Flora Johnston reveals how a shabby old gown led her to uncover the stories of two women from 17th-century Scotland – and to give them back their voices through her first novel.
What is the role of historical fiction in giving a voice to the women who lived before us?
When it comes to revealing the stories of the past, the historical record is far from equal. We know that power, status, sex and race are just a few of the factors determining whose life was recorded for posterity, and whose life disappeared from view. It’s not surprising that there have been far more historical books written about men than women, about masters than slaves, about kings and queens and court life than about those whose daily existence was a matter of subsistence and survival. The evidence just isn’t there.
Or is it that we are looking in the wrong places?
When my debut novel What You Call Free was published by indie press Ringwood Publishing in March 2021, it was the culmination of a 20-year exploration into the lives of two historical women which began not with a document but with an object.
I was fortunate enough to be working for the National Museum of Scotland in Edinburgh at a time when the creation of a new building meant many objects which had previously been in storage could now be put on display.
One of these was a sackcloth gown about which we knew very little. It had been donated to the museum in 1806 by a minister, and the description given at the time was: “a sackcloth gown, anciently made use of in the Parish Church of West Calder as part of ecclesiastical discipline.” (Archaeologia Scotica III, p90)
That was it: no more information. What exactly was meant by “ecclesiastical discipline”, and how could this ugly garment fit into our planned Church gallery alongside gleaming communion silver and carved pews? As a junior researcher I was sent off to the archives to see what I could find.
That’s where I met Jonet Gothskirk.
As I read through page after page of the West Calder kirk session minute book, I discovered that this young woman, pregnant and accused of adultery, had been forced to appear before her local congregation dressed in our sackcloth gown every Sunday for around four months.
I wasn’t a novelist yet, but already I was asking the novelist’s question: “What did that feel like?”
Jonet’s story stayed with me, and 20 years later her ordeal provides the framework for my novel What You Call Free, which is set in and around Edinburgh in the 1680s. We know very little about Jonet’s life beyond her ‘sin’ and punishment, and so I have given her a story.
Fiction can enrich the historical record, enabling us to explore issues like humiliation, abuse and resilience which were the experience of so many ordinary people. But dealing with real people’s lives also brings responsibility, and I have felt that quite acutely with Jonet.
Those months when she was forced to parade publicly in front of her community wearing that gown must have been deeply traumatic, but had been long forgotten until I unearthed her story among the records. Because of my research, her name was once more linked to her shame, and this time displayed to millions of visitors to the museum, albeit hopefully in a more sympathetic era.
When writing the novel I briefly considered giving her an invented name, but it seemed important to honour the real woman whose ordeal had provided its inspiration, and to consider these events from her point of view.
It took many years and several drafts for Jonet’s story to emerge in its right form, intertwined with the story of another fascinating woman from 17th-century Scotland. Helen Alexander was a committed supporter of the outlawed religious dissidents known as the Covenanters, and particularly of their young leader, James Renwick.
Towards the end of her life Helen wrote a memoir, giving a rare insight into the dramatic adventures and intense ideology of the Covenanters from a woman’s perspective. Helen’s loyalties and experiences took her to prison and to the foot of the scaffold, and her words reveal a woman of independent mind, not prepared to be controlled by society’s expectations.
Together, these two women lead the reader through the unfamiliar world of 17th-century Scotland, walking a path between fact and fiction.
What You Call Free is, I hope, first and foremost a good story, but for me it’s also important that it brings into the light the struggles, loves, hopes and beliefs of two women who participated in these turbulent years every bit as fully as the men whose experiences have traditionally been retold.
Historical fiction might not be able redress the balance of written history, but by bringing imagination to bear on fragmentary evidence, it can enable the voices of ordinary women like Jonet and Helen to be heard once more.
Flora has spent many years researching and telling Scotland’s stories in exhibitions, books and digital media, and is delighted now to be doing this through fiction. Her non-fiction publications include War Classics: the remarkable memoir of Scottish scholar Christina Keith on the Western Front (The History Press) and Faith in a Crisis (Islands Book Trust).
“In this wonderful debut novel, Flora Johnston prises open a forgotten window to give a rare view onto the lives of women in one of the darkest periods of Scotland’s history,” James Robertson writes in his review of What You Call Free. See James and Flora in conversation at the online launch of her book.
The Black Stool (The Stool of Repentance) by David Allan, 1795: National Galleries of Scotland
The National Museum of Scotland: photo by author
The repentance stool from Old Greyfriars Kirk, illustration from Cassell’s Old and New Edinburgh by James Grant: via Old and New Edinburgh vol 4
The Martyrs’ Memorial in Greyfriars Kirkyard: photo by author