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Welcome Murdina MacDonald to Creekside Cafe

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Bio: I retired from Craven Community College in 2009 and am a newbie to the author scene.  Plan to bring two items to the event: my dad’s memoirs and my doctoral thesis of 1982, just published.

Sherri: Welcome to my virtual café. If I ever win the lottery or become the heir of some unknown wealthy relative, I plan to open a coffee shop by the river but until then, I go down the wildlife ramp and dream. Have you always loved books?

Murdina:  Hi Sherri, so happy to meet you.  Have enjoyed the interviews you have done with the “lucky 35” of this November event as well as the interview KB did of you.  You’ve said “do what scares you.”  Love that.  My own mantra, if I were to verbalize it, would be: every wrong road is a good road if it leads you home…

Yes, I have always loved books though, oddly, I cannot remember anyone actually reading to me in my childhood.  At about ten I fell in love with horses which led to all those books with titles like The Black Stallion, The Black Stallion Returns, The Son of Black Stallion, The Island Stallion etcetera.  Next for me came Ivanhoe, then The Count of Monte Cristo and ultimately, the discovery of my two great adolescent heroes, Jane Austin and Charles Dickens.  Remember the sorrow I felt when I realized I had read all of Austin’s novels and, at fourteen, the tears running down my cheeks as I read “it is a far, far better thing I do than I have ever done.  It is a far, far better place I go to than I have ever known…” 

Sherri: How did you come to publish your father’s story? What is the story behind the story, Blackhouse God’s House?

Murdina:  My father was a complete mystery to me.    When he came home from work he would talk at dinner about biblical characters, David a favorite of his and historical figures like Mary Queen of Scots and John Knox, current folks like Roosevelt and Churchill.  But he spoke very little about himself or his past in Scotland.

So, when my sister Christine died in 2011, I inherited his papers.  My brother-in-law Jim mailed me 2 big “If it fits it ships” boxes containing about 2,000 manuscript pages.  Some of them I called sermons for himself.  Others were commentaries on famous people he just wanted to write about, like John Barrymore.  But the bulk of his writings were about the people of his village, Skigersta, in the Isle of Lewis.

I found the papers fascinating on two levels: they revealed a father I never knew and they gave me glimpses into a world that no longer exists.  The world he left behind I found both exotic and familiar and discovered where my father had been living for 60 years since his immigration in 1924.  He was right there in his own blackhouse at 7 Skigersta, surrounded by his mother, brother and three doting sisters, listening to the marvelous tales spun by his brilliant neighbor, the bard, enjoying the warmth of the peat fire, the babble of gaelic on every lip, the feeling of utter contentment – and the sounds of laughter.

Sherri: Your father grew up in rural Scotland? Have you ever visited? Do you still have family there?

Murdina:  My father, born in 1903, grew up in a village of 300 souls in the northern part of Lewis, the youngest of five children.  He seems to have been a very observant child and one from an early age who was able to appreciate the rugged beauty of his surroundings.  He also appreciated the various types of human life on display in his village as seen in one of his titles: “Of worthies, wags, wits and oddballs.”

The blackhouse that Angus lived in was made of stone and topped with a thatched roof (museum pieces now). There was a peat fire in the center, sleeping quarters at one end and 3 cows at the other.  He went to school until age 14 and was happy to depart the scene after that despite a visit from the minister pleading for him to go on.  Tellingly, he describes his school days under the heading “My Own Dark Ages”.  Let’s see, his education began when at 5 his teacher threw him out a window.  But I digress…

Like many in the village, his father was a fisherman-farmer and Angus would no doubt have followed in his footsteps had not life intervened in the form of World War I and post war unemployment, poverty and civil unrest.  The British government found a way to relieve the pressures of this situation by offering free passage to Canada in exchange for two years of labor on Canadian farms.  Dad was a part of this diaspora in 1924.  The next year he found his way to New York City to work for a Skigersta neighbor who had made good in the New World, D. B. Mackay, shoetree manufacturer.  His adopted daughter, Effie, was his secretary and chauffeur.  She and Angus were married in 1936 with brother Norman coming along in 1942, me in 1944 and sister Christine in 1947.

