cute boy scowling

Recently my son moved to his own flat, and he asked me to paint something to brighten up one of the many bare, white walls. I hadn’t actually picked up a paintbrush for years, so I was a bit nervous about the idea! Luckily I had a spare canvas lying around from an earlier creative period, and I had a few ideas of what I could paint. At first I thought some abstract stripes would be easy, and look striking on a white wall. I was inspired by the work of Sean Scully, having seen a documentary about him a few months ago.

scully landscapes

The blues and blacks of Scully’s horizontal stripes remind me of a landscape, and the colours in the painting above instantly brought back a memory of a poster I had in art school. It was from a retrospective exhibition at the Art Gallery of Ontario in 1984 called The Mystic North, featuring both Canadian artists and Scandinavian painters such as the Norwegian Harald Sohlberg.

blue landscape

The poster from the exhibition was a detail from Sohlberg’s Night, painted in 1904. I just loved the deep blues of the evening sky and the tiny golden light in the church window:

Night H Sohlberg

But much as I would like to paint compelling landscapes or cool abstract stripes, I am not that kind of artist. My little blank canvas was only 40 x 50cm, so it could never have the impact of a full-sized Scully. What I love to paint most is a portrait. So that’s what I did. And for my boy, now grown up and decorating his first flat, I gave him a little reminder of the kid he used to be.

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Lynne Rickards Pink Day

I first heard about the International Day of Pink ten years ago when I was busy visiting schools and book festivals dressed in a fuchsia coat to promote my latest book, Pink! The Day of Pink began with a story that hit the Canadian media in 2007, when two senior high school students, David Sheppard and Travis Price, saw a new boy at school being bullied for wearing a pink shirt. They decided to mobilise the whole school, and the next day almost everyone was wearing pink in solidarity. The boy was overwhelmed by so much support, and those bullies saw they were hugely outnumbered. David and Travis became local heroes, and grassroots support for an anti-bullying campaign began to spring up all over Canada.

Soon the idea was picked up in other countries too, and the wearing of pink has become a symbol widely recognised as a way to combat bullying and discrimination against minorities of all kinds in society. Because it has been adopted in so many different places, there are several official days for wearing pink.

In 2012, the United Nations declared May 4th to be Anti-bullying Day. In Canada, Pink Shirt Day is held on the last Wednesday in February, and the same date is anti-bullying day in Australia, New Zealand, France, Lebanon, the UK and the US. In addition, the International Day of Pink is held on the second Wednesday in April, which is today. I guess you can’t have too many days of the year to stand up against bullying!

By pure coincidence, my book (first published in 2008) was all about a young boy penguin who got teased at school for being pink. The idea for the book (a penguin who turns pink overnight) had come from my young daughter. I had the kernel of a story, but I needed to establish a problem to be solved (key to every picture book text). If this were a girl penguin, she would probably be delighted, showing off her pink feathers to all her jealous friends. A boy penguin, on the other hand, would be horrified, as “BOYS CAN”T BE PINK!” I had my story.

PINK cover UK 2019 Sm RGB

Pink! was illustrated by Margaret Chamberlain and has had several publishers over the years. This month it has hit the shelves with a brand new cover and a new shape, thanks to Wacky Bee Books.

Poor Patrick hates being pink, but the doctor can’t fix him so he has to put up with a lot of pointing, whispering and teasing from his friends. When his dad shows him a photo of beautiful pink flamingos, he decides he will try to fit in with them instead. He swims for seven days and seven nights, all the way to South Africa where everything is very different. The flamingos invite him for lunch, but he struggles to do any of the things they can do. He can’t eat what they eat, or stand on one leg to take a nap. Finally, all the flamingos fly off to the nesting ground, leaving him behind. Patrick decides to swim home again, where the water is lovely and cold and he can eat his favourite krill breakfast. His friends are delighted to have him back, and he tells the whole class about his travels to Africa. They are all very impressed! Patrick is glad to be back where he belongs, and he decides that being pink is just who he is.

I really didn’t plan to write a book about bullying or celebrating diversity. I just started with Patrick and it grew from there. Since it was first published, Pink! has been used in schools and nurseries across Scotland to teach young children about accepting others who are “different.” When the book went out of print in 2012, I had a new idea: Pink the Musical!

Today, 10 April 2019 is International Day of Pink. I’ll be getting my bright pink coat out of the closet to show solidarity and stand up to bullying of all kinds. What will you be wearing?

