What Tartan Should I Wear?

June 24, 2013 by · Leave a Comment 

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imageOne of the joys of this particular trip to Europe is that I could combine research for That Autumn in Edinburgh (the follow-on novel to That Summer in Cornwall ) with a search for some of my husband and my families’ more obscure tartan patterns. In our joint two clans, we have the Scottish names McCullough, McVicker, McAllister/Alexander, McGann, Hunter, Pattison, Harris, Brown, Gibbs, Forester, and Bell.260px-Maxwell_tartan_(Vestiarium_Scoticum)

My husband Tony’s surname is “Cook,” and he always assumed it was of solid, English origin.

“Oh, indeed not,” his late father, Howard Cook, declared emphatically a number of years ago. “We were the MacCooks, but they lopped off the Mac to make us sound more American.”

I speedily went online and did a search for tartan names and found it–voila–as “Cook/MacCook.”

And then, long after we were married, we discovered that we both had the name “Bell” in our family lines. Turns out on this trip that that we learned there are a number of Bell regional tartans, but the most colorful one both Cook and Ware family members have been emailing me about has prompted them to ask if we all could coordinate and make a single, combined order for yardage? (I imagine there may be a number of sofas and upholstered arm chairs dotting California’s interior landscape soon…)image

The answer was given me: yes we can make a special order, and so can many tartan-loving souls by contacting D.C. Dalgliesh, one of the last traditional mills remaining in operation that are willing to do custom orders for the lesser known patterns–and will do a “run” for fewer than 30 meters, when most mills won’t bother with a set-up for less than that amount of yardage–and prices vary widely from mill to mill.

imageThe sad truth, we discovered as we made our ways through the stunning Tweed Valley where the textile trade once thrived, is that many of the mills that had manufactured tartans and other woolens for some two centuries have fallen to the onslaught of cheap, often inferior goods manufactured in the Far East. Other companies have, themselves, sold out to overseas manufacturers who apparently desire the cachet of a “Made in Scotland” label to further their global reach.image

Just recently, E-Land of South Korea bought Lochcarron weavers and the sister-company, Peter Scott, a cashmere operation based in the Scottish Borders region. So far, everything made in these factories appears to be of the highest quality, though some of the goods are already being designed with the Japanese, Chinese, and Korean markets and sensibilities in mind.

imageInterestingly, some indigenous Scottish textile companies that are managing to survive and even thrive, such as Johnstons of Elgin (and Hawick, south of Edinburgh and having last week earned the Royal Warrant), tend to be the ones catering to the high-end, luxury market that demands top quality merchandise–and can recognize it when they see it. With price usually no object, these buyers want items made in Scotland by the Scottish! One other very noteworthy development is a company called ScotWeb that offers many varieties of Scottish goods for online purchase.image

Behind a modest wood stairway in Edinburgh leading up to a large warehouse, Dr. Nick Fiddes is sourcing genuine Scottish goods to customers based all over the globe. He is also a tech wizard offering his expertise to a quasi governmental agency, the Scottish Register of Tartans, to create a giant database of known tartans (and the “recipes” to make them on existing looms) to help the diaspora of Scots living in the far corners of the globe to track down their family tartans or buy goods with obvious Scottish origins. This was the same database where I found the unusual version of the Bell tartan.

imageScotweb recently purchased the old-school weaving company, DC Dalgliesh, that owns perhaps the largest library of tartan patterns in the world and will also help a customer design a brand new tartan for a family or business entity desiring one of their very own.image

A big push, thanks–rather ironically, it seems to me–to Bronx-born garment and home furnishing designer Ralph Lauren is the use of tartans in American home furnishings. On this trip I discovered that the RL label even plays big in the stately homes and manors here in Scotland.

But more on that fascinating story in a future blog post…

Adding to the Novelist’s “Idea Bank”

June 13, 2013 by · Leave a Comment 

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Image 2Writers are constantly asked the perfectly sensible question: “Where do your ideas come from?” I certainly heard that often enough whenever I speculated aloud that I might do a new novel, That Summer in Cornwall, as a spin-off from an earlier book, A Cottage by the Sea. People would exclaim, “You’re going to do two novels in the same place with some of the same characters? Haven’t you run out of ideas by now?”

