Drum Roll, please! Sisters of The Bruce is now available!

At long last, Sisters of The Bruce 1292 -1314 has been published by Matador. You can find the books and ebooks at the online book store at troubador.co.uk, as well as amazon.co.uk or amazon.com.

Book stores and libraries can order it across the UK, North America and Australia from the international distribution firm, Ingram.

Order your copy and get ready for the 700 Year Anniversary of the Battle of Bannockburn in 2014.  Who knows how many friends you’ll be able to impress with your knowledge of Scottish history? Best of all, you’ll get to wander medieval paths and meet Robert and his sisters as they make their own journey through the dark days of Scotland’s First War of Independence.

Submit a review and and you will automatically receive a good dollop of the very best literary Karma!

What are you waiting for?

The Wonders of New England and New York – Part Nine

Heading south, we left the glorious countryside of Canada behind to fly to Boston to pick up our hire car. Once again, here are some of the highlights of our trip,  as we begin the trek homeward to Australia.

# New England

One of the great joys of this area is that everything is so close. By car, it was easy to drive along the ancient Mohawk Trail and nip up into New Hampshire and Vermont – all in the course of a few hours.  Glorious autumn colours were everywhere.

Our first night was spent in a wonderful B&B – The Birds’ Nest – built back in the 1700s, in the small rural community of Buckland, Massachusetts. A real home away from home!

Next day, we ventured into New York State and followed the Hudson River, a broad brown river, down to the Catskill Mountains before turning east towards the small town of Norfolk in north west Connecticut. The Manor House, our accommodation for the night, was another real gem. Built in the late 1800s, the house was once a mansion for wealthy New Yorkers escaping the close heat of New York summers. The sweeping stairway, wooden panelling and Tiffany windows sent us back in time. The town also boasted some great eateries and our night at the Wood Creek Pub was memorable, owing to the warm welcome from friendly locals.

Boston was a cool place to visit with its Freedom Trail and the great pedestrian areas around Faneuill Place and Quincy Market. The place comes alive at night and is so pretty with the many trees decorated with festive fairy lights.

Our dinner at the the Union Oyster House was fascinating, given the building’s extraordinary history as the oldest restaurant still operating in the USA. During his exile in 1796,  a Frenchman lived on its second floor and earned his keep by offering French lessons to the well-to-do ladies of Boston. Later, Louis Philippe served as France’s king from 1830 to 1848.

To get from Boston to New York, we took a relaxing three hour express train which skirted the curving coastline of Connecticut and Rhode Island.

# New York City

Wow! What a fantastic city! Our home for the next five nights was the Colonial Inn in Chelsea – a comfortable B&B set in a tree-lined street in a fine central location. Here, we met our son and his partner who had flown in from London.

* The Empire State Building. Who knew the queues would be so long or so orderly? An enormous treat for any fans of Art Deco architecture. And of course, the views are gob-smackingly gorgeous. Worth the wait!

*  A Sunset River Cruise – on a glorious clear night with a full moon rising through the city skyline and our first view of the grand madame – the Statue of Liberty. I expected to feel quite blase and was taken aback at the unexpected emotion of seeing this iconic statue, her copper-green gown alight against the  glowing red of the night sky.

* A visit to the Chelsea Market

* Exploring the different districts of New York like the vibrant Lower East side  and discovering a restaurant which only served meatballs of every conceivable variety. Terrific fun as well!  The Meat Packing District at night! Wandering through Greenwich Village and finding a Cafe with out-of-this world mini cupcakes, then chatting with the gracious staff at Jimmy Choo’s Shoes who knew we could only afford to look and salivate.

* Times Square and the nearby St Andrews Whisky Bar – essential research for any dedicated Scotophile..

* The Zodiac designs on the ceiling of Grand Central Station especially at 1 am when the crowds are gone.

*  A day spent at the Metropolitan  Museum and later wandering in Central Park, followed by dinner at La Bonne Soupe, an atmospheric French restaurant.

* Looking for that exclusive bargain at Century 21

* Sunset drinks at the extraordinary rooftop bar of 230 5th Ave, wearing their signature red gowns to ward off the chill winds and watching the city lights come on. The sight of the Empire State Building at night is thrilling.

