Saturday, 17 July 2010

Bare-arsed Banditti

Maggie Craig’s wonderful piece of living history, Bare Arsed Banditti has now been released on paperback by Mainstream.

Bare-arsed Banditti; The Men of the ’45, so the blurb goes were modern men: doctors and lawyers, students and teachers, shoemakers and shopkeepers, farmers, gardeners and weavers. Children of the Age of Reason, they wrote poetry, discussed the latest ideas in philosophy and science - and rose in armed rebellion against the might of the British crown and government.

Sons of a restless nation that had unwillingly surrendered its independence a mere generation before, some were bound by age-old ties of Highland kinship and loyalty. Others rallied to the cries of 'Prosperity to Scotland' and 'No Union!' Many faced agonising personal dilemmas before committing themselves to Bonnie Prince Charlie and the Jacobite Cause. Few had any illusions about the consequences of failure. Many met their date with destiny on Culloden Moor, players in a global conflict that shaped the world we live in today.

Combining meticulous research with entertaining and stylish delivery, Maggie Craig tells the dramatic and moving stories of the men who were willing to risk everything for their vision of a better future for themselves, their families and Scotland.

To celebrate the release into paperback I “invited” Maggie to answer some question on May Contain Nuts. The exchange went like this...

In three words describe Bare Arsed Banditti.

You've got them. Three more would be - gallant, passionate, heroic. That's the lads, not me!

I’m sure you’ve told me this before but I have a shocking memory...I LOVE the title, where does it come from and how much trouble did you have to get it past the publisher?

It was a phrase used at the time to denigrate the wild Highlanders, a way of trying to diminish these exotically-clad warriors who had swept down from their mountains almost to London itself. The insulting description indicates just how much panic they caused - included a run on the London banks - before Bonnie Prince Charlie was forced to accept the decision of the Highland chiefs that the Jacobite army should retreat back north.

It was the title which initially sold the book to my publishers. Then - four days before the books and the dust jackets were to be printed - someone took cold feet and said that the title had to be changed. I gave them four words then. OVER. MY. DEAD. BODY. And the title stayed as it was.

Which do you prefer to be known as: Historian or Novelist?

I can legitimately claim both those designations but I think of myself simply as a writer. I tell stories. For my historical non-fiction I put in the hours doing the research, loving nothing more than days spent in the history mines turning up exciting, poignant, happy and sad true stories. With my novels, I can allow my imagination to roam free, although my novels too always start with research into the times I'm writing about.

It does give me pleasure when people - rightly - describe me as an historian. Make that mischievous glee. I like to think it puts certain noses out of joint, mainly those academic historians who dismiss me as a "popular" historian. Why it's a hanging offence to do your research and then try your best to present it in a readable and entertaining way, I've never understood!

Yeah, dam those stuffy academics. If the history books I had access to in school had half the heart and wit of BAB the lessons would have gone down a lot easier. You mention the similarity between non-fiction and fiction in terms of your do you feel about the constraints when writing non-fiction by comparison?

I find writing non-fiction much easier than writing fiction, so for me it's a liberation rather than a constraint. Sure, you have to check your facts, check them again and then check them one last time but after you've assembled those facts you have them in your tool box and all you have to do is write them up in an interesting and hopefully entertaining way.
In fiction you're spinning something up out of nothing, great when the Muse is standing at your shoulder whispering in your ear, but if he's gone off for the day - my Muse resembles a handsome Australian dentist I once had who looked like a Greek God, better than an injection when I had fillings done - fiction can be a lot more difficult to create.

For the uninitiated - but I'm sure newly devoted MC fans - what other historical periods have you researched and which would have been your favourite time to have lived in?

I've also researched Edinburgh in the 1820s, taking me into low oyster cellars in the Cowgate and the nearby underground vaults, bodysnatching, prostitution and catastrophic fires, you can see why I tend to describe my love stories as romance noir. I''ve also done a lot of research into Glasgow and Clydebank during World War II and at the beginning of the 20th century. I think all of the times I've researched were exciting but I like living now. I love the modern world.

One of my favourite vignettes (can I call it that?) was when you quote from a letter Duncan McGillis wrote to his lover before he went off to join the Jacobites - "Nothing ails me but the wanting of you." The book is full of such wonders. Describe to us the feeling you have when you come across a gem like this?

