Friday, November 27, 2015


27th November 2015

In Diana Gabaldon's lengthy Outlander series, she fairly quickly takes her protagonists Claire and Jamie out of Scotland where the story began. Gabaldon's characters journey over to America, and I suspect that's because this is where she is from and presumably feels most at ease. I'm from Scotland, and so my stories stay there (out of about nine novels, there is only one section of one novel that doesn't take place in my native land.) It belongs to my psychological make-up and so by extension to my characters'. I had moved Maggie and Fergus up to the north east of Scotland at the end of the second book, but they asked to come back to Dunadd for the finale. So, how could I stop them? That is where I feel most at ease.

Right now my protagonists are in a boat on their way down to Glasgow (or as it was and is in the Gaelic, Glaschu) to a monastery to beg dispensation for a couple of characters that have fallen into the hands of adverseries down south in London (or as it was known then, Londonwic.) So it was off to that great research institute, