Researching salient points for an historical novel is a must.
But when is enough, enough?
I have just returned from my third research trip to Edinburgh, and, although I found out much that I didn’t already know, I was somewhat slack-jawed at the lack of knowledge in one particular area. I needed to know what Edinburgh Castle was like back in the late thirteenth century, and early fourteenth century, but could find no contemporary information of how it was back then.
I went to the National Library of Scotland, and could find nothing there, so then I went to Edinburgh Castle with the sure knowledge that asking at the source would bring forth the information required. It didn’t. Dumfounded, that made me stop in my tracks. What was I to do? I needed to be able to walk the metaphorical corridors of the castle, so that, in my mind’s eye I could see my characters playing their part. I asked this question in a group that I’m an admin in, The Review. Answers came thick and fast, and it was a great discussion, with suggestions on how to deal with the lack of information. All duly noted, and appreciated; and I will utilise their information. But, I was still perplexed as to why there was no information about the castle in the time period in which I was particularly interested.
I have a book, Fortress of the Kingdom – Archaeology and Research at Edinburgh Castle, by Gordon Ewart and Dennis Gallagher, Archaeology Report #7, and published through Historical Scotland. It’s a wonderful book, with pictures and diagrams of relevant archaeology done over time. There are drawings, which are colour coded to show which parts were built in which time. For example, a mustard colour shows what was built in the years 1050-1300, and a dark sage green shows what was built in 1300-1450; see image below. “Great!” says I, only to find no evidence for the first time period, and scant evidence for the second time period. Back to the drawing board.
It would seem to me that I have been given a carte blanche ticket to describe that time as I may. After all, if there is no contemporary evidence on how the castle looked, then it is up to me to see it in my imagination. Luckily for me, I have a friend who knows a lot about how castles may have been built in that time, and has given me suggestions with which to work. Notes taken, bullet points made for reference, the next step is to continue writing.
I also went to, Kinghorn, which I had seen it on Google Earth. It looked a pretty place, an idyllic seaside village, with one very important reputation; this is where the death of Alexander III took place. I can read and envision a place in my mind’s eye, but there is nothing that beats actually visiting that place, if at all possible. I am well aware of constraints in time and travel, and it is not always possible to do that. Luckily, I have been able to, so far.
It was a 40 minute train ride from Edinburgh, so I saw the surrounding countryside, and made mental notes on what I had seen. When the train pulled in at Kinghorn, and I stood on its platform, the silence was incredible. The train went on its way, the rails humming with its journey. I looked up at the sky, blue, with very little cloud. I looked about me to find the way out from this two-platform station. Either take the steps to cross the railway line, or walk up the slope to the road. Slope to the road won out. I have to say, at this point, that when you look at something on Google Earth, you just don’t take into consideration the topography of a place. Kinghorn is built on the slopes of the surrounding countryside. When I say ‘slopes’, I mean gradients that take strong legs, and a young heart!
I reached the road, after navigating a hairpin curve, which entailed me having to hold onto the brick wall in order to stay upright. (I’m 69 with an artificial hip, so need to take care of it). I walked, slowly, taking in the surroundings. A lady came out of the only shop that I saw, to have a smoke. I walked passed her, bidding her a friendly ‘hallo’, she nodded, and dragged on her cigarette. I walked perhaps another 100 yards, looked at the rise in the road, and decided not to try and find the memorial to Alexander III, which is placed at the presumed exact place that he went over the cliff. Now, although I would not technically call it a cliff, it is very high, the surrounding slopes being covered in vegetation, and what looks like volcanic rock, black, and jagged.
I turned, and began to walk back to the station, not because I wanted to return to Edinburgh, but because I wasn’t sure what I wanted to do next. My stomach grumbled. Decision made. Food was next. The lady was still outside the shop partaking of her fix of nicotine. I smiled at her, and asked if there was anywhere to eat. She took the cigarette from her mouth, flicked the ash, and pointed with it to the tea room just beyond where I had subsequently walked. I thanked her, she nodded, and she resumed her smoking.
When I had ordered my soup, and bread, I sat by the window. A really good vantage point, as the bay was laid out before me. I could see up the coast to the right, and thought about how Alexander III might have fallen. Considering the facts that I have read, he was found on the beach, neck broken, with his dead steed. The tide must have been out, for when it comes in, it reaches the rocks which rise to the road. So my questions were; what time did he fall? How far out was the tide? Was it just going out at that point, or did he fall into the sea, and then left on the shore for all to find in the morning? Where were his grooms?
There are slopes and steps down to the beach, steep slopes, and steep steps. I wasn’t going to attempt the descent, for, whereas going down may be the easier option, returning would most certainly be very difficult. I sat on an iron, semi-circular, rough iron bench, and watched, with some trepidation, a woman with a pushchair filled with child, and two dogs let loose to run down on their own. She was leaning back in order not to career down the slope at full speed, and when she returned, she came up backwards, hauling pushchair and child, dogs now on their leashes, tongues dangling.
With this knowledge of slopes, topography, the quietness, I decided I had enough of a feeling for Kinghorn to be able to write about it sincerely. So, back to the station, the hill once ascended, now descending with great caution, leaning back in order to keep my balance. I think the village needs renaming ‘Precipitous Terrain’ with Kinghorn in brackets.
On the journey back to Edinburgh, my thoughts were returned to my characters. They popped into my head, insisting on me listening to them. So, of course, I did. So wrapped up in my thoughts, I was surprised to be back in Edinburgh. Luckily for me, it is the end of the line, otherwise I think I would have gone way past my stop.
As I walked up the hill back to my hotel, I remembered the slopes at Kinghorn. I imagined myself with the king’s party. In my mind’s eye, I saw his grooms go off to the left, the storm which had become worse, sweeping their voices away, the king not hearing them. I tried to imagine how it must have felt to fall, horse and all, over the cliff. The lurching of stomach; the tumbling down the cliff; and the brutal landing, ending with a broken neck. Then nothing but the storm, and the raging sea, as surely it must have been, and Scotland left without an heir to the throne.
This is where the politics of the time made more sense to me than ever they had before. This is where the intrigue began, the battle for the throne, and the unrest that eventually saw the first war fought for Scottish Independence.
So, together with all the information that I had gleaned from my other research trips, I thought that there was not much else to research. Well, not until I started to write down what I had learned on this trip. Those things will be researched on the internet, and in one or many of the various books that I have accumulated on Scotland’s history; and the help that I received in The Review, when I put my question forward about how the castle may have looked back in the late thirteenth and early fourteenth centuries.
I spent a very full six days in Edinburgh. This is a city that I have come to love since my first visit in February 2014. It’s a great city, where everything is within walking distance, and history leeks out of the buildings beckoning you to go inside and discover more. If I had my way, I would visit every few months, for it has become an addiction for me. A real home from home. I live on a small island, just four miles by four miles, called Hayling Island, just off the coast of mainland Hampshire. We aren’t isolated, we have a road bridge connecting us to everywhere else. It’s just such a different environment from Edinburgh, but the great thing we share is the friendliness, the welcome, the ‘sit a wee while and chat’, and the ‘Don’t forget to come back soon’.
I will be going back. After all, this is just Book One in The Touching of Stones series.