Tuesday, 19 November 2013

I'm an author ... get me out of here

I HAVE FINALLY done it.
I have just paid a Glasgow printers for a small print run of The Sleeping Warrior and they are due to arrive hot off the press in a few days.
I have also organised a physical book launch in my home town on 5th December: my very first venture out of Cyberspace and into the real world.
For those who don't enjoy being under public scrutiny, there is a lot to be said about internet promotion. You only need to reveal that part of you that you want others to see; tell the curious what you want to tell them; and package yourself with a virtual smile on your face from a photo you are truly sick of looking at.
There is, however, nowhere to hide in the real world. The stammering, the self-doubt and even the warts all light up like the proverbial Beleshia beacons and, before many expectant faces, there is a tendency for even the most hardened of public orators to implode inwards or run screaming to the taxi rank.
A friend of mine, who is also a very successful writer and has made many a public appearance in her time, gave me the following advice:
"Remember to talk more slowly, have a plan. I either type or write about seven  or eight headings to keep me on track. If I'm doing a reading, I time it.
"Remember also that, if folk are sitting there, they're already interested."
She also says to be honest and chatty for the inevitable question time.
Although I may appear quite forthright and confident to most of my friends, I am actually quite shy of strangers and absolutely loathe the idea of selling myself.
To counteract this, I am fortunate enough to have enlisted the aid of another very good friend and a local BBC journalist, Giancarlo Rinaldi, who knows me well and will introduce me on the night. He is funny and interesting and will probably put on such a wonderful performance that people will forget about my book signing and ask him for his autograph instead.
In an ideal world, that would be fine for me as I could sneak out the back door and let out a heavy sigh of relief into the cold Scottish evening.
Debut novels, however, rarely sell themselves and, for the past few weeks, I have been printing out posters and placing them on strategic notice boards around the town. I have also been posting the launch on Twitter, Facebook, KILTR, my writing forums and anywhere else with a bit of blank space.The next move is a press release to the local paper and an interview for an article.
On the day, I'm going to find something to wear that the cat hasn't been sitting on and brave my first public appearance as a new author.
I'll report back on 6th December.


Thursday, 7 November 2013

Safari njema

THERE'S something about Africa that gets into the soul.
It's not just the beauty of its natural environment, its culture and its people, Africa is an ancient spirit and, once you've heard it, its song never leaves you.
A trip to Kenya is possibly one of the most gentle introductions to this far-flung continent for the uninitiated.
A hot climate, miles of game reserves, leagues of sandy beaches and a clement welcome, all help to make visitors feel safe and comfortable travelling through the country as well as providing plenty to do and see.
There has been a lot of recent hysteria over the danger to tourists going to Kenya. With election troubles; a fire which gutted the arrivals building at Jomo Kenyatta airport; the Westgate Mall siege; the threat of kidnapping by Somali pirates; and the acid attacks on Christians in Mombasa, the country's tourist industry has taken a heavy blow and, as usual, it's the little people who are suffering from the shortfall of feet from the west.
BEACH BOY: Diani beach
Along the eastern coastline lies Diani beach, an exotic picture paradise painted white and azure blue with warm sands, coconut palms and a seascape of breakers gently rolling across a coral reef.
Here can be found some of Kenya's most opulent hotels where guests can relax and enjoy all the luxurious hospitality, together with its excessive trimmings, East Africa has to offer.
But Kenya also has a dark side.
At the hotels, the same staff will serve you breakfast as well as dinner and breakfast the next day. Working hours are long and one waiter told me with a smile: "You have to be strong to survive these shifts."
Between the complexes and the beach, a narrow strip of vegetation creates a divide as wide as the Great Rift Valley.
While overweight, over-pampered, scarlet-faced guests sip their cocktails in the shade of a midday sun, poor traders are forced to peddle their wares under the full force of the African heat. They target tourists in the hope of selling their colourful kangas (sarongs), carved wooden animals or even a king coconut.
They know their place and never step across that tiny strip of green that separates them from potential punters. They're not beggars; they don't want something for nothing. Although often annoying, but always warm, happy and exuberant, the "Beach Boys", as they are affectionately known, are just trying to earn a living like everyone else and they'll stand for hours on the beach trying to catch an eye.
NOT FOR SALE: on the Malindi road
And it's not just a few plants that separate the rich from the poor in Kenya. In Nairobi, 60 per cent of the population occupies just six per cent of the land: most of them contained inside the dark confines of Kibera shanty town - the second largest slum on the continent next to Soweto in South Africa.
Fifty per cent of Kibera's inhabitants are unemployed, despite its proximity to the booming industrial area of the city and, as with many poor parts of town, alcohol and drug abuse is rife; health and sanitation poor.
Along the coastline, there were stories of whole villages being uprooted (some allegedly at gunpoint) and moved out of their traditional homes to make way for new luxury hotels and apartment complexes. Between the millionaires' havens, the road from Ukunda to Malindi is fringed with tiny villages of mud huts with corrugated iron roofs: the real Africa and the places where its true spirit lies.
REAL GIRAFFE: Nairobi National Park
It is true to say that comparisons are odious and it's wrong to attribute western values to the lives of those who are untouched by it. But it's difficult to believe that almost half of the people living in one of the best developed economies in Eastern Africa survive in poverty and lack the basic necessities for human subsistence.
It's not my intention to paint a bad picture of a beautiful, vibrant country. Whenever I visit a new place, I like to look below its surface and normally veer away from the spots where tourists are herded.
I did go on a small safari, because I wanted to see with my own eyes animals in their natural habitats that I would otherwise only see in a zoo. The sights were spectacular and I would love to return and visit the Masai Mara some day to do it properly.
CAMELS and fishing boats in Diani
Kenya's tourist industry is struggling at the moment because we in the west feel that it is unsafe to travel there.
Terrorism, however, is a global problem and it's doubtful that there's anywhere truly safe in the world.
There's a big military presence along the coastline, all eyes looking out to sea, and security has been stepped up in the cities in order to protect people from harm.
Kenya is a magical place, bursting with spirit, dynamism and contradiction. It is a place where everyone should pay a visit to at least once in their lives to recognise perspective at the very least.

