It’s been a stressful day at Writing with Labradors and the result of this is that my blog post about the Wellington Congress has been postponed in favour of the story of Joey the Brave, hero of the great Millennium Oak Wood battle of 2019.
Walking my dogs can be a slightly complicated matter these days, since Joey and Oscar have very different needs. Joey, at almost thirteen and with severe arthritis, and let us be honest, a bit of extra weight, cannot go the distance with one year old Oscar who can run all day. At the same time, the dogs love to be together and when I leave the house with Oscar, Joey will scrabble at the front door to try to join us.
My solution to this is to take Oscar on a long walk daily, and then to take the two of them out together two or three times a week, to a spot where Oscar can race around and Joey can just mooch. Beaches are good for this, but for a short trip I often drive up to Millennium Oak Wood which is a park in Douglas.
The park is usually packed with dog walkers. You get to know some of them by sight, usually finding out the names of dogs before owners. Most are very friendly. Some will be kept on the lead, a bit more wary. Since Oscar came on the scene, I’m very conscious that he can be a bit boisterous and always keep treats and the lead to hand in case he upsets another dog.
I’ve heard stories of dogs being attacked by other dogs and have always considered myself very lucky that in all my years as a dog owner it has never happened to me. Today it did.
The dog was off the lead and his owner a fair way off, absorbed in her mobile phone. I’m guessing that her dog had never been aggressive before or presumably she’d have been more wary. The dog, which looked like a collie cross of some kind, was bouncy and definitely interested in Oscar. There was a lot of leaping around, as there often is, but no barking and no sign of aggression. And then quite suddenly, with no warning, the dog went for Oscar, its teeth at his neck, and pinned him to the ground.
It was one of those moments when time goes slowly. I was moving towards them, running and yelling. The dog’s owner was shouting although she made no attempt to move towards her dog to haul it off. I think I’d decided to give the dog a kick to try to scare it off, but I had no time to do so.
Something large and yellow and far too fat to run went past me at high speed and crashed into the dog, teeth bared and snarling. The collie let go of Oscar, who was yelping in pain, and turned, suddenly realising that our local pensioner had his teeth around its leg. It panicked, backed off, and finally ran to its shrieking owner.
I was kneeling down, trying to check if Oscar was injured, when I realised that the dog owner had taken off at a run, with her dog, out of the gate of the park. I will never understand why she didn’t stop to check that we were all right. Somebody else did, a really nice young guy with a huge dog, who walked me back to the car park to check we were all right. By the time we got there, Joey could barely walk, his back leg dragging after his unexpected charge. I wish I’d thought to ask the young man’s name, he was such a star.
Back home, and Joey was dosed with extra painkillers and given lots of love and praise. Oscar was definitely jumpy for a bit but is calm now. He’s not hurt, I think his very solid collar took the worst of it, there were marks on that. I’m a bit worried about how he’ll be the next time I take him out but I’m sure he’ll settle. Joey was uncomfortable for a while but has settled down and is snoring peacefully.
Joey and Oscar don’t tend to share a bed any more; they’re just too big and it wouldn’t be comfortable. But adorably, this afternoon when they got back, Oscar clung to Joey as if he was a puppy again. And Joey let him.
I’m so thankful that it wasn’t worse, and so grateful for the young man who helped us. Writing with Labradors reports that the company is intact, with only slight damage. Their report is as follows:
At approximately 16.00 hours the enemy attacked an outpost guarded by Lieutenant Oscar. For a short time it looked as though the lieutenant might be overwhelmed, but a surprise attack led by Colonel Joey caused the enemy to retreat in disarray. The commander-in-chief commends the bravery of Colonel Joey who will be mentioned in dispatches.
All troops have been checked over by the regimental surgeon and pronounced fit for duty, after some rest.
Writing about writing is something I rarely do. Most of my blog posts are either historical or centre around life with Labradors on the Isle of Man. I’ve read some fantastic posts about the writing process from other authors, but I’d rather come to the conclusion that I’m not particularly introspective when it comes to my own work. I love what I do, but I don’t spend a lot of time analysing it and I dread the interview question “what made you become a writer?”. The best answer I could give to that is “I couldn’t help it.”
Recently, however, something has happened to change my outlook on this. I was asked to teach a creative writing course as an evening class at the University College Isle of Man. This was a new experience for me, although I’ve done training and work in schools, but the idea of designing a course was irresistible. It was a short course, really just to test the water, four weeks on writing fiction, but it has made me think about my writing in a way that I don’t think I have before.
The course ended this week and seems to have been a great success; I really enjoyed it and I think the participants did too. I’ve been astonished at how much I’ve learned from working with them and watching their process as they began their stories, met their characters and studied themes and plot and dialogue. But best of all, it has made me go back and revisit some of my books, thinking again about how and why I do what I do.
In order to teach something, you have to be able to break it down and I’ve found it easier to do this, as I’ve recently been working on revising one of my earliest books. The Reluctant Debutante was a Regency romance which I originally wrote when I was trying the traditional publishing route, and it was designed for the Mills and Boon historical market. I was unsuccessful with it, although it did get some very positive feedback.
When I decided to try self-publishing, I had no idea what I was doing, so I chose to publish my three standalone novels first, using them to test the waters before publishing the Peninsular War Saga. I wasn’t expecting much in the way of sales and did no real publicity. The first two books bombed as much as I had expected, but the third, my Regency romance, began to sell. I tried a free promotion and the uptake was huge. A few reviews trickled in and a few Goodreads ratings. Off the back of that, I began to get some sales of the other two books. Surprisingly, although never a bestseller, The Reluctant Debutante was my most popular book for a long time; a tribute to the enduring popularity of the Regency genre.
I’ve explained elsewhere why I was never really happy with that book. Occasionally I would get another review, many of them good and one or two absolutely terrible. Like all authors, I hate bad reviews, but I’ve learned to take them philosophically. My problem with this book, was that I kind of agreed with them.
After the publication of An Untrustworthy Army and before really getting stuck in to writing This Blighted Expedition I finally decided to do something about The Reluctant Debutante. I’d not read it through since I published it, and doing so was something of a shock to my system. It wasn’t that there was anything fundamentally wrong with the plot, it’s just that it really wasn’t very well written. The dialogue, always my strong point, was the best part although I don’t think it represented the characters as it should have. But the point of view was all over the place, the structure was messy and there was no clue as to the theme, even though I knew what it was in my head.
