My latest book, The St. Nicholas Murders, is now available on Amazon. It’s a bit of murder in the Foothills for Christmas. The book is a cozy mystery, meaning there is no foul language, explicit sex or graphic violence. Something to read in your rocker with a nice fire in the fireplace on a cold night. Cozy, right? It starts just before the Kirkin’ of the Tartan service at Father Robert Bruce’s church, St. Nicholas of Myra Episcopal Church in Buggy Springs, a small town in the Sierra Nevada Foothills. It ends on Christmas Day. I filled it with characters and places inspired by living in a small town in the Sierra Nevada Foothills for 19 years. It is fiction, but fiction should come from real life. For a sampling of the book, click here. If you like what you read here, click on the Amazon link on the sidebar. If you don’t like what you read, then don’t click. It’s your choice, but I hope that you will give Father Robert a chance.
The first of my Father Robert Bruce mysteries, The St. Nicholas Murders, will be out in a few weeks. Unlike so many crime-solving priests in novels, Father Robert Bruce is young, fit and handsome. As an Episcopal priest, he can marry, although he hasn’t thus far. This makes him the target of matchmakers and lonely women. When a strange phone call leads him to think a murder has been committed in his small town, he starts investigating. It is a cozy mystery, which is normally defined as a mystery that has no graphic sex, violence or language. The crime-solver is an amateur, but normally has help form a professional detective or law officer. That’s what happens in this book and the law officer is none other that Lee Garcia, who made a brief appearance in the last Morg Mahoney mystery, It’s Bad Business, as a detective in Colton P.D. He has since retired to the Sierra Nevada Foothills, where he has taken the job of chief of police in Buggy Springs, CA. Morg also plays a part in Father Robert’s investigation, but this is not her tale. It is Father Robert’s, the rector of St. Nicholas of Myrna Episcopal Church in Buggy Springs.
Never heard of Buggy Springs? That’s because it is based upon Nevada City, which is also in the Sierra Nevada Foothills. While the book is fiction, places in the book were inspired by living here and people I have met, not only here but throughout my life, influenced characters in the book, but there are no carbon copies. If you’re too young to understand that term, Google it. All names of people, places and things have been changed to protect the guilty. What I’m saying is that no one in the book is a real person except for Blue, a.k.a. The Dude. He’s my Aussie and has given full permission to use him in the book as long as I give him doggie treats every week.
Take a look at a few chapters on this website. This story ends on Christmas Day, so the St. Nicholas title refers not only to Father Robert’s church, but the holiday. Hopefully, you will like what you read enough to get the whole book, either in hardcover or Kindle. Amazon will be carrying it. The next in the series, The St. Christopher Murders, is already written and going through multiple editings. It starts at a Fourth of July parade in Buggy Springs. Stay tuned.
Before I begin, I’d like to warn any readers that believe that the Twin Towers were destroyed by the CIA, that the Illuminati still exists (especially if you believe they are in any way associated with Freemasonry), that the Knights Templar continued as a secret society after 1312 A.D., the Holocaust is a lie, that the Moon landing was faked and/or that aliens are kept in cold storage at Area 51, that you should skip this post lest your blood pressure skyrocket and you say I conspired with unnamed government agencies for that to happen. For a partial list of conspiracies, click here. Now, this is a Wikipedia list, so use caution. Anyone can edit it, including those who are conspiracy theorists and those who wish to brand their enemies as conspiracy theorists, so be discerning. I could add more to this list, but you get the idea. The point is that conspiracy theories are pure rubbish and I will trash them here (like that double-lined garbage bag?). They fall right in line with alt facts, fake news, etc. They are the fodder upon which weak minds feed. Sorry if you think that was insulting, but it was much kinder than my actual opinion.
Conspiracy theories, in and of themselves, are not new. Often they were used to justify prejudices and violence. Anti-Semitism was used from the Middle Ages (Christ Killers) all the way to Hitler’s Holocaust (yes, it really happened) to justify violence against Jews for no other reason than their ethnicity. The Ku Klux Klan used the “plot” of non-WASPs (White Anglo-Saxon Protestants) against society to justify violence, including lynching of blacks. Don’t get me wrong, the majority of conspiracy theorists are neither violent or seeking to harm anyone. The danger is that the mentality of finding someone to blame for things in society one doesn’t like is that the extreme fringe will resort to taking action with their own hands. However, most modern conspiracy theories are not a matter of justifying prejudices, but trying to make sense out of what seems senseless and/or mistrust of a government that has, however ineffectually, kept secrets at times. There are also those who want to romanticize history into what they would like it to be. All are delusional.
The first conspiracy theory that hit the big time was the JFK assassination. Without a doubt, the nation was stunned, wondering, how could this have happened? I was in high school at the time and felt total disbelief. People started to wonder if there was a reason, a plot to kill a popular president. Jack Ruby did the biggest service to theorists by killing Lee Harvey Oswald. But did that prove a conspiracy? I wonder how many hours have been spent by theorists studying the meager film of the shooting. Did his head move in the right direction for being shot by Oswald? Was there a second sniper hiding behind the infamous “grassy knoll?” If so, was he hired by the Mafia, who Bobby Kennedy was targeting as Attorney General, or the CIA for some not-quite-clear reasons, or the Emperor of Japan? Actually, I’ve never seen the last one, but if it starts cropping up, you read it here first. For some of the theories about who did the dirty deed, click here. Oliver Stone even made a movie that catered to such theories, JFK. In it, the FBI, the CIA and the military worked together. If the idea of that is not fictional, nothing is. Of course, Stone has never had a problem with twisting facts to make his movies sell. He said, “I will come out with my interpretation. If I’m wrong, fine. It will become part of the debris of history, part of the give and take.” In other words, no apologies for errors. And his many errors in the film provided fuel for the fire of conspiracies. He’s like a guy yelling fire in a theater, causing panic, then saying it wasn’t his fault. He was being creative. The interesting thing about so many of the theories is they dispute each other’s “facts.” There is not agreement about what actually happened. To me, it’s all smoke and mirrors. I do believe Oswald might have been at least encouraged to kill Kennedy. Fidel Castro had good reason. The Bay of Pigs happened right after JFK took office and there seems to be credible evidence that the CIA did try to assassinate Castro, so Castro well might have had hard feelings. Also, Oswald spent time there. Do I consider this positive proof, worthy of devoting my life to proving this possibility? No. That’s called an obsession. That’s called nuts.
The Internet brought conspiracy theories to new heights. Anyone who has received a forwarded email that was not factual knows how fast lies can spread online. I once corrected someone on forwarding false information before verifying it and was told, “I don’t have time for that. I just send it on.” I shuddered. So much for personal responsibility. But anything can go viral, and often does. Truth be damned, full speed ahead. So let’s look at a few.
The Twin Towers were destroyed by the CIA so that President George W. Bush could start a war for control of Iraqi oil, or was instigated by Wall Street insiders to manipulate the market, or was orchestrated by the Israelis to get us to attack Iraq. They claim that the Towers could not have collapsed as they had without planted explosives to bring the buildings down and have their experts to verify that. Okay, other experts have said the flaming jet fuel pouring down the elevator shafts definitely would have compromised the structures to that extent, especially since they were never designed for such a scenario. Also, the amount of explosives claimed to have been used could hardly have been brought in surreptitiously by a few agents and secretly planted. That’s by far wilder than jet fuel. Then there is the relatively unsuccessful attack on the Pentagon and the crashed Flight 93 where some passengers not only gave their lives to stop an attack, but left a cell phone legacy. As to the so-called motives, they are far more unbelievable than Jihadists willing to die for their cause. And do you honestly think that all the individuals in as many agencies who had to be involved could have all kept their mouths shut for all these years? Get real.
The Illuminati, with all its various addenda, is my next focus of illumination. The only historical Illuminati (which means enlightened) was a Bavarian group that was organized in 1776. Their purpose was to control superstitious and religious influences in government. Originally in competition with Freemasonry, they then tried to recruit from it, with limited success. At its height, the order had between 650 to 2500 members (depending on which source you believe). In 1785, Bavaria banned the organization and by 1787, it had ceased to exist. Sic transit Illuminati. Unless you believe the Internet. According to the conspiracy theorists, they are alive and well, controlling the economies and governments of the world. Dan Brown’s Angels and Demons gave legs to the myth. As with so many of his books, the gullible were sucked in by the fiction (and his books are fiction). The phantom Illuminati are working toward a “New World Order,” a one-world government controlled by this secret society. They are also behind the Twin Towers. Remember the Wall Street insiders? They’re the ones. They control everything, yet are invisible. The interesting thing is, if they’re so ruthlessly secretive, how do we know about them? Ah, there’s the rub. There must have been a leak. And a bigger one that gave all the insider information to the conspiracy theorists. And no one stopped it, even though it’s been a secret for over 200 years and people were killed to keep it so. Hmm. Does that sound odd to anyone else but me? Anyway, I do love that there is an Illuminati Official Website (click here) that says, “The Illuminati is an elite organization of world leaders, business authorities, innovators, artists, and other influential members of this planet. Our coalition unites influencers of all political, religious, and geographical backgrounds to further the prosperity of the human species as a whole.” It even has pictures of its members. Oddly enough, I’ve never heard of any of these movers ans shakers.
My last example is the Knights Templar. “How are they a conspiracy theory?” you ask. Because people don’t accept that the order ended when the last Grand Master, Jacques De Molay was burned at the stake and Pope Clement V disbanded the order in 1312 and think they’re still around. I will not go into the lies that were said about the order by King Philip IV to justify what happened, but let’s just say that avarice reigned supreme with the king. However, that was the end of the Templars. Much of what is now fodder for believers that the Templars not only continued on, but helped the Scots win the battle of Bannockburn is pure bunk, since Templar tactics were nothing like what were used by the Scots. Then Holy Blood, Holy Grail by Michael Baigant, Richard Leigh and Henry Lincoln claimed that the Templars were guardians of the Holy Grail, which was the seed of Jesus in Mary Magdalen. And the line continues to this day, kept secret by a secret society of Templars. A leg upon which the “proof” in the book stands is the Priory of Scion. This was a scam started in 1956 by Pierre Plantard. He claimed the Priory was a secret society that protected the bloodline of Jesus and Mary Magdalen, which was tied to the Merovingian kings of France before Charlemagne. He even went so far as to plant false documents in the Bibliothèque Nationale de France to prove his fabrication, but has been thoroughly discredited (click here). The book was based on “historical evidence” such as this. But when Dan Brown wrote The DaVinci Code, two of the authors sued him for stealing their intellectual property. They finally lost because, if it were really history as they claimed, how could it be intellectual property? If you claim fiction is fact, you can’t own it. But, since they must have known it was fiction, to say it wasn’t would make them liars about what they wrote. Tough choice.