* Wandering the streets and coming upon Little Eaterly -a huge restaurant, come deli, come shop, heaving with noisy happy patrons

I was so surprised by New York. i expected it to be noisy and dirty and edgy to the point of being unsafe. Noisy it definitely was with sirens and horns blaring constantly but it was clean and functional and chic. We also felt quite safe and the many family groups out on the streets added to this impression.

Walking every where, taking the yellow cabs when we needed to get places to make the most our brief time, checking out the cafes and bars, the community feel of the districts, people out walking their dogs of all shapes and sizes – these are the things I will remember and cherish about New York and most of all, the opportunity to spend precious time with our son and his partner.

Now we head home to Australia, after a truly extraordinary holiday across Canada and eastern USA. The wallet may be lighter but the heart and soul are brimming with joyful memories. Thanks for sharing this epic journey with us.

Canada – The Maritimes – Part Eight

Fancy a trip to the Atlantic Coast of Canada? Join us as we journey around the Maritimes – New Brunswick, Prince Edward Island (PEI) and Nova Scotia.

#New Brunswick:

From Maine, we travelled by car back across the border into Canada, once again. St Andrews-by-the-Sea was our starting point to explore the Bay of Fundy. We stayed at a newly renovated hotel, Inn on Frederick, run by a delightful Korean couple, Jay and Ann, who were starting  a new life in Canada with their three children. A short drive to the north was St John which boasts a raging tidal bore at the change of tides where adventurous folk ride their surfboards.

Next, we drove on to Hopewell Rocks where you can walk on the ocean floor amongst the weathered stacks, known as the Flowerpot Rocks, which owe their unique structure to the enormous tidal differences of up to 40 feet. For obvious reasons, swimming was discouraged!

#PEI:

On our way, we came across several covered bridges and the forests were already touched by the golden tones of Autumn. There are two ways to access the island; by ferry or by a 14 kilometre toll bridge. We chose the latter and paid a return toll of $45.

North Rustico in the northern centre of PEI was to be our home for three nights. Barachois Inn was built by early French settlers. Opposite the inn was the oldest Catholic church on the island, an elegant white building with black trim. Nearby was a museum which celebrated the site of the first French bank. Our hosts at the inn, Gary and Judy MacDonald, shared tales of island life and culture. I was struck by the rolling green hills, the red soil and cliffs. Potatoes are a major crop and McCains has a number of processing plants there. Pumpkins and scarecrows were everywhere in preparation for Halloween.

Many of the homes in the area were adorned with a star to identify their Acadian origins. At Rustico we were very close to the Anne of Green Gables museum and interpretive centre which was run by Parks Canada. Having read L M Montgomery’s novels as a young girl, I was thrilled to be able to visit the site of many of her childhood experiences and to see a faithful rendition of Anne’s fictional home shared with Marilla and Matthew.

Exploring the island was a treat – from Souris in the east to the capital, Charlottetown, which played a pivotal role in the federation of Canada. At nearby Brackley Beach, there was a fantastic restaurant and art gallery complex with extraordinary pottery, jewellery and stained glass. I was sorely tempted to max out my credit card.

Many of the shops and seafood restaurants were close to closing for the season; a concept we are unfamiliar with in Australia. Like the many geese sighted flying overhead, local business owners were preparing to fly south for the winter in their huge RVs.

#Nova Scotia (and Cape Breton):

Leaving PEI behind, we drove into Nova Scotia with our first stop at the windswept Cap D’or lighthouse built on cliff tops overlooking the Bay of Fundy. Before heading into the capital city, Halifax, we journeyed down to the historic town of Lunenberg with its old wharf and stunning historic homes. Closer to Halifax was Peggy’s Cove which evoked strong sentiments of Scotland with its granite outcrops and lighthouse, and the cottages of a typical fishing village. Windswept barely describes the Atlantic winds lashing the cove.

A short drive brought us into Halifax, home of the Dalhousie University and the Canadian Atlantic naval fleet. The city was founded in 1709 when 2500 British citizens were transported to settle Nova Scotia to counter the French settlement of Fort Louisbourg on Cape Breton. The star-shaped earthworks of the British fort known as The Citadel remain visible to this day. The Maritime Museum was well worth a visit for its exhibits about the loss of the Titanic in 1912 and the cataclysmic explosion experienced in 1917.

