Scotland

Edinburgh is my spiritual home. To return always feels like a homecoming. Almost a decade ago, I came here with my husband and youngest son to live and work. It was a life changing experience – one which gave us many resoundingly-happy memories of the beauty of the city and its extraordinary people. As in the past, my hosts were gracious and kind and long suffering, taking me to old haunts and new.

Apart from reviewing past connections, I was keen to enjoy all the Festival Fringe could offer. But in the final two weeks of my journey, it was important to touch base with the foundation story of  ‘Sisters of The Bruce’.

Here are some of the small trips made, using Edinburgh as a base.

Central Scotland:

Stirling and its surrounds are a beautiful part of Scotland. I won’t bore you with copious descriptions, suffice to say that Scotland is God’s own country and Stirling sits at its southern core. The focus of our journey was the nearby Isle of Inchmahome and its priory. It is the resting place of the Mentieth family. Some of you will know its most famous son, Sir John Mentieth, by his reputation, as the man who engineered the capture of William  Wallace. But the long history of the Mentieth family has always been linked with the Stewart family, the great Stewards of Scotland, and later, Robert the Bruce.

Before King Edward I forced the hands of the Scottish nobles, the Mentieth family had always been Scottish patriots. Indeed, Sir John’s signature was later added to the Declaration of Arbroath. It’s an unpopular view today given the romantic mishmash and poor historical data in the movie ‘Braveheart’. That such a brave man as Wallace should have died in the manner that he did remains one of Scotland’s most enduring traumas, but this was the medieval age and men’s lives were held cheaply.

When Robert the Bruce gained power, he sought to unite the country. Sir John Menteith had remained firm in his suport of King Edward, but was brought back into the fold as it were, by the betrothal of Robert’s niece, Ellen of Mar, to his son, also named John. Ellen was the daughter of Kirsty Bruce, one time countess of Mar.

In visiting the priory, I hoped to  explore the connections between the Stewart, Mentieth and Bruce families. Within the chapel house, Sir Walter Menteith, known as ‘ballioch’ or freckled, and his wife lie entwined in a loving pose – the intimacy held within the stone carvings is evident, surprisingly delicate and most definitely heart-rending. Perhaps here in the old church, Ellen of Mar lies as well. The isle is an extraordinarily tranquil place, midst huge old firs, a watery loch and forested mountains.

Our journey took us to the village of Denny where a medieval hill fort was being constructed by a group of friendly, well-informed re-enactors. The palisade walls were constructed of newly-cut timber and the tents within the fort were manned by people exhibiting the craftmanship of the medieval period. Folk were able to try their hand at archery and throwing axes as well. Being able to see the dimensions of the fort was very interesting and offered me a realistic perspective.

Southwest Scotland:

Our next journey took us to Lochmaben and its castles, old and new, both Bruce strongholds. ‘Sisters’ tells their story. I had also wanted to see Torthorwald Castle for this was the family seat of the Carlyles and Robert’s youngest sister, Margaret, married Sir William de Carlyle. Next stop, Dumfries – where we followed the trail to the now defunct Greyfriars church. It was here that the murder of the Red Comyn took place. Many of you will already know this story, but if not, it is explored in all its complexity in my novel.

The Borders:

On a lovely sunny day, we found ourselves at the site of the Battle of Halidon Hill which was lost by the Scots in 1333. Hugh Ross, husband of Mathilda Bruce, died here along with many others. We walked the lanes and looked over the rolling hills where so much death had taken place. There were no echoes only the lonely cries of the seabirds. Retracing our steps, on our left lay the calm blue waters of the North Sea where several fishing boats went about their business; one hill farm was quite interesting for it had hundreds of low, arched huts for raising pigs.

Next stop, over the English border to Flodden where thousands of Scots died along with their king. The year was 1513.

After such sadness, the beautiful red sandstone abbey at Melrose was our destination, to pay our respects to Robert the Bruce, for it is believed that his heart is buried there in a lead chamber found on the site.

Dunfermline Abbey:

To refresh my memory, we travelled over the Forth Rd bridge to the Royal Kingdom of Fife to see its most famous abbey, burial place of Robert the Bruce.

Roslin Glen:

It’s always a treat to visit the stunning glen of Roslin, site of a Scots victory, with its 15th century chapel and much older castle, ancestral home of the Sinclair family. Having stayed in the castle many years ago, I was fortunate indeed to have my first ghost sighting down in the gloomy cellars. But now, my thoughts were on the connections with the Bruce family. Mathilda Bruce married the son of the Earl of Ross; several generations on, one of her descendants was the famous Sir Henry Sinclair, Earl of Orkney.

Travel is not all about history. At an old pub in the village, we had the best meal. Scots restaurants often serve pies with the meat and pastry separate – a fulsome, tasty mix served with a hearty dollop of mash and freshly-cooked vegetables. Most folk do not consider the origin of their meal, but pies are one of the older forms of cooked food – often served at markets – a kind of medieval takeaway and therefore worthy of my research.

Norway

After arriving late the previous night, I was due a lie-in. While I slept, my son explored the city for the first time. Oslo is centered around a harbour of restaurants and bars. Ferries lie ready to take visitors out to an outer island where there are several museums. One holds  the fabulous Gokstad Viking ship and other archeological finds such as those from a high status woman’s grave.

