In preparation for a field trip, I was browsing through the Statistical Accounts of Scotland to learn about some of the towns I would be passing through. On the whole, statistical accounts do not make the most exciting reading material. They’re mostly overviews of the state of each place in terms of things like population, education, local industries, public health, and climate. I soon gave up hope of finding any juicy folklore. But then I came across a small former fisher town on the Moray Coast. The old account was very short, but it included a story about a nearby stone marking the spot where a chief had been slain during an argument over a round of cheese. By far the most drama I had yet come across, so I was instantly invested and then had to look at the later account to see if the mysterious cheese fight was mentioned further. It was, and with a whole lot more besides…
Welcome to 18th century Ardersier, where the beaches are either flat and sandy or overgrown with ridges of heather. If you can clearly see the Ross-shire hills in the morning, rain will come later in the day. If they are hazy, it will remain dry. In winter, you can hear the cries of visiting seabirds, and there is a small loch where white water lilies grown in such abundance that you can barely see the surface of the water.
The stories of the elderly are heard, and savoured. Old words are always true, when the young are too young to know different. Maybe this is why the belief in faeries remains strong beyond credence. They are said to revel in the moonlight around a nearby knoll, and everyone knows that a sickly child is a changeling. Frayed, desperate parents, trying anything to get back their loves and their lives…
TRIGGER WARNING: Post-natal depression and child death
My love would not have loved this. It was the fae’s child, not hers. Her gentle smile would not have graced her lips if she had looked upon it, I am sure. Those lips which tasted of all the blood in the room when I last touched them. After her screams ceased, and the screams of this creature began. Screaming, screaming. The midwife took it away, and I held her, who had left me for this.
It screamed. Every day, and every night. I tried everything a father could. I bathed it, and kept it warm. I soaked rags in milk for it to suck on, and nestled it in my arms as I stumbled through delirious lullabies. Nothing soothed it. It refused sleep, and denied me the same. She wouldn’t have wanted to hold it, either. Nasty, writhing thing. Not a child, but a demon.
It was the midwife who said it first.
The word slithered through the village, house to house. Changeling, changeling, changeling.
“Oh, aye,” said my neighbours. They heard its screams as well as I did, in the night, keeping their own children awake.
I took it to the healer. She rubbed it with salves, and burned St John’s Wort. It screamed more. Back home, it was sick. Then it ate everything, so I stopped feeding it. All the milk in the village turned sour overnight. I laid mistletoe and iron shears in the cradle. It shrank away from them, glaring at me between unearthly shrieks, with brown eyes that were like her’s but also not. They held no warmth, and reflected none of the hearth’s soft light. Slitted, weepy things, all dark and empty.
Weeks passed. A cow died. A crop spoiled. It rained. Changeling, changeling.
When my neighbour’s daughter fell ill, a knock came at my door.
“Take it. You know where. Take it now, before anything happens to my Elspeth.” Other faces peered out of doorways, nodding and murmuring in agreement. “The knoll, only way…” I shut my door.
It was a bright autumn twilight. No clouds, just an endless, sharp sky, pale blue fringed with red and orange. A twilight before a frost, when a waning moon would rise, and ice and silver would leach all life from the countryside. A night to carry away what was no longer desired.
I swaddled it in a blanket and left the house. The faces watched me go. Some cast their eyes down as I passed, others bore into me to make sure that I went. I felt them on my back long after I was beyond their sight.
To the knoll. Where the fae gathered and revelled in the moonlight. Where the chime of bells could be heard, and our cattle refused to graze. Small and unassuming, but a portal to Elfhame if ever there was one. Everyone knew it, and pretended they didn’t.
As I crouched and laid it on the grass, I could almost feel their unseen eyes watching me. They were in the stirring breeze, tugging at the blanket as I settled it around the creature. I paused for a moment, gazing at it, wondering. Thoughts drifting, as they do when you have not slept for so long, and you cannot tell right from wrong. Holding her. Holding her body. Tears. My tears, falling on its skin. Faces, on thresholds. Only way. The fae were watching. They must want it back. It was their fault, not mine.