For me, the notion for a new book to which I’m willing to commit months–if not years–to bring to fruition usually comes from my garden-variety curiosity and from my previous life as a working reporter. Back in the day, whenever in my travels around town or around the world, I’d encounter something that set off an “Oh, what a good story!” mini-explosion in my brain, I would jot it down to tell my editor or the news director. Now I jot it down under “Ciji’s Book Idea Bank.”IMG_4676

Take this trip we’re on right now: first to Talloires, a tiny (pop. 500) village in the French Alpes where my husband is attending a board meeting for the MacJannet Foundation, a modest educational non-profit that awards prizes each year for “Global Citizenship” and grants college students scholarships to learn the language at the Tufts University European Center, housed in Talloires’ eleventh century priory.

IMG_4912Visitors arrive at this lovely spot on Lake Annecy, often by bateau at the charming landing dock you see on your left and enjoy the Michelin starred restaurants in the immediate region that are well-known to Foodies throughout the world.France June 2006 130

What is less well-known to most Americans, at least, is that little Talloires and the jagged mountains behind the village were a hotbed of the French Resistance in World War II. Those opposed to the Vichy “collaborators” and to Hitler’s invading armies holed up in the rugged back country and were deeply involved in the ultimate liberation of France in August of 1944, a mere three-and-a-half months after the landings at Normandy Beach.

Musée_Départemental_de_la_Résistance_Haut-Savoyarde_à_Thônes,_Haute-SavoieDuring the many trips we’ve made to Talloires over the years, we have always said, “We must visit the Resistance Museum this time,” and somehow competing events always cropped up relating to our primary purpose–to wit, the MacJannet Foundation meetings–and we never have seemed to get there…until this time.thones-war-memorial

Sunday, May 8th is the day celebrated in France each year marking the end of WW II in Europe and the moment when local French in and around Talloires and Lake Annecy were finally able to begin rebuilding their lives. Visiting the graves there of those who fought in the French Resistance and, among other heroic acts, helped ferry downed British and American flyers back to safe territory, prompted a number of ideas to swirl in my head. There were women who served in this effort, which intrigues me, and also disputes that fester still in these villages about local families that supported the Nazi occupation (or at least refused to join the Resistance) and some who even betrayed the resistance fighters, and the families that risked all to free themselves from the occupiers.

Hmmmm….the imagination boggles over the possibilities. Once I finish my Four Seasons Quartet series, I could–

And that, dear readers, is one way an author gets her ideas: get out and see the world!

Why I Love Edinburgh

June 2, 2013 by · Leave a Comment 

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imgresOn Tuesday night, June 11, just before midnight at London’s Euston Sation, my husband and I are boarding the ScotRail sleeper train to Edinburgh. “The Night Train to Edinburgh.” Just typing those words sounds like the title to a novel, but in this case, I’m off to research a new book that follows That Summer in Cornwalland it’s set—guess where?–in one of my favorite cities: the historic capital of Scotland built on a volcanic outcropping that protected its residents from invading enemies for some eight hundred years.Edinburgh_Castle_Scotland-Wallpaper On one end of the Royal Mile that skims along the top of that up-thrust is the Palace of Holyroodhouse where Mary, Queen of Scots most likely witnessed the murder of her most trusted secretary; on the other end, the spectacular Castle Rock, occupied since around 1,000 B.C.–which makes sense, given a lookout can see all the way to the Firth of Forth. 180px-Anchor-closeIn between these huge buildings are narrow streets and wynds –or alleys—where the city’s inhabitants lived in tenements, some of them twenty stories high.  Jane Maxwell of Monreith—later the 4th Duchess of Gordon and the heroine in my first novel, Island of the Swans —lived in the mid-eighteenth century in Hynford Close, a crowded narrow cobbled street in the heart of this bustling city.imageGen Following in the footsteps of historical figures such as the poet Robert Burns (seen here in a painting with a seated Duchess Jane who supported the first professional printing of his work), the writer James Boswell, and the novelist, Sir Walter Scott is one of the great joys of visiting a place where sections of Edinburgh remain as they were more than two hundred years ago. anta-200x150_12982But on this trip in June, I will be learning about modern Scotland in preparation for writing That Autumn in Edinburgh.  I’ll be visiting interior home design shops selling cashmere throws and tartan pillows, and checking out the Old Weaving Company where tourists ogle special order tartans made for everyone from Scottish-Americans tracing their roots to Chinese corporations seeking to brand themselves in the West.468675019_ab7534ab14_m I haven’t been to Scotland in over a decade, and I can’t wait to note the changes…and rejoice in the things that look the same.  Edinburgh, remember, is where the BBC goes to film when they want to recreate London in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. Thank heavens they still can…