Conspiracy theorists love “experts.” Normally, they’re as bonkers as those who follow them. But watch out for terms like “it’s obvious that,” ” anyone can surmise that,” or experts agree that.” Generalities are the enemy of academia. Plus, how convoluted are the arguments? Occam’s Razor, a wise philosophical concept, says that the simplest solutions are normally the best. That is not the motto of conspiracy theorists. When you consider how effective the governments have been in hiding what they do for the long term, it makes it very dubious they could do so well on so many issues as the theorists would have you believe. While I would agree that governments often lie, so do a lot of other people. While I don’t say that all the theorists knowingly embrace lies, they do unwillingly lie to themselves when they buy into the wild conjectures that are flying around the Internet these days. Always doubt. It’s a good starting place.
Nowadays, fake news, alternative news (#altnews), and alternative facts are hot topics. Both sides of the political spectrum accuse the other of engaging in the practice while doing the same themselves. They both claim they want objective news. But does such an animal exist? Did it ever exist? The answer to both questions is “No.” MSNBC, Fox, CNN and such stations all have a slant, a perspective. Even ones like ABC, NBC and CBS do as well. Whether it be an obvious bias by reporters or commentators (as is evident in some) or even merely by what they choose to report, what questions they ask and how much time they spend on certain issues, news sources are biased. That’s true of newspapers, radio and online reporting as well. While I am not truly objective (Who is?), I can see that even for sources with whom I agree, they have a bias. But while I may not be objective, I am logical. There is an old saying that there is nothing new under the sun. Fake news, alternative news, and alternative facts have been that way all through recorded history.
We think of history as a study of facts. That is not the case. It is the study of what has been recorded by people about events. And, as I said, no one is truly objective. The first account of a battle recorded was the Battle of Kadesh in modern-day Syria. Ramses II of Egypt led an expedition against King Muwatalli II of the Hittites and in 1274 B.C., they met in battle. According to the detailed account, Ramses foolishly stumbled into a trap laid by Muwatalli, misled by Hittite informants who were actually spies. He divided his forces and the army he led was attacked by a much larger Hittite force with 2,500 chariots. According to the detailed account, Ramses bravely rallied his forces and drove the Hittites from the field, soundly defeating them. Sounds factual, doesn’t it? However, this account was written by the Egyptians after the battle. The hieroglyphic account shows Ramses in his chariot, firing arrows at the foe. There is a saying that history is written by the victors, but it can also be written by those who want to be remembered as the victors. There is a Hittite account, not nearly so detailed, that claims a Hittite victory. Most historians, after a study of the account and the aftermath of the battle, think it was a draw, that neither side had a clear-cut victory. (click here for full account) Since the Hittites continued to occupy Kadesh after the battle, they may have won. But, unless someone invents a working time machine, we can only guess. Such is the case with much of history and, unfortunately, news.
The next example is Julius Caesar’s Gallic War Commentaries. It is the best account of the Roman conquest of Gaul, yet how much can we trust? Caesar wrote them in the third person, no doubt to make them sound less subjective. After all, they are the tale of Caesar’s conquest of Gaul and were a prime propaganda piece for his struggle to become the top dog in Rome. Caesar did conquer Gaul. We know that because it became a Roman province. Did he exaggerate the armies he beat? Very likely. Since there was no way he could have counted the quarter of a million Celts in the relief army trying to help the besieged Gallic chief Vercingetorix and his supposedly eighty thousand men, no historian believes the numbers. Although the Roman army was the elite force of their day, Caesar had maybe forty thousand men and that made it eight-to-one odds against him, at best. (click here for full account) It simply made good press back home to add a few tens of thousands to the enemy forces they conquered. While it is a history of that conquest, it was also meant to justify Caesar’s seizing territory that was not Rome’s. One of the key points in Roman expansion had been that it justified doing so because of being attacked. In Caesar’s case, no one was attacking him. However, if an ally in Gaul was attacked, he would rush to their aid. Then he would stay. Slowly but surely, Caesar expanded Roman territory to the Rhine and even made a foray into Britain, all without authorization from Rome. His enemies in Rome cried foul, but he sent back a fortune in spoils of war as well as establishing more income from the Republic in taxes and tributes from the newly-conquered Celtic tribes, along with his embellished battle accounts to bolster his standing. Along the way, he made a sizable fortune for himself from his share of the spoils. He entered Gaul an impoverished patrician and left a very wealthy, popular general. Within a couple of years, he was appointed dictator of the Republic for life.
Recorders of history often used their accounts to promote their views, twisting facts to fit them. There were no newspapers in the ancient world, but when they were invented, they became another source of disinformation. There are many examples, but one stands out because it gave us a term used to describe such reporting: yellow journalism. When the armored cruiser USS Maine blew up on a “visit” to Havana Harbor on February 15, 1898, 261 of the 355 men on board died. America was stunned and wanted to know why. Now the ship was there to protect American interests in Cuba during an insurrection by Cuban rebels against Spain, who still owned it as a colony. Joseph Pulitzer’s New York World and William Randolph Hearst’s New York Journal started a campaign to blame Spain, claiming the explosion was due to a mine or a bomb and demanding an American response. While a Spanish investigation saw evidence of an internal explosion in the coal bunker, an American investigation by rather amateur investigators concluded it was caused by a mine. America made demands on Spain, finally demanding it surrender control of Cuba to America. Spain responded by declaring war on America, a major mistake. The role of the two newspapers in forging popular opinion and political pressure cannot be ignored. They incited the public, who adopted the slogan, “Remember the Maine! To hell with Spain!” The term “yellow journalism” came from the New York World and the New York Journal, because of a cartoon character that first appeared in the World and then in both papers, the Yellow Kid. Although originally a secondary character in a black and white cartoon drawn by Richard F. Outcault, the Kid gained fame when he started appearing in a yellow nightshirt in the newly colored Sunday paper. The two papers that carried him were soon known as the Yellow Papers and their policy of sensational headlines, wild exaggerations and inflammatory accusations became known as “yellow journalism.” (click here for more) As a side note, later evaluations of the evidence concluded that the explosion was most likely a result of volatile firedamp released from the bituminous coal used as fuel. (click here for full report) So much for truth in journalism.
When I was teaching American history to a middle school class in the late 1980’s, I broke the class into thirds and assigned each group the job of making a TV news story about the sinking of the USS Maine. One group did it as a Spanish station, one as an American station and one as a Cuban station. They then acted out their news coverage. The Spanish one did it as a tragic accident, but emphasized that the Spanish government had nothing to do with it. The Cuban station blamed the Spanish and the American group really got into the assignment. They had an anchor desk doing the main story then kept breaking to “live” interviews. Some students even portrayed survivors with bandages and fake blood. All of them told the story with a mine causing the explosion and that the Spanish must have done it. While we did not settle the true cause of the explosion with the assignment, the kids got the idea: “news” is not so much about truth and facts as it is about flash and innuendo.
It is interesting to note that fiction also plays a part in false news or false history. In this day of Facebook, tweets and questionable websites, it is becoming all the rage. It can make such an impression that it becomes accepted fact, especially when it gets in mainstream media. A woman was quoted in a newspaper saying that “psychic healer Edgar Cayce pointed to Nevada City (CA) as the first ‘City of Light’ in the world.” The woman got that from an article in the spoof news-site, Nevada County Scooper. (Click here for a laugh.) Considering that the site’s article said Nevada City was competing with “sacred” McDonald’s in Sedona, AZ for being Cayce’s “spiritual vortex of the known universe,” she should have been suspicious. However, now this joke has become archived online as a fact, or at least claimed as one, in a regular newspaper.
But sometimes the fiction has a more political purpose. Consider the play by William Shakespeare, Richard III. The book, Holinshed’s Chronicles of England, Scotland, and Ireland, that was first published in 1577 is widely accepted as Shakespeare’s historical source for many of his plays. (click here) The three witches in Macbeth first appear there and that can be no coincidence. However, like the witches who morphed from Holinshed’s nymphs to Shakespeare’s hags, the history was not slavishly followed. Even a cursory reading of Shakespeare’s play reveal a conniving, manipulative, unscrupulous and murderous character. He is even more evil than Holinshed’s version. Although he may well have eliminated his nephews Edward V and Richard (definitely not a nice thing to do), he did not kill the Earl of Warwick and Edward of Westminster in order to marry Anne Neville, as he says in the play, and all indications are that he was upset when his brother, King Edward IV, executed their brother, the Duke of Clarence, rather than plotted it. The man Shakespeare described as a hunchbacked “bottled spider” did suffer from severe scoliosis, but was still a noted warrior who died in battle trying to physically come to grips with Henry Tudor, the future Henry VII. His acts while king were noted for their concern for his kingdom, not personal gain. So why did Shakespeare make Richard III the epitome of evil in his play? Consider when he wrote the play, 1597. Elizabeth I was queen, the granddaughter of Henry VII, the man whose crown came from the head of the slain Richard III, the rightful king. The Tudors were not known to suffer any questioning of their right to the crown. It was a good way to secure a room in the Tower until execution. But praising them, making them seem glorious rulers was a way to royal favor. What would you do if you were Shakespeare? But the picture painted by the playwright is the one that has lasted through history. When the play is on stage, Richard usually has a hunchback and lurks in dark corners, monologuing his nasty plots. Fiction has created fact.
While I could go on about how society takes fiction as fact, that is another topic, one that will include conspiracy theories. Next time. But remember that in the TV show House, Dr. House’s favorite adage was, “Everybody lies.” I don’t say everybody does, but far too many do. Keep that in mind when you watch, hear or read the “news.”
