Lexie Conyngham's Blog: writing, history and gardening.

Friday, 16 April 2021

The third book, and Ballater in the snow

Politically this couple of decades, the 1820s and 1830s, were far from settled. I knew that as more visitors came to Ballater each year, politics would begin to intrude on the quiet village. It was also a reminder that inland Aberdeenshire feels the winter more than the coast, and used to feel it even worse!


Thursday, 15 April 2021

Miss Ada Strong

 Miss Ada Strong has been kind enough to contribute a short account for this morning's blog post.

Well, now, here’s a thing! Someone who’s actually telling me they’re interested in the opinions of Miss Ada Strong, spinster of the three parishes? Mind, that sounds as if I spread myself about a bit, and Annie wouldna like that at all. I tell you, my ribs are black and blue from the dunts she gives me – I have only to open my mouth and there she is with her ‘Ada!’ Och well, she doesna have much fun in life, I suppose.

Aye, we were born and bred in the three parishes, my two sisters and my brother Sandy and I. A well kent family, respectable – men of law, my father and my brother both. And my brother-in-law and all. We moved away from Ballater for a whilie and lived in a town – I needn’t tell you its name just the now – and my elder sister Mary came out into what passed for its society. Well, in truth, to be fair my mother took the three of us up to Edinburgh for the season to see if she could find us husbands. My elder sister, she was quick off the mark, and just as well, for my mother was strict and the eldest had to be married off, or at least engaged, before the next could come out. Competition, see. Of course, I was the youngest and the bonniest – dinna make that face! – so they had no wish for me to be out the same time.

Anyway, Mary was the eldest, and she’d barely been five minutes in the new Assembly Rooms on George Street when up steps a fine young gentleman with his foot in a law business up on the Lawnmarket. Well, you ken what it was like in Edinburgh yon days – likely still is – when the nobility and the high heidyins headed for London to make up to the King after the Act of Union, the lawyers stepped in to be the top rank of society, the noblesse de la robe, ken? Aye, I do speak French, as it happens, and German forbye. My sister tells me speaking Scots makes me sound ignorant, but if a’body thinks I’m ignorant they can think again. My mother was a gey intelligent woman and saw no need to bring her daughters up as fools. Mind, I’d have liked fine to study the law like my brother: I often read bits of his books and I think I’d have done a grand job, standing up in the court like the Queen of the May and telling folk what to think. Maybe I’d have been a judge one day – could you see that? Och, I’d have liked that fine!

Where was I? Oh, aye, the Assembly.

Dod MacQueen, he was cried, and he was a good lawyer and a good husband, for all I can tell. Their son Edmund, now, he’s the grand wee man, and a lawyer himself. And Dod and my sister met that evening and I dinna ken why either of them even bothered dancing with a’body else, for they only had eyes for each other. And within a week it was all arranged, and Mother let Annie come out.

Aye, poor Annie: I think my mother reckoned it’d be another week for her and away to a state of married bliss. But of course Mary was the exception. And I dinna ken what it was about Annie – she was pretty enough, and we were rich enough, and respectable enough, and I canna think that my mother thought she’d have a moment’s bother finding her a match, but it just didna happen.

It was maybe something to do with Annie’s attitude, though: she was there but her heart wasna in it. For back in the town we were living in, she had met a young clergyman, assistant to the parish. He wasna much to look at, to my mind, for he was on the skinny side and his teeth had minds of their own, but each to their own. And he had no money, and the living, which was likely to come to him when the old minister died or retired, was not a rich one. He was a bright lad, aye writing religious poetry and Biblical exegesis, and it was good work, too – I think we still have a few of them in the house, if you’re interested. Aye, he was the loon for my sister, she was set on it. No man in Edinburgh, however handsome or wealthy, could match him, in her eyes. The trouble was, he had no interest in her whatsoever.

She hung on and she hung on, and all through that Edinburgh season and the next one, hoping he might finally notice her in the pews on the Sabbath when we were at home, but he never gave her more of a look than he did the minister’s dog, not once.

Then my mother fell ill, and we never went back to an Edinburgh season: my sister and I nursed her, and when she died we stayed at home to look after my father and my brother – mind, they needed some looking after, the pair of them! All the law in the land in their heads, and no notion how to line up a column of figures and send out a bill. We’d have starved altogether if it hadn’t been for Annie and me. There wasna much time for courting, but in any case however devotedly my sister gazed up at the young minister on a Sunday, his gaze went higher still, up to the rafters, and never anywhere near her. And no one else would do her.