I left it there. I left it screaming. I walked home. Tomorrow. Tomorrow, I would hold my child. Her child. A real child. I slept.
In the morning, I buried a frosted corpse.
‘Not Mine’ is based on events recorded in Ardersier’s 1845 Statistical Account. There was a father with a sick child, which he and his neighbours believed to be a changeling. To rectify this, he took them to Tom Eanraic (Henry’s Knoll), a local hill said to be where faeries gathered, and left them there overnight. It was believed that when he returned in the morning, he would find the faeries would have reclaimed the changeling and returned his real child. However, in actuality he returned to find the child had perished. The other characters and details given here are my own creation, speculating about how this tragic situation may have unfolded. ‘Not Mine’ was also published in Ex Libris, the University of Aberdeen’s Creative Writing Society Anthology 2019.
Grissell Jaffray was the last woman executed for witchcraft in Dundee in 1669. Originally from Aberdeen, she moved to Dundee and married a burgess. They were respectable, prosperous people, and had a son who was a successful seafarer. Few details of Grissell’s trial were kept, so it is unclear why she was accused of witchcraft and what her supposed crimes were. According to legend, on the day of her execution, her son’s ship arrived in the harbour at Dundee. He saw the smoke from the fire, and sailed back out of the city never to return.
The mosaics of torches and a plaque with her name, year of death, and the word ‘spaewife’ (Scots word for a female seer, and perhaps a softer way of saying ‘witch’) can be found on Peter Street in Dundee’s town centre. When I saw the plaque, it had been defaced with graffiti which inspired me to write the above poem. There is also a stone in The Howff, a cemetery in Dundee, which allegedly marks the spot where Grissell is buried. People often visit it to leave her small offerings for good luck.
North of Caithness, on the islands of Orkney, the ocean is a magical place. The seals are its people. Those angels, who fell from heaven and landed amongst the waves.
Sometimes they come ashore to moult or have pups. Sometimes, on the night of the solstice or during a full moon, you will catch a glimpse of them dancing upon the sand.
Their sealskins will be laid upon the rocks, and their bare, human skin will shimmer in the half light. You will probably hear their laughter before you see them; soft and mellifluous, like the tinkling of seashell wind chimes.
Find somewhere to hide. Hush, now. Watch them dance. Hands clasped, damp, salt-matted hair flowing. The deceptive, lithe grace of their legs could make you believe they always had them.
But the selkie folk always return to the water…
Maybe you will fall in love, and be tempted to snatch one of their skins…
Aye, peedie selkie. Come with me, to my house, on the land…
You reach out and grasp the closest one, clutching it to your chest. But the selkie folk have seen you… they scatter, and within seconds have disappeared into the ocean. All except one. She searches, spinning around and around, looking under the rocks and amongst the seaweed.
Oh, where is it? My skin, my precious skin!
Then she sees you.
Come with me…
And of course she will come; what other choice does she have? In time, she will learn to be content. She will cook and clean and sew, and be a good mother. Although be warned, your bairns may have webbed fingers and toes.
But let me warn you, such marriages never have happy endings…
No matter where you hide it, one day that selkie wife will find her sealskin. Then she will run, out of the house and along the beach, her last human footsteps pressed into the sand the only trace of her left to follow. They will lead to the shore, where she will stand and gaze upon the place of her human life. She will smile; a smile which is a thank you and a goodbye and an I love you all at once.
Then, she will slip into her sealskin. Even after so many years, it’s still a perfect fit. Hands and feet turn into flippers. Eyes turn glossy black and beady. A splash, and she is gone. The selkie folk are the people of the sea, and they always return to the water.
Later, there will be two of them, reunited, frolicking in the sunset-stained waves. You will stand on the shore with the children, watching. Smiling.
Thank you. Goodbye. We love you.
Tom Muir, The Mermaid Bride and Other Orkney Folk Tales
I feel a close affinity with deer. They can be timid creatures, and this lends them an almost mythical reputation in some places. The elusive deer, somewhere in the woods, quiet and unseen. Maybe watching you. No harm in that. Just watching, and then slipping away. Yet underneath that timidness they hold wisdom, and strength. They know their terrain, and when danger is near, and how to protect themselves.
