Stand and deliver ..

30th November 2007 at 00:00
Dick Turpin would have felt at home at the launch of a novel about highwaymen. Miranda Fettes reports.Twenty-two children from Moniaive Primary are crowded into a tiny 18th-century cottage in the village of Torthorwald, near Dumfries. One boy is shivering in a ragged T-shirt and trousers with holes in them, which adds to the authenticity of the scene.

The children, from P6 and 7, are launching the latest novel by award-winning Edinburgh author Nicola Morgan. It was her idea to approach a school to unveil The Highwayman's Curse, but the venue and presentation were the children's idea, under the guidance of headteacher, Moira McCrossan.

The boys and girls, who read the book in advance of its publication, are performing scenes from the story. Set in Galloway, it is a tale about two highwaymen, falsely accused of murder, who find themselves captured and entangled in a vicious story of hatred and revenge, rooted in a time when children, women and men were murdered for their religious beliefs.

P7 children from three other Thornhill primaries - Wallace Hall, Closeburn and Penpont - plus S1 pupils from Wallace Hall Academy, who were at Moniaive Primary last year, have come along.

In the first scene, down the lane by the river, heroes Will and Bess find the dead body of an old man, plus a young boy who is badly injured. They contemplate whether to take the boy and find help, but worry that they will be incriminated. They decide to do the right thing and assist him, only to be accused of killing the man and nearly killing the boy.

In the next scene, outside the cottage, they encounter the family of the man and the boy, and are seized and taken hostage. A third scene is acted out inside Cruck Cottage, a thatched cottage which has been restored and is the only remaining one of its kind in the area.

After their performance, two pupils interview Ms Morgan, who has been watching with interest. A videographer and television and radio crews have also come along.

Ms Morgan researched the killing times, the Covenanters and the Wigtown martyrs for the book. The children covered language, history and drama, and organised competitions, reviews, posters and designs for fliers, as well as learning information skills, design and persuasive writing.

The starting point for the book, she says, was provided by the main characters Will and Bess from her previous novel, The Highwayman's Footsteps. "Originally I thought they'd go to Kent, which has a strong history of smuggling. But I came on holiday to Galloway and found this huge smuggling history almost on my doorstep. Then I found the killing times and the religious hatred of the period much more interesting. It's set in a smuggling family but it's the aftermath of the killing times that has a much greater effect on their lives.

"It's a story of hatred and anger going down the generations. Religious hatred has got so much relevance today."

David Harley (P7), who is shivering in rags, is glad to be living now instead of then "because there's not much killing and you get to wear jumpers, coats and fleeces". Classmate Rachel Shnapp "liked how it was set in the 18th century".

Ms Morgan, who is chair of the Society of Authors in Scotland, is bowled over by the day's events. "It was my idea to give them the task of launching the book, but it was their idea to do the re-enactment. They chose the scenes and the words and the venue. Normally I have to do all the talking at a launch."

About 120,000 books are published in the UK each year, she tells the assembled children, but this launch is exceptional "because it has been organised by a primary school".

Mrs McCrossan says the children, who got their individual copies of the book before it was published, have all enjoyed the project. "It's always good doing things for real."

The Highwayman's Curse is published by Walker Books (pound;6.99).

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