This is the second part of my 1995 interview with George MacDonald Fraser on the Isle of Man. His knowledge of history shown in his books, gained without a formal degree, was impressive. I went to my first writers seminar, on the Isle of Man, a few years later. One wanna-be writer criticized Mr. Fraser for being too accurate in his historical fiction! I met with Mr. Fraser one more time, in 1999. He was doing a book signing of Flashman and the Tiger at a local bookstore. After chatting for a while, where I told him of my own writing efforts, he kindly offered to allow me to use his name when I contacted his agent. This was before many revisions of my book and it was not print-ready. Of course she declined to represent me, but did send a nice personal note. I wonder what she thought of him recommending a hack-writer like I was then to contact her. George MacDonald Fraser passed away in 2008. He was a polite and gracious man.
RLC: Moving along to your books on the Gordon Highlanders that you based on your own
experiences. GMF: They’re sort of half truth. Some of them are truer than others. RLC: Right. Are most of the people in them real characters and you changed the names to protect the guilty, as it were?
GMF: That’s right. Most of them recognized themselves. They couldn’t help that, you know. Well, they don’t mind, so that’s okay.
RLC: That’s good.
GMF: I think they’re rather pleased. The final amalgamation took place last year. The Gordons ceased to be and went in with the previously amalgamated Camerons and Seaforths. They have become one regiment, simply called the Highlanders. I was greatly delighted that the new design for The General Danced at Dawn they’ve adopted as their Christmas card. Mind that was some time back.
RLC: I’ve noticed, to return to Flashman, most of the wiser are the non-commissioned, whereas the officers many times seem to be either pompous or foolish, or both.
GMF: Of course, a great many of them were. I think it’s fair to say that you get a fair number of mutton heads among the professional military. Certainly the NCO’s, the non-coms, those who rose at all were pretty good. Yes, but on the other hand there were some soldiers who were absolute geniuses, there’s no doubt about it, around at that time. They come in all shapes and sizes. Generally, in wartime, the best men get to the top, thank God. That happens in every country, I suppose.
RLC: Would you consider your military experience a positive, good one?
GMF: I loved it. Yes. I liked soldiering, but I wouldn’t want to be a peacetime soldier. There doesn’t seem to be much point. And, of course, the huge change that came over Britain after the war. From having had this enormous empire, suddenly it had gone, pretty well. There wouldn’t have been the opportunities for getting on as a soldier that there had been.
RLC: Is there any little anecdote that you could share that’s not in your books?
GMF: Nothing really particularly. I’ve milked pretty dry by now. I think they’re all in there. I’ve covered my times with the Gordons in those three books of short stories and my time in Burma in a sort of an autobiography that I wrote a couple of years ago, called Quartered Safe Out Here. Outside of that, not a great deal. You know, military life tends to be, on the whole, fairly humdrum. RLC: You’re more noted among some people for your history writing. The Steel Bonnets is very important to the Scots.
GMF: That was a labor of love . I’d been born in the Border country and no one had ever done it. There had been lots of little romantic histories and so on, but no one had ever done a real history, a factual history of it, so I decided to do that. The only thing is that it could have been ten times as long. I had to be selective because there was so much that there just wasn’t room for. It was an enormous book as it was.
RLC: Do you find that you are drawn to certain historical eras in your studies?
GMF: Yes, the Victorian era and the sixteenth century, particularly. Those are the ones I write about because by now, they’re the ones I know most about.
RLC: You have also done some fine work on American history, The Buffalo Soldiers.
GMF: Well, thank you. As in the Flashmans, American history in the last century is terrific. It’s a fantastic story.
RLC: Basically, though, you confined yourself to British and American. That’s your primary focus.
GMF: Oh yes. For one thing, the language. I would love to have written, or be able to write the history of the buccaneers. But I don’t speak French, I don’t speak Spanish, and I don’t speak Dutch. If you’re going to do it, you ought to be able to research in all those languages. Also, it would call for two or three years travel around the Caribbean and, tempting though it might be, I think I might probably get fed up with it.
RLC: I note that you basically do historical novels or history. It shows your primary interest. You don’t do a lot of fiction like Archer or someone like that where you can sit down and reel it off. Yours are more difficult by far.
GMF: Yes, you have to do the research and, as I say, that is the bit that I enjoy most. No, I have no desire to write about my own time at all. Everybody else is doing it, so why should I. My daughter writes. She has published three novels and are all contemporary, because she was a barrister. Although, she’s now got four children, so she is retired. They’re about the law, but that’s her particular area. No, I’ve no great interest in the twentieth century.
RLC: Well, we’re very appreciative of your works. That’s what drew me is the historical aspect. That’s my great love. Are you working on any particular writing now?
GMF: Not at the moment, no. I should. I’ve been lazy. Of late I wrote a little book about Border history, a little piece of fiction called The Candlemas Road. The BBC asked me to dramatize it. I then dramatized it. It went out a couple of weeks ago. That is the last work that I’ve done.
RLC: So that should be appearing fairly soon, then? GMF: No, it’s been broadcasted.
RLC: Oh, when?
GMF: About three weeks ago. Middle of July.
RLC: I think that’s one the saddest things is that we don’t know about things like this because BBC doesn’t publicize much.
GMF: No, it doesn’t.
RLC: American TV tells you what’s coming. They put it in TV Guide for weeks. Here you have to dig for it on the BBC.
GMF: Lots of things pass by. There was a program I wish I’d seen called “Highlanders,” which Sean Connery narrated, just a week ago. It was about an hour long documentary about Culloden and the ’45 Rebellion. I missed it. Again, they didn’t publicize it.
RLC: I didn’t even hear about it. I guess if you are what we call a “couch potato” in the States you have a better chance.
GMF: You just have to study the programs in advance, which I never do.
RLC: One enjoyable story of yours is about your grandmother who ran the Highland inn and the still operation.
GMF: That’s almost entirely true, that story. That’s the trouble. I just don’t have any connection with the Highlands now at all, because all the older members of my family, of course, are dead and I sort of lost touch. In fact, I haven’t been back in the Highlands for ten years or more, although it is just across the way.
RLC: Have you ever gone to any of the games there? Of course, the games are different there than in the States. In the States, they’re more like a Highland fair, with games only as a part of the event.
GMF: No, the only Highland gathering I’ve been to since I was a child was the one in North Carolina, and that went on for two or three days. Obviously, they’re a big thing and they take place in all parts of the USA and Canada.
RLC: Yes, I was involved in Southern California. They have large ones in Santa Rosa in Northern California and Costa Mesa in the South. So then I take it you don’t have a kilt?
GMF: Oh, yes. Yes. RLC: You do? Great!
GMF: I got it, actually, before I went to Grandfather Mountain and have worn it several times since for weddings and that sort of thing. The peculiar thing that came out of The General Danced at Dawn is that about five or six years ago Simon Fraser University in British Columbia wrote to me and said we have read all about this, your story about people dancing 32, 64, 128ths in reels. We intend to dance a 256-some reel. And they did. They sent me a video of it. And they actually did it. As a result of that, the year before last, the Toronto Country Dance Society decided they would dance a 512-some reel. They got dancers from all over the United States and Canada, New Zealand, oh God knows where. Again, I saw a video of it and it’s in the Guiness Book of Records now. But, in fact, I think it wasn’t as genuine as the 256-some they did in British Columbia, because that was one bloody, great reel. The Toronto looked more to me like a lot of groups of reels. But, still, it was accepted by the experts, so I guess it was all right. It was an impressive sight, I’ll tell you. 512 maniacs weaving in and out, you know. They announced they were going to have a shot at the 1024-some. They’re not getting me, I know that.
RLC: You’ve met the Frasers at Grandfather Mountain. Have you had much contact with other Frasers in Scotland?
GMF: No, not really.
RLC: Did you ever meet Lord Lovat or Lady Saltoun.
GMF: No, I never did. That was a piece of one-ups-manship by Charlton Heston. He had met Lord Lovat. No, I never met him, old MacShimi. He had a gathering of Frasers in the 1950’s, and I think one of my uncles went to it. They figured they would get a few hundred and they got 70,000. They must have eaten him out of house and home.
I haven’t had much contact with other Frasers. There was Lord Fraser, who bought the paper on which I worked, the Glasgow Herald. He was a financier and businessman, died about thirty years ago. He was a distant cousin of mine. I mean, okay, if you are a Lovat Fraser, you’re probably all related some way, anyway. But he was a traceable sort of second cousin. He was the man who bought Harrod’s. There was a huge take-over battle in the ’50’s and he succeeded in buying Harrod’s. He was a tough little bandit. I knew him and his son. But no, one notes the Frasers turning up in various positions, but I’ve not had any particular comings and goings with them.
RLC: There have been a few other Fraser authors. David Fraser, a cousin of Lady Saltoun, has written And We Shall Shock Them, The Killing Times, and others. GMF: The reason my name on my books is George MacDonald Fraser is because it is my middle name, anyway, but also there was a Scottish poet called George S. Fraser. My publisher said that just so there is no confusion, let’s have your middle name. And so there it went. Oh, yes. And then, of course, there’s Antonia Fraser…
RLC: That’s by marriage. GMF: Yes, that’s by marriage.
RLC: Now she’s married to Harold Pinter.
GMF: That’s right. I’ve never met her. Then, I haven’t met many authors. I tend to steer clear of other authors.
RLC: You don’t go to “author clubs?”
GMF: No. I’m trying to think how many authors I know. Kingsley Ames, I think he’s about the only one. Yes, just about. There are one or two on the Island. Then again, we don’t get together. There is an Isle of Man Authors’ Society, but, then again, I don’t attend it. I suppose I feel that an author’s job is writing, not meeting other authors.
RLC: Just because you write doesn’t mean you have the same interests as someone else who writes.
GMF: Quite. I mean you’d just end up talking about royalties, agents, and publishers anyway.
RLC: Did you ever read Lord Lovat’s book? He wrote March Past.
GMF: No, I didn’t know he’d written one.
RLC: I thought that since you were both military men, it might be of interest.
