‘Floating Stones’

ISBN 978-1-84396-398-1
Littoralis Press, e-book, £3.99
2nd edition 2016


‘Love, lust, pottery and fossils’ – and the wild northern coasts and moors of Sutherland …

Set in the far North of Scotland, this is a modern story of the love of two very different men for local artist and potter Anna, creator of the ‘floating stones’ of the title.

Oxford geologist Stephen Rhodes and his students Kat and Max set up temporary homes in the rugged beauty of Sutherland for a summer of scientific fieldwork. As a result they are brought into intimate contact with both the landscape and its inhabitants.

Donnie, a local shepherd, Kat, Anna and Stephen become involved in a four-sided relationship whose complexity only gradually becomes clear.

For Stephen, the summer becomes the story of his conflicting desires: on the one hand for his wife and growing sons, who offer stability, a safe home and a rational career, and on the other hand for his new-found lover and the entirely different life that she represents.

The geological background to the story couldn’t have been written without Professor Richard Fortey’s input, and I thank him for the amusing conversations we had about trilobites, the geology of northern Sutherland, and the Iapetus Ocean; his books, Trilobite! (HarperCollins 2000) and The Hidden Landscape (HarperCollins 1998)  were also invaluable in helping provide answers to the questions I forgot to ask.

Several trips to Sutherland, camping and hill-walking, have convinced me  – despite visiting or living in many other beautiful or wild places – that Sutherland is one of the best places to be (Torridon is the other), and I hope I have managed to convey a sense of the landscape and its influence.

Several years ago I bought two unusual ceramic ‘floating stones’ made by the Sutherland potter, Lotte Glob. It was to our mutual astonishment, long after I had written this novel, that I discovered that her website  depicted the scene described on the first page of the story.  I will always be grateful to her for her humour and willingness to let me continue to use this, and for any (completely unforeseen) apparent parallels between Lotte and ‘Anna’, in terms of appearance and their work. ‘Anna’ in Floating Stones is not, of course, Lotte: and Lotte says she is now on the look-out for a ‘Donnie’!


This is the second edition of Floating Stones: the first edition  was published by the ground-breaking ebook publisher Online Originals in 2003.

Seaside Pleasures: The anemonizers of Scotland


An anemone of medium size may be safely sent by post in a small tin-cannister, without water, but with a small tuft of damp sea-weed, rag, or blotting-paper, to maintain a moist atmosphere around the animal …”

gosse stomphia
Gosse’s illustration of Stomphia churchiae (bottom left)

The Victorian naturalist Philip Henry Gosse advertised thus for specimens of sea-anemones and corals to be sent to him — and soon small parcels “of a salt and oozy character” began to arrive from all over Britain. Gosse invented the marine aquarium and stocked those at the Zoological Gardens in London; he spent many summers collecting, watching and describing marine organisms — dredging from boats, wading in pools and striding across the shore — and his shore classes and delightful books triggered the craze for collecting. Soon he was in demand as a lecturer and, early in 1857, he gave a series of “chalk and talk” lectures in Edinburgh. Illustrated by freehand drawing on a blackboard, they were very well-received, apparently “full of charm”, and “popular and attractive”, so it is unlikely that the audiences knew of Gosse’s great and recent sorrow: just two weeks before his first scheduled lecture, on February 7th, his wife Emily had died, at home in Islington, from breast cancer.

Gosse had to leave behind his eight-year-old son Edmund at this critical time. He wrote to him frequently from Scotland: “February 24th 1857. My own sweet Boy, I cannot tell you how much I love you. I seem to love you better than ever, now that I have to be separated from you. And now that Mamma is gone to be with Jesus you are all that is left to me …”

He must nevertheless have conducted his talks and meetings in an entirely professional manner despite his grief, because he clearly made a great number of friends amongst the Scottish scientific community, and inspired many amateurs besides. When his advertisement requesting help in collecting sea-anemones appeared, the Scottish anemonizers were galvanised into activity. Gosse’s Actinologia Britannica  was published in book form in 1860. The detailed descriptions of the British sea-anemones (“actiniae”) and corals are beautifully illustrated with coloured engravings of Gosse’s drawings. Particularly interesting is his meticulous reference to the collectors to whom he was “indebted”.

