Downloading Rab by Catherine Czerkawska

Jean, in her late forties, John Moir, courtesy of South Ayrshire Council
As everyone who knows me, and quite a few people who don’t, will know by now, I’m working on a novel about Robert Burns's wife, Jean Armour. Never heard of her, somebody said to me only the other day. Which is one of the reasons why I’m writing it. Even this fine portrait, which seems to be a reasonably youthful Jean wearing smart clothes - as opposed to the elderly  and rather grim faced widow normally depicted - isn't at all well known.

Anyway, as usual in mid-project, especially mid historical project, I’m doing a lot of research. Some of it is necessary but some of it is just for fun, meandering down some strange highways and byways of history and occasionally (like last week) coming up with one or two electrifying possibilities about certain – I hesitate to use the words ‘sacred cows’ but they just popped into my head – of Burns lore.

Also popping into my head in the early hours of the morning with uncomfortable regularity is the desperate need to look something or other up just to see if it fits with my far-fetched but fascinating thesis about another of those sacred cows who isn’t central to the story – but the theory is perfectly possible and much too good, not to say controversial, to leave out.

Anyway, there I was, all cosied up in bed on a wild, wet and windy morning, 5 am and I was wondering if I could really be bothered to get out of bed before the central heating had come on and pad through to the study and rummage through my great heap of research books old and new until I found the poem I was looking for to see if it really did seem to say what I thought it said, and if it really did seem to date from when I thought it did.

No, I couldn’t, was the answer to that one.

Then I noticed that my Kindle was lying beside the bed. It’s a Paperwhite, so I didn’t even need to switch it on. I just opened up its girly pink cover and woke it up. Unlike my husband, it never seems to object. It had just occurred to me that although I have many volumes of Burns’s poetry and letters, some of them quite old and rare, I don’t have any of his poems on my Kindle. I touched the shopping cart symbol, put Robert Burns into the search box, and up popped lots of available editions including one that had everything, and I mean everything, with all kinds of interesting old annotations and notes. 99p. I gently touched Buy It Now and within about three seconds it was on my Kindle, and I was reading it. Some blessed soul has digitised this out of the goodness of his or her heart, and although the formatting isn’t perfect (Well have you ever tried formatting poetry or even plays for an eBook?) the readability is spot on and the notes are fascinating.

I spent the next couple of hours until I could justifiably get up and make the tea, reading through a series of poems written particularly at the time I had been speculating about. Another thing struck me forcibly. I found it easier, much, much easier, to read the longer poems on the Kindle than on the pages of a book. I have no idea why that should be, but it was true. I’ve ploughed my way through The Holy Fair before today and found it difficult, even with a good working knowledge of the Scots language of Burns’s time. No longer. It was like a lightbulb coming on in my head. The Holy Fair, if you don’t know it, is a blissfully satirical account of one of the huge festivals of preaching, prayers and communion held in late eighteenth century Scotland. 

Fabulous old photo of Mauchline's Cowgate,
courtesy of
This one was in Mauchline about a mile away from Rab’s farm at Mossgiel. But the fact of the matter was that they were also festivals of eating, drinking (lots of drinking) and subsequent fornication. Even those who disapproved of the raw satire couldn’t actually say that the poet was lying or even exaggerating. In fact the Holy Fair seems to have borne a strong resemblance to those days of misrule you find in Mediaeval times when all the gravity of the church would be turned topsy turvy and I suspect the origins of them are pretty much the same – a sort of communal letting off steam. 

Reading it on my Kindle, I find myself appreciating the poem from the ‘batch o’ wabster lads, blackguarding frae Kilmarnock ...’ (Kilmarnock weaver lads coming into town – probably with money burning a hole in their pockets - and definitely up to no good, certainly nothing holy) to the lovely lines: Oh happy is the man and blest, nae wonder that it pride him, whas ain dear lass that he likes best, comes clinkin’ down beside him. Wi’ arm reposed on the chair back, he sweetly does compose him, which by degrees slips round her neck and’s loof upon her bosom, unkenn’d that day. I do like the idea of the happy man copping a wee feel of his ain dear lass’s ‘bosom’ while the oblivious minister is preaching hell fire and damnation. You get the feeling that the poet is writing what he knows all about, don’t you? 

The last lines of the poems are probably the best known:

There’s some are fu’ of love divine
And some are fu’ of brandy
And many jobs this day begun
Will end in houghmagandie
Some ither day. 

Houghmagandie. If you don’t know what it is – I’ll bet you can guess.

Anyway. Amid all this, it struck me how very privileged I am to be able to access this with so much ease. The ancient volumes in my possession are engaging and - yes – they smell good to me. I quite like that old, dusty, library smell. But on a wild, wet and very cold March night give me a warm bed and a Kindle. And for most other practical purposes too, if I'm honest.

The internet has revolutionised this kind of research. Too much, sometimes. The temptation to pursue white rabbits (or sacred cows) down enticing holes in the fabric of the world wide web is overwhelming and the research can expand to ridiculous proportions. On the other hand, there’s something extraordinarily satisfying in piecing together a complicated tissue of known facts, rampant speculation and distinct possibilities based on a hundred subtle hints. It’s one of the things I love about writing historical fiction: that combination of the actual and the possible facilitated by the countless pieces of the puzzle that are now available at the click of a mouse or the touch of a screen. 

