Wednesday, 29 June 2022

The place that time forgot – a journey back to Roman Britain by Ally Sherrick

When I was about eight years old, our parents took me and my younger sister on a family holiday down to Cornwall. I remember, among other things, visiting St. Michael’s Mount, exploring Land’s End and beachcombing on the white sands at Sennen Cove. But the stand-out memory was the trip we made to the ancient ruins of the village of Chysauster (pronounced Chy-zoist-er).

Set a couple of miles inland from the town of Penzance on a remote hillside nestled amid the bracken and wild grasses, the low stone walls are all that remain of a small Romano-British community which archaeological evidence suggests was probably occupied from the first to the third centuries AD when the Roman Empire was at its height.

I still have the little folded card leaflet and black and white postcards I bought on that trip – treasured possessions for a keen young historian who, inspired by the recent blockbuster exhibition of the Tutankhamun treasures at the British Museum, harboured an overwhelming, though ultimately unfulfilled passion to be an Egyptologist.

I remember running from one ruined house to another trying to imagine what life must have been like for the people who lived there and who, all those many centuries ago, had called it home.

Back then, it seemed to me that the place was at the end of the world. On a return trip this summer retracing the footsteps of my younger self, though there’s now a small ticket office and shop, English Heritage, who care for it, have thankfully ensured the site still retains the same sense of remoteness and beauty it had all those years ago.


 A walk back in time through the ruins of Chysauster Romano-British village

For the Romanised population based in the far distant capital of Londinium (London) and the south of England, it certainly would have seemed a very long way from home. As was the case in what is now Scotland, the Romans never brought the region under formal control, or made an attempt to settle there either. There are no known Roman roads in Cornwall and only three military forts and one villa have been identified to date. And the nearest Roman administrative centre, Isca Dumnoniorum – or Exeter as it is known today – was over 100 miles away.

The lifestyle of the close-knit community of around fifty to seventy people who lived at Chysauster had far more in common with that of their Iron Age ancestors who had widely settled and farmed the area for hundreds of years before the Roman invasion of AD 43. Indeed, the village itself may well stand on the site of an earlier Iron Age settlement.


 Artist’s impression of how Chysauster may have looked in the Second Century AD

The ruins the visitor can explore today are the remains of ten ‘courtyard’ houses, a design unique to this part of Cornwall where over 30 known settlements of the type have been identified. Nearly all the houses are detached with a large, unroofed central courtyard where livestock was probably kept and domestic work carried out. The families would have lived and slept in the covered rooms leading off from the courtyard. Each house also had a garden plot where they would have grown vegetables and may have kept pigs.


Ruins of one of the courtyard houses

Unfortunately, there’s nothing to tell us about the personal stories of the individuals who lived here. However they did leave behind clues to suggest how they lived. This includes a large number of spindle whorls – small stone and clay discs fitted to wooden spindles for making thread from wool – which provide evidence they kept sheep and wove cloth to wear and perhaps for trading purposes too. Meanwhile the numbers of grinding basins and quern stones used to grind grain into flour together with ancient pollen samples taken from the surrounding fields show that they grew cereal crops. 


Ancient spindle whorls. These are not from Chysauster but give a good idea of what they look like

While excavating the site, archaeologists also found a lump of tin and evidence of metalworking waste in one of the houses. This suggests the villagers possibly carried out prospecting for locally occurring tin-ore and might have smelted it down into ingots to trade for other items with surrounding communities and other people from further afield.

It’s not known why Chysauster was eventually deserted in the third century. There’s no sign of any conflict which might have caused the families living there to flee.

But perhaps the greatest mystery of all is the structure on the edge of the village known as a fogou.


The entrance to the fogou at Chysauster

The word comes from the Cornish for ‘cave’ and describes an underground, stone-built tunnel which usually dates from the late Iron Age period. The fogou at Chysauster hasn’t been excavated, but in the one at the nearby ruined village of Carn Euny, it’s possible to walk through the tunnel and into a large, circular chamber.


The inside of the fogou chamber at the ruined village of Carn Euny

In the past it was thought that such structures might have been used for storing food or valuables, or as hiding places during times of conflict. The more popular theory today is that they were probably used for some sort of ritual or ceremonial purpose.  This is just the sort of uncertainty that a story-teller can have fun with. All you need is a pinch of curiosity and the willingness to let your imagination take you where it will – a bit like my eight year old self.

