Wednesday 20 July 2022

Andrew Carnegie and his Library Legacy - by Barbara Henderson

I for one visit my library regularly. I was there this morning, in fact, editing my current manuscript. I borrow books, I use the reference section. 

Let’s be clear about one thing: without access to libraries, I may never have become a reader. I certainly wouldn’t have obtained a degree, let alone become a writer. I owe libraries a LOT!

 A postcard of the original Carnegie Library in Dunfermline

A key setting in the manuscript I was editing is the Victorian Carnegie Library in Dunfermline in Scotland. I cannot think of a person with a more significant library-legacy than Andrew Carnegie, the founder and funder of that first Carnegie library, and then, wait for it, over 2500 more around the world!

Andrew Carnegie

Andrew Carnegie was born in Dunfermline in 1835. His family home there was a humble weaver’s cottage, now home to the Andrew Carnegie Birthplace Museum. In 1848 when Andrew was 12 years old, the Carnegie family emigrated from Scotland to the New World - the United States of America.

The young Andrew began his working life as a messenger in a Telegraph Company. Always keen to seek opportunities to better himself, he soon progressed to telegraph operator after teaching himself Morse Code. Later he became personal assistant to the Superintendent of the Pennsylvania Railroad Company, rising to the post of Superintendent himself in 1859.

Carnegie was a skilled businessman, investing wisely in a range of industries such as oil and steel. Soon, the Carnegie Steel Company dominated the market in America and morphed into a billion-dollar company – the first company anywhere to do so.

Andrew Carnegie was not only incredibly wealthy, but he hadn’t forgotten his humble roots. His urge to learn had resulted in unprecedented success – now Carnegie wanted to give back by offering the opportunity of a better life to the people of his hometown back in Scotland. The libraries he was able to use as a young man had enabled him to gain new skills and make something of himself. Perhaps it is not surprising that he chose libraries as his vehicle to do good, a pioneer of philanthropy.

To say it in his own words: ‘No millionaire will go wrong… who chooses to establish a free library in any community that is willing to maintain and develop it’.

However, Dunfermline was only the beginning: the following years saw a growing number of free-to-access public libraries on both sides of the Atlantic. Dunfermline’s Carnegie Library was first, opening its doors to the public in August 1883. All it took was an £8,000 grant donated by Carnegie while the rest was raised by taxation through the Public Libraries (Scotland) Act.

I loved learning about the first library for my manuscript, Rivet Boy, due out from Cranachan Publishing in February 2023. The first librarian there was an Edinburgh bookbinder named Mr Alexander Peebles who was chosen from more than 250 applicants and who lived in the flat above the library, aided in his work by a single assistant. More than 2000 volumes were issued on the very first day of its opening. 

The Carnegie library, now combined into a gallery and museum,
still takes pride of place in Dunfermline's centre

The combination of public money and Carnegie-backed funding proved a popular finance route to other libraries for decades to come, often ornate and impressive buildings like the Central Library in Edinburgh.

Even now, nothing quite beats walking into a building filled with books for me. The smell, the heavy extravagance of knowledge and imagination, billions of letters and words on millions of pages in thousands and thousands of volumes. It’s rare for me to come across snippets of knowledge I hadn’t searched for on the internet, but such is the richness of a library that we can’t underestimate its value – something always, always catches my eye unexpectedly. Libraries almost everywhere are now under threat. I am sure Carnegie would have a word or two to say about that, and so should we.

What was the impression this new library might have made on a young boy, aged 12, just the same age as Andrew Carnegie was when he arrived in the U.S?

We can only guess.  


Barbara outside the old entrance to the building

Barbara Henderson is the author of seven historical books for children, six are published by Cranachan, her most recent - The Reluctant Rebel is published by Luath Press. She has won the Historical Association's Young Quills Award for Historical Fiction for Children in 2021 and 2022.

Find out more at


Wednesday 13 July 2022

The Lost Colony by Catherine Randall

In May this year, I was lucky enough to fulfil a lifetime’s ambition and visit Roanoke Island on the Outer Banks of North Carolina. Roanoke Island has fascinated me for years, not only because it is the site of the first attempt to settle an English colony on the coast of North America, but because it is the site of the mysterious Lost Colony. 