Later in the day, I took myself off to Akershus Fortress, built by King Magnus in the early 1300’s to replace Bergen as Norway’s capital. This was my second visit and I hoped to see inside the castle. I should have checked the schedules and had to be content with a few quick photos of the internal courtyard before the building closed – but not before a guide kindly pointed out the most significant rooms.

Here King Magnus entertained in style. Isa would have visited on important occasions in her role as dowager queen. In ‘Sisters’, a friendship develops quite naturally between Isa and Queen Euphemia given the latter’s literary interests and openness to the world around her. It was easy to imagine Isa and Effie walking the grounds or gazing out of the windows in the solid stone walls at the broad expanse of fjord below. Both had much in common, not least being unable to produce male heirs for their kingly husbands.

Around 1318, Magnus died whist in Tonsberg to the south and his body was transported by galley to his burial place at the Mariakirken on an inlet close by. He and Effie were interred in the church, but later the royal chapel at Akershus became their resting place. Mariakirken is now a ruin with just the low outline of the church visible. From my hotel window, there was a clear view of the ruins. It was here that Princess Ingebjorg and her cousin, Inga, married the two young dukes and I can only assume that Isa would have attended such an important state event and her only daughter’s wedding

In the grounds of Akershus Fortress, another museum told the story of the Norwegian resistance in WW2. To wander about the displays and see the old photos was very moving.

Norway in a Nutshell Tour:

The following morning, we were up early for our trip to Bergen. By transfering between buses,  trains and a ferry, we were able to see, in a short space of time, the highlights of a compact landscape – the high moors of bog and lake with a backdrop of snow-topped mountains; the Flam railway journey on an adhesion track; the Klossen waterfall with music and a maiden, presumably the spirit of the waterfall, dancing somewhat bizarrely up and down the hillside path; the astounding fjords; the steep bus ride down onto a small village and then the final leg of the journey, the train to Bergen. It was a long day, but worth the effort.

A Day in Bergen:

It was pelting down, and we did what all tourists do: we sought refuge in a museum. During my last visit, it rained, as so often happens in Bergen, and the Archeological Museum had been a great find. This time, the Hanseatic Museum proved ideal.

The Hanseatic League originated from German city states such as Lubeck and set up an effective trading network across northern Europe. In Bergen, the League was permitted to trade, but under restrictive conditions. The men were not permitted to socialize or intermarry and could only attend their own churches. The workers lived in harsh conditions, trading stock fish (dried sheets of cod) from the northern Lofoten Islands. Because of the high fire risk, the old wooden buildings were not heated and the men ate in a separate building. The Hansa came to Bergen around the time of King Eric in the late 13th century so Isa would have had an awareness of their activities. It was thought by King Magnus that his brother had been too lenient with them, allowing them to skim off a lot of the town’s wealth which should have gone into the royal coffers…

The wind was gusty, strong enough to disembowel our umbrellas. Across the road, the fish market proved to be great fun as we tried all the different tastes on offer. I was keen to find the site of the Kristkirke, the grand medieval church which had stood beside the castle at the end of the Bryggyn or wharf during the medieval period. Though there is nothing to support the idea, it seemed likely Isa would have been buried there, given her high status and long connection with Bergen. Perhaps, she lies near her countrywoman, Margaret, King Eric’s first wife and their daughter, the little Maid of Norway whose story is so critical to the history of Scotland…
At the Bergen airport, my son and I parted company. He returned to London whilst I headed north to Tromso via Trondheim to pick up my Hurtigruten cruise. As luck would have it, the clouds parted and the snow-capped mountains and rugged Lofoten Islands were clearly visible below.

Tromso lies within a broad fjord, surrounded on one side by a large mountain which has a cable car to take visitors to the top. To fill in the hours before my ship docked, I joined the happy, noisy locals in a beer.

Cruising the Norwegian Coast:

A few years back, my husband and I travelled on the Hurtigruten Coastal Steamer from Bergen to Alesund, taking in the mighty Geirangerfjord. So I was very keen to explore more of Norway’s northern coastline on this current trip.

In ‘Sisters’, Isa travels north by galley with her royal kinfolk on affairs of state and there is the capacity for her to do more of this in Book Two. With this broadly in mind, I chose to spend three days traveling from Tromso to Molde which takes in some spectacular and fascinating areas that are quite unique.

One of the great benefits of the Hurtigruten Cruises are the variety of optional bus or boat tours. They’re not free of course, but are worth it just for the unusual experiences they offer. I learnt so much for my research – these regions are rich in history from the Bronze and Iron Age   to the Viking period and on into the Middle Ages until now. If you want to know more, check the Hurtigruten website.

  • A Taste of Vesteralen – exploring the landscape, culture and economy of the region. In a lovely bay, a church from the middle ages and an excellent museum about the Vikings of the region formed the core of our trip.
  • Lofoten Islands – the mountain tops were shrouded in mist at times but the mix of sea, extraordinarily rugged islands and unique fishing villages with colourful houses and the typical red boat sheds was beyond stunning.
  • Vega Islands – the people have gained Unesco rating for their unique, symbiotic lifestyle, caring for the migratory eider ducks in a non-intrusive way, providing  comfortable annual nesting places and protection from predators, so that they might harvest the down from the nests for use in doonas. The collection of down for warmth has been an ongoing source of trade since the Viking era.
  • Trondheim and its Cathedral – Trondheim was once the capital of Norway in the early Middle ages. St Olav’s cathedral was the revered destination of the Pilgrims’ Way
  • Atlantic Road –  using superb engineering and design, bridges were constructed to connect a number of islands. To explore the islands and countryside and one of the old stave churches was a huge treat. I finished my tour in the town of Molde, its panorama of 220 mountains proved elusive, but a few poked their heads through the cloud. Most of the mountains I have seen over the past few days have had snow drifts on them, perhaps due to the cooler than normal temperatures. From my hotel room window, the vista was jaw-droppingly beautiful with Molde’s little harbour and the broad expanse of the fjord backed by the row of mountains. I watched the Hurtigruten sail away and settled into the next stage of my journey.

