Tag Archives: Barbara Henderson

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.

The Siege of Caerlaverock

Barbara Henderson’s short novel about the [real] siege of the castle of Caerlaverock, near Dumfries in southern Scotland, is a fabulous adventure for any age. Once I’d started, I could barely put the book aside.

The year is 1300, and Ada, a 12-year-old laundress, is about to do something she shouldn’t. This act causes her to get to know the new Page boy Godfrey, and it brings both of them to the attention of the castle commander, who is not a nice man.

The Lord of the castle has gone away, looking for support, leaving his young Lady wife in charge. And then the English King turns up, with 3000 men, against the 60 or so left at Caerlaverock.

We learn much about how a castle like this was run, and how hard it was to be poor and powerless like Ada and her father. But this is a story about personal bravery and the fight both against the villainous commander and the King of England.

It gets very exciting, and it’s good to see female leadership and that eight-year-old page boys are first and foremost only eight years old, but with the courage to become a brave Knight one day.

And Kings, well, they never last long, do they?

Zooming in on Caerlaverock

I sat right at the front at the launch of Barbara Henderson’s new book, The Siege of Caerlaverock. Not like me at all, you might think, but I was in front of my laptop, with people zooming in from all over Scotland. Mostly Scotland, I think. The beauty of these online events is that anyone can attend, and I doubt that half of us would have made the trek to Inverness for a traditional bookshop launch.

I could see most of the others, but due to me eating my way through salad and bread and cheese, I kept my camera off. More dignified that way. There seemed to be 33 of us, which is pretty good for a bookshop gathering.

Introduced by Cranachan’s Anne Glennie, we had Lindsay Littleson interviewing Barbara, and Anne shared photos of everything from the ancient tower in Germany near where Barbara grew up, to pictures of Caerlaverock castle where the story happened in real life, in 1300.

Barbara described how she – almost by accident – forced her family to visit the castle on a short holiday, and how she was bewitched by the story of the siege, and photographed every inch of the surrounding area as well as the displays in the museum. She was especially happy when she discovered there could be a female lead, both in the laundress girl Ada, but also the Lady of the castle because the Lord was away. (Did you know castle cooks were always men?)

She created the really evil villain, and perhaps there were one or two spoilers, but luckily I had read past the relevant bits. Just in case you’d rather not hear, I won’t tell you how Barbara redesigned the castle…

Barbara read to us from chapter one, and a bit about the villain, and she knows just when to stop!

After some questions from the audience, it was time for us to gather up our salad bowls and put our slippers back on, taking the lead from Anne. And they won’t mind at all if anyone who reads the book leaves a review on ‘you-know-where’.

Round Scotland in books

Scottish children’s fiction has been on my mind these last few days. It’s not that it isn’t ‘always’ but I had an idea I had to think about. And there are so many books!

Barbara Henderson must have had too much time on her hands as she sat down to convert fifty tweets into a blog post, listing fifty children’s books set in places all over Scotland.

This is such an interesting list. I know some of the books, know of some of the other books, and have never heard of far too many of them. I could very easily use this compilation as a shopping/library list.

And you, why don’t you give A Tour Around Scotland in 50 Children’s Books a go? While you, and I, wait to be able to travel.

All you need are books.

Stay at Home!

It’s not only sourdough bread that has happened over the last three months. Many authors have come up with online material to offer readers. In fact, there’s been such a glut that I’ve not been able to keep up. I just know there is much to find.

Small Scottish publisher Cranachan Publishing has a free ebook offering a wide variety of things to read. Their ‘Stay at Home! Poems and Prose for Children in Lockdown is a a free, illustrated anthology of poems and stories for children aged 8-12, comprising specially written lockdown-themed contributions by 40 writers based in Scotland.’

Try it! There are household names, and there are names you might not have heard of. Yet. But this is a nice collection, and what’s almost nicer still, is how people have pulled together to make it happen.