Where Stories Come From: Caithness Lore and Legend

If you were reading last week, you’ll know that I’m soon to publish my first novel, a Young Adult fantasy inspired by the folklore of my home county, Caithness. I’ll be sharing more details on the story soon, but for now, I wanted to share a little on why I was inspired to write the book. I often find myself wondering what prompted an author to write a particular novel, and where the spark of inspiration came from. In my case, the story started way back in High School, when I was involved in a book called Caithness: Lore and Legend.

Little did I know then, the impact that book would have upon my life.

Caithness: Lore and Legend – a collection of well-known folk tales from the Caithness area – was written by local author Donald Omand, the husband of my (then) secondary school English teacher. Mr. Omand was looking for someone to provide line illustrations for his collection, and thanks to an introduction from his wife, I ended up being the person to fulfil that role. At the time, I was quite interested in both English and Art – although I still think Mr. Omand was rather generous in allowing my amateur drawings in his publication. Aside from the drawings, though, the stories Donald told of fairies, mermaids, selkies* and other-worldly beings ignited a spark of interest in me.

And from that day on, that interest never went away.

*selkies (or silkies) are seal-folk who shed their skins to take human form on land

Caithness Lore and Legend by Donald Omand
Caithness: Lore and Legend by the late Donald Omand (the cover illustration was produced by another artist).

Fast forward nearly thirty years or so, and I came across my copy of the book in our attic. Actually, it wasn’t quite as romantic as that – initially I thought I had lost the book, and asked to borrow a copy from the wife of Donald’s son. After refreshing myself on the contents, I returned the borrowed book, and mounted a full-scale search of our property, which (thankfully) resulted in the unearthing of my own copy. All those years later, I found myself as enthralled as ever by tales like the Piper of Windy ‘Ha and other accounts of unsuspecting humans being carried off to Fairyland (don’t worry if you don’t know these stories, because if you’re interested, you can find out about them in my book!)

Caithness Lore and Legend illustrations
One of my drawings in a section on local witchcraft.
Caithness Lore and Legend fairy illustrations
Fairy folklore (I refer to fairies as ‘faeries’ or ‘fae’ in my own book, mainly to differentiate from the type of fairies commonly associated with ‘fairytales’ these days).
Caithness Lore and Legend fairy drawing
My youthful visions of winged fairies were probably inaccurate. According to the text ‘Scottish Fairy Belief’ by Lizanne Henderson and Edward J. Cowan there is no evidence that fairies were any different in size or appearance to humans. It is also possible that they could have appeared in different shapes and forms.

I wanted to find a way of bringing these folk tales to a modern, younger audience. I was saddened by the way the fables of the North Highlands had effectively died out. Folk tales, once so integral to the language of our ancestors, now had fewer and fewer ways to make themselves relevant in the world around us. Yet belief in the ‘fairy world’ was once as acceptable to Highlanders as the natural belief that the sky hangs above our heads.

And so I set about formulating a story, about a girl, and her Grandfather, and the stories he told her – stories that would later prove useful when she found herself somewhere unfamiliar. This allowed me to wrap a bigger story around a series of folk tales (admittedly, I have taken a few liberties with the stories to bend them to the necessities of my plot). In a confusing present, the past, I think, reminds us of who we once were, and the stories that still reside within us. As the past slides further away from us, this book is something of a love letter to my ancestors – a sort of hope that their Highland language is not allowed to die.

If you’d like to keep up to date with details of the book and its publication date, please sign up to my mailing list at the end of this article (I promise – no spamming!) I’m already working on a sequel to the novel, so I hope it’s a story a few people out there might enjoy. If you like things like Outlander, the A Court of Thorns and Roses series or the TV show Once Upon A Time, I think you might find it entertaining.

I’ll leave you with one of my favourite quotes from writer Neil Gaiman:

Fairy tales are more than true: not because they tell us that dragons exist, but because they tell us that dragons can be beaten.

Now more than ever, perhaps, we all need to believe in exactly that.

Gx

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