Today, I have the pleasure of interviewing Sheila Currie, author of The Banshee of Castle Muirn.
Hi, Sheila. I thoroughly enjoyed your debut novel, The Banshee of Castle Muirn. What a beautiful story. It has some surprising elements in it. I know, from taking several of your online workshops, that you are particularly well-equipped to write about medieval Scotland. Won’t you tell us readers a little about your education and background? Why did you choose to study medieval history and languages?
I wanted to find out about my ancestors who came from Scotland and Ireland. Also I’ve studied and taught the medieval and early modern periods, and find it very interesting to find out why things are as they are.
And now, before I start with my many questions, won’t you please tell us a little about the book?
The book is about a Highland girl, who understands it is her duty to marry a Campbell gentleman. Not unusual in the Highlands. It keeps the dowry in the clan. But she finds out that her prospective suitor has a need for her dowry and a taste for cruelty. She could become a banshee, a powerful fairy, or she could ask a MacDonald for help. But he is a member of a clan who are their traditional enemies. What to do? Should she choose magic or love?
I was fascinated by the many historical details and the generous sprinkling of Gaelic throughout the book. From my experience with Scottish romances and stories, the amount of Gaelic you incorporate into yours is fairly astounding. Along with the scenic descriptions, it helps immerse the reader in the story. I could see myself there, in that place and time. What made you decide to use so much of the ancient language?
Gaelic or Gàidhlig is the language of my ancestors. In fact I’m not sure how much English my father’s family spoke when they came to Canada. I made the effort to learn more about the language and have a degree in Scottish history and Celtic Studies. So I have some idea of how my ancestors lived and why they emigrated.
I love to read Gaelic poetry. I just bought The Highest Apple / An ubhal as àirde which is a excellent book for learning about Gaelic Scotland: history, poetry, the Gaelic church from 600 to the present.
As for history – I think this question belongs here -- why did you make brave, handsome Alasdair a drover? I’ve never read a Scottish romance with a drover as the hero. Why didn’t you make him a laird?
The hero is a MacDonald, whose territories were confiscated by King James IV. He wants to earn money to buy land. For now these MacDonalds are tenants although he is a duine uasal, a gentleman or nobleman. In Gaelic terms there is no difference between a noble and a gentleman. If you’re descended from kings and chiefs, you’re noble. An Englishman in the 18th century was horrified that ‘a creature of the name of MacDonald’ considered himself the equal of an English gentleman worth several thousand pounds per annum.
In the Lowlands and England nobility is conferred by feudal titles: baron, earl, marquis or duke. When a title is granted, you can assume the grantee is wealthy and possesses land. No land, no feudal title.
Shona is, of course, a heroine through and through. Did you know she would be a banshee from the beginning, when you first started writing the story? Why or why not? Did medieval Scots really believe that banshees were magical? Were they loved, feared, considered evil?
I had thought of a short story where the heroine pretends to be a banshee by sitting on a rock in the moonlight calmly combing her hair. Any man, who finds a woman like that at night, won’t touch or molest her because he’ll think she is a banshee.
Banshee comes from Gàidhlig ban-sìth meaning woman fairy, a powerful fairy.
Banshees protect women. Scots, especially those in the Highlands, the Gaelic-speaking regions, or those on the periphery believed in fairies of all kinds. They weren’t considered evil, but fairies were believed to possess magical powers and they were tricky. They were treated with respect, but they weren’t loved. Some were feared. My heroine doesn’t care to become a banshee because she is a social being and wants to be liked. Banshees don’t cause death, but they foretell it because they can see into the future.
The element of magic in the story really took me by surprise. I love it. It makes the story all the more interesting without overwhelming it. But why would a historian use magic as a literary device? In your opinion, do the writers of history books give magic and/or the belief in magic enough attention?
I think I’ve used magic as means of making a comment about society. The banshee stands for a woman with a ‘job’ outside the home. Potentially a position of power. Can she be a banshee and a wife? Can she only save friends and clan with magic?
Now, we’re waiting for the sequel, which promises even more drama, history, and magic. Can you tell us a little about The Banshee of Ben Caledon?
