Exploring Family Heritage in Fiction

In writing his recent series of historical novels, author David Cairns, the Baron of Finavon, discovered inspiration close to home….

The explosion of genealogical research databases and their marketing over the last decade or so has stimulated a desire on the part of many to explore their personal lineage.  There must be many reasons for this but I like the answer given by a Canadian genealogist, Lorine McGinnis Schulze who summed it up this way: Without the past there is no present, nor can we build a future’.

I was born to a Scottish father and with cousins, aunts and uncles in Scotland I always felt an affinity with the country although I grew up in a London suburb (my wonderful mother was a genuine cockney). But it was nothing more than that.  

Fast forward 20 years and I can still recall finishing Nigel Tranter’s trilogy about Robert the Bruce, Scotland’s hero king, turning the last page and knowing then that this was a man whose actions centuries ago defined much about me today. 

In this re-telling of a story set at the turn of the 14th century the Bruce had become a real person and a sense of belonging now dawned on me, something that had lain dormant before.

In similar vein, when my wife and I visited Hobart in Tasmania a few years back and a librarian at the Female factory (the name of the prison we were visiting) brought out the original records that described the transgressions of one Mary Ann Goulding, a hesitant spark was ignited.  Mary Ann was my Australian wife’s ancestor who had been transported for stealing a clock from a shop on Regent Street in London in the early 19th century.  Until then I had just read a few lines about her.  Cold facts like a possible birth date and the date she arrived on a convict ship in Hobart.  But here was something tangible. Faded handwritten scrawls noting offences and punishments in a dog-eared ledger.  This physical connection with the past changed things for me.  Although older generations of Australians have tried to avoid any association with convict settlers, today’s Australians take pride in their linkage back to these pioneers; it’s almost a badge of honour, Australian royalty!  I decided there and then to undertake further research to fill out the timeline as a present for my wife.  I didn’t realise that this was to turn into much more than just a project.

I discovered a great deal about Mary Ann that was lurking in long-forgotten pages of buried dusty documents and also about the man she was to marry, Robert Bright, another unfortunate transported from Cambridge. But more than this I set myself the task of placing them in the context of the time, in the process learning new things such as the momentous story of the Swing riots and the burning down of the Houses of Parliament – events that strangely had not been taught to me at school.

I have always enjoyed using words to paint pictures and create emotions, so it was a short step from fleshing out their life histories to putting it down on paper to create a rounded reality from these names, dates and events.  I now wanted to breathe life into them much as other historical authors had done for me with their characters.

Indeed it was something that took on a life of its own.  Although I had the research to provide a pathway, as I wrote I found that I was putting myself into their shoes and the next sentence, paragraph and chapter evolved of its own accord as if they were talking to me, as if their anxieties, pains, ambitions, hopes had become my own.  It was a very strange but very fulfilling experience.

At times I wanted to embellish the story with deeds and thoughts appropriate for a hero and heroine but I was determined to stay true to the facts, warts and all, as I had them and, when I added colour to flesh out the story, I made sure that what I was writing was a natural progression supported by surrounding facts.  I was going to tell their story as it happened or not tell it at all.

It helped that they lived in momentous times and that Mary Ann in particular was a remarkably dogged, determined, formidable person who remained unbowed by a harsh, unfair system.  The journal that I discovered written by Mary Ann’s ship’s doctor when she was transported provided an enormous amount of information; I could almost have written a novel on that remarkable journey alone.  Likewise, the fabulous gold finds in Bendigo, Ballarat and surroundings and the tens of thousands of prospectors who swarmed onto the land to make their fortunes were a fertile backdrop.  The momentous massacre at the Eureka Stockade, the era of bushrangers and the very first test match between England and Australia also provided a three-dimensional backdrop on which to paint my story.  But most of all, it was the unquenchable strength of character of Mary Ann and Robert that lit up the pages so that when I finally laid down my metaphorical pen I felt that I had, at least to a degree, delivered justice to two forgotten pioneers and perhaps righted some wrongs in the process.

I presented the novels to my wife, Victoria and she devoured them as you might expect.  Some readers, also descendants, contacted me and one wrote: When I finished reading the books their passing saddened me, however they left me with a great legacy to be proud of, their achievements created the foundations of life as we know it today.   

It was a warm autumn day, the sun bathed the earth, a gentle breeze stirred the wild grasses and the trees whispered to us when my wife and I visited Robert and Mary Ann’s grave (for I had found where they now lie).  There they were. Together. Peaceful.  Victoria turned to me and said: “I wanted to step back in time and be with them and I feel that I can touch them now.  You brought them to life”.

That’s good enough for me.

What a powerful story, David. I truly appreciate you sharing it here on the blog. Family history inspired my first novel and I would love to explore my family connection to Robert the Bruce – a daunting prospect. I wish you great success with The Helot’s Tale.

The Helots’ Tale: Downfall and Redemption by David Cairns, the Baron of Finavon

How would you respond if your death sentence was commuted to life on an island prison half a world away? 

Robert Bright and Mary Ann Goulding are beginning life on the island prison of Van Diemen’s Land, serving their sentences under the strict control of a martinet Governor. Two real people caught up in the hopelessness of an unequal, class-ridden society who fight back as the new nation of Australia is forged.

Starting amongst the smog-laden streets of Victorian London, experience the life and times of Robert Bright and Mary Ann Goulding; real people caught up in the hopelessness of an unequal, class-ridden society who fight back as the new nation of Australia is forged.

The Helots’ Tale: Downfall and Redemption – is a deeply-researched two-part novel that transports the reader back in time, weaving intriguingly amongst the real people and real events of an age when the British Empire was in full flow. It describes the adventures of two of the 160,000 souls transported to the new world colonies of Australia in the 1800s.

Available online: https://amzn.to/3yYQ1Dd

David Cairns, the Baron of Finavon (an ancient Scottish title), has always been a student of history. Until recently, he was a technology entrepreneur. He has lived and worked on four continents.


M.K. Tod writes historical fiction. Her latest novel is THE ADMIRAL’S WIFE, a dual timeline set in Hong Kong. Mary’s other novels, PARIS IN RUINS, TIME AND REGRET, LIES TOLD IN SILENCE and UNRAVELLED are available from AmazonNookKoboGoogle Play and iTunes. She can be contacted on FacebookTwitter and Goodreads or on her website www.mktod.com.

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The historical fiction author behind A Writer of History...

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