Announcement: Books and Borrowing Creative Writing Competition Winner!

We are delighted to announce that the Winner of our Creative Writing competition is Helen Hutchinson, whose short story ‘Taking Flight – A Victorian Tale’ was inspired by the Borrowers’ Register from Innerpeffray Library pictured above.

Our judge, Daisy Hay, on awarding Helen the prize, commented:

This is a beautifully evoked and moving story that opens up the world of the Innerpeffray Library Borrowers Register to reanimate the imagined stories of two Victorian travellers. I very much admired the way in which the story itself takes flight from the archival object, and its exploration of ideas around the records that survive, and those that are lost. There is a strong narrative drive at work here too: the story as a whole is a coherent and memorable piece of work that really makes something significant from the prompt.

Helen Hutchinson

Helen Hutchinson studied English Literature at the University of Exeter and then qualified as a broadcast journalist from University College Cardiff. She spent most of her professional career in radio and television newsrooms, with a ten-year spell lecturing in journalism and media at the University of Cumbria. She takes a keen interest in reading and writing, and regularly chairs talks at literary festivals. Her own creative writing has been a private passion all her life, but a course at the Garsdale Retreat in the Yorkshire Dales in 2022 proved the inspiration to start taking it more seriously. She is delighted to have won the Books and Borrowing competition run by Stirling University and to see her first short story in print.

We congratulate Helen on her success, and are proud to present her story below.


Taking Flight – a Victorian Tale

Innerpeffray Library

Mills of Earn, Perthshire, March 1859

Outside Miss Jennet Dunn’s attic window the day is darkening and there is snow. Not the soft snowfall of midwinter, where flakes pile imperceptibly into billowy drifts, but an angry blizzard buffeting the high, stone house and making the rafters creak. That morning, as she walked her young charges home from the kirk, the day had promised a blustery spring brightness; now the wind is bitter, and wild frozen flurries are hammering at the panes. But Jennet Dunn, young, small and bird-like, is untroubled, immersed as always on a Sunday afternoon, in the contents of her book.  This is her time for herself, the reading chair nestled close to the window, and in her hands a precious volume borrowed from the library at Innerpeffray. Today it is The Betrothed by Alessandro Manzoni, a galloping tale of two young lovers beset by treachery and betrayal. Jennet can almost feel the Italian heat, hear the chained dogs barking and breathe the sharp scent of pine. She is oblivious to the storm outside, her own small worries and the headache that had bothered her most of the morning. At the point where the hero reaches Milan as plague strikes the city, she shivers, a little giddy, and sets the book down. Now she picks up the letter to which she knows she must reply.

It is from a Robert Langstruther. The manner in which it was delivered still thrills her, but its content leaves her strangely devoid of feeling, and she knows she must disappoint him. He writes to invite her to take a walk with him through Crieff this Easter Sunday. They will meet at ten at the Market Cross from where they will walk through MacRosty Park, past the shrubberies, across the Turret Burn and Mill Lade to reach at last the bandstand where there will be music. But she knows where this is leading. Perhaps it is the influence of Signor Manzoni but she feels sure that at some point, probably at the bandstand itself, something unwelcome will happen. He will turn to her and lift her chin. He will look into her eyes, declare his love, and respectfully ask for her hand.  She knows this should make her glad, grateful even, but it does not. She sighs and takes up her inkpen.

To my friend and correspondent, Sunday 13th March 1859. I am disquieted as I write, because I believe you will find the contents of this letter disheartening …

Plan of the Town of Crieff, from Actual Survey, by John Wood (1822). From the collections of the National Library of Scotland

Robert is a tall sandy-haired young man, blue-eyed with a warm smile. They had met last summer on a sweltering day at Lammas time. He had come to the fair on the outskirts of Crieff to look for second hand tools, she to watch the people in their summer finery and holiday mood, and the two had found themselves waiting together at a tent selling soda. “Fine weather,” was his opening remark, the music in his voice giving her a small jolt inside. “Indeed it is,” her voice smaller, tentative, unpractised in conversation. He carried on: “… and I’ve a rare thirst haven’t you? And a hunger too – I left my bed just after four this morning and have had such a long road to travel …” He told her of his life on one of the estates some twenty miles north. He worked alongside his father managing the production of oats and barley. And they had ambition. His father knew that the new reaping machines meant hitherto unused land could now be turned over to growing, and had his sights set on crops of potatoes.  When Robert spoke his eyes shone, and the hot August sun filtered through his hair making it look, thought Jennet, like spun gold.  After their sodas, they had linked arms as if it were the most natural thing, and walked through the fair, he talking and laughing, she reserved but surprised to be enjoying his company. “I’m bletherin’ on about myself,’ he said eventually, “… tell me something of you.” Her account was quietly told, brief and factual. How she had lived with her parents in Perth, until quite suddenly and shockingly, both had succumbed to the fever and died just after her twenty first birthday. On her own in the world, she had sought employment as a governess and been offered a post, tutoring two girls in one of the big houses at Mills of Earn. Her days were mostly quiet and she knew few folk. And (here she hesitated at sharing something precious to her), her favourite activity was her fortnightly visit to the library at Innerpeffray, a short distance away. There she would delight in browsing the shelves, settling each time on two volumes to borrow. Reading was such bliss compared to tutoring, and when she read, she told him, it was as if she entered another world. “And the library, you know, it is such a place, full of books of all and every kind … ” she was saying before she noticed amazement and delight on Robert Langstruther’s face. “But I know it well!” he cried, “I visit every month when the grain cart comes south. Such a treasure trove it is for the learning of plants and seeds and all the latest ways of growing – I borrow a book every time and bring it home, for father and me to study.” They stared at each other, delighted that both understood and loved the library in their own way. Towards evening, when they parted, he had an idea. “We’ll write!” he said. “We’ll leave our letters at the library. At the very far end near the back wall, look for Buffon’s Natural History volumes – you can’t miss them. Put your hand under the shelf and right in the corner there’s a wee ledge, quite obscured from view. Leave a note for me there and I’ll reply.” And then he was gone. Her heart hammered at such an impossibly romantic idea. A secret correspondence through a hidden ledge in the Innerpeffray library was simply the most thrilling thing she had known.

your affectionate correspondent, Jennet Dunn. 

