Interview with Jackie Cosh

Jackie Cosh trained as a journalist and is now a writer of historical nonfiction, concentrating in particular on Scottish history.

Her first history book, The King with the Iron Belt, is a biography of King James IV of Scotland.

Jackie can be contacted on:

Twitter @ScotHistAuthor and via her blog at

TT: Do you remember what first sparked your interest in history, and particularly Stewart history?

It’s so long ago it’s hard to remember, although I did win the History Prize at school. Once I finished my Postgrad, I took a gap year in Australia, and had time to read a lot. I became really interested in Irish history of the eighteenth and nineteenth century (I’m Irish born, but grew up in Scotland) and then started delving into Scottish history, which really fascinates me. Every time I’m in Edinburgh I go to the Scottish National Portrait Gallery. I’m always interested in the real characters.

The era that really interests me is the Stewart period, in Scotland, and the parallel Tudor and Hapsburg period in Europe. I’m also interested in the later Stuarts – James VII (& II) and William and Mary.

TT: In your introduction, you mention that you have long been fascinated by James IV – what is it that drew you to him?

He is just such a fascinating and charismatic personality, and so little is known about him. There is so much written about Mary, Queen of Scots, and I could never fathom why so little has been written about James – even though his marriage to Margaret Tudor created the eventual Union of the Crowns. Maybe because he lost at Flodden he isn’t remembered as Wallace and Bruce are. I wanted to take James out of the library, and let other people meet him.

TT: After you had finished researching and writing the book, were you still interested in him or did he prove to have feet of clay?

I got even more interested in him, because I started to understand him as a real person. He was so interested in different things – he seems like a person who didn’t just follow the crowd. When he first became king, he was only just fifteen, and he had to put a government together, bringing the different sides who had been fighting together. That can’t have been easy. His father hadn’t given him any training, tending to favour his younger brother.

He didn’t always make the right decisions. For example, when his wife was very ill following childbirth, he didn’t stay by her bedside, but went on pilgrimage. But of course, for him, that was the best use of his time. In his head, a pilgrimage would do more for her than him being there.

TT: Talking of wrong decisions, why did James give up the advantageous ground he had at Flodden? What does this tell us about him as a man, and as a king?

I think he got a bit cocky. He had the largest army that a Scottish king had ever taken into England, and Surrey [the leader of the English forces] was over 70. James just wasn’t in the right frame of mind – he was too self-assured. He had been a bit slow coming down the road, and the English got behind him, blocking the retreat, so he had to move.

TT: Does your interpretation of James differ from that of previous historians?

I’m not so much looking for new information. MacDougall’s book on James and Mackie’s a bit earlier, was fantastic. But they are academic works. I wanted to make James interesting and accessible to the general reader.

TT: James was a man with many mistresses – can you tell us about any of them?

Margaret Drummond is my favourite. There are so many myths and stories about her. She was thought to be the love of his life, and there was a rumour that he had secretly married her, and that she was poisoned to set him free to marry Margaret Tudor. Margaret Drummond and her sisters all died at the same time – it was probably food poisoning. They are buried at Dunblane.

TT: What was his marriage to Margaret Tudor like?

He was very much the gentleman when they met. There was a big age gap – she was thirteen and he was thirty when they married, but he was very gallant towards her. He came south to meet her, and when they were served at dinner, she was served first. When she was shocked by his nursery of illegitimate children at Stirling Castle, he had them moved – he was always very respectful towards her. She made a few complaints when she was first married, but you have to remember that she was only thirteen and in a strange land. They had a good marriage. There has been speculation that at Flodden, when he was fighting her brother’s army, she was against it, but all the evidence I have found points to her being very supportive of him. He left her as regent on his death, which he didn’t have to do.

TT: What if anything, was James IV’s legacy to Scotland?

Where to start….Stirling Castle Great Hall and Collegiate church; the palaces at Falkland and Linlithgow; the Scottish navy – his Great Michael was the largest ship in Europe; bringing the printing press to Scotland which gave access to education; the first Scottish Education Act – and, in a parallel to today, he insisted on self-isolation for anyone infected with plague during an epidemic, which was very unusual at that time.

TT: Were there any places you visited during your research that helped you understand James better?

Cambuskenneth Abbey, where his parents are buried. It’s very atmospheric.

TT: Why did you call your book ‘The King with the Iron Belt’?

It’s an interesting aspect of his personality. So many monarchs are arrogant, but he wanted to pay penance for what he perceived as wrongdoing towards his father.

[To find out more, you need to read the book!]

TT: Your career has developed in different ways from the standard historian’s. Do you think this is a benefit in writing for a non-academic audience?

It’s both an advantage and a disadvantage. I don’t have a history degree, but I am very well read in history, and I don’t like it when people have not researched properly. I think my training has made me able to write in a way that is engaging as well as informative – not just informative as some academic history can be.

TT: Can you tell us anything about your current project? Is it a topic that grew out of your work on James, or did it have a different root?

I’ve got a couple of things in mind. Perhaps something fictional about Margaret Drummond’s daughter, Margaret. But probably non-fiction. I want to have a topic where there is lots of information, rather than speculating. I am interested in the Scottish queens, from Joan Beaufort [grand-daughter of John of Gaunt, wife of James I] onwards.

TT: How do you combine the different aspects of writing? Do you prefer to do all your research first, then write the whole book, or do you prefer to research a section, then write it up?

I research a section, then write. That way, I can review as I go, and I feel I am making progress.

TT: Do you have a favourite place and time to write?

Not especially. I write in my office, generally during the working day. Although this book took me much longer than I originally planned! I’d love to go to a remote Scottish island and just write all day…