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THE SEAFORTH DOOM: A true Scottish curse which helped inspire my novel THE PUZZLE RING

Sunday, November 01, 2015

Yesterday was Halloween - a time that has its roots in the ancient Celtic celebration of Samhain (pronounced sow-un), and was once widespread in Scotland and Ireland. 

Earlier this week I wrote about THE PUZZLE RING, my children's time travel adventure set in Scotland, as it has a great deal in it about the old Celtic festival of Samhain (I think of it as the perfect Halloween read!)  THE PUZZLE RING tell the story of Hannah Rose Brown, who was not quite thirteen years old when she discovered her family was cursed …

I thought I'd share with you my strange and magical inspirations for this novel:



People always ask me where I get my ideas from.

Llike most writers, I find this a difficult question to give an easy answer to. You need lots and lots of ideas to create something as complex and sophisticated as a novel.  Some ideas just come like a flash of lightning. Other ideas you have to find with a whole lot of digging, like a miner scrounging in the dirt for opals. 

I normally need two or three strong ideas before I know I’ve got a novel on my hands. I start with one, which can come from anywhere – an overheard conversation, something I read about in a book, a stray thought that pops into my head while I’m doing the washing up – and then I think about it for a while. I might put it together with a few other ideas I’ve had and see if they seem to belong together. 

The very first idea for this novel came when I was waiting bored in a doctor’s surgery.  Unusually for me, I hadn’t brought a book to read and so I flicked through a few gossip magazines, then picked up a jewellery catalogue. It was mainly pictures and not much text, but on the back page it had a very brief history of the puzzle ring, which I found fascinating.

Basically, the article said that the puzzle ring was first invented by an Arabian king who was mad with jealousy over his young and beautiful wife. He challenged a jeweller to make a wedding ring that would show if the ring was ever taken off his wife’s finger. After many attempts, the jeweller invented a ring that would fall apart into separate loops if removed from the finger, and could only be put back together again if you knew the secret of the puzzle. Of course, the wife did take the ring off one day ... and was promptly killed by her furious husband. 


I thought at once, in an idle sort of a way, what a great thematic device this would be for a quest story ... a desperate search for a puzzle ring that had fallen apart. When I got home, I wrote it down in my ideas book but that was all I did with the idea for quite a long time, as I was very busy writing my historical adventure novel THE GYPSY CROWN ‘The Gypsy Crown’. Every now and then, though, I’d wonder ... WHO would be searching for a puzzle ring? WHY?

Then one day I was browsing in a second-hand bookstore and discovered an old book called ‘The Book of Curses’. When I sat down to look through it, the page fell open, of its own volition, at a chapter about the famous Scottish curse ‘The Seaforth Doom’. 



This is a very chilling and creepy story about a warlock called Kenneth the Enchanter who was burnt to death in the 16th century by a jealous and vengeful woman, Isabella, the Countess of Seaforth. 

Kenneth had a magical fairy stone, or hag-stone, and the countess had asked him to look through his hag-stone and tell him what her husband was doing. Kenneth had laughed, and then told her "Fear not for your lord, he is safe and sound, well and hearty, merry and happy". Angrily she demanded to know why he had laughed, and when he would not tell her, threatened him with a terrible death. At last he confessed he had seen her husband on his knees before another woman, kissing her hand. The countess was so furious that she ordered Kenneth to be thrust headfirst into a barrel of boiling tar. As he was led out to his execution, the warlock lifted his hag-stone to his eye and cast a terrible curse on the Mackenzies of Seaforth. 



This is what he said:

‘I see into the far future, and I read the doom of the race of my oppressor. The long-descended line of Seaforth will, ere many generations have passed, end in extinction and in sorrow. 
I see a chief, the last of his house, both deaf and dumb. He will be the father of four fair sons, all of whom he will follow to the tomb. He will live careworn and die mourning, knowing that the honours of his line are to be extinguished forever, and that no future chief of the Mackenzies shall bear rule ...  the remnant of his possessions shall be inherited by a white-hooded lassie from the East, and she is to kill her sister. 

