Loch Awe in spring - Photo courtesy of Neil Donald Photography






Sunday, 9 August 2015

My new book by Mary Smith

I’m blogging about my new book, which comes out later this month. Dumfries Through Time, is a very different sort of book than anything I’ve done before. I’ve published fiction, memoir and poetry but this is a picture-led local history book about the town of Dumfries in south west Scotland. It comprises 90 pairs of images showing a historic location in Dumfries and a photograph of the same place today with a paragraph of text accompanying the pictures.

Fortunately, I didn’t have to take the pictures as the book has been done in collaboration with a fabulous photographer friend, Allan Devlin who does amazing landscape images. You can see some of his work on his website here.

Allan and I both freelance for award-winning magazine Dumfries & Galloway Life. In fact, we have both worked on the magazine since the very first issue in September 2006 and Allan always did the photos to accompany my features. Strangely, we did not actually meet until we’d been working ‘together’ for almost two years. 

Our first task was to source the 90 old images we needed. We spent hours – days – pouring over old postcards and photographs in the library, the museum and private collections. It was going to be fairly straightforward, we thought.
Statue of Robert Burns

Dumfries is strongly associated with Scotland’s bard, Robert Burns who lived for a time in the town, writing a huge number of poems and songs in the few years before he died there. There’s a fine statue of him, there’s his burial place, the church he attended, two homes he inhabited and, of course, hundreds of images of all those places. We would choose a postcard of the statue then a few minutes later we’d find another, perhaps a better one?  Or what about this one, from a different angle, or that one which was taken after the statue was moved? 


The River Nith winds through the town and along the Whitesands with its bridges, one of which, Devorgilla Bridge is one of the oldest standing bridges in Scotland. Again, many old images exist and we were faced with the daunting task of choosing the ones which we felt were best. We also had to be careful not to choose places which were no longer photogenic: there was no point in having a wonderful 19th century photo of a historic building only to realise there was actually no longer anything there. 
The weather was not kind to Allan who had the job of taking 90 photos on the days the sun came out – and this spring/early summer there were very few such days.
Statue of Robert Burns Today

My biggest problem was writing the captions, which initially I thought would be fairly easy to do. I’m a journalist, writing captions is part of my job. However, Amberley Publishing has an eighty-word limit on the captions. How could I reduce the history of the Whitesands – site of witch burnings, horse fairs and cattle market for centuries to 80 words? Allan must have been very fed up with my moaning about it.

I’ve collaborated with artists on projects which included writing poems but this was the first time I’ve done it on a book. I think (Allan might say different) we worked very well together. We have a slightly different attitude to deadlines. We both feel honour bound to meet them but each of us has our own approach and whenever Allan said: “Well, we’ll do what we can to get it done on time.” I wanted to scream. He probably felt the same way when I insisted we HAD to get it completed on time.

The only time we came close to an argument was over a last minute (and I mean last minute – one day from deadline) image of an amazing looking building, which Allan said was a bottling plant. I did some research and found the bottling plant – but it was not the picture he sent me. Emails flew back and forth in disagreement. I wanted to tell say: “Put your (fill in the blank) glasses on and look at it again.” Instead I emailed, in true architectural jargon telling him to note that the ‘squiggly, turrety things are different.’ Silence. He’d gone to bed. Next morning he emailed to say he thought I could be right.

The manuscript and images reached the publishers on time – thank goodness for email and dropbox – and Dumfries Through Time will be available from about the 15th of August. It can be pre-ordered through Amazon.

Allan and I will be celebrating with a launch event on Tuesday, September 01 in the Rutherford/McCowan Building at Crichton Campus, Dumfries. If you live anywhere nearby, do drop in - all welcome.

17 comments:

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    1. Thanks, Janette. It would be great to see you at the launch.

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  2. Brilliant, Mary. So looking forward to seeing the finished product. A very different venture indeed.

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    1. Thanks, Gill. Yes, very different, and really interesting. It's made me look at Dumfries in a different light.

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  3. That sounds wonderful, Mary - all the best with this new venture!

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    1. Thanks, Rosemary. It's been fun (mostly!) and interesting to do something different.

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  4. I had no idea you were doing this, Mary. It's a lovely, simple idea but not simple to bring to fruition eh? I love seeing 'then' and 'now' photos of places I know, especially when the angle is the same. I think you're going to be sold out!

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    1. Yes, Lesley, it turned out to be a wee bit more complicated that it sounded. Old images of a place are popular so I hope the book sells well and has a reach beyond Dumfries.

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  5. Sounds great, Mary. Can't wait to see the pictures.

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    1. Thanks, Stella. I imagine its appeal will mainly be for people who live - or have lived - in the area but who knows.

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  6. I love this sort of book, Mary - but it never occurred to me that it might be as complicated to sort out. I'll keep an eye out for it next time I'm down that way - it would make a perfect gift for family down there.

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  7. I love this sort of book, Mary - but it never occurred to me that it might be as complicated to sort out. I'll keep an eye out for it next time I'm down that way - it would make a perfect gift for family down there.

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  8. Two comments at the same time, Jennifer! It was more complicated than I expected, but it was fun and now the author copies have arrived we're both pleased with how it looks.

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  9. Just ordered Dumfries – can't wait to read it!

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    1. Thank you so much, Lorrie. It's totally different from my other books - hope you won't be disappointed.

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  10. I love books with old pictures about places I know, and I do know Dumfries well enough to really enjoy this one. I know a little of the history, but I'm sure you've unearthed lots of fascinating nuggets. I'm really looking forward to reading this!

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    1. Thanks, Jenny. I certainly researched a lot of history, which I loved doing. The really difficult part was reducing it to captions with a maximum word count of 80 words. I think what makes the book work well is the format of having both the old photo and the photo of the same place as it is today so the changes can be seen.

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