So, we read about Mrs Murray Menzies of Oban, the Reverend William Gregor of Macduff (“pre-eminent in (his) contributions”), Miss J.C. Gloag of Queensferry (“who has long been a successful cultivator of Anemones”), James MacDonald of Elgin, and David Robertson who collected around Cumbrae and in the “Frith of Clyde”. Robertson’s researches into the Cloak Anemone, Adamsia palliata, which attaches to whelk-shells harbouring hermit crabs, are reproduced at length. He would be surprised to learn his experiments are still carried out: when I helped with courses for Glasgow University at the Marine Biology Station on the Isle of Cumbrae, students still enjoyed experimenting on  “shell choice by Adamsia”.

The antiquarian and naturalist Sir John Graham Dalyell sent anemones from the Firth of Forth. He did not send “Granny”: she (it) was a Beadlet Anemone who survived more than 20 years in his own aquarium. When he died Granny was, according to some sources, given to the palaeontologist Charles Peach who kept it for another 20 years. Peach had moved to Scotland in 1849, living first in Peterhead then Wick, where he studied fossil fish: he too sent anemones to Gosse. Peach lived in Scotland at an exciting time: he was part of the scientific élite that included geologists Hugh Miller and Sir Roderick Murchison, naturalist Edward Forbes, and the great Robert Chambers. Did Peach look after “Granny”? Gosse notes in Actinologia that the anemone was given to Professor Fleming (probably JDD Fleming of Aberdeen and Edinburgh) and lived for at least 40 years, producing more than 300 young in that time; perhaps Peach inherited Granny after Fleming’s death.

Another Scottish collector was the Reverend David Landsborough (anemonising clerics seemed to have been common during those times); he was the Minister of Stevenston in Ayrshire, and he sent specimens collected from the Clyde around Arran and Cumbrae, the islands just offshore from his “patch”. He must have had time on his hands, as he wrote articles for the Proceedings of the Philosophical Society of Glasgow on dredging excursions and the “zoophytes” of the Clyde, as well as compiling the unofficial censuses for his parish.

In 1859, Gosse was lecturing in Scotland again and wrote to Edmund from Montrose, “My beloved Boy, You see that I have got to the extreme point of my travels, 650 miles from Torquay. I have just dined with some agreeable friends, and expect to deliver my first Lecture in about an hour. Montrose is a pretty little town, and the coast is said to be pretty good for Zoology.”

Who were his “agreeable friends”? Perhaps they were Dr James Howden and his family, for in Actinologia Gosse describes an unusual little coral, the Shetland Cup Coral, which had been dredged off the Shetland coast: “Looking over the cabinet of Dr Howden, of Montrose, my eye fell on this little Coral which seemed new to me. Its owner was so kind to transfer it to my possession”.  This may have been the same Howden who was Medical Superintendent of the Montrose Royal Lunatic Asylum, where his work led him to write a paper for the Journal of Medical Science, 1873, on “The Religious Sentiment of Epileptics”.

My favourite collector, though, was the intrepid Anne B Church, who collected a species of anemone brought up by a “turbot dredge” from Loch Long. Dredging in those days was an uncomfortable and potentially risky business, necessitating hanging over the side of small wooden boats that were powered by sail. Anne Church‘s descriptions are, however, delightfully feminine and Gosse deserves special credit for repeating them: the lips of the anemone’s mouth are scarlet “like the nectary of the hoop-petticoat narcissus”. Later, Peach and the Rev Gregor sent more specimens, but Gosse named the anemone after its finder – Stomphia churchiae. So Anne Church lives on, both in a specific name and, as a fictionalised version of herself, in my novel, Seaside Pleasures.

Although Gosse lived on the English south coast, he clearly made a big impression in Scotland: almost a third of Actinologia’s collectors sent specimens from Scotland. The Victorian craze for shore-collecting swept parts of the English coast clear “as with a besom”, but the Scottish shores were, and thankfully still are, “pretty good for Zoology”.


(This article, relating to Philp Henry Gosse and my novel Seaside Pleasures, first appeared in the Scots Magazine,  May 2006, pp514-516)

‘Seaside Pleasures’: the novel


When Matt Myers decides to spend the summer with his mother at the Shell House in Cornwall, he little guesses that he is about to step into the minefield of his family’s past and recent history …
Anne Church, a young Victorian; Matt, art student; Hazel Myers, his mother; malacologist and parasitologist, Elizabeth Wilson: their stories — of obsessional loves and conflicting beliefs — are inextricably linked with each other and with the life and tragic death of Victorian evangelist Emily Gosse, wife of the naturalist Philip Henry Gosse.

