Darien: A Journey in Search of Empire by John McKendrick, an extract

John McKendrick’s new book, Darien: A Journey in Search of Empire is a combination of compelling narrative history and gripping travelogue. His journey to uncover Caledonia, the short-lived Scottish colony in Darien, began when his legal career took him to the international ports of Panama. In his search for traces of the enterprise he became entangled by many of the same difficulties encountered by the seventeenth-century Scots: an inhospitable climate; a suspicious indigenous population with its own local conflicts; and dense jungle. A machete-wielding history, the journey becomes a personal pilgrimage as McKendrick uncovers vestiges of Darien not just at the place still known as Punta Escocés but in the places to which the colonists scattered. This extract finds him in the southern United States –

Darien A Journey in Search of EmpireAlthough it was October the land was steamy, swampy almost and the air was humid and heavy. I drove with the windows down and the hot air tangled my hair into knots. The radio played a selection of lachrymose Country songs. I passed a large church which announced ‘A crossless life is a pointless life’. A sentiment the Reverend Archibald Stobo would very much have agreed with. Stobo is perhaps less well-known than his fellow Darien minister Francis Borland, because he did not keep a record of his time in Caledonia. But he was fit enough to go ashore and preach at Charleston in 1700, and this devotion saved his life. I had come to the Carolinas and Georgia to find out more about Caledonia’s most successful survivor and his descendants, who did more to fulfil William Paterson’s dream than any other. In Savannah I hoped to see where those descendants had lived, and from there I would go to Charleston to see where the Reverend Stobo founded around five churches. Stobo was the most successful of the survivors of Caledonia. First and most importantly his connection with Theodore Roosevelt provides an extraordinary link across 200 years from the vision of Paterson to the achievement of Panama as a vital hinge in the world economy. But Stobo had other great offspring. His grandson, Archibald Bulloch (1730–1777) who was born in South Carolina, was a great Revolutionary leader who fought against the British and was Georgia’s representative at the Continental Congress.

In Charleston, the South Carolina Historical Society was housed in the oddly named Fireproof Building at 100 Meeting Street. The building was attractive, in the Palladian style with Doric porticos, but more interestingly it claimed to be the first fireproof building built in the United States for the preservation of public records, the ideal location for a history society. I was not sure what I expected to find in the Society’s library but felt sure it was worth asking what records or documents they had which dealt with the Reverend Stobo. Inside the cool reception to the library a pretty young librarian helped me and we chatted for a while over what I was interested in. She asked me to temporarily register and then carried out a search of the records. A few documents appeared on the computer screen on the system and the librarian sought them out for me. When they arrived they were of little help and revealed very little about Stobo’s life in Charlestown. After a little over an hour I was about to leave when the librarian asked me if I would like to see the ‘Stobo bible’. I asked what it was and she was not very sure but asked me to don a pair of white gloves and she disappeared to the fireproof vaults to find it. I sat with eager anticipation. Could this really be the Reverend Stobo’s own bible? Could it have been preserved all this time?

Darien - In Search of Empire - 8pp cmyk plateThe librarian came back with a large buff-coloured manila folder tied closed with string, which she laid carefully on the table before me then said ‘enjoy’ and left me to it. I sat for a moment, overcome with excitement and emotion: this truly could be a wonderful find. The bible used by Stobo over 300 years ago; the bible he would have held and touched with his own hands in New Edinburgh, and now I would be able to hold it too. It made me feel closer to the Caledonians, even closer perhaps than visiting the site of the colony. I gingerly pulled back the string, struggling a little with the uncomfortable white gloves on my fingers. The manila paper sprang open to reveal a small brown leather-covered bible, with a leather catch which had become damaged. I carefully turned it over and inspected the leather covering, which was a little spoiled and damaged in places but essentially complete. I opened the bible to reveal page after page of perfectly preserved gospel, printed in tiny print, but clearly legible and well laid out. The whole book was remarkable and I felt thrilled to hold Stobo’s bible in my hand, waves of history pouring out from its fragile, dry pages.

A note in the manila envelope made clear this bible had belonged to the Reverend Archibald Stobo who founded several Presbyterian churches in the area. It appeared to lend support to the idea – given the date and place of publication, close to when he would have set sail from Glasgow – that this was the bible he may have used in New Edinburgh. It seems likely it was bought in Scotland before the second expedition sailed. This may even have been the bible he would have held when he gave sermons to the Caledonians, the bible he used when he prayed for salvation when the Spanish attacked, the bible he would have pressed against his hands aboard the Rising Sun when he feared the ship would not make it on its voyage from Jamaica to Scotland. It was an amazing and startling discovery and moved me intensely. I opened to the bible gently and read several passages. Flicking through the crackling pages I wondered what sustenance the Reverend Stobo would have taken from some of the passages as he read them: Joshua 1:6–9 ‘Be strong and courageous, because you will lead these people to inherit the land’; Matthew 11:28–30 ‘Come to me all you who are weary and burdened, and I will give you rest’; Nehemiah 6:3 ‘I am carrying on a great project and cannot go down’. What inspiration or solace did the he find in this book as he hoped, feared, repented and rejoiced in his travels from Glasgow to New Edinburgh to Jamaica to Charleston? Holding the bible in my hands made me feel closer to the Caledonians than at any other point in my journey following them. I gently closed the bible, kissed it and taking a last wistful look at it, placed it gently back in the manila folder. Back in the fireproof vaults, the bible was sure to survive for another 300 years.