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mairi at ease

Mairi Chisholm was born in Nairn, Scotland in 1896. When she was a teenager she watched her older brother Uailean racing around the track on his motorbike and longed to do the same. Her mum said proper young ladies did not ride around wildly and get covered in motor oil. Her dad said nothing, but the next day a Douglas motorbike was delivered to the house.

douglas motorbike

Mairi became an ace driver, and soon she could strip down both bikes and repair them like an expert. By this time her family had moved to Devon, and Mairi went racing around the lanes near her home, much to her mother’s dismay. Another lady motorcyclist named Elsie Knocker was doing the same thing, and soon Mairi and Elsie were best friends competing in motorbike and sidecar trials together.

elsie and mairi motorcycles

In 1914, war was declared. Elsie, who was 30 and a nurse, told her friend Mairi there was work to be done. They decided to ride their motorbikes to London and volunteer for the Women’s Emergency Corps. Mairi was only 18, and when she told her parents her plan, her mum was apoplectic! Under no circumstances would she be allowed to do something so unladylike! This time her dad argued back. He thought it was very admirable that Mairi wanted to do her bit for the war effort. While they were arguing, Mairi snuck up to her room and packed a bag. She was off!

Mairi and Elsie became dispatch riders, delivering messages and important documents around London for the British army. Mairi was fearless, zigzagging at high speed through the busy London traffic. When Dr Hector Munro spotted her doing hairpin turns he knew she would be perfect for his Flying Ambulance Corps. He invited her to go to Belgium where she would ride into battle zones and rescue wounded soldiers. She accepted immediately!

mairi and elsie in ambulance

Elsie joined too, and her nursing training was a great asset. Mairi and Elsie rode motorbikes with a sidecar, and later a makeshift ambulance (above). They had to sleep in their clothes and work through the night, venturing into no man’s land to rescue downed pilots and wounded men. Often they would carry the men on their backs to the ambulance, and then it was a long drive to the field hospital. Because of the distance, many of the soldiers would die on the journey to hospital, so Mairi and Elsie decided they would have to treat them much more quickly.

elsie and mairi pervyse 1918

They set up a British First Aid Post in a cellar house only 100 yards from the trenches on the Western Front. Sandbags piled around the house protected it from bombing raids, and they wore tall boots to get through the mud and helmets to protect themselves from shrapnel and bullets. For three and a half years, Mairi and Elsie worked to save thousands of lives in this little village called Pervyse in Belgium. When there was a lull in the fighting they would travel back to London to raise funds for their work.

elsie mairi and pets

They nursed the wounded men in very difficult conditions with limited space and not much in the way of medicines. Three cats and a fox terrier called Shot kept the rats and mice at bay, and were good company too, boosting morale. In 1918 there was a heavy bombing raid on the village and soon after, a gas attack. The little dog Shot smelled the gas and raised the alarm, so Mairi and Elsie had time to get their gas masks on. Sadly, all four pets were killed by the gas. Mairi and Elsie had to return to London for treatment, and in a few more months the war had ended.

Because of their amazing courage and dedication, Mairi and Elsie were awarded several medals during the war, and they became known as the Madonnas of Pervyse. Their heroism was celebrated and they were photographed and visited by dignitaries more often than any other women during World War I.

april 1918 magazine

After the war, Mairi took up car racing for a while, but her health had suffered and eventually she retired back to the north of Scotland where she lived quietly and raised chickens.

angels of pervyse statue

In November 2014, a bronze statue by Belgian sculptress Josiane Vanhoutte was unveiled in a ceremony marking 100 years since Mairi and Elsie set up their first aid station in the cellar house at Pervyse. It stands in a garden in the town of Ypres where numerous war memorials commemorate extraordinary courage and dedication. This statue would not exist without the fundraising efforts of Dr Diane Atkinson, who published a book about the two women, Elsie & Mairi Go to War, in 2009. If you want to know more about the amazing Mairi and Elsie, it’s a good place to start.

shot the dog

 

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There are not many places you can visit in Scotland that still feel like time has stood still. The little village of Culross (pronounced ‘koo-rus’) in the Kingdom of Fife is one such place, with narrow cobbled streets and charming 17th-century cottages nestled into a steep hillside by the Firth of Forth. At 5’4″ (163 cm) I felt like a giant next to the tiny front doors, and I had to fight the urge to peer into windows to catch a glimpse of history. In this town peering would be very rude, as real people live in these houses, which have been carefully restored by the National Trust for Scotland.