I’ve been revising this book along with teaching my course, and doing so has been incredibly useful, as it enabled me to break down the book and look at it in the way I was encouraging my students to do with their own writing. In the end, I didn’t need to change as much as I thought I would. I let the characters tell their story, but I was far clearer about the story they were telling. I gave them a voice, not just in the words they spoke but also in the thoughts they had, the internal dialogue which is so clear in some of my later books but which I seemed to have missed out entirely in this early effort.
I’m cautiously pleased with the result, and given that Giles is a minor character in the Peninsular War Saga and has a major role to play in my current book, I’m happy now, with the way he’s turned out. Part way through the first draft of This Blighted Expedition, I’m conscious of how much I’m applying some of the lessons I’ve learned to my new story.
You can write a very good book without reading a thing about crafting fiction. But personally, I think the work I’ve done in the classroom with my students, has made me a better writer. Certainly it has made me a more self-aware writer. I’m deeply grateful to them for their questions and contributions and endless curiosity about the writing process, both mine and theirs. I hope they all come back for another course and I really hope they all carry on writing. Every one of them has a different style and a different sphere of interest, but I think they have talent. I’m so grateful to University College Isle of Man for giving me the opportunity to teach this course and I hope to do more in the future.
“When one teaches, two learn.” (Robert Heinlein)
Happy New Year from Writing with Labradors and welcome to 2019.
It feels like more than a year since I wrote my first blog post of 2018. So much has happened during the year, both personally and professionally, that it’s hard to know where to start, but as always, I’ve thoroughly enjoyed getting to know more of my readers, both in person and online, and I love the fact that more and more people are beginning to contact me through the website and following me on Facebook, Twitter and Instagram.
2018 saw the publication of two new books. The first of these, which came out in April, was An Unwilling Alliance. This book is the first of a new series, following the career of Captain Hugh Kelly RN, a fictional Manx Royal Navy captain during the Napoleonic Wars. It is also part of the Peninsular War Saga, slotting in approximately between books one and two, telling the story of Paul van Daan and the 110th during the Copenhagen campaign of 1807. I was able to set part of the book on the Isle of Man, where I live, and I loved being able to talk about the island to a wider audience.
The second book of 2018 was An Untrustworthy Army, book six of the Peninsular War Saga. It tells the story of Wellington’s Salamanca campaign and the miserable retreat from Burgos at the end of 1812. For some reason, I found this book very difficult. Partly, it was because my fictional brigade is part of the light division which was unusually not very active during much of this campaign. Partly, I think it was because the end of the campaign was genuinely so miserable, that it was hard to tell the story without sinking into unrelieved gloom. I think I managed it eventually, but it took a while. Fortunately, Craufurd the Dog stepped in with a bit of light relief. There were also goats.
Richard and I went on a tour of the Pyrenees in April, to research Vitoria and the Pyrenees campaigns. We had a great time and toured a few battlefields although I suspect we ate and drank rather better than Wellington’s army in 1813. I’m really looking forward to the next few books, as the Pyrenees give a lot of scope for the 110th to really get itself into trouble. We also spent a week in Northern Ireland in the summer, which was beautiful and set off a whole new sub-plot involving the United Irishmen and Michael O’Reilly in my over-active brain. Watch this space for that one, it’s happening sometime.
I wrote three new short stories this year. An Impossible Attachment was written for Valentine’s Day and tells the story of an unlikely romance between a French prisoner of war and the widow of an English officer in Portugal in 1812. The Quartermaster was a Halloween ghost story set in Ciudad Rodrigo in 1812 and The Christmas After tells the story of eight people thrown together on a winter’s journey by mail coach in 1815 who find common ground in their memories of the battle of Waterloo; it completes the story begun in An Impossible Attachment.
In October, I was invited to join a panel of historical novelists speaking at the Malvern Festival of Military History and it was a great experience to be up there alongside some of the best in the genre. The bonus was that I got to spend the weekend listening to a fantastic line up of historians, culminating with the wonderful Paddy Ashdown talking about his latest book.
On a personal level, it has been a mixed year at Writing with Labradors. Luka, our leopard gecko died early in the year at the age of twelve. She was my son’s eighth birthday present and for many years her tank lived in his room. Later she moved into my study and would sit watching me work for hours, during the evenings after her feed.
In May, our lives were lit up by the arrival of Oscar, our new baby black labrador. Oscar is completely gorgeous and has fitted into our family as if he’d always been there. He and Joey bonded immediately and are completely inseparable. Toby was a bit more aloof to start with, but quickly fell in love, and the three of them had the most marvellous time through the early summer months. The weather was hot and sunny and we practically lived outside, reading, writing and watching the three dogs playing.
We had a fright in June when Joey, our twelve year old yellow labrador’s back legs suddenly gave out, and we had a couple of days of sheer misery, wondering how serious the problem was, and if we were going to lose him. It turned out to be a false alarm, it was arthritis, and stronger pain relief and joint supplements very quickly got him back on his feet.
I’ll never forget that summer, because it turned out to be Toby’s last. The amazing weather continued, the kids’ exams were over, and we spent every minute we could outside in the sun. My daughter asked for a hammock for her birthday in July and it became Oscar’s new playground, leaping through the air to join her as she lay there reading, while the older dogs watched, looking as though they were laughing. I was working on the new book, enjoying all of us having time to be together, enjoying Oscar becoming an essential part of family life.
On July 23rd I worked in my study in the morning, but all three dogs wanted to play, so we moved outside and I sat working on the porch while they ran around chasing each other. They collapsed finally for a long nap, woke for dinner and then sat with us on the porch again until after dark. We said goodnight and went to bed. The following morning Toby was lying peacefully in his usual spot and I didn’t even realise he was dead until I touched him. It was a horrible shock; he was fourteen but other than his arthritis, seemed really well and there was no warning.
Despite the shock, it was a very peaceful end and although we miss him desperately, I’m so grateful for that. I was worried about Joey but although he missed Toby, I’m thankful that we had already got a new puppy, as it made the transition much easier for him. Once again, Writing with Labradors is down to two dogs, although Toby is close by and will always hold a very special place in my heart.