There were many artifacts from the Titanic and stories of how the local fishing boats were involved in the collection of the dead as they floated in their life jackets. 300 were buried at sea but a number were brought into Halifax where families might arrange for their transfer home for burial. Though it was commonly  believed that women and children were given precedence for the life boats, it seems this did not apply so much to those from the Third Class passenger list whilst there was a surprising number of men from First Class who were rescued.

One particularly poignant exhibit was a pair of tiny, brown leather, lace-up shoes. They belonged to the unnamed child and rescuers had clubbed together to pay for his funeral.

The story of the Halifax explosion was also extremely moving.  A French vessel filled with highly flammable  munitions was awaiting a convoy – for safety required ships travel together to avoid the German Uboats. A collision occurred with another vessel, sparking a fire. Many Halifax residents rushed to the harbour to view the drama but the boat exploded, turning the city into a conflagration. 1600 people were killed instantly. 9000 were injured – 6000 seriously. Many were blinded by flying glass or suffered terrible burns. A tsunami followed, wiping out the nearby Native American village and the following day a blizzard hit the area compromising the safety of thousands who were homeless. Some 12,000 buildings were destroyed. It is hard to believe the resilience of the remaining residents of the city who rebuilt their shattered lives and made Halifax what it is today – a thriving regional community.

After spending time in the museum, we wandered along the harbour precinct, stopping first at a Poutinerie for some Poutine, a French Acadian dish of chips, covered with cheese curds and gravy.  It was surprisingly delicious and warming in the brisk wind.

Along the wharf, there were signs about a fascinating period in Halifax’s history. Out in the bay, an island stood in silent testament to the conflict between the French and English. After the British conquest of Acadia and the French/Indian Wars, the Treaty of Utrecht in 1710 was signed where the Acadians were allowed to keep their lands provided they signed an unconditional allegiance to England. Some signed in the hope of remaining neutral but many did not, fearing they would be called to fight against France. The Acadians had strong ties through intermarriage with the indigenous peoples and feared attacks upon their villages if they sided with the British. The Native American tribes of the area had joined together in the Wabanaki Confederacy and were strongly allied  with the French. They continued to wage a guerilla war against the British forces in response to their aggression.

The British government viewed the resistance by the Acadians, and their refusal to sign the oath of allegiance, as a future threat to security and decided to transport the Acadians out of their territory without any distinction between those who had remained neutral and those who had not. Some were transported to France, to England or to other colonies. On an island in Halifax harbour, some of the more active dissidents were imprisoned. They were joined by many others in the enforced removals.

Eventually, later in the century, the British relented and allowed the Acadians to resettle in Nova Scotia, Cape Breton and New Brunswick as long as the groups were isolated from each other and not a large enclave. Once again, they had to sign an oath of allegiance to the crown.

Some of those who were transported returned to the Americas and settled in the south in Louisiana but many thousands died through sickness or drowning when ships were lost at sea. The British forces went on to defeat the French at their Fort Louisbourg on the east  coast of Cape Breton and the strength of the Wabanaki Confederacy waned.

An interesting aspect of this story reflects the impact of religion for the French and the Meti (those of French/Indian extraction) were strongly Catholic and the British, staunchly Protestant. I found this whole period of history absolutely engrossing, and the stories very moving, having little prior knowledge of the hardships endured by the Acadian folk in this extraordinary region.

My purpose in visiting the Maritimes was to explore the history of the Scots and we were not disappointed at the little town of Pictou in the north as we made our way towards Cape Breton. Here we found a wonderful museum and heard the story of the Scots who arrived there on their ship, the Hector, to settle New Scotland – Nova Scotia. Once again, displaced Scots had gathered in the north, this time at Loch Broom, near Ullapool, to make the journey to Canada in search of a new life.

They endured horrendous conditions, a storm which forced them back into the Atlantic for a fortnight when their rations were already dangerously low and a Smallpox epidemic which killed seventeen of their children.  One of the poignant aspects of this tale was how the families begged the ship’s captain to let a piper board the vessel, even though he could not pay the fare, for he was crucial to their emotional wellbeing. The piper must have kept their spirits up through such a traumatic voyage. Many found, once again, that their new life was not as promised and after the disastrous voyage, they set out to clear the forests and build their homesteads.