Deer feature in the folklore of many countries. From my travels, I have come across them in Scotland and Japan. Their stories form a link between our world and the animal kingdom, and affect how we interact with these genteel creatures.
Deer in Scotland
Many Scottish legends associate deer with faeries. For one thing, deer already possess fae-like qualities. Their bodies are lean and their movements graceful, and they prefer to be hidden from human eyes. Yet they tolerate the presence of faeries. In the Highlands, red deer are said to be the faeries’ cattle, providing them with milk. In turn, the faeries protect them by targeting hunters with enchanted arrows. To be hit with a faerie arrow is fateful indeed. You’ll likely get a nasty dose of elf-shot, which can be cured by a healer if you’re lucky. If you’re less lucky, you’ll fall down and appear dead to humanity, but your soul will be carried away to Elfhame, the world of the fae.
If a hunter succeeded in killing a deer, the faeries would torment them. There is a story from the Isle of Mull, about a deer hunter called Big Hugh. After killing a deer at Torness, he was carrying it home with his friend who asked him if the deer was heavy. Big Hugh said that it was, and so his friend stuck a penknife in the deer and then asked again. Big Hugh said it felt so much lighter, he could hardly tell that he was carrying it. The extra weight had been put upon him by the faeries, and the penknife counteracted their magic.
Some faerie women also transform themselves into deer, and often encounter hunters whilst in this form. A well-known story from Irish and Scottish mythology tells of Oisín, a great bard of the legendary warriors, the Fianna. His father was Fionn Mac Cumhail, the leader of the Fianna, and his mother was Sadhbh, a woman under a spell which changed her into a deer. Only when in the presence of the Fianna could she regain her human shape. Whilst on a hunting trip, Fionn found Sadhbh and they fell in love. Soon she became pregnant, but their happiness wasn’t to last. The magician who had enchanted Sadhbh returned and tricked her into leaving Fionn. Once more a deer, she ran away and gave birth to her baby boy in the forest. He was found many years later by his father, and named Oisín which means ‘little deer.’
In Scottish folklore, there is a slightly different version of events. Oisín’s mother was a woman called Grainnhe. After being tricked away from Fionn, she was transformed into a white hind and kept under the magician’s power. When Fionn found Oisín, he had a patch of deer’s hair on his forehead. After Grainnhe’s death, her body was released by the magician. The Fianna buried her on the Isle of Skye.
Deer in Japan
In the city of Nara, the old capital of Japan, deer roam free. These are sika or spotted deer, which are native to East Asia and have white spots on their backs. At the end of a lantern-lit path, where Nara Park begins to disintegrate into the Kasuga Primeval Forest, stands Kasuga-Taisha. This Shinto shrine is a sacred place for deer, with a deer statue adorning its temizuya (purifying water fountain) and a variety of deer omamori (charms) for sale. There are four deities enshrined here, one being Takemikazuchi-no-Mikoto, the god of thunder from Kashima in Ibaraki Prefecture. According to Japanese mythology, Takemikazuchi-no-Mikoto came to visit Nara riding upon a white deer. Since then, the deer of Nara were believed to be messengers of the gods. At Kasuga-Taisha you can also purchase white deer figurines with omikuji (fortunes). Apart from being adorable, these also hark back to this belief. They are literally holding divine messages about your future in their little porcelain mouths. Choose wisely.
The reputation of Nara deer became so prolific that until the 1600s, harming one was an offence punishable by death. Today they are considered national treasures, and as such are well protected. They are also well fed, since thousands of tourists visit Nara to give them shika senbei (deer crackers). The protocol for feeding a Nara deer is first to bow, and then wait for the deer to bow in return before relinquishing the cracker. However, in practice, I just got ganged up on by a group of excited, hungry deer… so unfortunately I cannot vouch for their manners!
Meeting the Nara deer was a profound experience. It was the closest I had ever been to a wild animal, and they were gentle and sweet, but unlike domesticated animals you could simultaneously see their wariness. Their delay before approaching, and how they remained still and poised, as ready to flee at any moment as they were willing to accept my affection. I wanted to reassure them; to make them feel safe. But without their wildness, they wouldn’t be the same. And not all humans bare good intentions, so what good would I be doing if I taught them to trust and then the next people they encountered were less compassionate?