Creating Fictional Characters – The Magic of “Who?”

May 29, 2013 by · Leave a Comment 

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imageWhen starting a new project–as I am doing with That Autumn in Edinburgh, a novel that follows the previously published That Summer in Cornwall in my Four Seasons series—I fall back on twenty-five years experience as a working reporter.  I have always found asking those journalists’ questions: who, what, where, why, when to be rather magical in the way they find me the answers I need to get started.

“Where?” is obvious for this novel: Scotland, and more specifically, Edinburgh and the territory south of the city known as the Scottish Borders where the Maxwell Clan held prominence since the 1400s. (Caerlaverock Castle, here,  was one of their strongholds).

But once the setting is decided, Question #2 becomes:  Who is this novel about?Image

For me, the only way to figure this out is to start with a name,in this case “Alexander Maxwell,” and then do a “handmade” fictional genealogy chart for the protagonist that goes back at least four generations on both sides of the person: parents, grandparents, great-grandparents, great-great-grandparents.

Island of the SwansSince this book is a contemporary spin-off of the first novel I ever published, Island of the Swans, I had to create a genealogy chart that went back a couple of centuries!  The trickiest part has been that Swans was a biographical historical novel based on an actual  historical figure, Jane Maxwell of Monreith, 4th Duchess of Gordon (1749-1812).  Figuring out how my modern-day fictional hero could be related to the Duchess’ branch of Clan Maxwell 250-plus years later took some serious research, especially as I discovered that most of the various branches of the Scottish Maxwell clan and the Dukedom of Gordon died out with no male heir.Country_house_rescue_ruth_watson_Monreith_House_Scotland_Sir_Michael_Maxwell

Fortunately, there was one branch of the Maxwells descending from Jane who had made it into the 21st Century: Sir Michael Eustace Maxwell, 9th Baronet of Monreith from a region southwest of Edinburgh in the Scottish Borders.

Sir Michael, however, at 70, remains a bachelor with a 150-year-old manor house in serious need of refurbishment—so much so that he was profiled on a “reality” program in Britain, Country House Rescue with Ruth Watson, seen here, in which the presenter’s best recommendation was for the last heir to marry a woman with some interior design talents and a considerable fortune!  If they somehow produced a male heir, so much the better.  (At last Google-ing, this had not transpired…). Sadly, various areas on the estate such as this crumbling, moss-covered lodge were near to collapsing.

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So what to do…what to do?  And then I had a stroke of what I can only consider semi-brilliance! Duchess Jean on horseback recruiting

 

 

 

 

 

 

Jane Maxwell– seen here on her horse recruiting Highland soldiers to fight in the 78th Fraser Highlanders against the colonists in the American War of Independence– had seven children, one of whom was most assuredly not by the Duke of Gordon.

What if, in the early twentieth century, there was born to a housemaid in the employ of the Maxwells of Monreith a baby boy whose features had the unmistakable stamp of several of the Maxwell males of that pre-World War I era—but whose father always remained a mystery?

Typical of the times, the baby–who could never inherit the title nor the estate– could have been placed with a childless couple in a neighboring village to raise, and only later, upon receiving a deathbed bequest of funds from his guilty sire, does my hero’s great grandfather discover he’s a Maxwell of Monreith–even if born “on the wrong side of the blanket.”

9f008d2643a8a3ea5db8ceaa354542b8See how deviously we spinner-of-tales can work around any factual problems?

But I want my modern-day hero, the 35-year-old Alex Maxwell, to be the owner of a tartan mill in the Scottish Borders that’s teetering on the edge of bankruptcy due to unholy competition from textile manufacturers who are under-cutting his prices in the Far East by using cheap labor.