The Lost Colony of Roanoke is one of the longest-standing
historical mysteries in North America

In 1584 Queen Elizabeth I gave one of her favourite courtiers, Sir Walter Raleigh, a royal charter granting him permission to explore and colonise lands not already held by ‘any Christian prince’. I am sorry to say they didn’t give a second thought to the Native Americans who already lived there. The main aim of the enterprise was to bring back gold and silver from the New World, chiefly by establishing a base in North America from which the English could raid the Spanish treasure ships which had been ploughing the Atlantic between Spain and the Americas for a century.

Sir Walter Raleigh was the force and often the finance behind
the exploration and colonisation of North Carolina but
he never actually visited it himself

Three voyages were sent to North Carolina over a four-year period from 1584 to 1587.

The 1584 voyage was a short exploratory voyage. The captains and crew of the two ships established good relations with the local Algonquian tribe and reported back that Roanoke Island on the Outer Banks was a highly suitable place for a settlement.

In 1585, another expedition, consisting mainly of sailors and soldiers, was sent to Roanoke Island with the aim of discovering more about the area and establishing a base there.

This is a reconstruction of the type of ship in which the colonists would
have sailed. It is moored at Roanoke Island Festival Park

After building an earthen fort, the majority of the expedition departed, leaving behind just 107 men, mainly soldiers, but also including a scientist named Thomas Hariot, and an artist, John White. Hariot and White wrote and drew detailed accounts of the lands and waters around Roanoke, giving Europeans their first view of this unfamiliar land and its people.

However, things did not go well for these colonists – much of the food supplies they had brought from England were lost in a storm almost as soon as they arrived, and they had to rely on food supplies from the Algonquian tribe. Relationships between the tribe and the colonists became strained, marked by misunderstandings and sometimes violence, and they culminated in the killing of the Chief by the leader of the colonists. When Sir Francis Drake appeared at Roanoke on his way back from raiding Spanish ships, the colonists gladly accepted his offer to take them home to England.

Nevertheless in 1587, a third expedition set sail from England in an attempt to establish a proper colony in North America. The destination this time was supposed to be north of Roanoke, near Chesapeake Bay. Earlier explorations had concluded that this would be a more suitable place for a permanent settlement. However, due to arguments between the leader, John White, and the pilot navigating them, the 117 colonists – men, women and children – were deposited at Roanoke Island with the pilot refusing to go any further. There were other problems too. The local tribes were less than friendly, after their treatment by earlier colonists, and it soon became clear that the colonists’ food supplies were inadequate. They had also arrived too late to plant for a harvest that year.


The only good news for the 1587 colonists was the birth of John White’s granddaughter,
Virginia Dare, the first European child to be born in America

They decided that John White must return to England for supplies. In the meantime, the colonists would split into two groups – one venturing onto the mainland to find a better site for a permanent settlement, the other remaining on Roanoke.  It was also agreed that if they left the colony before White’s return they would carve their destination on a tree.

John White promised to return immediately, but in the event he was not able to return for three long years.


The view from Roanoke Island. The colonists must have gazed
at this view, longing for their leader to return

When White finally returned in 1590, the settlement was silent. The colonists had completely disappeared. The only clue to where they might have gone were the words CROATOAN carved into a post and CRO carved in a tree. Croatoan was the name of an island further south, but White wasn’t able to investigate because a hurricane forced the ships to return to England. No evidence has ever been found that the colonists reached Croatoan Island, and no one has ever found definite evidence that they moved further inland.

Artist’s impression of John White’s return to Roanoke

The fate of the Lost Colonists is a mystery to this day.

Writing Challenge

For today’s writing challenge, I’d like you to use this historical mystery as the start for a piece of creative writing. What do you think happened to the Lost Colonists? Did they explore further inland and live with local tribes? Did they try to sail back to England and end up somewhere completely different?  Did they go to Croatan Island but get swept away by a hurricane? Did something weird and wonderful happen to them? Let your imagination run wild! Happy writing!

Book Recommendation 

This week I also have a book recommendation for you. This children’s novel by American author Rebecca Behrens is all about a modern girl’s search for the truth behind the Lost Colony when she is forced to spend a summer on Roanoke Island with her botanist mum. It is magical and mysterious and conjures up the feel of the island perfectly. It’s available online in the UK. If you’re interested in the Lost Colony, I would highly recommend it. 


The White Phoenix by Catherine Randall is an historical novel for 9-12 year olds set in London, 1666. It was shortlisted for the Historical Association’s Young Quills Award 2021.

Published by the Book Guild, it is available from bookshops and online retailers.

