Since Gillian lives in the far north of Scotland (with her husband, nine year old twins, two dogs, two psycho cats and eight nervous fish), she and I haven't actually met, yet - but since I always feel happier the further north I go (and I’ve got my eye on a trip to the Outer Isles one of these days) I feel sure it’s only a matter of time. And I don’t have to tell you all that one of the wonders of the internet is the way it’s possible to make long distance friends – especially friends whose books are as striking and compelling as Gillian’s. She writes across genres: ‘anything that comes into my head, including fantasy, crime, science fiction and horror’. ‘Bad Faith’ is a Scottish-set dystopia about a society ruled by a tight-minded religious elite, and ‘Crossing the Line’ is a hard-edged thriller with a hint of the supernatural. And as Gabriella Poole she has written the 'Darke Academy' series for Hothouse.
Gillian’s latest book, ‘Firebrand’, is a full-blooded plunge into fantasy and has to be one of the best books I read last year. Set in the 16th century at a time of witch hunts and burnings, it follows the fortunes of Seth MacGregor, bastard prince of the Scottish faeries, the Sithe, and an attractive hero in every sense of the word. Here’s a moment when he rides a sinister and beautiful waterhorse from the loch:
Smooth skin under my palm. The opalescent shine of its hide as I drew my hand across its neck and the hairs flattened, then sprang back... The cry of a night bird…
And then insanity.
Nothing else on earth could have moved so fast… When the creature reached the crest of the hill, I saw the whole moor and the hills spread out beneath me, the jagged broken curve of the earth at the horizon. I couldn’t get off the horse. I didn’t want to. Plunging, swerving, it swivelled its head to enjoy my awe and my terror. Its jaws opened in a knowing grin, and the canines flashed again. And then, impossibly, it sprang down the precipitous slope. Straight for the dark water and its lair.
The book is rooted in the history and folklore of Scotland, and is quite unflinching about the cruelty and hardship of the times. The Sithe are ruled by a queen, Kate NicNiven, who is volatile, cruel and devious in the best traditions of fairy queens, and who deliberately stretches the loyalty of her subjects, Seth and his brother Conan included, almost to breaking point. There’s a protecting Veil between the land of the Sithe and the mortal world, and Kate wants to tear it away. And she invokes the help of some hauntingly unpleasant creatures called the Lammyr…
‘Firebrand’ opens with the most dramatic of cliff-hangers, and I’m not sure I breathed till I got to the end, where there was a twist I never saw coming, but which was perfectly satisfying. I want more, so it’s a good thing there are three sequels on the way.
Even for an author, Gillian can boast a pretty wild variety of jobs. She says, ‘I’ve been writing all my life, but have also worked as a record store assistant, theatre usherette, barmaid, sales rep, political assistant, radio presenter, typesetter, and as a singer in an Irish bar in Barbados. I’ve always loved the stories of the Scottish landscape, which shimmers with myth and legend; the old tales seem to go on existing just below the surface, in the cities as well as the wild places.’
I asked her to pick a Scottish tale to tell us about, and she has chosen -
As a child I don’t think I was aware of the story of TAM LIN, one of many mortal men stolen away by the Queen of the Faeries. I’m not even sure when I first read or heard such tales; stories of the faery people were simply a kind of background music that I gradually noticed and that came to fascinate me. Tam Lin is just one variation on a theme that sometimes has a happy ending, more often less so: a mortal – more often than not a man – is foolish or brave or naive enough to go away with the faeries.
There’s a recurring notion that once involved with the People of Peace, you’re going to need all your wits, courage and – usually – the help of a friend to get away. More often than not, even all of those aren’t enough, and that makes many of the stories melancholy.
Tam Lin is a little different, and that’s why I’m fond of it. The traditional ballad begins with a warning not to go to the woods of Carterhaugh, because young Tam Lin is there – a man who was taken by the Queen of the Faeries, who now protects their sacred woods, and who will demand a penalty of anyone who trespasses. Earlier versions are pretty clear about what that penalty will be... and when young Janet, whose father nominally owns the wood, dares to go there to pick roses, she comes back not just wildly in love, but pregnant.