Finally, to let you in to a little secret. This might just be the approximate time, though not the exact place, in which my upcoming novel is set. All to be revealed in early 2023!

Writing Prompt

Imagine you live in a small settlement like the one at Chysauster. One night, something happens. Something that threatens you and your family and which means you need to hide. You’ve never been into the fogou before. Perhaps it’s normally forbidden. But now it might be your only chance of survival. What does it feel like running through the darkness to get to it? Then stooping and crawling inside? Who are you with? What are you feeling? Did you have to leave anyone or anything precious behind? And most important of all, will you manage to get out alive?

Watch this week's vlog on Youtube here

Ally Sherrick is the author of books full of history, mystery and adventure including Black Powder, winner of the Historical Association’s Young Quills Award 2017, The Buried Crown and Tudor-Set adventure, The Queen’s Fool. She is published by Chicken House Books and her books are widely available in bookshops and online. You can find out more about her and her books at and follow her on Twitter: @ally_sherrick




Tuesday, 21 June 2022

Windrush Day by Jeannie Waudby


Empire Windrush by Sophie Bass

On June 22 1948 almost 500 British citizens from the Caribbean disembarked from the Empire Windrush at Tilbury dock. They had travelled for 30 days to answer Britain’s call for help to rebuild the country after the Second World War. Between 1948 and 1971 many others from the Caribbean went on to help build the new NHS and work in public transport, manufacturing and construction, among other things. Many of those on the Windrush had served in the Allied forces during the war. Windrush Day celebrates the contribution of the Windrush Generation and their descendants in making Britain stronger and richer in many ways.

Black Cultural Archives

Difficult challenges faced the Windrush Generation when they arrived: hardship, separation from family and racism. Sometimes history reaches out into the present, and this happened in 2018 with the Windrush Scandal. A series of racist immigration laws passed over 30 years combined with the ‘hostile environment’ to lead to unjust arrests, detention and deportation of commonwealth citizens’ children who were wrongly classified as illegal immigrants. To learn more about this, and the experience of the Windrush Generation as children, I looked at three children’s books and visited the Black Cultural Archives in Windrush Square, Brixton, where there is a timeline of the history of Black people in Britain from the Romans until the present.



John Agard's Windrush Child illustrated by Sophie Bass

John Agard’s beautiful picture book, luminously illustrated by Sophie Bass, begins with a child’s footprints in the sand and ends with footprints in the snow. It captures the journey to Britain through the eyes of a little boy. His beloved teddy goes with him, but not his beloved Grandmother, who he carries with him in memory, photos and letters while he is ‘stepping into history’. The words and illustrations work seamlessly to convey his homesickness, adventure and hope. The book ends with ‘a mind-opening meeting of snow and sun.’


Coming To England by Floella Benjamin

Floella Benjamin’s autobiographical book ‘Coming To England’ spends the first half of the book in Trinidad, and vividly captures the food, flowers, holidays and fun of family life through a small girl’s eyes. But when her parents leave to work in Britain, the children have to go to different relatives until there is enough money for them to follow their parents. When they finally leave for England, as unaccompanied children on the ship, they are full of excitement. They have spent years in school learning about Britain, the ‘Motherland’. So it is a very big shock to encounter unfriendly, even hostile people once they arrive. The freezing winters, poor housing and absence of blue sky are hard to get used to. But family remains a source of strength. In the Afterword Floella Benjamin writes: ‘I hope this book will go some way in helping people to find their identity, to discover where they come from, to gain self respect and feel proud of themselves.’


Windrush Child by Benjamin Zephaniah

Benjamin Zephaniah’s Windrush Child is a moving historical novel for young people. It’s the story of Leonard, who at 10 years old leaves Jamaica with his mum to join his dad in England. They travel on Leonard’s mum’s British passport because in 1958 they are both British citizens. Life is not easy in the one room they live in. Leonard encounters bullying and prejudice and misses his grandma back in Jamaica. He makes friends with two Irish children who live downstairs but he and his dad face hostility and racist violence. Leonard grows up to make a home and a life for himself and his family. I don’t want to give away the story, so here is what Benjamin Zephaniah says in his Author’s Note: ‘Now I use my words to give voice to people like Leonard, the main character of this book. He’s just doing what people have been doing for thousands of years, moving around the planet. When people move they always have to deal with the trauma of leaving the country of their birth, and then the struggle to fit into their new home.’


Bookshop at Black Cultural Archives, Windrush Square, Brixton

I’d like to end with some words by John Agard at the back of his Windrush Child. Talking about the hardships facing the Windrush Generation after their arrival in Britain, he writes: ‘But despite many challenges, including racism, they went on to build strong communities: friends were made, stories shared and unfairness challenged. Caribbean culture had a powerful and positive impact on British culture, and Britain is a much better place because of the Windrush Generation.’


Windrush by Mike Phillips and Trevor Phillips

Moving from one country to another is a very big thing – perhaps you have experienced it yourself. All of the books we looked at focussed on the home left behind, maybe forever. Think of the front door to the first home you can remember. Imagine yourself standing in front of it with your bags and suitcases, having closed it for the last time. Describe the door and the doorstep, the path, road or pavement. What is the weather like? What noises can you hear – birds, traffic, sea? What smells are around you – flowers, fumes, cooking? What is the weather like? If you knew you would never return, what would you miss most about this home?

Further reading:

The Windrush Scandal:

Benjamin Zephaniah talks about Windrush Child: Benjamin Zephaniah on new book Windrush Child: 'We have to learn from the past'

David Olusoga’s film The Unwanted – The Secret Windrush Files (TV special 2019) on BBC iplayer

Windrush by Mike Phillips and Trevor Phillips


Wednesday, 15 June 2022

Evolution, extinction and the island of Madagascar by Susan Brownrigg

Madagascar is the fourth largest island in the world but 600 million years ago it was part of a super continent called Gondwana!

Today the island is only 250 miles from the east coast of Africa and is very special because of its biodiversity with approximately 90% of its plants and animals being endemic - not naturally found anywhere else in the world.

 The island of Madagascar is now 250 miles off the east coast of Africa

The island is probably best known for its lemurs - these prosimians are primates that evolved before monkeys and apes. They range from the tiny mouse lemur, to the bouncy sifaka to the strange nocturnal aye-aye.

Lemurs - along with other animals and plants are thought to have reached the island after it broke away from Africa. Some may have used a land bridge that is thought to have sunk into the Mozambique Channel 40 million years ago, while others may have crossed on natural rafts such as hollowed out tree trunks.

 The aye-aye is a nocturnal lemur. Illustration by Jenny Czerwonka.

The island had many different habitats and as they spread out, over time they slowly adapted to their new environment and developed into new species. In evolutionary biology this is called adaptive radiation - just like with Darwin's Galapagos finches.

An estimated 2,000 years ago the first humans arrived on Madagascar. The island was very different to today and was mainly forest. Those early settlers would have seen dwarf hippopotamus, giant tortoise, huge 'elephant birds' and 16 species of giant lemur all which are sadly now extinct.

The giant lemurs including one that was as big as a gorilla that browsed the ground for food and another similiar to a huge koala as well as the giant sloth lemur that hung from tree branches!

Evidence of these 'megafauna' is known because of found fossilised bones. But in 2020 an international team of scientists including Dr David Burney and Dr Julian Hume made a very exciting discovery in Western Madagascar - a cave painting which seems to include an image of a giant sloth lemur!

This cave painting is believed to depict a giant sloth lemur © Burney et al 2020
There were several species of elephant bird (aepyornis) that were three metres tall! Their eggs were bigger than those of the dinosaurs and fragments of shell can still be spotted in the south of the island.

 Elephant Bird by illustrator Jenny Czerwonka
These enormous birds are believed to have been hunted to extinction - bones have been found with cut marks evidence of butchery - and their eggs would be an important source of food too. The eggs are bigger than a human egg and are the equivalent of 180 chicken eggs!

WRITING PROMPT: There are lots of creature feature films featuring gigantic animals on the rampage including Godzilla, King Kong and Tarantula! Can you create your own mammoth sized beast? Will it be a megasnail, a ginormous bat or a huge goldfish! What chaos would your creature cause?

