Of sheep's wool, moths and Linda Cracknell's glorious new novel 'The Other Side of Stone'

The smell of sheep’s wool is right up there amongst my olfactory favourites, alongside woodsmoke, horse sweat, whisky and gorse. My husband Martin is a hill farmer, and at clipping time his clothes and hands are redolent with lanolin. Corners of our house also breathe lanolin; we insulated the walls with sheep’s wool, and although we treated it with boron over time it became furiously infested with clothes moths, the tiny innocuous looking tineola bisselliella. After years of trying to mitigate the damage we replaced the wool insulation with hemp, a large and expensive job. Yet we still have moths. A Buddhist friend said to me, ‘how lovely, moths are lovely’. Moths are lovely, and indeed I do love moths, the kind that live outdoors camouflaged magnificently on tree bark, I do not love clothes moths. Sometimes I give in to my lesser self and squish them, but on the whole I have learnt to live with them, to accept the damage, a regular practice in acceptance. We have lost so many treasured woollen possessions over the years: hand knotted carpets from Afghanistan; jumpers; blankets that my mother had as a child;  Martin’s grandfather’s kilts, his own kilt, and all those socks - Martin can only wear 100% woollen socks, he puts up with holes and larvae. For my part I gave up buying woollen things, too much waste, but in recent years I have succumbed. Now I live for the day with my jumpers, and the occasional extravagance of tweed, knowing it’s only a matter of time until each is got. Despite the years of upset around clothes moths I still revel in the smell of lanolin, and appreciate the particular warmth only wool gives you, and for me, nothing in the world beats a hug with a loved one wearing a woollen jumper, the coarser the yarn the better.  

    As taken with wool as I am it was no surprise that Linda Cracknell’s new book, a novel of historical fiction based around a Perthshire woollen mill, would catch my eye. I read The Other Side of Stone in one sitting (for me a rare thing) on the spring equinox. I was enthralled. It spans centuries, continents, gender and class, all with a well-played touch of the folkloric woven through striking stories of place and people. Scent, texture, sound and sensitive observation of the human condition permeate this novel.

    The author’s personal involvement in the conversion of a derelict Victorian woollen mill into a museum shines through in the detail of the tweed making process, of the workings of the machinery, the weaving of ‘the vanishing cloth’, and of the human skills and stories involved from the building of the mill in 1831 to the close of the book in  2019. 

The woollen mill, ‘saturated in lanolin and engine oil’, is the framework that holds the interweaving stories of the book’s memorable characters, their tales of betrayal and courage, of greed and of self sacrifice. For me, being a dyed-in-the-wool romantic, the beating heart of this novel is the sensuous and tragic love story of Catherine and her husband John. They meet in Clydeside through a mutual passion for unionisation and support for suffrage, but after John gets a job as foreman at the Perthshire woollen mill in 1913, his ideals are compromised. This takes Catherine on her own brave hard journey as ‘the sweet fire’ they shared fades. Their story moved me to tears. 

    The moths in my house will soon be active, readying themselves for the breeding season. So it goes on. After reading The Other Side of Stone I will be coveting my wool more than ever, especially the tweed, not by mothballing, but by wearing things, by airing them, by keeping them on the move. It occurs to me that this is what Linda Cracknell has done in this book, with her skilled and deft pen she has kept history and folklore alive in stories of wool and folk, love and loss, unionism and suffrage. It is a stunningly well-written portrayal of rural and urban Scotland through the past two centuries. This book has been incubating in various forms for twenty years, and has now grown wings with this beautiful production by publishers Taproot Press. I hope The Other Side of Stone travels far and lands well, it deserves to.