Author of the Sturmtaucher Trilogy

Category: Girvan

Workshop tales

Or, The Cabinetmaker

From an early age, I watched my dad tinker with woodworking, and would always visit my grandpa’s workshop in Rose Street Foundry when we were on holiday in Inverness, where he was a pattern-maker, crafting full size templates in wood that would be used to cast the iron for anything from large engines or pumps to the chairs that hold rails onto railway sleepers. It instilled a fascination for carpentry in my young mind that has never left me.

Rose Street Foundry, Inverness

On the other side of my family, my inspirational Granny Stephen was an unlikely collector of antiques, despite living in a high rise flat in the notorious Red Road estate in Glasgow. It gave me an appreciation for well made furniture.

Original GKN Nettlefold box of screws, c 1960, inherited from my dad

It wasn’t until I got married, and we moved into our first home, that I had the chance to start making and restoring our own furniture. I made a simple bed, and a coffee table, but they were cruder than I would have liked, with some questionable construction elements (the table had about a hundred screws holding it together, which could only be seen from underneath, fortunately.) On the positive side, I used reclaimed wood whenever I could, whether it was from a local skip, or donated as part of a piece of unwanted furniture.

We lived in a small village in south-west Wales and, once a month, there was a sale of furniture and bric-a-brac in the village hall, mostly from house-clearances of larger houses whose occupants had down sized, and I purchase a wardrobe and a dressing table for four pounds, only to discover that it had been sent to the sale by our next-door neighbour. All that lugging about hadn’t really been necessary, but it made a nice Welsh dresser once it had been converted.

Welsh dresser, 1985

Since then, I’ve gradually tackled more difficult projects, helped by the fact that in 1990, when I started up my veterinary practice, I had a spare shed next door to the surgery which I turned into a proper workshop, installing a second-hand crosscut saw, and making long benches which I still use today.

When I started writing, my love of woodworking and playing football became the backdrop to my first crime novel, The Cabinetmaker. I’d have loved to have been the master craftsman he was!

The Cabinetmaker
A little nod to our Street Cabinetmaking at Bloody Scotland!

I retired last year when I was 60, and in doing so, I lost my workshop beside the surgery. Since then, I’ve been searching for a building to use as a workroom but could find nothing close to suitable. A chance conversation with a friend of mine led to me renting a barn he had surplus to requirements and, after the final edits of The Turn of the Tide had been completed, and I waited for the proofs to come back from the printers, I threw myself into converting the empty shell into a suitable workshop. I was to have half the barn downstairs, but I could see that it was probably enough for my requirements and, anyway, I’d spotted a solution to the additional storage I’d need for all my reclaimed wood and salvaged pieces of furniture.

There was a large roof space, and it was ideal as a wood storage loft, but the rafters were unsupported, and would not have taken the weight. Steel beams and pillars were ordered to support a floor, and erected with some difficulty, with the help of a local agricultural contractor and his tele-handler.

In the year since I’d retired, I’d been spending 12-14 hours a day sitting at my desk, writing, editing, making video trailers and designing covers, and this sedentary lifestyle had led to me being the heaviest I’d ever been, so it was good to be doing some physical labour, lifting and laying forty plywood sheets for the loft floor, and dwanging all the beams (a Scottish term for infilling the beams to support the joints in the flooring). Climbing up and down ladders all day was a great workout, and I lost around a stone, and felt the better for it.

Beams, flooring and dwangs

There were no lights, and only two sockets at the supply board, so I rewired the whole barn, upstairs and down. An electrician checked the final connections, just to be safe, and we were up and running with light and power.

It was cold, working in the barn over the winter, but Lia, one of my beta-readers, took pity on me and crocheted a wonderful pair of fingerless gloves, with a hat to match. Despite protesting that they were far to good to use in the workshop, she insisted. They do make quite a difference!

Essential PPE

I installed the benches and the crosscut saw from my old workshop, and a swathe of racking I’d picked up at a reasonable price on Gumtree. I’d hoped to pick up a staircase somewhere as well, but with nothing coming up, I set about making one. Never having tackled it before, it took me a while to get my head around the angles but, with a home-made router jig, I cut out the rebates on the stringers and cut the steps to suit. With a bit of trepidation, I hoisted it up into position. Amazingly, with only a few minor tweaks, it fitted, with one small compromise.  Due to the size of the ‘hatch’ in the loft floor, you have to duck to get up the stairs. Still, it is far better than the ladder I was using before!

The Staircase. Remember to duck!

I salvaged some old steel beams and cut them to make a frame for a half ton hoist, my friend and fellow lifeboat crew-member, Luciana, a trainee welder in a shipyard, welded it for me. With its own hatch, it allows me to lift heavy items, including furniture, up to the loft.

With all the excellent storage facilities, I’ve been able, for the first time, to have my workshop organised the way I want it, with all the tools in racks for better access, and everything easy to find and get to, it will be much easier to work in.

