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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


THE PUZZLE RING: A Story of Curses, Castles, Fairy Folk & Mary, Queen of Scots

Friday, October 30, 2015

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. 

Eglantyne cried:
‘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 ...

You can buy THE PUZZLE RING at Booktopia, Dymocks, Collins, Angus & Robertson Bookworld, or read it on your Kindle

LETTER FROM A FAN: How you saved my life

Tuesday, August 27, 2013

Every now and again I get an email or letter from one of my readers that reminds me why it is writing is so important to me - and to others. I'd like to share this  email about my novel The Puzzle Ring with you.

Hi Kate,

My name is Emily. I honestly cannot express the importance of the role you have played in my life so far. Your book, The Puzzle Ring, is a book I read as a young child - it honestly has changed my life, and I'll tell you why. 

From a very, very young age, I loved books and adventures, and often visited my town's library. I read many books as a child, but there was one book in particular that I happened to pick up from the library. I couldn't put said book down, and this book was THE book that led me to writing my first story. After returning the book, I kept writing and I soon discovered that writing was what I wanted to do with my life. It became my passion, a passion lasting to this day and forevermore. 

Unfortunately, after returning the book, I forgot what it was called, who it was written by and even what it was about. I was just beginning school at this time so everything left my mind as I cleared it to start learning what was necessary to learn. During my primary school years I was outcast and bullied relentlessly, and could often be found curled up on the floor of my room staring at the calendar and wishing the days would move faster. 

Sadly, they didn't, but somehow I made it through the dreadful years and reached high school. If I was under the impression that things were going to get better here, it didn't last for long as the bullying continued and other things began to change. The one true friend I had gained during primary school got cancer and I sunk into an unbreakable depression. I hated everyone, including myself, and found new ways to deal with unhappiness; I injured myself and almost committed suicide. 

But I had a purpose to my life; writing. I vowed, after reading the aforementioned special book and discovering writing, that I had to write a book before I died, and that vow, that dream and that book - your book - saved my life that day. A little while after that incident I visited the library (as I did regularly) and was walking down the children's aisle when I picked out a book. The Puzzle Ring, it was called. Suddenly, I remembered everything; the special book I had read as a child that had shown me my passion and saved my life, this was it, this was the book! I shed a tear or two right there in that aisle, which gained me a few odd stares and mutterings, but I didn't care - I HAD FOUND THE BOOK! 

This book is sitting on my desk in front of me right now as I write to you. I suppose the purpose of this email is to say thank you, thank you, thank you. I I hope you realise how you have affected my life, how you have saved it. Thank you, sincerely, thank you Kate Forsyth. I owe my life to you.

Thank you so much, Emily, for writing to me and letting me know - your email moved me to tears. I'm so very glad that The Puzzle Ring inspired you to want to be a writer, as the books that I read when I was a child inspired me, and I am so glad that your longing to write, your compulsion to write, helped save you. 

Maybe one day a book that you write will be a source of strength and consolation to somebody else in trouble - and so I shall have passed on the torch to you, and you shall pass it on to someone else, and we shall be part of a chain of storytellers stretching back into the darkness of the unknown past, all of us passing on all that we have learned about compassion and courage and wisdom and endurance - from our lives and from the stories we have shared. 

If you loved this email, you may also like this earlier letter from a reader: How Books can Change A Life 


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