Letters from the Heart – Sisters of The Bruce

Few people write letters any more. Not all that long ago, certainly within my lifetime, this epistolary art form was key to the enrichment and maintenance of  relationships . And it is a critical part of the communication in ‘Sisters of The Bruce’ between Isabel (Isa), in far-off Norway and Christina (Kirsty) in Scotland. Without these letters, the sisters could not share aspects of their daily life. We hear their voices spiraling upwards from the page: words, shaped by gnawing worries or the smallest of homely concerns: words, touched by a tiny glint of hope or tainted by fear; words that capture a rapturous smile or resurrect a shared memory.

Isa and Kirsty are reported to have written to each other. I imagined them sending their precious rolled parchments across oceans – stormy or still; passionate in their desire to reach out and be a living, breathing part of the other’s life – to connect, to be heard, to be understood. So it was important for me as a writer to give them a voice once more, albeit seven hundred years later.

Letters are the most personal of dialogue. Written from the heart and in the privacy of the moment, they can be free of restrictions – the indrawn breath,  the arched brow or the chilled narrowing of eyes – which cause the spoken word to be filtered or silenced. Written words can take shape and flow like a river across time. They enable intimacy to flower and allow differing points of view to emerge quite naturally.

It seems there are three types of epistolic novel: the monologic, where one character carries the dramatic tension forward, perhaps with diary entries; the dialogic, where two people write to each other; and the polylogic, involving three or more in some form of written communication.’Sisters of The Bruce’ falls into the latter group for Isa and Kirsty are joined by Robert and another sister, Mathilda, as the events of war combine to restrict activities and personal freedom. These first person accounts bring realism and add flesh to history’s dry, old bones.

I love the word epistolary! It rolls off the tongue like ink off a quill. Derived from the Greek word, epistle, meaning a letter, it elevates a relatively ordinary physical act to an art form!

Many writers, past and present, have used the device of letters, diary entries or other variants to facilitate a more intimate level of communication. Here are just a few, but no doubt, there are lots more. It seems ‘Sisters of The Bruce’ is in fine company!

Frankenstein by Mary Shelley

Dracula by Bram Stoker

The Color Purple by Alice Walker

We Need to talk About Kevin by Lionel Shriver

The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society  by Maryann Schaeffer & Ann Barrows

Bridget Jones’s Diary by Helen Fielding

Cloud Atlas by David Mitchell

Is Scotland Really a Celtic Nation?

Many Scots today regard themselves as Celts but is Scotland really a Celtic nation? To find an answer to this puzzling question, we must go back in time. In the 14th century, the Declaration of Arbroath – a document which was sent to the Pope – affirmed Scotland’s legitimacy as a separate nation, far older in nature and character than England. Indeed, ancient Scotland was believed to have its origin in Egypt when a royal daughter, Scota, fled her enemies to find safety in a new land.

The very early native peoples of Scotland were referred to as Picts, the painted people, by the Romans. They were believed to have been wiped out along with the Britons of Strathclyde fighting the Romans, the encroaching Angles and Saxons from the south, and the Celts from the west. Then the Vikings exploded on the scene.

What happened to the Pictish women? Did the genetic layers of the encroaching warriors meld together as women were taken as slaves or wives? In the far north across Orkney, the picture becomes even more distorted for this society became strongly Norse, confirmed by the long political and social association with Norway. Across western and northern Scotland, we see the Norse settle with their families as farmers and traders. Later, the Lords of the Isles ruled their western kingdom, speeding across the sea in their birlinns. Throw in the Normans, the Gascons from Gascony in southern France and the Flemings from Flanders – now roughly-speaking Belgium, and the Scottish genealogical pie becomes even richer.

It seems to me that the women of Scotland ─ these daughters, sisters, wives ─ would have carried a curious racial mix forward in time. And now, modern day geneticists have discovered that one in ten men in Scotland carry a Pictish gene! So the legendary Picts live on today…

But how did Scottish society historically move so far away from the concept of clan and community, and were these particularly Pictish or Celtic concepts?

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Perhaps, the clue lies somewhere in the 1100’s, following William the Conqueror’s earlier incursions northwards, when Scotland was a notoriously dangerous place. After his death in battle, King Malcolm Canmore’s sons were either killed or displaced. To escape the murderous intentions of his uncle, Prince David – Malcolm’s youngest son – sought sanctuary within the Anglo-Norman court in England. There he found a warm welcome. David was impressed with aspects of the feudal system which, in time, he transported back to Scotland – hospitals, the legal system and civil administration.

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Critically, he also took with him a group of loyal, ambitious Anglo-Norman lords, offering them lands in return for bringing the wild north and southwest under control. From his mother, Margaret, daughter of the Atheling – the last Saxon royal family, David consolidated religion along papal lines. She had been brought up in the Hungarian royal court to which her father had escaped, and was influenced by that country’s strong religious views. King David had a vision for Scotland – a peaceable nation with a strong civil administration. Impacting upon Scotland’s resident Celtic church, he also introduced several religious houses from France to consolidate his mother’s legacy of caring for the sick and poor. Through the influence of this well-meaning king, we begin to see the foundation of Anglo-Norman patterns of society infiltrating and altering the face of Celtic Scotland forever. And it was into this Scotland that Robert the Bruce and his sisters were born almost two hundred years later.

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In later centuries, Scotland  hurtled head first into dire political unrest instituted by a line of Germanic kings, the subsequent denigration of all things Scottish, and the utterly brutal social and economic consequences of the clearances. We see the ‘Celtic’ influence being challenged on so many levels until Queen Victoria lauded the romanticism of the landscape and clan life, and kilts and tartans became fashionable attire.

