My handbook throughout the writing of ‘Fire and Sword’ was Norman Macdougall’s masterly portrait of King James IV, published by Tuckwell Press. The process which underpinned the writing of my novel involved the threading together of local and national historical accounts, before creatively filling in the gaps: if it hadn’t been for the way in which Macdougall brought James and his reign to life, I don’t think it would have been possible to create a convincing piece of historical fiction set in and around the Scottish court at this time.
During the years I toiled over the novel, my working life as an archaeologist brought some unexpected benefits. I found myself employed at the Royal Commission on the Ancient and Historical Monuments of Scotland (RCAHMS) for a year, and to my delight, one of my bosses put me in touch with Norman Macdougall, then a professor at Saint Andrews University. I remember having a wonderful telephone conversation with Prof. Macdougall about James IV, Hugh Montgomerie and French horns – like myself, Prof. Macdougall played the French horn and we’d both had lessons from the same internationally renowned French horn player, the inimitable (and sadly missed) Ifor James.
An added bonus occured when Prof. Macdougall then gave me an opportunity to get in touch with one of his former research students, Dr Steve Boardman, who is now a respected academic in his own right. Dr Boardman’s Ph.D. thesis on the politics of the feud in late medieval Scotland dealt in detail with the Montgomerie-Cunninghame feud and helped me try and get to grips with one of the underlying issues which underpinned the novel: just why did Hugh Montgomerie consider it appropriate to wipe out his political opposition at every opportunity, and by means which can hardly be described as subtle, even by the standards of the time?
Such dialogues with the leading academics of the field were wonderful, of course. Everything a wanna-be historical novelist could hope for, and more. But one thing always eluded me. You see, Norman Macdougall had written another authoritative textbook on the reign of James III. But at the time I was carrying out the initial research for my novel, both ‘James IV’ and ‘James III’ were out of print and were already being displayed in the bargain basement shelves of the local academic bookstores. Unfortunately, I was an out-of-work archaeologist at this time and virtually penniless. While I successfully tracked down the biographies of James IV and James V (another Tuckwell book in the same series, though by a different author), despite searching high and low for ‘James III’, I couldn’t find it anywhere.
Through the intervening years, I’ve checked out numerous second hand book shops and looked online for copies. The few I’ve seen have invariably been stranded in the hands of tyrannical book speculators with ridiculous price tags attached. Like £500, or $700. Hey, even if I had that kind of money, I wouldn’t bow to these people by giving in to their demands. I see it as holding knowledge to ransom. It’s immoral. It’s outrageous. It’s just plain wrong.
A couple of years ago, I gave up looking. But now I’ve discovered that at long last ‘James III’ by Norman Macdougall has been reissued. I’ve bought it, of course. Soon this not-very-picturesque cover will be making its long-awaited appearance in my library and I can’t wait to see it!
And then there will be much weeping, wailing and gnashing of teeth, once find out just how much information and detail I’ve been missing out on in the intervening years!