FIona. Hello, dear hamster dudes! Yes, I am indeed, I’ve been running tours for 6 years now! But no, I’ve not ever thought of doing a hidden hamster tour.
Well, sadly, so far I’ve not found any record of hamsters doing anything significant in Aberdeen!
But, I’m sure they did! Just because things are not written down, doesn’t mean to say they didn’t happen! There were loads of secret tunnels and cellars they could have hidden in and witnessed some local dramas over the centuries – although they’d have to be careful of cats!
BUT, sadly hamsters did not arrive in Britain until 1939! You’ll love this though – the name hamster comes from a Persian (Iranian) word meaning “oppressor”!
It all started because I lost my dream job in Portsmouth as Conan Doyle Projects Officer! The funding was never renewed, so I just had to come back home. I decided there and then to never ever work for a council again, cos every council job I’ve ever had I’ve been made redundant from!
Anyway, I kinda started it even before I went to the south of England, as early as the spring of 2010, when I took a group of photographer friends around Old Aberdeen, which is where our main university campus is and has the oldest buildings in the city. At that time I had a job as curator for Grampian Police, so I got to indulge my interest in crime history – I planned to write a tour going round the sites of famous murders in the city, and when I came back in 2011, folk were like, “When are you doing this murder tour?” I wrote it up, put an event page on Facebook and 25 people turned up. It was scary! But folk liked it, so I kept doing it. I have 18 different routes now with 4 new ones planned for next year already. Basically, I take people around a set route and tell them stories about the different sites. I also do three routes which are “ghost tours” – which means that they are street theatre walks involving local actors who are playing real people from the past. That goes down very well. Tours involve a lot of writing to start with, then a lot of walking and talking!
Because, sadly, almost all of our historic buildings have been demolished and the folk in charge don’t seem to care! I have always wanted to know “what was there before” and take people back in time, if only in their imaginations. Our city was founded as a royal burgh in 1176 AD, but there’s evidence going away back to Neolithic times, so people have lived in the area for thousands of years.
Loads of them! But my real favourites are Johnny Milne, Aberdeen’s last executioner who only got the job because the city needed a hangman and it was a better alternative to being transported to Australia which he would have been as he had been arrested for stealing beehives from his employer. He had a bossy wife who made sure he took the job!
I also love all the street characters who sold food, goods and generally made a nuisance of themselves, e.g. “Blin’ Bob”, aka Duncan McGillivray, a hawker who would make up all sorts of nonsense to sell anything. He once bought a stock of old newspapers at the time of the Crimean War, and sold them pretending they were current. He was accused of being a liar, but he said, “Aa newspapers print lees, so I should be allowed tae sell lees an aa!” I have a huge cast of characters in my head most of the time when I’m on a tour.
They vary! Every Halloween since 2011 I have put on a street theatre performance at a specific place featuring tragic, horrible and scary stories, that’s what the ghost tours came out of. One year when we did “Ghosts & Ghouls of the Aultoun” which goes round the uni area I mentioned earlier, we had fifty people on the tour, it was mad! It was also downright freezing! But folk love being scared. I think it’s because deep down they know it isn’t real, but they like the thrill of being scared in a safe way. I don’t dabble with real spooks! .
Last year we had our first indoor performance at the old medical school in Marischal College, it was called “Burkers, Bodysnatchers & Bloody Surgeons” featuring true and semi-fictionalised stories from the time of Burke & Hare, only in Aberdeen, it was the students themselves who would go and dig up bodies to dissect. There was also a storyline about two girls who disguised themselves as boys to study medicine as no woman was allowed near a university until 1891 in Aberdeen. It ends up with the two girls being found out and bumping off the lecturer who uncovers their secret – they are then helped to hide the body by the horrible, scary Sacrist Pirie, who already has his own trade in killing off Travelling people to sell to the surgeons! It was such hard work, but it was so impressive! To hear and see the cast bringing my work to life was fantastic, it’s the best compliment an author can have to see their work on stage exactly as they wrote it!
Oh I was writing about other things long before I wrote local history! I’ve actually been writing stories since I was about six years old! I got inspired by “The Little Match Girl” and after that I just seemed to come up with fantastical plots and characters.
Eventually I realised that it was easiest to write about things I knew, so the first novel I wrote was all about North-East fisher folk and it was published online in 2012.
Indeed, see above, I was employed as the project officer for the Lancelyn-Green Collection, one of the world’s biggest collections of books, artefacts and other ephemera about Arthur Conan Doyle. I’ve always liked Holmes since the Granada TV series and Jeremy Brett. My Mum bought me the complete Holmes short stories years ago and I devoured them! The reason that the collection was left to Portsmouth City Library is that ACD had his first medical practice in Southsea, which is the seaside bit of Portsmouth/Portsea Island (yes, it is an island, but joined to the mainland by a road now), and he got bored so he invented a detective based on his old tutor, Dr Joseph Bell, from Edinburgh who had taught him the skills of observation and deduction. Bell was a nicer man than Holmes though, and was married!
I have written a play and a novella featuring the traditional Victorian Holmes & Watson, but I also wrote a piece of fan-fiction about the BBC Holmes, which was great fun. I have a half-written novella called “The Riddle of the Dancing Dragons” which is Holmes again in his Victorian days, and features him and Watson going to visit a relative of John’s who has been looking after her two nieces. One of the girls is about to be married to a confectioner, but the younger sister can’t stand him. The relative also has an “adopted” son who we would probably describe as autistic in modern language, but he’s different, he’s detached from ordinary folk and Holmes is the first person to be able to talk to him. It promises to be a good one if I can ever get back in the right mindset for it!
Yup – my pen name is Janet Swan and I’ve self-published a novel “Of Fish & Folk”, a novella, which is a pastiche of Ian Rankin’s Rebus, but has a female police detective in Edinburgh called “All the Sinners Saints” and a poetry collection called “A Different Gunpowder Plot.
Hidden Aberdeen 2 – which would be my fourth history book with Black & White Publishing (if they accept it) and I’m in the middle of the sequel to “Of Fish & Folk” – also planning to write a new script for Halloween, and a special war-time performance set in a real concrete air raid shelter. I do hope you like your knitted hats – that’s one of my stress-busting hobbies, knitting! Love to you all and be kind to each other, thanks for inviting me onto the blog! Mwah! xxx
Connect with Fiona-Jane here
Find her on Amazon.co.uk here.