With its amalgam of conflicting cultures and languages, Scotland’s nationhood took a very long time to mold itself into its current identity but it does beg the question why so many hold fast to their Celtic heritage over all others and whether Scotland can truly be considered a Celtic nation?

Websites: sistersofthebruce.com; robertthebruce.info

Stay Tuned for More Exciting News about ‘Sisters of The Bruce’!

As many of you know, ‘Sisters of The Bruce’ is now available both as a book and ebook from your favourite outlets. Over the next few months, there’ll be much to look forward to, including an Online Book Launch with competitions and free giveways as well as an Online Book Tour.

Next year as well, I’ll be making the journey – in real life –  to Scotland for a promotional tour, joining in the glorious celebrations of the 700 Year Anniversary of the Battle of Bannockburn. It is also a Homecoming Year for many who cherish their Scots heritage and I will be honoured to wander the highlands and lowlands, the stuning cities and villages, the mountain trails and rocky shoreline of Scotland rubbing shoulders with my Scottish ‘cousins’ from near and afar.

Once again,  I’ll be taking you along with me on this journey, discovering more of what makes Scotland great – both in the past and present. Along the way, I’ll be gathering research for the next part of the sisters’ story. To see the world through their eyes, that is both my goal and challenge.

Always at my shoulder, I feel the presence of Robert and his sisters. You might find this strange but writing ‘Sisters of The Bruce’ has been a spiritual as well as a literary journey for me. Much like artists, writers of historical fiction need a muse. I know Nigel Tranter, that famous Scottish author who wrote so convincingly about Scotland’s history, would agree with me if he were here today. A muse can be an individual. I wonder if it can even be the land itself, some past tribal memory, which calls and trumpets its tale.

It’s going to be a fabulous time so stay tuned.

Canada – Part Ten: Creating a Children’s Classic – Anne of Green Gables by LM Montgomery

No one was more surprised than Canadian writer, Lucy Maud Montgomery, when her children’s tale, Anne of Green Gables, became an international best seller.

Maud, as she liked to be called, had been earning money from her articles and poems, selling them to various papers and publishing houses. She held no illusions about the quality of her writing, but simply loved to write and to bring the characters from her vivid imagination, alive and kicking onto the page. A rich vein of quirky humour flowed through her stories and their simplicity appealed across a wide age group. To our 21st century tastes, these tales may now seem banal and the prose too flowery.

Born of strong, Scottish Presbyterian stock, like many on Prince Edward Island, Maud upheld the values of her grandparents with whom she resided from a young age: her mother had died when Maud was young and her father worked away, eventually settling in western Canada.

For a woman in the early 20th century, she achieved a great deal: studying at Dalhousie University; and working for a paper in Halifax, editing text. But her journalistic career ended when she returned home to become a carer for the last eight years of her grandmother’s life. Though Maud’s writing was limited to early mornings and late at night, she was known to be  prodigious reader and pen-friend, writing on the many subjects which interested her: all this whilst cooking and cleaning in a home lacking the labour-saving devices we now take for granted. Gardening was a passion which gave her great joy and she delighted in nature, especially walking in the woods around her home.

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As a youngster, I found Anne’s traumas and adventures compelling reading, and was immediately drawn to the beauty of Prince Edward Island’s landscape of forest, red soil roads and the ever-present sea. Thus during my recent trip to Canada, a visit to PEI was a must!

At the Green Gables National Park, I was able to walk down the pathways of my own childhood imagination to visit a faithful rendition of the family home. It was a huge treat: even the wallpaper was matched closely to Maud’s grandparent’s home (her inspiration for GG), as well as the furniture and layout of rooms.
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The formal parlour and dining room of Green Gables

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The pantry. Gilbert’s bedroom

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The kitchen. A close up of the hallway wallpaper.

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Anne and Marilla’s bedrooms. There’s even a potty under the bed!

In reading about Maud’s life, I am reminded that a great sense of duty, dogged perseverance and a commitment to hard work were key to the success of pioneering Scots wherever they made their homes. And her family were no exception. Indeed, after her grandmother’s death, Maud married a local minister following a very lengthy engagement. On their honeymoon, the couple took a three month grand holiday to Europe where Maud was able to explore the highlands and lowlands of Scotland to her heart’s content. It was a brief, joyful respite before her husband’s role took them to Ontario, away from her beloved PEI.

Despite an ongoing battle with anxiety, depression and fatigue, Maud made a fine minister’s wife, tending the parish flock beside her husband, running meetings and dealing with the full gamut of associated tasks. But once again, she had to place her writing – her life’s supreme pleasure and at times painful challenge – second place to duty.

Maud went onto have three sons, one of whom was stillborn. Before death claimed her, she was able to visit the island several times but always found the past with all its memories too haunting. Highly strung and passionate in nature, Maud’s ability to experience life’s greater and lesser tragedies so acutely was almost too much for her to bear.

Mollie Gillen’s biography of LM Montgomery,The Wheel of Things, is well worth reading for the many insights it offers into her life, personality and motivations.

As a writer, I was intrigued to read of Maud’s breath-taking success as well as her literary near-misses and contractual problems with publishers. On a personal level, her capacity for friendship was hampered by an almost unbearable desire for solitude so that she could dream her dreams and write her stories. Despite rising to great heights of fame, Maud continued to be torn throughout her life by the conflicting demands of duty and talent. Above all, she was an extraordinary woman who made a lot of people happy – my ten-year-old self included!

Win a free Copy of ‘Sisters of The Bruce’!

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Be the first person to answer a simple question and you could win a free copy of the newly-released ‘Sisters of The Bruce’!

Just leave your name and email address, and a copy of this extraordinary novel will soon be on its way to the winner.

Q: In what year is the 700 Year Anniversary of the Battle of Bannockburn being celebrated in Scotland?

Good Luck!