Luckily the love is mutual, and Tam explains to Janet that the Queen of Elfland saved and took him when he fell from his horse in these woods. He is her prized mortal lover, but every seven years the Queen must pay a tithe of souls to Hell, and he fears that this Halloween, he will be the tithe. Janet can save him, and free him from the Queen’s thrall, but it will take huge courage. She must wait in the trees till she sees the faery folk ride in procession through the woods. She must let the first two horses pass, but when the third – a milk-white steed – appears, she must pull him down from it.
The faeries, he warns her, will be enraged, and now will come the hard part. She has to hold onto him whatever happens, though they’ll morph him into many hideous forms to try to make her let go. Sure enough, when she does as he tells her and pulls him from his horse, he is turned into a snake, a newt, a bear, a lion, red-hot iron, then burning lead. Through all the transformations, Janet holds on for dear life, and at the touch of the burning lead, forewarned by Tam, she tips her burden into the water of the nearby well. Tam climbs out, returned to his human form and free of servitude to the Queen. Though the Queens rails about the ‘theft’ of her dearest mortal, she sullenly admits defeat, and the young couple live, as they should, happily ever after.
The story has many parallels and similarities in other traditions and tales – Thomas Rhymer, Cupid & Psyche, Childe Rowland, and even Beauty and the Beast: with the last, for instance, there’s the forbidden forest and the rose motif; the threatening inhuman figure with whom the heroine falls in love; his former identity as a noble young lord; and the fact that the heroine must go through dangers and horrors to rescue him. (There’s a theory that Beauty & the Beast is a later bowdlerisation of the Tam Lin story, leaving out the sex. I’ve always rather liked the Disney version more than their other ‘fairytales’, not least for its gutsy heroine, but it’s difficult to imagine it including ravishing among the roses followed by pregnancy...)
The reversal of ‘traditional’ fairytale roles is one of the most appealing aspects of Tam Lin. Tam is effectively helpless before the Faery Queen, though there’s nothing emasculated about him. It’s Janet who must free him, and she’s willing to undergo torments to do so. The fact that it all ends happily is unusual for a tale of the Faery Court.
Belief in faeries is still strong in areas of Scotland, which isn’t wholly surprising. There are still places wild enough for the barriers between reality and ‘something else’ to seem remarkably, tangibly thin (not least the haunting Isle of Colonsay, whose former laird MacPhie seems to have had an unusual number of run-ins with the people of the Otherworld). Superstitions still exist quite strongly (my mother-in-law’s gardener swore no good would come of her telling him to cut down a rowan tree, and blamed the foul deed immediately when the house subsequently burned down). At a relative’s baptism I remember being quite sure that an aged aunt’s refusal to drink from a green cup was down to an unwillingness to offend the faeries. As it turned out the prejudice was an extreme sectarian one, but I can’t believe the two aren’t linked, somehow and somewhere in the past.
As for the disappearance of unfortunate mortals, there are surprisingly recent tales. Tomnahurich is a hill in the middle of Inverness that’s long been associated with the Otherworld. A local story tells of two buskers, dressed in kilts and carrying pipes (all perfectly normal) who seemed so disoriented and terrified among the traffic that they spent a night in the police cells. When they were brought before the sheriff next day – luckily a Gaelic speaker, since they could speak nothing else – they explained that their panic was down to the world seeming to have changed a great deal since last night, when they were offered good money to play at a gathering of lords and ladies beneath Tomnahurich hill.
At a loss, the sheriff returned them for the time being to the cells, where a minister was summoned to the disturbed young men. As soon as he began to pray, and God’s name was mentioned, the young men, their instruments, and their payment all crumbled to dust.
It’s a fanciful story, and appears in many forms over the centuries, but in wilder landscapes it’s not hard to imagine another barely-seen world, repressed (perhaps temporarily...) by modernity and religion. Maybe that’s why the stories and their attached superstitions are resilient enough to survive into the contemporary world.