Wednesday, 16 October 2013

Resurrection of Borley Rectory

Borley Rectory: the most haunted house in England
WITH a legendary reputation of being 'the most haunted house in England', it's not surprising that the bones of Borley Rectory have been dug up to produce what is set to be a prominent best-seller in the fiction market.

I remember, in my youth, reading a book about Victorian ghost hunter Harry Price's investigations at the notorious haunted house of Essex. That book terrorised me so much that I couldn't read more than half of it. I had nightmares for years and it put paid to my fascination for the paranormal and things that go bump in the night for many more.

It wasn't just the pictures of the imposing house, the eerie figures, bricks suspended in mid-air or spectral writing on the walls, it was the witness statements and true accounts of horrific paranormal phenomena that occurred in and around the rectory, even when Price was conducting his investigations.

The rectory appeared to have more than one ghost and there was a strong suggestion of poltergeist activity that could not be explained away by fact or science. From my distant recollections, I remember reading about the ghostly figure of a nun who would walk through the garden and peer into the window of the dining room. The vicar got so fed up with the meal-time intrusion that he bricked the window up. A spirit attached itself to a woman called Marianne and would write on the wall beside her, appealing to her to light mass candles. When one young lady got hauled out of bed by the hair by unseen hands and dragged across the room, enough was enough for me and I slammed the book shut forever, finding a cold comfort beneath the covers of my bed with the light on.

There have been very many books, films and documentaries created about Borley over the years and very many websites dedicated to its name. Some dispel the assumption of paranormal activity; others claim to verify the truth of it. Some have even dramatised the events which took place at Borley in serial fiction. Irrespective of whether the stories are true or arise from the mischievous imaginations of some of the rectory's inhabitants, it makes a fabulous ghost story and an off-the-peg template for an instant best-seller.


Now novelist and entrepreneur, Neil Spring, has resurrected the haunting once more in his book The Ghost Hunters which is due to be published next week. From the excerpt I have read, it is a well-crafted, stylised work by an intelligent author who gives meticulous care to structure and sense. There wasn't enough story-line in the excerpt, so I can't fairly comment on his ability for characterisation or plot, but I have a spooky feeling it will be excellent.

The Ghost Hunters follows Price's investigations through the first-person narrative of his young assistant, Sarah Grey, and Spring asserts that 'the novel isn't just about a haunting, it's about the interpretation of hauntings and the nature of belief.'

I would love to read it but I'm not sure if I have the nerve to re-visit the stories that have haunted me since childhood. Perhaps it's time to lay my ghosts and man-up!

Saturday, 28 September 2013

Self-promotion for the bashful

WHEN I told a writing buddy about my fears of falling under the spotlight of self-promotion, he said 'get over yourself.'
A bit harsh, I know, but he is absolutely right and also happens to be quite a successful author.
I am usually the one behind the camera; the one conducting the interviews; and the one promoting another person's work.
Self-promotion is anathema to me and one of the most difficult tasks a self-published author will ever have to undertake. You just have to let go of the pride and say it's got to be done.
The impersonal nature of social media makes promotional work relatively easy to stomach. It's like creating a mirror image of yourself and hiding behind that artificial persona that really isn't you. I will probably never meet the thousands of Twitter, Facebook and blog followers I've made and so can dare to be a little more blatant about pushing my book on them, often just falling short of spamming.
It is comforting to note that I have joined the serried ranks of thousands of other authors doing the same thing and there's a sense of safety in numbers; a collective conscience with a common goal in mind. Those numbers, however, are so vast that it makes it almost impossible for anyone to notice an individual grain of sand in the desert dunes.
There are, mercifully, many book reviewers, bloggers and readers who generously give up their time to help support authors. I'm compiling a list of them on Pinterest.
Some charge for their time and effort, while others do it for the love of reading or as a cross-promotional tool. I've had a look around the internet and can't find any real evidence of whether paying a site to promote your book actually equates to sales.
The good people who do it for free are not looking for a quick business opportunity and have no intention of fleecing authors. Avid readers will offer to review a book for merely the price of an e-copy; while bloggers, especially those who have just started up, will offer an interview or guest post in order to swell their page counts and followers.
The trouble is that there are just too many authors out there all wanting their books noticed and, I've seen it many a time on Goodreads, a reader will put out a request for review copies and the next moment free books are coming at them in a relentless swarm like a scene from a zombie movie.
There's a lot more about this on my publisher's blog at Ivy Moon Press.
The next step, I am dreading: launching my book and myself in the physical world with no avatar to hide behind.
Makes writing a book seem like a walk in the park ....




