Beautiful Aikey Brae. Of the 150 or so recumbent stone circles in the North East of Scotland, this is my favourite.
I used to live close by and enjoyed many a summer picnic and winter stroll there. One year I watched a solar eclipse, with my children, sat right in the middle of the circle. The setting made it feel timeless and magical.
It’s mainly set in a fictional castle in Aberdeenshire.
It incorporates the 1597 Aberdeen witchcraft panic.
There’s a stone circle.
There’s 16th century Christmas.
And there’s a love story.
Isobell needs to escape. She has to. Her life depends on it.
She has a plan and it’s a well thought-out, well observed plan, to flee her privileged life in London and the cruel man who would marry her, and ruin her, and make a fresh start in Scotland.
She dreams of faery castles, surrounded by ancient woodlands and misty lochs… and maybe even romance, in the dark and haunted eyes of a mysterious Laird.
Despite the superstitious nature of the time and place, her dreams seem to be coming true, as she finds friendship and warmth, love and safety. And the chance for a new beginning…
Until the past catches up with her.
Set in the late sixteenth century, at the height of the Scottish witchcraft accusations, The Mermaid and the Bear is a story of triumph over evil, hope through adversity, faith in humankind and – above all – love.
Above: a scene from a walk in the moonlight, because I so appreciate being able to go on walks now that I can’t wait for daylight!
It’s been a strange summer. I spent much of it being ill, properly ‘can’t do anything, go anywhere, just have to sit still‘ ill. I feel changed by it. I have such huge appreciation for the good in my world now: the wonderful people I share my life with, the amazing place I live.
Seriously, there was no better place to lie around being ill than in my garden. Bats and giant dragonflies kept coming out of the pond and trees to peer at me. Tall trees rustled protectively around me. And the sun shone and shone this summer, didn’t it?
The Isle of Skye. That’s the Old Man of Storr in the hills above, a beautiful rock formation visible for miles around. The island is a place of fairies: there’s a castle and a glen and a bridge… but first, back to another rock formation, specifically the one spied from the bedroom window of our holiday house.
‘That’s an interesting rocky outcrop,’ said I to husband.
Aberdeen’s Cowdray Hall doubles as a war memorial and a venue for classical concerts. I visited it recently during a ‘Let’s do all the free museums!’ day; the marble hall is accessible via The Art Gallery.
The first serendipitous happening of the day was the haar (Scottish word for mist that rolls in off the sea) and its silvery filtering of the sunlight. Then there was the seagull that flew by as I took the photo.
Inland we travelled, to bright sunshine and summer colours and the stones of Castle Fraser. I’ve made the picture below clickable to a larger version; to the left are two standing stones and to the right, in the distance by the trees, is Balgorkar stone circle.
Clouds of mist swirled over the surface of the loch last night. An unexpectedly hot day led to unexpectedly beautiful conditions. Well, not completely unexpected, it’s always beautiful, always different.
Summer brings lush green foliage and colour to the loch*, it’s not very deep so swimming can be warm.
That glassy ‘stand and stare’ stillness can happen at any time of year. Sunsets are pink, silver or even purple. Whatever the sky is doing is intensified in reflection.
Winter is fierce. One year layer upon layer of ice and snow built up so thick that people and dogs ran about on it. It was at once surreal and yet so very real, unconnected from civilisation as it feels up there in the woods. No TV, no computers, just life and joy and fun on a natural huge flat screen among the trees.
I feel the need to go for a walk and wonder what awaits me today. A liquid mirror? Slow moving ripples? The slightest change in airflow, made visible by water. There’s blue in the sky so there will be in the loch. Maybe there’ll be swans, or an otter leaping about on the banks (happened once), a boat, a dog, an owl… Excuse me, I need to go.
* I freely admit to having overused the word ‘loch’ in this post. The word ‘lake’ is not a suitable substitute. If you don’t come from Scotland you can have no idea how very wrong that notion is. And while we’re at it, make sure you’re saying/thinking the word right. The ‘ch’ sound is like a Scottish wildcat (something I once saw up by the large expanse of water, but no one believes me) hissing in the back of your throat. There you are, got it.
I took that picture standing in my bunny pyjamas on the castle lawn with three kids, three dogs and a budgie. There was no fire or disaster, just a malfunctioning alarm, or maybe it was the ghost. Yes, let’s blame it on ghosts, ghouls and phantoms; I’m sure they were responsible for continually setting off the motion sensors in the middle of the night during my winter sojourn. But that was summer, Brodie Castlewas busy with visitors and altogether less creepy. I stayed in the property manager’s flat several times that year, looking after things for her, most efficiently as you can see.
