Tag Archives: Barbara Henderson

The Outlander Effect

It’s Jacobite blog tour time! Here’s Barbara Henderson with some Outlanderish thoughts:

‘The Americans are back’, my husband remarked drily on his return from Inverness High Street, ten minutes away from our home. Don’t get the wrong impression – this was no disapproving comment. It was dry humour, tinged with relief. He might as well have said ‘Things are finally getting back to normal’.
The devastating effect of the pandemic on international tourism in our area had been acutely felt, particularly as a certain franchise had previously supercharged the tourist economy in these parts. A book, film and fandom feat like no other (perhaps Harry Potter aside).

Can you hear it? The distant and mournful version of the Skye Boat Song, now a major theme tune? I am (of course!) talking about Outlander, Diana Gabaldon’s epic time travel romance which features the Highlands during the Jacobite rebellion of 1745.

Why do some things catch on while others do not? I often find myself bemused by what hits the popularity jackpot. But speaking as an interested observer rather than an Outlander superfan, I can absolutely see the appeal here: standing stones and ancient cairns, a doomed cause, heroism and healing – it’s a compelling mix. As the phenomenon grew, the Highlands changed all around me. Tourist gift shops began to replace their usual stock with Outlander merchandise. Busloads and busloads of Outlander themed tours arrived at key locations like Culloden Battlefield. Fans found each other, both online and in person. Gaelic-learning became fashionable again, and consultant herbalists and craftspeople were hired for the television series. From time to time, adverts for extras would appear in the local papers. I recently attended a creative industries conference. Half a day was given over to figuring it out: How can we as artists and writers and heritage professionals tap into the Outlander Effect? It’s the million-dollar question! That way profit lies.

As a children’s writer, I was well aware of Gabaldon’s books and the huge success of the television series. However, I thought all this had very little to do with me. When I was lucky enough to be published for the first time with my Highland Clearances novel Fir for Luck, I realised: It had everything to do with me.

Let me introduce you to the InverOutlanders, a local Outlander fan organisation. Full of likeable ladies, I have grown very fond of the group. They have been wonderfully supportive of me and of other writers, too. After all, they have already read every word that Gabaldon has written – and they are interested in more Scottish history of that time period. Fiction, non-fiction, it doesn’t seem to matter. It certainly didn’t seem to matter that mine was a children’s book – Scottish history, a time of peril – tell us no more, we’re in!

I began to see them at some of my events. When my own Jacobite novel was ready to submit to publishers, I didn’t have to explain to the publishing world what this Jacobite rebellion was. They already knew. I began to pitch the novel as ‘Outlander for kids’ which was a convenient shortcut to what the book was about.

When The Reluctant Rebel was published on 18th May, the InverOutlanders were first to the microphone, shouting to their 14.6k followers about my book. I can never thank them enough.

I don’t know if I’ll ever meet Diana Gabaldon in real life. But if I do, I am determined to thank her for creating millions of readers who are now interested in Scottish history, culture and heritage. She didn’t mean to, but in some small way, the author of the mighty Outlander series has put my books on the map too.

The Reluctant Rebel, A Jacobite Adventure

Like ‘most’ people, I have known ‘all’ about Bonnie Prince Charlie and Flora MacDonald and ‘over the sea to Skye’. Thanks to Barbara Henderson and her new historical novel The Reluctant Rebel, I now actually ‘know’ something. Lots more, in fact.

I raced through the book, to find out what happened and how. Even when you might know the ending, and how the bonnie Prince never became King, it’s exciting.

We see the story unfold through the eyes of Archie MacDonald – who lost his father at Prestonpans in 1745 – beginning just before Culloden in 1746. Which I knew to have been a disaster, but you don’t learn so much from history books. Well, I don’t.

His master’s three sons are fighting, and not everyone returns home. At least as important, if not more, is Archie’s cousin Meg, a maid at Borrodale. She’s brave and intelligent, even if she does seem to have a crush on the Prince.

Their paths cross the Prince’s, several times, and they are called on to help him escape. Just staying alive is difficult. Because of his father and because of the shock of the bloodiness of Culloden, Archie isn’t sure he supports the Prince’s cause any longer. Soon there is a price on his head as well, which can be tempting for someone who is hungry.