Monday, 23 September 2013

Genre Benders: A speculative approach to fiction


THERE was a time when all ‘genre’ fiction was regarded with haughty disdain by librarians and publishers of quality, realistic literary works. As more people learned to read, however, access to books was no longer the privilege of scholarly bureaucrats and popular fiction was born. 

In order to feed the voracious appetites of patrons and readers respectively, more novels were commissioned and written in a wide variety of subjects, themes, structures and functions. This led to the classification of popular fiction into subject matter or ‘genre’ as we know it.

Publishers rely on strict classification for promotion and marketing. Bookshops require that each new work of fiction is labelled with a ‘genre’ in order to maximise readership and revenue. By placing a book on the right section of the right shelf eases access to buyers’ preferences, thereby increasing sales. Libraries need a classification system by which to help their patrons choose what they want to read.

This has been the traditional way of the fiction market for a very long time and authors whose works crossed those fixed genres had a high chance of being turned down by publishers for the sole reason of failing to belong on a shelf.

Only a few years ago, most speculative, or cross-genre, fiction was sniffed at by many publishers who couldn’t see past their profit and loss accounts to take the risk of baffling bookshops and libraries with works they could not label. A similar treatment was given to erotica which was deemed only to be read by dirty old men in raincoats.

The very word ‘speculative’ denotes conjecture, chance, theory over practicality and a high risk of loss, suggesting that whoever dreamed up that category had a very cynical view of crossing stereotypical classifications. That said, there have been some very successful novels written in this sub-genre of general fiction but they are few in comparison to other more traditional genres.

Speculative fiction, as a concept, has been around for millennia. It was written by the great Greek dramatists and by Shakespeare long before Robert Henlein wrote Life-Line. In fact, every work of fiction can be said to contain a speculative element, no matter how subtle. It is only since the ’40s that the term has been further stretched and distorted to include an element of fantasy, sci-fi, horror or paranormal in the narrative.

The coming of the mighty Amazon, has opened the minds of publishers as well as the locks to their submission gates to speculative fiction as reader trends have demonstrated a hearty appetite for the genre. As superheroes, vampire-slayers and boy wizards wage war against evil in contemporary or dystopian societies - and also on far-off planets - on television, cinema, computer and hand-held screens, spec-fic novels are being gobbled up by new fans and are even appealing to younger readers who would otherwise say that books are for bores and losers.

E-pub websites have revolutionised the publishing business in that readers are now choosing what they want to read as opposed to publishers telling them what they should. The effect has been brutal on the established publishing houses who are all reeling in the wake of the e-book explosion and the movement away from the traditional business model. Without the watchdog of a publisher, however, the absence of quality in many self-published books is a serious cause for concern as is the saturation of the market by thousands of new books being published every day that is giving readers too much choice.

For authors, the likes of Amazon, Smashwords and FeedARead have granted them that freedom of expression that traditional publishing houses have denied them. Now anyone can be an author. Amazon et al have no limitations to their lists, no selection process and no submission constraints. They don’t discriminate on quantity or even quality but instead allow readers to enforce the rules.

Whether this is good or bad is a completely different subject for debate, suffice it to say that now every book has a chance to be read and speculative fiction in all its many guises has an undeniable position on the shelves of quality literature.

