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

Friday 30 April 2021

Guest blog post: Mrs. Riach


Mrs. Riach, talented cook, has graciously condescended to an interview for the benefits of this blog, though of course we are forced to acknowledge that her time is short and she has better, much better, things to be doing than talking to us (please to remember a key point about Mrs. Riach’s charming dialect – the ‘f’ sound intrudes in place of the ‘wh’ of normal speech.)

Fit’s ’at? Ye’re wanting to speir me questions? Fie? I’ve no done a’thing wrong!

Ye’re wanting to interview me? Are you looking a cook, is that it? I’ll have you know my rates are high – I dinna go to work for just a’body, ken? And I’d want a good accommodation, generous days off, and regular hours. And no bluidy cats, pigs, nor bairns, ken?

Oh, aye, hens. Hens I can just thole, if they’re no in the hoose.

Fa am I fae? I’m fae this place, fae Ballater – well, Tullich, ken. My brother’s lad still bides there, useless cankert gapus that he is, and his woman little better. Aye, they’ve begged me to go and stay with them fae time to time, but I just canna handle it. I’m an honest working woman, ken?

Is that a decanter of brandy I see there ahint you? Could I trouble you, for my throat’s that parched I might never get through all your speiring. Aye, that’s grand – is that all there was? No, aye, up to the rim – that’ll be finey. Your good health.

Aye, I’ve worked in a few households about the three parishes. I’ve worked for two fine physicians, and a clergy and his sister – no fae the proper kirk, ken, but whiles decent enough, as far as a’body could tell, onywyes. And I’ve worked for a fine woman who had her own business – oh, she was braw! I liked fine working for her. She had the right ideas about a household, all under control and a few fine handsome boys about the place, forbye.

Oh, my, the state of my throat! But I canna help feeling yon brandy’s doing it good, ken? Oh, well, I dinna mind if I do – no, up to the rim again would be finey. It’d be a shame to waste the space. Your health.

But it seems I’m doomed to go back again to yon long-nebbit lassie, the doctor’s fancy Embra wifie. Fie he had to bring a quine back fae Embra is beyond me – had we no fine enough lassies up here to tempt him? I might have taken him masel if he’d asked me! But no, no, he brings yon one here, and the house has been like an asylum ever since. If it’s no strange men in the attic, it’s floods to the gate, and dogs under the kitchen table and dead birds in the parlour and dinner at fa kens fit time and cats, damned white cats like bluidy ghosts everywhere you look. And bairns! And have you met her relations?

Aye, it’s my throat again – the pain is fair making my eyes water. No, no, I can go on a bit yet, if there’s any more … aye, that’s lovely, right enough. Grand.

But it’s my duty to go back whiles and see yon Ishbel hasna burned the place down or destroyed my good pans. An’ young … fit’s the lad’s name … aye, Wullie. He’s no a lad bad – I mean a bad lad. He needs lookin’ after, that’s what he needs. An’ I need another of those fine wee glasses – I mean to say, you could barely fill a hole in your tooth with what’s in yon wee glass, could you? Aye, I’m sure I could manna … manage another yin …

The Napiers? Aye, that’s where I bide, ken. Is it? Fa was I last? See, whiles I get a wee bittie confused. I’ve been lost up on the moor more than the once, ken, for I’ve no sense of direction at all, and the moor – I’ve been lost up on the moor more than the once, did you ken? Chasing the white cats … or were they chasing me? White cats, everywhere. It’s no’ right, at all, is it?

And did I tell you about the white cats?

Where did you go? I wasna finished! Hi!

Och, well, it’s maybe time I had a wee nap before I make a start on the dinner. The fire’s fine and warm and this chair’s awfa comfy. Just make sure they white cats dinna come near me, ken?



Loch Muick

Loch Kinord

(date stamps, always sneaking on when you think you've switched them off ...)

The last day of Hippolyta Month – though there’ll be a couple of new articles going up on the website, probably tomorrow, in the Worlds section. But in the meantime, get your answers in for the competitions! For each question there’s a prize of a signed copy of one of my books (of your choice), a Lexie Conyngham mug (there are currently only four in the whole world!), your name in a future book (modified to make it ‘historical’ if necessary) and (if I can work out how to get them out) a promo code for the new audiobook of Tomb for an Eagle, read by Ulf Bjorklund. So (without further brackets) here are the four competition questions again:

1/ The books frequently make reference to the ‘three parishes’. What are they?