This is a terribly exciting historical adventure, set beautifully to fit in with the real story, and feeling all the better for it.

Mayhem and muffins

It was mayhem. Daughter and I had driven to Fallin to extricate Barbara Henderson from the school there, where she’s doing literary things with the Primary 5 pupils. That’s good, obviously, but you know, we’d overlooked how impossible it is to move near any school at home time, and especially in a smallish, cramped ex-mining village.

In the end Daughter opted for not running over any children and to sit patiently in the car until most of them had left for home with their grown-ups, and I’d got out and found our visitor, and then she did clever things in that small space and got us out of there again. Barbara was surprised we’d never been to Fallin before, but as I said, there’s never been a reason to.

Once back at Bookwitch Towers, there were muffins waiting for us. It’s about the only thing I trust myself to make these days, and I’d made several ‘flavours’ – but not mushroom – in case of issues. No issues, and ‘more than one’ muffin and coffee later, and much gossip, the Resident IT Consultant drove Barbara to her train home. It seems he hadn’t startled her too much by launching into a rant about zoo pens almost before introductions were made.

It was a real tonic spending time with a real person again. At home. With chat and so much laughter that Daughter who had withdrawn needed to know why we laughed so much. Apart from the horizontal wallpaper, I’m not sure. I forget so fast. Oh yes, there might have been a mention of Jacobite bullets.

There were bests in 2021 too

I worried. But then I nearly always worry. What did I read? Was it any good?

As always, I read. And yes, it was good, even in 2021. I read fewer books than usual, and with a larger proportion being old, adult or a translation, I have left those out. It’s handy that I make my own rules here.

I’ll put you out of your misery right now. The book standing head and shoulders above all the other really great books is Hilary McKay’s The Swallows’ Flight. Set in WWII, it’s a story I can’t forget (and these days I forget a lot).

Hilary’s is not alone in being a WWII story, as 50% of my 2021 winners are. I don’t know if this is proof that many more such books have been published recently, or if it just shows how much I like them.

The other five are Phil Earle’s When the Sky Falls, Morris Gleitzman’s Always, Liz Kessler’s When the World Was Ours, Tom Palmer’s Arctic Star, and Elizabeth Wein’s The Last Hawk. The latter two are dyslexia-friendly books.

Debi Gliori’s A Cat Called Waverley also features a war, but a more modern one. The illustration below makes me cry every time, and it has that thing which makes a picture book truly great.

Waverley is Scottish, as are C J Dunford’s Fake News, Barbara Henderson’s The Chessmen Thief and Roy Peachey’s The Race.

Last but not least, we have an animal story from Gill Lewis, A Street Dog Named Pup, and a ‘historical futuristic fantasy’ in The Outlaws Scarlett & Browne by Jonathan Stroud.

These twelve gave me much pleasure, and they were not in the slightest hard to choose. If the publishing world continues to give me books like these, I will have no reason to give up [reading].

Don’t drop those walrus tusks

Thursday morning’s bookfest event featured a talk between Barbara Henderson about her version of the Lewis chessmen and Dr Alice Blackwell from the ‘local’ museum who also knows a lot about them. The one keeping the ladies in order was dinosaur professor Steve Brusatte, who’s no dinosaur, but he knows about them, and they are even older than the chessmen.

It’s always good when grown-up academics can demonstrate so much enthusiasm for children’s fiction on a subject they might know a lot about. It’s not just me who rather liked The Chessmen Thief.

Barbara started off by reading from the beginning, where her hero does his best not to drop the walrus tusks. They will break into smithereens if you do.

She has long been fascinated by Vikings, and by board games, and the fact that not only did they carve these chess pieces nearly nine hundred years ago, but they actually played chess!

When it became impossible for Barbara to travel to Shetland for research, she re-routed to Orkney instead, which is why her characters stop by Orkney on their way from Norway to the Western Isles which they called the Southern Isles. It’s all relative. And when they got there, the much older Callanish stones were already waiting, although they were not necessarily as ancient as the dinosaurs…

Alice took over and talked about the chessmen in her museum. They have eleven of the 93 pieces found, and the British museum have some of the rest. Because we – they – don’t know everything about the chessmen, they lend themselves well to be used in fiction like this. They’re not all walrus; some pieces are carved from sperm whale teeth. Alice is their carer, and when some of the pieces are lent to other museums, she gets to travel with them.