Monday, 9 September 2013

Author interviews

TRYING to keep up to date with the social networking platforms is exhausting but often the results are very satisfying.
While I'm busy promoting my own book, over at Ivy Moon Press I've interviewed three quality authors and would really like others to take a good look at their work.
Bill Kirton, Mary Smith and Michael Brookes are a diverse trio of talented writers who I've brought together in my publishers' blog in the hope that my small efforts may get them noticed by a few more readers.
Take a look and see for yourself: http://ivymoonpress.wordpress.com/

Saturday, 7 September 2013

Writing, designing, editing and selling: The journey of a new book


The Sleeping Warrior by Sara Bain

MANY people believe that writing a book ends with the words THE END. How wrong can they be?
I'm in half a mind to update those last two words of my debut novel, The Sleeping Warrior, to read IT BEGINS because writing the book is only a fraction of the time and effort it takes to bring a new work to the attention of the world's readers.
I decided not to go with a publisher. I think I've got the experience and skills to go it alone, so started up a small press where the first book on its lists is written, published and promoted by me.
Publishing is not as straightforward a business as people think. From the initial editing process to design, through to making the work available on all reading formats, is a long and often frustrating task.
No matter how many times you proof your own work, there is always something to change. Even after having The Sleeping Warrior proofed by two very excellent editors, who I trust to be pedantic and subjective, I still found some little bits and pieces that needed amendment.
The trouble is, there is no such thing as perfection in the world of publishing any more. Too often, I open a traditionally published book and find glaring typos on the pages. Cuts to staff and the freelance budgets as well as department restructures across the publishing industry have taken a large toll on quality, even amongst the publishing giants.
In addition, I've heard that marketing budgets are minimal, so publishers like their authors to be 'pro-active' in the promotion of their own works. Roughly translated, this means that authors (unless the name is a marketable commodity in itself) must develop a presence on the internet by social networking; find outlets for reviews and interviews by undertaking their own press work; get themselves a spot on the literary calendars by finding hosts for book launches, talks and presences at book events; and generally sell their souls to anyone they know who is able to help them spread the word.
If authors are being forced to become their own press officers and advertisement managers, then why give away the royalties to a business that's not prepared to invest in you?
Apart from said time and effort, it costs nothing to put a book up on the likes of Amazon, Smashwords and FeedARead etc. It costs nothing to set up a print on demand service and have paperback copies made available across the world and it costs nothing to make the book available to the big bookshops and worldwide distributors.
Initial outlay costs are low. Anyone serious about self-publishing who wants to keep complete control over sale of his/her/their books will need an ISBN which can only be bought in blocks of ten for about £128: these are cheaper if bought in bulk, as the larger publishing houses do. Otherwise, for the self-published author who just wants to get that book out there, Amazon et al will provide a free ISBN but also reserve the right to publish a particular version exclusively.
Investing cash in a good editor is vital as is finding a good cover design. Most authors are not graphic designers but most authors also have an inkling as to what they want their cover to look like: one that's eye-catching and tells the story, or at least part of it. I'm lucky to be an able graphic designer and so can keep full control over what I want the end product to look like.
I've developed a good following on Twitter and am working on my Goodreads and Facebook profiles while trying to get the websites up and running.
The eBook version is out but I've had a few problems with CreateSpace which have delayed the proofs so the paperbacks won't be available until the end of the month (or when I get to see the proofs, whichever is the soonest).
I need to do a few booklaunches and send out a few press releases but need the paperback copies before I can set these particular wheels in motion. In consequence, I am organising a small print run with my local printers.
Trouble is, I'm so busy blogging and networking, that the author part of me has become lost.
Why be an author if no one reads your book. It's a bit of a chicken and egg situation at the moment, but I'll get there.



Monday, 2 September 2013

Moving home

I am moving.
I've written and published my very first book and I am very proud of myself.
I've built a new website on Wix as a temporary measure until I get the chance to build one properly.
You can find me at www.spbain.wix.com/sarabain
You can also follow my publishing journey on www.ivymoonpress.wordpress.com or visit my publishers' website at: www.ivymoon-press.co.uk (once it's built, that is).
See you there.

Monday, 1 July 2013

The horrid sinne of Witchcraft

'Thou shalt not suffer a witch to live’ says the Bible (Exodus 22:18) and two hundred years of witch hunters ensured that The Word was spread. In Scotland thousands of men and women stood accused before their Kirk Sessions for the 'horrid sinne of witchcraft' and, just over three hundred years ago, Dumfries and Galloway saw the very last witch trial in the United Kingdom.

