‘What might it be like to be a suffragette in a small rural community?’
The Other Side of Stone
By Linda Cracknell
Published by Taproot Press
It was the year 2000 and I was thrilled that my first collection of short stories Life Drawing had been published. But it wasn’t long before people were asking what was next. ‘Of course you’ll have to write a novel,’ they all advised, ‘to be taken seriously by publishers.’ So supported by a Scottish Arts Council bursary, I skulked off to think up a novel.
It began with a young ambitious architect. A fit, outdoor man, previously a climber, he was fixated on converting a disused industrial building into superior apartments and making a bit of a killing, despite his wife’s reservations. Somewhere in Highland Perthshire, where I’ve lived since 1995, I imagined them settling in to one of these apartments not long after completion. But he was ailing with some weighty weariness, a mysterious illness, and not everything seemed well with the building either. I always suspected it harboured a secret or some kind of harm. But I hadn’t entirely decided on the nature of the building.
When I lived in Devon in the 1980s my first job was in a defunct Victorian woollen mill. Abandoned as a commercial anachronism, it was frozen in time, economically unviable with its gloomy halls of stilled spinning machines and historic steam engine. I remember the darkness and quiet in this vast, fourth floor building with its stench of lanolin. Decades of neglect could be heard in the dripping from the roof, seen through glassless windows. Absences were evidenced by a half-eaten sandwich and a bookmarked, unfinished paperback abandoned on a windowsill when the final round of redundancies were announced.
We were to convert the place into a working museum. I began as a general labourer, then worked on the interpretation of the site to visitors and finally became education officer. As a result I learned quite a lot about the industry – its processes, organisation and the near demise of the woollen industry in the 20th century when artificial fibres became popular. The experience gave me a great respect for the historic significance of wool textiles and the universality of weaving as a fundamental structure. It didn’t take much of an imaginative leap to transplant such a building into a small, fictitious Highland Perthshire village. Although not as centralised as the woollen industry in either Yorkshire or the Borders, there had been clusters of wool manufacture here.
I’m always interested by hidden histories and knew that this building still looming over the village with buddleia ranging from its roof might act as an archive in stone and glass, even if converted for housing. But what exactly was it that had happened there?
My fiction nearly always begins with two or three preoccupations tangling with each other and refusing to be un-knotted. I can trace the journey of The Other Side of Stone back through drafts and re-drafts, photographs, press cuttings and scribbles in notebooks; files and files of research notes.
It was serendipity that brought me Catharine. Whilst scouring the Perthshire Advertiser microfiche in the AK Bell Library for historic evidence of the woollen industry and related industrial action, I was distracted by a headline from March 1913:
WENT TO CANADA
LIFE WITH A SUFFRAGETTE
I couldn’t help reading on. It was a long account about a man in Kinloch Rannoch suing his wife for divorce in her absence in Canada. Following his refusal to sign necessary documents to allow her to train as a nurse, she’d stopped cooking his food, begun reading books including Tolstoy, and become a suffragette. I tried to tear myself away from this ‘irrelevant’ story, but not long afterwards was diverted from my intended search by a second headline:
THREE PERTHSHIRE MANSIONS BURNED
HAVE THE SUFFRAGETTES BEEN AT WORK?
I was amazed to read that arson attacks had brought three grand houses not far from my home to the ground, and it was thought to be the work of ‘the militant voteless women’. Now I was hooked. Should I begin again – a different novel, a historical one? What might it be like to be a suffragette in a small rural community?
Catharine erupted out of the collision of these ideas, fiery and passionate about unionisation and suffrage, a cotton spinner from Paisley in love with a woollen weaver with origins in a Perthshire village. It was a marriage built on shared political and egalitarian values, or so she thought, until he took up a position in the village woollen mill in 1913 and she fought on alone for her own meaningful work and women’s suffrage. And so the idea of linked narratives a bit less than a century apart was born, and all those drafts followed.
It never did make it as a novel but neither would the characters and location desert my imagination. I was lured on by the idea of the building as a focus of anger and expectation, a repository of history and a sense that its trajectory might stand as a microcosm of the state of a country. Minor characters and their periods stepped from the shadows and demanded their own platforms. Locked in or locked out, struggling to save the place, find meaningful work or escape from its demands, Catharine was somehow central to all of them.
That’s how this novella came to take in stories of the mill between its building in 1831, and a sort of finale in 2019. And across the years all those intertwined lives have been watched over by the same steep hillsides of bracken, birch and heather, seasonally changing their colourways to match the different weave of tweeds.
The Other Side of Stone by Linda Cracknell is published by Taproot Press, priced £14.99.