When I decided to write travel mysteries, the possibilities seemed endless. In most other travel mysteries the protagonists just happen to travel, but since my mysteries have an actual travel agent protagonist, it’s important to use accurate industry dialogue and action. My background as a travel agent and agency owner helped. It’s the old adage, “write what you know.”
I set my first mystery, Hera’s Revenge, in Greece and the Greek Islands because I could draw on the colorful mythology, history, politics and culture—not to mention the beauty of the islands. In doing so another layer to my mysteries evolved, and that is, weaving in the legends and lore of the area into the story through the characters or the current culture, evidenced so far in the guise of strong mythological Goddesses.
The decision to set my second mystery, Celtic Curse, in Scotland was an easy one. First, my husband’s family emigrated from Scotland and we visited Scotland several times, and second, we were living in the highlands of North Carolina at the time I wrote it where there is a strong Scottish influence and connection. One of the area’s most exciting and well attended events is the annual Highland Scottish Games held on Grandfather Mountain in Northwest North Carolina.
The favorite part of my research for the book involved studying the myths, legends, and superstitions of the early Scots.
It was the lowlands of Scotland that inspired the poor farm boy, Robert Burns to become the legendary poet his is today. He grew up on several farm properties because his family moved frequently from one ailing farm to another. During his laborious youth, as happens in farm communities around the world, his entertainment was derived from listening to stories told by the old folks: Stories embellished and exaggerated featuring ghosts, ghouls and superstitions. Read “Tam o’Shanter” one of his best loved and legendary poems for illustration of how he wove in a coven of witches, prophecies of doom and second-sight into his poetry.
Another lowlands legendary figure showed up in literature as ‘Old King Cole’ ‘a merry old soul.’ The real King Coel (spelled differently) was a British King who occupied the South of Scotland and it was known that he and his sons took control of the whole Roman frontier from Edinburgh to Lancashire by the late sixteenth century. Not sure where his ‘merry’ reputation came from, except that it was mentioned in several poems and nursery rhymes.
There are many legends in the lowlands of Scotland such as where Merlin the Magician’s body is buried to where to find King Arthur’s cave—the location where his spirit resides along with those of his knights. The lowlands are often pictured as great expanses of rural countryside with views of mountains in a distance. I for one find them to be hauntingly beautiful, from light and bright landscapes where pixies and water sprites might play, to dark and gloomy areas cast by the shadows of the mountains where the unseen bogey-men wander.
Celtic lore shows up strongly in the highlands. Ogmios, the Celtic god of eloquence holds his listeners chained to his native tongue. It is believed that Ogmios is responsible for the Celtic stories that have been passed on through the inhabitants of highland communities through the generations, some would say, they are still being retold even today, but only to other highlanders. Outsiders would find it difficult to have conversations about the old stories and superstitions.
In addition to belief in the many myths and legends – also told through music and songs – the Celtic highlanders lived under the influence of taboos—things to do or not to do. They also saw good and bad omens in everyday occurrences. Superstitions persist in the highlands. There are people still living today who claim to have had a direct experience with fairies. As in all mythological legends, gods like Lugus aka Lugh, were described in gigantic proportions and recipients of magical powers with which to fight their battles.
The universal belief of seers and second-sight is also prevalent in highland communities. There are many examples of second-sight stories in the highlands. You’ll find a realistic example of how it works in Celtic Curse.
Black and white witchcraft; casting of spells for evil, and charms for good were prevalent among the Gaelic highlanders in early centuries. But, still seen today are horseshoes nailed above doors to ward off the “Evil Eye” cast by witches. Sprigs from the Rowan tree was also worn around the neck as a talisman against the evil cast by witches. The scariest of witches were known to cause storms, killing fisherman at sea. The most feared witches of the western Islands were the Lewis witches. To sink a boat they would place a small wooden bowl in a milk pail full of water. The witches would then begin incantations and the dish would capsize; at that moment the ship would sink at sea. They were also known to get fish from the sea by magic. It was also believed that witches could shape-shift into a variety of animals, like cats, ravens, rabbits, and frogs. This allowed them to sneak around placing spells in secret. There are many tales of this happening but the stories are so long, I could not include them here. The same holds true of all the spells and charms one could give, or avoid, if wearing the right talismans.
Life and death has always been a preoccupation of the Celts. Belief in ghosts and dangerous spirits of the departed were constant worries of the living. Some believed the soul should stay close to the body until after burial; the body must be watched day and night. (I’ve heard of this same superstition in the mountains of NC.) In the highlands this period was treated with almost callous jocularity as all sorts of tricks, games of leaping, riddles asked and answered, and lamenting music was played during what was known as ‘late wake.’
Other mythological characters found in the Celtic and Gaelic legends are dopfelgangers and banshis (spelled the Scottish way.)
Last but not least, here are some dos and don’ts prompted by taboos or good or bad omens:
In the town of Dingwall (had to include this) on New Year’s Day the Gaelic people burned juniper before their cattle in order to protect them – a custom going back to Druidic times.
Different versions of Beltain (Beltane, May Day) festivals were practiced all over Scotland with different rituals to celebrate, but mostly to protect the coming harvests through the summer and fall. Beltane festivals today are mostly joyous pomp and circumstance.
Taboos for lucky days and unlucky days, an example might be walking around a church 3 times going sunwise to ward off bad luck after arriving on the Isle of Orosay. Walking around holy wells and churches were a common practice to bring luck. Unbaptised babies were under bad luck immediately after birth and must not be left alone or leave their house until baptised. It was believed they’d be taken over by the fairies or the devil depending on the latest religious practices.
If a stray swarm of bees landed on one’s property without being claimed by the owner it was unlucky.
If a person caught a view of the moon through a glass window it was unlucky. To undo the damage one must bow to the moon outside directly 3 times, or turn one’s money over in their pocket 3 times.
Fire was essential in averting evil, such as carrying burning bread throughout a house to purify and protect it. Fire was also carried sunwise, usually by midwives, around children before they were baptized once in the morning and once in the evening.
There are many sources of information about the legends and lores and superstitions of the Scots, Celts and Gaels. Two very comprehensive works are: Scotland Myths and Legends by Beryl Beare, and The Folklore of the Scottish Highlands by Anne Ross. I hope this gave you an unusual look at Bonnie Scotland.
Visit her website http://www.wendydingwall.com/