Sunday, 26 April 2015

Guest Post: Book of the Month Winner Alison J. Butler Discusses Her Next Book

The Hanging of Margaret Dickson by Alison J. Butler
April 2015 Book of the Month Award

First of all, I'd like to thank Stuart S. Laing for choosing my novel The Hanging of Margaret Dickson for Book of the Month - it's been a real privilege and honour. Also, my gratitude to all members of The Review for kindly asking me to write a guest post.

Okay, so here goes, my first guest post for The Review… a little piece on writing Scottish historical fiction, and a sneak preview of my second novel... Baron's Law. So what prompted me to write another novel featuring 18th century Scotland? Well, I read this excerpt in a Crime and Punishment of Scotland book and decided I had to write a novel about it 

Baron’s Law...After the Reformation, the barons became heritors of their parish churches and strictly upheld church discipline. Many of them used their courts to reinforce it. At Stichill in 1696, delinquents who broke the Church’s law were also sentenced by the baron’s court to be chained in the stocks or placed in the jougs during the laird’s pleasure.  

For the slightest offence or imagined misdemeanour, punishments including torture, which was legal in Scotland until 1709, were used. Men were hung up by their thumbs, hung by the feet in a room filled with nauseous smoke and had knotted strings tied around their head. Women had red-hot tongs placed between their shoulders and under their armpits until the tongs went cold, fingers were deliberately broken, faces branded and backs lashed with a whip. The barons had epileptics gelded and lepers burned alive.

Strange though it may seem, I've always had a keen interest in the history of crime and punishment, particularly in England and Scotland, and once I looked further into it, this baron's law seemed bizarre and extreme, even by 18th century standards (a time when the bloody code still existed). In short, I was amazed to discover, the power of Scottish barons seemed more in keeping with feudalism and bygone days of serfs and vassals. In the course of my research I stumbled across the true story of the ‘collier serf collar’ and the plight of colliers (coal or tin/lead miners) in 18th century Scotland. Most folk are aware of the ‘triangular trade' and slavery, but I wondered how many people had heard of the collier serfs, a breed apart, ostracised from polite society and made outcasts in parts of Scotland. These mining folk were little more than slaves, doomed to servitude in the mines, property of the coal master… and their children sadly suffered the fate.

So, that's how I got to writing a second novel on 18th century Scotland. I'd already researched the era on a grand scale, so I was already familiar with Georgian folk, rich or poor…cautious of the pitfalls I could easily make ... therefore avoiding modern phrases, words, expressions, or including gas lamps, potatoes, animal species or plants that did not belong in 18th century Scotland etc. And yet, this time I realised I could not be expected to get everything right; we all make mistakes - all I could do is try my very best to capture the time.

Certain dilemmas occur. Should I include Scottish dialect, or keep the language simple and clear so that all readers understand? Should I try to refer to the language used in the 18th century, or again keep it simple for the modern reader? Well, because I'm English and not Scottish, sadly I'm not worthy of a Walter Scott-type writing style, nor am I an Arthur Miller, whose dialogue in The Crucible is genius. I've kept it simple! I can only aspire to be like them one day ;)

So, to the synopsis, a craft I am yet to master. To simplify I imagine my readers asking me the simple question: 'Well what's this second book all about?’

Okay, so imagine a huge Scottish castle in the 1700's. Within it rules a cruel, misogynistic and handsome man, Baron Bothwell of Castle Wood. He has a menopausal wife, Matilda, whom he ignores, and a young son, Robbie, whom he adores. In short, the baron does as he pleases and mistreats his serfs. One of his peasants, Magnus Styhr, in an effort to avoid the 'right of first night' (a nobleman's right to take his serf's virginity on her wedding night) lies with his betrothed, Sarah, to ensure the child she carries is his and not the baron's. When Baron Bothwell discovers this he imprisons Magnus in the dungeons and banishes Sarah to an asylum, where he abuses her. A French nun at the asylum, because of this mistreatment, flees from the asylum with Sarah.

Meanwhile, the baron places man traps around his castle to deter poachers. His son Robbie steps into one of the man traps and is gravely injured. The baron cannot face his son, and then flees in search of Sarah who is now missing from the asylum... he assumes she is in France (as that is where the nun is from) and boards a ship at Leith bound for France. But before he goes, he has a brass collar made for Magnus to wear around his neck and has it inscribed...   ‘Magnus Styhr, gifted by Baron Bothwell of Castle Wood as a perpetual servant to Sir John Stuart of Newton Parish 1754.’

Magnus Styhr is sent to work in coalmines, a brass collar around his neck to announce his serfdom. He becomes a hero of the collier people and plans to return to Castle Wood to seek revenge for his time in the dungeons and servitude in the mines. Baron Bothwell, the very man Magnus seeks to avenge, meanwhile, saves a cabin boy from being beaten to death on a ship sailing back to Leith.

In the midst of this tale, I have a crippled son mourning his absent father. An ill-treated wife seeking solace from her husband's steward. An eccentric wise woman who holds secrets that could seal everybody's fate, and a nun and peasant woman who have a powerful emotional bond...I'm yet to decide the ending.

My parting words...’Yes - I'm getting on with it. Book two - Baron's Law - is to be released very soon.

Alison J. Butler

To read Stuart's review of The Hanging of Margaret Dickson, click here.

About the Author:

Alison Butler was born in Liverpool, England in the 1970s. She's worked as a checkout girl, bar-maid, model and singer. Alison is married to Dave Butler and has four children - Whitney, Belinda, Isabella and Oliver.

Alison worked for over ten years in the entertainment industry, working as a professional singer. Following the birth of her fourth child she gave up singing to study for a social sciences degree.

While researching for her dissertation, Alison stumbled across a small excerpt in a history of crime and punishment book. It briefly described the true story of a woman named Margaret Dickson who survived a public execution. This incredible story inspired Alison to write her debut novel, using 18th century judicial court court records, broadsheets and marriage/birth certificates.

She can be followed on Twitter here

The Hanging of Margaret Dickson may also be purchased at Amazon  and Amazon UK. 


Stuart S. Laing is the author of The Robert Young of Newbiggin MysteriesHe can be found on Facebook and Twitter.


  1. I am so looking forward to reading this.

  2. Heavens what a story! Looking forward to this also. Thank you Alison fir being such a lovely BOM winner