Susan Brownrigg with her replica elephant bird egg
Susan Brownrigg is the author of Kintana and the Captain's Curse, and the Gracie Fairshaw series. (Uclan Publishing) Find out more at 

Wednesday, 8 June 2022

First in Flight by Catherine Randall

I was recently lucky enough to spend a few days on the Outer Banks of North Carolina in the United States. The Outer Banks are a long string of barrier islands stretching along the coastline, with the Atlantic on one side and the sheltered waters of the Sound on the other. These days the Outer Banks are a popular holiday destination, due to their long, unspoilt sandy beaches and it was these same beaches and dunes which made the Outer Banks the site of one of the biggest breakthroughs in human history. It was here in December 1903 that the Wright Brothers made the first ever successful powered flight.

The Wright Brothers Memorial on Kill Devil Hill, North Carolina

The dream of achieving human flight is probably as old as humanity. Throughout the nineteenth century, a succession of inventors and engineers had worked on solving the three great problems of aircraft design.

LIFT – generating an upward force greater than the weight of the plane

THRUST – propelling the plane forward

CONTROL – stabilising and controlling the plane’s flight

By the end of the 1890s, progress had been made on the problems of LIFT and THRUST but nobody had worked out how to control an aeroplane once it was in the air so that it didn’t roll from side to side or pitch forward, or continually veer from right to left.

It was American brothers Wilbur and Orville Wright who in 1899, after observing the flight of birds, realised that stabilised flight could be achieved by warping the wings of the plane, inventing a system which allowed the pilot to twist the tips of the wings, as a bird does, through a system of pulleys and cables.

The Wright Brothers - Wilbur and Orville

The Wright brothers ran a bicycle shop in Dayton, Ohio, but from 1899 onwards they devoted themselves to the goal of human flight, spending their summers on the coast of North Carolina, where the huge sand dunes just south of the town of Kitty Hawk, at a place memorably called Kill Devil Hills, were the ideal setting for hundreds of experiments with kites and gliders. The location provided three things that they needed – plenty of wind for lift, sand for a soft landing, and privacy. They didn’t want other people copying their design!

Reconstruction of their 1903 Flyer, viewed from the back

In 1901 they built their own wind tunnel so that they could collect their own scientific data on aereodynamics. In 1902, after hundreds of test glides, the brothers felt sure that they had cracked the problems of lift, control and stability. The following year they designed their own engine and the first effective aircraft propellers and in December 1903 they returned to Kill Devil Hills, finally ready to test out their new flyer.

The pilot in the 1903 Flyer was positioned lying down, between the wings

On 17 December 1903, surrounded and supported by men from the local lifeboat station, Orville Wright climbed into position in the flyer. The flyer was designed so that the pilot lay down between the wings, controlling the machine with a stick and a lever, and controlling the warp of the wings by swinging a cradle with his hips. On the first flight the flyer only stayed aloft for 12 seconds, going 36 metres before pitching into the sand. The brothers took it in turns to make three more flights, getting used to the controls. Each time they spent longer in the air, flying further, until on the fourth flight, Wilbur piloted the flyer for a distance of 260 metres in 59 seconds.

The lift-off point of the first flights is marked by the First Flight Boulder on the left, with four other boulders marking the length of the first four flights

Today, this site is the Wright Brothers National Memorial. The First Flight boulder marks the lift off point for the four flights, and the four flight markers show the length of each successive flight. You can also see reconstructions of the sheds where the brothers lived and worked each summer, and on Kill Devil Hill – like the surrounding area, now sown with grass – there is a huge monument to the brothers, rising up impressively above the flat surroundings. In the Visitors’ Centre, you can see a reconstruction of the original flyer, and on the other side of Kill Devil Hill is a sculpture of the complete scene of the very first flight, complete with sculptures of admiring locals, including the man taking the photograph that is shown here! He had apparently never used a camera before.

The photograph taken of the very first flight. Orville is in the Flyer, Wilbur running alongside

Of course, the Wrights’ achievement was just the beginning for human flight. If you are interested in the history of flying, there are loads of other people you can research, including the French aviator Louis Bleriot, the first man to fly across the English Channel, and the pioneering American aviator Amelia Earhart. Amelia Earhart was the first woman to fly solo across the Atlantic in 1932. Five years later, she disappeared with her plane during an attempt to fly around the globe – but that’s for another blog!