South to Stavanger:

The flight from Molde to Stavanger, both very small airports, went via Bergen. I can’t exactly put my finger on why I came so far south, apart from some intuitive desire to see the path that Isa would most likely to have taken when she travelled to Oslo or further to Sweden.

Given more time, I would like to have explored the Haugesand area to the north with its Viking past. It was here in 872 that a significant battle took place where Harold Harfagre became the king of Norway, uniting the country. Three enormous scupltured swords mark the location.

Despite my initial doubts about what I might do in Stavanger, I was pleasantly surprised. A multicultural food fair, the annual Gladmat, was in full swing. Down at the harbour area, the old 18th century houses were dwarfed by two monstrous, white cruise ships. Tents lined the harbour offering treats of food, beer and wine. The place was buzzing. Its atmosphere was contagious. Soon, I was surrounded by sociable folk who were keen to explore the beautiful weather and glorious treats on offer.

When the huge ships blew their horns, haunting sounds even in the bright sunshine of the evening, and then sailed slowly out of the tiny harbour, I had a glimpse of what Stavanger actually looked like. It was very quaint and had a gentile air with its old coloured houses. A medieval cathedral sat at the town’s core on a rise. Behind it, a lake and parkland with walkways,  benches and flower beds were well used with families out picnicking and playing with their children in the sunshine.

Tonsberg:

That night, I caught a sleeper train to Tonsberg in the east, near Oslo Torp airport at Sandefjord. Once again I wondered whether I was of sound mind, exploring these relatively unknown places on my own. The sleeper cabin was so claustrophobically small that my newly-met travelling companions and I fell about laughing at the improbability of  sleeping at all. But I was so tired I fell asleep immediately.
Next morning, we were offloaded at Drammen to make our changes. Those going to Oslo went by bus for the tracks were being overhauled. I found my way to Tonsberg on the excellent local trains and had a splendid day exploring the huge mound above Tonsberg on which had stood one of the greatest fortresses in medieval Norway. I was very glad that I had made the effort. The 360 degree view of fjord and farmland was outstanding. It was so clear that you could even see out past a cluster of islands into the distant sea lanes. The castle was strategically sited to catch glimpses of any Swedish forces coming up the coast. I sat on a bench and soaked up the sun, listening to the quiet sounds around me – birds and insects and the faint echoes of the past.
A more recent tower stands there now and holds a museum dedicated to the period. A bronze sculpture, a great idea, showed the layout of the castle grounds in medieval times. The site is known as the birthplace of Princess Christina who became a Spanish princess in the 12th century.
A traditional cafe with a sod roof stood down the hill a way. It was recommended that I try a delicious Norwegian specialty of cinnamon porridge – a warm, creamy, slightly soured yohurt with cinnamon and sugar sprinkled on top. I was very glad I did!
At the base of the hill, another museum told more of the town’s history. I had a number of hours to fill before my flight to Edinburgh so the museum’s light and airy cafe was the perfect place to sit and write my blog.
Norway and Sweden had exceeded my expectations, but it was time to move onto Scotland.

Sweden

The city of Stockholm has many parts and I have only ventured into a few. At Central Station, the express train arrives from Arlanda Airport which is much easier to negotiate than its French counterpart. The streets of the central shopping precinct have only a smattering of buildings from an older, more decorative period. On my way to the Old Town, I wandered down the pedestrian precinct, the Drottninggaten. The old city beckons with its shaded alleyways and pastel-coloured houses, offering the multiple dimensions of history, beauty and culture – far more interesting than a shopping mall. For those fascinated by the Vikings and later periods, the Historiska Museum has a gold hoard and some medieval gems. On the way back to the city centre, the old-style Salu Hall offers great delis, cheese counters and bakeries – all set in a busy, convivial atmosphere.

City Hall Reception:

I was fortunate, as part of my conference in Stockholm, to attend a reception in the City Hall. Situated by the water’s edge, the huge, red brick building has a Great Hall where the Nobel Prize reception is held each year. A marble stairway takes the visitor up a level where the most remarkable sight awaits in the grandest room of all. From floor to ceiling, golden mosaics tell stories from Swedish folklore. I was fortunate indeed to be amongst the large group of delegates, welcomed to the city in such fine style.

Evening Cruise to Birka:

During the dusk of long summer evenings, Stockholm is surrounded by shimmering reflections. Its archipelago is edged by soft green spruce on low, sometimes rocky, ridges. There are many isles – 25,000 – so the guide books tell me. Houses of all shapes and dimensions nestle amidst its foliage and paths lead down to clusters of small vessels moored beside private pontoons and tiny boat houses. Many of the barns and boathouses in Sweden are painted the same – a dark red colour. Historically, this was the cheapest quality of paint available, made from a mixture of cod liver oil, animal blood and iron or ferrous oxide.