So what’s next? I’m planning a busy year in 2019, with the following projects on the go:
- My next book is the second about Hugh Kelly and tells the story of the disastrous Walcheren campaign of 1809. As with Copenhagen, this was a joint operation with the army and navy. Paul van Daan is busy in the Peninsula with Wellesley, but the 110th has a second battalion and I’m looking forward to getting on with the research and meeting my new characters. I don’t have a publication date for this one yet, as the subject is completely new and I can’t yet tell how long the research will take. I intend to go to Walcheren for a research trip and I’m very much hoping to be there in August for the 210th anniversary re-enactment.
- I’m attending the Wellington Congress in Southampton in April to indulge myself in learning more about my favourite general and to meet up with some good friends.
- I’m hoping to attend the Malvern festival again.
- I’m starting a new venture this year, teaching some adult education classes in history and creative writing at the Isle of Man College.
- I’m aiming for four free short stories this year, to celebrate Valentine’s Day, Summer, Halloween and Christmas.
- I’m hoping to make a good start on (possibly even to finish) Book 6 of the Peninsular War Saga, which is set during winter quarters of 1812-13.
- The Peninsular War Saga will be available in paperback, initially from Amazon, but later in the year from some local bookshops and to purchase through my website.
- A complete revamp of my website.
- New editions of the two books of the Light Division romances series, to connect them more closely to the Peninsular War Saga.
With all this to look forward to, 2019 is going to be a busy year here at Writing with Labradors. Thanks so much to all of you who have read and enjoyed the books, and a special thanks to those who have left reviews. I really value them.
Have a happy and healthy new year and I look forward to hearing from many of you in 2019.
With much love
Lynn, Joey and Oscar
I began writing the Peninsular War Saga some years ago. At the time, I was attempting to find an agent or a publisher for one of my standalone historical romances, without much success. I had a lot of very positive feedback about my writing, my plots and my characterisation but everybody was saying the same thing; we’re sorry, but there is no market for traditional historical romance any more.
More than one agent urged me to try to write a contemporary romance. I made several attempts and hated all of them. Many people told me that with just a little adjustment, I could write for Mills and Boon historical. Once again, I made the attempt, and the people at Mills and Boon were lovely, gave great feedback, but were just not sure that my characterisation was quite right for them. I was getting nowhere.
To cheer myself up, I decided to scrap all my dreams of writing a marketable historical romance and just write something that I really wanted to do. There was definitely no market for a new series about the Peninsular War, since it had been done to death in the years following the runaway success of the Sharpe books and TV series. Still, it’s what I wanted to write, and since it was clear that nobody was going to read it anyway, I felt very liberated. I decided I could write it just for me, about a collection of people who didn’t always feel heroic or brave or even that patriotic. A lot of them joined because they had no option, or because they needed a job. They fought and they died and a lot of them became heroes. They also got wet, got grumpy when they were hungry, got sore feet and developed a bad head cold from time to time.
I wanted to explore areas of the war that I’d not really seen a lot about. What about the medical services? How did the commissariat work and who was responsible for ordnance and transport and prisoners of war? And what about the women and children who followed the army? What was it like in camp and on the long marches and all the boring hours between battles and skirmishes? What were relationships like between officers and men, away from the parade ground and the tidy regulations which governed army life?
Out of all these questions was born the Peninsular War Saga. Finally tired of trying to persuade an agent or a publisher to read one of the books, I decided to publish independently, without really thinking I’d sell more than a dozen copies, let alone develop an enthusiastic following. With book five doing well and book six in the early planning stages, I consider I’ve been incredibly lucky.
The Peninsular War Saga tells the story of the men and women of the fictional 110th Infantry during the wars against Napoleon; in particular, a young officer called Paul van Daan who joins the regiment in 1802 as it is about to go to India to fight under General Arthur Wellesley.
From the battle of Assaye, through Italy, Copenhagen and Portugal, we follow the early career of Lieutenant Paul van Daan, the most unusual officer ever to join the 110th as he attempts to find his place in the regiment. Along the way he makes both friends and enemies, discovers a talent for leadership and shares his life with two very different women.
An Unconventional Officer is slightly different to the other books, as it covers a longer time period, almost eight years. I wanted it to be a full introduction to Paul’s story and to get him to the point where he was well-established in Wellington’s army. While it introduces many of the main characters, the heart of this novel is the love story between Paul and Anne and its theme is Paul’s gradual development from a young officer willing to break all the rules, to a slightly more mature officer who is beginning to learn to fit in a little better.
This book is really a spin-off from the Peninsular War Saga, but it fits very securely within the series as well. It takes place halfway through the action of An Unconventional Officer, during the Copenhagen campaign, which is mentioned, but not explored in book one. I adore this book, partly because the navy theme enabled me to set part of it on the island which is my home and which I love, and partly because it is a real coming-of-age book for Major van Daan as well as a key point in his developing friendship with Sir Arthur Wellesley.
It is 1806 and Captain Hugh Kelly RN returns to the Isle of Mann after fifteen years with a few months leave and a small fortune in prize money to find himself a sensible Manx wife. He pays court to Roseen Crellin, who is determined to resist her father’s efforts to find her a husband. Still dreaming of the young English soldier who sailed away and broke her heart, she has no intention of encouraging Captain Kelly’s courtship and certainly no intention of developing feelings for the man.
Major Paul van Daan is newly promoted and just back from Ireland, sailing with his battalion to Copenhagen under the command of Sir Arthur Wellesley. Paul’s courage and talent are unquestioned but his diplomatic skills need some work and in a joint operation with the navy there are many ways for a man of Paul’s temperament to get things wrong.
As Britain hovers on the brink of war with neutral Denmark and the diplomats and politicians negotiate to keep the Danish fleet out of Bonaparte’s hands, a more personal drama plays out on the decks of the Royal Navy and in the lines of Lord Cathcart’s army which could change the lives of Hugh, Roseen and Paul forever.
This book covers an area of the war that I knew very little about. The building and manning of the lines of Torres Vedras are absolutely fascinating and worth a lot more time than I was able to give them. It is also the story of a young couple learning to be married, and sets the tone for Paul and Anne’s relationship throughout the series. If you don’t leave your hero and heroine at the church door, you have to work out what their marriage is going to be like, and I loved the challenge of that.
