After an exciting start to the year with an invitation to the Mathrubhumi International Festival of Letters, and the launch of Bone Deep in Kolkata, I’m enjoying a slight change of pace this week. It’s back to ‘old claes [clothes] and porridge,’ as my grandmother might have said. Porridge, quite literally! I’m back to researching and writing my non-fiction work GRIST! The Lore and Landscape of the Scottish Watermill. (Little Toller Books, 2019).
But, oh dear- I cannot resist falling down that research rabbit hole. I’m currently reading about a writer I’ve only ever heard about in passing, and I never realised he was born in Monikie, just a few miles from where I live.
Alexander Balfour was born on 1 March 1767, into a family of very humble means. He was one of twins, presumably an unexpected burden for his poor parents. He was raised by a relative and, after a very brief education, apprenticed to a weaver at the earliest opportunity. This brings to mind the novel I’ve just completed, Sight Unseen,which references the plight of young children who were ‘sold off’ to the Scottish textile trade at a very tender age. I can’t imagine how anyone in such a position could retain the energy and drive to follow a different path, but Alexander, obviously a resourceful young man, became a teacher at the parish school, and many of his ex-pupils praised his particular brand of teaching. At the age of 26, he became one of the clerks of a merchant manufacturer in Arbroath, marrying the following year.
He’d started writing at the age of twelve, and his persistence paid off. He was soon published in the ‘the poets’ corner of his local newspaper, and later contributed verse to the British Chronicle newspaper and to The Bee of Dr. Anderson. In 1793 he was one of the writers in the Dundee Repository and in 1796 in the Aberdeen Magazine. He followed this success with several novels.
I must admit to feeling a certain affinity for this man who came to publishing later in life and via an unorthodox path. But how does he fit in with my milling theme? I was actually writing about the power, both physical and metaphysical, of water. It brought to mind an occasion in my own life when I was taken to visit the Seaton Cliffs at Arbroath.
To the eastern end of Victoria Park, at Whiting Ness, lies the ancient St Ninian’s Well. I was about seven or eight, and well-versed in the dangers of unhygienic practices, but here, you could scoop the water from the rock with an iron ladle! Goodness knows how many generations of lips had touched it. I remember the feel of the cold water trickling down my gullet and imagining it transforming me somehow. Such is the power of water.
Alexander Balfour, apparently, wrote about the well in his novel, Highland Mary, 1826. I haven’t read it- more research required!