WRITING CHALLENGE: For your writing challenge this week, imagine that you are Wilbur or Orville Wright and write a letter to a friend back in Ohio, telling them about this incredible thing that has  just happened – you have achieved the first ever powered flight! You might want to tell them how hard you worked and the problems you had to overcome. Will you confide in them what you plan to do next?

 Alternatively, imagine you are one of the local people watching – how does this make you feel? Does it make you want to be part of the adventure of human flight? Has it ignited a dream for you too?

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, 25 May 2022

WWI special : by Joe Lamb author of The God of All Small Boys


Can you imagine life without TV?

With no computers, or mobile phones and instant messaging?

What about the internet? Or even the radio?

These things have all become so ordinary to us, that it is difficult to imagine what life must have been like before they were invented. But the truth is, most of them have not been around for very long at all. As I write this, the first Samsung Galaxies ever made are only 12 years old!

Even in my own lifetime, colour television did not exist until I was 6 years old, and I remember my friends and I being chased off by annoyed neighbours; as we peered through their windows and into their living rooms, trying to catch a glimpse of the strange boxes which threw bright and vivid colour onto the walls, making it look as if there was a rainbow indoors!

Today, it seems that the internet is so huge you can find out almost anything, about almost any subject, and have immediate notifications about breaking news. But a little over 100 years ago, the only way for news to be known was either by a very slow mail service, or by newsreels shown in cinemas – and even they were never quite up to date.

This is the world—our own world—where The God of All Small Boys is set, during the last years of World War 1.

Can you imagine how awful it must have been, for children (such as James, in the book) whose fathers were sent off to countries they barely knew the names of, while they fought in a war they didn’t quite understand?

The remarkable thing is, that some of those same children grew up to be your parents’ Grans and Grandads! So, who knows—maybe your mums and dads have stories of their own, all about your very own Great Grandparents!

In the same way, The God of All Small Boys is based around a lot of things which did actually happen; in a time when the world was quite a different place from the one that it is now.

Dundee, Land o’ Jute
In the early 1900s, and Dundee in particular, the UK was a world powerhouse for something called Jute! (Dundee itself is still known as the centre for “Jute, Jam and Journalism” – despite the fact that neither Jute nor Jam are made there anymore.)

The God of All Small Boys is set mainly in a part of Dundee called Lochee, which was almost a city within the city.

Camperdown Mill, Lochee in the early 1900s:
The tower (Called Cox’s Stack) still exists to this day

James is taken from his well-off home in Broughty Ferry and sent to live with his Aunt, Uncle and their five children. It’s an entirely different world for him as Lochee is crammed with what were known as Tenement Blocks, where large families lived in only a few rooms.

James is shocked to learn that he will be sleeping in the same bed as his 3 male cousins.

World War 1 1914-1918

World War 1 was a terrible time in World History.

These days, all experts agree it was a war that should never have been fought, and the military tactics were such that men simply lined up and walked towards the guns of their enemy, shooting as they went.

Over all casualties for the war were around 40 million. There were 20 million deaths and 21 million wounded, and of the 20 million who died, more than half were civilians and not soldiers engaged in battle.

In the book, James’ Father, an officer in Dundee’s “Black Watch” battalion, is sent over to Europe and is involved in the Battle of Passchendaele, which raged for for around three and a half months from 31st Jul 1917 to 10th Nov 1917 and during which around half a million soldiers died or were seriously wounded.

“Black Watch”— 4th Battalion – “Dundee’s Own”

Just reading about the battle, the amount of time it took, and the casualties involved, is hard going, and when the soldiers who made it through came home very few ever spoke of their time during the war, preferring to try and forget all about it.

For those left back at home, as mentioned above, there was no way of knowing what was happening in the war and their days were spent in limbo, ignorant to what was happening to those off fighting the war for weeks or months at a time.

The Men in Black

For many, the only message they ever received was in the form of a letter or a telegraph, often by Men in Black, riding motorbikes, called Despatch Riders, who travelled with satchels full of these messages, telling worried relatives of the deaths of their fathers, sons, uncles and grandfathers.

The family of Ben, one of the boys who James eventually is befriended by, receives such a letter after his father is killed in battle.

