I’m thrilled to accept Sue’s generous offer to let me loose on her blog to talk about my latest book, Secret Dumfries.
I say my latest book but I should say our latest book as it is the result of a collaboration with photographer Keith Kirk, who in our part of the world (south west Scotland) is best known for his fantastic wildlife photography. It has been a wonderful project to work on –frustrating at times, fun, informative and exciting.
Obviously, as not all readers will know Dumfries we included a brief overview of the well-known areas of its history and I suspect we could have written a whole book on the pre-history of the area. When I was chatting to the local authority’s archaeologist he showed me maps on which he’d plotted ancient historical sites – there are literally thousands. However, we had a strict word count so maybe that’s a project for another time.
Our ‘office’, was the osprey viewing platform near Threave Castle. Not a bad spot in which to meet to discuss how were going to tackle the work and to catch up with each other and report on progress. Looking back, what I remember most was the excitement of ‘Have you seen….?’ and ‘Did you know…?’ or ‘Did you hear about…?’as we shared our discoveries.
Other people were happy to share their knowledge and so I first learned of the visit of Hare (of Burke and Hare notoriety) to Dumfries from a member of the Dumfries Male Voice Choir following a meeting a fruitless meeting with Alzheimer Scotland about doing a fundraiser. The day was not wasted and I came home avid to research into this little nugget. Someone told me a plaque commemorating the first ever infirmary in the town was in a rose garden opposite the Robert Burns House museum. Keith went off to investigate. He phoned to say he couldn’t see the plaque, I said I’d been told it was behind some bushes. Much crashing around in the undergrowth and muffled yelps (possibly a few swear words) over the line and then the triumph of, ‘Found it!’
For Keith, it was usually some magnificent sandstone carvings high above the usual line of sight, which excited him. Or, curiosities such as the sandstone carved Tree of Life, rescued from a house which was demolished in 1795. For me, it was learning the stories of some amazing people buried in St Michael’s churchyard – people like Blin Tam, the bell ringer who, despite losing his sight as a child, was the bell ringer at the Midsteeple in the centre of town for over sixty years.
We were both excited, and puzzled, by a strange standing stone on a green area overlooking the River Nith. It is a stone, and it is standing upright but no one knows – not even the archaeologist – exactly what it is or where it came from. Set into the walls around it are sandstone blocks engraved with marriage initials. We suspect the late Alf Truckell, one time curator of the museum, rescued them when what had been the medieval heart of the town was demolished.
Not all the secrets we discovered were old. Keith asked if I knew about a small plaque under an arch of the Buccleuch Street Bridge. Under the name Derek Styles was the word Tinker in brackets. We wondered if it might have been a tinker or traveller who’d died there. Further research uncovered a sad story.
Derek Styles, whose nickname was Tinker, had been with the 2nd Battalion of the Parachute Regiment in the Falklands and taken part in the battle for Goose Green in May 1982. It was a battle which involved the Paras using bayonets as well as bullets and phosphorous grenades which burn a man alive. Tinker was twenty-one. Whatever he experienced and witnessed changed him forever.
Mark Frankland, who runs the Dumfries charity First Base, knew Tinker through the charity’s Veteran’s Project and when Tinker died he wrote about him on his blog. He said: ‘He carried a sadness about him like a tired old overcoat…Before Goose Green he was a super fit young guy who represented the Army in gymnastic tournaments all over the world. A bright future was waiting to be walked into. After Goose Green, nothing was ever the same again. His life was a shell of a life. A long, dismal road where drink and drugs stripped away his health and self-respect and the nightmares came at him every night.’
Tinker was a familiar figure selling the Big Issue in town – and he always sold every copy. Shortly before he died, he asked Mark for a referral to a programme at Combat Stress, but he died before he was offered a place. He died before he reached the age of fifty-two. Mark describes Tinker as ‘a quiet man. A decent man. A man with genuine morality. Empathy. Humanity.’ Tinker’s friend, Gary, arranged for the tiny plaque to be put under the bridge (a place where they used to drink) so that Tinker would not be forgotten.
Tinker’s is the last secret in the book and Keith and I are pleased to help in a small way to ensure Tinker’s story is known.