When my father died, we came back to Ballater to our old house and my brother set up his law practice here. Oh, it was gey comfortable, like pulling on an old shawl where you know every pluck and thread, but that was the end of any hope for my sister marrying. And somehow she thinks that means I’ll never marry, either. Aye, but I still have an eye for a fine head of hair, or a good pair of legs in tight breeches – that Dr. Napier, though he’s spoken for, he’s bonnie to look at. Or Mr. Durris – I wouldna mind a walk in the moonlight with him! So I’ve no lost hope, ken: one of these days I’ll find a mannie to call my own, and show my sister the way!

Wednesday, 14 April 2021

And of course the white cats


Hippolyta acquired the white cats in A Knife in Darkness when she was first given a kitten from a litter at Dinnet House. The mother, Bella, was made homeless shortly afterwards and Hippolyta, being Hippolyta, adopted her and all six of her white kittens, now called Franklin, Arctic, Parry, Spot, Snowball and Polar. By 1829, when the Napiers acquired the cats, Sir John Franklin was already a noted explorer of the Canadian Arctic, having led expeditions in 1819 and 1825. Arctic, Snowball and Polar are quite obvious! Sir William Parry was also an Arctic explorer and one of the hunters for the North-West Passage – he too made a successful expedition in 1819. As for Spot – well, as they are all pure white cats I can only assume this is an example of Patrick’s odd sense of humour. The arrival of the white cats was inspired by the arrival of our own rescue cat, No.3 Cat, who, being from Elgin, might easily have been called Marble and was very nearly called Shimi Dawa, Moon Cat (well, Cat Moon, but we're not going to make comments on his figure). But he isn’t! He was originally called Smudge, and had two white sisters who bullied him, so we liberated him.

Tuesday, 13 April 2021

Death of a False Physician - the second book

Read on for the second competition question!

The second book came out at the same time as the first in a bit of a marathon writing effort to hit a launch date that would help the Ballater Flood Fund. These were the first two books, I think, where I brought in a professional cover artist, Helen Braid, to work on making the books look more professional - since then she has done the Orkneyinga covers and each new Murray book since Death of an Officer's Lady, and is now working back through the Murray catalogue.

 Pannanich Wells was the reason for the existence of Ballater as a village – it really was founded as a spa town. The wells still flow today, with the water bottled as Deeside Mineral Water – great if you need to up your iron levels. I wanted to see more of Hippolyta’s family, and challenge Patrick a bit with a competitor whose scruples fell rather short of what they should be …

Now for competition time! 

Question Two: When did Queen Victoria first make a visit to what would become Royal Deeside?

Send your answers to contact@kellascatpress.co.uk - we have the hat ready!

Monday, 12 April 2021

Siblings Day

 Can someone remind me who this painting is by? I should know!

Last Saturday was apparently Siblings Day, a day my siblings and I treat (when we’re even aware of it) with deep irony. I’m not sure it’s a celebration that Hippolyta would cherish.

Hippolyta is the youngest of six children, with three brothers and two sisters. Like her, the sisters have unusual names – Galatea and Sophronia – but we’ve only so far met Marcus, the youngest brother. The boys have all followed their father into the legal profession, while Galatea has also married a man of law. Sophronia is also married, and both sisters have provided Hippolyta with nieces and nephews, though as she was a late arrival the nieces and nephews are quite close to her own age. We’ve seen in Death of a False Physician how Galatea – and by implication Sophronia too – treats Hippolyta as an ignorant schoolgirl, following the example of their mother. This is, for Hippolyta, one very good reason to live in Ballater and not back in Edinburgh with the rest of the family.

None of the brothers is married, and Marcus, who actually quite enjoys visiting his little sister on Deeside, is a little too feckless to settle down just yet. His interests flit about from day to day, and Hippolyta often feels like his big sister instead of his younger sibling.

Hippolyta is, if she had to admit it, very fond of all her siblings, sometimes in a slightly desperate, youngest wanting to be noticed, way. But it is much easier for her to feel like a proper grown-up wife and mother when none of them is around – not, I would suggest, an uncommon feeling!

Thursday, 8 April 2021

A Knife in Darkness - why start a new series?


I began a new series afraid that Murray was aging too fast! I knew I couldn’t stop writing so I had to distract myself with something else. But what? It was hard to decide when and where to begin. I was drawn very much to Ballater, the excitement of Royal Deeside and all the scientific advances of the Victorian age, but also to what went before it in this beautiful and relatively sleepy part of Scotland.I had read about the Muckle Spate, the great flood of 1829, and the effect it had had on Ballater. Then Ballater was flooded again, and I wanted to do something to help. So all the profits from this and the second book, for several years, went to the locally administered Ballater Flood Fund.

