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Chance to hear Jennifer Morag Henderson talk about her latest book Daughters Of The North at History Scotland online event and at the Archive Centre in Inverness

By Margaret Chrystall

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This week and also next Jennifer Morag Henderson will be talking about her book Daughters Of The North for the first time since it was launched.

Jennifer Morag Henderson at the ruins of Boyne Castle the home of Jean's first love Alex Ogilvie. Picture: Andrew Thomson
Jennifer Morag Henderson at the ruins of Boyne Castle the home of Jean's first love Alex Ogilvie. Picture: Andrew Thomson

With this book Jennifer turned a footnote in history that piqued her interest as a schoolgirl into a stunningly well-researched picture of 16th-century Scotland and the most powerful woman in the north.

Daughters Of The North tells the story of Jean Gordon, the youngest daughter of the Earl of Huntly – and parallels it with the life of Mary Queen of Scots, just three years older than Jean, their two lives entwined at crucial points.

For example, Mary was responsible for Jean’s father’s grisly death. And Jean had been the first wife of Bothwell who had such an effect on Mary’s life – and both lived through the turbulent times of Mary’s court in Scotland.

But, unlike tragic Mary, Jean went on to have a long, wealthy and productive life with three marriages, the last for love with her teen sweetheart, their feelings for each other immortalised in a ballad of the day.

Jennifer said: “At school I did a project about Mary Queen of Scots and I read the biography of her by Antonia Fraser and there is a footnote in that about Jean, after all the stuff happened with Bothwell.

“And it says ‘But Jean went on to marry the man she loved’. And I remember thinking ‘Really? I want to know more about that!’.

“So that was one of the initial sparks as to why I got interested in Jean, and it seemed so unlikely because everyone at Mary Queen of Scots’ court has this horrible tragic ending.

“And then there is Jean and she gets through it all.”

Jennifer Morag Henderson.
Jennifer Morag Henderson.

Jean Gordon’s story looks ripe for fictionalising.

Jennifer said: “I did think about it. I have written fiction and published fiction and I did think about it.

“But with a lot of the stories it seems like you couldn’t make them up!

“Like the trial of the corpse,” Jennifer says, referring to the grisly fate of Jean’s father.

“If you pitched that as a fictional story the book people would be going ‘Well, I don’t think that is believable!’,” Jennifer laughed.

“I also like the way that when I’m writing it as a history I can talk about now as well and how we see these characters now and what’s happened. If I wrote it as fiction, I couldn’t say what happened to Bothwell because you would have to do a big time jump forward. But writing that as history I find is the right way to do this. Cos those parts interest me – like why do people care about Bothwell now? Why is his reputation reassessed over time?”

Jennifer, who had already written a critically-praised biography of the crime writer Josephine Tey, better-known in her hometown of Inverness as Elizabeth Mackintosh, knew she would want to prepare a detailed plan for Daughters Of The North.

Daughters Of The North.
Daughters Of The North.

First, there were years of research and reading.

But even before that, Jennifer reveals she had to absorb some particular skills and knowledge to be able to do her research properly.

“I was interested in this before I was interested in Josephine Tey. But I don’t think I could have written this until after I had written Josephine Tey because with that book I learned so much about how to structure things.

“But there were also practical things.

“A surprising number of the documents are in French – and I learned it in my 20s.

“A lot of the old documents – in the book there is a picture of a document and you can see Jean’s handwriting – but old handwriting can be very hard to read.

“I actually got a small amount of funding from the Authors’ Foundation which paid for me to go on a course on palaeography – the study of ancient handwriting.

“I learned how to read that and it is something that you have to learn by doing it.

“But I needed those skills to write the book in the way I wanted to. It’s taken me a long time.”

Jennifer shares the thrill of delving into ancient letters, some primary sources well-known, others ­less so.

“Just being in the National Library and touching the letters – it was good unfolding them and knowing Jean was the person who had originally folded them.”

Jennifer’s use of detail helps create a picture of what seems such a distant time. She describes the rich furnishings, for example, that Huntly filled his home with, unwittingly alerting Mary Queen Of Scots’ mother, Mary Of Guise, to his power and potential threat.

Jennifer said: “When you are talking about the furnishings and things the 16th century was such a visual time and all the furnishings, often they had meanings, and the colours – and I really just think it helps to picture the time.

“I used to work in a small museum down in the Borders and it was Mary Queen of Scots time period and it had a painted ceiling and quite often when we think about the past we kind of default to black and white but it was so colourful and then when you start thinking about how it is all lit by candlelight and the colours are all different, it changes how you see everything. I really wanted to get that across.”

Jennifer even uncovers a tantalising possible image of Alexander Ogilvie, Jean’s first love – who she married in her mid-fifties – in a hand-made herbal, possibly put together by him.

In the book, Jennifer writes ‘Best of all, there is a little drawing of a kindly older man with long hair and a long beard, shady sun hat in one hand …Could this be the only surviving sketch of what Jean’s Alex looked like?’

Jennifer adds: “It’s just such a personal document. I like to think that it is him.”

BOOK: Jennifer's book Daughters Of The North: Jean gordon And mary queen Of Scots (Sandstone, £24.99 hardback; also ebook). More here: https://sandstonepress.com/books/daughters-of-the-north

AUTHOR TALKS: You can hear more about the book and the writing of it when Jennifer does an online event on Tuesday (Apr 19) for History Scotland, about Jean Gordon.

Jennifer says: “Since I couldn't have a launch, this is the first public talk I'm doing about Daughters Of the North, so I'm looking forward to it!”

The link for booking: https://www.historyscotland.com/virtual-events/online-lectures/lady-jean-gordon-countess-of-bothwell-19-april-2022

Jennifer will also be doing an in-person talk at the Archive Centre in Inverness on May 3 too.On display will be lots of the documents the writer used while writing Daughters Of The North and also her earlier biography of Inverness crime writer and playwright Elizabeth Mackintosh/Josephine Tey. The Eventbrite link for booking is: https://www.eventbrite.co.uk/e/using-archives-in-writing-an-evening-with-jennifer-morag-henderson-tickets-320521948777

Jennifer has also been invited to the Aye Write book festival in Glasgow in May.

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