But hold on a sec!  How could the descendant of an illegitimate child of the Maxwell clan have advanced far enough in three generations to be owner of a substantial woolen manufacturing enterprise?

Ah, remember that bequest?  Well, therein lies the tale…but first I need to learn about the “what” in this who. what. where, why, & when novel-writing equation: the tartan weaving industry.

At left is a model at one of the prominent Scottish woolen firms whose good looks I find quite inspiring, so it’s off to the Scotland  I must go….IMG_4828

Scotland by the Yard

May 26, 2013 by · Leave a Comment 

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glen_affricThe first thing a person learns about Scottish woolen manufacturing—an industry which will figure in the background of the next novel after That Summer in Cornwall in my forthcoming Four Seasons Quartet series—is that the vibrantly patterned cloth for which Scotland is so renowned may be called “plaid” by the uninitiated, but in the region of Scotland where much of it is made, you’d be well-advised to call it “tartan”—as in “family tartan.”url-4

In the novel I’m currently researching, That Autumn in Edinburgh, an American home furnishings designer named Fiona Fraser determines to rely on her Scottish-American heritage to create an entirely new Home Collection for the legendary fashion and lifestyle tycoon she works for. I spent a great day recently cruising around the Worldwide Web, peering into the stately homes north of England and searching the pages of shelter magazines that offer the kind of inspiration that fires my heroine Fiona’s imagination as she travels around Scotland.

18th c. Reproduction Furniture Display RoomIn the process, she battles to rescue her brother’s failing furniture company in North Carolina, as well as a tartan mill in Scotland (where, of course, we meet our hero, Alex Maxwell) that’s on the brink of bankruptcy due to Far East competition stealing traditional designs and making cheaper versions with labor that’s paid less than forty dollars a month.Image

In the process of preparing for my upcoming trip to the Scottish Borders region to steep myself in the Scottish woolen and cashmere trade, I encountered a website called “The Tartans Authority” — and what a world it opened up to me!  This non-profit organization created the “Tartan Ferret” –a little critter who attempts to match the name you type into the search box with the correct color version of “your” family tartan.

1489bell_of_the_borders_name_Instead of immediately delving into the tasks I’d assigned myself, I couldn’t resist looking up the various tartans that are linked with the plethora of Scottish surnames I have on both sides of my and my husband’s family.   My initial foray into exploring officially-recognized designs was made rather easy since both Tony and I have the names “Bell” and “Alexander/McAlister” in our  family tree.  I typed in “Bell” and bingo! There it was in all its rather muted glory.Cook family portrait2 12-63

One of the great moments of our marriage was when Tony’s late father, seen here with his five children, was visiting from New York and corrected my husband’s belief that the Cook family was pure English on both sides, a notion reinforced by living with his proper, tea-pouring English maternal grandmother as a tiny boy when his dad was fighting in the Pacific theater in World War II.

3910mccook_cook_name_“Oh, no, Tony! “ Howard Cook exclaimed.  “Our name was originally MacCook, but some ancestor wanted the family to sound more American than Scottish and so lopped off the ‘Mac.’”  I typed in those names for the Tartan Ferret to seek, and Hoot Mon, the right version came up on the screen in a nano-second!3646_10151617821981882_982607433_n

 

 

 

 

 

You never know what you’ll learn when you begin looking into all this ancestor business. Tony’s mother’s name was “Pattison”  (with an “i”…not an “er”) and his grandfather, Lee Pattison, was a celebrated half of a concertizing dual piano team, Maier & Pattison.   For some reason I thought his name might be Scandinavian, as in Peterson, but lo and behold, I put “Pattison” into the Tartan Authority search box and up came a tiny swatch of the Lowland family’s very own named tartan.

1801aberdeen_1819_district_So, my heroine, Fiona, clearly has her work cut out for her as she explores the country of her forbears and begins to understand Scotland by the yard…

And that goes for yours truly, as well.  I can’t wait to see what the MacCook tartan looks like in the flesh.  Don’t you think a waistcoat made out of that fabric would make a great Christmas present?  Shhhh….don’t spoil the surprise….

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