AGNES Commes, Janet McGowane, Jean Tomson, Margaret Clerk, Janet McKendrig, Agnes Clerk, Janet Corsane, Helen Moor head and Janet Callon — the names as they would appear today could all belong to the members of a local rural.
These unrelated women with the unremarkable titles, however, suffered the same brutal fate in 1659 — they were strangled and burned at the stake on Dumfries Whitesands for ‘the horrid sinne of witchcraft.’
For over a two-hundred year period, political and religious conviction was responsible for the torture and death of many innocent people across Europe.
In Scotland, during the time of the witch trials, 3,867 formal accusations of witchcraft were made.
Of those, roughly half of the defendants were executed. In this region 128 of those cases came before our Kirk Sessions.
In 1514, the Steward of Kirkudbright was commissioned to apprehend and try named subjects who were suspected of witchcraft.
In 1563 the newly established Church of Scotland made it illegal to be a witch or to consult a witch. An Act of Parliament followed that year making the crime a capital offence.
The coming of James VI marked a very dark and terrifying time for all who lived on the fringes of society.
His treatise entitled ‘Daemonology’ in 1597 passionately denounced the practice of witchcraft and instigated a brutal rampage of slaughter that would last for the remainder of his reign.
Later, the General Assembly continued this work by passing a decade of Condemnatory Acts against witches in the 1640s.
The third peak began in Galloway when nine women were strangled and burned on the Whitesands in 1659.
More and more witch finders came forward, demanding their fees for rounding up suspects and torturing confessions from them.
All methods of inhumanity were utilised to extract a statement of guilt. Witch hunters were also known to torture the suspect’s family in front of them in an effort to exchange confession for coin.
Those found with a ‘witch mark’ would be pricked with 3’ needles through the spot. If the accused cried out in pain, he or she would be deemed innocent of the ‘sinne’. If nothing was felt or it did not bleed, she would certainly be a witch.
Throughout Europe men and (mainly) women were either brandished, banished, jailed or burned for their allegedly evil deeds.
Galloway boasts the last recorded witch burning in Scotland, taking place in 1698 when Elspeth MacEwen was found guilty of, amongst other things, ‘a compact and correspondence with the devil.’
The last witchcraft trial in the United Kingdom took place in Dumfries in 1708 when Elspeth Rule was branded on her cheek with a hot iron and banished from Scotland.
Dr Lizanne Henderson, lecturer in History at Glasgow University’s Crichton Campus, Dumfries, is an authority on European folklore and Scottish history.
She said: ‘Scotland was later in persecuting witches than England, Germany, France, etc, but not by much. Other European countries, such as Hungary, were still persecuting witches well into the 18th century.
‘The Kirk in this part of Scotland very rarely employed witch finders. There were, however, some individual ministers who were reluctant to give up belief in witches as they thought it was linked to atheism and an erosion of Christian belief and values.’
But who were these enemies of God and king?
Dr Henderson explained that there was no evidence to suggest that witches actually performed the feats they were accused of.
‘The average person accused of witchcraft generally would have been mainly female — males made up about 15 per cent of cases,’ she said.
‘This was no an attack on a particular gender nor was it founded upon superstition. Witchcraft was part of the belief system at the time and very real to everyone. When bad things happened — like a cow would stop
milking, a hen refused to lay, crops failed or milk curdled in the churn — the victim would look for a logical explanation for his misfortunes.
‘The practice of witchcraft was a logical explanation at the time and the remedy would be to find the person who was causing it.’
Midwives, people with squints, herbalists, those with deformities and those living on society's social margins were all deemed suspects.
Many of the victims were elderly women who relied on the local landowner or farmer for charitable donations of food to maintain a meagre existence.
In Lanarkshire in 1612, Alison Devise was sentenced to public execution for practising witchcraft. She was 11 years old.
‘What people were fighting against was "the witch", Dr Henderson explained, ‘and people would look for the most likely suspect.
‘This was normally an older person who was perhaps unpopular in the village; or particularly ill-tempered; or had behaved in a certain way over a period of time that would give him or her a bad reputation amongst the villagers.’
It was this reputation, built up over the years, that would brand them as suspicious. But it was the establishment of the day that would eventually condemn them.
‘The legal system and the clergy were not concerned with the actual result of the alleged witchcraft. They were more interested in how the witch was performing her feats and put this down to a relationship with the devil.
‘Witches were accused of denouncing their Christianity and entering into a pact with the devil. This was a far more serious crime and one that imposed most severe penalties.’
The Witchcraft Act was repealed in 1736.
‘After this date it was no longer possible to legally prosecute someone for the crime of witchcraft,’ said Dr Henderson, ‘though you could still prosecute for 'pretended witchcraft' which actually happened to Jean Maxwell from Kirkcudbright in 1805. She was sent to prison for one year.’
Today, it is difficult to believe that eminent members of the church and state could actually entertain the notion that a human being could turn into a beetle, speak with the devil or cause lameness in a horse by just looking at it, let alone fly across oceans on a broomstick.
Some of these individuals could indeed have practised witchcraft as we know it today, but most of them were simply innocent victims of their time.
In a modern society where human rights and individual liberty are sacrosanct, certain factions of the pagan religion are now safe to call themselves ‘witches’ without fear of a painful combustion, yet the stigma remains and our need for the existence of the anti-hero feeds it.
Five hundred years on we carry the same perception of ‘the witch’ as people did then — only we no longer kill them.
Instead many of us erroneously acknowledge their existence with a certain amount of trepidation and sometimes even ridicule.
It takes a very courageous individual to admit to being a witch. The link with Satanism and black magic certainly makes for a bad public image, but the majority of witches are gentle environmentalists and the colour of their magic is normally white and often very green.

