Archive for the ‘Uncategorized’ Category

The Rat-Pit

March 31, 2008

The Rat-Pit is a companion piece to Patrick MacGill’s Children of the Dead End – it tells the story of  Norah Ryan, the childhood sweetheart of Dermod Flynn the central character in Children of the Dead End.  Her descent through betrayal, the birth of an illegitimate child, life in a Glasgow lodging house (the rat-pit of the title), sweated work as a piecework seamstress, prostitution and death is recounted in graphic and harrowing detail.

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March 31, 2008


Patrick MacGill: the “Navvy-Poet”

March 30, 2008

A writer who swiftly transported his Irish working-class hero from the squalor and danger of life as a navvy, building the Blackwater Dam for the Kinlochleven aluminium works, to a scholarly position at the centre of the English ecclesiastical establishment in St George’s Chapel, Windsor might be thought to be in danger of losing credibility. If the young hero also overcame a background of grinding poverty and limited education to become a best selling novelist and poet the writer could perhaps expect quite a lot of rejection slips.

Yet what would be unbelievable fiction was the reality of the life of the ‘Navvy-Poet’, Patrick MacGill, who shot to national fame with the publication of his autobiographical novel, Children of the Dead End, in 1914.

MacGill was born into a poor subsistence farming family in the rural community of Glenties, County Donegal around April 1890. He described his education in Who’s Who as ‘three years at a mountain school.’ When he was twelve, he was put out to add to the family income by doing casual work on local farms. After a couple of years of this he was considered old enough to be sent to the hiring-fair at Strabane, County Tyrone, and spent the next few years working for a variety of masters as a farm labourer. As a teenager he came to Scotland with one of the tattie-howking squads who made the yearly trip from Ireland to harvest potatoes on the farms of lowland Scotland. 

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 This article originally appeared in The Scots Magazine in September 2001.

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From Morvern to Morocco: intro.

March 29, 2008

Scots have always been able to adapt to a wide range of alien environments while retaining their national identity and characteristics.  Few demonstrated this ability more markedly than Harry Maclean.  A descendant of the Macleans of Drimnin in Morvern he spent 43 years in Morocco, became commander of the Sultan of Morocco’s army, adopted Moorish costume; but managed to play the bagpipes at every opportunity and retained a very Scottish personality. 

In a remarkable career he became both a trusted adviser of successive Sultans and an unofficial agent for the British Government. This position was not without its perils, he was captured and held hostage for several months by a bandit chief with whom he had been sent to negotiate on behalf of the Sultan. 

Harry Aubrey de Vere Maclean was born in Chatham, Kent, in 1848.  His father, Andrew, was Inspector General of Army Medical Services and a grandson of Allan Maclean, chieftain of the Macleans of Drimnin.  Young Harry was found employment in the civil service but this did not prove congenial and he asked his father if he might join the army.  Maclean was commissioned into the 69th Foot (The South Lincolnshire Regiment) and served with them in Canada, Bermuda and Gibraltar.

In 1877 the Sultan of Morocco sent 100 soldiers to Gibraltar to be trained as a cadre of instructors for his army and asked the British Ambassador to Morocco, Sir John Drummond-Hay, to find a British officer who would enter the Sultan’s service and train his army. Harry Maclean accepted the appointment and spent the next thirty years in the service of the Sultan, Moulay Hassan, and his successor, Moulay Abdelaziz.


Kaid Maclean in local costume

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The Great Push

March 29, 2008
Patrick MacGill’s autobiographical novel of life in the trenches in the early years of the First World War has many of the strengths of his first novels – Children of the Dead End and The Rat-Pit. It is written from first hand experience and gives an unromantic, unvarnished, private soldier’s account of war at the sharp end.As I discovered when researching MacGill and his army career for my introduction to Birlinn’s reprint of this book he had enlisted in the London Irish in September 1914. Like many Irishmen of the day he saw no problem about volunteering to fight in the army of what many of his countrymen saw as an occupying power – MacGill’s politics always seemed more to be class-based than deeply involved in questions of nationalism. MacGill was gassed in action in September 1915 and two weeks later was wounded in the arm at the battle of Loos on 28 October and invalided home. Although he remained in the army for the duration of the war it seems that the authorities found a more appropriate role for a talented writer than rifleman and he produced a number of other books about the war and ended up in the Intelligence Section of the War Office.
The Great Push is a classic account of men at war and in its brief compass gives many memorable pictures of the horror of war and men’s reaction to war.
For an article on MacGill and his work click here.

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March 26, 2008


I have an article in this month’s Scots Magazine [April 2008] on the Cunard liner Carmania. She was Cunard’s first turbine-powered liner and was built at John Brown’s shipyard at Clydebank. Apart from her regular career as a luxury trans-Atlantic liner the Carmania had a second life during the 1st World War as an armed merchant cruiser and fought a classic single ship action against the German merchant cruiser Cap Trafalgar.

Writing Biography and Autobiography

March 26, 2008

I had written three book-length biographies and decided that I should put all that hard-earned experience to good use and so I persuaded A&C Black to add this title to their “Writing Handbooks” series. My thought was that we are all interested in people and many of us have wanted to write a life-story but have been unsure how to set about it or how to bring such a project to a satisfactory end. My book is, I hope, a practical and helpful introduction to writing biography and autobiography and looks at the various forms that such a project might take.


The historian and biographer Antonia Woodville was recently kind enough to comment in her blog:  “The book “Writing Biography and Autobiography” by Brian D Osborne has arrived. It’s a highly readable, interesting handbook.”

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