I have made many trips to Nara. My friends and colleagues in Japan jestingly nicknamed me ‘shika-onna‘ (deer lady) because I love them so much. One trip which sticks in my mind is New Year’s Eve 2016. It was around 11pm, and dark. I was alone, just behind Todaiji Temple, and I saw a torii gate leading into darkness. Everywhere else was lantern lit, except for this path. I took it. I crept up a hill gnarled with tree roots and deer tracks. I could hear them, rustling in the trees on either side of me. When I reached the top, there was a small clearing with a closed shrine (I later learned its name is Tamukeyama-Hachimangu). It was only me, with the trees, the stars, and the hidden deer. In that moment, I felt at home with them. Away from the other humans, out in the forest. I wasn’t afraid. The deer were not afraid. I trusted them.
Deer in Fairy Tales
In the Grimms’ fairy tale ‘Little Brother and Little Sister,’ two siblings run away into the forest. The brother drinks from an enchanted stream, and the water transforms him into a deer. His sister cares for him and refuses for them to be separated. Even in death, her spirit returns to check his wellbeing and ultimately break the spell. It’s almost as though they are two parts of one being, which simultaneously cannot be complete alone and cannot co-exist as a whole. In his book The Uses of Enchantment, Bruno Bettelheim writes that ‘they represent the animal and spiritual sides of our personality, which become separated [in the story] but must be integrated for human happiness.’ Bettelheim doesn’t state which way round he intends the roles to be, leaving readers to make their own decision. The deer can represent the ‘animal’ part of us; the part which is wild and carefree, whereas the human sister is the seeing and thinking spirit. But these roles could also easily be reversed: The deer can be seen as spiritual for his innocence and closeness to nature, and the sister animalistic for her contentment with living alone in the forest away from other human company.
Deer are often described as guardians of forests, especially stags who are akin to royalty in the woodland animal hierarchy. The brother becoming a deer comes with a certain amount of status. However, whilst the sister grows into a woman, he remains a fawn. As noted by Heidi Anne Heiner in SurLaLune’s annotations for the story, ‘the sister is the adult figure,’ having to arrange food and shelter and make decisions for them both, whilst as a deer the brother is free from responsibility. Eventually the sister becomes a princess, whilst the brother never gets to rut and have the chance to rule the forest. The spell does more than merely change his physical form. It freezes him in time, taking away his progression into adulthood. This story reminds us of the connection to our animal and spiritual sides, and also the need for learning and new experiences to move forward in life.
Deer have much impact on how we view natural spaces, and the stories which come out of them. Whether they truly are messengers of the gods or not, deer are creatures with flesh, blood, and feelings – not just characters from folk tales. That magical, tenuous moment in Nara when they chose to stay beside me reminded me that, for all our stories about wild animals, the only way to understand them is to see them.
John Gregorson Campbell, The Gaelic Otherworld, ed. by Ronald Black (Edinburgh: Birlinn, 2008). First published as Witchcraft and Second Sight in the Highlands and Islands of Scotland: Tales and Traditions Collected Entirely from Oral Sources (Glasgow: James MacLehose and Sons, 1902)
Bruno Bettelheim, The Uses of Enchantment (London: Penguin, 1991)
George W. Macpherson, The Old Grey Magician: A Scottish Fionn Cycle (Edinburgh: Luath Press, 2018)
Spinning wheels are an object commonly associated with fairy tales, even though they only feature in a handful of tales. Aside from being mere objects, they add some degree of symbolic meaning to the stories they are present in.
Firstly though, what actually is a spinning wheel?
We probably know it’s a wooden thing with a big wheel that does something concerning yarn. At least, that’s about all I knew until I visited a friend who owns one. Basically, spinning wheels were (and still are, just not as widely) used to turn animal fleece into yarn, or wool. In order to do this, you have to feed in a thin clump of fleece, and get it hooked around the spindle. Then, as you turn the wheel, the spindle turns as well and coils up the fleece as you feed it in. Some have a foot pedal which you use to keep the wheel going steady, so that the yarn remains a consistent thickness.