Sailing boats glide by and children enjoy the late evening playing out in the green gardens sloping down to the water’s edge. I am on my way to Birka, home of Viking kings. The ferry cuts a noisy, white swathe through still green waters. I imagine galleys prowling these calm byways, stealthily muffled in times of conflict. The warriors might be bare-skinned for rowing or cloaked in furs. The horned helmets of Victorian dramatic taste would, of course, be absent, replaced with round fur hats pulled tight over long fair manes, tied back for ease…

In the distance, clouds bulge, ominous and dark, and a heavy downpour forms a broad, soft-grey curtain beneath. Within small, man-made harbours, white vessels nestle beside each other with sails furled. I cannot hear the chink of metal or the rhythmic slap of the waves but know it to be there all the same. The ferry moves on and the tiny harbour quickly disappears from sight.

I wonder what pulls me to these regions. Given that much of England, Scotland and Ireland was under the sway of Scandinavian warriors, traders and kings, perhaps some inherited cluster of ancient neurons directs my path. During my research into ‘Sisters of The Bruce’, the story began to sway in part towards Sweden…

In Book One, Isabel Bruce marries King Eric of Norway in 1292. She bears him a daughter, Ingebjorg. Eric dies from natural causes and Isabel (Isa) remains in Norway with her child whilst Eric’s brother, Magnus, becomes king. His queen, Euphemia, gives birth to a daughter – also named Ingebjorg, one might presume after the men’s Danish mother. To distinguish between the two, I shortened Isa’s daughter’s name to Inga.

The two girls grow up together and marry, in a joint ceremony, two brothers – Eric and Valdemar, dukes of neighboring Sweden. At that time, Sweden was an undeveloped nation in the sense of today’s nationhood: there was still a clear delineation between Norway, Denmark and Sweden though the boundaries shifted considerably over time and sections of today’s Sweden were under the sovereignty of either Norway or Denmark.

King Birger ruled Sweden. His younger brothers, Erik and Valdemar, were a troublesome pair, trying to wrest power from him. At one stage, they invaded Norway. To bring stability to the region through kinship, King Magnus of Norway betrothed his daughter and her cousin to the princes. The double marriage ceremony took place at the Mariakirken in Oslo, Norway’s new capital of the time. There is scant information available about the early lives of these young women, but their husbands attracted much comment and drama, as did Ingebjorg’s son, Magnus. At the Historiska Museum in Stockholm, there was little about this period apart from a magnificent belt buckle worn by Magnus’s wife, Blanche of Namur, at her wedding – fished out of a river by chance – and an engraved case believed to have held  the king’s crown…

The skies darken and the boat slows its heavy vibrations. We have arrived at Birka, an island shrouded in mystery. It lies protected along the inner waterways. Atop the rounded hills, Viking kings keep watch from their grave mounds.

Birka was once a busy farming community and port, trading in exclusive textiles, glass beakers, jewelry, pottery, wine and armory. From the Baltic came honey, linen, amber and beeswax. The craftsmen at Birka produced many goods for sale or exchange: bronze  jewelry, antler combs, glass beads and woolen materials. The most important Swedish imports were iron from the centre and furs from the northern forests. Many casting moulds for objects and manufactured glass used by craftsmen were found in Birka.

The farms on the island provided everything the community needed: grain for bread; meat, poultry and fish, along with berries and nuts. The museum offered a variety of beads, pottery, delicate green drinking vessels and bronze jewelry, replicas of those found on the island. A clever model depicted the community in its heyday.

A tour of the burial mounds, some surrounded by rocks in the outline of a boat, took us to the top of a hill and the original site of a fort. Below lay clear evidence of  the town ramparts, now grass-covered. I was fortunate to be visiting during a Viking fair where tents were set up selling handcrafts and jewelry, based on the old designs. The most dazzling part of the evening’s entertainment was a spectacular fire show. As dusk fell, huge bolts of molten fire were twirled around the inner circle of the crowd to the sinuous rhythms of medieval music beside the timeless waters of Birka.

Soon, it was time for the return journey to Stockholm. Beside the boat, flocks of gulls settled onto the dark, swaying waters. Along the shore, the lights of the many summer houses flickered amongst the firs. Agnetha – dark-haired beauty of Abba fame – has a mansion along these shores. Soon, the bright lights of Stockholm began to broaden into swathes. Low clouds threatened to shed their loads. Close to midnight, the path back to my hotel was silent and shadowed and I was relieved to have a few boisterous parties of post-prandial tourists join me along Drottninggaten.

A Visit to Skansen:

The open air museum and zoo known as Skansen lies on one of Stockholm’s islands. The conference organizers had arranged a cultural night and a ‘Tastes of Sweden’ dinner which was a wonderful chance to mix with my international social work colleagues.