Saturday, 29 June 2013

Return to Rerrick

A LONELY tree stands twisted and
silent on a hill near Auchencairn.
It has a beautiful panoramic vista which includes the Solway and the mountains of Cumbria.
It is apparently the last of a line of trees that were planted on the site of the former Ringcroft of Stocking a few hundred years ago.
They have come to be known as “The Ghost Trees” and were put there either to contain evil spirits or to remind the living world that there are many more realms to this existence.
Some locals believe that, when the last of the ghost trees dies, the evil spirit that haunted a farmer and his family over three hundred years ago will return.
The Rerrick Parish Poltergeist is a chilling tale and one of the most well-documented
events of its kind.
In 1695 a farmer and his family were subjected to three months of violent paranormal activity in and around their farmhouse in the parish of Rerrick.
Five priests performed an exorcising ritual for two weeks, but the angry spirit only got worse.
In the end, it suddenly left of its own volition and, so far, has not been back.
There are a number of houses close to the site and one of them in particular is purported to be haunted.
An Auchencairn man and his teenage daughter, both of whom prefer not to be named, lived in a small cottage possibly built on the ancient boundaries of the steading.
The man told of strange occurrences in the house while he was living there a few years ago.
“We used to find teaspoons in the hearth in the mornings,” he said.
“I don't know why something should want to put these objects among the ashes but we got so used to it that it didn't really bother us.
“One day my daughter was walking out of the kitchen and heard a loud crash behind her.
“A pan had apparently fallen off the shelf and landed on the floor by her feet.
“There is nothing particularly unusual about something falling off a shelf, only that particular pan must have travelled about five feet through the air and across the kitchen.
It could only have been thrown.
“One morning I was in the kitchen and the kettle switched itself on.
“I tried switching that kettle on and off a hundred times afterwards to see whether it was possible for it to come on by itself.
“The button actually takes quite a bit of pressure to switch it on, so I put that down to the
ghost.”
There were also strange knocks on the door and something twanged the guitar strings on more than one occasion.
The man, who still lives close to Auchencairn, was also told by an elderly local that he was one of the longest serving tenants in that house.
People often came and then left quite swiftly after.
“There were strange things going on in the house, but I never once felt frightened or apprehensive about living there" the man said.
"Whatever it was, didn't particularly bother me.”
The Ringcroft of Stocking did have a reputation for being haunted before the MacKie incident and it appears that perhaps it still is.
Hopefully though, whatever it was that subjected Andrew Mackie and his family to three months of torment and horror over three hundred years ago will never return in our lifetimes.
Let’s hope so.

The Rerrick Poltergeist

THE GHOST TREE: Pictured is the twisted oak that stands in a field just outside the village of Auchencairn. It is the last tree to remain on the site of the Ringcroft of Stocking where one of the most bizarre and violent hauntings ever to have been recorded took place. Local lore says that, when the last of the ghost trees dies, the Rerrick poltergeist will return.

