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Rainy day castle visit inspires Inverness writer Barbara Henderson's new Amazon bestseller The Siege Of Caerlaverock

By Margaret Chrystall

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IT doesn’t take much to ignite the imagination of Barbara Henderson – and a rainy day visit to the imposing Caerlaverock Castle in Dumfries fuelled her latest novel for children.

Just out, the book became a number one bestseller in two categories on Amazon a few days ago, including Medieval historical fiction for children.

The Siege of Caerlaverock is based in the year 1300 when King Edward Longshanks surrounded the castle with an army of over 3000 men, while inside the occupants of just 60 held out as best they could.

Barbara Henderson and what made it her new book with The Siege Of Caerlaverock a must-write.
Barbara Henderson and what made it her new book with The Siege Of Caerlaverock a must-write.

Barbara recalled the moment her imagination came alive and plans for her latest book for eight to 13-year-olds began.

“It was a complete chance visit to Caerlaverock Castle on a family holiday,” she explained.

“I was down in Dumfries researching another book, Black Water.”

She laughed: “I had tricked my family into going on holiday to Dumfries and Galloway.

“We had a wedding down in Glasgow and I said ‘Why not tag a week’s holiday on, we could go somewhere down that way – how about Dumfries?’.

“I just needed to check how the land lay down there for Black Water.

“So we hired a wee cottage outside Dumfries and made our way there.

“By the end of that week I had done most of my research and we were thoroughly in holiday mode.

“But on a very rainy day we had our kids cooped up and thought ‘We’re just going to go out anyway!’

“It drizzled all day, but we went to Caerlaverock Castle and the exhibition there just completely floored me with the possibilities.

“When it mentioned there was a heraldic poem on which the whole exhibition was based, I discovered it was a contemporary source which had survived in its entirety translated into English.

“I studied English literature and language as my degree, love poetry and the Middle Ages.

“So it just ticked all my boxes!

“I bought a copy of the poem to see if there was a story.”

Barbara was hooked by the poem and ended up creating an exciting adventure for her lead character, a young servant girl, Ada, who lives with her father in the castle.

How early on did Barbara she wanted her lead character in the book to be female?

"Incredibly early on!

"I had always loved that period of history – I mean who doesn’t like horses and sword fights and the whole colourful spectacular Medieval time, the heraldic symbols on shields and blankets, the jousting – and castles.

"It just has a whole romance to it and there's the chivalric code of the knights and what it means to be chivalrous – brave and truthful.

"I think that moral integrity and those kind of values appealed to me even as a child myself and I was lucky enough to be taken to a lot of Medieval castles by my parents and have done that with my own children.

"But I was really struck by how few books there are out there for youngsters from that period – and a complete absence of ones with females as the main character, unless it’s fantasy – in which case you are not so bound by history.

"It’s just so difficult to have female characters in those times, the knights were men, and it seemed as if all the decisions were being taken by men."

Barbara got advice from some of the UHI history staff based at Dornoch and learned a lot from an expert in royal castles and female roles in them!

"But it was actually the heraldic poem that sealed it for me," the writer said.

"I had looked for a female perspective. and the poem sealed it, when it referred to the lady of the castle, there’s a line where it mentions the lady of the castle, but no mention of the lord.

"It may have been the lord was away. But it specifically mentions ‘The people of the lady of the castle did not … remain there quiet’. AndI just wrote in huge capital letters beside that line in the poem with highlighter – 'Lady!!', thinking ‘Gosh I can do something with that!’."

Ada is a feisty heroine who works as a laundress – and plays a crucial role in saving the castle's treasures for the lady of the castle – but doesn't get much time to be washing clothes while the siege is going on!

She also has to keep her eyes open to protect herself from an evil presence in the castle.

Barbara explained: “Without meaning to, Ada makes a sworn enemy of the dangerous DeBarclay and finds herself having to try and foil his dastardly deeds with the help of new friend, trainee knight Godfrey."

Barbara learned a lot from the original poem written at the time of the siege.

“The narrative poem is enough for a booklet – it’s huge and most of it is devoted to describing the heroic acts of the knights who were travelling with the king.

“It’s kind of like PR, actually.

“The court poet – who is anonymous – was travelling with the king.

“And I think he portrayed the English king’s army as glamorous and chivalrous and as heroic as possible.

“So you have to take it with a pinch of salt when you are writing from the other perspective!”

And the ancient poet may have been rewriting history: “The end of the poem clearly states the Scots were given life and limb. But other accounts differ and say that people were executed.”

There is always a lot of research for Barbara before getting down to writing her books.

What was the most surprising thing she learned along the way with this one?

"I loved hearing about the regimentedknights’ training and I got pretty obsessed with researching what the squires did and where the girls fitted into the castle structure. Those were the things that were completely new to me.

"But probably it was a tiny, tiny thing, finding out on our visit that the name 'Caerlaverock' means 'fort of the skylark'.

"I've got a line in the book where Ada comes back from the market, and sees the castle and the birds that gave it its name: "The moats reflect the burnt sky circling Caerlaverock like a target, all around singing skylarks shoot up into the summer air like fiery sparks."

"For me, the placename immediately really gave me a sense of atmosphere."

Barbara’s fifth book The Siege of Caerlaverock is out now from Isle of Lewis-based Cranachan Books. For more info – and on joint teaching resources with Historic Scotland which owns the castle: www.cranachanpublishing.co.uk

Below, watch Barbara explain how to grow an idea into a story!

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