Skansen has a zoo with Scandinavian animals within its open enclosures. There were wolves, bears, elks and reindeer, but the animals I was especially keen to see – for the very first  time – were the wolverines. In my novel, one of the characters is thrown from his horse-drawn wagon. The body of Erling, the comb maker, is found later in a poor state after being ravaged by a wolverine. Now, I could see the animal in its near-natural state with trees and shrubs, fallen logs and running water. To see the way it moved, its size, the thickness and colour of its unusual pelt helped fix in my mind how such an animal might live in the wild. With its broad foot-pads, it could easily run down a reindeer in the snow as well as scavenge upon dead or wounded animals…
If the road signs are to be believed, there are elks everywhere in rural Sweden. Beside the highways, the forests are fenced to keep deer, wild boar and elks from causing accidents. Here at Skansen, it was a pleasure to see the elks or moose, resting in the peaceful enclosures.

Sigtuna:

As the oldest town in Sweden, Sigtuna held an irresistible drawcard. The trip there took two hours and the journey, though in a different direction to Birka, held a similar landscape. One unique sight was a sea plane as well as a boat moored beside a large house. The town’s museum held some interesting pieces but the head of a Viking engraved on a piece of bone was the most noteworthy. It often features as an iconic piece in books and was surprisingly tiny in real life.

Sigtuna was home to the early medieval kings before Stockholm became the capital of Sweden for strategic and trade purposes. The region’s location made it a significant site for trade with the Baltic nations, though it was often raided by brigands from Russia. In the town, there were rune stones scattered here and there as well as several ruined medieval churches. Surrounded by painted picket fences and immaculate gardens, the picturesque houses were generally from the 17th and 18th centuries.
My visit to Sigtuna was certainly interesting but lacked the magic of the evening in Birka. However, it gave me an opportunity to trace the origins of the brother dukes. By the early 1300s, Stockholm had become the strategic focus of power and a castle was built on a central island. The current massive castle, Tre Kronor or Three Crowns, was constructed much later on the same site.

A day out in Stockholm:

Purely by chance, my son and I found ourselves at the National Museum. The imposing building set beside the water had a fabulous array of old and modern art. There were dramatic videos of faces, eyes and hands and a stunning exhibit of ‘slow’ crafts.

Two pieces stood out – a necklace constructed of egg shell halves and a dress made of tiny pieces of clear glass, drilled and wired together, which glittered as it rotated in the focus of a soft light. Afterwards, we caught a ferry around the inner archipelago out to a fortress, guarding the entrance to Lake Malaren. In the plush bar of the elegant ferry, after a few beers, we agreed our visit to Stockholm had been a huge success.

That night, we took ourselves off to the Ice Bar and had an expensive but fun thirty minutes in the unearthly, blue world of carved ice. Even wearing the leather overgarment and donning gloves, it was still very, very cold. The novelty of drinking from a glass of ice, filled with a vodka cocktail added to the experience. Once outside, we thawed out quickly: the atmosphere was quite balmy despite a light rain shower.

Road Trip around Southern Sweden:

The train trip from Stockholm down the east coast was relaxing. Endless forests of spruce, occasional lakes and small towns lined the route. It was from Kalmar that my son and I would begin our road trip.

Our first outing was to Oland –  a long, narrow island, accessible by bridge from Kalmar. My purpose in visiting this part of the country was to research Inga’s connection as the duchess of Oland. The island proved an excellent choice. We drove across the bridge and turned north…
Now much altered, Borgholm Castle only has a small section from the medieval period still intact, but this research was extremely useful nonetheless – in opening my mind up to the landscape in which my characters lived. I could imagine the duchess spending time here whilst Duke Valdemar was away fighting in wars. In the 1300’s, this area was crucial to Sweden’s security and would have been an important site, politically as well as economically, being on the trade routes with the Baltic states and the Hanseatic League. In 1318, Valdemar and Erik come to a bad end – captured by their brother, King Birger, during a banquet. They starved to death in the dungeons of Nykoping Castle. On our train ride, we passed through Nykoping which was only about an hour out of Stockholm.

Oland was a fabulous place to visit. I hadn’t expected to see so many burial mounds and stones circles along the roads and lanes from the island’s bronze age history. These mounds and stones would have been part of Inga’s experience on Oland and I wondered what she would have made of them.

In the far south of the island, the Iron Age fortress of Eketorp proved interesting, but very expensive being a stone re-creation, showing the actual dimensions from the time. It is difficult to imagine what a building or community might look in its ruined state so I appreciated the effort and passion that had gone into Eketorp’s construction.

Along the smaller roads and lane ways, cottages nestled within immaculate gardens and old white farm houses were dwarfed by huge red barns, necessary to house the animals in winter. It was understandable why so many Swedes might come here to holiday – to swim in the calm waters; to explore the country lanes and walk amongst the wildflowers and birds.

The old town of Kalmar has an interesting connection with Inga. In 1318, after the dukes were captured, the two duchesses signed a treaty at Kalmar Castle with a Danish duke and the archbishop of Lund to garner support for their husbands. It seems the two duchesses were not beyond making international alliances to free their husbands, but it was to no avail.  The women’s complex part in trying to build a power base through young Magnus, will be told in Book Two.

You might wonder how this research fits in with the story of the ‘Sisters of The Bruce’. It does, in part, through Isa. As the Dowager Queen of Norway and Inga’s mother, I felt sure  she would have been riveted by the goings-on in Sweden, especially where her daughter was concerned. She may even have visited her.

Towards the close of the 14th century, Kalmar Castle was also the site of a more well-known treaty – the political and economic union between Sweden, Norway and Denmark. The castle has been rebuilt in the renaissance style and there is little to remind us of its early medieval origins, but it is magnificent all the same.

