A goonie…and a broonie!

Nancy Jardine bringing you another update from a sunny North-East Scotland. On Friday last, the 29th May 2020, I was scheduled to board a train for York, England. I love walking the wall and wandering the Shambles. I adore visiting the museums, and doing general tourist pursuits. Five years ago, I had a wonderful seminar weekend with some of my co-authors at Ocelot Press, in York. Though, back then, we were published authors with Crooked Cat Books.

York Museum grounds- c. Nancy Jardine

My visit this time was to join the fun at the 2020 Eboracum Roman Festival, organised in the main by York Museums. Loads of Roman themed events and activities were organised – some indoors, though many of them outdoors in the streets of central York. I had planned to fill my camera with amazing photos, but the highlight of the ‘Friday through Sunday’ event was joining a lovely line-up of authors in a ‘pop-up’ bookstore, all of us selling our Roman themed historical novels. I imagined lots of impromptu information being shared with customers, and me getting to know the authors I’ve only met ‘virtually’ via Facebook. In 2019, the author tables were set up in the ‘Hospitium’ in the grounds of the York Museum and I was hoping for the same venue this year. Sadly, COVID 19, changed the plans. Like other major events, it was cancelled.

Though not compulsory to wear re-enactment outfits, I had noticed that a number of the authors got into the swing in 2019. I’ve always meant to make myself a Late Iron Age outfit, so going to York was a brilliant excuse.

In January (2020), I researched possible cloth. The ‘Celts’ used standing looms to weave their cloth which is thought to have been either plain, or with fairly sizeable checks (though not Tartan). Textiles do not survive well in the ground, but there are a few excavated examples that have been found across the Ancient Roman Empire. The fragments found indicate an open weaving technique was used, and they also give an idea of what might have been used to dye the wool. 

Dark green commercial dye.

I fancied a mid-green colour for the long dress and a checked material for a bratt (shawl). York in late May can be pretty warm, so a pure woollen cloth sounded very hot and scratchy. I wanted to be as authentic as possible but suitable green cloth eluded me. I opted for light grey which, I imagined, could be dyed to my preferred colour. The cloth arrived but it wasn’t the open weave I expected from the little photograph. (It must have been a very high magnification)

And it didn’t dye. Not at all!

I tried a deep green commercial hand dye which dulled down the checked material I had bought for the shawl, but the grey for the dress was still grey.

I then thought maybe if the suiting material (supposedly 55% wool) had a mordant process done to it, it would accept a natural dye. Using beetroot might make it a pale dusky pink – which I could live with, instead of green. Beetroot is a more recent variety of the Beta Vulgaris species, but 2000 years ago the Iron Age Tribes would probably have eaten a variety more like chard. However, it’s also possible that the Ancient Romans introduced to Britain the forerunner of the modern sugar beet that we grow and eat today, since Ancient Romans ate a number of Beta V. varieties.

The Beetroot Broonies!

The mordant treatment, a boiling in (vinegar and salt) for an hour was pretty stinky, but the soaking in the cooked beetroot juice was even more so. 24 hours later, the indestructible cloth was STILL grey but a machine wash, thankfully, got rid of the pong. The dyeing processes were useless, but all was not lost – I used some of the boiled beetroot to make beetroot brownies, which were yummy, and the remainder is pickled.

My ‘goonie’ is a bit boring so I used some of the shawl material to give it a lift. Is it authentic for Northern Romano Britain? Since we don’t really know what styles they wore, I can only imagine that any embellishment to dresses was of a practical nature!

What do you think of it? It’s surprisingly comfortable and I will wear it when selling my paperback novels, or for author talks etc.

I’ll be putting my name on the 2021 list of authors selling at the next Eboracum Roman Festival…and who knows what I’ll be wearing.

p.s. I’m thinking that when the COVID 19 situation eases and I can shop again, I might look out for some more exciting cloth that I don’t need to dye!

My stock for the Festival, available in paperback and kindle formats from: Amazon Author Page

If you’re quick, you’ll find that Books 1 and 2 are at #99p/99c across Amazon for a limited time in early June!

Book 1 The Beltane Choice

Book 2 After Whorl: Bran Reborn

Celtic Fervour Saga Series

The border ballads

Hello, hope you’re all having a good week? It’s Jen here, and today, I’m going to share some of my favourite border ballads with you. No, don’t worry, it doesn’t involve me singing – I wouldn’t do that to you… 

I’m talking about the ballads, often poetry set to music, which were performed as entertainment, and were particularly famous during the medieval period. They were a key part of the story-telling world during these times, with limited scope for stories being put to paper – they allowed news of infamous criminals, or exciting escapades, to be passed from village to village, most likely embellished plenty along the way!