I have tried spinning on a couple of wheels and also with a drop spindle (a handheld method of spinning). Suffice to say that it is one of the most tedious activities I have ever done! My yarn always breaks, and to fix this you have to sort of twiddle the broken ends together and spin rapidly to bind them before continuing. And the pedal makes my ankle ache after awhile, plus it is hard to keep it going in time with the wheel. However, if I ever do it for long enough to get semi-good at it then I would probably find it therapeutic. The wheel makes a nice sound, and once you fall into a rhythm it’s quite relaxing.
‘Sleeping Beauty’ is one of the most well-known spinning wheel stories, alongside ‘Rumpelstiltskin.’ In the latter, a miller’s daughter is locked away by a king and forced to spin straw into gold. She cannot do it, but a little man (who is later revealed to be Rumpelstiltskin) appears and does it for her, but asks for her first child in return. The only way she can get out of the deal is to guess his name. She does, and in rage Rumpelstiltskin tears himself apart.
Some lesser known fairy tales also feature spinning wheels, such as the Czech fairy tale called ‘The Golden Spinning Wheel.’ In this, there are two identical sisters. One is kind, and the other malicious. Their mother favours the latter. The kind daughter is left at home to spin, whilst her mother and sister visit the city. One day, a king comes upon her spinning. They fall in love, and he says he will return to marry her once she has spun enough yarn for her wedding shift. She does so, and they wed. However, the mother and malicious sister are outraged. When the king goes away, they kidnap the kind girl and mutilate her, then abandon her in the woods. They then go back to the palace, taking some of her limbs with them, and the malicious sister takes her place. A hermit finds the kind sister’s body, and discovers she is not quite yet dead so he nurses her. He has a helper, who gives a golden spinning wheel, distaff, and spindle to the malicious sister in exchange for her sibling’s limbs. The hermit re-attaches these, and the kind sister is well again. When the king returns, he asks his wife to spin. The malicious sister sits down at the golden spinning wheel, but as she turns the wheel it sings of her’s and her mother’s evil deed. The king immediately goes off into the woods, where he finds the kind sister, his real wife, in the care of the hermit. They rejoice and travel back to the palace together, where they are told by the servants that the devil appeared and carried off the wicked sister and mother.
In the Scottish folktale ‘Habitrot,’ a girl who hates spinning hands her work over to a group of old women to complete instead. She passes their work off as her own, and a Lord sees it and is so impressed by her skill that he wants to marry her because of it. She plays along, but once they are wed she reveals her secret. The old women show her new husband their lips, twisted by years of wetting their fingers to draw thread, and warn him that his pretty young wife will end up like them if she is allowed to spin. The Lord immediately forgives her for deceiving him, and declares that she shall never touch a spinning wheel. There are also some European variants of this tale, where it is called ‘The Lazy Spinner’ or ‘The Three Spinners.’
Spinning wheels bring varying kinds of symbolism to each of these stories. They have three main connotations in fairy tales, which affect the underlying theme of the story depending on which one is prevalent.
Connotation 1: Social
Spinning wheels are domestic objects. They belong in the home, and so over the centuries have come to be associated with women. So much so that the term ‘spinster’ came aboutto describe unmarried females, particularly those past the usual age of being wed. Spinning seems to have been a desirable skill for a woman to possess — certainly all the men in ‘Rumpelstiltskin,’ ‘The Golden Spinning Wheel.’ and ‘Habitrot’ were keen on it. The implication here is that women needed to know how to spin in order to find a husband, and if they didn’t find one they would end up becoming a spinster.
However, the ending of ‘Habitrot’ humorously counters this by showing the Lord how detrimental to beauty spinning can be. He is so deeply upset that he changes his mind about wanting his wife to spin! He would rather she look good than be useful. This story also shows how spinning is relegated to women who have nothing better to do. The old spinsters have no husbands, homes, children to care for, so they take the task away from the young woman who has the potential for all of those things to occupy her.