GMF: The only military Fraser I knew was, again, a cousin, Bill Fraser, who was in the Gordons with me. God knows what happened to him. You lose touch very easily. There are Fraser relatives scattered around the States and Canada. My parents were in touch with them, but him, I’m not. I’ve got a cousin actually living in…What’s the name of the place…not Santa Monica. He was at Venice Beach. He ran a restaurant at Venice Beach. But he’s talking of, and I don’t know whether he’s done it, moving to Houston. Whether he will or not, Lord knows. A lot of Frasers are in the Los Angeles phone book.
RLC: Oh, yes. It’s not quite like British Columbia, but… GMF: British Columbia, oh! And Saskatchewan. My wife and I worked in a newspaper in Regina back in, oh, what 1950, and there were Frasers everywhere. You couldn’t move for the brutes.
RLC: You worked for the Glasgow Herald. What other papers did you work for?
GMF: I worked for a local one in Carlisle, the Carlisle Journal, then went to Canada where I worked for the Regina Leader Post, back to Carlisle, worked the Cumberland News, and then to Glasgow and worked for the Glasgow Herald. That’s my journalistic story. Did over twenty years. It’s a lovely job, newspaper work. I wouldn’t like it now. The new technology. Forget it. It means nothing to me. I don’t really like newspapers nowadays, anyway. For one thing, they’re too damn big. The strain of filling the space is obviously showing in a lot of them.
RLC: Do you find them more sensational now?
GMF: Yes. Oh, standards have slipped. I mean, I sound like a dinosaur, but they have. Not only journalistic ethics, what is permissible and what isn’t. I mean, there’s no holds barred nowadays. But also literacy. I mean, they don’t know the difference between who and whom, may and might, and like and as. I’m appalled at some of the garbage that I see. In fact, I skim the headlines now and rely on television. I don’t want to know what is happening anyway, very much. Forget Bosnia, as far as I’m concerned. That’s just a hell of a mess.
RLC: I don’t think I would want to be one of the soldiers there. Not being able to shoot back and watching people killed in front of your eyes.
GMF: Quite. I don’t think we should have been near it in the first place, or anyone else for that matter, and I think it would have got over a lot quicker without UN interference. Okay, humanitarian efforts, by all means, but to send in observers, the way they have, they’re useless and just hostages. But, that’s the way.
RLC: It’s almost as though now we don’t have clear-cut enemies. We’ve lost the Russian hegemony.
GMF: No. I don’t blame the United States for not wanting to get involved in Yugoslavia. I don’t think any of us should’ve. But that’s not the popular, moralistic view. If any of the back-bench heroes who are always demanding that we should get further involved…okay, let THEM go, if they want to.
RLC: Just out of curiosity, how did you end up on the Isle of Man. You’ve lived in Canada, the U.S., and Scotland.
GMF: Well, there’s nowhere in particular that we belong to, and we knew the Island. When I wrote Flashman, I thought, “I don’t know, but this could be the start of something. And I have no desire to pay ninety percent tax to the British government. So we came over here, thank God. If they altered the tax rate in Britain now, I wouldn’t go back. It’s nice here. We like it and it’s old fashioned and fairly quiet. Not as old fashioned and quiet as it was when we first arrived, but still I prefer it to that mess over yonder.
RLC: How long have you lived here?
GMF: Twenty…twenty-six years.
RLC: You’ve-seen a lot of changes. GMF: And yet, not all that many. It’s still pretty much the same. The number of cars has increased frantically.
RLC: Have you ever been to the TT’s?
GMF: Yes, when we first came. But we haven’t been back since. Okay, you stand and you watch the show going by, you know. It struck me then that it’s the nearest thing to the Roman arena extant. There were six killed in the actual races the year that we watched. It doesn’t seem to be quite so bad now. It’s sooner them than me, you know.
RLC: It’s not even safe to be a bystander at times.
GMF: Quite. I mean the guy who’s our electrician, the guy we call on if anything goes wrong, he rode seventh in the Senior about twenty years ago. That’s mad! I mean, he really is mad. You can tell by the way he goes about his electrical work. But he’s a good electrician. It seems to me he takes appalling chances. When I consider that course, which, incidentally, Steve McQueen knew intimately. He’d never been here himself. He knew all about the Isle of Man, the TT and the different names and places on the course. I said to him, “the next time you’re in Europe, you’ll have to come over and go ’round it.” He said, “You can drive me. In a leisurely way.” He said, no, he wasn’t into actually racing any more. Our favorite trick with visitors was to take them to the grandstands, then around the course, and then say, “Right, you do that in twenty minutes.” It is a horrifying thought, when you consider it. You know Gray Hill in Douglas? That’s the big hill, down from the grandstands before you come to Quarterbridge. The police used to put their guns, their speed guns, on that. They found one of the riders coming down at 197 mph. When you consider that through the streets of the town…I mean, they’re nuts!
RLC: I always find it interesting that they’re putting pads on the stone walls. If you hit that at 165 mph it’ll give you a soft death.
GMF: That’s about it. That’s about it. Still, they seem to like doing it. And God knows, I don’t know what would happen to the Island’s economy in the summer without it. I’m always glad to see them come, but I’m personally always glad to see them go. RLC: I agree.
GMF: Of course they’ll be back here in a few weeks time for the Grand-Prix: Note: Grand Prix is the amateur’s TT. RLC: I always find it interesting to see the signs along the road “Fahrens.”
GMF: “Fahren links.” Yes, that’s it. For the Germans. Used to be a lot of Italians came. Not so many now, I don’t think. That was when Agostini won it six years on the run, on the trot. Then he retired, said he wasn’t coming back. Because, he said, it was getting too dangerous. Oh, no one could call him “chicken,” you know. He won the damn thing for six years running. And the Italians haven’t been as prominent as they used to be.
(Note: The signs advising “Stay left” in German are put up during TT and Grand Prix to remind German motorcyclists visiting the Isle to stay to the left.)
RLC: Remember I said, about the President, if I don’t think about it… GMF: Yes…
RLC: It was Rutherford B. Hayes.
GMF: Yes, okay.
RLC: His wife was known as “Lemonade Lucy” because she would never serve any alcohol in the White House.
GMF: Hayes. He’s one of these that you never hear of, you know.
RLC: He didn’t accomplish much because of the deal that had been made and everyone knew it. It (the Presidency) should have gone to the Democrats. But the Democrats would have had the White House with a Congress that was Republican.
GMF: Mind you, I’m not sure that these undistinguished persons aren’t the best Presidents. I mean nothing happens, so, ah, there is a case for saying the best Prime Minister there has been in Britain for a long time was Alec Douglas Hume. Because, as he said himself, in the eighteen months in which he was Prime Minister, nothing happened!
RLC: Are there any current British politicians that you have found interesting, that you like or dislike intensely?
GMF: None that I found interesting. I mean, we are not part of the British political scene, thank God. No, I’m quite content with the fact that the Island has its own little government and, on the whole, it’s pretty non-political, you know, non-party. There’s something comforting about when you’ve got to vote, you’re not voting for someone picked out by a machine and who you don’t know and suspect. We’ve got a chemist in Laxey who’s now our MHK (Member of the House of Keys). Well, there is something comforting about that, because at least you can get at him…if you want to. The last MHK we had before was our doctor, Dr. Mann. I must say, I think it’s…I just hope the Island can stay the way it is. It’s our little bastion of sanity. How long it will last, God alone knows. RLC: Would you be termed a conservative? GMF: Yes. I don’t mean conservative with a capital “C.” I don’t like the present government in England one bit. I think that the Labour government would be even worse. It generally is. But this lot have been in too long. That is the trouble with British politics. There is no one you would willingly vote for.
RLC: It’s true in America, too. GMF: We were in Hollywood at the time of the Bush-Dukakis election, and I remember the gloom that settled over Universal Studios when the result came through. Oh, God! I was a neutral bystander. I didn’t really mind. I was slightly in Bush’s favor because his Vice President was Manx, or at least of Manx descent. Although, I don’t know that he was the greatest, either. I remember poor John Landis the day after the election. It was as though the sky had fallen in. I think…the impression I got the day or two before was that they thought Dukakis was going to win. RLC: They hoped. Hollywood is traditionally liberal. Charlton Heston and a couple like him are conservatives. GMF: An impressive person. He’s a big picture man.
RLC: My wife rewatches Ben Hur every so often.
GMF: On The Prince and the Pauper, he took me aback. He said, “What other English kings can I play?” I tried to think, and I said, “Well, why not go to Edward I?”
RLC: That’s what I was going to say, “Longshanks.”
GMF: Yes. “Because,” I said, “you’re exactly right, physically.”
RLC: Of course, I don’t think he would want to play the “Hammer of Scotland.”
GMF: That’s right. I said, “Get Sean Connery to play Robert the Bruce and you’re well away. He pondered this a long time. I think he would rather play Robert the Bruce.
RLC: Did you ever meet Sean Connery?
GMF: No, never have.
RLC: I thought when you did…Octopussy. But that was Roger Moore. GMF: That was Roger. Yes. No, we’ve sort of almost coincided several times, but never, in fact. Moore’s a nice, laid back man. Didn’t take himself for Bond terribly seriously, unlike Cubby Broccoli, who took it very seriously. When I proposed putting Bond in a gorilla suit in one scene, he reacted with horror. However, Bond did end up in a gorilla suit. In Octopussy, very briefly. RLC: How many Bond pictures did you write? GMF: Just the one. The only person who wrote more than one is…oh, he’s died now…oh God, I’ve forgotten his name. He contributed to every Bond picture, from the beginning. Old Hollywood script writer…gentleman from West Point. He’d retired, pretty well, by the time I came along. Although he and Michael Wilson put in a couple of scenes in my screenplay. I don’t know why. I watched them and wondered what the hell they were all about. Professional charity, probably. They tend to get a different writer for each. Or they did. Now, I think, Michael Wilson does them. RLC: Now that they’re out of the books.
GMF: Yes. Quite. Well, we were pretty well out of the books with Octopussy. It was a short story, a novelette.
RLC: About a marine biologist, really, who loved octopi, not about a woman with a tattoo. GMF: That’s right.
RLC: They were fun. They always were fun.