I came across a few of the most popular during my research for The Raided Heart, and thought I would share these with you today.

CarlisleCastle
The impressive defences of Carlisle Castle – these would have taken some breaching for a rescue!

Kinmont Willie, or William Armstrong of Kinmont, is one of the most famous of the reivers, and he had a truly eventful life. Following a Day of Truce (where legal disputes would be settled, and reivers were supposedly safe to travel over the border), Kinmont was captured by the English, who he had been tormenting with raids for years, and taken to Carlisle Castle by the Warden. As the arrest had been done illegally, the Keeper of Liddesdale, who controlled the land where it had happened, protested, but to no avail. More drastic action was needed – the Keeper led a group of men into England, and broke Kinmont out of Carlisle Castle, an impressive feat. This then led to anger between Elizabeth I and James VI, as the countries were meant to be at peace at the time, with no legitimate reason for a raid on one of her border castles.

One of my favourite stories is of Midside Maggie, or Maggie Hardy, who lived in Lauderdale during the 17th century. Although inherently a tale of hardship, it also has a positive feel to it.

As was so often the case in the borderlands, the Hardy’s farm was suffering after a bad winter, and the family was simply unable to pay the rent they owed their landlord, an unpleasant type, unconcerned with the wellbeing of his tenants. When Maggie went to plead for the rent to be waived for that period, he didn’t say no, but set her a challenge: she either had to bring him the rent in June, when it was due, or a snowball in the same month, to prove her point regarding the harsh winter. Now, Maggie had her wits about her, and when she returned home, she gathered as much snow as she could, and packed it tightly into a sheltered crack in the hillside, where the sun never reached. Miraculously, when June rolled around, some of the snow still remained, enough to form a snowball to take to the landowner. In all fairness, he at least stuck to his side of the deal, and over time, the farm recovered. His kindness in this instance was rewarded when he subsequently found himself imprisoned in the Tower of London (a place I know well as a writer!), and Maggie travelled to London, with their saved-up rent from the time he had been away, which she baked into a bannock, and presented it to their landlord. He used the money to buy his release, and on his return home, granted Maggie and her heirs the permanent lease of their land as thanks, showing how much he had changed.

agriculture animals baby blur
A definitely not-scabbit sheep (a decidedly cute one, don’t you think?)

See, the reivers were a clever bunch, and the infamous tale of the ‘Scabbit sheep’ tells that nicely.

A group of Charltons had ridden into Cumberland, rather than Scotland (attacks on fellow countrymen were not unheard of – not all attacks crossed the border), and stole several hundred sheep from the Grahams, before riding home and putting the sheep with their own. Within days, they realised all was not well – the Grahams’ sheep had been infected with sheep scab, which they had now passed onto the Charltons’ own herd. They returned to the Grahams’ land, and killed several men, leaving behind a written warning: Next time gentlemen cam to tak ther shepe, they were no to be scabbit.

There are so many others to choose from, and I like to think that the romantic tale of Will and Meg might just have made it into the collection too – what do you think?

 

 

The Story Behind the Story: the Corsican Widow

This week, Vanessa Couchman takes over the blog to tell us about the story behind her second Corsica novel, The Corsican Widow.

I am a self-confessed history nut. I’m lucky, then, to live in Southwest France, which is absolutely steeped in history. Some of my novels and short stories are set in the area where I live.

But I have also been captivated by the savagely beautiful island of Corsica in the Mediterranean. I can’t get back there often enough, although this year, sadly, I suspect we won’t have the chance.

Continue reading “The Story Behind the Story: the Corsican Widow”

Music and story…

What role does music play in your life? It’s Jen here on the blog today, and for me, music is a vital part of my day.

The Raided Heart

I cannot work in silence, so now I’m working from home, without the general hum of an open-plan office, my Echo Dot is almost permanently tuned to Heart 90s or Fearne Cotton’s new Sounds of the Nineties, keeping motivation high with a never-ending playlist of feelgood cheesy pop.

It’s the same with my writing – I can focus more easily when I have music playing. Usually it’s back to the nineties and noughties, playing old boyband albums I know so well I almost don’t hear them, but then, whilst I was working on The Raided Heart, a friend mentioned that he created Spotify playlists for all of his works-in-progress. The result was this playlist, a combination of songs which made me think of certain scenes, or which simply put me in the mood when I wanted to get into the writing flow.