The blizzard is still howling as she finishes her letter with a sigh, folds and then carefully inserts it into the back dust cover of Tales of a Traveller by Geoffrey Crayon, Gent. It is done. She will slide it into the private place only the two of them know when she visits Innerpeffray on Tuesday and he will read it when he next comes. She feels spent, exhausted and her head is throbbing.  She closes her eyes and begins to drift. Strange scenes and patterns wobble in her inner vision. She seems to have found her way into the story of The Betrothed but it is curiously mixed up with one of Geoffrey Crayon’s Italian tales, The Story of the Young Robber, perhaps, or is it The Inn at Terracina? Something is wrong, maybe she is lost. She is hot and yet cold, her skin is damp and prickly. Sinking in and out of a suffocating sleep, she knows the plague has taken hold in Milan and she must escape, she must leave now …

The Reading Room, Innerpeffray Library

Innerpeffray Library, June 1927

Sunlight is slanting through the leaded glass, casting diamond shadows in the schoolroom where two young library clerks are sorting through old stock. Dorothea, plump and jolly with lively eyes, is on her hands and knees, working through a pile of leather bound editions. “Pouf!” she cries to Alice, who is perched nearby with a collection of past lending registers. “Just look at the dust coming off these!”  Perhaps forty years ago, some of the library’s popular books had been replaced with new editions, the older ones put away for storage. Dorothea is holding Tales of a Traveller, and spluttering as she brushes debris from its spine. When she opens it, a folded sheet of paper falls to the floor.  She holds it to the light. “Looks like a letter,” says Alice, intrigued, “let’s see what it says.” Dorothea unfolds the paper and begins to read.

To my friend and correspondent, Sunday 13th March 1859

I am disquieted as I write, because I believe you will find the contents of this letter disheartening. I say now that I much regret any hurt, when you have been a true and kind friend to me in our letters these past months. But now I must disappoint you. You will know that thanks to this library, I have been reading widely concerning the great European cities of Paris, Vienna, Bonn, Milan … this month I borrowed  Tales of a Traveller and The Betrothed, and these have so excited me, igniting my desire to travel and to see, feel and yes! taste these places for myself. You may consider me foolish, but I cannot help but compare the promise of living abroad with my own existence here, rendering Perthshire to my mind dull and dreich. So I have made plans, and by the time you read this, dear Mr Langstruther, I shall already have left this life for a better one. I have sufficient money saved to take the train from Crieff to Edinburgh, and thence to London for the boat train to Paris where I have already secured employment.  But my object is not simply to live as a Scottish governess. No, no. I intend to revel in the city’s great sights, converse with its people, breathe its airs, frequent its pavement cafes and thrill to the very act of being alive in such a place! So it is in feverish excitement at this prospect that I write now to say I decline your invitation to walk together this Easter Sunday. By that time I will be far away. I began this letter in sorrow at giving cause for despondency on your part, and must assure you again of my regret in this regard.  But I must do above all what my heart desires, and it only remains for me to wish you and your esteemed father good prospects in your life here. 

Your affectionate correspondent, Jennet Dunn.

“What an adventure!” says Dorothea, “But strange that her letter’s been hidden away here all these years.  And it looks as if it was never sent, so maybe she had second thoughts?”

There is a pause before Alice looks up, her face white.  “No, it’s worse than that.

I recognise her name because I read it in one of the registers only this morning. Oh, Dorothea it’s quite awful.”

It only takes a moment to find the entry she is looking for, under the heading ‘Late Returns’.

Tales of a Traveller and The Betrothed retd. late following sudden death of borrower. Miss Jennet Dunn, 24, succumbed to fever at Mills of Earn 14th March 1859. Both volumes retd. good condition by her employers on 29th inst. No penalty issued.

Innerpeffray Library, May 1859

That Easter Sunday in April Robert Langstruther had stood alone all morning at the Market Cross. He had told himself he would wait until noon, but it was one o’clock before he had shrugged, picked up his pack and gone on his way.

Now, ten days later, he has returned to Innerpeffray. Sliding his hand into the ledge for the explanatory letter he expects to find, he feels only an empty space. He checks again, reaching further in, nothing. He stands for a moment, puzzled, wondering. But then his eye is drawn to Knapp’s Journal of a Naturalist, and he picks it up eagerly. “Just the thing for Father,” he thinks, and he whistles as he sets out on the road, the bulky volume bouncing in his knapsack. The year is growing greener, the sky is bright and the hedgerows are full of birds. His footsteps disturb a young linnet which, flustered, flutters from a thicket, and rises, singing, into the clear spring air.

A Linnet. By Charles Sharp, from Wikipedia, reproduced under the CC-by-SA.4.0 licence