Our road trip continued south though the stunning countryside around Ystad. For fans of the Swedish detective series, Wallander, the landscape will be familiar – rolling hills of green and amber crops stretched out. Pristine farm houses nestled beside massive red barns. It was  a calm, measured landscape. White sandy beaches graced the flat, southern coastline and it was not hard to imagine Baltic vessels pulling in, to ply their trade in the small communities amidst the low, grass-covered sand hills.

The southern region of Sweden, known as Skania, was Danish territory for a long time. As  a result, its cultural heritage seemed to be more closely allied, historically and linguistically, with Denmark. It was much fought over by both Norway and Sweden, given its strategic location. At one stage, Duchess Ingebjorg even waged war on the region on behalf of her son, Magnus, the hereditary king of Norway…
I had hoped to visit the site of the the biggest market during the medieval period at Skanor, at the south western tip of Sweden but, sadly, time was against us.

We based ourselves in the mellow, old university town of Lund, unusually quiet with many students on their summer break, but fortunately the beer was still flowing in the bars. The imposing 11th century Romanesque cathedral with its astrological clock was a focal point.

Before leaving the area, we made a slight digression to spend the day in Copenhagen, less than an hour by train from Lund over the bridge to Denmark. It seemed incredibly chaotic and busy after the peaceful, scholarly atmosphere of Lund. At the end of the day, I was pleased to return to Sweden.

North to Oslo:

Norway was our destination, but there were two important sites to visit on the way. Two forts – Varberg on the Swedish coast and a little way inland, Bohus near Kunghalv. In the early 1300’s, King Magnus of Norway built the latter at a time when the border of Norway reached just north of Gothenburg. These strategic fortresses or festnings reflected the instability of the medieval period and the changing borders, depending upon the power of Sweden’s neighboring countries.

Varberg Festning was an idyllic setting for picnickers making the most of the fine weather on the day of my visit. The massive fortress, now altered to match its role as a much later prison, was intimidating. It had been the home of the Duchess Ingebjorg, wife of Erik, and it was here that her son, Magnus, spent his early years.

She was close to her cousin and therefore it was reasonable to assume that Inga and her mother, may well have been her guests at some stage, especially as Oslo was only a relatively short journey away by boat.

By comparison, Bohus Castle was built on a outcrop of rock which dominated a bend in the River Gota. In earlier times, it had formed the border between Norway and Sweden. The northern area of Bohusland with its castle was willed to Duchess Ingebjorg on the death of her father, King Magnus of Norway. It was not hard to imagine her sailing up to the fortress in her galley. In the past, these broad river pathways had allowed the Vikings of old to conquer much of Europe from the Baltic to the Mediterranean

From Goteburg, we took the train north and crossed the Norwegian border to Oslo. The police and customs officials were conscientious individuals, bent on preventing any illegals from entering the country via the train journey. In sharp contrast, there were no border inspections at all between Sweden and Denmark, so the cultural difference was quite marked. I learnt later that Norway taxes alcohol and cigarettes so highly that these rules have to be closely enforced.

Visitors beware! Take a bottle of whisky with you into Norway for the cost of alcohol is beyond belief!

London Calling

It was the calm before the storm, a cabbie told me. I was in London some weeks before the start of the Olympics. All would be chaos soon, he said; his eyes in the rear vision mirror were quizzical, reflecting alarm and greed in equal measure.

But my mind was churning with the history of the 14th century. I only had a few days for exploration and the Museum of London seemed an excellent place to start. Not long after he married Lady Elizabeth de Burgh, Robert the Bruce escaped one dark night before King Edward could imprison him. ‘Sisters of The Bruce’ tells the story.

The couple were staying at the Bruce manor at Tottenham. A sharp knock sounded at the studded, oak door. Before Robert stood the aide of one of his friends: his task, to alert of impending danger. Robert heeded the warning for the coins bearing the head of a king and a pair of silver spurs told their own story. Quickly, he roused his men. With his bride at his side, he rode in haste from the city demanding to be let through in the king’s name at one of the city gates. At that time, London was enclosed by a large wall. Somewhere near the centre was the infamous Tower, home to the king and his imprisoned enemies, many of them from Wales and Scotland.

The story of Robert’s escape is told in my novel. I have been to London many times, but had never come across the London wall before until now. Beside the Museum, there are substantial ruins of the wall and a portion of one of the old gates. I was transfixed, imagining Robert at that very gate, blustering his way through the guards’ sleepy discomposure to escape into the night.

Here, in London, history lies a mere blood-beat away.

Paris Pleasures

Every journey must have a beginning and, for me, no trip to Europe would be complete without a foray into this most glorious city…

It is my first morning. Last night, I slept like the proverbial dead – less graceful than a sylph, more like one of the mummies from the Louvre, curled up, jaw clenched, traumatized by events preceding the exact moment of my demise. For me, there was no swift garrotte like the bog-men of northern Europe experienced but the slow, drip-drip-drip of torture – prolonged sleep deprivation and discomfort on the long journey from Australia and my entree into Paris via Charles de Gaulle airport and the public transport system.

I had booked a shuttle bus into the centre of Paris, but confirmation proved as elusive as the shuttle itself. My options seemed few indeed. Be resilient, I told myself; you’re in Paris; how hard can it be?

I swear the contents of my case turned to granite in protest, the further I dragged it up and down elevators, along endless train platforms, on and off trains. Then came the cruelest trick of all – the metro stairs. Oh, so many stairs!