Darien: A Journey in Search of Empire is published this month and is available here on our website and in all good bookshops.

Welcome to Darien


Candlemas – A New Series from Shirley McKay

Today is Candlemas, the festival of light that marks the official end of the Christian festive season. We at Polygon use today’s holiday to announce an exciting new series with one of our stellar historical crime authors, Shirley McKay. This innovative project will see Shirley release five brand new eBooks throughout the year using the Christian calendar as inspiration: Candlemas (February), Whitsunday (May), Lammas (August), Martinmas (November) and Yule (December). All five mystery novellas will then be collected into one beautiful gift hardback at the end of the year — a perfect Christmas gift. The series of books will be called, 1588: A Calendar of Crime and will follow everyone’s favourite St Andrew’s based hero Hew Cullan.

Candlemas for blogThe first in this series, Candlemas, takes place on Candlemas Eve. When a candlemaker,  John Blair, is found dead in his workshop, all the evidence points to the surgeon Sam Sturrock as the culprit. Enlisted by Sturrock’s desperate apprentice, Hew Cullan, together with his friend and physician Giles Locke, delves deeper into the life of the candlemaker and discovers a web of extortion and lies. It seems John Blair was a man with many enemies . . .

Shirley McKay was born in Tynemouth but now lives with her family in Fife. At the age of fifteen she won the Young Observer playwriting competition, her play being performed at the Royal Court Theatre Upstairs. She went on to study English and Linguistics at the University of St Andrews before attending Durham University for postgraduate study in Romantic and seventeenth century prose. She was shortlisted for the CWA Debut Dagger and has wowed crime fiction fans since then with the Hew Cullen mysteries over five novels, Hue & Cry, Fate & Fortune, Time & Tide, Friend & Foe and Queen & Country. Her fantastic blend of page-turning whodunit with intriguing historical detail — often incorporating real life figures — continues to win her an army of fans.

Shirley McKay‘I’m hugely excited about the ebook publication of the first story, Candlemas: the ebook format suits the episodic nature of the whole, following the pattern of the quarter days. But I’m excited too about the print edition of the compilation – with a cover promising to be truly beautiful – later on this year. This is a new departure for me, and crafting five complete and self-contained short mysteries, loosely interlinked, is proving both a challenge and a joy. ‘ – Shirley McKay

What is Candlemas? Candlemas is a Christian holiday celebrated annually on the 2nd of February. It celebrates three occasions according to Christian belief: the presentation of the child Jesus; Jesus’ first entry into the temple; the Virgin Mary’s purification (mainly in Catholic churches).

What Do People Do?
 As befitting a festival of light, candles are blessed on this day and candle-lit processions often precede the mass. In some parts of Europe, it is traditional to eat crepes on Candlemas. Here, each family member prepares and cooks a crepe while holding a coin in hand. This is believed to assure wealth and happiness until the next Candlemas celebration.

Candlemas is also known as Candelaria in Spanish speaking countries. Whoever finds baby figures hidden inside the Rosca de Reyes (Kings Cake) on Epiphany (January 6) is obliged to bring food to the Candlemas gathering. Some Christians observe the practice of leaving Christmas decorations up until Candlemas.

The first book in the series will be released later on this month. Keep your eyes peeled!

The Very Best of Birlinn’s Books You Must Read in 2016

Dragon GamesDragon Games

Jan-Phillip Sendker

You are in for a real treat if you haven’t yet discovered Jan-Philipp Sendker. Everyone is talking about him and we are thrilled that he is on our list. This is the fourth book by Jan-Philipp to be published by Polygon and last year we got to meet him for the first time when he came over from his home base in Germany to do an event at the Edinburgh International Book Festival. He returns this year and hopes to travel throughout the UK, meeting the readers and booksellers who devour his books. The first two books we published were his beautiful, passionate love stories set in Burma and now we will have two in the very moving, slightly grittier China / Hong Kong series – the second being Dragon Games, coming out in September of this year. The first in this series, Whispering Shadows, has been selected as a World Book Night title for 2016 – a first for us here at Polygon. Dragon Games is the book you sit down to and don’t get up again until it is done – a great read and a wonderful insight into China.

Jan Rutherford, Publicity & Marketing Director

Rum Affair, A 2A Rum Affair
A True Story of Botanical Fraud
Karl Sabbagh

The whole concept of Karl Sabbagh’s A Rum Affair is just so wonderfully eccentric that I can’t wait for it to arrive! Sabbagh takes something that, at a glance, looks like it should be the dullest thing on Earth, and turns it into one of the most entertaining and fascinating true accounts of scientific fraud in recent times. There really is nothing else like it.