And as a sign by which it may be known that these things are coming to pass, there shall be four great lairds ... one shall be buck-toothed, another hare-lipped, another half-witted, and the fourth a stammerer. 
(They) shall be the allies and neighbours of the last Seaforth; and when he looks around him and sees them, he may know that his sons are doomed to death ... and that his race shall come to an end.’

Kenneth the Enchanter then threw away his magical hag-stone and was cruelly killed.

The curse had been cast against the wife of the third Earl of Seaforth. Apparently she only laughed at Kenneth’s words and micked him. For several generations all seemed well. 

Then the ninth Earl of Seaforth, called Francis Humberton Mackenzie, was born in 1794. An attack of scarlet fever when he has twelve left him deaf, but he still married and in time had four sons and two daughters. Among his friends and neighbours were four great lords, one of which was buck-toothed, one had a cleft palate, another stammered and the fourth, unfortunately, was not very bright. 
One by one his sons died, and in his grief the Earl turned his face to the wall and would not speak. He died soon afterwards, leaving only his two daughters. The elder, Mary Mackenzie, had married a man called Sir Samuel Hood who lived in the East Indies. Recently widowed, she returned from the East to take possession of the estate wearing her widows’ weeds – a black dress and white cap – and named Lady Hood, an uncanny fulfilment of the prophecy. Some time later, while driving her sister out in her carriage, the ponies took fright and both sisters were thrown out. The younger sister was killed.
So did the Seaforth Doom come at last to pass. 





As soon as I read this story, which is very famous indeed in Scotland, I was electrified. What must it have been like, I thought, to be Francis Humberton Mackenzie, living out his life with that shadow hanging over him? Having four sons and hoping the curse could not be true. Imagine what it must have been like to be those two sisters, knowing one must kill the other. I bought the book, and as I walked back to my car, my brain was on fire. I saw the whole story unfolding in my mind’s eye ... a jealous husband, a puzzle ring, a faithful wife tricked into taking the ring off, the curse she casts on the castle as she dies ... and then generations later, a girl who decides she must break the curse and sets out on a perilous quest to find the four lost loops of the puzzle ring ...

And that is how I came to write THE PUZZLE RING.

You can buy THE PUZZLE RING at BooktopiaDymocksCollinsAngus & Robertson Bookworld, or read it on your Kindle



PLEASE LEAVE A COMMENT - I LOVE TO KNOW WHAT YOU THINK!

SPOTLIGHT:The True History of Halloween

Saturday, October 31, 2015




A True History of Halloween

‘I know it’s a bit American,’ a mother apologised to me yesterday, when inviting my daughter to a Halloween party. 

‘Not at all,’ I replied. ‘Halloween is older than America, or its culture anyway. It’s even older than Christianity.’

‘Really?’ she asked. 

‘Yes, Halloween is at least 2,000 years old,’ I told her. ‘It has its roots in a pre-Christian Celtic festival. And since most of us here have Celtic blood, it’s entirely appropriate for us to celebrate it.’

‘I never knew that,’ she said. ‘You should write something about it.’

So, never one to refuse an opportunity to write about a subject I find fascinating, here is my True History of Halloween:


Halloween was once one of the two most important religious rites of the Celtic calender (the other being six months later, on May Day). 



Long before Christianity reached the shores of England, Ireland and Scotland, the Celtic people who lived there used to hold a festival celebrating the end of the year. Their New Year was November 1, and this festival was called Samhain (pronounced sow-un).
 
Samhain means ‘summer’s end’, and the festival signalled the end of the harvest season, and the turning of the year towards the long, cold, darkness of winter. 

For the Celtics, Samhain was one of the two hinges of the year, a time when the door between the worlds was opened. Since it was also a time when the world began turning towards darkness, the fields lay fallow, and the small, weak and old might die, Samhain is also a celebration of death and the dark mysteries. 

