I was born in Sydney, Australia, and have lived here all my life. Yet the stories I grew up on were the old tales of the Scottish Highlands – stories of fugitive princes, martyred queens, seals that turned into beautiful girls, and loch-serpents lurking in the depths.
This is because the old tales of Scotland were passed down through the generations of my family, told to my grandmother, Joy Mackenzie-Wood, by her grandmother, Ellen Mackenzie, who was born in Scotland in 1840.
Nonnie, my mother’s mother, was a wonderful storyteller, and knew great reams of poetry off by heart. Her two elder sisters, Aunty Clarice and Aunty Gwen, lived in a house with tartan-covered chairs, paintings of stags and lochs, and bookcases laden with Scottish fairy tales and history. Aunty Gwen would cook us scones with homemade jam, and Aunty Clarice kept shortbread in a tin with a photo of Eilean Donan Castle on it.
As Aunty Clarice passed us the biscuit tin she always told us Eilean Donan was the Mackenzie family’s castle. ‘It was bombed by the English,’ she would tell us, in a voice with the faintest trace of a Scottish accent (despite being born in Australia). ‘The Mackenzies had risen for the Old Pretender, and had Spanish soldiers hidden there with hundreds of barrels of gunpowder. The English took the castle and blew it up. They say the ghost of one of the soldiers still walks there, his head under his arm.’
We were thrilled by this story, and by tales of how Robert the Bruce was saved by a spider, and Bonnie Prince Charlie by a brave young woman called Flora Macdonald (this was a favourite tale of ours since our other grandmother, our father’s mother, was born Jean Macdonald).
I can remember Nonnie telling me how Mary, Queen of Scots, escaped her enemies several times, once dressed as a boy, once disguised as a laundress.
Another time, a gang of men broke into the queen's private sitting room and murdered her Italian secretary. Poor David Rizzio was stabbed fifty-six times - one stab by each of the conspirators. His blood flowed down and stained the floor where he fell, and can still be seen, four hundred and forty years later.
Mary, Queen of Scots was taken captive but she tricked her guards and escaped the palace that night, by climbing down from the windows on a rope made of knotted bedclothes. She was seven months pregnant with the future king of Scotland. She rode back a week later at the head of an army, and defeated the rebels and avenged her friend.
The story of the bloodstain that never fades and the queen’s escape down knotted bedclothes began my fascination with Mary, Queen of Scots. I began to read everything I could about Scotland and its most tragic queen.
The story of Ellen Mackenzie, my great-great-grandmother, was just as romantic and tragic. She grew up in a grand house in the Scottish Highlands, but when both her parents died one after the other, along with the baby heir to the castle, her uncle seized control of the family estate and sent Ellen and her little sister Jane out to Australia, all by themselves.
My sister and I always thought this was most unfair, and used to dream about going back to Scotland and winning back Ellen’s home as our own. In our imagination Ellen and Jane were wronged, the uncle was cruel, and her home was a beautiful old castle, on the shores of a loch, with all sorts of romantic secrets waiting to be discovered. We hoped that one day a mysterious letter would arrive, summoning us back to Scotland and our lost inheritance …
I wrote a novel with just that storyline in 1977, when I was eleven years old, called Far, Far Away, about a girl calls Fiona who finds herself heir to a castle in Scotland, but will lose everything if she cannot find the lost Killarney Treasure.
And then, thirty years later, I wrote it again, showing just how compelling are the tales of our childhood.
In the opening chapter of The Puzzle Ring, Hannah receives a letter from her great-grandmother, inviting her to come to Wintersloe Castle, her family’s ancestral home. It is a beautiful old house, built on the shores of a Scottish loch, with a fairy hill rising behind it, and a long and tragic history. Hannah’s own father disappeared the night after she was born, never to be seen again. Hannah discovers her family was cursed, long, long ago. Yet to break the curse, she must go back in time to the last tumultuous days of the reign of Mary, Queen of Scots … a time when witches were burnt and queens were betrayed and the dark forces of wild magic still stalked the land …
Thank you, Kate, for such a great guest post! You can buy The Puzzle Ring on Amazon UK and The Book Depository (free international shipping). Visit Kate Forsyth's website.
Yesterday and tomorrow's tour stops:
Today with me
5th Feb - Chicklish - Interview with Kate Forsyth
Make sure you check those posts out!