Seaside Pleasures ranges across time and geography, from Victorian Scotland to Africa in the 1960s and present-day England; the boundaries between fiction and fact become blurred, as the separate lives are woven together by the themes of shells and snails, science and religion, love and death — and the sea.

SP cover

ISBN 978-0-9544572-0-4
Littoralis Press, 1st edition, paperback 2003;still available from the author.

Second edition: ebook from Amazon Kindle,  Kobo and iTunes, in the UK and worldwide.

Paperback version still available from the author



Jane Gardam: ‘A big book with a MIND behind it!’.

‘Ann Lingard has written a thoughtful, compelling story … a very human account. The book is a rockpool in itself, concealing seaside secrets as well as pleasures deep beneath the surface.’ North Devon Journal.

‘A clever balance … that blurs the boundaries between fact and fiction’. Oxford Times

Ann Thwaite: ‘Immensely readable and extremely clever, Seaside Pleasures is a remarkable novel. Told in four distinct voices, three contemporary, one Victorian, the blend of past and present, fact and fiction is both curious and compelling.

Matt Ridley: ‘A very fine piece of writing that, uniquely among modern novels, makes real use of science rather than wearing science on its sleeve. Tremendously good plot, story and narrative style, fascinating history and even better science … A true two-culture achievement.

Jennifer Rohn, LabLit: ‘ … unlike Byatt, whose science comes across largely as contrived, pretentious showing off, Lingard’s portrayal is relaxed, natural and rarely gratuitous. … [And] perhaps more importantly, science through [Matt’s] eyes eventually proves to be exciting, and its purveyors, both passionate and refreshingly ordinary.’ Read Rohn’s long and thoughtful review on LabLit.



The Victorians were great collectors of shells; they used them to decorate the interiors and exteriors of  houses and grottoes, they made pictures and three-dimensional decorations, and they arranged them decoratively, although not always taxonomically, in Cabinets of Curiosity.

When malacologist (an expert on snails, or Molluscs) Elizabeth Wilson helps artist Barbara Lewisham repair a pattern of shells on the facade of her Shell House in Cornwall, she includes a highly-unusual shell at the centre: Tiphobia.

The inclusion of Tiphobia is a joke, for reasons which become apparent towards the end of the story.


Tiphobia and Bulinus: images from David Brown’s book, ‘Freshwater snails of Africa and their medical importance’, Taylor & Francis 1994. (For the explanation of the Tiphobia  joke, see p296 in the paperback.)

In the 1960s, Elizabeth worked in Ethiopia and Eritrea, surveying for the freshwater snails of the genus Bulinus, many species of which are responsible for carrying larvae of the parasitic blood-worm, Schistosoma, that causes the debilitating disease bilharzia in humans. Unusually for a woman scientist at that period, she lived under canvas in the field, collecting and sending snail samples back to the Natural History Museum (NHM) in London.

When she eventually retires from the NHM to live with her husband Allan on the south Cornish coast, her home becomes a centre for discussions and collaborations with other scientists – and she befriends Matt, an art student and Barbara’s grandson, who is staying with his mother Hazel in the Shell House.

Matt and Jim, a visiting American scientist, investigate the camera obscura and its clever attachments that Allan built in the attic before he died, and through the scientists – and their jargon which he describes as a ‘dance’ – Matt becomes intrigued and inspired by the colours of snails on the shore, and the shapes of the parasites that infect them. But more importantly, he gradually begins to learn about Elizabeth’s friendship with his grandmother.

Littorina obtusata, periwinkle

Colour polymorphism in periwinkles: citrina,aurantia, rubens and fusca – ‘Lovely poetic names’, see p99 of the p/b.


The stories of these three contemporary ‘voices’, Hazel, Matt and Elizabeth, are also intertwined with the story of the love between the Victorian naturalist, Philip Henry Gosse, and his wife Emily.