It has been one of the unexpected pleasures of my life to have visited Lewis 3 times and to have discovered first and second cousins, to have met both mother’s folks and dad’s folks, people from different parts of the island and from different denominations.  What lovely people – and so welcoming to me and my friends. 

In 2012 when I travelled with dad’s ashes, my first cousin John Murdo, his wife Mary, 2nd cousin Isabel and brother Donald came from one side of the island to the other to meet me in a howling rainstorm!  Boy, was I so grateful we had not had to navigate from our B&B to them!  We swapped photos and stories.  I went to church in Stornoway with my cousin Alex’s widow, Catherine.   She loaned me a “bonnet”, as you can’t go without one. 

At the Ness Historical Society, I met dad’s sister Margaret’s family where Catherine’s daughter, Margaret Anne, put her newborn son in my arms for a photo.  What a whirlwind.  Loved the group photo.  [Shakespearean aside: I said to my friend Catherine, I didn’t even have time to comb my hair before they shot the photo.  She replied: “It wouldn’t have made any difference…” Comforted by the fact all my relatives had uncontrollable curly hair too!]

Sherri: What kind of research and how long did it take you to write this book?

Murdina: My dad’s life story was set against a backdrop of very big events on the island of Lewis, events such as World War I, the purchase of the island by Lord Leverhulme, the sinking of the Iolair, mass emigration in the 1920s and denominational discord. In addition, about 8% of the texts were written in gaelic without an English translation, so I needed a translator. Fortunately, I found one in Annie MacSween of the Ness Historical Society.

With respect to World War I, I knew very little, but what was important here was how the war impacted the island.  It is said that the island suffered the greatest proportional loss of life during the war of any district in Scotland.  Angus has several fascinating stories here.  He tells of the mailman delivering the news of the war on a quiet Sunday bicycling through Skigersta while blowing a whistle(!) to draw attention and another tale of his dad and six others dodging a German sub while out fishing.  Grief is everywhere of course -both individual and communal – as islanders dealt with the loss of loved ones.

Who knew you could “buy” an island?  The soap magnate, Lord Leverhulme [Bodach an t-Siabainn (the soap man)] did just that in 1918 and had great plans for Lewis’ development.  Societal unrest toppled his plans and he left in deep disappointment.  So, poverty and unemployment did not find their savior here.

The sinking of the Iolair is a story I knew from my parents. Mom wanted one of her three children to write a book about it. We didn’t. John MacLeod did [When I Heard the Bell]. On January 1, 1919 the Iolair struck the ‘Beasts of Holm’ in Stornoway harbor and 205 Lewisman returning from war in France perished. The Stornoway Gazette led with the story the next day with “Grief Unutterable” – as perfect a designation for the reality in this close bound community as words could come. Dad translated the first gaelic version of the tragedy, portions of which are included in the book.

Denominational discord is what most closely affected my father’s life growing up in the first part of the 20th century.  Most of Skigersta belonged to an offshoot of the Free Church of Scotland called The Free Presbyterian Church of Scotland.  The split had taken place in 1898 and divided the 23 villages that constituted the province of Ness in northern Lewis.  Almost all of Ness rejected the new group, using both shunning and verbal hostility as their main expressions of disapproval.  This is the backdrop of a number of my father’s stories: students slinging stones and insults, teachers being abusive physically with a strap as well as verbally, doctors refusing to visit sick and dying patients.  A dismal tale but one that is behind the island now.

My father clearly wanted, in his sketches, to honor the courage and faith of his parents and neighbors in sticking to their principles, whatever the cost.   And although I am not of my father’s denomination, I too, in promoting Blackhouse God’s House celebrate and honor those people long dead now – for their faith, their love and their communal solidarity in hard times.