Their ancestors at Pictou continue to honour this voyage and worked with the broader community to build this history museum with its information about tartans and clans, and to build a replica of the Hector. Climbing down into  the bowels of the ship was a salutory experience for us – to witness the cramped, dark conditions and imagine the horrors of such a voyage. These desperate folk were brave indeed.

Cape Breton:

Some twenty five thousand Scots have made Cape Breton their home. Amongst them were my own family members, displaced from Glendale in western Skye.

Cape Breton is a feast for the eyes. Within the centre of the island, for it is an island joined now by the Canso Causeway, is a great lake system – the Bras d’Or Lakes, an inland sea –  and the road to Baddeck skirted the picturesque shoreline.

We were fortunate indeed to have friends on Cape Breton who welcomed us so warmly on many social occasions. Our home for the time being was a wonderful old cottage which overlooked the Baddeck River. In the distance were lush fields, forest and mountains.

The town of Baddeck  is a very pretty place and its central location served us well, One of the many highlights of our trip was the Cabot Trail, which takes about four hours to complete by car through mountains and forests with fabulous sea vistas.  We visited Fort Louisbourg and also a whisky distillery, set against a patchwork of russet and golden amber on the mountainside. I loved the restaurants, cafes and bookstores at Baddeck and a fabulous shop, Baddeck Yarns. Such a colourful place – a haven for anyone passionate about knititng.

The Celtic Colours Festival started towards the end of our visit but we were lucky to be able to attend three fantastic concerts. if you love the fiddle, Celtic stepdancing and Gaelic singing, you will adore this festival.

Other highlights included visits to the Gaelic College and the Highland Village at Iona. The latter is in a superb hillside location with expansive views over the Bras d’Or Lakes. There are houses from many different historical periods and each one has an interpreter who decribes life at the time. It was all done in such an authentic manner that the experience was truly memorable. Our visit to the stone black house, so called because of its dark interior and lack of windows, was brilliant as we had missed seeing inside one on the Isle of Lewis due to its closure at the time.

On Cape Breton and across Canada, there are reputed to be many moose and bear. Try as we might, we saw nary a one! To remedy this situation, on our journey back to Halifax to catch our flight  to Boston, we stopped off at the Shubanackie Wildlife Sanctuary run by Parks Canada. There we saw a very elderly pair of moose and a couple of thick-set black bears, industrious beavers and hyperactive otters, bald eagles and owls, snoozing raccons and some powerful-looking cougars – amongst many others. Who knew porcupines could climb trees or river otters were so quick to bite their keepers? All of the animals had been injured in some way and could not be returned to the wild.

Over the past weeks, we have been following the path of the early Scots and Cape Breton did not dissappoint. Stories were told of a staunchly Presbyterian minister, Norman MacLeod, who gathered his flock in disgust and took them far away to New Zealand because of the unholy way of life on Cape Breton at the time. Today, links remain between the ancestors of these folk with their shared heritage, across NZ and Canada. Perhaps the most compelling aspect for me were the many Gaelic speakers we came across and the strong Scottish influence evident on Cape Breton.

Sadly, our time in Canada had come to an end. What an honour it was to have made this journey across such a a stunning country. Can’t wait to go back!

Join me for the next instalment as we travel to New England and New York before we make the long trek home to Australia.

Canada/US – A Road Trip from Quebec to The Atlantic – Part Seven

Join us now for some of the highlights of our trip:

# Quebec City: Our apartment in the old city nestled within the broad city walls. The city is ancient but very easy to get around. High on the river cliffs, the Chateau de Frontenac dominates the skyline with its turrets and towers. On the promenade which overlooks the River St Laurent, singers busk and fill the night air with husky French tones. Down in the lower town, the narrow walkways are filled with tourists off the cruise ships which follow the river all the way to Nova ScotIa, Maine and Boston.

After wandering around the wide array of shops,  it was great to relax over a wine and a beer and soak up the atmosphere. Quebec feels so much like Paris. Sadly, our attempts at the language were met with sighs and a return to English by the long suffering shopkeepers and waiters.

From Quebec, our hire car took us over the US border into Maine. You can wait several hours in a queue but it was a quiet day and our passage was conveniently quick. 