As if I had dug my way from the Antipodes, I rose up like some subterranean creature into the light, blinking myopically, to find myself on the Boulevard St Michel. Ironically, an Australian came to my rescue and heaved my convict sack of rocks up the final few steps. For a single heartbeat, reality lurched sideways before irate blasts from the Parisian traffic reeled me back from the brink. I was free at last…except for the last kilometre to my place of rest.  As I fell through the welcome portals of the ancient hotel, I swore an oath to myself. Next time, no matter the cost, I would take a bloody taxi!

But the Paris Gods can also be kind: an unexpected treasure awaited weary limbs and spirits. Squeezed into the corner of the tiny marble bathroom was a bath. The hotel room was simplicity itself – white, embossed bedspread on an old brass bed with the lovely door-length windows swathed in a heavy fabric scattered with huge russet flowers. A glass of a rich, red wine from Languedoc, a hot bath and the world, once more, took on a rosy glow.

During the night, jittery replays of the day’s events breached the heavy fug of sleep. I woke, startled by the sound of something metallic dropped in the street below and male voices, loud in indignation followed by hearty laughter. It was 3am, crisp and dark outside. Craning my neck out of the tall windows, my efforts were rewarded. The moon, full and round and steeped in wisdom, watched over me from its strange, night sky vantage point at the end of my street. In the otherworldly light, the apartment buildings glowed a warm, silvery pink. Could anything be more perfect? I forgot to pinch myself and crawled back into the warm, comfortable space of the grateful dead…
My first morning and I am sitting alone in the hotel dining room with a discrete view out to the street through a delicate voile curtain. The room is a wonderful mix of old and new: ancient beams, patterned wood flooring, art deco lines and fresh, white-painted walls. The light fittings and furniture are elegant and bright in shades of tangerine, electric blue and purple. Am I dreaming?

Nestled within a small basket, a crisp, puffed croissant lies beside a crusty roll and a tray of tiny jams – ordinary enough objects, but their fragrant perfection brings a sense of bliss. Surely such offerings deserve to be savoured. A cup of delicious coffee with warm, frothy milk served in a separate little jug awaits my attention. It was even delivered by a smiling waiter. I now know the truth of the matter – I have died and gone to heaven!

Paris tugs at the heart strings. It pulls me back time and time again. Some call it the city of lights: I call it the city of shadows. Always, I am drawn to the Left Bank, home to scholars and priests, a place where sinewy alleys ripple with echoes. Footfalls, ancient and new, shuffle softly beneath the peaks and dips of voice.

It is summer – high season – and very busy, but I do not care. I’m on my way to the oldest church in Paris. Some say the symbol of Paris is the Eiffel Tower, but its heart must surely lie within the lovely old church in St Germain, witness a millenium ago to Viking raids. In the cool, quiet aisles, it is easy to imagine the bowed figures of Scottish priests praying for the safety of their countrymen…but I get ahead of myself.

Paris is awash with humanity. Flowing rivers of French, Italian and Spanish stream over the guttural notes of German. Flocks of affluent American teenagers line the streets. Their strident calls fly above the occasional shoals of greying couples, middle-aged retirees, who deliver their Australian drawl with slow, discrete smiles. Most evocative of all are the deep, silky notes of African French flowing stronger, older even, than the Seine. Jet-haired young women from Japan sprinkle the lanes with staccato giggles whilst the hooded expressions of older family members offer eloquent, silent discourse.

The fabric of Paris life floats before me – a rich, shimmering brocade: tawny yellow, mottled beige, the sheen of black velvet and swarthy tang of olive. Tropical citrine and turquoise adorn the regal African couples ambling beside birka-clad women whose kohl-rimmed eyes hold such a breadth of expression – mirth, derision, confusion receding into a secret, smoldering world.

For those in comfortable track pants and joggers, Parisienne high chic offers an aspirational vision. Jaunty hats are worn for fun rather than the vagaries of solar conflagration. Leather man-bags hang with elegant disdain, whilst fine-boned hands clasp the perpetual mobile. Most noticeable of all is the cigarette dangling casually from the lips – a necessary fashion accessory. And then there are the dogs, elegantly-leashed, looking even more petulant and precious than their owners.
An endless human stream flows around the bowed bodies of the homeless – dreamers, who refuse to be abandoned or fraudsters. Take your pick!
Along the tributaries of traffic, horns blast forth, spewing polluted globules of sound. From those hardy souls on bicycles, exclamations of disgust spike the atmosphere. Weaving in and out of the busy lanes, an elegantly-dressed woman rides past me, balancing on her stilettos; helmets, it seems, are optional. Sirens slice through the roar of traffic.

Next stop, Notre Dame but the queues rival a Chinese New Year dragon parade, curling in a continuous stream up and down and around the great courtyard. I give up the idea and decide just to wander.
Paris architecture continues to excite and reassure. Apart from the most poignant reminders, wars and revolutions have left few visible scars, but at what cost. Discrete signs alert the passer-by to a moment in time; the hairs on the back of my neck stiffen. A resistance fighter met his fate in a hail of SS bullets on this very spot. Before me upon the ground lies an ugly stain of splashed coke where blood was once spilt. Further on, a plaque records more tragedy: Jewish families, taken forcibly from their homes. I look up at the building. A question mark curls around my heart: a momentary freeze frame of horror that I can neither comprehend nor forget. I walk on relieved at the babble and chatter around me. In the banality of our times, I find unexpected comfort.

