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  • Writer's pictureJohn Dempster

Bringing the past to life: Jennifer Morag Henderson on 'Daughters of the North'

We had a lovely evening last Tuesday (19th July 2022) with local author Jennifer Morag Henderson who was speaking about her latest non-fiction book Daughters of the North: Jean Gordon and Mary, Queen of Scots. She described the intertwined lives of the Queen, and Jean Gordon, daughter of the Earl of Huntly and a former wife of Mary’s husband the Earl of Bothwell. This event was in-person at the Glen Mhor Hotel, and also on-line: – we apologise for some technical issues with sound on Zoom during the first half.

No dry historical record this: Jennifer combines painstaking and detailed research with a rare gift for bringing the past to life in vivid, imaginative prose. Her description of Mary of Guise’s arrival at the sumptuousness of Huntly Castle was breathtaking, and we heard of intriguing incidents in the history of the Highlands, such as ‘the Helmsdale poisoning’ which led to the death of the Earl of Sutherland in 1567.

Jennifer outlined the stories of Mary and Jean against the complex, fraught background of contemporary politics. She illustrated by reading incidents from three stages in Jean’s life: her childhood at Huntly, where her politically powerful father regarded himself as the chief man in the north; her marriage to Bothwell; and the later period when she was Countess of Sutherland.

Jennifer also described her research, and the sources she used, which included images, music and songs (judiciously interpreted) and portraits which she sees as a amazing way to understand the past. Oh the joy of sitting in an archive, holding in your hands the very piece of parchment on which your subject wrote five centuries ago. Nothing compares with the immediacy you feel as the original writer whispers their words again to you across the centuries, and you sense their presence. Jennifer’s research included not just the usual visits to archives, but, as she told us, climbing up a ladder at Dunrobin Castle to commune with a portrait hung high and difficult to reach!

As a woman, Jennifer is sensitive to nuances in the records which a male reader might overlook, and as someone mainlining on the lives of the women in the story she sees things which might be missed by researchers focussing on the male line.

For example, she examined the original of the marriage certificate between Jean Gordon and the Earl of Bothwell. There was a signature for Jean’s mother, and beneath it was written ‘hand led on the pen.’ Jean herself had signed, and beneath her signature wrote ‘with my own hand,’ to indicate that she had written her name unaided. Why would Jean need help to sign her name?

The assumption of every historian Jennifer is aware of is that Jean’s mother Elizabeth could not write. But because of her focus on the female line, Jennifer knew that letters from Elizabeth were in existence in the archives, proving that she could write. Therefore there must be another reason for those words ‘hand led on the pen.’ Could it be that in refusing to sign the wedding certificate unaided, Elizabeth was signifying her disapproval of the marriage?

The love for these characters from the past; the desire to draw close to them through the sources; the excitement of the chase; the new perspective; the detail uncovered; the rich prose of the final book. We glimpsed all these things as Jennifer spoke. We are so grateful to her for the work she does, and light it sheds on our shared history.

And thanks, Jennifer Morag Henderson for taking time to share with HighlandLIT. We really appreciated having you with us.


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