# Maine: Down along the old Canada Highway, great swathes of Autumn leaves lit up Moose River Valley. Off in the distance, lakes curved around small islands. Though we knew it was hunting season, we were surprised to see moose hanging from wooden contraptions. Later we learned they were used to fulfill government requirements to weigh and determine the age, by pulling a tooth, of the great beasts.

Our first night in Maine was spent at a fabulous old Inn, Colony House, which sat on the shores of the pristine Lake Wesserunsett. Nearby was the Lakewood Theatre; the oldest running Summer Theatre in the US.

Though the theatre season had just closed, we were fortunate to be allowed inside. Here, stars such as Lana Turner, Ginger Rogers and Humphrey Bogart had played to eager audiences. Many had stayed at the Inn.  I was fascinated to learn that the room we were staying in, had been the home of Lana Turner for a whole summer season. I imagined her standing at the window, looking through the trees and gardens to the lake’s glistening waters as she rehearsed her lines.

That night we found our way into Skowhegan, the closest town, and enjoyed a great meal and good music at the Olde Mill Inn. Bob, our congenial host at the Inn, told us stories of the area, how the Native Americans canoed down the lakes and rivers, planting corn on the way. They travelled all the way to the sea, had their fill of seafood and enjoyed relief from the Summer insects. In Fall they made the return journey, harvesting their matured crops on the way.

Our next destination was the iconic L L Bean store with its big boot outside, and emphasis on country-wear, and then edged our way around  the coastal villages of Maine to the Acadia National Park. The quieter part, Mount Desert National Park, was our home for two nights at idyllic Bass Harbour. Our first day was spent walking through the forest to the rocky shoreline of pink granite where we caught our first sight of a blue jay; a startling sky blue with a crested head. Later we learned it was the ‘bad boy’ of the bird world – known to eat the young of other species. We also had our first sighting of a chipmunk and had to ask passerbys what it was! They’re so tiny!

Dinner that night at a fabulous seafood restaurant allowed us to sit outside in the gathering dusk and watch the quicksilver reflections of harbor lights rippling in the wake of incoming boats. A one-eyed seal seal known as Lucille visits Bass Harbor each afternoon and feeds on the scraps discarded overboard from the fishing boats.

The following day, lunch at Captain Nemos  proved a fascinating experience. It is impossible to describe the decor; you’ll have to visit their website! The word, unique, doesn’t do it justice – suffice to say we had a great time.

Join me for my next blog as our journey takes us to beautiful Prince Edward Island, Nova Scotia and rugged Cape Breton with the Celtic Colours Music Festival. As we head north, the Scottish influence grows stronger for many, many thousands of Scots made their new homes in this stunning land.

Alba gu Brath

Canada – The Selkirk Settlers of Winnipeg – Part Six

Over the past few weeks, I’ve blogged about the Scots in Canada. Early in our journey, we met up with some wonderful folk from the St Andrews Society of Winnipeg, Tim and Nancy Flook, and  Ed Bethune, editor of the Society’s newsletter, The Saltire. Over the course of a day, they shared many insights, as we explored the fascinating places associated with the Selkirk settlers.

A monument, an exact copy of one in Sutherland, brought to Winnipeg at great cost by the society, stands as a poignant, mute reminder of the heart break of these settlers, torn from their lands.

Here is the tale of those early courageous Scots.

Cast your minds back to the Scottish clearances when families in the highlands were forced from their ancestral lands in their thousands to make way for new farming practices. Those who resisted had their homes burnt whilst they watched in despair and horror. Imagine the devastation of those families, wondering how they might survive such hardship and provide for their children. Some wandered the country seeking new ways of living. Many were encouraged to board ships for new lands.

One lord, Sir Thomas Douglas, the  Fifth Lord  of Selkirk, was more progressive than most. He purchased great tracts of land from the Hudson Bay Company in central Canada and hoped to set up the first agricultural  settlement. Emigrants were offered the promise of a new life and the prospect of owning their own land. Hope bloomed once more. Families set forth with their worldly possessions – few by our standards but each a precious reminder of home. 