There were questions, both from our dinosaur expert (on Skye, you should always keep your eyes open in case you find a bit of dinosaur) and from the audience. Barbara has plenty of new plans, with an eye on the Forth Bridge, and not forgetting Mary Queen of Scots.

Writing as Activism

Today Barbara Henderson is here to say a little more about the background to her book Scottish by Inclination. I am biased, but I don’t feel you can say enough about this. Consider this activism from me too.

“As I write, I have come out of an emotional week: the fifth anniversary of the Brexit referendum and the deadline for Settled Status applications, but also the publication of Scottish by Inclination. The book is my reflection on Scotland, EU immigration and belonging – my own story with Scotland, interspersed with 30 profiles of others like me who have made their home here. People who have shaped Scotland. You’d be forgiven for asking: ‘You’re a children’s writer, Barbara. Why write this kind of book at all?’

I would never argue that I am a conscious activist – I am definitely a writer first! But naturally, as a writer, words are my way of wrestling with the world. When I wrote my Highland Clearances children’s novel, Fir for Luck, I deliberately placed a strong and feisty female character at the centre of the action. It was no conscious act of feminism on my part, but The Desperate Journey, so far the staple school text on the period, felt a little outdated and relied too much on gender stereotyping for my liking. The same applied to my medieval novel, The Siege of Caerlaverock. Can you think of a historical novel for kids which is not primarily about a boy? I couldn’t – so I wrote one. A whiff of outrage is enough to tip the balance of choice one way or the other. It was subtle.

Not so with Scottish by Inclination. There was nothing subtle about my motivation to write this one! After 30 years in Scotland, I had all but forgotten that I was a foreigner. I was blithely naïve about the prospect of a Brexit referendum. Most of my friends thought that the result would be a foregone conclusion: we’d remain in the EU. It was a no-brainer.

Suffice to say that my memories of the last week of June 2016 are not good ones. Shock first, then bewilderment and finally a form of grief. By then I had lived in Scotland for more than a quarter of a century and my feeling was that I belonged. Had it all been an illusion? What was this fresh hell? I attended a protest and was struck by the talent and variety of my fellow activists. The phrase ‘Scottish by Inclination’ had popped up in public and political discourse again and again and eventually, my brain connected the two.

I was a writer, for goodness’ sake! Could I somehow make the case for the value of EU immigration, despite the fact that the Brexit train was already merrily chugging along towards the 31st December 2020? Could I amplify the EU-Scottish voices which hadn’t been heard?

I pitched the idea to publishers in a tweet: Scottish by Inclination. Activists, academics, artists, radiologists and removal men. A chapter-by-chapter collection of interesting stories of EU nationals who have made their homes here and are helping to shape what Scotland is today.

I received publisher interest, refined the vision to include a biographical thread, applied for funding and set to work. Five months flew by. To my surprise, I didn’t struggle much – adult non-fiction wasn’t quite the hostile territory I had anticipated it would be. In fact, I found that I loved the process. Every new person I spoke with was another reason to write it. Their story needed to be written, these voices needed to be heard and as a writer, I was in a position to make it happen.

I don’t know if Scottish by Inclination will make a difference. Brexit lies behind us, after all, and opinions seem so entrenched that I have little faith for it to change many minds. But make the EU immigrant voice heard a little louder? Remind people of the richness and the colour and the warmth and spread and joy of a society threaded through with shades from other shores?

This I can do. This I will do.

And yes, in that sense, I am an activist.”

Scottish by Inclination

Barbara Henderson’s book Scottish by Inclination could be described as an essential read for all other types of Scottish people, not to mention English people, and those further afield who still don’t see, or believe, that Brexit had much effect. Especially not on me, or us, or anyone perceived to be an OK sort of foreigner. Unlike ‘those others’.

Once I began reading the book I couldn’t stop. It’s just so good and so interesting and feels so real. It’s back to what I keep going on about; if you write what’s close to you, it will always be far better than anything else. And Barbara knows how to be German in Scotland, until she ‘forgot she was a foreigner’.