The Banshee of Ben Caledon is the story of a cattle drove from Castle Muirn in the Highlands to Edinburgh in the Lowlands. My heroine pretends to be a herd boy and has to learn to manage cattle quickly. She must reach Edinburgh to warn her father about a conspiracy against the king. The climax takes place on Ben Caledon, that is, the mountain of Caledonia. An old and spooky place in my novel.
So exciting! Before we go, I’d like to mention your online courses. They are so good. You are generous with your time throughout each course and you offer many excellent resources. Are there any upcoming classes we should know about?
I’m preparing to teach Ancient Celts in April and Medieval Castles in July 2020. The courses are sponsored by Hearts through History Romance Writers.
Thank you, Sheila, for sharing your time with us. I look forward to reading and posting about The Banshee of Ben Caledon. Thank you, also, for sharing a sneak peek, which follows.
The Banshee of Ben Caledon
Scottish Highlands September 1638
Thomas Connington, the man who murdered her uncle, was only a few miles away in Gleann Muirn. Already he might be in the hills searching for her. Shona Campbell’s breath quickened and she wanted to bound away as though he pursued her like a wolf after the red deer.
Every leap over a stream. Every stride through tall grasses. Every step took her farther from marriage to the murdering man. Ahead was Edinburgh, where her father was in danger from plots against the king. Plots formed with Conninton’s guiding hand in the Lowlands, his home.
Light glinted off the grey loch in the weak sun of late autumn. She tramped after the MacDonald cattle, the herd boys round her matching her pace as if they walked from guardhouse door to castle keep. They barely glanced at the hillsides. Their faces showed no concern for raiders. No wolves prowled their dreams.
The cattle before her swayed like moored galleys, bumping and parting. And getting nowhere. One of the boys had cut her a withy, a switch from a willow tree, and she flicked it above the cattle. Come on, come on, hurry up. But neither boy or beast sped down the drove road to Edinburgh.
The cattle slowed at a wide expanse of frosty grass by a river. A drover turned his pony toward the boys at the back of the herd. Alasdair perhaps. A light feeling bubbled up into her chest. Surely he’d find a way for the two of them to talk.
They had almost become lovers at the beginning of the drove. She hoped for more at the end. However, a condition of taking her on the drove was that she go disguised as a boy, not as a gentlewoman of Clan Campbell. She was safer hidden among the MacDonald herd boys.
The drover came straight to them.
Not Alasdair. The lightness in her heart turned heavy.
He spoke to the newest herd boys, Finlay and herself. “Stop pushing the animals forward. We stay here long enough for water and grazing. As short a time as possible. Alasdair wants us to travel fifteen miles again today.” His voice suggested he thought it a bad idea.
Alasdair must be forcing the cattle to go farther to put distance between her and Connington. To protect her. On a good horse Connington could catch up to the slow-moving herd in two days.
“You watch that none head back up the road home. Or the cattle won’t be the only ones to feel my withy.” His eyes pinned her like a rabbit in a snare. A prickling crept up her back and lifted the hair on her neck. Surely he didn’t know this herd boy was a woman. He was making sure she did the job.
She breathed faster. Calm yourself. Speak to the drover as if you had a right to be here. But her throat tightened. “We’re not stopping yet surely. We’ve hardly gone any distance at all.”
Annoyance flickered in his eyes. “You mind yourself. Push the cattle to the water. Now. You’ll soon change your tune about moving on quickly.” Then he said with a cocked head, a hand on his hip and all the disdain of a lord before his tenantry. “What was your name again?”
“I am Sheathan.” She still wasn’t used to the boy’s name she had chosen for herself. Still not a part of her. Still as foreign as these MacDonalds with whom she walked.
“You need not say it. We all know who you are. A Campbell.”
Ah, but you don’t know me. You don’t know what injury I could cause you. But she would not use her banshee powers because she could not control them. Never again would she use that power. Never.
Instead she’d tolerate slights from the MacDonalds. Her safety depended on their behaving as they usually did--bored on a journey they had taken many times before. She was well-disguised. So she hoped.
Be like the flower, turn your face to the sun. – Gibran Khalil Gibran