A number of years ago, I’d rescued an old table saw from being thrown away – its motor didn’t work, but a few months ago, I managed to find a suitable replacement. With new electrics fitted, it is now up and running, as is the wonderfully named Dominion Elliot Minor, a vintage combination woodworking machine, with planer, thicknesser, morticer and tenoner that I found on Gumtree. I had one or two issues setting it up but it has now been restored to its former operational glory.

The ‘Dominion Elliot Minor’, with table saw behind

With the new machinery, it will be much easier to do the projects which have been on hold for the last five years. This includes a new kitchen for the house, which her indoors has been desperate for, and a conversion of my van into a modular camper van. She has been very patient, bless her. I now have no excuses. 😊

So that’s it. Here’s a gallery of some of my furniture I’ve made, restored and converted over the last forty years.

Bedside Cabinet, Spalted beech
Dining stool, whisky barrel oak & distressed steel
Bookcase (Sacred heart School) and shop drawer chest (old hardware store)

Snooker table, my first attempt at French polishing
Coffee table, reclaimed oak
Wardrobes, beech, with spalted handles

I like to think it is done to a reasonable standard, but when I was asked on my retirement if I was going to take up cabinetmaking as a new career, I had a quiet laugh to myself. I take far too long to make things – any realistic charging for my furniture would be impossible. I admire cabinetmakers who do it for a living – they must work significantly faster than I do!

I have too many interests, I know, and it’s sometimes hard to fit it all in, but each has its own wonderful qualities, and planning a piece of wood, watching the paper thin shavings curl from my grandfather’s old jack plane is still up there with the rest.

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GIRVAN ARTS FESTIVAL

And why it’s a big deal.

It’s the inaugural Girvan Arts Festival from the 11th to the 12th of June, and I’ll be appearing on the programme, closing the festival on Sunday evening. The venue holds about 25, when full. It may not seem much, but it’s a big deal to me.

Why? Firstly it’s my home town and I’ll support any initiative to promote Girvan as a cultural hub.

And because I’ve hidden behind a pen name for so long, it is my chance to showcase my writing in my own community.

But there’s another reason.

As a self-published author, getting an appearance at one of the many book festivals that take place every year in the UK is incredibly difficult; in the ten years I’ve been writing, it has only happened once, despite me getting in touch with more than a few organisers of these events.

There are reasonable grounds for this – why should a festival take a punt on an unknown author, without a publisher behind them to give an assurance of quality, and probably with limited book sales under their belt? If it was me, I’d probably think along the same lines.

Despite that, the one festival that did give me a panel (together with a couple of other self published authors, David Videcette and Alison Bailley) was Bloody Scotland, the world-famous crime fiction festival.

It was a number of years ago when, Bloq, my third crime fiction novel did, for a short time, create a small stir in the crime fiction community, and it is credit to Bloody Scotland that they were prepared to put us on the programme, coming on the back of me doing a couple of pop up book launches at the festival – Street Cabinetmaking for my book The Cabinetmaker, and the Bloq Street Nightclub, selling mocktails to festival-goers in Stirling.

Street Cabinetmaking
The Bloq Pop-up Bar

That, a reading at Noir-at-the-Bar in Edinburgh, and a lovely evening with Kirkintilloch Library Book Group being grilled by Sharon Bairden, is the sum total of my public appearances, so I’m looking forward to the upcoming event in the Dome, in Girvan’s Community Gardens, a wonderful venue in a green space at the very heart of Girvan, a stone’s throw from the harbour and the town centre.

I’ll be in conversation with Douglas Skelton, an author with a plethora of crime fiction and true crime books under his belt, who has interviewed some of the greats in Scottish writing, so I was delighted when he agreed to make the trip down to Girvan. And he has connections, with the Girvan area, and with me, long before I started writing.

For a number of years, Douglas and his wife lived in Colmonell, a small village inland from Girvan, with three dogs and a gaggle of cats, and I was their vet while they lived there. Years later, when I started writing, Douglas was a treasure trove of advice on how to get my books out there, which was a real hand up the ladder for me.

We’ll be talking about my books, The Sturmtaucher Trilogy in particular, but we may chat about the writing process too and, of course, we will be taking questions from the audience. Tickets can be purchased on the website. I’d love to see you there.

The Arts Festival is a new event in the Girvan Calendar, joining the successful Girvan Folk Festival, the Ballantrae Food Festival, and the  incredibly popular RNLI Harbour Gala as key events in our neck of the woods, and there are a number of sessions over the two days covering everything from fine art, photography and poetry through to music, flowers, and even regenerative farming, so take a look at the programme – there’s something for everyone.

https://girvanartsfestival.com/festival-information

The Girvan Community Garden is a fantastic resource for the people of Girvan, and visitors. It opened to the public in 2011 and has gone from strength to strength. It is entirely run by volunteers and is used for a number of other events throughout the year, and is well worth a visit.

Girvan Community Garden
The Dome

So, please come and spend an hour in our company, and take in some of the other events at the festival, and a look round the garden. You’ll be most welcome.