GMF: They were good fun and they were very professionally made. That was their saving grace. RLC: It was always interesting to see what new gadget could be brought out for Bond to use. And normally the gadgets didn’t work. They would work at first, but there would be something that made it fail. Like the car in Goldfinger that he ended up crashing. It was like they wanted him to have to use something besides the gadgets.
GMF: That’s right. They’re still making one, I think, at the moment. Although I think Cubby Broccoli is not a part of it. I think it’s his daughter and Michael Wilson who are the producers. And it’s a new Bond. It’ll do alright. I think the magic name will still get them.
RLC: Not the mega-hits they were before, but…
GMF: No. Connery and Moore were at their peak. Oh, at MGM, I discovered, when you were working on Octopussy, you could do no wrong. They practically carried you into the building. How are we on this for length?
RLC: Great. Thanks for meeting me. I’ve really enjoyed this. GMF: Well, I’ve enjoyed it, too. Thank you very much.
Back in 1995, when I was living on the Isle of Man, I was able to interview George MacDonald Fraser (click for more info). I was the vice-chairman of Clan Fraser Society of North America (even though I had moved to the Isle of Man) at the time and did so for the newsletter. One afternoon, my wife and I met with him at the Sefton Hotel on The Strand in Douglas, across the street from the harbor. We had tea and I interviewed the author of the Flashman novels (click for more on Flashman), several semi-autobiographical books about his experiences in Southeast Asia during World War II (click for a synopsis of one) and histories (click for a review of one). The chairman of CFSNA was a big fan and, although I was not that familiar with his works, I read some of his books and studied up on him before the interview. I was impressed with his writing and, as I interviewed him, the man. He was most gracious and interesting. Here is the first part of my interview with the late George MacDonald Fraser.
RLC: You have written fictional books and short stories, history, reviews, magazines articles and even worked for Hollywood. Do you have any favorite type of writing?
GMF: I would say the short stories are less trouble than anything else because I don’t have to do any research. And the same holds good for the film scripts. Again, very little research is necessary, and you can just sit down and do it, you know? The Flashmans take an awful lot of reading and research in advance. Naturally, any historical novel does. But I wouldn’t say that I have any particular favorite. No.
RLC: You worked as a newspaperman in Scotland as one of your notable jobs. What was your most memorable story or event of this time of your life?
GMF: I think interviewing Oliver Hardy, because he was such a nice man, and exactly as I had imagined and exactly as he was on screen, sitting there in his bowler hat, looking rather weary, which he probably was. Oh, I can think of things in Scotland when I was deputy editor of the Glasgow Herald, we effectively dealt a blow to Scottish nationalism,which I don’t approve of, although I’m getting more and more sympathetic to it as time goes by, and that was a great satisfaction at the time. No, no particular stories. How long have you been here?
RLC: We moved here in November.
GMF: Oh, I see. Then the name Bill Shankly won’t mean anything to you. He was a famous football manager with Liverpool. I mean, he had this sort of reputation in Britain that Casey Stengal and people like that used to have in the United States. When he managed a very small club I happened to be covering it for my local paper and I got to know him extremely well. I discovered that of all the people that I have met, he is the one whose name, when dropped, excites the most offense. Particularly in the north of England. RLC: I think that is one of the things I had to get used to. The household names in America might not be the household names here, and vice versa. We always think that because of our common language, that everything is the same.
GMF: Oddly enough, I think it’s probably most marked in TV entertainment. I mean, there are all sorts of household names in the States, Johnny Carson for example, that are almost unknown here. And David Letterman and people like that. Similarly, the same sort of thing in Britain. There are those no one in the States ever heard of. In fact, no one in the States heard anything about British entertainment at all until the Beatles arrived. That changed everything.
RLC: Having spent some time in America, do you prefer the type of screenwriting on British TV to American, especially in regards to humor and that sort of thing?
GMF: I’ve never subscribed to the belief, which has always been proclaimed over here, that British television is the best in the world. I don’t think it is. In fact, I think it has deteriorated very badly. No, I must say, when I go to the States (and I haven’t been for a few years now) I find myself slipping into it very, very easily and watching TV in hotel rooms and so on. In no time at all I find myself on the wavelength, you know.
RLC: Did you find any particular shows you liked?
GMF: I’m trying to think. Mind you, a lot of them are now seen in this country. Um … well, of course, it was shown over here, I liked Soap. It was shown a few years ago. I suppose that it has died now.
RLC: Yes, it was actually fairly short-lived.
GMF: Recently I was asked by a producer in Hollywood (he’s trying to get a television series started and he wanted me to do it) and he sent me tapes of a show called Hercules. Have you ever seen it?
GMF: It’s abysmal! But anyway, he said this is the type of thing that is peak viewing in the United States and well up the charts. I said, “I don’t believe it.”
And he said, “Oh, but it is. You have no idea how things have changed.'”
It is pretty basic, I mean the Hercules myth, but you wouldn’t recognize it. It’s just an excuse for slam, bang karate and that sort of thing. No, I’m not a great television viewer in this country. I don’t watch an awful lot, aside from news bulletins and old movies. I generally watch an old movie before I go to bed, or a bit of one, you know.
RLC: I know you did some screenwriting. What was your impression of Hollywood? The type of “feel” you get there, the whole genre?
GMF: You know, I found it very quiet, a rather relaxing place. I mean the longest stint I had there was at MGM, Culver City, when I was doing a James Bond, Octopussy, for Cubby Broccoli, and that was very civilized living. I used to turn up and park in the car park every day and watch Walter Mathau striding across looking very lugubrious. I used to work in the building and that consisted not of writing but entirely of discussing. That went on for weeks. Then I think no one wrote it, you know. But for the rest, most of the time I thoroughly enjoyed it. My wife and I sort of lived in the “golden triangle” in Beverly Hills and very pleasant it was. I must say they’ve got it licked for peaceful, quiet living, or so it seemed to me at the time. I don’t know what it’s like now. We had good friends there. Dick Fleischer, the director and others, Martin Ritt, who, alas, is now dead. Most of my time there was actually spent in talking. I didn’t do any writing there. As I say, the usual procedure of a movie was to go and talk for long periods. Then I would go home and write it and then go back and have more discussions and then come back and rewrite, you know. I must say I liked it. Last time I was there was to do The Lone Ranger, which never came off, for John Landis. John and his wife are good friends, although I haven’t seen them now for a couple of years. I doubt if I’ll be going back. I see no particular reason why I should. The film industry is changing. It was incredibly international when I was doing it. Movies would draw their people, their talent and so on, from all corners of the globe and filming would take place all over the world. Now it seems to be getting more back to the old “studio” system. More stuff is made in the States and, well, the tax advantage for working in Britain, I gather, is gone. It is a less international feel about it. And I think, too, my generation is getting a bit long in the tooth. I mean, the people I worked with, an awful lot of them are now dead or my age. People like Charlton Heston and George C. Scott must now be in their seventies and not as active as they were. I don’t know the names of all the young producers and directors nowadays.
RLC: Did you have any producers, directors, actors and actresses that made an impression, either positive or negative, that is very memorable?
GMF: Steve McQueen. We were to do a movie upon which six million dollars had already been spent, called Tai-Pan. It was eventually made by Dino De Laurentiis with a different script, not mine. But they sold my script to McQueen and we were all set to do it when the money ran out, or something. I never discovered what. Also, the poor guy was physically unwell at that time and died a few months later. It would have been his last picture, if it had been made. A funny thing about him was we met in his home which, at that time, was a penthouse in the Beverly Wilshire. The director and I went up to meet him and talk over the script. Within thirty seconds he said to me, “You’re from Scotland.”
I said, “Yes.”
He said, “I’m Scotch.”
And out it came. For about ten minutes I got the history of the McQueens. He was very nationalistic. Very proud of his Scottishness was McQueen. We got on very well. Nice chap. Reserved, in a quiet way. Burt Lancaster. I spent a week with him. Again, discussing a movie that never got anywhere. That was a very civilized man. Again, with whom it was very easy to talk. Much better educated than the average movie person.
If I had to write again for someone, I couldn’t pick anyone better to write for than George C. Scott, because whatever you write he will make it sound a hell of a sight better than it is. And Oliver Reed. I made five pictures with him and he’s never let me down yet. Again, he can make it sound better than it is. Some people just have the gift.
RLC: Did you work with Charlton Heston? Because, you know, he is a Fraser as well.
GMF: That’s right. Oh boy, I heard about that. Yes, his son, of course, is christened Fraser. Fraser, who is now, I think, a director. Yes, I made three pictures with him in two of which he was Cardinal Richelieu (click for more info on the Musketeer pictures) and the other one he was Henry the Eighth (click for more on Crossed Swords). He was a very good Henry the Eighth, too. Worked terribly hard and immersed himself in it. Going through the script again before hand, I’d had Henry saying something about being king for five and thirty years. He said, “Actually he’d been king for thirty-seven years.” And I said, “Yeah. Poetic license.” He knew his business. And we’ve corresponded now and then ever since. He must be, I should think, thinking about retiring, you know. Although, actors never retire.
RLC: They become more character actors, as time goes along, I suppose. Do you have anything waiting in the wings, as far as screen plays?
GMF: At the moment, no. There is always a sort of permanent thing of people saying they want to do Flashman for the movies or for television. One of these days it might happen. I’m not particularly worried whether it does or not. I’m quite happy with them in book form.
RLC: Mentioning Flashman brings me back to the book. It was my first introduction to your writing. It was a very interesting book. The first time you pick it up and you start reading about this fellow…very unique. Probably the most famous anti-hero in literature, I would say. Aside from the fleeting description in Tom Brown’s School Days that you attribute this character to, how did you become inspired to create this fellow, who is the ultimate in self-interest?
GMF: I don’t know. I know I wanted to write a Victorian novel and I ‘d had the thought, I don’t know when, probably when I read it when I was about twelve years old, “What happened to this character.” In a sense the work was done for me because it’s clear from Tom Brown’s School Days when he was expelled from Rugby, in the late 1830’s. Right. What would he do? He’d go into the army. What was happening in the military world at that time, and so on. So it was just a question of fitting him into history, which is what I’ve been doing ever since.
RLC: Having read them, I’ve found them to be full of detailed descriptions not only of points in history, but also locations, such as Afghanistan during that period and the Civil War period in America with Custer and the gang. The incredible amount of research in there, obviously.