The Gosses (including their son Edmund, ‘Willy’) spent weeks at coastal towns such as Weymouth, Ilfracombe, and Tenby, while Philip (or ‘Henry’ as Emily called him) collected, observed and drew marine animals. He designed the marine aquarium as a way of keeping animals alive for observation, and he and his friend Charles Kingsley would go dredging to collect specimens, Kingsley often sending parcels of animals (including some lively cockles) to Gosse in London.


Soon Gosse was helping the Zoological Gardens in London’s Regents Park to set up large aquaria – and the fashion for small elegant aquaria in the home took off. People wanted to know more, to be able to find and identify shore creatures themselves – and Gosse began to run ‘shore classes’.


The fourth ‘voice’ in Seaside Pleasures is thus Victorian: Henry and his wife Emily, and their little son, are observed by a student on one of Gosse’s ‘shore classes’, Anne Church. Anne Church really existed – she is mentioned in Gosse’s classic book on the British sea-anemones and corals, Actinologia Britannica, as finding a new species of anemone in Loch Long, which Gosse describes and names as ‘Stomphia churchiae’ in her honour – but her character and story have been fictionalised in Seaside Pleasures. (Her fictional husband, Duncan Robertson, too, was a real-life collector of sea-anemones and is, again, mentioned and thanked in Actinologia.)

Stomphia churchiae

Rudolf and Leopold Blaschka were Dresden glass-blowers famous for their glass flowers, but also made exquisite glass models of invertebrate animals such as sea-slugs, octopuses, and sea-anemones; see Chris Meechan’s excellent article about their lives and work for more information. Their models of sea-anemones, the Actiniae, were based on Gosse’s coloured engravings  – and I was thrilled to find that the Blaschkas had also made several glass models of Gosse’s illustration of that Stomphia churchiae. One of the Stomphia models is in the Natural History Museum and I was actually able to use it when I gave a talk there for the Darwin Live series.

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Shells, religious beliefs, the patterns and shapes of things, love, and death – in Seaside Pleasures, these are all set against the backdrop and sound of the seashore, where both Gosse and Elizabeth Wilson spent many of the happiest, and also most tragic, periods in their lives.


There is more about PH Gosse and some unusual sea-anemones in my article from the Scots Magazine, May 2006,  The anemonizers of Scotland, and there are more images relating to the story on Pinterest


‘The Embalmer’s Book of Recipes’

“Where was the truth? Madeleine asked the African violet on the window-sill. She was no longer sure. The vile dog Bob had been dead for years but he would have lied in any case, had he been able. ..”

Three characters:

Ruth pulls the old man’s bag open and stares “into the cat’s unblinking eyes. His back was arched, his ginger hair bristled around his neck, and his legs, fixed firmly to the stand, were stiff and straight. Every part of his body signalled, ‘Keep off!’ ” And Ruth (“the lady with the sky in her hair”) gives up nursing to become a taxidermist.

Lisa poses with fellow mathematicians by the patterned brick ‘masterpieces’ and she imagines the picture the camera will preserve: “Dr Lisa Wallace with her long blonde hair, dome-headed, an achondroplasic, small and imperfectly formed, against a backdrop of miniaturised perfection.”

Madeleine, widowed sheep-farmer in the Lake District, realises that “hiding, and hidden away, she had wasted her married life because she hadn’t known she had the strength to resist. But she knew now …”

Friendship, memories, objects: how do we preserve the past? And how do we deal with the hand that life has dealt us?

For the three very different women, whose lives become intertwined, these stark questions have been the undercurrent of their lives – but, within the Cumbrian landscape, they learn to deal with them with warmth and humour .

ISBN 9781503036918
Littoralis Press/Amazon CreateSpace, p/b, £9.95 p/b 2015 (2nd edition)

Also Kindle versions through Amazon, and as ePub versions through Kobo etc

Comments and reviews

An intriguing novel in a haunting setting, rich in texture, humorous and concerned, raising important questions about science and our relation to the natural world, to the individuals we know and to the communities we live in. A lovely book. Jenny Uglow

An exhilarating and compelling read. A powerful and haunting story of genetic difference, interwoven with maths, taxidermy, and the tragedy of foot and mouth disease.Professor Sir John Sulston, Nobel Laureate

A many-faceted book … The account of the dreadful days of foot-and-mouth disease in the last epidemic is agonising and the Cumbrian accent is perfect.Jane Gardam

