Layers of history

Often have I laid in bed on board and thought of you all with my eyes shut and could, for the moment, fancy myself at Rosneath.

Georgiana Molloy 1829


When I was at school I was taught that history was a fixed thing, an accumulation of dates and facts that could be learned and memorised. Now I know that history is just as shifting and organic as the people and stories it holds. There are as many versions as there are tellers of the stories. For a biographer, the authorial choices about voice and content shape everything in a personal way, however carefully the writer tries to be unbiased and balanced.

One of the things I love most about research is being in the places where real people once lived or spent time, especially if those settings were very significant to an individual. Not only is there often a kind of energy, a resonance that lingers, but also a wonderful sense of history as an ongoing thing, never stationary. Each time I stand here, by the ruins of old St Modan’s Church in Rosneath, Scotland, I see new glimpses of the layers and layers of time that have overlayed the quiet churchyard, both before and after the days in 1828 and 1829 when Georgiana Molloy worshipped here. It was the last place she lived before setting sail for Western Australia and it was a period that had an enormous impact on her thinking and beliefs.


This photograph shows evidence there from the lives of ordinary people through several centuries: an ancient Celtic cross, the remaining walls of the 1780 church (built long after 11th Century pilgrims came for the miraculous properties of the well on the same site) a 19th Century gravestone and a more modern one, the original doorway through which Georgiana walked several times each week in 1829 and a much older bell-cote in the ‘birdcage’ style (from around 1660) re-used when the previous church was replaced. It’s believed that this site was established as a holy place by St Modan himself. The first minister is referenced in 1250 and church records go back to 1199.


Quotation from Georgiana Molloy’s letter to Helen Story, 1829

JS Battye Library, Perth WA ACC 3278 A/2