GMF: That’s the best bit of it. That’s the best part.
RLC: What I noticed in that is there are certain times the characters become very alive, and sometimes in a negative way. Custer and Elphey Bey and such. You see them as pompous fools and idiots?
GMF: Well, an awful lot of them were, you know. Or so it appears now. Yes, I suppose all the great names of history have their weaknesses and their follies. An awful lot of history is as incredible as fiction. You wouldn’t get away with it as fiction. That, as I say, is the fun in finding out, and finding out, where possible, the real truth behind the legend. You know, just the small facts and the small details.
RLC: Yours, of course, are considerably more fleshed out than you can find in history because that is the nature of fiction. If you just had a dry recitation of facts it would be quite boring. GMF: That’s right. You have to have Flashman in the middle of it, you know.
RLC: How much freedom do you feel to make someone like Elphey Bey or Custer more fallible than they were or do you try keep-
GMF: I try to keep exactly as it was. There is only one person I am conscious of perhaps having made out to be a bit more of a villain than he was, and that is Bismarck. And yet, he was a thorough swine. There was a Russian called Ignatiev (Count Nicholas Pavlovich Ignatiev, statesman and diplomat) who I may have been a little unfair to, but that’s all. I will not, in any circumstances, take liberties, particularly with female characters. Unless they were promiscuous I won’t say they were. I won’t attribute misbehavior to any historical female who wasn’t guilty of it.
RLC: Now, I have noticed in your Flashman books quite a few characters who sound very historical. Do you bring in what I would call minor historical characters that people might not even have heard of that you encountered in your research?
GMF: Oh, yes. When I did the one before the last one, Flashman and the Mountain of Light, I discovered, about the Sikh War in the 1840’s, these two American adventurers of whom I had never heard. Incredible men upon whom I am convinced Kipling based The Man Who Would Be King, because their careers are so parallel and the timing is right. One of them published his memoirs in 1891 (extracts from Gardner’s journal were published in 1853 and Harlan published his in 1842. Both men died in the 1870’s.) and Kipling produced The Man Who Would Be King five years later. I’m quite sure he was inspired by them . That kind of character, this man Gardner (Alexander Gardner-click for more on this adventurer) who came from Wisconsin and went about Afghanistan dressed in a full suit of tartan including a tartan turban. I mean, there he is, and there’s a photograph of him, God help us. And another, a fellow from Philadelphia (Josiah Harlan-click for more info on his incredible story), who made himself, very briefly, king of a tiny Afghan kingdom. That is where, I’m sure, Kipling got the idea. He didn’t last long, and ended up as a dentist in San Francisco, as far as I remember. But an astonishing career. There were some very hard fellows about in the last century. (Some sources consider Sir James Brooke to be one of the inspirations rather than Gardner- click for more)
RLC: One of the things that is very obvious is that Flashy always comes out ahead, in spite of what you would think were some very grave errors of judgement where you think he would be branded a coward. You always make sure he has an “out.” How does this inevitable survival of such a person reflect your attitude toward this sort of real life individual?
GMF: I think they do. I often wonder how many great reputations are genuinely earned. The more you look into historical characters the more faults and the more virtues you find. You generally find, this is my experience, anyway, that where there is a myth, so-called, there is a genuine basis for it. I mean, everybody knows about Custer. They may not know all the facts and all the details about Custer, but he wasn’t a bad sort. He made a terrible mistake. And it was a mistake he could have attempted to justify, because he had done the same thing before and it had worked. But at Little Big Horn it didn’t. What is not generally known about Custer is his political ambitions, that he genuinely had his eye on the Democratic nomination. And he hoped in the far West, in the Little Big Horn campaign, hoped he would win such a glorious reputation that it might see him not only into the nomination, but into the White House. And God knows, why not? It happened to Eisenhower, you know. I suppose it happened to Andrew Jackson.
RLC: And even Washington.
GMF: And Washington, quite. What Custer would have been like as president, God alone knows. Because he was a pretty hysterical character, or very emotional, anyway. I don’t think he would have been a great success. Mind you, I’m not sure who became president that date, after Grant. Johnson? No, Johnson was before that.
RLC: After Grant was, ah…. GMF: What was the one that was assassinated?
RLC: That was McKinley.
GMF: Wasn’t there one who was assassinated around about 1881? RLC: Garfield. After Garfield was Arthur.
GMF: Was it Arthur?
RLC: Chester A. Arthur was later. Then you went to Cleveland, then Harrison, then Cleveland again, and come to McKinley.
GMF: Early 70’s.
RLC: Tilden ran against him, ah….
GMF: Tilden. That’s a name that rings a bell.
RLC: They made a deal. Actually the Democrats had the majority in the election and they made a deal with Republicans that they would get the White House in exchange for pulling out the occupation troops in the South…Lemonade Lucy was his wife…I’m into history and it’s like all of a sudden I can’t remember anything. I hate that.
GMF: I know that Grant was still President. Grant did two terms, if I remember. And I think he was just about going in ’76. That was just about the end.
RLC: Lincoln won in ’64. After him, up to ’68, was Johnson.
GMF: That’s right. Through ’72 and ’76 was Grant. I don’t know who it was from ’76 to ’80.
RLC: If I don’t think about it, I may come up with him. That would have been interesting, Custer as President.
End Part 1
My next book, The St. Nicholas Murders, is what is known as a “cozy mystery.” That brings to mind sitting in front of a warm fire, sipping tea and uttering, “My, my,” as one reads the yellowing pages of a hardbound book. As with many generalities, there is an element of truth in that. One website seems to say that (click here) and I find much of the description to be right. However, I must clarify what my book is and what it is not. If you checked the website, she says that the amateur sleuth is normally a woman. Well, Father Robert Bruce is very manly. Unlike Father Brown, he is tall, handsome and fit. I will defer to the “usually” and say that Father Robert is very unusual. He is an amateur who is drawn into the case and becomes a friend of the local chief of police, the Chief. I think they are very likeable, unlike my favorite P.I. Morg, who is the protagonist in two of my books and often lashes out at those who get in her way. Still, I think she’s lovable, too. Anyway, there is no graphic sex or violence. The language shouldn’t be offensive, unless one is a total prude. I mean, if bitch or bastard singes your ears, don’t read any of my books. Hopefully, that will not be the case for most cozy mystery readers. But enough about my latest book, let’s talk about what makes a cozy mystery such an oxymoron.
Important Update: I went to a writers’ conference on Kauai this month. I met with an agent who is looking at The St. Nicholas Murders, so I will not self-publish until I hear from her. Although I do hope she will take me on as a client, I am too old to count on it. More as soon as I know what will be the fate of my latest book, but it will not be by Christmas.
Most cozy mysteries are about murder. Merriam-Webster defines cozy as “providing contentment or comfort.” How can murder be linked with cozy? Perhaps it is just because there’s no blood and guts spewing in any of the scenes, but still has all the drama. Still, it is odd. Since I am not a fan of gory books, movies and TV shows, I feel much the same about sanitized crime, but it doesn’t explain why I love a good murder mystery. Is it because murder is the ultimate violation of another person and we wish to see the perpetrator brought to justice? For me, part of it is my love of solving puzzles, but why isn’t the puzzle about robbery or embezzlement? True, there are mysteries about those crimes, but ones about murder far outnumber all of them combined. Perhaps there is something in the human psyche that is drawn to the macabre. After all, people slow and gawk when there’s an accident on the freeway. And look at the popularity of Halloween. There’s also the thrill of fear, evidenced by the popularity of roller coasters and scary movies. Is the fear of death and cheating it part of this fascination? And might reading about a murder be a safe way to get that thrill? I’ll let you decide.
I do find it interesting that the murder mystery is a particularly English art form, the people known for polite restraint. I remember reading about an accident in the Tube. People started panicking and cramming the exits. One gentleman said, “Here, here! We’re English!” Everyone queued up and orderly got off the train without injury. While the yobs rioting at football (soccer) games have been far more common in the last few decades, the murder rate in the British Isles is far less than in America, about one fourth. Yet the British have long had an obsession with murder. Is this a paradox? While, with the exception of Edgar Allan Poe’s C. Auguste Dupin, the murder-solving detective was the invention of the Brits while the “hard-boiled” detective was an American innovation. Sherlock Holmes solved crime by observation and logic rather than with fists and guns. Poirot only uses a gun once, in the last episode when he dies. It was published in 1975, just a few months before Agatha Christie’s own death and may reflect her failing health. The idea of a little old lady solving crimes in her little village also came from the English. Miss Marple far predated Jessica Fletcher. As an aside, I do wonder how her village could continue to exist with so many people being murdered, but that’s a problem with a cozy mystery series. The English have long enjoyed reading about a good murder, both fictional and non-fictional. Jack the Ripper was great for newspaper sales. For the English person who reads of murder, it might be a way to break out from conventions of polite society without doing any harm.
Now that you have explored why you read cozy murder mysteries, indulge in one. Make a Christmas present for yourself or someone you know of The St. Nicholas Murders. It will be out by Christmas and would be a killer gift.
As stated in my The Union newspaper column on Saturday, September 10th (click here to read), recently I had a telephone interview with Alexander Rossi. It was Wednesday, August 31st, and he was standing in line at airport security, getting ready to board a plane for the Indy car race at Watkins Glen. At one point we paused our interview so that his phone could go through security. I recorded it on my computer, but I had a problem. The last two minutes of the almost 14 minutes are badly distorted. I have no idea why and have been unable to clean it up. Ain’t technology grand? I have included the whole interview in case you would like to endure those last two minutes, but feel free to stop if it becomes too aurally painful.
Here is the interview in its entirety.
Since Alexander grew up in Nevada City, he’s a source of local pride. He has come to town for this weekend and will be featured at several events. The editor of the paper, Brian Hamilton, also did an interview and wrote a fine, front-page article that gave a lot of information on Alexander’s racing history and what is happening next for him. You can read it by doing a search on the paper’s website, http://www.theunion.com/News/ I recommend it.