This is the story of Barbara’s life in Scotland, starting a little before she decided to study in Edinburgh, continuing with her departure from all she knew and loved best and her arrival at Glasgow airport thirty years ago. Just the fact that it was Glasgow then, when now it is nearly always Edinburgh. Short chapters on what it was like to be a student, on getting married, training for a job and starting work. Having babies and ending up in Inverness, where she still lives.

Every short chapter ends with a brief interview with other foreigners, from all the corners of the EU, showing why they came and what they do now, and showing that even those from some of the countries people have been suspicious of, are nice people, working hard, belonging. They are worthy of being here.

Although why immigrants should have to be so much ‘better’ than the people born in a country is beyond me.

I’m certainly not better than anyone. Just thinking about all the things Barbara did, working so very hard, having so much energy, and smiling so much, and, I believe, learning to understand what people in Glasgow say. (Only joking. A little.)

One of the EU citizens Barbara interviewed was your own witch. She even makes me sound interesting.

It’s my belief that anyone would enjoy this book. As I said, I started and couldn’t put it down. Bunkered up with sandwiches for lunch so I could read straight through the afternoon. After dinner the Resident IT Consultant took over and if you knew him, you’d know that not going for that walk he was going on but just sitting there reading and smiling, well… As an Edinburgh alumnus, albeit older, he enjoyed seeing what Barbara’s crowd got up to.

We are all foreigners, and it was a relief to see that someone else had had the same or similar problems to mine. And I appreciated the quotes from old and famous people for each chapter. It’s amazing not only how much wisdom there can be in a selection of quotes, but how apt they were for what the chapters were about.

There are photos of nearly all the EU interviewees, and what strikes me is how they look like people I’ve always known. (I’m the only one who’s turning her back on the reader.)

Yeah, did I mention I think everyone ought to read Scottish by Inclination? I really do.

We have all arrived

And we would like to stay. I think that’s really what last night’s launch for Barbara Henderson’s book Scottish by Inclination was about. She came here thirty years ago, and has now written a non-fiction book about her time in Scotland, including interviews with a number of EU citizens who also came here some time in the past, and were expecting the right to a future.

The letter from the Scottish Government, telling us we are welcome here and they want us here, helped. But it’s no guarantee. Barbara has now acquired British citizenship, just to be on the safe side. She did this on the advice of Elizabeth Wein, who felt that it’s the only reliable thing to do, if you want to be sure.

Wearing her starry EU t-shirt, Barbara was talking to Margaret Kirk (who almost struggled to get a word in edgeways…). Barbara is a very cheerful force to be reckoned with. She read to us. Her arrival at Glasgow airport, where her first task was to find Fergus, which involved her walking round the arrivals hall singing, to attract the attention of the right very tall person. Then she read her memories from June 23rd five years ago, when the result of the referendum took her completely by surprise. (Available on YouTube.)

At first Barbara had no wish to write her memoirs, when it was suggested to her, but she changed her mind. And as I usually say, no one can tell you you have got your own story wrong.

She shared her path to British citizenship, which wasn’t plain sailing. With help from an excellent lawyer and making far too many trips from Inverness to Glasgow, she’s been successful. Barbara tested us on our knowledge of ‘Life in the UK’ from the official test (which I passed with flying colours). This could be because I have also taken, and studied for, this test. Mostly it seems people (those born here) got three out of five.

There was a question as to whether as a foreigner you have to be better, prove that you can do more than the natives. It certainly seems like it. But by now Barbara has decided she doesn’t need permission from others to determine ‘how Scottish’ she is. It’s her right to say, and she is Scottish by Inclination.

And so say all of us.

This, of course, has no bearing as to which football team she was rooting for on Wednesday evening.

The #28 profile – Barbara Henderson

It’s time to learn more about Barbara Henderson, the whirlwind behind The Chessmen Thief. This resident of Inverness has an unusual favourite Swede. I approve. And she clearly never gets tired. I’d approve of that too, if only I had the energy. Here she is, with answers and chessmen and everything:

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How many books did you write before the one that was your first published book?
It was my sixth book – although more if you count shorter books for younger readers. I am quite open about my 121 rejections before publication 😊. Not that I’m proud of those, but I am a little bit proud of persevering.