The act of spinning in itself also nurtured storytelling. Whilst spinning, people had to amuse themselves somehow. In The Annotated Brothers Grimm, Maria Tatar says that ‘the spinning of flax often crossed over from the storytelling context into the story itself,’ which provides a possible explanation as to why spinning wheels feature in fairy tales.
Connotation 2: Sexual
The story of ‘Sleeping Beauty’ is often regarded as being an analogy for sexual awakening. Tatar notes this as well, saying that ‘the story of Briar Rose has been thought to map female sexual maturation, with the touching of the spindle representing the onset of puberty, a kind of sexual awakening that leads to a passive, introspective period of latency.’ In any version of ‘Sleeping Beauty,’ the main protagonist pricking her finger on the spindle or flax can be seen as a metaphor for maturation. Her father’s decision to burn all of the spinning wheels fails to prevent this from happening, showing that it is an unavoidable part of growing up. The long sleep afterwards occurs because of the stress maturation can cause, especially as she wasn’t prepared for it. The girl’s isolation from spinning wheels makes her curious when she sees one, and is what draws prematurely draws her to her maturation.
For a more detailed analysis of the sexual content of Sleeping Beauty, you can have a read at my previous post about it.
The connection between spinning wheels and sexual awakening also fits in with the social side of things I discussed above. The turning of the wheel is a symbol of the cycles of life, which are often associated with women due to menstruation. In many Pagan religions, the triple goddess symbol is worn to celebrate the Maiden, Mother and Crone. These three stages of a woman’s life are a cycle in themselves, and relate to spinning as it is the young women, the maidens, who spin before they are married. Then, once they have a husband, they can move on to become mothers. Finally, once their years of fertility are over, they become crones, wise from their experiences and with the time to take up spinning once again.
Indeed, in every version of ‘Sleeping Beauty’ it is an old woman she finds spinning on the spindle which invokes the curse. This shows a sort of passing of the torch, passing on spinning, and womanhood, from generation to generation. Due to her ignorance of spinning, the girl is unprepared for the move to being a mother. Therefore, her sleep symbolises her preparation for the next stage in her life.
Connotation 3: Spiritual
Spinning isn’t a term exclusive to yarn. In Greek and Roman mythology, there were three goddesses who were know as the Moirai or Parcae respectively, but have come to be known as the Fates. They were said to control the lifespan of every mortal by spinning the threads of their lives, and cutting them when it was time for them to die.
The existence of such goddesses would mean that lives are planned out, and that fate cannot be changed. This act of spinning focuses on the creative element, instead of the social or symbolic. When spinning, yarn is made. Or in this case, lives. It shows the true significance of spinning is in the product, not how it’s done or who by.
Fate is a strong theme in Sleeping Beauty, and despite attempts to alter it the girl’s long sleep is unavoidable. Looking at the tale as a metaphor for maturation, this makes sense as it is inevitable that we should all keep growing until we reach adulthood. We are all at the mercy of this fate, like Sleeping Beauty – whether it is spun for us or not.None of us can prevent time passing and lengthening our ethereal threads.
Today, spinning wheels are regarded as a curiosity. You might see people spinning at country fairs, exhibiting how things were done in the ‘olden days.’ For some die-hard knitters they are still a tool, albeit an archaic one. Given the choice, I’m sure many knitters would rather buy wool than spin it. However, like any antique, their charm is undiminished. Fairy tales help to keep it alive, and keep the legends and origins of the spinning wheel known.
Jacob & Wilhelm Grimm, ‘Little Briar-Rose’ (1857 version) in The Annotated Brothers Grimm, ed. by Maria Tatar (London: W. W. Norton & Company, 2012)
For some reason, when I edited my blog this review disappeared. Can’t have that, since it’s my favourite book EVER. And I mean EVER EVER EVER, out of ALL THE BOOKS. EVER. So, I’ve written this new review. Which is actually borderline incoherent gushing about witches and Scotland and all of the awesomeness that this book has.
On the surface, Witch Light appears to be a historical novel. It takes place in Scotland in 1692, in the aftermath of the Glencoe Massacre. So it is based on real events, and most of the people in it are people who really lived.
