With the 500th anniversary of the Battle of Flodden approaching, it’s hardly surprising that the reign of King James IV is becoming just a little more newsworthy.
Issue 65 of the Historical Novels Review (August 2013) has just featured an interesting article entitled ‘After Flodden: Rosemary Goring Talks With Margaret Skea’. In this article, Skea reflects on the fact that an anniversary of this magnitude might, it could be thought, spawn a plethora of new fiction connected with the event. Instead, she points out that a web-trawl of Amazon has revealed virtually nothing, the exceptions being two self-published novels and the recently published ‘After Flodden’ by Rosemary Goring (Birlinn Books, 2013).
Margaret Skea (herself an author of an acclaimed novel entitled ‘Turn of the Tide’, which has at its core the Montgomerie-Cunninghame feud in Ayrshire), reflects upon this paucity of new titles, and highlights a suggestion made by Goring: ‘maybe it’s almost too tragic. It need never have happened, but because of one bad decision, Scotland was changed forever, politically and psychologically. In Scotland, even now, some people would rather not think about it.’
It’s an interesting observation. But it misses the point a little. As far as publishing in Scotland are concerned, both Skea and Goring are in with the bricks and mortar. They’ve gone ‘through the system’: they’re settled with Scottish publishers, they’re published, full stop. They forget the difficulties involved for those on the outside looking in. What writers are writing, and what publishers are actually publishing, are two entirely different beasts.
When I first started work on ‘Fire and Sword’, way back in the 1990s, I rapidly became aware that almost every single male character that I’d encountered in my work had just 25 years to live. Their fate was sealed. Each and every one of them (bar one, whose Identity will remain concealed!) was destined to die with their king at Flodden.
Of course that has an impact on a writer. And when I realised that what I’d embarked upon was the first part of what was clearly destined to be a long-running series, I rather foolishly imagined that come 2013, I’d have a string of books under my belt, chronicling the lives of John Sempill and his contemporaries and culminating in that last stand-off with the Earl of Surrey and his 2nd Division English army on the killing fields at Branxton.
It was a naive assumption, I suppose. It was much more of a struggle to get ‘Fire and Sword’ published than I’d ever thought possible. In the early days, I’d just assumed that the Scottish publishing houses would be interesting in helping to promote Scottish history, and while my manuscript could have been much stronger, most of the time, the response came along the following lines: ‘Nice try, but your subject matter isn’t commercial. The only things that sell are the Scots Wars of Independence and Mary Queen of Scots, and even those have been done to death. So just forget it, why don’t you, and stop wasting our time’.
Or words to that effect.
Perusing the bookshelves in your average Scottish bookshop suggests that this attitude hasn’t entirely faded. The Scots Wars of Independence are still popular, Mary Queen of Scots still has her followers. What’s more remarkable is that Margaret Skea and Rosemary Goring have both bucked the trend and made it to publication despite having written books that are set in periods of history that just aren’t mainstream.
Perhaps this is a sign that attitudes are changing north of the border. It’s clear that over the past ten years, historical fiction as a genre has been growing ever more popular across the board. Perhaps, then, historical fiction is finally getting the recognition it deserves. You’d have thought that in recent years that Scotland could have produced her own versions of Phillipa Gregory or Elizabeth Chadwick or Ken Follett or even Hilary Mantel. But this just hasn’t happened.
So is it the writers who have neglected the anniversary of Flodden? Or is it just that the atmosphere hasn’t been right to encourage such novels to emerge? New writers have not been nurtured or encouraged, those who do make it to the next level are the exception, not the rule.
I became resigned to the fact that I couldn’t write my Flodden book in time for the 500th anniversary several years ago. I suppose ‘Fire and Sword’ has now become my Flodden book, in a way. Releasing it now makes me feel as if it has become my own personal tribute to those who died there. Perhaps it’s a positive thing, that it captures them in the prime of their lives, rather than at the desperate moment of their deaths.
On the 9th September, I’m planning to visit Branxton. I’ll pay my respects there, to the men with whom I’ve spent so much time with as I’ve painstakingly tried to recreate their characters. They’ve allowed me to enter their world, and encouraged me to learn their private business, an undertaking which has been exciting on a number of levels, both as a writer, and as an archaeologist.
Bearing this in mind, it seems to me that acknowledging their sacrifice on the field of Flodden at the 500th anniversary of the event seems like the very least I can do in the circumstances.