For more information, go to Catherine’s website:


Wednesday 6 July 2022

The Theatre of Ancient Greece - A Greek Adventure with the Histronauts by Frances Durkin

Have you been to the theatre?

You might have seen a pantomime, or a Shakespeare play, or a big musical with lots of songs and dance routines. Did it make you laugh? Did you cry? Are you excited to see something else? Maybe you’ve even performed in a show and you’d like to be an actor one day.

Theatre is a really popular pastime all over the world and it’s one of my favourite hobbies. In fact, before I became a historian, I spent a very long time working backstage on a show called Les Misérables in London. I was a dresser in a wardrobe department and it was my job to help look after costumes and make sure the actors were wearing the right clothes for each scene. Even though I don’t work there anymore, I do still love to go to the theatre and to experience live performances!

 The Histronauts - A Greek Adventure by Frances Durkin

The origins of theatre, as we recognise in the western world, can be traced back to the religious festivals of ancient Greece and the influence of those early performances can still be seen today. When I started writing A Greek Adventure, I knew that I wanted to make theatre a big part of the story. At the beginning of the book, The Histronauts find an old theatre token that transports them back to ancient Greece and they immediately meet a skeuopoios named Kimon who makes all the masks and props that are used in the performances. He tells them all about life in the theatre of ancient Greece and welcomes them to Athens during the Great Dionysia Festival. Festivals to honour the gods took place all over Greece and this annual spring celebration of the god Dionysus featured theatrical performances of brand-new plays. At the end of the festival, the judges chose which plays they liked and the writer of the best play was declared the winner. A very famous playwright named Sophocles won the first prize eighteen times.


The theatres of ancient Greece were called amphitheatres. This word comes from the Greek words amphi which means ‘around’, and theatron which means ‘viewing place’. The semi-circular rows of stone seats gave everyone a good view of the performance and the shape of the amphitheatre meant that sound travelled all the way from the stage to the audience members at the very back. The largest amphitheatres that we know about had room for more than 15,000 people. The play itself happened in an area called the orchestra which meant ‘dancing space’. At the back the actors could enter and exit through doors in a skene which was decorated to show the setting for the play. Going to the theatre was a really popular experience for ancient Athenians and audiences would clap, shout, hiss and stamp their feet in response to the play. Many of those amphitheatres are still standing today and they are sometimes used to stage performances for live audiences.


Three different types of plays were performed at the Great Dionysia Festival: comedy, tragedy and satyr plays. The comedies were funny, the tragedies were sad, and the satyr plays were rude comedy plays. Thousands of plays were written in ancient Greece but today only a handful remain. The oldest one that remains is called The Persians and it was written in 472 B.C. Many of those that we do know are still regularly performed and they give us a wonderful, living insight into what it was like to watch a show in the ancient world. Maybe you might get to see one too.


Actors brought these plays to life but their performances were quite different from what you would usually see on stage or in a movie today. The earliest known actor was called Thespis of Attica and he lived in the sixth century B.C. You might have heard actors referred to as ‘thespians’ and we get that word from his name. The cast of a play was made up of between one and three professional actors who were paid by the state, and twelve amateur performers, called the chorus, who sang and danced. The actors used painted masks made of leather, wood or cork to show the audience which character they were playing in each scene. The masks all had exaggerated expressions to show the emotions of the characters and wide-open mouths that amplified the actors’ voices. The masks could be quickly changed and this made it easy for the actors to play many different parts in the same play.

Theatre is a wonderful experience that audiences have shared for thousands of years. New and old plays are still being staged all over the world so, next time you see a poster for a show or watch a pantomime, think about the ancient Greeks and how they created something that lives on today.

Writing Prompt

Imagine that you are going to write your own short play for the Dionysia Festival. It can be about anything you like. It could be about a trip to a restaurant, or a day at the zoo, or even a walk in the woods. Will you write a comedy or a tragedy? How many characters do you have? How does it feel to write a story through the dialogue that the actors will perform? What stage directions will you write to describe the scene and their actions? Can you perform your play with your friends?

Frances Durkin

Frances is a writer, historian and author of the award-winning Histronauts book series. She holds a PhD in Medieval History from the University of Birmingham and is most at home wandering around the grounds of medieval castles or sat amongst stacks of books in the library. She is a regular contributor to Aquila magazine and blogs about making history accessible for the entire family, whether that’s through places to visit, books to read, shows to watch, or things to do. You can find out more about her at

The Histronauts books can be bought at all good booksellers or direct from the publisher:



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