In a prison cell in Inverary, a young girl named Corrag is being held for witchcraft. But that’s not all — she was also a witness to the massacre, and had her part to play in the gruesome event.
Charles Leslie, an Irishman trying to uncover the truth behind the massacre, visits Corrag to interview her. She agrees to tell him what happened on the night of the massacre, but only if he will listen to the rest of her life story first. Leslie reluctantly agrees. What follows is a story so wise, humble, and heartbreaking that it obliterates any preconceptions you may have when you initially pick up this book. Also, just a note before I continue: Witch Light has also been published under the titles Corragand The Highland Witch. So if you see them all, don’t get confused. They are the same book.
I’ve always been drawn to stories about witches (maybe because I’m certain that I would have been burnt as one back in the day…) I picked this up and thought ‘ah, witches. Magic, then. Some history, cool.’ Two chapters in and I knew I’d gotten way more than I bargained for. This is more than a story about the massacre, or about witchcraft. It’s the story of a girl, who loves and learns and follows her heart. The prose style is bold and charming — okay, a little heavy going at first until the novel settles in to Corrag’s life story, but once it gets there then it takes off and that’s that.
The novel is narrated alternately by Corrag and Leslie, through letters he writes to his wife back in Ireland. This works well, because it offers two sides and in particular, two impressions of the label ‘witch.’ Obviously ‘witch’ was a dangerous thing to be called in the 1600s. As a religious man, initially Leslie is all for burning Corrag at the stake. But as he discovers more about her, his opinion begins to change. He comes to realise that Corrag is a human, and that ‘witch’ does not take that away from her. From Corrag’s point of view, we hear about the prejudice she and her mother face. Judgment is thick is this novel, with undesirable words like ‘whore’ and ‘hag’ following closely behind ‘witch.’I think this an important aspect, as it implicates society for branding people unfairly. Because Corrag is seen to fit the criteria for being a witch, therefore she is also a whore and a hag because that’s just how witches are thought to be. But, reading her story, we can clearly see that she is neither.
Corrag’s narrative voice makes it very easy to identify with her. I don’t think I have ever connected with a main protagonist as much as I did with her. Her outlook is simple and optimistic, and she values little things like the wind blowing off the sea and how a wolf sounds when it calls. She also has feelings which are easy to relate to — loneliness, fear of pain, longing, and affection. Once in Glencoe, she gives the mountains her own nicknames which really brings the place alive. Regarding setting, I have to say that it’s pretty spectacular. I mean, come on. A place which looks like this is just BEGGING for a story.
In fact, once I finished this book I lent it to my mum. Once she had finished it, she came rushing into my room and we shared this look that said ‘damn, now we have to go to Scotland!’ Proof of this book’s power right there — if makes you enthusiastic about a 10 hour car journey then it must be good. And we actually did go!
Dad found a little cottage in Glencoe to rent for a week, and when we got there we mentioned Witch Light to the owner. She smiled and nodded enthusiastically, and then told us that Susan Fletcher had rented the same cottage and lived in it whilst writing the novel. Cue the biggest fangirl freak-out of my life!
Overall, I was pretty impressed with this book. Okay, that’s putting it mildly. I fell completely, totally, and irrevocably in love with it. I’m ending my review here because I can’t think of coherent words to explain how amazing it is. Just please, go and find out for yourselves. I think that everyone can get something out of this story. If you like historical fiction, you should read this. If you like witches, you should read this. If you like words and paper in general, you should read this. You get the picture. Witch Light defies all genres and definition. Corrag’s words will stay with you long after you’ve read the last page and nestled the book onto your shelf. To end, here is my favourite quote for a little taster:
‘Your heart’s voice is your true voice. It is easy to ignore it, for sometimes it says what we’d rather it did not – and it is so hard to risk the things we have. But what life are we living, if we don’t live by our hearts? Not a true one. And the person living it is not the true you.’
For more information about Susan Fletcher, Witch Light, and her other books, you can follow her on Twitter @sfletcherauthor.
Also, I’m curious! I’ve said this is my favourite book, and it is (along with a couple of others which destroyed me around the same amount) If you had to pick just one or two books to be your favourite, could you do it? Why would you choose them?