Secret Dumfries, a new book by Mary Smith and Keith Kirk
Available via Amazon and direct from Amberley Publishing
Dumfries, in south-west Scotland, has a long history, much of it well recorded. However, as with most places there are more than a few secrets hidden away. First referred to as the Queen of the South by local poet David Dunbar in 1857, the name stuck and was later adopted by the local football team. Not many know that this makes it the only football team in the world mentioned in the Bible. Darker aspects of the town’s history include the burning of nine witches on the Whitesands in 1659 and the last public hanging of a woman in Scotland, Mary Timney, was held in Dumfries in 1862. There are tales of plague victims being exiled to Scabbit Isle, of murderers and grave robbers. Not all its secrets are so dark: there’s Patrick Miller and his introduction of turnips courtesy of King Gustav III of Sweden, and the exiled Norwegian Army making its home in Dumfries during the Second World War. And what is the significance of the finials depicting telescopes and anchors on the railings along the Whitesands?
Local author Mary Smith and photographer Keith Kirk take the reader on a fascinating journey through the town’s past, unearthing tales of intrigue and grisly goings-on as they provide a glimpse into some of the lesser-known aspects of the town’s history.
About the author
Mary Smith has always loved writing. As a child she wrote stories in homemade books made from wallpaper trimmings – but she never thought people could grow up and become real writers. She spent a year working in a bank, which she hated – all numbers, very few words – ten years with Oxfam in the UK, followed by ten years working in Pakistan and Afghanistan. She wanted others to share her amazing, life-changing experiences so she wrote about them – fiction, non-fiction, poetry and journalism. And she discovered the little girl who wrote stories had become a real writer after all.
Drunk Chickens and Burnt Macaroni: Real Stories of Afghan Women is an account of her time in Afghanistan and her debut novel No More Mulberries is also set in Afghanistan.
Mary loves interacting with her readers and her website is www.marysmith.co.uk.
Find and follow Mary
Books by Mary Smith
For these, and all Mary’s books, please click the links or visit her Amazon author page.
Shot through with flashes of humour the stories here will entertain, amuse, and make you think. Mary Smith’s debut collection of short stories is a real treat, introducing the reader to a diverse range of characters in a wide range of locations. A donkey boy in Pakistan dreams of buying luxuries for his mother; a mouth artist in rural Scotland longs to leave the circus; a visually impaired man has a problem with his socks; and a woman tries to come to terms with a frightening gift – or curse.
“What a little gem this book is. There’s a super variety of stories packed with atmospheric and entertaining writing containing both pathos and humour. Mary Smith manages to convey clear and distinct voices for each of her brilliant characters, from a Pakistani boy to an elderly Scottish woman. What I liked so much about every one of them is at I felt I knew them instantly and understood them completely but without the author imposing her own judgement on them as they make their way through life… I found Donkey Boy and Other Stories a moving, engaging and beautifully written collection that has the ability to touch the reader, make them thankful for their own life and to make them think. I’m delighted to have read it.” Extract of a review from Linda’s Book Bag.
Scottish-born midwife, Miriam loves her work at a health clinic in rural Afghanistan and the warmth and humour of her women friends in the village, but she can no longer ignore the cracks appearing in her marriage. Her doctor husband has changed from the loving, easy-going man she married and she fears he regrets taking on a widow with a young son, who seems determined to remain distant from his stepfather.
When Miriam acts as translator at a medical teaching camp she hopes time apart might help her understand the cause of their problems. Instead, she must focus on helping women desperate for medical care and has little time to think about her failing marriage. When an old friend appears, urging her to visit the village where she and her first husband had been so happy. Miriam finds herself travelling on a journey into her past, searching for answers to why her marriage is going so horribly wrong.
Her husband, too, has a past of his own – from being shunned as a child to the loss of his first love.
This book offers a remarkable insight into the lives of Afghan women both before and after Taliban’s rise to power. The reader is caught up in the day-to-day lives of women like Sharifa, Latifa and Marzia, sharing their problems, dramas, the tears and the laughter: whether enjoying a good gossip over tea and fresh nan, dealing with a husband’s desertion, battling to save the life of a one-year-old opium addict or learning how to deliver babies safely.
Mary Smith spent several years in Afghanistan working on a health project for women and children in both remote rural areas and in the city of Mazar-i-Sharif. Given the opportunity to participate more fully than most other foreigners in the lives of the women, many of whom became close friends, she has been able to present this unique portrayal of Afghan women – a portrayal very different from the one most often presented by the media.
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