Monthly Archives: July 2018

The other side of Scotland


I drove across Scotland, from west to east, and this is what most of the landscape looks like. One town I passed was called Windyraw. (guess why!)



I was going to Delegate Castle, another seat of the Hay family, but this one in eastern Scotland, near Aberdeen. And these Hays were not Covenanters, zealous Protestants, but Catholic (God forbid!) and they supported Queen Mary and the Royalists during the Reformation. So, probably not my ancestors. Even though the photograph of the latest Laird looks a lot like my father. – couldn’t do the tech to put them both here. Anyway, my brother disagrees with that opinion. But Delgatie Castle was charming and quirky, with lots of lovely artwork and historic though cosy rooms. Except for the room Queen Mary slept in that looks more like a tiny stone cell. Well, that was in the 1500s, not so much luxury then.Nancy Delgatie Castle

The ponies were very friendly at Delgatie Castle!

friendly pony

The fairy mound

Downie Hill from field

Downie Hill from the field


Downie Hill closer

Downie Hill from the air


Morag on the Downie Hill

The Downie Hill is 15 minutes from where Morag, my new friend, lives in Nairn, Scotland. Can you see it through the field? No one around here seems to know about it. I talked to the farm family whose land it is on and a horsewoman neighbour named Downie, and they knew this was the Downie Wood, but they hadn’t heard about the hill. In witchcraft history, the Downie Hill is famous, the place where Isobel Gowdie met the fairy queen and the elves, all of whom lived in it.

I went there the other day, walked across the field, and stood in front of the hill, but didn’t try to push through the giant ferns to climb up it. But today Morag talked me into forging through the ferns and bracken, and we did it. We reached the top – also overgrown with ferns, as opposed to the satellite picture on the left that must have been taken in winter. We didn’t see any fairies or elves, but we stood there in silence for a bit and felt the silence and the breeze. Across the fields, in the distance, the sea.

The Kindness of Strangers at a castle




I drove up the little dirt road, following the signs and with the help of a young woman pushing a baby carriage. “Up there,” she said, “the castle is just behind a new house, a massive, massive house.”

As I pulled up the driveway, an elderly man came up to the car. “Ye’ll be wanting to see the castle?”

“Yes, it is okay?” I said as I realized that this was his private property.

“Aye. And ye’ll be wanting to take photos?” He was smiling, indicating that it was very okay to take photos, and directed me to a spot to park between a few barns and a large house (but not “massive, massive as the young woman had said.)

I stepped through a gate and walked across a grassy slope. A heap of stones, the remnants of a tower and a few walls, the castle looked about the size of our tiny row house in Burlington, Vermont. This was the hereditary home of the Hay family in Morayshire, seat of John Hay, Laird of Park and Lochloy. In the 1600s, with peasant labor, they farmed the thousands of acres around it, land that reached several miles down to the Firth of Moray, an inlet of the North Sea. Standing here, I could see all of that land and all the way to the sea.

I took some pictures and walked back down to the car, where the man was waiting for me. James Campbell, he introduced himself, and invited me in for tea. His wife Doreen came out and we went into the kitchen where she made the tea and laid out a variety of cakes and biscuits. James told me that they had lived in this house that they’d built twenty years ago after living down the hill in their old farmhouse. He’d been a dairy farmer all his life, and when they retired, they built this larger house near the castle with its magnificent view of the land around it.

James and Doreen obviously enjoyed having visitors to the castle that was on their land and told me that many Hay descendants had come to call. “So you’re a Hay, too?”

“Well, very remotely,” I said. “My ancestors in Scotland were named Hay, and probably way back were related to these Hays.”

They were surprised when I said my ancestors had moved to America in the 1700s. I guess that’s unusual, or maybe just more remote than they’d thought. James and Doreen have an archive of books and material about the castle and the Hay family.  They brought out book after book, and soon I was surrounded by a small library of information.