A charming, intelligent and engrossing book, with enough dark heart to drag it away from the domain of standard female fiction fare and into much more engaging territory. I found myself drawn in by the delicate prose and fascinating descriptions … an engrossing and enjoyable read.Kat Arney, LabLit Read the full review

A rich, absorbing, intriguing novel … All of (the characters) felt like real people, whom I would want to know. And they were dealing with authentic issues; from everyday problems like relationships and family rivalry to the impact of foot-and-mouth on the local Cumbrian community. … An absorbing, clever writer …. – Mary Zacaroli, Oxford Times Read the full review

Ann Lingard skilfully weaves a handful of lives together … This engrossing and unusual tale is a window on the soul… and highlights something no embalmer can preserve: what it means to be an ordinary human being. – Michael Brooks, New Scientist

The book’s strength lies in the intense sense of time and place it creates in the reader’s mind. Images are conjured like old Polaroid photographs; faded snapshots filled with tinted memories – whether they are the horrors of sheep farming during the foot and mouth epidemic, or fleeting moments shared between illicit lovers. … a warm and atmospheric read. – Amy Strange, Bionews



The anatomists

Dr Frederik Ruysch (1638-1731) – anatomist, embalmer, man-midwife and praelector of the Amsterdam Surgeons’ Guild, botanist with an interest in insects …

van neck & ruysch
The anatomical lesson of Dr Frederik Ruysch: Van Neck

The Surgeons’ Guild was housed in De Waag in Amsterdam. My friend and former colleague, Dr Wil van der Knaap, was able to gain entrance for the two of us to see not only the painted heraldic shields of the surgeons, including the central shield for Frederik Ruysch himself, inside the roof of the restored Theatrum Anatomicum, but also the ‘masterpiece’ patterns of the bricklayers’ Guild (see ‘Patterns’ below).

Ruysch sometimes referred to himself as a konstenaar, or artist, and his Wunderkammer – of preserved plants and animals and human foetuses, dried, embalmed or fixed in alcohol, and his moralistic preparations and Tableaux of skeletons that were symbols of vanitas mundi – was visited by many high-ranking academics and others, including Peter the Great (who eventually bought the collection).

Cornelius Huyberts’ engravings of the Tableaux are preserved in the volumes of Ruysch’s Opera Omnia, the Thesauri,  in the Bodleian Library, Oxford. Photographs of all the pages of the Thesauri have more recently become available on the website of the Bibliothèque Interuniversitaire de Médécine.

Tableaux from Thesaurus VIII
© BIUM Paris: by courtesy of the Bibliothèque Interuniversitaire de Médecine (Paris)

These Tableaux show Ruysch’s artistry in preparing tissues such as blood vessels and the mesenteric tissues from around the gut, and arranging them to represent handkerchiefs and trees and – more morbidly here – an opened tomb or sepulchre created from a preserved uterus, containing a foetus with a ‘crown of natural flowers’.

Title page, and Tableau I, Thesaurus VIII explanations
© BIUM Paris: by courtesy of the Bibliothèque Interuniversitaire de Médecine (Paris)

The Scot William Hunter (1716-1783) was, like Ruysch, an anatomist, embalmer and man-midwife, and was also President of the Royal College of Surgeons in England. Remnants of his large anatomical museum – including the plaster casts of gravid uteri, and the bottles of human eyes mentioned in Ruth’s blog-post Making Eyes – are now held at Glasgow University’s Hunterian Museum.

His anatomy dissections and lectures, and his embalming methods that allowed long-term dissections of cadavers, were famous and led to many ground-breaking discoveries. It’s worth noting that his lectures and demonstrations to the Royal Academy of Arts on the importance of scientific observation and accurate interpretation are still very relevant to the work of writers and artists today!

zoffany hunter
Zoffany’s painting of William Hunter lecturing

The use of écorchés (flayed preserved corpses) to demonstrate the body’s musculature is well-recorded and discussed elsewhere, but Hunter – again like Ruysch – sometimes arranged his specimens in ‘artistic’ poses. The body of a hanged smuggler was fixed in the position of a dying Roman soldier before rigor mortis set in: the écorché of ‘Smugglerius’ was used as a teaching aid and subsequently immortalised as a plaster cast by William Pink, still held in the collection of the Royal Academy.