For many, it was thought to be a time to communicate with the dead, or with the gods. For others, it was a time to protect oneself against the mischief and malice of the unrestful dead, or the fairy creatures of the Otherworld. People used to leave out offerings of food and drink to appease any who were roaming the countryside. Anyone who fed the fairies would be rewarded, and anyone who failed to do so would be punished. 

People also used to carve fearsome faces into turnips to scare away malevolent spirits (carved pumpkins are a much later tradition, and, yes, come from America). People used to dress up, and play tricks, and beat pots and pans, all in an attempt to confuse and frighten the dead away.



Another key tradition was the lighting of sacred bonfires to honour the Celtic gods. Everyone would extinguish their own fire, and relight it from the one lit on the nearest hill or in the village square. Afterwards, the ashes of the fire would be sprinkled on the winter fields, blessing them and fertilising them for the next year. 

As Christianity began to spread into the Celtic lands, the Roman Catholic Church took over the old festivals and incorporated them into their own calendars. In 835 A.D., Pope Gregory IV re-named Samhain ‘All Saints’ Day’. All Saints Day was also known as Hallowmas, or All Hallows Eve, which gradually became pronounced Halloween. 

As the old pagan rituals persisted, despite all the attempts of the priests, the church decided to simply adopt them as Catholic rites. It became usual to light candles for the dead, for example, instead of sacred bonfires.



Instead of leaving out food for the fairies, the church set up a tradition whereby poor would ‘go a-souling’, walking from door to door asking for food and, in return, praying for the souls of the giver’s dead relatives. It was widely believed at the time that the souls of the dead would wait in purgatory till enough people had prayed for their souls. The poor would be given ‘soul cakes’ to eat, sometimes in return for a performance or song. As time went on, it became the practise for poor children to ‘go a-souling’, and so the ‘trick-and-treat’ tradition was born. 

Shakespeare mentions the practice in his comedy “The Two Gentlemen of Verona” (1593), when a man is accused of “puling like a beggar at Hallowmas.” Puling means to whimper or whine. 

In the 1500s, the Reformation brought in the Protestant religions, many of which did not allow for any saints or religious celebrations. Even Christmas and Easter were not permitted.



However, the old practices persisted, simply finding new names and new forms. Since Guy Fawkes tried to blow up Parliament in early November, 1606, Samhain became known as Guy Fawkes Day, with bonfires, dressing up, parades, and other celebrations. Children would to go from door to door, asking for a ‘penny for Guy’, so they could make an effigy to burn on the bonfire. 

In the New World, the colonists celebrated Guy Fawkes Day for a while, but as the colonies became the United States of America, Guy Fawkes Day fell by the wayside. Halloween was certainly not a popular festival day, as most of the early settlers were Protestant and so disapproved of what was clearly seen as a remnant of pagan culture. 

By the mid 1800s, however, many Irish Catholics fled the potato famine in Ireland by immigrating to the USA. They brought with them their old Halloween traditions, which caught the imagination of the public. Halloween is now one of the most popular festivals in the USA and, increasingly, the Western world. 

In Australia, we should properly celebrate Samhain on the 1st May and May Day on 31st October, as our seasons are back to front … but the festivities are much the same – the lighting of candles and bonfires, the feasting and playing, the thinking on the meaning of the turning of the seasons.

So Happy Halloween, everyone … and here’s a beautiful old Irish Samhain poem to help you get in the mood:

My tidings for you: the stag bells,
Winter snows, Summer is gone.
Wind high and cold, low the sun,
Short his course, sea running high.
Deep-red the bracken, its shape all gone,
The wild goose has raised his wonted cry.
Cold has caught the wings of birds.
Season of ice – these are my tidings.


Translated by Caitlin Matthews

And for those of you who like to celebrate the old ways, here is a beautiful Samhain prayer:




This is a vintage post which I have resurrected for your reading pleasure - it was first posted in 2011!

PLEASE LEAVE A COMMENT - I LOVE TO KNOW WHAT YOU THINK!

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