One example is The Dance, by Westlife. As I said, I listen to boybands all the time, with Boyzone and Westlife being my favourites, so I must have heard the song so many times before last year, but hearing it again, and the sentiment behind it, suddenly made me think about a key scene in the book. And yes, if I’m honest, I began seeing the scene in front of me, in film, with this song as the soundtrack. I know that’s how some writers picture their scenes, and again, music is a big part of how it would all come together.

amplifier analogue audio bass

Music can also be a big inspiration for writers. At one of my first Swanwicks, there was a session called Songspiration, listening to both big hits and lesser-known tracks, using the music to generate ideas. For some, the story was clear, putting yourself into the world of Tina Turner’s Private Dancer, for example, but with others, it was more the feeling that the tone of the music generated, and putting that down on paper. It was a wonderful way of coming up with ideas, and one I’ve since used myself in a workshop.

But back to those playlists… I’m currently working on a number of projects, and this time, I’m building the tracks up as I go. The One Before The One is the working title of a contemporary romance, and you can find its playlist here; any thoughts as to what this one might be about? And for the following books in the Historic Hearts series, I’m building this collection, but as you can see, it needs a lot of work!

To other writers out there, what’s your relationship like with music as you write? Does it distract, or inspire? And readers, do you need silence to immerse yourself in the world an author’s created for you?

I’d love to hear from you…

Augustine is Released Today

We’re excited to announce that Vanessa Couchman’s novella, Augustine, is released today on Amazon Kindle under the Ocelot Press imprint.

Augustine is a prequel to her Alouette trilogy, and it’s set against the rolling hills and perched villages of Southwest France in the late 19th-century. Vanessa lives in southern France, not far from where the action takes place, and there’s plenty of period detail woven into the story, drawn from her researches and knowledge of the area. The backdrop is a way of life that lasted for centuries but has now disappeared forever.

In the book, you’ll meet Augustine Bousquet and Joseph Vernhes, who appear again in Overture, Book 1 of the Alouette trilogy. Augustine can be read as a standalone or before Overture.

Pizza? Yes, please!

This post is by Nancy Jardine.

Social distancing has recently been making the process of normal food shopping a much longer one than usual, during the current ‘COVID 19 pandemic’ lockdown situation, though this post isn’t about our current global health crisis. It’s about a very ancient issue of feeding people when the supply chain is either interrupted, or needs to be established.

I bake quite often so my larder generally contains baking supplies, though not a sufficient amount for many months. Re- stocking has become an issue, of late, because flour became scarce almost overnight as a result of panic buying and stock-piling, at the end of March. (And we’ll not talk of toilet rolls! … till maybe later 😉)

Being mindful of waste, quantities for bread making, pizza dough, shortbread – and even my breakfast porridge – have been scrutinised more than normal. And in an odd way, this fits in well with my current fiction writing, since I’m often considering what my characters might be eating some 2,000 years ago in Roman Britain.

My usual breakfast is porridge, topped with whatever fresh fruit I need to use up. Many of my Ancient Roman military characters are also eating some form of porridge, though not only for their breakfast. Ancient Greek writing refers to the soldiers of the Roman Empire as being ‘pultiphagonides’ – meaning porridge eaters – and evidence proves that the Roman Army marched effectively on a high carbohydrate, low meat diet. There’s textual evidence of soldiers complaining of being fed too much meat, which might seem strange for some people today.

My 1/3 cup usual measure as opposed to 500 g worth of rolled oats.

My porridge, made with a 1/3 of a cup measure of rolled oats (113g/4oz.) to 200 ml of water, sustains me in energy over the morning hours much better than any other cereal. And it worked well for the average Roman soldier, though the estimated quantity of grain each soldier consumed per day is pretty huge in relation to my tiny plateful.

I’ve read a few sources which estimate the typical daily grain ration for a Roman soldier was in the region of 1 – 1 ½ kg, though the amount varied depending on whether on campaign, or barracked in a Roman fort. My scale pan can’t hold much more than the 500 g worth you see in the photo above, but that amount of oats may have been tripled per day and consumed in a limited variety of ways, depending on circumstances.

Roman grain supplies tended to be of hulled wheat. Emmer (triticum dicoccum) and Spelt (triticum spelta) were carried as grain to prevent mould, and then milled using a small portable quern stone when required. Other grains were oats, millet and barley, though the latter was often considered to be a ‘punishment’ ration. (Perhaps because of digestive results and no toilet paper to hand! 😉 ) The grain was cooked as porridge, bread, hard-tack biscuits, and even in a sort of pancake form when mixed with oil or wine – edible, or not, depending on who cooked for the basic contubernium squad of 8 men. Some lucky squad might have had a poor enslaved captive to do this for them.