Och well, you've hit on one of my all-time favourite research discoveries. There I was sitting in the Public Record Office at Kew after a hard day's research, needing a hot bath, a cold glass of wine and an episode of Neighbours, when I requested one final box of documents for the day. Jacobite Correspondence. I think that was all it said. Inside this anonymous cardboard box I found all these letters from Jacobite soldiers writing home to their wives, children, families and lovers as they followed BPC into England. When I realized that I had stumbled upon expressions of love and longing written over two and a half centuries before, I felt first of all excited, and then the tears came to my eyes. It was so moving, so eloquent, so touching. That's the sort of discovery that keeps me researching.

Oooh - that last answer gave me goosebumps. Most people will use the internet to do their research nowadays and from what you were saying it sounds like they are missing out on the real thing. Can you give me a visual on the research materials you found? What did the papers look like, smell like, feel like?

Those letters from Jacobite soldiers were written on odd scraps of paper, just what came to hand at the time, I imagine. Odd sizes, thicker than modern paper, the handwriting and spelling often not very good - although 18th century spelling was generally atrocious. You try to touch the paper as little as possible, of course, in order to preserve it for future generations but it is terribly moving to have it under your hand and think of the connection that it provides between you and the person who wrote it so long ago.

They say the purpose of history is to teach us, here, in the present - what lessons can we learn from the characters you write about in BAB?

I think some of them stood up with great bravery for what they believed in. I think others were devastated that Scotland was plunged into fighting and bloodshed and just did their best to keep their heads above water. The people I really admire are the ones who took what fate was throwing at them and somehow managed to help other people and deal with great humanity with friend and foe alike.

And to finish off I'll need to think of something off the wall to ask you...mmmm...I read recently about a writer (I think he was French) who used to write using the naked back of his lover as his desk; what writing peccadilloes do you have?

Can't match that one, I'm afraid! I just try to get to my computer as early in the morning as possible, when I'm still close to my dreams, still lost in the creative dwam. I write straight onto the computer but will write by hand if I'm stuck, on a train or whatever and I always think it's best not to get precious about when and where you do it.

So there you go people...if you are a lover of history, a lover of Scotland, a lover of good writing and excellent storytelling, then you need to get yourself a copy of this book. Don’t delay – hie yourself to your local bookshop, crack open your wallet and get shopping!

If you want to know more about Maggie and her books below is a link to her amazon page and a link to her website.
Maggie's homepage


  1. Great interview, Michael. Great answers, Maggie!

  2. sounds like a fascinating book! i wonder can we get in the US?

  3. Great interview - genuine questions and answers that really got into the heart of what writing's like. I loved the book (it's one that, as with the 'companion' book Damn Rebel Bitches, I actually dip back into now and then - which is rare for me) and the 'oyster cellars' book that Maggie refers to (One Sweet Moment) is genuinely unputdownable.
    Congrats to both on producing what all interviews should be like.

  4. Thea - I emailed Maggie to ask about US publication. Will let you know asap. It is available on amazon for about $18 - but I think it will be shipped from the UK.

    Cheers, Bill.

  5. Absolutely wonderful interview, Michael. I can't wait to read this. And perhaps I can find One Sweet Memory. These hidden treasures she's found remind me of when I was standing in Jedburgh reading Mary's letter on the eve of her execution. It was like being there in her cell with her, feeling the emotion and dedication to her servants, her honor. Thanks so much for posting this.

  6. Okay I just found One Sweet Moment on US Amazon and what's better for me, lately, is the recorded version on Audible. Fantastic.

  7. You're welcome, Marley - let us know how much you enjoy the book.

  8. Hi guys, thanks for all the comments. As to BAB being available in the US, going by past experience it will become more easily available. My Scottish publishers use an American distributor. Of course, as the author, I think it could be promoted more in the US - to the Scottish Diaspora and others interested in Scottish history.

    Love your story of reading the last letter of MQS, Marley. Am I remembering right that it says something like "I am to be executed like a common criminal at 8 o'clock in the morning?" I never read the description of her death and of how bravely she faced it without getting the shivers.