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  1. Q: How does a visit to the vet end up in an emergency trip to the garage?

    OMALLEY car

    A: It happens like this: You take O’Malley to the vet for his annual jags. In his opinion, nothing is worse than being confined in a cat basket, including the medical procedures. In the course of leaving the vet’s, the catch on his basket comes loose and the door flies off. Mike swings the open basket upright to prevent an outdoor escape - the worst thing he can imagine -  and gets him inside the car. He finds the cat basket door and sees O’Malley curled up by the driver pedals in the footwell. He reattaches the door, looks back at O’Malley – and discovers he has vanished.

    The black fluffy tail hanging down by the clutch pedal gives away his hiding place: he has got as far away from the cat basket as possible. You didn’t think there would be enough space for a cat to hide inside a dashboard? Neither did we.

    All we can see is a patch of black fur and a few whiskers. Mike tries gently pulling his tail to work out his position. Resenting the intrusion on his person, O’Malley withdraws it and goes deeper. Throughout all this, he is remarkably serene. The dashboard is a dark, safe alternative to the cat basket.

    Q: Is it possible to drive a vehicle with a cat inserted into the complex instrumentation of a dashboard?

    A: Yes. While not recommended, it is perfectly possible to drive a vehicle with a large black fluffy cat wrapped around the steering column, surrounded by wiring and plugins and encased in strong plastic.

    We start the engine to see if that encourages him to leave his hiding place. No. We reason that if anything about driving the car is upsetting for him, he will inform us. Our destination is the inventive, unflappable, never-say-die, keepers of the secrets of the automobile, our long-suffering garage owners D&J. They will know what to do.

    We drive very slowly. The fastest route to D&J is closed because of road works. Of course it is. So we take the diversion, crossing many speedbumps. No protesting noises from the dashboard.

    “You’ve never seen this one before,” Mike tells Donald on our arrival. Donald protests that they have seen quite a lot in the course of their careers, but on hearing our predicament, admits that a cat in the dashboard is a first for them. And they do like a challenge.

    Q: Do D&J succeed in their mission?

    A: Admirably. It takes about half an hour to find alun keys and torches, remove the lower right-hand panel, pull out a number of connections, and locate the exact position of the cat, who is level with the steering wheel. There's a moment when the four of us find ourselves gazing in at the two big yellow eyes staring out of the dashboard, and all of us are thinking, How in the world did you get to be in there? There are also some worrying moments, when we realise we might not actually be able to do this, and D&J are conferring about Plan B - taking off the top dashboard panel. Mike is thinking an outdoor escape might have been a lot easier. O’Malley has learned there are worse places to be than the cat basket, and is worrying about whether or not we can feed him in there if the situation becomes protracted.

    Eventually, D&J extract him from his cramped quarters, exhibiting hidden cat wrangling skills and having worked out that he is not so much stuck, as has dug his back paw claws in for safety. In a delicate two-man operation, they prise him free and return him to the outside world, John sporting a nasty scratch delivered by the car, not the cat. Gratifyingly, someone strolls by at the critical moment O’Malley is being extracted head-first from the dashboard, so there is a witness to the extraordinary event.

    Q: Was he traumatised by his adventure?


    A: Not at all. Despite the indignity of his release, an hour later he wolfs down supper, trots round the garden, steals Jones’s dog bed for a nap, then curls up on daddy’s lap by the fire. The end of another ordinary day in the Outer Hebrides …

  2. Putting together Royal Macnab required some detailed research in some odd places. Having got my theme – the changing social fabric, the muddying of the class barriers, and the changing role of the landlord versus the unchanging landscape, I also had the background of eight years working as a lodge cook on various estates on the Isles of Lewis, Harris and North Uist. I knew my territory, and the lifelong game fishing experience of my husband was also invaluable. But there were gaps in my knowledge in deer stalking and grouse shooting, and the historical elements of the story.


    My sporting estate contacts were tremendously helpful – a deer stalking expedition into the Uist hills, first-hand knowledge of the ancient breed of deerhounds, a lesson in how clay pigeon shoots and a rifle worked, all helped build the world. One part of the story, which arose out of the background theme of the demise and decay of the gentry, concerned the rampant problem of syphilis, which led to the question of how the Victorian age went about treating the condition.

    At this time, the internet was not as well-organised and accessible as it is now, and in the end it was thanks to the diligence of staff at the Wellcome Library, and an enlightening phone call with my GP, that gave me the knowledge I needed.


    Before those happy events, I spent a morning on the phone, calling various academic establishments such as the Glasgow University Library and Scottish Medical Archives. Each person I spoke to helpfully directed me to someone else, and near the end of the chain of conversations, I found myself talking to a man buried somewhere in the depths of an academic library stack.  He, too, went to some trouble to track down the number of a medical museum in Edinburgh and told me to explain that I was making an outside research enquiry and was not a member.

    I dialled the number and the conversation went like this:

    Clerk:    Hello? How may I help you?

    Me:        Hi. I’ve been given your number regarding a research enquiry into Victorian treatments for syphilis. Can you transfer me to the medical treatments archives?

    Clerk:    May I have your name and account number?

    Me:        Oh sorry, no, I don’t have an account. I’m not a library member, this is an outside enquiry. I’m researching a book and looking for information on how the Victorians went about treating syphilis –

    Clerk:    But I must have your account number before I can help you.

    Me:        No, I’m not a member, it’s an outside enquiry about historical treatments for syphilis in the Victorian era. Is there someone in the medical archives I can speak to?

    Clerk:    I need your account number and sort code, please. This is the Clydesdale Bank.

    Covered with confusion - as I imagine both of us were - I apologised, hung up quickly and seriously considered the age-old novelist’s resort of just making something up. I also wondered, in the face of a caller relentlessly pursing information on syphilis, why it took the recipient of my call so long to deliver the crucial piece of information that would tip me off I had the wrong number. But one more phone call, rather nervously made, even after double-checking the number, and the man at the other end exclaimed, “I know just who you need! Call directory enquiries and ask for The Wellcome Library!”

    Never give up is a sentiment that often crops up in the course of writing – this was one of those cases where it really paid off – I could never have made up anything half so horrible as the stuff the Victorians were actually doing to their poor syphilitic patients …