William Hunter’s younger brother John Hunter (1729-1793) was also a surgeon and anatomist and a naturalist, who accumulated his own large collection of animals and humans, both dead and alive, in his own museum. A large part of the collection remains in the Hunterian Museum at the Royal College of Surgeons in London.


Portrait of John Hunter, miniature copy by Henry Bone RA after Joshua Reynolds, 1798. (Thanks to The Hunterian Museum at The Royal College of Surgeons of England for permission to reproduce this image)

In the background are the bones of the feet and lower legs of Charles Byrne, ‘the Giant O’Brien’ (died 1783), as recounted in the blog-post Copper Kettles by taxidermist Ruth Kowslowski in the novel: “Perhaps finally he has been able to smile at the thought that his story as well as his bones (and a portrait of his feet!) are still preserved and admired nearly 250 years later.”  There is a fascinating video about Charles Byrne’s skeleton and genetic studies on acromegaly (a form of giantism) in the online version of the article “Should the skeleton of the Irish Giant O’Brien be buried at sea?” by Len Doyal and Thomas Muinzer.


As for Ruysch’s children, Rachel Ruysch was not only adept at making lacy sleeves for embalmed babies, but became a highly-respected artist, preserving the images of flowers and insects and reptiles in the rich colours and deep textures of her still-life paintings.


rachel ruysch glasgow
An arrangement of flowers by a tree trunk, Rachel Ruysch (1664 – 1750)

My thanks to ‘Culture & Sport Glasgow (Museums)’ for permission to use this image


What was the significance of the post-cards on the Café Waag table?

(Lisa) hastily pushed the postcards into a pile. They were all aerial views of tulip-fields; some were striped like the rough canvas of a deck-chair, narrow bands of red, orange, green and yellow; in others, the patterns were more intricate arrangements of rectangles and trapezoids, bounded by the dark curving ribbons of canals.” There is a longer extract from this chapter under Chromosome 4 of Ken MacLeod’s Human Genre Project.

tulip fields
Tulip fields: Frans Lemmens

Frans wrote to me that this postcard (which I bought in 2001) is “the best selling tulip image card in Holland. The publisher and I were astonished about this. We thought before that it would do well, but definitely not that it would become the best selling of all tulip fields”.

And what was so special about the brick patterns inside De Waag?

waag bricklayers1
The bricklayers’ ‘masterpieces’: photo Wil van der Knaap

The answer to the questions is that Lisa, Stefan, Kees and their colleagues – mathematicians, theoretical physicists, astronomers – were in Amsterdam for a conference on patterning and quasicrystal structure – and like crystallographers and the artist Maurits Escher before them, were working on the practice and theory of how shapes and images could be fit together to fill two- and three- and multi-dimensional space


As for the modern science of quasicrystals, my thanks to Professor Ian Stewart, who suggested Lisa might work on quasicrystals and sent me many relevant reprints, and to Professor Uwe Grimm.  Uwe, with the help of cardboard models laid out on our kitchen floor, helped me try to get to grips with the concept of the quasi-periodicity of repeating patterns in crystals: see, for example, What is Aperiodic Order? 

‘Making eyes’

cover 5crop
1st edn. cover. Photograph of artificial eye from the Hermitage Museum, St Petersburg, by Rosamond Wolff Purcell (with my thanks)

As taxidermist Ruth explains about her work, “It’s so important to get the eyes and the eyelids right … the face is everything, and it’s far too easy to get the expression wrong.

Glass-makers Leopold and Rudolf Blaschka are probably best-known for their series of exquisite and scientifically-detailed flowers in the Ware Collection at the Harvard Museum of Natural History, Boston, USA, and the glass models of invertebrate animals (including sea-anemones modelled on PH Gosse’s engravings).

They also made glass eyes, for humans.

White spheres lie on cotton-wool in the compartments of a flat wooden box: blue, brown or green circles, dark centres – pot-boilers, money-spinners: artificial human eyes. On a workbench there are small bottles, pinboxes and wooden trays containing different body-parts: glass tentacles of different shapes and colours, sponge spicules, tiny shells. ‘Mix ’n match’ invertebrates amongst the powdered glass and pigments.” (from Ruth Kowslowski’s blog-post ‘Making Eyes’)

Philip Henry Gosse exclaimed about the beauty of the multi-faceted eye of the dragon-fly. Insects have ‘compound eyes’, made up of many individual units each with a lens and light-sensitive cells that form an image. The surface of some compound eyes – like those of the fruit-fly, Drosophila – looks a bit like the surface of a raspberry, each separate unit bulging slightly outwards.

