HMY Iolaire



Last night I watched the BBC documentary commemorating 100 hundred years since the sinking of the shop the Iolaire, just outside Stornoway. I wrote about this several years ago for the publication Scottish Islands Explorer, in part because my grandfather, Malcolm Macleod, was one of the survivors, one of only 79. The casualties numbered 201.

These men had travelled long distances, having returned from serving in the First World War, and with New Year being the big celebration, as opposed to Christmas, on the island, they were keen to get home in time. I won’t recount all the details here, as I can not do it justice in the same way the documentary does, but needless to say the boat sank minutes from home. I don’t think there is anyone who would disagree how sad this is that these men fought for years, travelled for days to get back to loved ones and died in sight of home.

One thing that struck me is the aftermath of the disaster. The documentary also looked at how for many, many, years after it was not spoken about. I grew up on Lewis and lived there from 1974 to 1989. In all that time I don’t recall it ever being spoken about. At school we learned about local history. We visited blackhouses and other places of local significance, but never once did we visit the Iolaire memorial. It was never mentioned in school and my grandfather never mentioned it. I only found out from an aunt after he died. I think this shows firstly how much life has changed in the past one hundred years – we are now encouraged, and expect, to talk about our feelings and to work through our grief verbally. But secondly, it shows how much it affected the island. It was said that no village on the island was unaffected by the sinking of the Iolaire. Everybody knew someone who had lost someone in their family. Those who survived felt a sense of guilt; those who had lost someone felt that in order for them to carry on they had to not talk about it.

The years have passed and those of us who do speak of relatives from the Iolaire are speaking, for the most part, about great grandfathers, or for some grandfathers. The distance is there now, and it would be interesting to know how much this generation of island children are being taught about this tragedy.

Mary Queen of Scots

Mary queen of scots

The new Mary Queen of Scots film is due for release any day. As a history lover my husband naturally assumed that I would be keen to see it. I am particularly interested in Scottish history (hence why I wrote The King with the Iron Belt) and have read many books on the 16th century, the time period when Mary Queen of Scots was alive.

Some people are very critical of history films and their lack of accuracy. I don’t tend to be overly critical. I realise that film makers will, for whatever reason, make some changes. I watched Braveheart when it first came out, and the inaccurate portrayal of the future Edward II, who was seen romancing with a French princess, did not annoy me too much. Just a little.

Clips I have seen of the Mary Queen of Scots movie show her and her cousin Elizabeth I of England meeting, something which never happened. There is certainly no evidence that it did and is unlikely to have been missed by historians if it did. This at first annoyed me. I felt that they were stretching the truth too much for my liking and that they were straying too far from what is documented to have happened. It is for this reason that I told my husband that I had decided I would not go to see it.

But then I was listening to Radio 4 one day when a woman, the producer I think, was being interviewed and was asked why she included this factual inaccuracy. Her reasoning was that there was much correspondence between Elizabeth and Mary, with many letters being sent, but in modern day, and on screen, this would have been hard to portray in such a way as to have full effect. Her reasoning was that having them meet would be much more effective, and I guess, a better use of time. What she said made sense in a way.

A few weeks have passed since I listened to that interview. Having thought about it for a while I am unsure as to whether this was the best decision or not. To me, a large part of my interest in the story of Mary and Elizabeth is the fact that they never met, despite Mary living in England for longer than she lived in Scotland. Would the outcome have been different if they had met? Could they have got over their differences? Certainly, today meeting is a large part of negotiations, and whether it is heads of state of businessmen, many deals have only moved forward because those involved have met in person.

We are living in different times of course, and perhaps the film will allow us to explore what the conversation would have been like had these two women met.

I do appreciate that decisions have to be made based on time, money and resources, and some will agree with them, some will not. I will reserve full judgement until I have seen the film, which I have decided after all, that I do want to go and see.

Watch for errors


Did the nobility of the fifteenth century routinely own watches? Would they have carried them into battle? This is a question I asked myself recently when I read a book which suggested they did.

It is very easy to criticise authors of historical fiction, but as an author myself I know how hard it is to get everything right. Most readers have no ideas of how many facts you have to get right and check, then double check. Then there is the fact that records can often be incomplete or non-existent.

