Scottish history goes deep.
You can’t swing a cat without hitting a castle or a historic monument or, from further back, a burial mound or standing stone. Five thousand years of living in mist and dampness, wind and snow, lashing rain and high seas leads to the telling of many tales of eldritch beings abroad in the dark nights. Add in the constant risk of invasion and war from Romans, Danes, Irishmen, Vikings and English and you can see that there’s plenty of fertile ground for both fact and fiction to merge into a rich and varied mythology.
Imagine that long history, and long nights around smoky fires with a drink and a song, and you can see where the tales spring up and take root in fertile imaginations. And there’s plenty of them, from selkies in the sea, kelpies and serpent-monsters in the lochs, witches and old crones in the fields and hedgerows, brownies that will help around the house, fairy queens and their entourage in the forests, trolls and giants and dwarfs in the hills and bogles, bansees and black hounds in the night. The auld country fair teems with haunts and beasties.
For as far back as I remember I’ve been hearing the tales; my auld grannie in particular was a great one for the supernatural, and had stories and songs aplenty for us even before we were walking. It was only years later that I learned that ‘Fine Flowers in the Valley’ wasn’t a lullaby, but a murder ballad, but by then the damage had been well and truly done.
By the time my pals and I were old enough to be out playing in the rivers and woods around town, we were on the lookout for beasties all the time, and making up our own legends and tales to fit in around the older ones. I have a vivid memory of exploring a wee cave with those pals, convinced we were going to find a pot of gold, and all of us ready to fight a bogle for it.
In my reading, I think my first close encounter of the Scottish kind must have been with Rabbie Burns. I’m from Ayrshire like Rabbie, and we share a birthday, so he was ever present in my early schooling. I remember, while still in Primary School, learning a recital of the galloping frenzy of Tam o’ Shanter as drunken Tam escapes the witches Sabbath by the skin of his teeth. Walter Scott too wasn’t above slipping wraiths and fairies and fey folk into his romances, and he too was an early sighting for me of some old Scots preoccupations with the darker side.
All of the above has crept its way into my writing, and a lot of my work, long and short form, has been set in Scotland, much of it using the aforesaid history and folklore. Although I now live in Newfoundland, there’s just something about the misty landscapes and old buildings of my homeland hat speaks straight to my soul, and always will. Bloody Celts… we get all sentimental at the least wee thing.
And then there’s the nightmare. I’ve been having it off and on since I was a boy — since I started hearing the auld stories. It’s of a bird – a huge, black, bird. The stuff that dreams are made of.
In the nightmare I’m on the edge of a high sea cliff. I feel the wind on my face, taste salt spray, smell cut grass and flowers. I feel like if I could just give myself to the wind I could fly. Then it comes, from blue, snow covered mountains way to the north, a black speck at first, getting bigger fast, a giant, swan-like black bird. Before I know it it is on me, enfolding me in feathers. It lowers its head, almost like a dragon, and puts its beak near my ear. It whispers.
I wake up at this point.
THE EXILED, my Scottish dark fantasy is, in many ways, an attempt by me to make some sense of my history, my nightmare, and the bewildering variety of the Scottish beasties and to come up with some kind of explanation for where they might have come from. There’s a lot of storytelling in it, a lot that’s personal to me, and I think it’s up there with my best work.
Being from the same general area himself, Chris, in his reading for the audiobook edition, understands a lot of where I come from, and it shows.
Come for a wee jaunt with two Ayrshire lads.
Let us tell you a story.