2/ When did Queen Victoria first make a visit to what would become Royal Deeside?

3/ 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?

4/ What was the Muckle Spate?

Winners to be announced on Monday, so you have all weekend to Google!

Thursday 29 April 2021

Not dancing, but reading

 I had been going to do something about dancing today, but perhaps dance fits better with Murray - he really does love it. 

So instead, for the penultimate day of Hippolyta Month (I love the word penultimate, but peninsula is better. From the Latin, paene, almost, and insula, an island - and then we can play with all the languages that take that insula base and give us island - inch, insch, innis, innish, ynys, ile, iland, island ... don't get me started on ecclesia). For the penultimate day of Hippolyta Month, instead we'll have a bit about a book.

Here’s one of the books I have for Hippolyta research, Deeside, by the unusually named Alexander Inkson McConnachie. It’s a first edition from 1893, but it’s been reprinted a few times – this copy, to judge by the book plate, belonged to Alexander McDonald Munro (1860 – 1911), City Chamberlain in Aberdeen and member of the Scottish Society of Antiquaries. 

It is not he who has added helpful marginalia to some of the pages, though, but a later owner, Matthew Brown. 

It’s a handy little book for its grid of distances and list of railway stations (sadly all now closed barring Aberdeen itself) – a little late for Hippolyta, but the geography is lovely.

Wednesday 28 April 2021

Food - a topic close to my heart

This is Stop Food Waste Day, and I'm ferocious about using up leftovers. But here's a recipe that's quite good for a glut of apples and some stale bread.

Particularly if you read the newsletter you'll know that Hippolyta is fond of her food, and she has been trying to learn a little about cookery along with her cook, Ishbel. I too am fond of a little light nourishment, and so it was no great hardship to select a recipe from Elizabeth Cleland's book, A New and Easy Method of Cookery, to try out for Hippolyta Month. I did try to avoid anything too peculiar ...

We've looked at the recipe for a Pupton of Pigeons in the newsletter (pupton is apparently from the French, poupeton, meaning a ragout or pate made from minced meat). We have a number of unfeasibly plump pigeons around here, but none of them was particularly interested in experimental cookery, so I flicked through to the pudding section and found instead a Pupton of Apples. Much safer!

Pare some Apples, take out the Cores, put them in a Sauce-pan, and chop them grosly;

to three Mutchkins of these Apples put in a Quarter of a Pound of Sugar, and two Spoonfuls of Water:

Put them on a slow Fire, keep them stirring, grate the rind of an 
Orange and Lemon in it:

When it is quite thick as Marmalade, let it stand till cold;

Then beat up the Yolks of four Eggs, 

(I had six mutchkins of apple so I assumed doubling the quantities here made sense) and stir in a Handful of grated Bread, and a Quarter of a Pound of sweet Butter:

Mix them all together (here sadly the Magimix had to come in as arthritic thumbs won't beat well any more!), form it into what Shape you please,

and bake in a slow Oven (Gas Mark 2, in my case. Note to self - don't get carried away melting down church candles to make prayer lights and forget the Pupton.)

(At some point, remove from oven. Cleland is always a bit vague about times and temperatures, not unreasonably.)

then put it on a Plate upside down, for a second Course or Supper.

Personally I think it looked better the other way up, but who am I to argue with Cleland? A dense, sweet cake, full of flavour, the consistency something like a chocolate brownie. It did not last long! One or two slices survived long enough to be paired with fresh natural yoghurt which was particularly good.

On Stop Food Waste Day I should tell you what happened to the odd bits and pieces! The rest of the apple was stewed with a little light caramelising and eaten for breakfast with more of the yoghurt. Peels and cores went into the compost. The egg whites could have been turned into meringues but I like meringues far too much and would have hoofed the lot, so instead they were whipped and added to the white sauce in a smoked fish pie with shredded kale and a sliced potato topping (that in itself included a few chips left over from a visit to the chip shop!).

Tuesday 27 April 2021

Gardens and the fourth quiz question!


It’s National Gardening Week (so thank goodness for a bit of rain!), and both garden and allotment are showing signs of growth – in the case of the garden perhaps just a bit too much!