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The ‘jewel in the crown’ of this historic port town is Culross Palace, a mansion complex built by wealthy coal and salt merchant Sir George Bruce. The first house was completed in 1597, and when Sir George needed more space to accommodate all his important visitors he built the north wing (above) in 1611.

Sir George Bruce was Laird of Carnock, and he made his fortune first in salt production (which involved boiling salt water in large, shallow pans to evaporate the water) and later in coal mining. He was trained as an engineer and in 1595 he established the first coal mine in the world to extend under the sea with a tunnel deep under the Firth of Forth. Sir George exported coal and salt by sea to other ports on the Forth, and to Dutch and Swedish ports as well. His ships returned with Dutch ceramic roof and floor tiles and window glass as ballast, and these were used in the construction of Culross Palace.

Culross palace interior

Thanks to much painstaking restoration of the interiors, visitors can get a real sense of what life was like in the 17th century for a wealthy Scottish merchant and his family. There is wood panelling in every room, with decorative murals adorning some ceilings and walls. Because these rooms are so well preserved, several episodes of the popular television series Outlander have been filmed here.

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In the first series, the town is known as Cranesmuir and the Mercat Cross above (minus the modern cars) is the scene of a 17th-century witch trial. There are so many beautifully preserved buildings that I’m sure very few changes were required for filming.

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Culross town hall

The Culross Town House above served originally as a court house and prison. Today it houses an exhibition gallery and gift shop. In the foreground of this photo you can see a stone plinth and a wooden post. These mark the spot where merchants brought their produce to be weighed at the Tron, the official burgh weighbeam as shown in the artist’s drawing below. You can see the Town House still under construction in 1625. The clock tower it has today was added some years later.

Culross info sign

Culross and its distinctive ochre-coloured palace are impressive enough, but even more surprising is the terraced garden that extends up the steep hill behind. This has been planted with flowers, fruit and vegetables that would have been grown in the 17th century.

Culross flowers

lilies

Thanks to a long, hot summer this year, the garden is flourishing! There are shady bowers, wooden seating, stone walls and crushed seashell paths. From the top level, visitors have a stunning view across the Firth of Forth.

Culross garden bower

Culross garden inscription

seedling shed

A small orchard has not only fruit trees but also a collection of Scots Dumpy chickens. Apparently these supply eggs for the palace cafe, where we stopped for lunch. And like everything else in this magical place, the food was outstanding!

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(Many thanks to Mark Rickards and Danae Apeiranthiti for the photos shown here.)

 

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Cover illustration ©Jon Mitchell

February 22nd is publication day for my two latest Floris picture books! One is a board book version of Skye the Puffling (smaller and simpler than the original) and the other is a brand new story about two adventurous little squirrels.

mini Skye board book

The wee puffin board book is designed for little hands and is sturdy enough to withstand a bit of chewing! My new squirrel book is aimed at older readers (aged 4-6) and follows the adventures of a brother and sister, Rowan and Hazel, who are off to explore the forest for the very first time. Their mother tells them not to wander too far, but there are so many exciting things to discover that her words of warning are soon forgotten.

Rowan p2

To be fair, Rowan tries to hold his sister back, but Hazel is fearless and ready for adventure. Most of all, she is hungry, and she nibbles pinecones and toadstools and blackberries all along the way. This proves very useful when they get lost and need to look for clues as they try to find their way home.

Rowan p8

There’s a very scary moment when a fox tries to catch Hazel, but Rowan comes to the rescue by grabbing the fox’s tail. They both run off and escape up a tree, but soon it gets dark and more scary creatures appear in the shadows.

Rowan p10

When they finally make their way back to their crooked old tree, Mum is very glad to see them! They tell her all about their hair-raising adventures and promise to be more careful from now on.

Rowan p14

I’m looking forward to sharing my new book in Scottish primary schools as we celebrate World Book Day 2018. I’ve also got an official launch of Rowan the Red Squirrel at Waterstones bookshop (Byres Road, Glasgow) on Saturday, 3 March at 2pm.

Rowan invite cover

If you’re in the neighbourhood that afternoon, do come along! The staff there are lovely, and they have delicious cakes in the cafe, too! A great place to spend your £1 World Book Day token. See you there!