Notes on Gillespie and I

The Glasgow Boys (1883)
A group of “Glasgow Boys” pictured at Cockburnspath, 1883. (l-r) E. A. Walton, Joseph Crawhall, George Walton, James Guthrie, Whitelaw Hamilton.

Many years ago, I hatched a crafty plan for what I thought would be a ‘simple’ novel to write: a dozen or so linked short stories, all on a Scottish theme. I did complete several tales and some were published in anthologies, but in the end, the project never came together. I put the remaining unfinished stories in a box, in the attic. Years later, searching for inspiration, I hauled out this box and read through its contents: my notes and fragments of abandoned narratives. One such fragment, much expanded and revised, eventually grew into my first novel, The Observations.

Firelight Reflections by James Guthrie, 1890
This is one of the paintings that helped me imagine scenes between the women in the story when writing ‘Gillespie and I’.

When the time came to embark upon a second book, I went back to these same old stories. In one file, I found a scrap of paper upon which I’d scribbled a few words: artist, Glasgow, nineteenth century. These words didn’t amount to an idea, they were just a time, a place and a profession, but I sensed that I had found the right starting point. At the outset, I imagined that this novel might feature a female artist, and her struggles to succeed in a masculine world: a Bessie MacNicol or Margaret MacDonald MacKintosh. However, the concept soon changed direction. I decided to set the book in Glasgow’s West End, which I know well, having lived there several times since I was a child. Something about that area of the city has always fascinated me: it is, in parts, beautiful, in other parts, seedy. One particular district, sometimes known as “The Square Mile of Murder” has, over the years, been the site of many grisly crimes. As part of my research, I returned to my hometown and, in walking its streets, began to feel haunted by darker, more sinister voices from the past. As the project evolved, I found myself writing about an Englishwoman who is befriended by a Glaswegian painter and his family, and her account of a deplorable crime that culminates in a notorious Victorian court case. Artist, Glasgow, Nineteenth Century: from these seeds grew what was to become Gillespie and I.

Map of Glasgow 1888
I spent hours poring over contemporary street maps like this one, trying to get a feel for how the area might have been at the time, and working out how my characters would have got from one place to another.