On the heights of Bussaco Ridge, Paul van Daan leads his battalion into action under Lord Wellington in his defeat of the French under Marshal Massena. The book explores Paul’s developing career, and the happiness of his marriage to the lovely young widow of a fellow officer. As Wellington prepares to chase Massena out of Portugal, Paul is serving under the worst general in the army and must find a way to keep his regiment safe and protect his reputation.
In addition to the battles and the personal stories of my characters, I wanted to introduce something about army politics during this book. I particularly love finding an interesting, funny or even a very sad story from history and trying to work it into the lives of my characters.
Lord Wellington has led his army to the Spanish border where the French occupy their last stronghold in Portugal at Almeida. As the two armies face each other in the village of Fuentes de Onoro, Colonel Paul van Daan is becoming accustomed to his new responsibilities in command of a brigade and managing the resentment of other officers at his promotion over older and longer serving men. His young wife is carrying their first child and showing no signs of allowing her delicate situation to get in the way of her normal activities. And if that was not enough, Paul encounters a French colonel during the days of the battle who seems to have taken their rivalry personally, with potentially lethal consequences for the 110th and the rest of the third brigade of the light division.
This was definitely the most emotional book for me to write. I wanted to highlight the plight of women in wartime, and I’m proud of this book, but it was extremely painful for me.
In the freezing January of 1812, Lord Wellington pushes his army on to the fortress town of Ciudad Rodrigo and a bloody siege with tragic consequences. Colonel Paul van Daan and his wife Anne have a baby son and in the aftermath of the storming, take a brief trip to Lisbon to allow Paul’s family to take little William back to England. With his career flourishing and his marriage happy, Paul has never felt so secure. But his world is shattered when his young wife is taken prisoner by a French colonel with a personal grudge against Paul. As Wellington’s army begins the siege of Badajoz, the other great Spanish border fortress, his scouts and agents conduct a frantic search for the colonel’s wife. Meanwhile Anne van Daan is in the worst danger of her life and needs to call on all her considerable resources to survive, with no idea if help is on the way.
This book covers both triumph and miserable retreat and was a wonderful opportunity both to introduce some new characters and to revisit one of the major storylines from the first book. It turned out to be more emotional than I expected and I loved being able to highlight one of my favourite characters whom I felt I’d neglected a little. The story of the retreat from Burgos was impossible to glamorise and highlighted both the best and the worst of Wellington’s army.
It is June 1812 and back with her husband and his brigade, Anne van Daan is beginning to recover from her ordeal at the hands of Colonel Dupres as Lord Wellington marches his army into Spain and up to Salamanca. In a spectacularly successful action, Wellington drives the French back although not without some damage to the Third Brigade of the Light Division.
Still recovering from their losses at Ciudad Rodrigo and Badajoz earlier in the year, the Light Division remains in Madrid while Wellington lays siege to Burgos but some of Paul’s brigade have troubles of their own.
Lieutenant Simon Carlyon is determined not to allow his dead brother’s shameful reputation to blight his career in the army but finds it harder than expected to serve under the man who killed him. Colonel Johnny Wheeler is finding the lie he told to protect others difficult to live with, faced with the unrelenting hostility of a young officer. And Captain Michael O’Reilly’s life becomes complicated through a casual act of kindness.
The end of the campaigning season is not going as well for the Allied army and triumph turns to an undignified and dangerous retreat. At a time when the discipline of Wellington’s army seems to have broken down, Van Daan’s brigade need to set personal matters aside and concentrate on staying alive long enough to reach safety.
That’s as far as I’ve got with the novels. My next book is intended to be the sequel to An Unwilling Alliance, covering the disastrous Walcheren campaign of 1809. I’ve not been able to find a novel covering this campaign before so it feels like uncharted territory. I intend to pick up Hugh Kelly’s story, but as the campaign once again involved both army and navy, I will be joining the men of the 110th second battalion, who, while Major van Daan was leading the first battalion to glory in the Peninsula, were unlucky enough to be sent to Walcheren. The working title is An Inauspicious Expedition.
The other books in the Peninsular War Saga, as planned so far are as follows:
An Unrelenting Enmity: set during winter quarters from December 1812 to April 1813
An Auspicious Action: the story of the battle of Vitoria
An Uncivilised Storming: the Pyrenees and San Sebastian
An Inexorable Invasion: the invasion of France
An Improbable Abdication: Toulouse and the return to England
An Unmerciful Engagement: Waterloo
An Amicable Occupation: the Army of Occupation
Looking at that list, I feel a combination of excitement and sheer terror. At present I seem to be able to manage two books a year, but some of these will take more research than others, so I don’t promise that. There will also be more in the Manxman series, since I hope at some point to be able to reunite Hugh Kelly and Paul van Daan.
Currently, I’m beginning the research for the book about Walcheren, which will be published some time next year; I can’t give a date yet until I have a better idea of how long the research will take. I’m also making notes about book 6 in the main saga, which may be quicker to write, given that it is set outside of the main battles and campaigns, although obviously, given that this is the 110th, there will be some action.
So far, most of the books have been published only as e-books, but I am working at changing that. Early next year I am hoping to have all the books in paperback on Amazon, and then to get them into some bookshops or for sale on my website later in the year.
I’ve come a very long way from believing that nobody wants to read another series about the Peninsular War, and I’m so grateful to all my readers, especially those who follow me on facebook and twitter and visit my website regularly. Some of you have left fabulous reviews as well, and every good review is like a gift, even if it’s only a couple of lines.
It has been a good year in many ways at Writing with Labradors, despite losing our beloved Toby. We’re so grateful we have Oscar to step into his paw prints, and we’re looking forward to an even better 2019. In the meantime, remember to look out for book giveaways on Amazon on Christmas Eve, in honour of the Jolabokaflod or Christmas Book Flood. And for future giveaways and updates, please click on the link to subscribe to the newsletter.
Merry Christmas and a Happy New Year from all of us at Writing with Labradors.
As it is Hop tu Naa here on the Isle of Man (Halloween to the rest of you) I thought I’d share one of our local legends, the story of the Moddey Dhoo, or black hound, which according to Manx folklore haunts Peel Castle.