This is Alice’s 150th birthday and she certainly doesn’t show her age. You’d never believe she’s a day over 100. Like the brainy Athena from the skull of Zeus, Alice sprang from the imagination of Lewis Carroll. While oft mistakenly considered merely children’s books, both Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland (shortened to Alice in Wonderland) and its sequel, Through the Looking-Glass and What Alice Saw There (shortened to Through the Looking Glass) are not simplistic. True, they can be taken on the children’s level, where they are amusing and entertaining. Queen Victoria enjoyed Alice so much that she sent for all Lewis Carroll’s other books and was surprised to receive mathematics treatises. You see, Lewis Carroll, the pen name of Charles Lutwidge Dodgson, was an Oxford don of mathematics. Droll, erudite wit permeated both books. Even his pen name is a reversal of the Latin translation of his first and middle names. Originally, he planned to use an anagram of them, Edgar Cuthwellis, but his publisher thankfully nixed that idea. So Charles translated his names to Carolus Ludovicus, then swapped them around and Anglicized them to Lewis Carroll. Simple, eh?
Although books have been written about why he penned Alice’s tales and what then happened, the short version is that the bachelor don took the three daughters of his friend and college dean, Henry George Liddell, out rowing on July 4th, 1862. Ten-year old Alice, the middle child, begged him to tell them a story. He spun a fanciful tale about a young girl named Alice who followed a white rabbit down a hole to Wonderland. At Alice’s urging, he put it on paper. The working title was Alice’s Adventures Under Ground. Fortunately, Carroll was persuaded to change it because the book might be thought to have something to do with mining, but he did give a handwritten copy with that title to Alice in 1863. Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland was published on November 26th, 1865. While Dodgson expected to sell about 400 books, it was soon a runaway hit. It continues to have many incarnations, including ones by Disney, Depp and even a porno version. Alice’s tales have become a mainstay of children’s (and adult) fiction.
All this is nice, but so what? It doesn’t make these books of enduring quality or Mensa standing. Although Dodgson was a mathematician, there are no profound formulas or theorems of great repute in the two books. Instead, it is the way he uses the English language, the banter and brilliance, the puns and portmanteaus that stand the test of time. Consider that scrambled egghead, Humpty Dumpty, who uses “glory” to describe a “nice knock-down argument,” in Through the Looking-Glass and What Alice Saw There. It sounds like nonsense, right? Yet it had to do with a linguistic debate as to whether words have an intrinsic meaning that is inbuilt and inherent or whether they can be defined or redefined at will. When Carroll wrote the books, there was a strong school of linguistic thought that words had an intrinsic meaning. Few now follow that school and the other view seems to be what we now follow. “Cool” has nothing to do with temperature, but with popular acceptance. “Sweet” doesn’t describe the sugar content of a food, but means “cool.” “Ill” doesn’t mean sick, but “cool” or “sweet.” Who knows what the newest and latest word will be tomorrow. Since traditional dictionaries cannot keep pace with this rapid “evolution,” there are even “urban dictionaries” to help you keep up on this ever-changing patois of the youth culture, since yesterday’s youth are today’s AARP. The upshot, it seems, is that Humpty was right when he said, “When I use a word, . . . it means just what I chose it to mean.” An existential etymology. Meaning of words do change over time, although that has been greatly accelerated in the last few decades. Not exactly the stuff of a children’s book.
Another bit of linguistic wit is the poem “Jabberwocky,” which I can still stumble through by memory to this day. Again, it is from Through the Looking-Glass and What Alice Saw There and found by Alice in a book. It is a masterpiece of pun and portmanteau words. In fact, Carroll first coined that phrase for “two meanings packed up into one word.” A portmanteau is a small suitcase with two equal compartments (ever hear of one now?), so Carroll used it to describe two words combined into one with elements of both. Who does not understand that a motel is a motorists hotel? Or that a brunch is a combination of breakfast and lunch? Even the air many breathe has long been smog, or smoke and fog. But the list keeps growing, with Labradoodle (Labrador Retriever/poodle mix) and frappuccino (frappe/cappuccino blend) now common parlance. But grue as green and blue? Chuggers from charity and muggers, meaning people who accost you for contributions for their favorite cause? To me, chuggers were guys who downed mugs of beer quickly. But I’m obviously dated. I could go on, but there are far too many to list here. And all this came from Lewis Carroll. Consider this poem, which I quote in full because I like it and it’s my blog. Hmmm. My web log?
- “Brillig”: four o’clock in the afternoon — the time when you begin broiling things for dinner.
- “Slithy”: lithe and slimy. ‘Lithe’ is the same as ‘active’.
- “Toves”: curious creatures that are something like badgers, something like lizards, and something like corkscrews. They make their nests under sun-dials and live on cheese.
- “To gyre”: to go round and round like a gyroscope.
- “To gimble”: to make holes like a gimblet.
- “Wabe”: the grass-plot round a sun-dial. It is called like that because it goes a long way before it, and a long way behind it. And a long way beyond it on each side.
- “Mimsy”: flimsy and miserable
- “Borogove”: a thin shabby-looking bird with its feathers sticking out all round; something like a live mop.
- “Mome rath”: a ‘rath’ is a sort of green pig. Humpty Dumpty is not certain about the meaning of ‘mome’, but thinks it’s short for “from home”; meaning that they’d lost their way.
- “To outgrabe”: ‘outgribing’ is something between bellowing and whistling, with a kind of sneeze in the middle.
The question I posit is that, even without an explanation of the words, do you understand the action, the basic concept? The words bring images to mind, perhaps a little different for each reader. Vorpal sword. Manxome foe. Uffish thought. Snicker-snack. Beamish boy. You get a feeling for the intent without fully understanding the meaning. It is a masterful stroke of lexical lightheartedness.
I tend to menander (mentally wander) a bit, so I will close with another favorite of mine, the Cheshire cat from Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland. He explains to Alice why he is mad.
“And how do you know that you’re mad?” “To begin with,” said the Cat, “a dog’s not mad. You grant that?” I suppose so, said Alice. “Well then,” the Cat went on, “you see a dog growls when it’s angry, and wags its tail when it’s pleased. Now I growl when I’m pleased, and wag my tail when I’m angry. Therefore I’m mad.”
In other words, madness (insanity, not anger) is going against expected behavior, not diminished mental capabilities. By such a standard, I am happily mad. When Alice asks him which road to take, he gives her another delightfully illogically logical answer that pretty much sums up the way many live their lives.
Alice asked the Cheshire Cat, who was sitting in a tree, “What road do I take?”
The cat asked, “Where do you want to go?”
“I don’t know,” Alice answered.
“Then,” said the cat, “it really doesn’t matter, does it?”
Try explaining these concepts to an eight-year-old. Yet an eight-year-old can enjoy Alice’s adventures without worrying about deeper meanings. That is the genius of Lewis Carroll. Happy birthday, Alice. You look marvetastic.
My next book, Three Legs of the Cauldron, will be out by Christmas. It is a 6th century Celtic saga of Northeastern Ireland and Western Scotland, the kingdom of Dal Riata. Here is a little history lesson about that little-known place and time. This is a tad long, so consider it, “Everything you wanted to know about Dal Riata, but were afraid to ask. And then some.” Feel free to read it over a couple of days. Or weeks.
You say Dal Riada, or Dalriata, or Dalriada, I say Dal Riata.
As with most Gaelic words, there is no authoritative spelling of the kingdom’s name. Here, I will use Dal Riata, like I did in in my book.
Dal Riata was a kingdom that encompassed part of the current County Antrim in Northern Ireland and stretched across the northern part of the Irish Sea to Scotland’s Kintyre Peninsula (Argyll) and islands in the Inner Hebrides. Although initially it only had the major islands of Islay and Jura, at its zenith in the late 6th and early 7th centuries it expanded to all the Inner Hebrides, including Mull and Arran as well as Skye and even the Isle of Man, although it could not always hold those last two. It was a coastal kingdom, never conquering and holding any inland regions of Scotland and slowly declined until united with Pictish lands to become the kingdom of Alba, then Scotland. Its Irish lands were lost in the mid-seventh century, after the Battle of Mag Rath in 637, although the Dal Riatans seem to have continued to fight in Irish wars alongside their allies, the Ui Neills, until the mid-eighth century.
Dal Riata consisted mainly of islands and coastal regions. The land was rocky, hilly to mountainous, and windy- not great farmland.
The origins of the kingdom of Dal Riata are lost to us. It happened before recorded history, so all our records were written, at best, a couple hundred years later. It’s as though no one had written what happened in the early 1800’s or before in American history and we had to rely on the stories handed down through the generations. While some of it might be told accurately, no doubt some would be forgotten, added on to for the sake of a good story or remembered differently by different sources. Can you imagine how the American Revolution might be portrayed if all that survived were accounts handed down over the years by Tories and not written until now?
When did the Irish (or Scotti, as the Romans called them) first settle in Scotland? That’s a matter of continued debate.
1. Some think it started in the 3rd century. In 365 AD, the Roman historian Ammianus Marcellus wrote of Picti and Scotti as raiders of Britannia. But were the Scotti raiding from Ireland or from Scotland?
2. Some think it was later when Dal Riata was settled, perhaps not long before the Duan Albanach (Song of the Scots) says that King Erc’s sons came to Scotland and moved the kingship there. However, it was written in the 11th c, so it’s not accepted as historical proof. Some versions of Senchus Fer nAlban (History of the men of Scotland) also include this.
3. The Venerable Bede wrote that in the late 2nd Century, Cairbre Riada, Son of Conary, King of Ireland, and Grandson of Con of the Hundred Battles, settled on the west coast of Alba. Dal is Gaelic for place or region, making Dal Riada “Riada’s place” or “region of Riada.” That might seem likely, but Bede was an Anglo-Saxon who wrote in the early 8th century who also said Ireland was settled by the Spanish. Some versions of Senchus have a similar tale.
3. We do know some events and people from about 576 A.D. and have a high degree of certainty that Dal Riata was already an established kingdom at that point.
4. A revisionist theory is that the kingdom was not settled by the Irish at all, but a Pictish people that came under the influence linguistically and culturally of the Irish by trade. This is a theory pushed by Scotophiles who might be a little Hibernophobic. Or, lovers of things Scottish who might be anti-Irish.