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Why Ailsa Publishing?

Ailsa Publishing is me. It only exists to publish my books, to save me having to leave a blank space in the ‘publisher’ field in Kindle Direct Publishing, where both my Kindle books and paperbacks are published, and in Smashwords, which distributes my eBooks to other retailers such as Barnes & Noble, Kobo and Apple Books.

But I could have called it Alan Jones Books, which would have fitted in with my social media brand and reflected the fact that I’m a self-published author but, in the beginning, I thought it might look a bit more professional to have a publisher with a different name, not that it ever convinced anyone. 😊

So I scrabbled about for a name for a while, but they all sounded contrived. Living a few yards from the beach, many of them were sea related, but I gazed out, looking for inspiration, I realised I was missing the obvious. There was an enormous rock, staring back at me, so to speak.

Ailsa Craig, approaching from Girvan

Ailsa Craig is a volcanic plug, a lump of granite 1,120 feet high, three quarters of a mile long and half a mile wide. It sits eight nautical miles to the west of Girvan harbour, and it dominates the view of Ireland to the southwest, the Mull of Kintyre to the west, and Arran to the north.

Although many places and organisations are named after the iconic island, in and around Girvan and South Ayrshire, I was quite happy to join them. There’s an Ailsa Street, the now defunct Ailsa Hotel was once a lively hostelry, and the Ailsa Berth is the longest one in the harbour, where the Lady Ailsa used to moor. William Grant and Son produce a malt whisky, Ailsa Bay, at their distillery in Girvan. Further afield, the Ailsa Hospital is on the outskirts of Ayr and, of course, The Marquess of Ailsa owns Ailsa Craig, along with an estate close to Culzean Castle.

The island itself is quite fascinating. The solid, cooled core of a volcano that formed the mountains of Arran, the microgranite rock is particularly hard, making it the material of choice for many of the world’s curling stones, including every stone used in the Winter Olympics since 2006.

The remnants of a narrow gauge railway line can still be seen connecting the quarry at the north end of Ailsa Craig to the jetty near the lighthouse. There is also a second railway which has largely survived, from the jetty to the Gas house, used up until 1911 to transport coal which powered the lighthouse, and the foghorns at the south and north end of the island.

The Lighthouse

The lighthouse, like many in Scotland’, was built by Thomas Stevenson and was completed in 1886. Along with its two foghorns, it warned shipping of the perils of ‘The Craig’, especially in fog or at night. It was manned until it was automated in 1990 and is now solar powered, still flashing every four seconds, 365 days a year.

Paddy’s milestone

Ailsa Craig is often called Paddy’s milestone, due to it’s location at the half way point of the ferry trip from Scotland to Belfast, when the ferries ran from Greenock, further up the Clyde. One of my earliest memories, at five years of age, is passing Ailsa Craig on the way to a holiday in Northern Ireland. The ferries now run to Belfast and Larne from Cairnryan, a much shorter crossing, without the romance of the ‘steamer’ from Greenock.

Back on the island, the ruins of Ailsa Castle, built in 1500, sit facing eastwards, looking down on the lighthouse, half way up to the summit of the island, and the path to the top passes close to it. A small loch, Gary Loch, provided water for the castle, and later, the lighthouse. There is a history of pirates and smugglers, befitting the looming cliffs and caves, and the rocky beach.

Ailsa Castle

Ailsa Craig is now uninhabited, but granite was quarried until the 1950s, and the quarryman’s wife, appropriately named Margaret Girvan, ran a tearoom on Ailsa Craig to cater for the trippers on boats from Girvan. Loads of granite are still taken from the quarry every twenty or so years, for curling stones.

The ‘Glorious’, a local boat, still takes folk out to the Craig during the summer months. They are mostly nature watchers, hoping to catch a sight of the seals that haul themselves out to bask on the rocks of the island’s shores, or the 35,000 birds of the Gannet colony on the south cliffs of the island, the fifth largest in the world.

The Gannet Colony

Birds from Ailsa Craig will travel up to 150 miles to feed before returning to their nests. Gannets are considered of least concern ecologically, with the population increasing worldwide each year.

Puffins have also returned to the rock in increasing numbers since rats were eradicated a couple of decades ago by the RSPB, who now lease the island from the Marquess of Ailsa.

On the lifeboat, we regularly exercise around Ailsa Craig, often ‘rescuing’ people from its rocky shores and the deep water surrounding it. It’s always impressive, sometimes foreboding.

When I chose Ailsa publishing as the name that would go on my books, I knew that the logo had to be the island itself, with its iconic lighthouse, although I had to alter the proportions and scale of the buildings somewhat to fit the outline of the rock and form the letter ‘L’.

It’s the sort of thing that not every reader might notice, but I’ve looked out at Ailsa Craig for the last twenty five years every morning, and every evening, and I love that it’s there on the spine of my books.

I’ll leave you with the view of Ailsa Craig as the sun sets over Kintyre. It never fails to stir me.

Photo: F A MacDonald
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