French Connections: Aside from refreshing old memories, I plan to explore the historical links between medieval Scotland and France and the Popes of Rome and Avignon – to give purpose and direction to my troubadour wandering. No, I’m not busking, but there is a poem of sorts in my heart and a saga taking shape.

In the thirteenth and fourteen centuries, the prelates of Scotland travelled across the seas endeavouring to turn the winds of war in Scotland’s favour. The Auld Alliance was at once real and token, and the Scots sought to gain the support of the king of France to halt the expansionist actions of King Edward 1 of England. Below are some examples of these ancient links.

  • During one such expedition, Sir William Wallace offered his passion and acumen. I hope he found a much-needed sanctuary here, given the terrible fate that awaited him.
  • Young James Douglas was sent to France for his safety after his father, Sir William, was imprisoned in the Tower. He became the squire of Bishop William Lamberton – a supporter of Scottish independence who made several lengthy diplomatic excursions with other leaders of the church. The Black Douglas later became famous for his role in the Scottish Wars of Independence and his stalwart support of Robert the Bruce. He carried his friend and leader’s heart in its lead container on crusade as requested by the dying king. Along with other members of the party, James died in a skirmish in Spain enroute to Jerusalem. This story will feature in Book Two.
  • The bishops sailed in galleys over the rough North Sea dodging the English blockade. At Quai des Grand Augustins, they moored their vessels, no doubt looking up in awe at the sight of the king’s palace. In the shade of the old trees above the Quai, I wondered at the fortitude of these forgotten heroes. Bishop Lamberton forged a strong accord with French royalty but, in the end, France formed an alliance with England to suit itself and Scotland had to look to its own devices. For Robert the Bruce and the people of Scotland, this translated into years of excommunication by the Popes under pressure from the English kings. To read more of this, ‘Sisters of The Bruce’ follows the vagaries of international diplomacy at the time.
  • Much later in 1323 before Robert’s death, Bishop David of Moray (1299-1326) endowed the lands of Grisney-Suisnes just outside of  Paris upon which Scots College was built. King Robert would have been in agreement with such an accord. Collegium Scoticum came into existence in 1325, initially to assist poor students from the bishop’s northern diocese. A year later, the French parlement confirmed its foundation by King Charles le Bel. There were many colleges attached to the university in Paris, which became known as the Sorbonne, in the Latin Quarter. The Scots were reported to be so numerous they numbered the third largest college after the Danes and Germans. Many Scots came to Paris – also to Bologna and Padua in Italy – to widen their intellectual horizons. The life of a student was spent wandering between institutions and was limited only by available funds.
  • Robert the Bruce died of natural causes in 1329 at his manor in Cardross in Scotland. His original marble tomb was made by Thomas of Chartres in Paris and transported to Dunfermline via Bruges.
  • The Treaty of Corbeil, another aspect of international diplomacy, took place in 1330. Book Two will explore these developments.
  • Robert’s only surviving son was married as an infant to Joan of the Tower (sister of Edward III). In 1334, David was sent to France with his queen because it was believed Edward III was going to mount an offensive. The  couple remained the guests of King Philippe at Chateau Galliard in Normandy for over seven years. Some years back, I visited the castle and was stunned by its fabulous location, overlooking the Seine. It was built by Richard the Lion Heart, his pride and joy. His brother, King John, later lost the castle to the French. At the time of my previous visit, the castle was closed, but its romantic grandeur remains fresh in my mind. During the course of this research, I was amazed to hear of King David’s connection.
  • As time went on, the Scots maintained their connection with France. In 1418, the Scots Guard was founded by Charles VII of France: those in the Guarde Ecossaise fought alongside Joan of Arc in the Hundred Years War. (References- Electric Scotland and Scottish Education websites)

A writer’s journey

A grand adventure lies ahead of me.

  • Brisbane to Paris
  • Onwards to London and then to Stockholm
  • Around the southern coastline of Sweden and up to Oslo in Norway
  • Westwards to Bergen by train and bus and ferry
  • North to Tromso within the Arctic Circle
  • Hurtigruten coastal steamer to Molde though the Lofoten Islands
  • South to Stavanger and west to Tonsberg

Edinburgh will be my destination where I have two glorious weeks in Scotland before the long trek home to treasured family and friends. My son, Paul, has made his home in London and will be traveling with me for some of the way through Sweden and Norway. Extended family in London and Edinburgh have offered the sanctuary of their homes. I am fortunate indeed!

Why make such a journey at this particular stage in my life? For the past decade, I have been driven by a passion for Scottish medieval history which has provided the inspiration for my first novel. Book One of ‘Sisters of The Bruce’ nears completion whilst Book Two is buzzing about in my head. At times, this is an uncomfortable, tantalizing process. I am completely under its spell. I can no more stop now than give up coffee or chocolate or long afternoon naps on leisurely weekends. Writers of historical fiction will understand – the desire to see for myself the landscapes which have moulded the lives of my characters. If it is at all possible to live a life both past and present, then that is where I find myself.  

I welcome your company on this intriguing journey. Even I am not sure what I will find nor where it will end for to follow a dream is like holding a star in your hand: it scorches and thrills and beguiles.