What your garden was like in Scotland in Hippolyta’s time very much depended on where you were in society, with one common feature: gardens for both rich and poor were intended to provide food for the household.

Hippolyta was delighted when she came to Ballater to have a garden – her Edinburgh home had little outdoor space attached to it and while the late Georgian city already had public parks and places to walk, it is not the same as having one’s one green place. It is, however, true that Hippolyta’s first thought on acquiring a kailyard, as the vegetable garden of humbler dwellings was called, was that she could keep hens. The second thought may well have been the pig.

Ballater is not blessed with the kind of climate that encourages the easy production of fruit and vegetables. Aberdeenshire in general is quite good for potatoes (which Hippolyta would certainly grow), rhubarb (still regarded mostly as a medicinal plant by the 1830s) and fruits such as raspberries, strawberries and currants. Peas, beans and onions will usually manage, though they prefer not to share a bed. Kail, of course, does quite well and was the standard crop for many a cottager – it has the virtue of being very nutritious and lasting through most of the winter. Rocket, too, is a good doer. Both these vegetables fell out of favour in the late Victorian period and the twentieth century but both have come back with a vengeance – with kail, it seems, all you really have to do is give it its Italian name and cavolo becomes delicious again!

It is in Ishbel’s interest, as the cook, to know what is available in the garden and use it well, and she would in a small establishment such as the Napier household do the harvesting herself. Wullie does the digging, of course, and helps put up strings to keep the hens off when the plants are vulnerable. But the hens have their work as well, picking out slugs and other tasty snacks that would otherwise harm the crops.

Larger gardens, particularly those of the gentry, could afford the space for hothouses and greenhouses. A large estate was absolutely necessary for growing pineapples, which were popular in Georgian gardening, as the glass frames for the pineapple houses had to be packed around with barrowloads of fresh horse manure to keep the temperature up. One small pony is not going to manage that!

The gentry could also afford to leave space for ornamental pleasure gardening. Here colour and scent were important, as well as designing pretty spots for sitting in sun or shade – Mrs. Kynoch has some room like this at Dinnet House, and the Strachans can also sit out in their garden, though both properties have vegetable gardens, too. A landowner interested in the latest novelties might perhaps purchase plants newly brought from abroad by the intrepid plant hunters, such as John Jeffrey, who explored North America while working for Edinburgh Botanic Gardens, and David Douglas, after whom the Douglas Fir is named, who after exploring North America in his turn died young in Hawaii. Both these men worked for institutions but richer landowners were not above sending their own men out to see what they could find – it was a tradition that continued into the twentieth century.

Hippolyta has little space for ornamental gardening: the space on either side of the path from the front door to the gate on to the green is her park, though the space is short for an afternoon’s stroll! There she has some roses, planted who knows when and mostly wild. Patrick is grateful for these and for the herb bed near his little dispensary, for a garden was also a physick garden and he can use rosewater and lavender water for his patients, distilling these and other delights in an alembic, a little still. If Ishbel were so inclined she could also use the rosewater in cookery.

Walter Nicol and Charles McIntosh both produced books on gardening in 19th century Scotland, Nicol in 1812 and McIntosh in the 1850s. Nicol encouraged food production and McIntosh for the most part ignored fashionable appearances and aimed for more general improvements. Yet plenty of Scottish landowners admired and tried to emulate the elegance of a Capability Brown or a Humphrey Repton – Haddo House in Aberdeenshire is surrounded by lengthy, enticing vistas and well-planted woodland.

By the end of the nineteenth century, gardening was becoming a hobby for the middle classes and not just a source of household food: increasing numbers of public parks and winter gardens encouraged the private gardener to try their hand, and horticultural societies offered mutual aid and competition. But that is a long way off for Hippolyta: she must just do what she can with her kitchen garden and her roses, and try to keep pig and chickens under control.

Now, then, here's the fourth competition question - answers to contact@kellascatpress.co.uk.

What and when was the Muckle Spate?

