Choosing Your Setting: The Real Banktoun By SJI Holliday
I’d always toyed with the idea of writing a book set in my hometown. Haddington, East Lothian is reasonably small. The population ripples around 9,000, but it always felt like much, much less. It’s an old market town, about 17 miles south of Edinburgh. It’s set in a valley, hence it’s nickname, ‘The Hidden Toun’ and has a pretty river (The Tyne, no, not the one that goes to Newcastle) and a stunning church – St Mary’s – that has featured on Songs of Praise. Its most famous ex-resident is John Knox, the Protestant reformer and namesake of the local High School, Knox Academy.
All these things are very well – but it wasn’t the church or the river or even the appearance of a massive Tesco that shaped my years there.
It was the people.
Growing up, my dad owned a newsagent’s shop – the type that sold pretty much everything and was known to all (especially for the excellent selection of pick n mix sweets – Mojos, white fish and chips, flying saucers…), and then later, a pub. I worked in both, starting as a papergirl and ending up a barmaid. I knew lots of people. There were many, many stories. Some, most definitely not repeatable.
There’s a worry about setting a fictional tale in a setting that’s too distinctive. I was concerned that a real story might creep in and cause offence, or that I’d invent a character who was too similar to a real one – after all, the town was, and still is, full of characters.
So I fictionalised it. I named it Banktoun – for a couple of reasons… one, there actually is a place in the county called Bankton (without the ‘u’) – but it’s a steading – a few houses. I’m not even sure I’ve been there… and two, because one of the other features of Haddington is the two major banks – one of which was the Friday night pre-pub meeting place before people had mobile phones. These two old mansion houses sit side by side on the main route into the town centre, opposite the equally imposing Sheriff Court.
I changed the names of the streets and the park, and I cut off a fairly major chunk of the town that lies on the other side of the river. I needed it smaller, more manageable. I used a real bookshop and pub and made up what happened inside them, and I used the railway walk to create ‘The Track’ – a key location in the novel. I placed the fictional town in approximately the same geographic location as the real one – a 20 minute commute on the express bus to Edinburgh, or an hour on the stopping service… and I didn’t put any real characters in there. Well, maybe a few melded together in places – traits, quirks and attitudes.
There is a real Black Wood nearby. But I’m not sure there’s a cottage there. And if there is, I’m sure it doesn’t harbour quite as many secrets as the one that took shape and form inside my head.