The minutes went on, and James and Doreen seemed eager to talk about the castle and the Hay family. My instinct was to look at my watch, but then I realized that I didn’t have to be anywhere. How wonderful, I thought, to be free to stop and chat for an hour with someone you meet like this. And serendipity that now I could learn something more about the history I’d been studying for the past few years. I told them about my project, the novel about Isobel Gowdie, a peasant on the Hay lands, and her witchcraft trial, and Doreen smiled. “Ah yes, the witch of Auldearn.” Isobel is known in these parts.

They showed me books about the Hay family, the history of the castle, some plans one man had drawn up to restore the castle to its original form, “but he couldn’t get the money from the government.” There was a book on the history of the Auldearn Church, which features prominently in my novel, and pictures of James and Doreen’s twenty grandchildren, most of whom live nearby. They led me on a house tour, and upstairs I enjoyed the view from two large drawing rooms with “massive, massive” windows in bays overlooking the land.

When I was finally able to extract myself from this charming place, I was armed with more than I’d imagined. The kindness of strangers in magical Scotland.




In the “Old Country”

About to land in Scotland, I realize that a part of me is expecting the Scotland of the 17thcentury. A tempestuous and romantic place, with wild-haired men on horseback raging through the countryside brandishing swords and scalps…

The plane touches down at Glasgow airport, and I’m back in the 21stcentury. Now I picture a scene from an Ian Rankin novel with tough blokes speaking unintelligible street patois and brandishing switchblades.

Are there side effects from reading too many novels? Or from writing one? I’ve been immersed in the world of the 1660s Highlands for the past few years, and now that I am actually going there, I need to work on unscrambling my realities.

But first, Glasgow. No switchblades evident, and the people look just like the people in Vermont. I’m staying in the West End, a vibrant area full of international restaurants, free museums, and picturesque old buildings.

After an overnight flight, on my first night in Glasgow I sleep for almost twelve hours, and today I feel better than I have in years. The power of sleep – definitely underrated. Wandering around the city, I have brunch in a café called Little Italy, with delicious coffee latté,and visit the Kelvingrove Art Museum, the Glasgow Cathedral, and the St. Mungo Museum of Religious Life and Art – which says nothing about my famous witch, Isobel Gowdie. But the cathedral does commemorate her persecutors, the Covenanters, who, after the witch hunts, became martyrs for their own brand of zealous Presbyterianism.

I’m reflecting on the ways we know reality, the things we know in our hearts to be the truth, and how we shape our world view around that. How very different those constructions can be between people and across time. Sometimes we move from one reality to another, like flying into a different time zone, and then the mind and body need to shift and reorient. Like Margaret in my novel, BITTER MAGIC, a young girl who is a Covenanter but entranced by magic and folk healing.

Tomorrow off to Nairn, the scene of the crime.

On the trail of a witch

Morayshire, Scotland: golf links, 2018, farm town 1660


On the trail of a witch

Leafing through my grandfather’s book about the Presbyterian ministers in our family, I came across some “Covenanters.” Who/what were Covenanters? I found that in 17thcentury Scotland they were key players in the fight for religious freedom and against the notion of king as head of church.

And then I discovered that the area in Scotland where the Covenanters were most concentrated, in Morayshire, was also where the most witch trials were held. And it so happened that one of the best-known witches in Scottish history, Isobel Gowdie, lived on the estate of John Hay (my birth name, Hayes, was originally Hay.)

Whoee!… Presbyterians and a witch. This was my kind of story. I was a Starhawk (a Wiccan) fan in the 70s and became a Presbyterian minister in the 80s. I hadn’t thought I’d write a historical novel, much less one about a 17thcentury witch in Scotland, but I was drawn in to the story of Isobel.

Just think. Here, where people play golf today, Isobel, a peasant woman, lived in a mud hut, concocted magical potions, and communicated with fairies, all in the face of my zealous Presbyterian ancestors.

I’m off to Scotland next week to get a feel for the land, talk with local historians, and flesh out the first draft of my novel, BITTER MAGIC.

Follow my blog to come with me!