Monday 26 April 2021

A Lochgorm Lament, the fifth book


There have been lots of references to the Episcopal Church in the series and in this one I wanted to take a closer look at one of the temporary clergy who came to minister to the small flock in Ballater in the early years. In addition, I’ve always been fascinated by the Statistical Accounts of Scotland, the Old, taken around 1795, and the New, taken around the time of this book. For some clergy it was clearly an invitation to leap on to their hobby horses and dig their heels in, while for others it must have been a daunting task to complete the questionnaire. I was also keen to shift a little outside Ballater village itself, and take a look on the other side of the Dee along the stunning road that leads to Braemar, crossing back to the north side of the Dee at Crathie. And Wullie’s family needed to say hello!

Friday 23 April 2021

World Book Night reading

 It's World Book Night - go to my website now to hear a short reading from A Knife in Darkness! Just scroll down the home page and click the link.

The Corrupted Blood - preorder now!


Here we go - it's coming out on the tenth of May, but available for preorder now!

The Corrupted BloodHippolyta Napier was hoping for good tenants for her new cottage, but the first resident is already dead. Who was he? Why was he there? And will the disappearance of a fitness instructor and the strange activities of a new bride offer any clue to the mystery?

Thursday 22 April 2021

Blog post by Allan Strachan, merchant


What, now? For pity’s sake!

Well, all right, five minutes. As long as no customer comes in – and they do, even on wet days like this one. Particularly the visitors staying across the Dee – they come into the village for a walk, admire the church, consider the green, remark on the pleasing regularity of the streets, and then they come in here and who knows what they might buy?

I aim to please as many of them as I can, of course. And with two shop boys and another two working with the cart I can have several attended to at once, deliveries made all about the three parishes, and even send for special goods from Aberdeen if a customer has a particular taste. Our range benefits from the convenience of the commutation road, the speed of the coaches and all other forms of communication: every day fresh stock arrives from near and far, whether food and drink – the freshest eggs unless you have your own hens - cloth and haberdashery, or hardware and fancy goods. See these? These came all the way from Christiania. They make the very best there and so that is what we stock, bringing it straight from the harbour at Aberdeen or Peterhead.

Local use? Of course the local people come in here all the time: we are not dependent on fleeting visitors. No, we have a long-standing reputation for supplying meat and dairy produce, spirits and wines, teas and coffees … If you wish to purchase seed, or farming tools – all made locally and perfect for our local conditions, of course – then you may pass through the alley and view all our farming and gardening goods there.

My father had this place before me. He was not an ambitious man, but he didn’t much mind when I began to put some of my ideas into practice before he had quite given the place up. His prices were sometimes unrealistic, and he could be over-generous with people who hadn’t the means to hand. You’re not doing your customer any favours if you encourage them to spend beyond their means: if there’s something they can’t pay for, likely they don’t need it anyway. I expect my accounts to be met promptly at the end of each month, with no exceptions. A man cannot meet his obligations to his family if he does not have a reliable income, and I promised my Bella when I offered her marriage that she should want for nothing. And I have kept that promise. A new and elegant house, the latest fashions, the best foods, all provided for her. No woman deserves it more.

Ah, my Bella – still the most beautiful woman in the three parishes. My poor dear Bella. She has borne me four children – all up and grown now, the daughters married to good and prosperous men – but I worry about her health. There is a melancholy about her. Of course she has had tragedy in her life, but I had hoped that I had helped her through that, and we have been, I believe, very happy in our marriage and our life together. She keeps busy, with church work and charitable work – she was brought up more gently than a merchant’s wife and her grace becomes her very well – and she is very friendly with the Misses Strong, with Mrs. Kynoch in particular, and now with Mrs. Napier, the doctor’s wife, all of which help her to occupy her mind and her hands, so the melancholy perplexes me. I had thought of asking Dr. Napier for his thoughts on the matter but – but – but what? He is too close, perhaps? He worked with Dr. Durward, my late friend. He is very young, and he is just a village physician. I think about taking my dear wife to Edinburgh, perhaps, to see one of the best physicians, perhaps one who makes a particular study of melancholy. One of my daughters has married an Edinburgh doctor, so perhaps he could recommend someone. But would my dear Bella consent to go and be examined? I am not sure, and I fear causing her to withdraw even further if she thought I were pressing her into something she did not quite like.