Army form B 104 – 82 – used to notify families of the death of a relative

As the war progressed battles like The Somme and Passchendaele saw many such letters and telegrams being sent – and Dundee was hit particularly badly. On the same day that Ben’s family were informed of his father’s death, dozens more were delivered to houses in Lochee and a special commemoration service was held in St Mary’s church, another building which still stands today. The whole community is joined in grief, and after the services the bells of all the surrounding churches sounded. For once, the giant mill closed down, leaving an unusual quiet all across Lochee.

The Mill worked almost around the clock, bringing employment to the surrounding areas, and in fact making it grow, with immigrants from Ireland heading over for work. Lochee had so many Irish immigrants that it gained the nickname of “Little Tipperary”, and they started their own football team called Dundee Hibernian.

To work in the mill meant that your family would at least gain some income, but one of the best paid jobs in the entire place was that of a specialist weaver. These women were seen as something special and were paid more than normal workers. Alice, another of James’ cousins, starts working in the mill and, by the oddest of accidents, ends up being trained to be a weaver.

James has to go through his own journey during his time in Lochee, from initially being hated by Billy, his cousin, to gaining respect for standing up to a bully and eventually becoming great friends with Billy and his pals… and noticing a girl named Tenny Robbins…

In a terrible accident, one of his friends is killed, and after his funeral service a Man In Black returns to Lochee, with what looks like a satchel of letters and telegrams.

And he stops outside James’ Aunt’s house.

War. What is it good for?

The God of All Small Boys is full of items, movies and events from 1917, and researching them was very time consuming, not only because the details of some things were hard to find, but also because the subject is so fascinating, that life just a little more than 100 years ago, was so different in many ways, but exactly the same in many others.

It is a time that should never be forgotten, if not only to remind us of how futile and pointless wars are.

One Day from the Battle of Passchendaele.
Mud filled shell craters littered a vast plain of mud and unexploded shells
– with enemy soldiers always ready to snipe across no-man’s land.

Writing Challenge(s!)

War is a difficult subject to write about, but those who were left back home had their own problems to deal with. For a writing challenge, I would like you to imagine what it would be like to see a telegram delivered to your, or one of your friend’s houses.

If that subject is too difficult, then imagine it is your first day working in one of the huge Jute mills of the time. There were dozens of jobs to be had, each with their own challenges – and it will lead you to some interesting research should you choose that one!

Tuesday, 17 May 2022

Take a Jaunt to the Jacobites

I have a new book out this week. Yes, right now. It is an exciting and terrifying time for any author – exciting for all the obvious reasons: (excited voice) The book is out there! But terrifying too. All that scrutiny: (squeaky, quivering voice) The book is out there!
The Reluctant Rebel

This time, my time travel takes me to the Jacobite rebellion of 1745 – a topic often taught in Scottish schools. Who hasn’t heard of Flora MacDonald and her daring rescue of Bonnie Prince Charlie, the Stuart figurehead of the campaign who spent more than five months on the run across the Scottish Highlands and Islands in the aftermath of the Battle of Culloden. Information leading to his capture was to be rewarded with 30,000 – an absolutely insane amount of money at that time. And yet, in all that time, he was not betrayed. Despite the comprehensive defeat at Culloden and the disbanding of the Jacobite army, and despite the terrible reprisals which washed over the North of Scotland in particular, the supporters of the Prince remained loyal. Hundreds of them must have known where he was at one time or another – and many risked their lives all over again for the Stuart Prince.
The Battle of Culloden

I wanted to write about that – the aftermath of the campaign. It really was a deadly game of hide-and-seek in which the stakes could not have been higher – most prominent Jacobites were executed. The Prince’s companions changed frequently, but he did pass through one house on several occasions. That’s where I would base my child protagonists, I decided – Borrodale in Lochaber, home of Angus MacDonald and his three sons, all involved in the Jacobite campaign. It was where it all started at the beginning of the campaign in July 1745, and it would be where the Prince would turn for shelter at his hour of greatest need. In addition, the last sea battle in British waters took place in the loch beside the house – and the government forces burnt Borrodale down in revenge too. What a story.
Borrodale House in Moidart, rebuilt after the original house was burned down in retribution

Here are three jaunts which inspired this tale. 1. National Trust for Scotland, Culloden Battlefield.

