Sunday, 31 July 2011

Up In Caithness 3

It's the last night of the annual Wick gala. The final event features the pipe band and the local Highland dancers, seen here doing the sailor's hornpipe.
Wick is a very different sort of town. From a tiny village, probably established in Viking times, through a small market town in the middle and later ages, it expanded dramatically in the nineteenth centurt to become the premier herring fishing port in the country. Over a thousand boats hunted the silver darlings in the summer season and ten thousand migrant workers from the Highlands and elsewhere joined the locals to fish for and process the herrings, mainly by salting for the Baltic trade.
    Overfishing and revolutions in key markets greatly diminished the industry at the end of the nineteenth century although it limped along into the 1950's. I have boyhood memories of herring boats landing their catches and gathering up the few fish that spilled over the side of the lorries.
    Wick harbour is now the site of a marina and hopes to play a role in the proposed developments of wind and wave power. The 19th century action was dramatically captured by the Johnston family of photographers who plied their trade in Wick and Thurso. Around sixty thousand of their glass plate negatives survive and are owned and cared for by The Wick Society, who also run the award winning Wick Heritage  Museum. The view above shows Wick Harbour in the 1860's

See and read excerpts from and buy The Stuart Agenda at .Go to or for free read of first chapters and buy for Kindle readers

Friday, 29 July 2011

Up In Caithness 2

Day two of the Caithness holiday took us to Berriedale about thirty miles to the south of Wick. It is the centre of the Duke of Portland's sporting estate. The excellent salmon river reaches the sea across the stony beach, a Mecca for amateur geologists with its mix of sedimentary, conglomerate and igneous rocks. The vestiges of the medieval Berriedale Castle still hang over the river mouth. On the cliff above the cave at the north end of the beach I spotted a nest in a rock cleft. It looked like a bird of prey site and I was surprised to see the black head and distinctive red legs of a black guillemot emerge a few minutes later to join a small group swimming off shore. The row of fisherman's cottages above the beach is being renovated and will eventually make exciting holiday accomodation.

    On the way back to Wick I got a call from an old ICI colleague, David Vass telling us that he had just arrived at Wick marina, on a sail south from Shetland. I was very impressed by his yacht, the Borealis. At dinner we served oxtail. The recipe is a standard from the books but my nuance is to separate all the meat from the bone and grisle and form it into patties in a pasty cutter. The glutinous nature of the meat holds it together well and turns something gourmand into gourmet. We reminisced about ICI and the demise of the Dyestuffs industry in the UK- more about that later

Read excerps and buy The Stuart Agenda at Go to or for free read of first chapters and buy for Kindle readers.

Wednesday, 27 July 2011

In Caithness

I'm up in Caithness for ten days with some of the family, taking a short break from promoting 'The Stuart Agenda'. Yesterday we visited John O'Groats, the far northeast corner of the UK mainland. The collection of shops isn't inspiring but the view across the Pentland Firth to Stroma and The Orkneys is pretty awesome. The family ritual is to go collecting 'groatie buckies', very small conch type shells that are relatively rare and supposed to bring good luck. We found over twenty in an hour.
One of the delights of Caithness is the quality of the salmon fishing. I caught my first salmon on the Wick River, a relatively small spate stream running east to the sea through Wick. I was fourteen and still remember the pride I took in presenting that fish to my mother. This is me above on the much classier Thurso River with the two fine fish I caught in early June last year. I return to the Thurso for the first week in September with friends Barrie Hesp and Amos Smith from the USA.

Caithness was heavily influenced by the wave of Viking settlement that took place around the turn of the first millenium. That poses a question for Caithness born folk: Am I a Viking? I took the plunge recently and ordered the Y-chromosome  testing kit from Oxford Ancestors. The answer for me was fairly clear. My origin is Celtic so I'm descended from the original inhabitants of the island who came earlier on. I wasn't surprised since the name Calder isn't Norse in origin. It means something like 'the people who live between the trees and the water,' a place name, not a 'son-of name.' Caithness has the highest density of Calders in the UK so it is worth further study.
     Looking on the Oxford Ancestors site I found 22 people who shared an identical set of DNA markers with me. Of course none were called Calder. We apparently shared a common ancestor around 50 generations ago, taking us back to the dark ages around 500-600AD. My DNA cousins were spread throughout the UK with a west coast bias.
     There were a few Calders in the Oxford Ancestors database. One of them was of Viking origin. It can be confusing. I'd like to get a group of Caithness Calders tested to find out if those of us in a defined geographical area are related.