Peel is on the west coast of the Isle of Man, a pretty little town, with the ruins of a magnificent castle, originally built by the Vikings, standing on St Patrick’s Isle. The castle was built in the eleventh century, originally of wood, and was added to over the centuries. The cathedral was also located on the island until it was abandoned during the eighteenth century. Peel Castle is now owned by Manx National Heritage.
The original written source of the story of the Moddey Dhoo comes from English topographer and poet George Waldron, who wrote his History and Description of the Isle of Man, first published in 1713. This is his version of the legend:
“They say, that an apparition called, in their language, the Mauthe Doog, in the shape of a large black spaniel with curled shaggy hair, was used to haunt Peel Castle; and has been frequently seen in every room, but particularly in the guard-chamber, where, as soon as candles were lighted, it came and lay down before the fire in presence of all the soldiers, who at length, by being so much accustomed to the sight of it, lost great part of the terror they were seized with at its first appearance.”
There was apparently a passage which crossed the church grounds and led to the room occupied by the captain of the guard, where the Moddey Dhoo used to appear as it grew dark, returning the same way at dawn. Waldron reports that one drunken guard ignored the usual procedure of locking the gates of the castle in pairs, and did it alone. After locking up, the guard was supposed to go along the haunted passage to deliver the keys to the captain. Strange sounds were heard that night and when the man returned to the guard room he was white and terrified, unable to stop shaking. He never spoke of that he had seen that night, but three days later, he was dead. This was the last recorded sighting of the Moddey Dhoo; it was decided to seal up the haunted passage and use a different route, and the hound was seen no more.
Waldron’s Moddey Dhoo made a comeback in a different form when Sir Walter Scott wrote Peveril of the Peak, an installment of his Waverly novels, in 1823 and introduced the “Manthe Dog” which was a demon in the shape of a large, shaggy black mastiff. Scott’s fiendish dog was somewhat larger than the Manx spaniel, but he credited Waldron as the source of his creation in his author’s notes.
Local legend claims that the Moddey Dhoo has been sighted beyond the walls of Peel Castle over the years. William Walter Gill has written some of the accounts which have placed the ghostly dog near Ballamodda, Ballagilbert Glen and possibly Hango Hill. He also reports sightings in the 1920s and 1930s at Milntown corner, near Ramsey.
Moving to the island back in 2002, I had never heard of the Moddey Dhoo until my first visit to Peel Castle. When we acquired Toby, our huge black labrador, we were frequently greeted by strangers when we were walking him, comparing him to Peel’s most famous canine. With Toby gone now, we have Oscar, a younger version, to keep the old legend fresh in our minds.
I always really liked the original story of the ghostly dog coming to doze by the garrison fire until morning. He must have been irritated when the antics of a drunken guard caused his route to be blocked up. In my admittedly over-active imagination, he went elsewhere and found a warm spot in the cottage of an old man who thought he was a local stray and welcomed the company. That guard probably died of a pickled liver anyway.
For anybody who wants a historic ghost story, I wrote The Quartermaster to celebrate Hop tu Naa this year and An Exploring Officer last year, both set during the Peninsular War. They’re both free, so read, enjoy and share if you wish.
Happy Hop tu Naa (or Halloween) to everybody, from all of us at Writing with Labradors. Here on the Isle of Man, they say that the veil between the worlds is much thinner on this night, and spirits of the dead can be seen. Like the garrison of Peel Castle all those years ago, I’d be very happy if the spirit of one particular black dog wandered in and curled up by the fire just like he used to…
Welcome to the very first guest blog post from yours truly, Joey the Labrador, senior officer here at Writing with Labradors.
I’ve wanted to do one for a while, but the first couple of posts had to come from our senior officer and I was okay to wait my turn. I didn’t expect it to come like this, with Toby gone now and me in charge of Oscar, our young subaltern. Still, it’s time to step up and do the job.
It’s been more than six weeks since we lost Toby and we’re all getting more used to it, though we’ll never stop missing him. At first I used to forget he was gone and wander around looking for him but I’m over that now. Having Oscar has been the best thing ever, I’m never lonely. He’s always close by, sometimes a bit closer than I need him to be, to be honest. I know I loved old Toby, he was my best mate all my life, but I’m pretty sure I never used to sit on him. Still, although I tell him off from time to time, I secretly quite like Oscar wanting to be that close to me.
Life goes on and there are always changes. Jon-human has started work now and isn’t around studying all the time so there have been some changes in the study. The big table has gone and we’ve got a very comfy sofa and armchair instead which makes it much more homely. Personally I still like my bed best, just behind her chair, so she has to ask me to move if she wants to get up for a cup of tea, but Oscar loves the sofa and we’re very settled in there all day when she’s writing. The extra space means that there’s a lot more space for playing as well. She gets very aggy when we make too much noise in there, but I know she likes it really, she’s soft in the head when it comes to us labradors.
The writing is going very well, apparently. The new book is doing well. It’s my favourite, An Unwilling Alliance, since a chunk of it is set right here on the Isle of Man and talks about the places she takes us for walks. Mind, there’s not enough dogs in it. Toby used to complain about that and he was right, although she promises that Craufurd the Puppy features very regularly in the next one which is out in a couple of months. She’s also planning on introducing a second dog, called Toby at some point, in honour of the old fella. I like that idea, don’t know much about how it’s going to work, I just know that every time she thinks about it, she starts laughing. Madwoman, I’ve always said it.
Meanwhile, she’s been off doing research which means Anya-human is in charge of us. This is great news as she spoils us rotten and even lets us sleep in her bedroom which is normally off-limits. I particularly like it when she sends photos of this to her mother who can do nothing about it because she’s stuck in a castle in some remote part of Spain gibbering about battlefields. Next month she away at the Malvern Festival of Military History, whatever the hell that is. She seems very excited about it. I’m excited because I bet the teen humans have friends over which means illegal pizza, illegal sleeping in the bedrooms and more fuss and attention that I know what to do with. Great news…
Autumn is on its way, and it’s fun teaching Oscar how to chase leaves in the wind. My legs are a lot better now and although I’ve been grumpy about it, I think losing a bit of weight has done me good. I’m getting on a bit, no question, but I want to stick around as long as I can for Oscar and the rest of the family. And having this puppy has definitely made me feel a lot younger again. He’s a lot of fun, although between you and me, I’m not really sure he’s all that bright. A bit like Toby, who was the best friend in the world, but not much between his ears other than daylight. Sometimes I see him in Oscar…
Writing with Labradors is back on track and I think our senior officer would be proud of us. Sitting out on the porch on sunny days, I look at his statue and I’m very glad to have known him. One day Oscar will sit here thinking of me like this, but it’s great to know the tradition is going to carry on through him.
