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

Tuesday, 20 April 2021

Competition Question Three!


It's time for the third of our competition questions - answers to contact@kellascatpress.co.uk. I can now reveal that the prizes will also include a Lexie Conyngham mug and an Audible credit for Tomb for an Eagle!

Question Three: Hippolyta is an artist, and interested in the new Scottish Academy in Edinburgh which stages the annual exhibition. When did the Academy receive its Royal charter?
Picture shows one of Hippolyta's favourite views, which will feature in The Corrupted Blood.

Sunday, 18 April 2021

Blog post by Mrs. Kynoch

Today Mrs. Kynoch has found time in her busy life to tell us a little about herself.

You’re sure it’s me you’d like to talk to? There are certainly more interesting people in Ballater! Well, then, if you will just allow me to make sure the girls are all usefully engaged – I’m in two minds about the new Portuguese tutor, for she can be a little vague about how many girls are in her class and they are quite capable of taking advantage …

There, they are all settled. Not everyone wants to learn Portuguese, you know, and so there is also an accountancy class in the dining room until six. Girls learning accountancy? What, would you rather they were unable to run their households in a way that will not bankrupt themselves or their husbands? And some, bless them, will need to make their own way in the world. Not every family that works in the West Indies and sends their children home to Scotland to be educated is a wealthy, slave-owning business.

Do I take on the daughters of slave-owners? Indeed I do. Did I found my school on money derived from plantations? Yes, I did - after much soul-searching. The money existed, and it had been left to me. To my mind, at once, it was tainted money, earned by poor Africans to support those who believed that one human being is entitled to own another. This is of course wrong – how could it be anything else? I wanted to fling all the money to some worthy charity, and forget the bequest had ever occurred.

Then it struck me that I would be passing on the taint, and that if I wished to wash that money clean, I should do something more direct with it. I was not in a position to buy slaves and set them free, which was my first idea – and even that appalled me. I sat back and considered where my talents lay and how I might use them.

Since I had come to Ballater with my late husband, who had been the minister here, I had used the time which might have been taken up with a family, had we been so blessed, in educating a few village girls who showed promise and who might have need of particular skills. Motherless ones came to learn how to cook and sew, for example, but others might come for languages, or music, or, as we noted before, accountancy. I have always been a little dilettante in my interests, and I found that I was able at least to start the girls off on poetry, piano, Latin and Greek, embroidery and plain sewing … all the things, to tell the truth, that they envied their brothers learning from an ordinary school and a few extra, feminine skills besides. I suppose that is how the breadth of my interests began, anyway, if you will permit a further digression. My brothers were educated by a tutor – that sounds so grand! But really, he was a relative who had had to retire through ill health, and came to live with us, though he had been a Professor of Natural Philosophy – I shall not say at which of the universities. He was an inspiring teacher, when his health permitted, and I, the only sister and the youngest, would be permitted to tag along if I behaved myself and pick up any trifles of knowledge that might come my way. I was so fortunate! And of course my mother saw to it that I learned sewing, and though we had a maid who cooked I found that process most interesting, too. In fact, I think I may safely say that I have never been bored a day in my life, for there is very little indeed that does not arouse in me some curiosity and I have been delighted to be able to gratify much of that curiosity.

When my beloved husband died, really very young, I was glad of my little school for the clergy widows’ fund is unfortunately not generous. I was able to rent a cottage in the village, and carry on with more pupils than before. Still mostly local girls, of course, for who would take the trouble to travel to Ballater for one poor teacher in a cottage?

But when the money came my way I saw an opportunity. I knew that many families in the West Indies, fearing the dangers of the climate, sent their children home to Scotland to be educated. I knew a clergyman who could provide me with contacts. I had enough money to purchase a lease on Dinnet House, which had stood empty for a little while: I was able to furnish it appropriately and employ assistants. It was large enough to accommodate not only a number of girls, but also the nurses who often accompany them on the long voyage, and are, like the girls, far from home and baffled by a strange country. I can easily look after them until they are ready to return – if they choose to return.

And of course, when I have the girls under my influence, these daughters of plantation owners, these young ladies so used to having a native person at their beck and call, purchased sometimes on a whim or born into degradation – I can begin to persuade them to a more proper way of thinking about their fellow human beings. I know that several of the girls have returned to Tobago, or Guyana, or wherever, and had some considerable influence in their own families. I know that pride is sinful, but to hear of slaves not only freed, but properly employed, paid and nurtured and their children educated, gives me a great deal of satisfaction.

Have I done wrong? I have only made a small impression on a much greater problem, I know. Have I gone about it the right way? Sometimes I feel guilty that I have perhaps, very occasionally, used a little of the money to purchase a new gown, or a book for my own enjoyment – should I have done so? I am only a small woman in a small village, far from those plantations and their masters. Could I have done better with my legacy – converted it all to treasury notes and burned them at the church door? But I was always brought up not to be wasteful, and people suffered to make that money – why should it not be used to try to ensure that others in a similar position did not suffer? I have been so fortunate in my life: I have known many good people who have influenced my thinking, my faith and my behaviour. I hope, in my plans to influence others, I have not let them down.

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!