The structure and image-forming method of insect eyes could not be more different from that of vertebrate eyes, or even eyes of the squid and octopus. Yet in the mid-1990s, Walter Gehring and his colleagues performed a series of what turned out to be ground-breaking experiments in the field of developmental genetics – they showed that the gene pax6 which initiates the early stages of eye-formation in the mouse could also initiate eye-formation in Drosophila. Not a mouse eye – but a fly eye. If the mouse gene was inserted into fly cells that would normally form a leg or antenna – a fly eye grew instead!


See Figures 3 and 5 of Induction of Ectopic Eyes by Targeted Expression of the eyeless Gene in Drosophila

As Ruth writes: “We know now that Evolution is a conservationist and throws very little away: ‘You want an image-forming retina? There’s a bit of photosensitive pigment kicking around somewhere. A bit of this and a little bit of that, let’s try them in this order instead …’ The ingredients are mixed in a different sequence, to a different recipe.”


This photo of William Hart’s fighting squirrels held in the collection at Castle Ward was in a National Trust magazine in 2002 – and was a major stimulus in making me want to write about a taxidermist.

ntpl boxing squirrels

© NTPL/Andreas von Einsiedel.
My thanks to the National Trust and their Photo Library for permission to use this image

The Victorians were very fond of these anthropomorphised specimens, and artist Polly Morgan has taken this trend to new, exciting levels. In the novel, Ruth mentions Walter Potter’s ‘Kittens’ Tea-Party’ and although all of Potter’s works are now held in private collections, there are photos of several of his kitten tableaux at the Booth Museum, Brighton – where Booth’s own taxidermal preparations are on display.

Walter Potter: Kittens’ tea-party

To learn more about how taxidermists work, I visited and watched George Jamieson at Cramond and Colin Scott in Hawick.

This very good BBC video , A Taxidermist’s Tale, shows George (who also taught Polly Morgan) at work.

The 2001 Foot-and-mouth disease epidemic in Cumbria

Madeleine Tregwithen, one of the main characters in The Embalmer’s Book, had her sheep flock ‘culled out’ in 2001; her neighbour Daniel’s pedigree herd of cattle was subsequently infected and killed.

So much has been written and photographed about this terrible time, so many stories have been recorded in print and audio and on film. Mathematical analyses and future predictions of the spread of disease continue, based on the very large data set that was gathered at the time.

Nick May’s exhibition of photographs, Till the cows come home, continues to haunt me.


nick may's Dodds-Parlour-1

‘Dodds’ parlour’.
© Nick May. I am indebted to Nick for giving me permission to use this photograph

Note:  Herdwick semen and embryos were collected during FMD and stored in the Sheep Trust’s gene bank, and were later were used successfully to breed new lambs: see my article, ‘Moving On‘ on page 22 of Firecrane#2


The character Lisa Wallace, mathematician at the University of Liverpool, is an achondroplasic.

Tom Shakespeare, a friend and former colleague, with whom I worked for two years on out two-year Wellcome Trust-funded Talking Science in Cumbria project, is himself achondroplasic – and he introduced me to Jo Hookway and Margaret Milne, both of whom were delightfully generous (and humorous) in helping me to try to understand what it is like to be a female ‘person of restricted growth’. Sandy Marshall, formerly of the Restricted Growth Association also gave me lots of helpful background information.

There is more about achondroplasia – about a 19th-century skeleton in the Surgeons’ Hall Museum, Edinburgh, and about James Jack who was a technician there, in the stories I wrote during my Visiting Fellowship at the Genomics Forum. ‘Stories about dwarves’, copied elsewhere in this blog, in addition to containing one of Joyce Gunn Cairns’ delicate drawings, also has an extract from the novel about ‘Lisa’.

Tom Shakespeare and Professor John Burn of Newcastle University made these ‘talking heads’ videos about achondroplasia.

(videos coming soon – sorry for delay)

The videos are reproduced with kind permission from Newcastle University – ©1998 Copyright Newcastle University; All Rights Reserved.
My thanks to Tom and John, and the University audio-visual service.

You should have been terminated!’ John Burn tells Tom ….