In Agricola’s Bane, Book 4 of my Celtic Fervour Saga, my Romans are mainly on campaign in A.D. 84, marching northwards in Caledonia. They expect to receive the higher end of the above estimate of grain but, sadly, the general supply chain is somewhat hampered by the successful guerrilla incursions of my local Iron Age tribes. General Agricola’s army consists of upwards of 20, 000 soldiers on the march, so a regular grain supply – sourced from around the Roman Empire and sent to point of need – is critical. The Taexali local tribes grow and rear enough food for their own small communities, but even if Agricola requisitions every last morsel from them, it will only make the tiniest dent in the amount needed for his army. And to add insult to injury, as they say, the cool Scottish climate hasn’t changed much in 2000 years. Wheat doesn’t grow so readily – though barley does very well! (Where’s a dock leaf when you need one? 😉 )

In my current writing, Book 5 of the series, the Romans are mainly fort-based so their daily amount of grain is adjusted and supplemented by some meats when locally sourced, or foraged. My garrison at Vindolanda Roman Fort have reasonable regular supplies arriving at the gates, evidence for this found in the many fabulous Vindolanda tablets that have been excavated.

My writing is set during the very first garrisoning of the Vindolanda site, so the supplies of A.D. 90 may have been a bit less varied than on some of the tablets which were written a little later than that date. There are mentions of pickled and preserved products, olive oil, garum fish sauce, olives, garlic paste. Salt, pepper, various spices and herbs are available to those who can afford them – perhaps the fort commander and the officers? There are seasonal fruits and vegetables mentioned like apples, plums, blackberries, onions, leeks, a kale-type cabbage and various nuts. Common food items listed on the Vindolanda tablets, over the centuries of Roman occupation, are impressive and would not be out of place in a kitchen today.

Vindolanda Tablets- Wikimedia Commons

Last week, I used up the last of my 00 Bread flour to make pizza. My favourite is fully-loaded. Smeared with tomato-based passata, it’s then topped with mushrooms, capsicum peppers, sliced onions, olives, chorizo, artichoke hearts, anchovies, at least one type of cheese and olive oil. YUM. Would the ‘pizza’ eaten by my Ancient Roman soldiers be similar? 

No, to tomatoes since they came to Europe from the Americas long after my Roman era. The Romans did have a kind of sausage, though maybe not quite chorizo. Yes to mushrooms, maybe no to capsicum peppers. Artichokes and anchovies are very possible. Definitely olive oil and maybe a form of cheese. Some of these may have been added to round ‘flat’ breads made at Vindolanda Fort.

My tagine which resembles a clibanus type of cooking pot.

There’s evidence that some Romans cooked using a dish named a clibanus, a flat pottery plate which was covered with a domed lid, similar to my Moroccan tagine in the photograph. Rounds of bread, and flat bread, were baked in these when set upon a fire.

In the village of Kintore where I live, in north-east Scotland, there’s evidence of an Ancient Roman temporary camp used by General Agricola c. A.D. 84. When excavated in 2004, it yielded more than 180 ‘Bi-Partite Roman Bread Ovens’ which were used for the campaigning Romans to make their ‘flatbread and pizza’, with or without a clibanus. The design of the keyhole-shaped ‘fire’ meant that slow cooking could be done on the flat stones adjacent to the burning fire.

Roman Bi-Partite bread oven at Kintore.

Maybe the Roman soldiers in the ‘Deer’s Den’ camp at Kintore were lucky enough to have both ‘pizza’ and porridge for their evening meal, once their temporary camp was built!

You can read about my Romans and the avenging local Celts in the Celtic Fervour Saga Series. (Click to access the novels on Amazon)

Whatever you are reading during the COVID 19 lockdown period- enjoy! And if you have some flour, will you be baking? Tell me about your favourite ‘lockdown’ recipes, please.

Or why not make some Roman bread or Roman flat bread ? I made some bread with spelt flour a few years ago.

Read about it on my own Blog It was delicious- and highly nutritious. Now where will I get spelt today?

Slaìnthe!

The Power of Letters

Letters that inspired a novel

What is it about old letters that come to light later that is so appealing to our imagination? In our age of instant communication via email and social media, letter-writing is a rare practice. Why write someone a letter when you can Skype them instead? But for people a century ago, no other means of staying in contact existed. A letter was a personal thing, even if it took some time for it to arrive or for a reply to come back.

Continue reading “The Power of Letters”