It is Halloween, a time when we celebrate the turn of the world towards darkness and winter, a time when we fear the dark unknown forces of our universe.
Halloween has its roots in the ancient Celtic celebration of Samhain (pronounced sow-un), and was once widespread in Scotland and Ireland.
I thought I would celebrate by talking about my own magical Scottish book, THE PUZZLE RING. A time-travel adventure for children set in Scotland, THE PUZZLE RING tell the story of Hannah Rose Brown, who was not quite thirteen years old when she discovered her family was cursed …
It seemed a day like any other day. Yet for red-haired Hannah, it is the day when her ordinary life is changed forever, a day when she discovers a past full of secrets and a future full of magic.
Hannah lives with her mother, Roz, who is a science teacher. Her father Robert died before she was born, and she and her mother are all alone in the world. Or so Hannah has always believed. Yet one day a letter arrives, from the Countess of Wintersloe, Loch Lomond, Scotland.
The letter is from Hannah’s great-grandmother – someone she never knew existed – begging Hannah and her mother to come to Scotland.
"I would very much like to see Robert's child before I die," the letter read. "Do not think me maudlin. I have not been well this past year ... sitting here day after day, thinking about how the curse has destroyed all I loved, and worrying about the shadow it must cast over Robert's child too ...'
And so Hannah discovers that her family was long ago cursed, and that its dark shadow still lies over her.
She is determined to go to Scotland, meet her great-grandmother, and do what she can to break the curse.
At first her mother Roz does not want to go – she had sworn never to return to Wintersloe Castle. ‘There’s nothing but bad memories for me there,’ she tells Hannah, ‘for that’s where your father died.’ In the end, though, they decide to go, leaving their old life in Australia behind them.
Wintersloe Castle is an old house, built on the ruins of a medieval castle, overlooking the waters of Loch Lomond. It is surrounded by a wonderful old walled garden, with hornbeam corridors and yew trees cut into the shapes of chess men and animals. On the northern wall is a strange gate, built through the hollow trunk of an ancient yew tree. Through the gate, Hannah can see the round hill that rises behind the house, crowned with nine old thorn trees. This is called Fairknowe on the maps, but the locals call it the fairy hill.
Hannah’s grandmother is very old and very frail, but her mind is as sharp as ever. She tells her granddaughter that the name Hannah is a palindrome – that it is the same spelt backwards or forwards. Hannah says, “I know. My father called me that because I was born on the twenty-first of December ... a mathematically perfect date.'
'Your father liked palindromes,' Lady Wintersloe said. 'He thought they were magic. The Fair Folk are either drawn to them, or repelled by them, according to their nature. The Seelie Court love order and symmetry, but the Unseelie Court hate it and are confounded by it.'
And so Hannah learns about the Sidhe, the Scottish fairy folk, who are said to live in the hollow hills of Scotland.
Strange things begin to happen.
A toad spits up a round holey stone at hannah's feet. The castle cook Linnet tells her it is a fairy stone and will reveal things that are hidden from sight. When Hannah looks through it, the world seems different. Shadows seem to stalk her.
One stormy day, Hannah discovers the way to her father’s old room, where she finds his old diary. It is all written in code, however, and she cannot understand it. Hannah also discovers more of the history of the Curse of Wintersloe Castle, which has blighted the family and the house for centuries.
In the mid-sixteenth century, Lord Montgomery Rose of Wintersloe Castle fell in love with a fairy maiden called Eglantyne, when he saw her ride out of Fairknowe one May Day. He wooed her and won her, and she left the fairy realm to marry him, even though she was the only daughter and heir of the King of the Fair Folk.
Eglantyne was very beautiful, and Lord Montgomery was consumed with jealousy. He had a ring forged for his new wife, a puzzle ring which would fall apart when removed. Made of four bands that interlocked to make a golden rose, its secret was known only to him and the goldsmith who made it.
Regarded with suspicion by those in the castle and the village, and yearning for her homeland, Eglantyne was not happy. She had only two consolations – her dog, a white hound with red ears - and the garden where she loved to walk. In time, she made friends with the gardener’s son who loved all green and growing things, as she did.
Eglantyne had a cousin named Irata who had encouraged Eglantyne to elope with Lord Kenneth, because she wanted to become queen of the fairy realm in Eglantyne’s place. However, as long as Eglantyne lived there was the chance she may have a child who could lay claim to the throne. So Irata plotted to have Eglantyne killed, but all her schemes failed because Lord Kenneth kept his beautiful young wife so well-guarded.
So Irata killed Eglantyne’s dog, making it look like one of the villagers. Eglantyne took off her wedding ring so she could bury her dog in the garden but, not knowing the secret of the puzzle ring, she could not put the ring back on again. Weeping, she was being comforted by her friend, the gardener’s son, when her angry husband appeared. He refused to believe in her innocence, and cast her out of the house.
‘Break, break, golden ring,
like my heart, like his word,
Out, out, golden ring,
To the four corners of the world.’
The four interlocking bands of the puzzle ring broke apart, and were swept up into a whirlwind and flung in the four directions of the compass. Then Eglantyne said:
‘By fever, fire, storm and sword,
Your blood shall suffer this bane.
No joy or peace for Wintersloe's lord,
till the puzzle ring is whole again.
The thorn tree shall not bud
The green throne shall not sing
Until the child of true blood
Is crowned the rightful king.’
It was Samhain Eve. Samhain is one of the two great doorways of the Celtic year, for the year was divided into the time of darkness and the time of light. Samhain was the dark doorway, a time of danger and mystery.
Many people believed Samhain was the time when all the witches of Scotland gathered together to work black magic. And so when the cutlery folk saw the strange elfin wife of the lord, they accused of witchcraft and burnt her to death.
Ever since, there has been no true love or happiness in Wintersloe Castle. Tragedy has stalked the Rose family, and misfortune shadows everyone who lives in the valley. Some say it is because Irata still rules the fairy realm, and there will be no peace until the true king of the hollow hills is found and returned to his throne. Yet Eglantyne died, and her unborn child with her, and any attempt to find the four lost bands of the puzzle ring ends in sorrow.
Hannah realises that her father Robert had devoted his life to breaking the curse, so that he and his one true love, Hannah’s mother Roz, can have a life of happiness.
Robert believed that the fairy realm is a real place, a parallel world that touches against our world only at certain times, such as Midsummer or Halloween. He believed the gate through the hollow yew tree in the garden is a way of crossing from one realm to another and, he theorised, a way of travelling through time, since it is often recorded how time moves at a different pace in the fairy realm.
Raising that her father is lost in the past, Hannah sets out to follow him backwards in time, find the broken rings of the puzzle ring and break the curse.
And so Hannah and her friends begin an extraordinary adventure that takes them back to the perilous days of Mary, Queen of Scots, a time when princes could be murdered and queens beheaded ... and red-haired women were through to be witches ...