In answer to your question, Sherri, about how long it took to write the book, the answer is – way too long!  I was not under any deadline, so I rather poked around with it for 8 years.  Not sorry, really.  In retirement I was enjoying the luxury of leisure – only a word in the dictionary for most of my life.

My translator and I settled into a snail’s pace.  I’d send her a list of 15 gaelic words and phrases.  Two months later she would send back answers for 7 or 8 of them, which I would incorporate into the text and then construct a new list and send it on.  After a couple of years, I grew tired of no answers in some cases and resorted to filling in the gaps myself with my gaelic dictionary and Google. 

I took a year and a half of baby gaelic at Sabhal Mor Ostaig in Skye, with Zoom classes every Monday morning at 5:00 am. (What was I thinking?  What was I trying to prove?  At my age?)   Didn’t take.  Did ok with the written word but I would need way more than an hour a week of hearing the language to get any good at speaking it.  So, for purists out there, whatever is a mangled gaelic translation, send me the corrections!

Sherri: Your second book is from your master’s thesis? It is the religious history of London Calvinistic Baptists, why is understanding our religious history important to Christians today?

Murdina:  Sherri, thank you for asking!  The book [London Calvinistic Baptists 1689-1727: Tensions within a Dissenting Community under Toleration] is my Oxford doctoral thesis, submitted in 1982.  It contains a Forward by Larry Kreitzer of Regent’s Park College, Oxford and a Reflection by the Author by me. Dr. Kreitzer has kindly updated the footnotes – all 400 pages of them, bless him!

Of course, it is a delight for me to see the thesis in print.  It still has historical value because: (1) it is based on original manuscript sources (2) it tells a story that has not been told before based on such sources (3) it contributes to the narrative of English Baptist history and (4) it contributes to the history of the Christian church.

By the time William and Mary brought the Glorious Revolution to England in 1689, Baptists and other Dissenters from the Church of England could look forward to relief from persecution.  The worst, dark days were over, days when pastors were torn down from their pulpits and thrown into prison where they died of disease and neglect.  Under William, being a Dissenter was no longer illegal.  In their new lives they would be second class citizens, to be sure, deprived of opportunities for public service and education, but no longer subject to prison for their faith.

The thesis traces the fortunes of one group of Baptists, Calvinistic Baptists, in the capital in the period 1689-1727.  It asks, and seeks to answer, why they did not organize themselves in a way that was traditional for them since the early 17th century, i.e. through associations. 

Attempts to organize in that way were made in London but were sabotaged by internal tensions, first over the issue of hymn singing and later over the issue of open or close communion.  London ministers lined up on one side of these issues or the other and participated in a furious pamphlet war that sapped the life out of efforts to get them to cooperate in associational life.  What the London Calvinistic Baptists ended up doing was to organize exactly as the Presbyterians and Congregationalists did, in ministerial fraternities, which led to a process I call the ‘ministerialization” of corporate life. 

That, in a nutshell, is the thesis. 

Sherri: What do you hope people will take away from your books? Why are these books important?

Murdina:  For my dad’s memoirs, I hope the reader is able to celebrate, with my father, the variety of human personalities he has shared with us, personalities set in a particular time and place – Scotland, early 20th century.  He certainly gives us a nice bunch of beloved oddballs, quirky people like the pastor who was afraid of chickens or the man who gave flour to his cow (it died) or the husband-and-wife team battling over how to pile the peat in front of their house.  He gives us the devout, like pastor Duncan Macbeth, praying on his knees for the men at sea in a thunderstorm, wearing out his slippers, his own mother a magnet for ministers, his sister Annie washing the feet of the elderly who had walked 8 miles over the moor, barefoot, to communion.

He serves us up tales of his neighbor Norman Morrison who was brilliant in everything he did – sailor, poet, a leader of men, a charismatic personality and so much larger than the little island he lived in.  Norman makes me think of the brilliantly colored fish who swim deep in the oceans, fish that have only recently been seen because now we have the technology to do so.  Who sees them, to admire their beauty?  Only God does. 