Or possibly it’s because the fairy stories are so entangled with religion and superstition and the beliefs of even more ancient times. The Fairy Hill of Aberfoyle in Perthshire is believed to house the spirits of the local dead, in a way that echoes the far older beliefs of those who buried their dead in chambered cairns. Catherine Czerkawska’s play The Secret Commonwealth is the tale of Aberfoyle minister Robert Kirk, who wrote a book of the same title, and whose knowledge was thought to come straight from the faeries themselves. He’s another one who meddled with them at his own peril: angry at his betrayal of their secrets, the faeries were said to have faked his death while abducting him to the Otherworld. He came to his cousin in a dream, telling him of his captivity and promising to appear at his own funeral – at which moment the cousin must throw a knife over his head to free him. Kirk duly appeared – but alas, the cousin was too gobsmacked to perform the required act, and the minister was never seen again.
It’s a chilling and wonderful story, but in Czerkawska’s play it’s used also as a metaphor for the loss of the ancient beliefs, the gradual withdrawal of an older tradition before the Christian ascendancy. What’s so fascinating about the fairy traditions is the way they were not discarded, but woven into the new beliefs: loathed by the Church, becoming associated with the devil and necromancy – but never wholly dying out.
Yet that mingling isn’t all bad. One of the loveliest cross-traditions, and my favourite, is the one – varying from region to region – that says the faeries are the rebel angels. Thrown out of Paradise by an angry God, the angels that fell into the sea became seals and seal people. The ones that were caught in the sky as they fell became the Merry Dancers, the Northern Lights. And the ones that fell on land? They became the Faeries.
Gillian's wonderful post jogged my memory. About twenty years ago I wrote a poem based on Tam Lin. Like Gillian, I loved the ballad, but couldn't help wondering what happened next. Would the Faery Queen really leave the lovers alone? Or would she look for some sort of revenge? I dug out the poem and showed it to Gillian, who agreed that this was just the sort of thing the Queen would do. (I know Kate Nic Niven would!) Here's the poem:
‘Oh Tam Lin –
If I had known of this night’s deed
I would have torn out your two grey eyes
And put back in two eyes of tree.’
So said the faery queen that night on the road
when I quenched my love in the peat pool,
but that was not the end of it.
For winter nights, the Sithe shriek round the house,
calling down the chimney like a black wind
plucking the slates away: ‘Come back, Tam Lin!
You who gave a girl a rose from the briar bush!
The heart’s fire dwindles. Do you remember Elf-hame?
And my love, my love throws back the blanket,
and I grip his arm as I gripped the red-hot iron
in unflinching hands.
‘Tam Lin, can you bear to grow old?
Do you remember the land of young apples?
What have you lost? What have you gained, Tam Lin,
but aches and agues, toothlessness and death?’
howl the voices down the chimney.
They always bring a night of storm, and all
my paternosters cannot turn them away.
‘Come wind, come rain,
beat on this house until the lintels weep,
beat on this house until the candles quiver
and cold draughts whip under the door and blow
over the floor, cross currents of unease.
Let him feel mortal!’
I could bear all this.
Only, my youngest boy came in today,
with a rose in his hand. ‘Who gave you that?’ said I.
‘O mother,’ said he, ‘a lady in the brakes
of Carterhaugh. Her kirtle green as grass,
with silver chains that tinkled as she walked.’
‘Your son shall come with me, Janet,
In yon green hill to dwell.
Your son shall be my knight, Janet,
And he shall serve me well.
‘His eyes shall be of wood, Janet,
Cut from an alder tree,
And you may keep Tam Lin, Janet,
For he’s too old for me.’
It’s a cruel price.
I would rather have died in giving birth to him.
I would rather my love rose and went out to them.
Oh Queen of Fays –
If I had known of this day’s deed,
I would have let your knight, Tam Lin,
ride down to Hell on his milk-white steed.
Picture credits: from 'Tam Lin' by Jane Yolen, illustrated by Charles Mikolaycak