Archives for category: Scotland

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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

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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

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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!

 

Cover illustration ©Jon Mitchell

Recently I’ve been doing some research about red squirrels for a new book. Despite having lived in Scotland for 25 years, I have never actually seen a red squirrel in the wild. They are the only squirrels native to Britain, but unfortunately someone thought it would be a good idea to bring a few grey ones from North America in the 1870s. The grey squirrel is larger and hardier, and competes with the red for food. As a result, over the past 150 years the red squirrel population has suffered, and now there are 15 grey squirrels in Britain for every red one. No wonder they are hard to spot!

Red squirrels are very pretty, with tufty ears and white tummies. My new rhyming story is about two young ones who are venturing out into the forest for the first time. I did a little Googling and found this adorable photo:

Photo ©AP

The first ten weeks of a red squirrel’s life are spent in a drey, which is a nest built in the fork of a tree with twigs, moss, leaves and dried grass. Sometimes these dreys are communal, shared by a group of squirrels at different times.

Photo ©wildwoodtrust.org

In my story the two baby squirrels, Rowan and Hazel, set off down their tree to explore the forest nearby. Naturally, they wander further than they should and run into a few scary creatures, including a hungry fox!

I had to find out exactly what red squirrels eat, and the Wildwood Trust website is a great source of information. Red squirrels live in forests with both conifer and deciduous trees, and their main source of food is hazelnuts and seeds from conifer cones. They also eat berries, flowers, green shoots and mushrooms. To ensure they have food to eat in the winter, they bury nuts in the woodland floor, and hang mushrooms up in the trees to dry for later use.

My little squirrels get distracted by all the tasty food they find, and soon are lost in the forest. One of the clues they use to get home again is a mushroom that Hazel has nibbled. This is a Scottish story because most of the red squirrels found in the UK today live in Scotland. The Wildwood Trust says there are about 160,000 red squirrels across the country. Of those, about 120,000 live in Scotland, 30,000 live in northern England and 10,000 in Wales. They have almost completely disappeared from southern England.

There are several organisations devoted to protecting the red squirrel, including the People’s Trust for Endangered Species and the Scottish Wildlife Trust. There are lots of ways to get involved if you want to help out.

I hope my new book will raise awareness about the red squirrel. I have found two lovely toy squirrels to take with me when I visit schools, but I hope we’ll never reach a time when they are the only kind left.

Twitter is a wonderful way to make new friends. Recently a head teacher I follow drew my attention to a knitted puffin that a Glasgow teacher had put up on Twitter. She thought it looked very like one of the characters of my puffin books, Lewis Clowns Around and Harris the Hero.

Knitted puffin by Susan Quinn.

Knitted puffin by Susan Quinn.

I was impressed, and wondered if Susan the clever knitter would be able to create a fluffy grey puffling to go with me on school and nursery visits when I’m reading my new puffin story, Skye the Puffling. Through Twitter I was able to chat to Susan about what Skye should look like, and show her the lovely illustration by Jon Mitchell:

Skye coverSusan immediately set to work, and soon I was able to see my little puffling taking shape! Not being a knitter myself, I was baffled by the complex knitting instructions she seemed to be following. A fluffy little grey thing began to emerge…

knitting-skye-1Next she sent me a little bird shape and I could imagine a very cute, fluffy puffling who looked soft and snuggly:

knitting-skye-2Finally, Susan sent me a picture of Skye with eyes and a beak, with the message, “only the feet to add.” Little Skye was soon finished, and Susan and I agreed to meet up so I could repay her with three copies of my puffin books.

knitting-skye-3My fluffy Skye has already come with me to a Bookbug Library Challenge event at Drymen Library, and she was very well received! I’ve got another event tomorrow at Alloa Library, and Skye will be coming with me again, to be sure.

fluffy-skyeI was very touched by Susan’s generosity, and it was a real pleasure to meet her for a chat as we exchanged puffins. Many thanks to Joyce Hawkins who first alerted me to Susan’s impressive knitting talents!

Cute knitted cactus plants I spotted at fnac bookshop in Barcelona.

Cute knitted cactus plants I spotted at fnac bookshop in Barcelona.

While I was on holiday in Spain another knitted item caught my eye. It was a pair of soft and squishy cactus plants with brilliant care instructions: “Cactus of extremely slow, almost imperceptible growth. Easy to care for, simply give abundant morning smiles.” As my daughter is a huge cactus fan, I took a photo of them to show her. I’m glad I did, as it meant I could show the same photo to Susan. I thought she could easily knit a cactus and find a pot for it, and sure enough, she had already done it!

Susan Quinn's cactus.

Susan Quinn’s cactus.

It seems there is no end to what you can do with knitting needles! Susan is already thinking about Christmas…

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I will let you in on a little secret. That photo I use at the top of my blog was taken some years ago on the isle of Iona. It’s a beautiful place which I have visited several times, and each visit is special.

Lynne and Anna IonaNow you can see the whole picture, including my daughter who was about eight at the time. She is now almost twenty and a few inches taller than I am!

I use another photo of Iona on my Twitter account. This one shows my son (now seventeen) walking along the road across the island to a big beach on the western side.

Cam on IonaRecently I was invited to come back to Iona as part of the Summer Gala Fun Day on the island. Apparently my puffin picture books are very popular there, so the people who run the Martyrs Bay Shop kindly asked me to do some storytelling and book signing for them. Naturally I had to accept!

Photo ©Lindsey Fraser

Photo ©Lindsey Fraser

In the run-up to the event I was delighted to see a poster up in the shop window, kindly supplied by my publisher, Floris Books. The shop has a special puffin corner, and this was where my three puffin books were prominently displayed!

Photo ©Lindsey Fraser

Photo ©Lindsey Fraser

On Saturday I read stories with a lovely little girl from Cork, Ireland. She was full of story ideas of her own, too! Then I spoke to a number of tourists from England, Australia and America, and signed books for all their grandchildren.

Iona book signingOn Sunday I had a very enthusiastic crowd of small children, parents, grandparents and a few dogs! We read all three books and then the children were each allowed to choose one. It was interesting to see which book appealed to which child. Some already had Harris the Hero at home, and many were surprised to hear that Lewis Clowns Around was the first book.

I had a lovely time meeting people from all over the world, and I think the children enjoyed it too. The warm and friendly staff at Martyrs Bay Shop made the whole experience a great pleasure, so many thanks to all of them!

Iona rowboatIn between storytelling sessions, my husband and I wandered around the island taking photos of the beautiful scenery. We walked the same road as my son to the other side of the island, and my husband actually went swimming in that clear but c-c-c-cold water!

Iona footpathI preferred to stay on dry land, and while I was sitting on the beach I saw a long black animal run past across the sand. (I thought it was a weasel or a stoat or something, but then I heard a woman say, “Did you see that mink?”) I’m always spotting weird wildlife when I go on holiday…

Iona east beachThe beach was beautiful, and almost deserted. When we got back to our hotel (the Argyll) we enjoyed relaxing in the sunshine out in their garden. It looks out on the water between Iona and Mull and has lots of wooden benches bleached by the sun.

Iona boatsSuch a lovely view to look out on! It’s hard to imagine a more relaxing holiday. I do hope they’ll invite us back next year!

Iona LandM