, gear it up a few notches and slip it into the axe-wielding murderer scene.
Non-fiction writers are also expected to write what they know. Amberley Publishing contracted me to write Secret Dumfries in collaboration with photographer Keith Kirk because of my knowledge of local history. I’ve already worked on two titles for them – Dumfries Through Time and Castle Douglas Through Time.
Dumfries is the main town in Dumfries and Galloway in south west Scotland, where I live. It’s a town I know fairly well, though I would never dream of claiming to know all about it. However, as a journalist the ‘write what you know’ adage has an addendum – ‘if you don’t know jolly well go and find out.’ In the newsroom jolly might not have been the word used.
I was excited to have the opportunity to use more of the local knowledge I’d gained while researching the previous books but best of all was the chance to discover the less well known stories about the town. I loved learning about some of the people of Dumfries, many of whom really deserve to be better remembered.
One of my favourites is Blin Tam the bell-ringer. Thomas Wilson was born in 1760 and lost his sight after contracting smallpox when still a small child yet, by the time he was twelve years old he had taken on the role of bell-ringer at the Midsteeple. He kept the job for sixty-three years, supplementing his income by becoming a skilled wood turner, making kitchen utensils for the town’s housewives. He cut his own peats, grew his own vegetables and cooked for himself. Strangers meeting him often never realised he was blind. It is said he rang the bell over 100,000 times and only once, in all those years, was known to make a mistake.
It was thanks to self-taught astronomer Robert Louis Waland, who made the 61-inch reflecting telescope used in mapping the moon for the Apollo programme that Neil Armstrong knew where he was when he landed on the moon. Another favourite Doonhamer (the name given to those born and brought up in Dumfries) is Miss Jessie McKie the first and only woman to be granted the freedom of the burgh. She did a huge amount for the town: gave land on which the library is built, money to widen the bridge into town, built a public laundry and bath house, provided a granite horse trough, which reads, ‘A righteous man regardeth the life of his beast.’ She was also for a time proprietor of the Theatre Royal, Scotland’s oldest working theatre.
Silver burgess casket presented to Miss Jessie McKie
A chapter of the book is called Remember to look up! to encourage people to raise their eyes from their mobile phones to look up at the remarkable carvings on the old sandstone buildings, or to see the very rare fire mark, which indicated the building was insured against fire. Keith, who usually photographs wildlife, used his long lenses to show the fine details not usually noticed.
My favourite and perhaps the quirkiest story is about the rhinoceros, which presides over a busy road on the outskirts of the town. I’d always known it was there – you can’t miss it – but not the story behind it. Schoolchildren had been asked for ideas to brighten up the area and decided a rhinoceros should be put on top of the bus shelter. An artist was commissioned and it became a well-known landmark until the bus shelter was removed when the road was widened. Unfortunately, the new bus shelter had a curved roof and the rhino couldn’t be placed on top. Unhappy Doonhamers made their views known. The matter was resolved by building a pretend bus shelter with a flat roof and the rhino – which had miraculously had a baby while in storage – was brought back.
Aware that many residents of Dumfries are very knowledgeable about the town’s history was a bit daunting. They’d be quick to let me know if I’d got things wrong but what has been really satisfying is the number of people who’ve said, “Well, I never knew that before.”
Thanks so much for this fascinating post Mary. You’ve made me want to visit Dumfries, and perhaps more importantly, made me want to discover more about my own area by looking up more frequently!
About Mary Smith
Mary Smith has always loved writing. As a child she wrote stories in homemade books made from wallpaper trimmings – but she never thought people could grow up and become real writers. She spent a year working in a bank, which she hated – all numbers, very few words – ten years with Oxfam in the UK, followed by ten years working in Pakistan and Afghanistan. She wanted others to share her amazing, life-changing experiences so she wrote about them – fiction, non-fiction, poetry and journalism. And she discovered the little girl who wrote stories had become a real writer after all.
Drunk Chickens and Burnt Macaroni: Real Stories of Afghan Women is an account of her time in Afghanistan and her debut novel No More Mulberries is also set in Afghanistan.