'The Stuart Agenda' by Alan Calder from and

Thursday, 21 July 2011

The Novel Writing learning Curve

What to write? In my case it simply had to be a novel;nothing else seemed challenging enough and ignorance is bliss. I had no idea how difficult it would be. Of course we read lots of published books that we perceive to be boring and uninteresting. Surely I could do better than that and dosen't everyone have at least one book in them? How often have you heard these sentiments expressed?
     Of course there are lots of weak books on the market but that's a function of the way the publishing industry works, wringing every last word from bankable names to the exclusion of new unknown talent.
However at least these books are usually correctly written from the standpoint of the technical aspects of the craft. Learning the craft is the biggest hurdle facing new novel writers. Having a good story to tell, creatively plotted is only the beginning. Getting the point of view right, showing not telling, balancing dialogue and description, maintaining pace, injecting twists all have to be in harmony to keep the reader interested and turning the page. The writer has to learn how to do all this creating a personal style and distinctive voice.
    This takes time to learn and can only really be done by writing a lot. Reading certainly helps; a certain amount can be absorbed by osmosis from the pages of others and specifics, such as how to start a thriller with a bang, can be learned by looking at how the greats do it. So the novice writer is hopefully on a learning curve leading to publication quality work. However a combination of impatience and inexperience often leads to sub-standard work being submitted and rejected.
     Getting good critical feedback is essential, allied to ruthless editing. Often you have to cut out bits that you were proud to lay on the page and polished to perceived perfection but which in relity are getting in the way of the story. It can be like losing a good friend.
     The Stuart Agenda certainly underwent three major structural revisions and a host of minor ones on the way to the final version. 
      I’m grateful to a lot of people for helping. In my writing group, Lindsay Townsend has been a constant source of help and encouragement over the years and Clio Gray helped with the very final version. 
      Having read a lot about the Stuarts, the final trigger for the novel was finding the reports of a young Belgian turning up in Edinburgh about 20 years ago and claiming to be a descendent of Bonnie Prince Charlie. That posed the 'what if' question that gradually gave shape to my Stuart family with its ambition and motivation to take on the seemingly impossible challenge. 

In the opening post I mentioned an interest in wine. I sometimes alert friends to wines that I feel are particularly interesting or represent good value for money. My current fascination is with Beaujolais from the 2009 vintage. This appellation has suffered a lot from the poor quality of the cult Beaujolais nouveau and being generally rather thin in poor years and is thus avoided by many. Occasionally the weather conditions allow for the full expression of the Gamay grape, giving wines which at their best approach the quality of their northern high class neighbours in Burgundy but at a fraction of the price. Majestic has a good selection of single village examples from the different communes. They have such beautiful names, Julienas, Fleurie, Brouilly, Moulin a Vent etc. Do try and I’m sure you’ll enjoy.

The uninhabited Island of Stroma  in the Pentland Firth opposite John o’ Groats is doubly interesting for it’s seabird diversity and it’s history as a crofting community that ended in the 1960’s when the last people left. The skeletons of the croft houses are a potent reminder of a past way of life, leaving the way open for many species of birds to nest in the open ground. Great until an enormous aggressive black- backed gull dive bombs you for straying too close to its chicks. Lazy eider ducks lay their eggs in common gull nests. More about Stroma later, as well as the rest of the Caithness coast.

See the Stuart Agenda at for download pdf. Amazon and for Kindle

Saturday, 16 July 2011

My Writing Journey -The Royal Stuart Dynasty

As  my thoughts were turning to novel writing, I was reading the seminal Holy Blood and the Holy Grail, which had been in print for some time and was clearly also being read by Dan Brown, since the Da Vinci Code appeared a few years later. A sceptical mind is attracted to conspiracy theories, particularly on the epic scale laid out in The Holy Blood and the Holy Grail. I was astonished at the thought that the blood lines of some of our most famous families might be descended from Christ.
     In particular, the Catholic Royal House of Stuart seemed doubly blessed in being connected through both Mary Magdalene and Joseph of Arimathea. This might explain the Stuart’s insistence on divine right to absolute rule under God, without the intervention of Parliament. This stance, along with their inconvenient Catholicism, cost some of them their heads and eventually, after the protestant daughters of James II failed to produce living heirs, extinguished the Stuart flame. This made way for the protestant Hanoverians, who could claim distant Stuart ancestry through a daughter of Charles I, over the heads of a long list of Catholics with better credentials.
     The failure of the subsequent Jacobite rebellions, ending in the defeat of Bonnie Prince Charlie, grandson of James II, at Culloden in 1746, finally consigned the dynasty to a footnote in history. It was a great comfort to the Hanoverians that neither Bonnie Prince Charlie, nor his brother, an eminent Catholic Cardinal, had any legitimate heirs. The lack of a future generation of Stuart champions and the brutal suppression and ethnic cleansing of Jacobites, especially in the Highlands of Scotland, led the Stuart cause to fizzle out.
     However the Hanoverian view of Bonnie Prince Charlie as a rebel leader with a price on his head was eventually replaced by a romanticised picture of a tragic hero who very nearly succeeded. If only he had not been let down by everyone around him, particularly the French King who didn’t send the promised army in support, and his own generals, who forced him to turn back undefeated at Derby, within striking distance of a terrified London.
    This romanticised view is deeply cemented in the Scottish psyche through a vast body of stories, songs and myths created mainly in the nineteenth century.