IT seems strange that, despite thousands of years of perfecting our native speech, we have to rely upon our European neighbours to accurately describe a symptom of paranormal phenomenon.
The word “poltergeist” derives from the German “poltern” to make a racket, and, of course,“Geist” which could only mean ghost.There is no alternative translation in the English (and Scots) language.
Perhaps this is why this exotic word strikes fear and apprehension in the unsuspecting.
How can the dead touch the living world and, moreover, what harm can it do?
The supernatural remains unproblematic and simple, provided it keeps itself to itself. When it poses a danger or a threat to the living, however, it is time to worry.
In 1695 a real event happened to real people in the parish of Rerrick (now Auchencairn.On a windswept hill on the outskirts of Auchencairn lies the site of the Ringcroft of Stocking. 
This was once the home of farmer Andrew Mackie and his family.
Apart from a singular tree that stands in a forlorn field, there is little else to mark the existence of one of the most bizarre and violent chapters in the paranormal history of Dumfries and Galloway and probably the world.
The events have been well documented, even in the Encyclopaedia Britannica, and someone has yet to come forward and dispute the written testimony of a learned priest at the time and 14 eminent members of the community who bore witness to the strange happenings on the Mackie steading.
One morning in February 1695, farmer Mackie woke up to find his cattle had been set loose from the byre and their ropes had been cut. He thought it strange and remained vigilant.
The property had apparently had a bit of a reputation for being haunted, but nothing could have prepared farmer Mackie and his family for the supernatural onslaught that befell them over the next few months.
The cattle roamed free the following night, only this time a cow had been tethered to a high beam in a shed, so much so that the animal's feet could not touch the ground. No man could have performed such a feat and Mackie's anxiety grew.Soon stones were being hurled at the family and, despite the many efforts to detect their origins, there was no explanation for the vicious assaults.
Household items went missing, only to turn up later in ridiculous places; children were spanked by unseen hands in the middle of the night and strange fires were kindled inside the byres and the farmhouse.
The house was set alight as were sheep and stables.Visitors were cruelly beaten by stones and staves and the unseen entity was purported to: “drag people about the house by their clothes.
One account stated: “A blacksmith narrowly escaped death when a trough and plowshare were hurled at him. Small buildings on the property spontaneously burst into flames and burned to cinders. During a family prayer meeting, chunks of flaming peat pelted them.A human shape, seemingly made out of cloth, appeared, groaning: 'Whisht... whisht'.”Strangely enough, although battered and bleeding, no-one was badly hurt.Numerous searches of the grounds and night-time vigils came up with no explanation for the strange occurrences.
And so the fame of the Mackie Poltergeist, as it became known, grew wider.There were many efforts to bless and exorcise the seemingly impromptu and malevolent spirit but they were all beaten off with flying stones or clods of earth.
The family and neighbours became so perturbed that they enlisted the aid of the local clergyman, one Reverend Alexander Telfair, whose account was supported by 14 upstanding members of the Scottish community, each of whom personally bore witness to the poltergeist manifestation.
Telfair recorded that the entity: “threw stones and divers other things at me, and beat me several times on the Shoulders and Sides with a great Staff, so that those who were present heard the noise of the Blows.”
It was Mrs MacKie who found a small pile of bones underneath a loose stone at her threshold. They were wrapped in flesh.Witchcraft and murder were suspected.On April 8 a magistrate in the area came up with an idea.
He appealed to the laird of Colline to find every living person who had lived in the house to be examined and made to touch the bones — believing that the guilty person would have an effect on the earthly remains of his victim.
Nothing happened, however, and five local ministers performed an exorcism the following day.On April 9, the ministers began the exorcism of the Ringcroft of Stocking, but this proved an almost hopeless task.
A few of them, including Telfair, claimed that “something had grabbed them by the legs or feet and lifted them into the air.”
The ritual turned into a nightmare as they prayed for deliverance under a hail of flying missiles. The house was said to shake and a huge hole was ripped in the roof. The exorcism took two gruelling weeks.
On Friday, April 26, the evil spirit spoke. With a few furious oaths and a number of hair-raising curses, it told them it would take them all to hell and then said: “Thou shalt be troubled 'til Tuesday.”
As if by magic, on the Tuesday of May 1, 1695, a dark cloud roiled in the corner of Mackie's barn. Many witnessed the strange manifestation and watched it grow and blacken.
As it filled the building, great clods of mud flew outwards and spattered the faces of the horrified witnesses.
Some were gripped with vice-like fingers but this last violent event marked the exit of the Rerrick Parish Poltergeist from the world of men.
For reasons best left to God or coincidence, it took its leave of Rerrick and the Mackies, never to be seen or heard again.

Strange but true?


A FEW years ago, when I worked as a journalist for a regional newspaper, I wrote a series of articles on haunted places in Dumfries and Galloway. The research was intriguing, compelling and altogether fascinating. This is one of those strange-but-true stories that I will never forget. It is a tale that is very much believed by a family who truly feel that they are haunted by their past. The picture was taken by the very talented Jim McEwan who, no doubt, was forced to trudge through the undergrowth at my behest.