The book in question was a great read, and I can’t fault it, hence why I am not naming the book or the author – I don’t want to criticise. However, there were two sentences that stood out and made me think. The scene was early on in the book, in spring 1471, when Edward IV of England was going into battle with the Earl of Warwick and Edward’s brothers George and Richard. Warwick would ultimately die, at what became known as the Battle of Barnet, the first step towards relative peace in Edward’s reign.

Edward makes the decision to get some sleep before taking any action, and says to Hastings, his friend and most trusted advisor, that he wants to get some sleep first.

“Wake me after midnight, about two,” he tells them.

The king goes to sleep and Hastings, speaking to the king’s two brothers and brother in law, suggests, “Two-hour watches each?”

Now this struck me as funny and made me wonder. Would the king and his men know the time or would they just have had a vague idea based on where in the sky the sun was? Were watches commonplace in the fifteenth century, even if just amongst the nobility? And if they were common, were nobles likely to have them on their person when they went into battle?

Most watches of this time period were clock watches. Pocket watches came later and were smaller. Clock watches were fastened to clothing or worn on a chain around the neck. Heavy and large in size, they had hour hands, but no minute hands. Timepieces had been around for centuries and were slowly developing in accuracy. The average person would not have owned a watch, certainly not until relatively recent times.

So it is likely that Edward IV owned a time piece of some sort, perhaps more than one. But would he have taken it into battle with him? And would other members of the royal family have owned watches, and again taken them into battle? I am inclined to think not. My understanding of battles of the fifteenth and sixteenth century is that battles were timed to happen on certain days, not certain times. I also have not heard of anyone being identified by their watch upon their death, which, as they were often engraved, would surely have been likely.

I certainly don’t want to criticise another author’s work, but I am interested to know whether this was an error or whether the nobility of the fifteenth century routinely carried timepieces into battle.

Why study history?



train with smoke
Photo by Gabriela Palai on


A far from wise person once said to me that there is no point in studying history. His argument was that the past had no relevance and should stay there – in the past. I read and learn about history because it fascinates me. There is a huge amount to learn, endless information, and no end to the supply of stories. When I am watching films I am always more interested in the plot if the film is based on a true story. Who isn’t? So reading history books is equivalent to this.  Imagine the reaction of fans if it was suddenly revealed that Harry Potter was a true story and that there was an actual Hogwarts somewhere? OK, I know I am pushing things a bit here, but you know what I mean.

But as well as enjoyment there is a lot we can learn from history. In the same way that children learn past experience, so do we as humans and as a society. From history we can learn that if a nation or group of people are mistreated they will eventually rebel, that wars are not the answer to solving disputes and that they are more likely to results in large numbers of death than peace. We learn dictators can be very hard to overthrow, and that changes in society such as the vote for women often take a long time to materialise and can be very hard to achieve.

But do we always learn from history? Do we as humans learn from our own mistakes? Sometimes yes, sometimes not. Wars are still happening, minority groups throughout the world are still powerless and we are still allowing bullies the power they don’t deserve.

Should we stop reading history? Certainly not. Like any parent teaching a child how to behave we should not give up because we are not always listened to. Then of course there is the pleasure we get from reading and learning and learning about the people, the places, events, traditions, everyday life……

The jigsaw we will never complete

assemble challenge combine creativity
Photo by Pixabay on


I am a member of several history Facebook groups and two things have amazed and impressed me. The first is just how many people there are who love history, and in particular British history. Many live outwith the British Isles, and some of these people have British ancestors. As a history author this is a delight to me. The market for my books is worldwide. And of course, like anyone who discovers a large group who share the same interests as them, it has simply reinforced what I already knew – history is fascinating.

But secondly is the depth of people’s knowledge. It astounds me sometimes the amount of information people have on various aspects of history. These are people who are not academics, but have simply researched and learned more about the subject they love in their spare time.

I am currently researching weddings for my next book. There are so many questions I have about weddings in the 15th and 16th century. What were weddings like royalty and the aristocracy? What  were the rituals? How religious was the marriage ceremony? Who attended? The process is made  hard by the fact that I imagine weddings of the rich would have been different from those of the poor.

But like the members of the Facebook groups I consider this part of the fun and pull of history. The potentials for learning are infinite. Added to this is the fact that some details we will never know for certain. What we think we know is sometimes disproved as more information comes to light. The jigsaw puzzle is never finished.