The Holy Fair - Robert Bryden

Making sense - or credible fiction - of them all is where the fun starts. 


Wendy H. Jones said…
The Internet is wonderful. It has revolutionized life for writers. Even out I. The real world when doing research on foot,mtechnology brings a whole new world. I was in Edinburgh last week, at the National Linrar of Scotland. As well as having documents and books on display I. The exhibitions, they also used technology to bring so many more ancient documents to life. Great post as you have combined my two favourite topics, books and technology
Bill Kirton said…
What a great blog, Catherine, as well as an excellent piece of well-before-publication marketing. I already need to know what these secrets are that you're unravelling.
I agree completely with you about the joys of research but, although the convenience of the web-based variety is a Godsend, it's sometimes a bit too siren-like. By that, I mean it offers so many possibilities for following up or refining a search that I find myself absorbed in some aspect of (in my case) early Victorian life which is going to be of little value in what I'm supposed to be writing. I admit the same sort of thing can happen in the good old library archives but there you're offered only a few side streets down which to wander. Online there are millions of them.
Susan Price said…
I;m with Bill here, Catherine - madly curious to know what these controversial theories are.
Great post - really enjoyed it. And that's a beautiful portrait.
I love books and technology too, Wendy and you're right - when the two are married in all kinds of ways the results can be wonderful. Bill, I know just what you mean. I've spent far too long trawling old digitised books and being sent down side roads that really have nothing to do with the things I'm meant to be researching. Like the sad story of the last witch to be burned in Ayr for example. And you're right - online research encourages that more than library research. Although I remember once trawling through a big box of the Kirkmichael Kennedy family papers in the old Ayrshire archives and amassing a great heap of notes that had nothing to do with the thing I was researching - some of it eventually found its way into The Physic Garden though! It's a beautiful portrait, isn't it? I only found out about its existence a few months ago.
Jan Needle said…
Historical fiction is one of those wonderful combination words that opens up infinite new worlds fight from the outset. What is history? What is truth? I've been thinking about it for many years now, and the harder I think the less sure I am that I know anything at all. Back to Brecht again: "Truth is a black cat in a windowless room at midnight, and justice a blind bat."

And the internet is a promiscuous wee strumpet that Rattlin Roarin Robin would surely have adored, even as he plundered all her goodies. Hence this: I've just finished a book about Napoleon's 'escape' from St Helena and found myself at four o'clock this morning, willy nilly, making notes for at least one sequel! Sequels to a 'historical' event that may indeed be moonshine. Or may not.

Loved your post,Catherine, and am just off to my local bookshop (or Kindle as it's otherwise known) to blow 99p. Ain't life wonderful?
Lydia Bennet said…
A terrific post Catherine, one I can identify with totally. I love my kindle, and the people who spend hours unpaid scanning and converting old books and sources and making them available to us so easily (in fact I wrote an AE blog about this if memory serves, in gratitude). Online research has revolutionised writing and also enriched our lives. Those enticing byways can leave you with way too much info but on the other hand they can ignite new projects. Amid all the horrible things that happen in the world, the pure impulse to share knowledge represented by most of Wikipedia and other online sources is heartening.
Dennis Hamley said…
'Far-fetched but fascinating thesis' and 'the theory is perfectly possible and much too good, not to say controversial, to leave out.' Beautifully put. Two notions which have carried me through many a long day's writing. The assertion that Coleridge might have left, unbeknown to him, a son in Sicily is my contribution to the mix. And The Long Journey of Joslin de lay is full of them. Lovely post as usual, Catherine. And The Amber Heart is wonderful. More about that later.
glitter noir said…
In the bad old days, when only the moneyed could find out the things we were burning to know, we had to write around the things we lacked the time or means to learn. There were no guns and almost no cars in my earliest books. For that matter, there were precious flowers or trees. Why? I didn't drive, had never held a gun and couldn't tell a rose from a begonia. Thank God for the online revolution. Here I am today writing a 'contemporary thriller set in Ancient Rome and Egypt.'

You've written a wonderful post. And I look forward to reading your book--now that I've overcome my initial disappointment that your title didn't read, as I'd thought, 'Downloading Reb."
Mari Biella said…
Wonderful post, Catherine. Online research makes all the difference, especially to those of us who spend much of our time abroad. And the ease with which one can locate and buy books, thanks to e-readers, is wonderful. And I can't wait to find out what the controversial thesis is...
Kathleen Jones said…
That's such a wonderful blog, Catherine! You put into words what I most love about doing research for a book - all the glorious side-alleys that tempt you off the beaten track.
Really looking forward to the book now!
Thanks to everyone - glad you enjoyed the post. Valerie, you're right. So many people spend so many hours scanning and publishing texts for love rather than money - we ought to celebrate them more than we do. And Dennis, it's one of the things that make fiction so much fun, isn't it? The fact that you can allow yourself to speculate, sometimes wildly, but (just) within the known facts. Now I have to get on with the novel!
AliB said…
Just found this post - I can so relate to your 5am moment (even if I don't wake up quite so early). Some time ago I was researching one of my erstwhile hero's lady friends. Imagine my excitement when I discovered all of her letters had been edited and published on Kindle by some lovely academic who presumably wanted her life's work to be available to the world. And not even 99p was required. At times like this I actually break out in a sweat :/ Lovely portrait of Jean, by the way. Ali B

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