Jamie Harris, Sales, Publicity and Events Administrator

Young Souls RebelsYoung Soul Rebels Vis 16
A Personal History of Northern Soul
Stuart Cosgrove

So chuffed here at Polygon to have the mighty Stuart Cosgrove on our list. Young Soul Rebels is a rambunctious, frank and incisive look at the UK’s love of sweet soul music through the last fifty years of British political history and culture. A cracking read (and soul bible) for all music fans – I guarantee you’ll be getting out your old vinyl and talcum powder.

Alison Rae, Managing Editor

Brilliant & Forever 15dThe Brilliant & Forever
Kevin MacNeil

A new novel by Kevin MacNeil is always something to get excited about. And when that novel is as marvellously invigorating as The Brilliant & Forever, well, let’s pop those champagne corks! Both a sharp satire on the culture industry and a true celebration of storytelling, it’s a book lover’s dream of a novel. There’s jokes and quotable lines galore! There are fabulous villains! (Seth and Dalston, I’m looking at you.) There’s haiku-kery! (There’s what? You’ll find out…) There’s a talking alpaca! Oh, and there’s so much more . . .

Outside of Birlinn, I’m intrigued by Mary Paulson-Ellis’s debut, The Other Mrs Walker. It looks to be a great year for Scottish fiction!

Vikki Reilly, Sales Liaison Manager

Mapping Scottish Islands
Christopher Fleet

The geeky nautical chart enthusiast and sailor in me can’t wait to read this book. I’m fascinated to learn about how many of the charts we still use today were created; it’s staggering to think that this was accomplished over 150 years ago. I also think this will be one of the most beautiful mapping books we’ve done. I’m looking forward to giving it as a gift to lots of people next Christmas!

Anna Marshall, Events Manager

Dead Queen of Bohemia, The 2The Dead Queen of Bohemia
New & Collected Poems
Jenni Fagan

Jenni Fagan is best know for her novel The Panopticon, but her poetry deserves just as much attention. Jenni’s first collection was published seven years ago, but as a whole this is a body of work that has been written over an entire life. Her book has a lot to offer: the writing is honest, humorous, sharp, witty and has a wry sense of humour to it; you live alongside these pieces and take a step into the world of The Dead Queen of Bohemia in each line. You’ll want to read and re-read this book, and each time you do you’ll take something different away from it.

Outside of our list, I have been listening to and enjoying Radio 4’s book of the week and I am very much looking forward to reading The Outrun by Amy Liptrot.

Edward Crossan, Poetry Editor and Online & Digital Development

WILD ISLAND (Self Cover 2)Wild Island

A Year in the Hebrides
Jane Smith

This is a lovely book – our proofreader said exactly that and asked for a copy as part of his fee, something that doesn’t often happen! It chronicles in words and vibrant paintings a year in the life of Oronsay, a Hebridean island farmed by the RSPB for the benefit of the birds, animals and flora there. Jane’s wildlife paintings are full of colour and energy, and her stories of her time on the island are so engaging and funny that readers will hardly notice they are getting lots of information about nature conservation too as they leaf through the pages. Wild Island would make the perfect present for any nature lover, and I can’t wait to get my hands on a copy.

Tom Johnstone, Managing Editor

Un-Discovered Islands
Malachy Tallack

Malachy Tallack follows up the heartfelt and beautiful Sixty Degrees North with Un-Discovered Islands. In a way it’s a companion piece, a book about islands imagined but thought real, places born in myth and mystery, from all over the world. It is going to be a stunning book, with some lovely illustrations; the perfect gift for Christmas.

Liz Short, Production Manager

my italian bulldozer progressMy Italian Bulldozer
Alexander McCall Smith

Alexander McCall Smith is fantastic at writing about Italy: its food & wine, its music, the history, the landscape and la bella figura. Onto this beautiful canvas he’s introduced una colossale macchina – a bulldozer.

Only McCall Smith has the literary dexterity to pull this off. Funny, elegant and moving – occasionally earth-moving – this book is a joy; you’ll be swept away, literally.

Neville Moir, Publishing Director

Darien A Journey in Search of EmpireDarien: A Journey in Search of Empire
John McKendrick

John McKendrick opens this history-cum-travelogue with a confident disavowal: ‘There has always been confusion about Darien.’ He’s right: I first heard of Darien in a primary-school history class, it was a locus of Scotland’s shame, a scheme that had gone disastrously wrong as we tried to punch above our weight on the world stage; then, in the first chapter of Swallows and Amazons, it became a promise of adventure; at the high point of Keats’ sonnet ‘On first looking into Chapman’s Homer’ (possibly my all-time favourite poem), Darien is epiphanic, a place where imagination and reality awesomely coincide. This book shows how it was all of these things at once. McKendrick promises to untangle some of the mysteries surrounding Scotland’s attempt to establish a colony and trading post on the Panama isthmus in the late seventeenth century. Unlike Keats or Roger, Titty et al., he has actually travelled to Darien, and his journey sees him hacking through the jungle with a machete to get to the heart of the matter. It’s an evocative (and sometimes hair–raising) way of bringing this chapter of Scotland’s history to life in all its enthusiasm, naivety, prescience, and tragedy.

Beyond our books – maybe 2016 will be the year for War and Peace (but maybe not).

Kristian Kerr, Publicity Officer