A few years ago I volunteered to do a cookery demo on rainbow trout for members of our fishing club. A lot of them were putting caught fish back because they didn’t know what to do with them. I was prepared to show them how to fillet, bone and skin fish as well as smoke them and prepare a few standard recipes. Invitations were sent out but apart from the committee (pressed men!), not a single member wanted to come. Apparently in Yorkshire real men don’t cook or at least can’t admit to an interest, so the event was cancelled.

I remember being interested in what my mother was cooking and of course as a student you have to fend for yourself. I said earlier that lots of chemists are interested in cookery and that stems from the fact that synthetic chemists who make things, spend their time putting reactants together and heating them, which is of course just controlled cookery.
   My favourite dish is Confit de Canard which sounds much better than salted duck legs. I salt and slow cook them in their own fat in batches when they’re on special offer at Sainsbury’s. I’ve read lots of fancy chef’s recipes but they all turn out the same. Rub a good teaspoon of salt onto each leg and store in a plastic bag in the fridge for about 24hrs. Wash off the salt solution then dry and put into hot duck fat. Simmer very slowly for 4-5 hours or until tender but not falling apart. To get started buy duck or goose fat in tins or better still buy a large tin of confit from a French supermarket and keep the fat.  Get the skins that lovely golden colour by putting them under the grill for a few minutes before serving. They  can be frozen.

      Up in Caithness we have access to fantastic natural game; rabbits, hares and venison are all readily available. These days I’m getting more interested in presentation-see smoked salmon (smoked by cousin Eric) and quaills eggs above. I like cooking in pastry and the combination of fillets from rabbit (light) and hare (dark) make an appealing en-croute, as shown above.

See The Stuart Agenda at willowmoonpublishing and and .com 

Monday, 11 July 2011

The Stuart Agenda

Welcome to the first post on my writing blog. It is timed to announce the release of my first novel, The Stuart Agenda, by Willow Moon Publishing of New Orleans. It's an intriguing take on history. It describes a conspiracy to get a young scion of the defunct royal Stuart dynasty on to the throne of a newly independent Scotland. Set in the future, in the 2030's, fact and fiction merge as Robert, the charismatic heir, strives against the odds to regain his heritage. He also finds love and the key to his future in the heady political atmosphere of Scotland finally going independent. It is a political thriller with elements of adventure and romance set in the highlands and lowlands of Scotland with forays into French vineyards and the English royal court.
     My route into novel writing has not involved the express highway of a creative writing school. It has rather been a slow learning experience, sharing work at local writing classes and gradually absorbing the craft. Good criticism is an essential element of the process as draft follows draft, each one reaching further up the learning curve. A thick skin is often required to dull the pain of having to dump precious characters, paragraphs, pages and even chapters. 
     In The Stuart Agenda, I open the published version  with the Stuart hero as a teenager at Gordonstoun school. The earliest draft version began the story before he was born, so that he could enter the world in an Edinburgh maternity home. A later version began with him at primary school.
   At school in the Highlands of Scotland, I did enjoy writing essays but my English master didn’t rate me; my creative pieces were labelled as improbable and he was a bit sheepish when I got A grade in my higher exam. Later I wrote a PhD thesis and small articles on wine (Rhone Roaming) for the Sunday Times Wine Club magazine and the British School of Paris summer review. Retirement has now given me the time to build on these humble roots.
     In the blog I'll often refer to my native Caithness. It's a magical place, the frontier between Norse and Gael, both late-comers to a land teeming with prehistory and edged by spectacular cliffs, rocky shores and golden beaches. Ancient castles abound. In spring and early summer the cliffs are home to thousands of breeding sea birds.
     In the future I'll also be posting about writing, poetry, ICI, food, wine, travel, birds and much more.

              You can download The Stuart Agenda as a PDF or to i-PAD type devices from willowmoonpublishing .com or from  and for Kindle.

Alan Calder July 2011