CENTURIES of history in Dumfries and Galloway have not passed without their fair share of blood-letting and horror.
With soil, coin and title affording ultimate power, the people of these lands have witnessed terrible atrocities in the names of renown and revenge.
It is surprising, therefore, to come across a tale that is so gruesome and horrific, that it is barely believable, but it is one born out of accident rather than malicious intent.
The incident has been well documented in official records and most members of the Jardine clan have at least heard whispers of the terrible fate that befell one James Porteous some time in the 1650s.
It was around this time that Sir Alexander Jardine ruled Applegirth from his stronghold known as Spedlins Tower, near Lockerbie.
A miller called James Porteous was accused of burning down his mill and was confined to a prison in the tower.
“He was kept inside what is called a bottle-neck dungeon,” Sir Alec, head of today’s Jardine said. “This dungeon was approximately 10 feet deep with a base of six foot in circumference. The neck was only two feet across. Porteous was thrown into it and the door was locked above his head.”
All was well until Sir Alexander was called to a sudden and unexpected meeting in Edinburgh. He set off as usual on his lengthy journey that may have taken him four or five days.
It was not until he was passing through the gates of the city that he noticed he was carrying the gate keeper’s large bundle of keys.
To his horror, Sir Alexander realised that he had taken with him the only key to the sturdy door that the hapless Porteous had been confined beneath.
Meanwhile, at Spedlins Tower, the poor miller screamed out against his terrible suffering: “Let me oot! Let me oot! I’m starving! Give me food and water! Let me oot!”
But his pitiful pleas were to no avail, for there was no key to the heavy door and the jail had become a tomb.
Despite Sir Alexander’s attempts to send a man back swiftly to relieve the prisoner of his agony, he was too late in his efforts.
The servant found the sorry Porteous in the dungeon dead. In desperation, the miller — insane with the horror of his ordeal — had gnawed off his own hands.
It was not long before the ghost of Porteous moved in to Spedlins Tower and all hell broke loose.
The angry spirit, who became known as “Dunty” (or “one who knocks”), screamed his complaints across the halls and stairwells of the tower.
One account says that he “rattled chains, banged on doors and moaned incessantly”, making life obviously unbearable for its terrified owners.
Unable to endure any more of Dunty’s shrieking, Sir Alexander sought the help of the family chaplain who performed an exorcism of the restless spirit using the castle’s bible.
Dunty’s ghost finally quietened and confined itself to the dungeon — the place where he had suffered his cruel fate.
The Jardine family could sleep again.
It is said that it was not too long after that the chaplain dropped dead from a sudden and inexplicable illness.
Some years later, the bible showed signs of wear and was sent away to be rebound.
Dunty’s ghost appeared to take advantage of this and became “extremely boisterous in the pit.” It banged on the door so violently that it almost shook off its hinges. It continued the pitiful cries and generally made a nuisance of itself.Even an attempt to flee to nearby Jardine Hall did not deter the obdurate Dunty from making his presence felt.
“My ancestors believed that a ghost could not cross water and the River Annan lies between the tower and the hall,” explained Sir Alec.
 “This was proved wrong and Dunty chased the family across the river, even dragging the lord and lady out of bed.”
The Jardines had the bible returned from its binders forthwith and it was placed in the dungeon wall where it remained until the family moved from the tower.
It is believed that the vengeful ghost of James Porteous left the tower with the Jardines and continued to haunt the Lairds of Applegirth down through the centuries.
Spedlins Tower fell to ruin and has recently been impressively restored by the Grays who are the present owner-occupiers.
Do they ever hear the screams of Dunty?
Mr Gray does not believe in ghosts.
For Sir Alec, heir to the Applegirth name, title, lands, history and ghost, it is a very different matter.
“I have no idea if Dunty still haunts Spedlin because I have the family bible,” he said.
“It was beautifully rebound and lies safely in an oak case. I don’t know whether it is this that keeps Dunty quiet, but I do not relish the prospect of losing it and finding out!”
Amazingly, Sir Alec also holds the key to the dungeon that he keeps in a safe place and has his own theory of this regrettable chapter in his family’s history.
“There is a school of thought that Porteous was the laird’s secret half-brother and that there was a bit of skulduggery going on,” said Sir Alec.
“The Laird of Applegirth was said to have a deformed foot, while Porteous was a big, muscular man. It is possible that there was a lot of rivalry between the two of them and a fair amount of jealousy. I think that there was more to Porteous’ death than has been told.
“A few years ago, I planted an oak tree at Spedlin in the memory of James Porteous in the hope of making peace with him. Ijust felt that it was the right thing to do.”
The Jardines have gone from Spedlin. Their once magnificent hall across the river has disappeared without trace and, if there still remains a dark echo of Dunty, no-one is telling.

If the ghost of James Porteous has found forgiveness at last, then perhaps it is time to let him rest — he certainly deserves it.

Monday, 6 May 2013

Onwards and upwards

Blogging, like my life at the moment, is a bit sporadic and driven by impulse.
That's not too much of a bad thing though.
I have now finished my first novel, a contemporary fantasy set in London and Scotland called The Sleeping Warrior, and have sent it off to a publisher on a wing and a prayer.
I also suddenly decided to give up a lifetime of habitual cigarette smoking and have managed to go for two weeks without killing anyone or, at least, hurting them a lot.
I have almost quit and now it's time to get fit and the great outdoors of Southern Scotland provide the perfect training ground for that marathon task of re-shaping a body and purging the lungs - even flesh and organs like mine.
My aim is to visit Inverie, a small village on Loch Nevis at the edge of Britain's last wilderness - the Knoydart Peninsula - where the only way to get there is by a 20-minute boat ride from Mallaig; catapulting from an enormous mangonel from the mainland; or hoofing it for 16 miles from Kinloch Hourn over what the Gaels call na Garbh-Chr├Čochan (the Rough Bounds). The first option is for Jessies; the second may end in tears; and the third may well end like the second, but is probably less perilous.
Now I'm more of a Munro Flagger than a Bagger and, if I set off now, it would probably take me most of the year to tramp the path to Inverie, boots and weather willing, complaining bitterly all the way and demanding an emergency airlift by the local mountain rescue team after 50 paces.
So, like all great achievements, I must prepare both my spirit and body for it.
There are no Munroes in southern Scotland but there are plenty vertical ascents with varying degrees of difficulty depending on what angle you choose to tackle them.
There is also some beautiful scenery to keep the mind off the task, like Loch Mackie, Auchencairn, in the picture. Recently I hiked from Balcary to Rascarrel Bay. The walk takes you around the headland with some stunning sea views - including the wind farm in the Solway Firth. By the time I had staggered home to Balcary, chest heaving and lathering with sweat, I thought I must have covered at least 30 miles. I had completed 4.5 in total.
Think I've got a long way to go before I tackle 16 but I'm on the case at least.