Who sees the spiritual beauty of these people in this forgotten speck in the world, this little village, this little Lewis, this little piece of Scotland?   My father “saw” them and they responded back by “seeing” him and giving him as an eternal reward his identity, his place, his contentment, his home.

Regarding my thesis, I would hope that those who have an interest in history – in English history, in Baptist history, in Calvinist history or in Christian church history – will find something of interest in the commonalities here amidst the particularities of 18th century London.  For Baptists in 1689 their worst days were behind them, yet they fell to squabbling among themselves, both sides quoting from the same sacred book.  What might they have accomplished working together?

Sherri: You are a historian, what would you love to explore historically, either for research or perhaps, you would love to time travel back to that time period?

Murdina:  Well, I started a project in 2010 that brought me to the National Archives in Madrid.  I was researching the life of Maria de Bohorquez, a woman who was burned at the stake in Sevilla in the 16th century.  She was one of a cluster of Protestants, mostly priests and nuns, who met to explore the thinking of Martin Luther.  She was the illegitimate daughter of a nobleman who did not reject her but allowed her to get a wonderful education.  She knew Greek and Latin.  All I knew of her is that when imprisoned, they sent a cadre of people to argue with her in her cell, and night after night, she argued back, quoting scripture.  Quite impressive a defense, apparently. I was so much hoping to find transcripts of these conversations in the archives, but after 30 days I ran out of time and money and had to go home.  Still would love to explore her life, among other things because I taught Spanish and the language, at least, would be one less hurdle.

Sherri: What are you working on now?

Murdina: I am working on a devotional book based on the writings of John Bunyan.  My idea is to select twelve of his writings, one for each month, and to provide, for each day, a selection from that work, then some relevant scripture passages, and last, a commentary.  Have started with Pilgrim’s Progress and the month of December.

My idea is not to write a scholarly work, for which I have no experience, but to write a devotional as I learn about the world of Bunyan scholarship.  Only 350 years’ worth out there, I know, but I am having a ball with the literature so far.

Sherri: If someone wanted to write a memoir or biography for a family member or ancestor, where would you suggest they begin?

Murdina:  Don’t think I can speak to that with any great expertise except to say that the best place to start is probably the staff at your local library, who can walk you through online sources, explaining the peculiarities of each.

In my case, since my father was from Ness, I started with the Ness Historical Society.  Through this contact I met a kinswoman who has been working on ancestral ties in Lewis for 40 years, Ann Thomson.  Here I found my gaelic translator.  Consulted with Bill Lawson of Seallam in southern Harris and paid for him to do a family search.  Did family research in libraries in Glasgow and Edinburgh in person, but they have online services.  Explored ship passenger lists for dad’s name.  Every road, even one that leads nowhere specific, has to be seen as part of the journey that will lead “home.”

Sherri: What is your advice for anyone who wishes to publish their first book?

Murdina:  I asked a relative for advice and he gave me the name of his publisher.  That did not work out.  Second suggestion was a source in Stornoway that also did not work out.  So just googled “Christian publishers” and got the name Christian Faith Publishing.  On my third try, then, I found a publisher.  Paid a fee for their editorial assistance and they worked with me for nine months.  There were some frustrations along the way, but all in all I am happy with them.  Particularly happy with the cover of Blackhouse God’s House.

Sherri, thank you so much for this opportunity to meet at your Creekside Café and to have the chance to talk about all this stuff!   What a joy it will be to meet you in person as well as all the other authors on November 20.

Sherri: If you enjoyed this interview with Murdina MacDonald come meet her in person at the Author Sunday Book Festival, November 20th, 1 to 4 pm at the New Bern Farmers Market, 421 South Front Street, New Bern, NC.

My facebook page is under Murdina D. MacDonald and my Instagram username is: blackhouse_godshouse. 

Grace and peace,

Murdina D. MacDonald

Blackhouse God’s House

Blackhouse God’s House: A Lewisman Recalls the World He Left Behind by Murdina D. MacDonald | Goodreads

London Calvinistic Baptists

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