Wednesday, 7 April 2021

Guest blog - Dr. Patrick Napier


Good day to you! I trust you are well? Quite well? Yes, you look very healthy, I must say. A pain in your left leg? Well, of course, I’ll take a look at it – perhaps if I visit tomorrow morning?

Oh, yes, I’m fully qualified, and quite experienced. I am a graduate of Marischal College, Aberdeen, and I studied medicine at Edinburgh. Two years there, and I was apprenticed to Dr. Louden and Dr. Snow, whose reputation you’ll know, no doubt.

Well, things are not too bad in Ballater. It’s not like a town practice: not so much contagious disease, and those illnesses connected with poverty, such as you might see in the Old Town tenements of Edinburgh, are rare here. The village is regular and clean. The factors of the various estates here see to it that pensioners are paid reasonably and the estate houses are mostly well kept, and while I hear that the poors’ fund is barely adequate there are some other trusts and so on that help those in need. Of course there is a good deal of damp down by the river, where some houses – including, I might say, the manse – have been built using clay and are examples of very poor workmanship. But the air is remarkably healthy and of course there are the spa waters. Chalybeate, yes – really quite rusty looking as they come out of the earth, but they are very fine to drink, not like some of the more sulphurous springs. And yes, it makes for a very varied and, at least in the summer, quite prosperous practice. Just about enough for me to handle on my own. It’s tempting to think of taking on a student, but of course that is not so easily come about as it would be in a town with a university. I’d need to find some young lad already in the parish, with ambitions, perhaps, to become a physician, and the money to pay me until he goes to do some formal study. And could we house him? I’m not sure we could fit him in. After all, we seem to have developed quite a household staff! Not to mention the animals: I am sure all kinds of creatures follow my wife Hippolyta about the village, waiting for a moment when they can look neglected and she will take them in. Of course there are the benefits of eggs and pork, and I have always been fond of a cat or two about the place … and I have grown attached, I suppose, to the hen that favours my study … It would have been helpful, perhaps, if we could have adopted a pony that would listen to anyone apart from Hippolyta: I feel sometimes it detracts from the dignity people seek in their physician to have his wife deliver him to their houses. But then, the pony needs its exercise, and Hippolyta needs fresh air, and it’s useful that she can drive safely to places to paint.

I’m prodigiously proud of her painting, you know. To think that people want to buy pictures made by my wife! I know some men – and women, too – think that a woman going into business is not fitting, particularly a respectable gentlewoman like Hippolyta – like the wife of most physicians. But painting is not quite business, after all: she is very talented, and it is quite right that others should enjoy that and that she should benefit from their enjoyment. And it does help, financially. I worry lest some other doctor finds Ballater as congenial as I and sets up in competition – would there be enough business for two medical men? It would be so easy to be outdone. And medicine is such a chancy business, anyway: just one mistake, or even one perceived mistake, and one’s reputation can be ruined. What if I were to mis-set someone’s broken leg, and then find that no one trusts me to tackle their gall stones? It’s a great worry.

If there is one lack in the village, it is another professional man to talk with. The minister is a pleasant fellow, but rather older than I and looking forward to the quiet life of retirement more than keeping up to date with changes in the church. There is no Episcopal clergyman, and those who fly in and take our services are so often in a rush to go on to the next congregation. Since poor Mr. Strong’s death there is no man of law, either. But when there is the opportunity, I find working with Mr. Durris, the sheriff’s man, very interesting – he is clearly educated even if he is not very forthcoming about his background - and after all, the patients he presents me with are usually dead. I wonder if I should have stayed in Edinburgh and tried for an anatomy instructor? Though pharmacy is fascinating, too: I do relish having my own little workshop. But then what if one makes a mistake with that? The consequences could be disastrous.

I shouldn’t like anyone to think that I was anxious about my work. An anxious doctor does not give a patient confidence. And I don’t like to think that Hippolyta thinks I worry overmuch: after all, a woman should be able to rely on her husband to be strong and to support her and the household. And really, it is only sometimes that I think ‘What if?’ or ‘I pray I may not …’ And if it is not the middle of the night (and I generally do sleep very well), then I can go and play my violin or the box piano, just softly, and somehow my worries take the shape of the notes and seep gently into the air. Mistakes barely matter there, with no one listening but the cats (though sometimes one of them will give me a critical look if the bow slips), and I can ease out of the heavy cloak of my anxieties and escape, free and content. Until the next time.