We’ve got something a bit different today – we’re celebrating one of our own writers, Iain Lundy, whose first book has just been published. And to change our normal approach, his subject matter isn’t positive achievement, but the Scots expats who’ve brought only disgrace to their homeland!
More than seven years ago, I started doing some research on a project without much thought about where it would lead. I’m a bit of a semi-compulsive list compiler and I had just got my newest ‘collection’ under way.
My interest had been piqued by travelling to the United States and stumbling across examples of unknown and unsung Scots expats who had all made a notable contribution to the development of the ‘new world’ since early colonial days.
Eventually, that list of mine grew to more than 600 names. The characters I had uncovered came from every possible walk of life. Some were pioneering educators; others were high-ranking army men; there were fire and brimstone preachers; farmers and early environmentalists; captains of industry; innkeepers.
Many had towns and cities named after them. They had obviously made a huge mark in their adopted nation, but they were unknown – or largely unknown – in their native land. The collection had been a long time in the making, and it had proved fascinating.
Now, all these years later, the idea that had sprung out of my collector’s instinct has yielded my first book, Between Daylight and Hell: Scots who Left a Stain on American History. It also allows me the chance to write, somewhat uncomfortably, about myself on Positively Scottish.
Unfortunately, I’m bringing a touch of negativity to the website, as opposed to my normal fortnightly column which focuses on positive expats. The book isn’t concerned with eminent professors and churchmen. Instead it deals with the more unsavoury side of Scotland’s exports – the bad guys.
A high-ranking army man has a chapter to himself. He was a general in George Washington’s army, but he got drunk on the field of battle and attacked men fighting on his own side.
A couple of killers are there, a notorious land grabber, a scurrilous journalist who libelled a president, a hot-headed footballer who sparked a riot when he punched a spectator, and a crooked politician.
I found their names and stories everywhere, from obscure internet websites and dusty library files to the passenger lists of immigrant ships and census records dating back to the early 1800s.
In March of 2015, I became an expat Scot in American myself. The previous month, Whittles Publishing in Dunbeath, Caithness had agreed to publish my book project, and I had one year to get 17 chapters written. So, my stories about disgraceful Scots were written in the sweltering heat of Arizona.
At one point, when the house was busy, I even took my laptop to a coffee shop and knocked out a few hundred words there. A veritable JK Rowling moment.
Writing a book is unlike anything I have ever done. In the course of a 42-year journalistic career, I have written short tabloid stories, lengthy features, magazine articles, you name it. But nothing compares with the intensity of a book.
It was a non-fiction work; the subjects were little-known historical characters. A lot of research and fact-checking was necessary to make sure every word was accurate.
I’m not saying I went down the Hollywood acting route and got inside their heads. But I put myself in the shoes of all these rogues, tried to imagine the lives they had lived, the social circumstances they had dealt with, the temptations they had faced.
Nothing justified what they did – but it all helped to contextualise the stories, to put things into some sort of perspective.
So now the project is over and the book is out, how do I feel? A sense of achievement? Yes. A tiny bit proud of myself? Yes, that too. Thrilled? Beyond belief. Wanting to write another? You bet.
As a journalist, people have often said I must ‘have a book in me’. It’s true of all journalists. The key, certainly for me, was not to go looking for the subject matter. In my case, it found me. And it feels good to be a positively Scottish human in the US.
Normal service is resumed on Saturday, when our last post of 2016 will see Iain focus on a Scot who’s making her mark in New York City.
Between Daylight and Hell: Scots who Left a Stain on American History is available from Whittles Publishing here