She probably wants me to mention that there is another book coming out soon, An Untrustworthy Army, which is book 5 in the Peninsular War Saga. Most importantly it features at least one dog. I recommend you read it on that basis alone.
In the meantime, I’ve just realised the time. Must be lunchtime by now…
An Irregular Regiment : arriving back at the Lines of Torres Vedras, the hero of the Peninsular War Saga, Major Paul van Daan, is learning to adapt to a wife who sees herself as more than a drawing room ornament or the mother of his children…
The lines had been created from two ridges of hills by local labour working under the supervision of Fletcher and his engineers. Closed earthworks with a series of small redoubts holding 3-6 guns and 200-300 men, were sited along the high ground of each ridge. Buildings, olive groves and vineyards had been destroyed, denying any cover to an attacking force. Rivers and streams had been dammed to flood the ground below the hills and sections of hillside had been cut or blasted away to leave small but sheer precipices. Ravines and gullies were blocked by entanglements. As she rode beside Paul, listening to him explaining the work that had been done, Anne was amazed at Wellington’s achievement.
“We’ll wait behind the lines,” Paul said. “The fortifications are manned by the Portuguese militia, some Spanish and a few British gunners and marines. Wellington has set up a communication system using semaphore, which is extraordinary. He’s got a proper system based on that bastard Popham’s marine vocabulary but there’s a simpler system in place that the locals can use in case the navy pulls out.”
Anne regarded him blankly. “Popham? Semaphore? This is a side of you I know nothing about.”
Paul stared at her and then laughed. “Well I learned some in the navy as a boy,” he said. “And a little more during the Copenhagen campaign. Which, as you know, did not go well for me. Popham is an arsehole but he’s clever and the system works. I actually find it quite interesting. We can mobilise troops faster than Massena will believe, and the roads the engineers have created mean we can move up and down the lines to where we’re needed very fast. And Wellington has scorched the terrain for miles outside. The French are very good at living off the land, but I think he’s got them beaten this time. It just depends on how long it takes them to realise it.” He smiled at her. “And then we wait, and collect reinforcements and supplies and train our army. Next year we’ll be ready for another advance.”
Anne nodded. She was watching him. “What is it, Paul?”
Paul glanced at her, surprised. Since his conversation with Johnny during the retreat he had found himself studying Anne at odd moments, imagining her as he had known her in Yorkshire. She had always seemed to him much older than her years but now that he had been reminded of her youth he found himself wondering if he had rushed her into this marriage. He had wanted her so badly for so long that when Robert Carlyon had died he had not thought twice about their future together but now he was suddenly anxious that he had not given her enough time. He had not realised that any of this was evident to Anne.
“How do you always know?” he asked curiously.
“Your voice. Your face. Something has been bothering you for a few days.”
“Nan – do I expect too much of you?”
Anne stared at him for a long time. Eventually she said:
“Carl or Johnny? Actually it could be any of them, but they’re the two most likely to say it to you. The rest just think it.”
Paul burst out laughing. “Johnny,” he said. “He noticed you were upset that day in the village. Hearing what they’d done with the girls and at the murder of the villagers. He pointed out that I’d never have let Rowena hear that story. And he was right, I wouldn’t.”
“Paul, I can’t comment on your marriage to Rowena. I only know what I want. Right from the start you have refused to treat me like an idiot or a child, which is how most men treat most women. It is probably a big part of why I love you so much. But that must be difficult because sometimes it means I will get upset, or frightened. And you can’t protect me from that.”
“Johnny reminded me how young you were,” Paul said quietly, reaching for her hand. “And as I heard myself say it, I realised that he might have a point. That at twenty you should be thinking about parties and fashion and jewellery and all the things that I should be able to give you. I’m taking you on a tour of redoubts and blockhouses instead of riding in the row and introducing you to George Brummell and the Prince of Wales.”
Anne began to laugh. “Should I like either of them?”
“I think you’d like George, I do myself. Not so sure about Prinny. Although he’d definitely like you. Now that I think about it, you’re probably safer out here with Wellington, who actually does know how to behave although he wishes he didn’t. But seriously…”
“Paul, seriously, what is this about?”
“I never asked you,” Paul said abruptly. “About any of this. I walked into the villa and I carried you to bed and five days later you’re my wife and in an army camp up to your ankles in mud with no prospect of a normal life, and I never once asked you if that was all right.”
“Did you ever ask Rowena?”
“No. She was pregnant and completely desperate. I took her to Naples deliberately so that she could have Francis away from home. By the time we came back the gossips had forgotten to add up dates and there was no scandal. I never asked her because she had no bloody choice, I’d already had what I wanted out of her, she could hardly say no. And that was unbelievably selfish of me. I meant to do things so differently with you. But I didn’t, did I? By the time we got married I’d already created such a bloody scandal with you that you didn’t have much more choice than Rowena did.”
“And that has been bothering you for days hasn’t it?” Anne was smiling.
“Yes. We laughed about it at the time, but I don’t think I even asked you to marry me properly. I just took what I wanted. Again.”
“Oh love, stop it.” Anne seemed to realise suddenly that he was genuinely upset. “I am going to kick Captain Wheeler for this.”
“It’s not his fault, Nan. It just made me look at this differently. I’ve been so happy. And so completely wrapped up in myself. And that’s what I do. I met you in Yorkshire, and…”
“Paul, stop. What is it you think you should have said to me back in Lisbon?”
“I should have asked you to marry me. I should have told you that I know I am not offering you even a part of what you should have, and that the life is hard and painful and often very sad. There are risks and dangers and you’ll see and hear things that will stay with you all your life. I should have told you how much I love you and that if you wanted you could stay in Lisbon or even go back to England, and I’d still marry you. I should have told you that if I have to choose between this life and you, I choose you. And I should have left you time to make up your mind.”