There, I have said more than I intended to – enough! There’s a watery sun coming out, I’m sure of it, and it will not be long now until we are busy again. Cuthbert, go and dry off the window! Al, have the mop ready for the floor – the ladies will not like mud on their hems. Now, if you have nothing more on which to waste my time, can I interest you in this very fine tawny velvet, straight from Paris? It would be the perfect cloth for a snug spencer for the winter – ideal here in the colder weather. And the price is surprisingly reasonable!

Tuesday 20 April 2021

The Thankless Child, fourth in the series


The Thankless Child was inspired by a visit to Burn o’ Vat, the extraordinary water-sculpted rock formation near Dinnet (happy hunting ground for toads and adders, too). I also wanted to take a look at the views on slavery in Scotland at a time when it was already illegal in Britain and was in the process of being abolished in the West Indies – conscience versus fear of ruin, potential harm to slaves suddenly freed but no longer with means of support, what well-meaning people in Scotland might try to do to help. The painting I ascribe to the visiting artist, which I happened to see on a BBC arts programme, kicked off this side of the book. And then there is poor Johnny Boy Jo, who comes from a story I heard as a child, though I’m sure there have been many others like him over the years.

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!

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.

Dark Sky Week


This is Dark Sky Week, and I’ve very happy memories of spending it over on the west coast where every night is Dark Sky night – and the Serengeti and the Himalayas were pretty astounding, too. Actually establishing a week for it would have seemed very odd to Hippolyta, whose outdoor activities at night would have been governed by moonlight and starlight much more than we ever see in our towns and cities today. We look up and pick out Orion’s Belt and say that we can see the stars, but there are just so many more to be seen when the background light is switched off.

Tuesday 6 April 2021

I know it's Hippolyta Month but ...

You can't control when audiobooks are going to be approved, and suddenly it was! 

Tomb for an Eagle narrated by Ulf Bjorklund is now available on Audible! I think he’s done a great job, and it was strangely exciting to hear someone else read my book! Here are the links for the US, UK, France and Germany:








Hippolyta Month - the first competition question


Hippolyta Napier was hoping for good tenants for her new cottage, but the first resident is already dead. Who was he? Why was he there? And will the disappearance of a fitness instructor and the strange activities of a new bride offer any clue to the mystery?

The Corrupted Blood - out soon!

And here we are at the first competition day.

The prize (today and for the next three competitions, too) will include a signed copy of A Knife in Darkness, the first Hippolyta book, the chance to have your name (or a modified version of it if it’s very modern!) in a future Hippolyta book, and a few other goodies. The closing date for all entries is midnight British Summer Time on 1st. May, and winners will be informed, and asked for their postal details, the following week.

And the first question …

The books frequently make reference to the ‘three parishes’. What are they?

Monday 5 April 2021

Hippolyta Month - Easter Monday


Here's the centrical church in Ballater, the Church of Scotland or Established Church as it's now known.
But Hippolyta and Patrick are Episcopalians, a denomination which nowadays has most in common with the Anglican Church and is a member of the Anglican Communion. However, despite the fact that it was sometimes called the 'English Church' in fact it stemmed from the post Reformation church in Scotland, preferring to revert to the authority of bishops than to become wholly presbyterian (this is a very potted history!). Patrick is from Longside, which was a cradle of the Scottish Episcopal Church, and Edinburgh, Hippolyta's birthplace, was quite mixed even at this period. 

An early Episcopal congregation in Glenmuick came to grief, like so many, in 1698, and thereafter Episcopalians in the area kept their heads down during years of religious strife. The nineteenth century saw more tolerant times, as well as an influx of English tourists looking for a familiar church in which to worship. After several decades of occasional services held at a private chapel in Glenmuick, a mission was established at Ballater in 1897 – this was in an iron church, dedicated to St. Saviour. The current Episcopal church in Ballater was finally built in 1907, and when a full time clergyman was at last appointed in 1945 the church was rededicated to St. Kentigern, more usually a saint associated with Glasgow (it’s another name for St. Mungo - coincidence?).


Bishop William Skinner, who is mentioned in A Lochgorm Lament, was a very prominent figure in Episcopal history though not quite so much as his father, John Skinner of Longside (where Patrick was born), who had also been Bishop of Aberdeen. Both bishops are commemorated at this, the Moir of Stoneywood burial site, in St. Peter’s Cemetery in Aberdeen – you might remember the Moir family from The Slaughter of Leith Hall!