On Different Kinds of Air is written by Pete Stewart. Here he tells something of how it came about and the experience of writing it.
This is my sixth book. Four of the previous ones were about traditional music, particularly bagpipe music, in England and in the Scottish Lowlands [neither of which are generally recognised for their bagpipe-playing]. The fifth was an exploration of the relationship between creation myth and astronomy.
On Different Kinds of Air is rather different. I first encountered James Tytler whilst researching the early descriptions of bagpipes in Scotland [there are surprisingly few]. one of the earliest detailed descriptions appears in the second edition of The Encyclopaedia Britannica, published in 1776/77. However, the description included there of the ‘Lowland Pipe’ is so much at odds with any other, and with surviving instruments, that I immediately wanted to know who wrote it, and did they know what they were writing about?
And so I discovered Mr James Tytler. The rest is a story of six years or more of intermittent research and note-taking. I knew from the start, given that there seemed to be so many gaps in what was then known about his life, that this would be as much a work of fiction as of straight biography. It soon became clear that I could get around the problems of ‘unknowns’ by employing the device of introducing a character who was themself attempting to write the biography, thereby transferring my lack of knowledge to my character.
In the early drafts, I myself played this role, describing the story of how I came to write the book [see above]. I spent some time with this approach before abandoning it, largely because it had become to clumsy – i had realised that the real story-teller should be the character who, as a youth, had worshiped Tytler and who was almost certainly the one who found his body. Slowly his story grew into a major element in the book.
I began my research convinced that I was writing about a radical thinker. He had, after all, been exiled for distributing a handbill calling for people to withhold their taxes and describing parliament as a ‘vile junto’. It was a shock, therefore, to discover that this was only part of the story, and that behind it lay a far more complex and surprising character, but not one I felt I could sympathise with. Handling this dilemma gave me the structure on which the book finally came to depend. Ben Crowninshield, whilst struggling to write Tytler’s life story, would go through his own crisis, one both similar and dramatically different to the one I experienced.