Anne put her arms about him. “Yes, Major,” she said quietly. “My answer is still yes. And I’m not going either to Lisbon or to England unless that is where you are going too. I love you, and I love this life. I love your regiment no matter how foul mouthed and filthy they are, and I even love Captain Wheeler although I feel sorely tempted to throw him off Bussaco Ridge the next time he does this to you. I am exactly where I want to be. With you. If you show any signs of trying to shelter me in the way you did with Rowena, you are going to find yourself in serious trouble. And how can I doubt what you’d give up for me when you’d have given up your career if you’d fought that duel with Robert?”
“I love you, Paul. The way you are. I am not going back to England to sew cushion covers and dance at the hunt ball. Since I’ve been out here I’ve discovered there is a lot more to me than that. I’d like to find out what else I’m capable of. And I want to be with you. So please, stop listening to your officers trying to tell you that you’re doing this wrong, because you’re not. Being married to any one of them would drive me mad. And drive them even madder.”
Paul looked down into the dark eyes. He could remember his immense happiness during their hasty wedding, but somehow this felt more significant, as though what they were saying now, mattered more than the ritualised words of the marriage service. This was the conversation he had never found a way to have with Rowena and he realised its absence had got in the way of his feelings for her.
“If that ever changes, you need to tell me.”
Anne’s dark eyes were steady on his. “It isn’t all one way, Paul. I know I’m unconventional. Some of that isn’t going to change. But if I am making your life hard…”
“I might. Without ever meaning to. And if I am, you need to tell me so. No silent anger or resentment. That isn’t the way we are going to do things.”
Paul nodded, his eyes on her face. “What did I take on when I married you?” he said softly.
“Just me. I’m not easy, Paul.”
“I know. But somehow I don’t seem to find you difficult at all.”
“Prove it,” Anne said unexpectedly, and he laughed suddenly and reached for her, scooping her up into his arms.
“You don’t have to tell me twice, lass,” he said, his mood suddenly soaring again. “Good thing they’ve not manned this fort yet, it’s nice and sheltered in there.”
Anne was laughing too. “Serve you right if a company of Portuguese militia marches in while you’re busy,” she said. Paul bent his head to kiss her.
“I’ll take the chance,” he said.
Toby was the result of a snap decision after spending some time with friends who had a young black labrador. It was a decision that changed our lives.
We had lost our beloved cats, Reggie and Ronnie, over a year earlier. Both lived to be more than twenty and we couldn’t imagine finding cats with their enormous personalities to replace them. We were living on the Isle of Man by then with two young children, both of whom had fallen in love with Tavey, our friends’ dog during our visit. On the way home, Richard said suddenly:
“Shall we get a dog?”
“A labrador?” I asked hopefully. I’d spent a huge amount of time many years earlier staying with the family of a university friend. They always had dogs, black labradors and a springer spaniel. I adored Worthington and Henry and had always thought that if I could have a dog, that’s what I’d like.
“Well they’re good with children,” Richard said.
The conversation might have rested there, but when we arrived home, I picked up the free paper from among the mail and flicked through it. With our conversation in mind, I glanced at the classifieds and to my surprise, there it was, a small advert.
“There’s somebody advertising labrador puppies here, in Ballaugh,” I said.
Richard looked at me. “Ring them,” he said. “We can go and have a look. We don’t need to get one. Don’t let the children know, in case we decide not to do it.”
Looking back on that piece of naivety makes me howl with laughter.
There was one puppy left when I rang, a black boy. It was a small litter, only four puppies, the mother a family pet. We arranged a time to go up when the children were at school, having told them nothing.
The house was chaos, puppies confined to a large pen but still taking over the room. Richard sat down next to the pen and someone deposited a black puppy onto his lap. “This is him. We call him Homer, he’s the biggest of the litter. Look at his paws.”
We looked. It was hard to miss those paws, they were enormous. I stroked the puppy’s ears. It had climbed up Richard’s chest and was licking his face. “What do you think?” I asked.
Richard didn’t answer. He’d obviously lost the ability to think, he was too busy falling in love.
Toby came into our lives like a small black tornado. He was lively, he was bouncy and he ate everything in sight. He ate our shoes and our clothes and our kitchen. He resisted all forms of training or discipline and made puppy training classes a nightmare. He clearly knew his name but had no idea why it mattered since he had no intention of responding to it. He was a new full time job and we adored him from day one.
My memories of Toby are a series of snapshots through the years. Toby as a puppy, failing to look guilty as some new piece of destruction came to light. Toby taking forever to learn ‘sit’, ‘down’, ‘heel’ and ‘come’, but then unexpectedly learning ‘turn’ and ‘paw’ without effort.
Toby first learning to swim down at Groudle Beach and then refusing to come out of the water because he loved it so much.
Toby as a young dog, taking pride of place beside Richard in our little red Mazda with the top down, ears blowing in the breeze as they headed off for the beach or the plantation.
Toby at two and a half, when we introduced Joey, the new puppy, patiently letting him jump all over him and then batting him halfway across the room when he got bored.
Toby at a barbecue, stealing a sharp kitchen knife off the worktop and racing out to greet an arriving guest to cries of “Hilary, watch out, he’s got a knife”
Toby refusing to come back to the car when it was time to go home, not once but many many times, making me late to collect the kids while I was coaxing him.
Toby at Silverdale, meeting an elderly man unexpectedly on the path and eliciting the remark: “Bloody hell, it’s the Moddey Dhoo!”
Toby taking the descent down Peel Hill too fast, rolling to the bottom and ending up with an operation and weeks of hydrotherapy to get him walking again.
Toby curled up on the beanbag with Anya when she was practicing her reading, listening to stories about dolphins and mermaids, loving the cuddles.
Toby on our “dog training for awkward dogs” intensive course, earning the nickname “Mr I will if I feel like it” after his determination not to walk to heel on the lead defeated experts in the field.
Toby getting older, his beard and eyebrows going grey, still handsome, very distinguished.
Toby sitting beside Jon and then Anya through their GCSEs and A levels, headbutting their books and laptops to get attention when they were trying to study.
Toby with arthritis, too stiff to move fast or go for long walks anymore, but loving the garden or a mooch around the beach.