I am fortunate to live in a place that has so many of these large historic buildings dotted about the countryside. Castles take us out of where we are; some transport us into the decadent, usually bygone, lives of rich families, while others encourage imagination to run amok in the ruins.
My earliest castle related memory is of ruinous, rambling Tolquhon:
For me it is synonymous with life getting a little bit better. Childhood took an upturn after the birth of my brother; gone were the silent Sundays when my parents read the papers and my sister and I had to be very, very quiet in our room. We went places. Fun things happened, and Tolquhon was one of them.
I do like the bee boles or ‘skeps’:
Later, with my own children, just about every castle in Northern Scotland was explored. We ran around the roof of the medieval tower of Drum (safer than it looks):
Admired the gardens at Ballindalloch, before being greeted by Lady Macpherson-Grant and her extended family, including a new grandchild in a pram, in the entrance hall.
The scariest has to be Slains Castle, not actually very old, built to look Gothic, now ruined. It’s very dangerous out there on the cliffs, someone once fell to their death, so I don’t advise visiting. It inspired Bram Stoker to write Dracula, there are plans to turn it into a theme hotel, and umm, I don’t always heed my own advice:
Great sea views:
In summary: castles, they’re great. Get out there. Visit them (the safe ones). They’re so very different from our homes (unless you live in a castle), entirely dissimilar to modern office buildings, television screens and city streets. They can be cold and damp and ancient. Sometimes they’re lavish and royal. They smell of the past. They hold stories in their old walls and can unlock them in us.
Set in a fictional castle in Aberdeenshire, Ailish Sinclair’s debut novel, THE MERMAID AND THE BEAR, blends an often overlooked period of history, the Scottish witchcraft accusations, in particular the 1597 Aberdeen witchcraft panic, with a love story.
How could I have forgotten what proper cold feels like? It pulls you up short as you realise that just breathing in the sub zero air is going to chill you, no matter how well wrapped up you are. And the dark, the days that don’t begin until half way through the morning and seem to end at 3 in the afternoon. This is the truth of December in Scotland. Even when there is only a tiny amount of snow.
I complain (this was especially evident during the five hour power cut we had last week), but I love it. It’s a time of hibernation, of books and log fires, and writing, writing, writing; no hot sun to distract and lure, only the occasional frosty bright sunrise. And that little bit of snow.
I’m also enjoying all the Christmas cookies and hot chocolate of the season, sparkly tree lights, nostalgia made real.
It’ll all be over soon. The Solstice will herald the lightening of the nights, that’s always noticeable quite quickly. But for now I appreciate the views of winter: the loch is frozen and my neighbour forgot to take in his boat, now also frozen.
And the field makes me think of chocolate cake dusted with icing sugar…
Above is a picture taken from the top of the Cairngorm Mountain, which in no way captures how windy it is up there. Loch Morlich can just be made out in the distance.
Gales aside, the mountain is always grounding. It is so huge and so solid and high. Worries recede. Ridiculous dramas can be seen for the trivial nothings that they are. And I was wearing my new, very cheerful dress:
There’s a scene with Russian dolls in my book, so I love this. Admittedly, it wasn’t the most appropriate clothing for hill walking, but I did wear sensible boots and a good coat and felt great solidarity with the man who had teamed shorts and plimsolls with a furry hat. We both attracted what I like to think were admiring looks.
Everything was serene down below by the loch, amid the sand and the trees.
It was warm enough to paddle before heading to the stone circle at Aviemore:
This circle is rather unusually situated in the middle of a housing estate, but a peaceful and energising place nonetheless. *enters tour guide mode* There are over 150 stone circles in the Grampian region, more than the rest of Britain put together, but this is the most urban one I’ve encountered. They’re more commonly nestled on the brows of hills, sometimes surrounded by trees, sometimes overlooking open countryside. *reverts to ‘woman wearing a silly dress’ mode* I have a definite ‘thing’ for them; I write about them, I kiss them, I dance round them.
Yesterday I needed to soak up the calm, to absorb it from the stones and carry it with me into the week to come. However: I’ve already made one critique partner cry; I’ve got myself into a horrible manuscript formatting tangle and I have eaten too much chocolate. And it’s only Monday…