Now you see the problems in trying to know with a high degree of certainty exactly what happened so many years ago. For the most part, history is made up of opinions and even wishful thinking. But you can take the opinions, try to sort out the fluff and wishful thinking, and come up with your best theory. For me, I think Bede makes sense, since it explains the name of Dal Riata itself. I also think the Duan Albanach explains how the king of Dal Riata came to be in Scotland instead of Ireland. Until some new, long-forgotten text shows up to prove me wrong, it works for me.
Gaelic Celtic culture, basically the same as Ireland, with cenels, or extended families, being the same as clans. The customs, laws, political structure, mores and values were Irish. Brehon Law would have been the standard.
Hand-sown oats and barley were the grain. The rocky land was difficult to plow, so the yield per acre was low. The stones removed for cultivation did prove a source of building material for house walls and walls to keep in livestock. Beef, mutton, goat, pork and fish, including shellfish, mackerel, herring and salmon, were primary protein sources. Hunting added boar and venison to their diet and gathering brought in wild berries and nuts. Stone querns survive, so we know they ground their grains for breads, soups and such. Cooking cauldrons and shards of cooking pottery have also survived.
Clothing and appearance
Although few examples of clothing have survived, we know that wool was the favorite material, which has warmth and a natural water resistance. A leine or tunic was worn by both sexes, with women’s longer than the men’s. A cape-like woolen cloak, called a bratt, would be pinned with a brooch. Men would wear trews, or trousers, in colder weather. Men wore beards or long mustaches. Ornate jewelry was worn by both sexes, with armlets, bracelets, torcs and brooches most popular. Grooming was important and there is evidence of stone and wood bath tubs, warmed by heated stones, as early as 1200 BC. Men were 5’6″ to 5’9″ and women 5′ to 5’4″.
Many people traveled on foo. Those who could afford to, went on horseback, using trails rather than roads. Few carts or other wheeled vehicles were used due to terrain and lack of roads. Being a coastal kingdom, boats were very important. Currachs, boats made of greased or pitch-covered hides over wicker frames, were used for peace-time commerce as well as for transporting warriors. They had a single, square sail and benches for rowers. Originally, they seem to have been seven-benchers, but later twenty-two was a standard crew, with ten benches with two oarsmen per bench.
Houses might stand alone or be in small groups, but there were no cities, towns or villages as such.
Round houses were made with a low wall of stone, timber or mud-and-wattle with a steeply pitched thatched roof. They would normally have one door and no windows. The door often faced the rising sun. They varied in size with the smallest being about 12 ft. around to the largest at about 70 ft. Most were larger and housed an extended family up to 30 people. Internal dividers would give some privacy. Smoke from the central hearth fire filtered through the thatch, but they would have been smoky inside. Sometimes sections were set aside for livestock, especially in the winter, so maybe the odor of the fire helped against other odors.
Crannogs were artificial islands built on lakes by using timber pilings, piled lumber and/or stone and dirt rubble as fill. Planks formed the flooring and a timber round house gave protection. A wood causeway connected it to the shore.
According to Senchus, Cenel nOengusa had 430 houses, Cenel Loairn had 420 and Cenel nGabrain had 560. Total population was probably between 7,000 and 8,000.
If the first settlement was in the 3rd c., Dal Riata was initially pagan, with the same gods the Irish had, and later became Christian. Colm Cille (St. Columba, the church dove) founded a monastery on Iona, off the coast of the isle of Mull, in the late 6th c. He was a noble of the powerful Ui Neill’s and is said to have fled there in penance for lives lost in a battle he caused. He is the first person of Christian authority to crown a king in Scotland, that being Aeden in 576 AD on Iona. Colm Cille is credited with bringing Christianity to Scotland, although St. Ninian brought it to southern Scotland. It is on the Isle of Iona that a couple of centuries later the monks created the Book of Kells. It was taken to Kells, Ireland, to save it from destruction by the Vikings.
The kingdom was divided into Cenels, which are similar to Scottish clans, that held lands and had their own Dals, or tribal councils. There were three Cenels named in the Senchus, nOengusa, Cenel Loairn, and Cenel nGabrain. Cenel Comghal apparently was one line of nGabrain that later became independent of it. Check the map for the divisions. Over all of them was the king, who depended on their support both politically and militarily.
Warriors, for both the army and navy, were required to be furnished by each household. According to the Senchus, Cenel nOengusa would furnish 600, Cenel Loairn would furnish 600 and Cenel nGabrain would field 800. These, of course, are estimates, but equal an available military force of 2000 men for the entire kingdom. Seldom would all be called. They were armed mainly with spears, swords and shields and operated either as foot soldiers or armed sailors. Later in the kingdom, mail shirts and finally metal helms were used. A number of naval battles were fought by the Dal Riatans, evidencing their skill as fighting sailors.
Kingship was not primogeniture, but normally went to a male within the royal derbfhine, or close family, but a king might just as well be succeeded by an uncle, brother, cousin, or nephew as by a son, elected by the Dal, or cenel council. For many years the kingship of Scottish Dalriata alternated irregularly between the Cenel nGabrain and the Cenel Comghal until the royal line of the Cenel Comghal died out in the 7th Century. At that time, the Cenel Loairn began to compete for the kingship, using the Celtic custom that a derbfhine could submit a candidate for the chieftainship whenever the chief died without a tanist (heir) having been appointed.
Dunadd or Dun Ad
Dun is Gaelic for fort. Dun Ad was the fort of the king of Dal Riata. It is located near Kilmartin on the Kintyre Peninsula, on a rocky hill in the plain near the Add river. At one time, it may even have been an island in the river. We do not know when it was first settled but became the seat of the kings. It has two main, natural levels, with the upper fort or citadel not large, about 40 by 60 ft., only enough for the royal family and a small entourage. There are various clear areas lower where more troops and craftsmen (there is evidence of smelting and metalwork) were housed. It is reached by a steep trail through a natural cleft in the rock that was barred by a gate. At one time timber walls added to the natural defense, but are long gone. A Pictish boar, a cup and a footprint were carved into a rock in the citadel (no longer there) that has fueled many debates over their use. It is not large and has very little water inside the fort, so it was of questionable defensive value. It was conquered at least one time, by the Picts in 736 AD who held it at least until the next century.
The Picts never called themselves Picts. Pictus, a Latin word for a painting, was how the Romans termed them because they had pictures painted on their bodies or tattoos, most likely the latter. They would never have called themselves such. They were most likely related to the Britons in the south and spoke a Brythonic Celtic tongue. They were competent warriors and became strong nations in Scotland. Different tribes or petty kingdoms gained supremacy at different times, often uniting all or almost all of Pictland as one. They battled the Dal Riatans and the Angles many times, sometimes successfully and sometimes not. They even occupied the kingdom as foreign rulers. With no written language, we know them from what others wrote about them and from their art.
Alt Cult (Strathclyde) was the main Briton kingdom that the Dal Riatans had to deal with. Sometimes they were allies, sometimes foes. The kingdom formed with the fall of the Roman Empire’s rule in Britain and proved strong, native British kingdoms could thrive again, at least for a time. They suffered a major defeat by the Vikings in 870 AD, but the kingdom survived until the Battle of Brunanburh in 973 AD. Wessex’s King Athelstan’s victory over a Norse, Alban, Pictish army ended Strathclyde’s power and it later became a part of Alba, Scotland.
Bernicia and Deira were the main Anglian kingdoms during the mid-Dal Riatan period and united to become Northumbria before the Viking invasions. Often termed Saxons in early writings, these Germanic invaders conquered more and more of Britain over the years, finally holding all of the region now called England. They were fearsome fighters who defeated Dal Riatans in battle at times, but never conquered the kingdom.
Highwater mark for Dal Riata
King Aeden is considered the most powerful king of Dal Riata. He is the first king whose reign is accepted by most reputable historians as accurately recorded. Aeden raided Orkney, successfully battled the Picts, regained the Isle of Man, defeated the Maeatae in a bloody battle on the River Forth and formed an alliance with the Ui Neills that secured the safety of his Irish lands. However, when he grew alarmed at the growing strength of the Anglian Bernician king Æthelfrith, he led his forces to Degsastan (somewhere on the Scottish-English border). There, in 603 AD, he suffered a disastrous defeat when his superior numbers were decimated by the Bernicians. He escaped with his life, but never was a major force in Britain again.
End of Dal Riata
Cináed mac Ailpín (Kenneth MacAlpin) united the Picts and Dal Riata as one kingdom circa 878 AD. Which kingship he had first is a matter of debate, with some claiming the Picts and some the Scots. Whatever the case, the new kingdom was Alba (from the Latin word for Scotland, probably coming from the word “white.” Perhaps from their pale skin?). It was not a conquest by either people, but more of uniting against a new, seemingly unstoppable foe, the Vikings. Much of the coastal lands and islands of Dal Riata were seized by them and the focus of the new kingdom moved inland to Dunkeld.. But that’s another story.
Why not Pictland Instead of Alba? Or the Roman Caladonia? Some claim Alba was the Gaelic term for what the Picts called their kingdom, but there is no proof for that. In fact, at one point it referred to all of Britain. It was not until about 1286 and the Wars of Scottish Independence from England that it is referred to as the Kingdom of the Scots or Scotland. It gave them a national identity rather than that of a family or tribe (clan). It defined the nation as a Gaelic entity, not English. This is further demonstrated by Edward Bruce’s (Robert the Bruce’s brother) unsuccessful attempt to unite Ireland with Scotland. By then, the Picts were almost forgotten. While their art survived, there were no writings in their forgotten tongue. It was the Irish-related Scots Gaelic that was spoken. So Scotland it was to be. And, besides, they would never have referred to themselves as “Picts.”
Primary sources for information on Dal Riata
Scottish kings are listed in the Annals of the Irish Kings
Adomnan’s Life of Columba was written in the 8th C by a monk on Iona.
Senchus Fer nAlban (History of the men of Scotland) which was a mythic history, census, and a genealogy of the early kings of Dal Riata, with the earliest existing copy from about the 10th c, probably written in the 7th c.
Duan Albanach (Song of the Scots) was written in the 11th century to show the line of Malcolm Canmore (of Shakespearean fame).