The bothy on Culloden Battlefield

We have lived in Inverness for most of the last two decades. Every time we have visitors, we take them to the nearest tourist attraction of note. The battlefield is beautiful in summer, but it is atmospheric and full of tragic history. The battle which was fought between government forces representing the Hanoverian King George’s protestant government and the Jacobites who favoured the catholic Stuart royal family was the last land battle on British soil. The terrain was unsuitable, the Jacobite army was heavily outnumbered and outgunned – and to add insult to injury, they had spent the night on a misguided failed attempt to surprise the enemy. They never stood a chance. I have visited countless times. 2. Finlay, an elderly friend from my church invited us to spend a day driving to the West Coast with him, the area of his birth. Halfway, somewhere in Glen Moriston, he made us stop the car. Walk with me a minute,’ he said and led us to the hidden memorial to a little known Jacobite called Roderick Mackenzie.

Roderick Mackenzie’s memorial at Glenmoriston

While the Prince was on the run, Roderick, bearing a strong resemblance to the famous Bonnie Prince Charlie, acted as a decoy. It is said that even as the government forces shot him, he exclaimed ‘You’ve killed your Prince!’, buying the real Charles Edward Stuart precious time to escape. A short drive later, he made us pull in again, this time to the house of an acquaintance. ‘Show her your collection, Donald,’ he urged his friend. The man produced several jam jars of Jacobite musket balls, all found in the stream behind his croft. I will never forget it. History was here, right beneath our feet. 3. The third trip was intentional – I had stumbled across the story, but by now I was determined to research my tale. My other half has long been used to my ulterior motives when I suggest family trips. Our romantic weekend in Lochaber was no more than a list of places I needed to check out – the lie of the land, yes – but also the research riches in local museums. The weather was dubious – but who cares – my head I was firmly located in 1746, and the here and now was practically irrelevant. We tiptoed around Borrodale, played tourist at Glenfinnan, explored the beaches along Loch nan Uamh and speculated which of the many caves had played host to the Prince all those years ago.

Glenfinnan where the ’45 rebellion began

My hope is my readers of The Reluctant Rebel may not have to visit the area – perhaps I have evoked enough of that world in the pages that they can picture Archie’s and Meg’s life: Gaelic, beremeal bannocks, horses, and yes, secrets. But perhaps the story will whet their appetite to visit too. Then they can tread the ground where the fugitive Prince Charles Edward Stuart ran for his life.

The statue of Flora MacDonald overlooking the River Ness in Inverness

Barbara on the day she first received copies of the Reluctant Rebel

More about the book: There it is again, hope. The defeat and the despair I can stand, but it’s the hope that kills me, as if the Cause wasn’t lost, as if Father hadn’t died in vain. As if any one of us could possibly come out of this alive… Following the death of his father, 13-year-old Archie MacDonald has lost faith in the Jacobite Cause. Having witnessed their clan’s terrible defeat at the Battle of Culloden, Archie and his feisty cousin Meg flee back to Lochaber to lie low. Or so they think. Until the fugitive Prince’s life depends on them. When Prince Charles Edward Stuart looks to the people of Borrodale for help, will the young stable boy support the rebellion that has cost him so dearly? With enemies closing in, the Prince’s fate now rests in the hands of a stable boy and a maid with a white cockade. Who will survive this deadly game of hide-and-seek? Praise for The Reluctant Rebel 'I loved it! It's a rip-roaring adventure. Meg and Archie are great characters.' – Maggie Craig Order:

Thursday, 12 May 2022

Of burnt cakes and chronicles by Ally Sherrick

This week marks the anniversary of a key event in English history – a turning point which decided the fate of Anglo-Saxon England and if it’s not too grand a claim, the future of the English language too.

In May 878, Alfred, King of the West Saxons – the epithet ‘the Great’ was bestowed on him by admirers in the 16th century – fought Guthrum, the pagan leader of the invading Danish army at what became known as the Battle of Ethandun (modern day Edington in Wiltshire). It was a battle for the survival of both Alfred and his kingdom of Wessex.


King Alfred the Great as portrayed in later times

At the beginning of the same year, he had been beaten back by the Vikings in his own lands and forced to hide out in the marshes of the Somerset Levels. Here, while he considered what to do next so the story goes, a peasant woman, not recognising him as the king, asked him to mind some wheaten cakes she was cooking over a fire. Distracted by the slightly more pressing concern of how to hold on to his kingdom, Alfred took his eye off them and they burnt to a cinder, much to the annoyance of their maker. 