What does it mean to be displaced – to never again set foot upon the soil upon which your ancestors’ feet had trod, to never again see the sun rise or set upon your land? And what must it have been like to cross the Atlantic and sail into Hudson Bay and then down through the lakes and rivers?. By 1812, they disembarked at the Red River Settlement at the forks of the Red and Assiboine Rivers. Throughout this journey, starvation and cold were everpresent dangers and it was only through the efforts of an Indian chief that the group survived at all. Chief Peguis is honored today. He lies buried in the peaceful grounds of a church by the Red River, having become a Christian during the early days of the settlement.

The settlers brought with them a bushel and a half of Scottsh grain which they planted but it was late in the season. The Indians fed them and guided them to safety. It was tough going for many years as civil unrest followed between the HBC and the North West Company. The Meti, those of mixed French and Indian blood,  supported the North West Company and a massacre took place when twenty of the HBC men were killed at Seven Oaks. By 1822, these two companies had resolved their enmity and amalgamated. It was around this time that Lord Selkirk died. He is honored today by the people of Winnipeg for his immense role in the city’s early development.

The settlers survived the unrest though the Meti continued to fight for their place in society throughout the century.

Ancestors of those early Scots survive to this day and the St Andrews Society of Winnipeg which was established in the 1870s reflects this proud history. We were honored by the warm welcome and the generosity of our new friends in sharing their story with us.

Canada – From the Peaks to the Prairies; Part Five

Join me today for some of the highlights of our trip as we cross the continent – from the western shores to the precipitous crags of the Rockies and onto the broad expanse of the prairies and the cities of Calgary and Winnipeg.

Our Australian perspective might be of interest for those more familiar with these sights.

# During our brief time on Vancouver Island, we were fascinated by a well-reported news event. On an island to the north, a woman was attacked by a cougar whilst she was gardening. It crept up behind her, and grabbed her by the head. Fortunately, her husband was home. He attacked it with a spear and it was later found dead in the nearby forest. The poor women was said to be recovering in hospital with a fractured skull.

Australia has snakes, spiders and sharks but no gardener-eating cougars!

# On the west coast, there are many pods of Orcas. On our ferry back from VI, a pod was sighted off to the side and I rushed to view them but the fog beat me to it. It was a great trip nonetheless – very atmospheric!

# The Rocky Mountaineer was a brilliant experience! We travelled through desert country to the town of Kamloops and then the  mountains burst into view with incredible tunnels and bridges made by the CanadIan National Railway and its courageous workers – the Chinese, French voyageurs and Scottish engineers. Bald eagles rode the valley winds and settled on top of pine trees. Salmon struggled up through the river rapids to their spawning grounds and I was hopeful of seeing a bear fishing along the way.

# At Banff, our train’s destination, the fog closed in overnight but later snow dusted the mountain tops.  We hired a car and drove up to Lake Louise with its stunning jade lake and glacier nestled between mountains . Home to the grizzly bear, we threw caution to the wind and wandered around the lakeside path. There were so many visitors, I was hopeful that we would make it back in one piece.

Whilst at the hotel,  I found a pair of earings,  a birthday present worthy of mention – an artist in the Yukon Territories makes jewellery out of ancient mammoth ivory with ammolite, opalised fossils. Pretty amazing by anyone’s standards  I think!

#  Calgary was our next destination – a smart, fast city with connecting walk-ways between the buildings. In vain, we searched for a mall but it was hidden somewhere within the city buildings. This was fascinating in itself as the weather defines the way shoppers shop in the bitter winter conditions. Eventually, we found a portion of it outside and wandered amidst the flowers and cafes. In the distance, the snow-capped Rockies line the horizon.

# From Calgary, our flight took us over a patchwork of prairie lands – so flat yet so beautifully textured with a myriad of lakes and field patterns, some circular as well as rectangular. At Winnipeg, we were meeting up with some new friends from the St Andrews Association. The city was a pleasant surprise with its tree-lined avenues and our B&B at La Chaumiere du Village, was fabulous. We learnt about the huge lake, the size of the UK, to the north where lucky Winnipeggers have holiday homes. In winter, the lake freezes over and folks enjoy life on the ice, skating or fishing through ice holes. Some drive their trucks across the lake. Any such journeys have to be undertaken with great care lest a wave starts up under the truck and breaks through the ice in front of the vehicle with dire outcomes.

My next blog will take us through The Pegg’s amazing Scottish history.