Best place for inspiration?
Anywhere outside, ideally next to some crumbling ruin which can fire up the imagination. Also, my bed, the twilight moments where conscious and subconscious ebb and flow. Some of my best ideas come then – I just need to whip myself out of bed to write it down, because by morning, it’ll all be gone.

Would you ever consider writing under a pseudonym? Perhaps you already do?
The honest answer is that I didn’t even think about it. It takes all my effort to maintain one identity – I just don’t think I have it in me to juggle another! Alhough sometimes I wonder if I missed a trick there – I could have given myself a really interesting pen name like Diamanda or Cwenhild…

What would you never write about? The World Wars, as they have been done really well by others. Sci-Fi, Crime and Legal Drama are also not my genres.

Through your writing: the most unexpected person you’ve met, or the most unexpected place you’ve ended up in? I was once approached by TRT World, kind of the Turkish version of News24, to do an interview about being an author and World Book Day, which I did. To this day, I am convinced they got the wrong person – I had two books out by then, with a small independent Scottish publisher, no agent, no foreign deals (so none of my books in Turkish bookshops). I was definitely not the person who would spring to mind if you are trying to think of a children’s author to feature in a flagship programme, with a famous anchorwoman. Bizarre, but a great buzz.

Which of your characters would you most like to be? In The Chessmen Thief, I’d love to be Margret hin haga – imagine being renowned across the whole known world for your carving skill! She was a real person, of course, and definitely a woman making her mark on a man’s world.

Do you think that having a film made of one of your books would be a good or a bad thing? I’d LOVE it, but I suppose I’d want it to be a fairly faithful adaptation!

What is the strangest question you’ve been asked at an event? I was timidly asked if I was okay once. But that was immediately after I had walked backwards during a particularly tense reading, fallen over my crate of books, landed in an undignified heap on the ground and sent books and shards of plastic flying everywhere. It was in front of a whole school assembly…

Do you have any unexpected skills? I can play the violin. Sort of. And according to my son, I am the best waffle-maker in the known universe. Does that count?

The Famous Five or Narnia? Narnia! I chose to write my university dissertation about C.S.Lewis!

Who is your most favourite Swede? Can I have two, please? Astrid Lindgren’s stories shaped my childhood. And as a teenager in the eighties, all my friends fancied Boris Becker, so as the resident rebel, I preferred Stefan Edberg!

How do you arrange your books at home? In a Billy? By colour, or alphabetically? Books are everywhere, but most of my children’s books occupy two large bookshelves in the living room. In an attempt to occupy my locked-down teen, I asked him to colour-arrange them for a change. It looks good, but the real benefit was that he stumbled across all his favourites from years gone by with sqeals of ‘I’d forgotten about this!’

Which book would you put in the hands of an unwilling eight-year-old boy reader? Probably You’re a Bad Man, Mr Gum, or How to Train Your Dragon

If you have to choose between reading or writing, which would it be?
Reading is for relaxing; writing is for feeling productive. So, due to my natural laziness: reading. 😊

OK, mine is a waffle with cream and jam, please!

The Chessmen Thief

I reckon this is Barbara Henderson’s best book [to date]. I didn’t want to pause my reading, but I had to. And I wasn’t even all that interested in the famous Lewis chessmen, but this was a pretty exciting tale, featuring suitably bloodthirsty ‘Norwegians’ and brave and pious early Christians, travelling the world hoping to save people.

As she admits, Barbara obviously made most of this up, apart from the chessmen and the guesswork of where they were carved and by whom. But I’m sold.

Kylan is a 12-year-old slave from Lewis, sold to a violent, but skilled craftsman in Trondheim, which is where he becomes part of the carving of the famous chess pieces. All he wants, though, is to escape so he can return to Lewis and hopefully find his mother, who at the same time was sold as a slave into another household.

He learns to carve, he talks his way into a perilous boat trip across the North Sea, there is danger and illness and a hard life in general. There are more than one lot of properly bad baddies, and knives are not merely used on the chessmen, but on mortal men as well.

It’s very much a men’s world, but Barbara manages to get the lots of women, and girls, into her story too. It makes you think. And her version of how the chessmen ended up where they did, is as plausible as the next one.

Now I want to travel to Lewis. No I don’t. It’s not the travel I’m keen on. But some aspects of Lewis appeal.