Toby meeting Oscar, the new puppy. Standoffish at first, then interested, but very much in charge, very much the senior dog. All the little steps of acceptance; the first time sharing a bed, letting Oscar lick him, licking him back. Toby watching Joey and Oscar play fighting and then finally joining in, a bit stiff and awkward, but having fun, his tail wagging.
Toby sunbathing in this warm weather on the tiled front porch with his brothers, his fur warm to touch, snoring gently.
I’ve started to cry again as I write this. There is so much to say about Toby that I can’t write it all. He was my friend, my beloved dog for fourteen years, and I struggle to believe that I won’t see him again.
There was a day, a few weeks back, when we took the dogs to Groudle Beach. I’d not seen Toby go into the water properly for a long time but he clearly wanted to show Oscar how it was done. It brought tears to my eyes to see how happy he was, splashing about. He looked like a dog who was discovering some of his lost youth and seemed to be enjoying it.
A week ago we took the three of them to Derbyhaven Beach in the evening. He was less keen to swim that day but he paddled, and sniffed the rocks and walked around on the sand looking so happy, his tail wagging, a big grin on his face.
On Monday 23rd he joined in a huge playfight in my study, trashing the place and making work impossible until I kicked them out. They all fell asleep in mid-game, slept for about four hours and woke up to eat dinner, then sat outside with us watching the lights come on.
The next morning I found him apparently sleeping peacefully in the kitchen. There was no sign of illness or distress or any kind of trauma. Joey was sleeping next to him; Oscar nearby in his cage. He’d died in his sleep, almost as if he’d decided that this was as good as it was going to get. He refused the inevitable declining health and mobility; the misery of a family trying to decide when was the right time to let him go.
He went kindly and with dignity and that kind of death was a gift that many pet owners don’t get. I was in shock and then distraught and I cried when we buried him and didn’t know how I would ever stop. Our family has lost a beloved member and I hate that he’s not curled up next to me. There’s an empty bed; an empty space on the porch in the mornings and an empty space in my heart that will always be there for Toby.
There’s been an outpouring of sadness and sympathy online, not only from friends and family who knew Toby but from people who have got to know him online through following Writing with Labradors. I’ve been so touched at all the messages. It doesn’t make losing him any easier but it does help.
It’s only been a few days, and grief still catches all of us unawares. We all deal with it differently; the girls talk and cry a lot, the boys are quieter, sadder. Joey spent the first day wandering from room to room, knowing he was missing, which made me cry more. But we were so lucky to get Oscar, the perfect puppy, when we did. His company has settled Joey very quickly. It would have been much harder without him.
I’m never going to stop missing my big boy and I’m horribly aware that Joey isn’t that much younger than him. But the pain and the grief of loss when a pet dies is worth every moment for all the years of love and fun we’ve had with him. He was a fabulous dog, loving, funny and daft, and I don’t regret any of it.
Rest in peace, Toby Dawson. You were so loved.
What better way to spend a beautiful evening than to take a tour of haunted Castletown? That’s how I spent yesterday evening, courtesy of Isle of Man Ghost Tours, and I have to say I thoroughly enjoyed it.
I’ve done a few ghost walks in the UK over the years. The York one was particularly good and I also enjoyed Chester and Shrewsbury. A few years ago a friend invited me to join her work evening out which turned out to be a ghost walk around Douglas followed by a meal and drinks. It was winter, a freezing cold evening and I think the early darkness contributed to the atmosphere although by the end I suspect we were all too cold to enjoy the final few stories.
It was a different experience yesterday and we toured Castletown in the evening sun. It was a very small group; the walks have only just started up again for the summer season and it was Tynwald Day, a bank holiday on the Isle of Man, so I suspect a lot of local people were at St John’s or else at home enjoying the weather. My own family chickened out so I went alone.
The appeal of a ghost tour for me is only partly about the supernatural. I’m not really a believer in ghosts but I have always loved a good ghost story. As a child I was very susceptible to nightmares and I can remember my mother banning me from taking books of ghost stories from the library as she was fed up with being woken up in the night by an eight year old hearing imaginary bumps in the night. As an adult I still enjoy them and was a huge fan of the novels of the late, great Barbara Mertz who wrote some fantastic ghost stories under the pen name of Barbara Michaels.
But in addition to the supernatural element, I just like a good story, and that is what I got from the tour last night. The guide interspersed tales of hauntings and mysterious figures with comic anecdotes about such local characters as Gerald Gardner, the founder of the Wicca movement, who lived in Castletown and apparently had to be warned by the local constabulary for holding meetings in his home which included a collection of naked women. Gardner was obliged to get curtains put up to avoid offending the neighbours and to get rid of the horde of peeping Toms who used to hang around in the street outside.
The tour guide had clearly done his research, both in the archives and by talking to local people and visitors with stories to tell. He was a good speaker, very engaging, and the two hours passed very quickly. Some of the stories were genuinely funny; I particularly liked the one he apparently found in an old book telling of the ghost of a black headless dog in Castletown which can only be seen by another dog. A talking dog, presumably. I must take my boys down there and they can tell me if they see anything…
Other stories genuinely had a spooky feel about them. The ghostly woman in black seen around Castle Rushen is a very traditional ghost story but there’s a reason it’s a classic and the mysterious light coming on at night in one of the rooms of Compton House was also an odd one. I also enjoyed the haunting of the Old Grammar School; ghostly children’s voices singing in an empty building is a definite chiller.
I was curious to find out if there were any ghosts from the Napoleonic War period but there were none mentioned on this tour. A lot of the Manx chapters of An Unwilling Alliance are set in and around Castletown and it would be fun to come up with a story from that period. I’m currently looking out for an idea for a nice Manx ghost story for Hop tu Naa this year, so watch this space.
All in all, I’d really recommend this as a way to spend an evening. I’d like to go back to do some of the other tours as well; I’ve a feeling there are many more spooky tales to come.
It was growing dark as I walked back to the car past the gates of Castle Rushen and the old House of Keys. I honestly don’t believe in ghosts, but passing Compton House I couldn’t stop myself from looking up at the windows. No light came on. I was laughing at myself as I got to the car because I’m aware that I didn’t look back a second time. Just in case…