Creative Writing and Archaeology – Guest Blog

Clachtoll Broch. Photo: Bob Cook

Every now and then, the University of the Highlands and Islands Archaeology team invite a guest to write a blog post.

Writer, Mandy Haggith from the UHI Creative Writing Degree Programme team kindly volunteered to write a piece that talks about her experience writing for archaeology. 

Mandy continues…

“From September 2018, the University of the Highlands and Islands will be offering a BA degree in Creative Writing in the Highlands and Islands. The students on the programme will be the only Creative Writing undergraduates in Scotland, and those of us involved in the degree are hugely excited to meet them and get underway with helping them to develop the skills they’ll need for a writing career.

What might such a career look like? The stereotype of a writer is someone alone in a garret, chewing on a pencil, gazing out at the moon, before scribbling down a few lines, or scratching furiously away on their great work of literature. The reality is far from this, and, I’ve found, far more fun.

Since I qualified in Creative Writing, in 2005, I have penned five novels, three collections of poetry and an anthology. However, it’s hard to make a living from poetry and fiction, so I’ve also written non-fiction for a huge range of organisations on a wide variety of topics including forests, mountains, the sea, land management, paths, industry, politics, art, music, crafts and history. This creative non-fiction writing has brought me into contact with fascinating people from all walks of life and the research for it has taken me all over the world.

Yet one of my favourite writing jobs has been right on my doorstep, in my home parish of Assynt, on the north west coast of Sutherland. For several years, I have been working with Historic Assynt and a team of archaeologists on a series of community history surveys, excavations and conservation projects. My role is to write press releases, notices and poster texts, and particularly the ‘dig diary’ on the project website featuring a weekly, or more frequent, blog of the latest news.

distant crowd at broch march 18
Photo: Chris Puddephat

This means that I get to hang out on digs, chat with archaeologists, even push a barrow or join in with some trowelling, but everyone knows that I’m really there to pick people’s brains in order to write up what’s happening. I ask dumb and nosy questions, encourage the archaeologists and volunteers to speculate about who may have lived in the place, and of course, because I’m a fiction writer, I get to make stuff up! I try to stick to informed guess work, of course, but my job is to let my imagination run riot, to conjure people up out of the past and create stories that can bring the ruins and remnants of the past to life.

Recently, Historic Assynt has been concentrating on Iron Age monuments, particularly the broch at Clachtoll, and this has given me the chance, while earning a few pounds writing the dig diary, to research a trilogy of historical novels inspired by Pytheas of Massalia, the first Mediterranean to circumnavigate Great Britain. The first novel, The Walrus Mutterer, has just been published by Saraband books. Its opening chapters are set in the broch, then the characters roam with Pytheas up into the northern ocean, via Orkney and Shetland. Writing this novel trilogy has fuelled my interest and fluency in the archaeological project, thus my fiction and non-fiction writing have been completely symbiotic.

I frequently say that studying Creative Writing back in 2003-5 was the best thing I ever did. It kitted me up with the tools of a trade that has enabled me, like an itinerant bronze smith, to roam about, making my living by crafting pieces to meet the needs of each client, while gathering material for the artworks that allow me to express my own view of this baffling but often wonderful world. I am so looking forward to helping another generation of Highlands and Islands writers to embark on their own unique writing lives.”

If you’re interested in the BA in Creative Writing in the Highlands and Islands, find out more here:


Death Days – Past & Present

sunrise-phu-quoc-island-oceanBernie Bell is a regular contributor to Orkney online news and blogs and has sent us an interesting article giving an insight into another societies approach to death.

Bernie takes up the story….

“We were staying at The Belgrave Arms Hotel in Helmsdale, on our way back from our holiday in Kilmartin Glen.  We were talking with the proprietor, who told us that they had recently returned from their holiday in Vietnam.  This was interesting enough in itself, as to me the word ‘Vietnam’ still conjures up war, helicopters, ‘Apocalypse Now’ and that terrible image of the little girl – running from something that she couldn’t possibly run away from.

The country is very much recovering and that, although there isn’t much conspicuous wealth about, the people are working with what they have and building on what they have and there is a general air of optimism.

They had a young man as their guide who told them something of the traditions still followed by his family.  He was working hard to earn enough to make his father’s ‘second house’.  His father is now elderly and the Vietnamese people accept and embrace death as very much a part of life.  When parents are nearing death their sons are expected to build them a ‘second house’.  This is not what we would think of as a house more of a shrine, but they refer to them as ‘second houses’.

When a person dies, they are placed in a box and left for some time in order to decompose.  When they are well and truly decomposed the family gather together and wash the bones thoroughly – they must be absolutely pristine.  The family then have a ‘Day of Death’ when they place the bones in the ‘second house’.  The spirit is then left in peace to move on to their next life.

On Death Day the ceremonies include burning their most valued possessions so that they too can accompany the person to the new life. This used to include burning their money, but it has now changed –  the family buy pretend money to burn instead!

However, this way of life is changing and evolving and will possibly have gone in 20/30 years time.  The ‘second houses’ are placed among the fields belonging to the family – marking their land.

In 5,000 years time, what would archaeologists make of the assemblages of carefully cleaned bones in the remains of their ‘second homes’ – if the stories associated with these traditions had been lost, too?”