But clearly the thinking time paid off. The win at Ethandun just a few months later allowed Alfred to demand both the baptism of Guthrum as a Christian and more crucially the retreat of the Vikings from the Kingdom of Wessex back to East Anglia.  It was an important victory and one that gave Alfred the breathing space to regroup and live to fight another day.

Many of the things for which Alfred is now rightly celebrated stem from the many years he spent battling the Danes – improvements to the way his army – or fyrd – fought; the introduction of Viking-style long-ships to meet the enemy on their own terms, and the creation of a system of fortified towns or burhs which allowed for better protection of his people in the face of further attacks.

But equally significant was the work Alfred did to encourage the spread of learning through the translation of some key works of religion and philosophy from Latin into English. He even translated some of these texts himself including Pope Gregory the Great’s Pastoral Care – a guide to help bishops and priests lead their congregations and to live a moral life – and which he sent out copies of with a specially crafted aestel or bookmark. It’s believed by historians that the beautiful Alfred Jewel, discovered near Athelney Abbey in Somerset, the site of Alfred’s marshland hiding place, is one of these.


The beautiful Alfred Jewel, now in the Ashmolean Museum in Oxford. The words, in Old English, round the side spell out: 'Aelfred Mec Heht Gewyrcan' – or, ‘Alfred ordered me made'

As part of this work to develop a culture of greater literacy, Alfred may also have encouraged the creation of the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle which was first set down during his reign and most likely at his court.

The Chronicle was a combination of history and diary – a record of all the most significant things that had happened in Britain since the first attempted conquest by the Romans under the leadership of Julius Caesar leading up to – and beyond – Alfred’s own reign. It was written in the Anglo-Saxon vernacular – now referred to as Old English – and for the historical element of the text, relied on other earlier sources, including Bede’s Historia Ecclesiastica Gentis Anglorum (Ecclesiastical History of the English People).


 A page from one of the versions of the Chronicle showing an entry from the year 871

It is not one single text but rather a collection of separate but related ones. Alfred ordered copies to be made of the original Chronicle and then had them sent out to monasteries across his lands. Updates were issued at future points in time, but scribes working in the individual monasteries added their own entries too. In certain parts of the country, entries continued to be made until well beyond the Norman Conquest, as in the case of the Peterborough Chronicle kept by the monks of Peterborough Abbey in Cambridgeshire.

The Chronicle provides a shared history which historians suggest Alfred hoped would help unite his people in spirit against further Viking attacks – another weapon in his armoury. Entries vary from the record of deaths of well-known people – including kings and queens – to battles and also, in more detailed entries, to whole military campaigns. The majority are written in prose, but there are poems too, including The Battle of Brunanburh, an account of the real-life battle between King Aethelstan, Alfred’s grandson and an alliance of the Kings of Dublin, Scotland and Strathclyde – a conflict regarded as pivotal in the founding of a unified England.

This, one of the more colourful entries, relates to the earlier Viking raids, when bands of Danes and Norwegians came to the shores of Northumbria looking for treasure and slaves:

Year 793

Here were dreadful forewarnings come over the land of Northumbria, and woefully terrified the people: these were amazing sheets of lightning and whirlwinds, and fiery dragons were seen flying in the sky. A great famine soon followed these signs, and shortly after in the same year, on the sixth day before the ides of January, the woeful inroads of heathen men destroyed god’s church in Lindisfarne island by fierce robbery and slaughter.


 As with all documents that claim to be historical records of events, the Chronicle should be handled with care – as every historical novelist will know. Events are often reinterpreted and re-presented to suit the needs of those commissioning or keeping the records. But to my mind, it’s all the more fascinating because of that.

Writing Prompt

If you were tasked with writing a modern-day version of the Chronicle, how would you seek to record key events and happenings? Would you try to make them as factual as possible, or would you indulge in a spot of embellishment and perhaps include one or two ‘fiery dragons’ of your own.

Ally Sherrick is the author of books full of history, mystery and adventure including Black Powder, winner of the Historical Association’s Young Quills Award 2017, The Buried Crown and Tudor-Set adventure, The Queen’s Fool. She is published by 
Chicken House Books and her books are widely available in bookshops and online. You can find out more about her and her books at and follow her on Twitter: @ally_sherrick

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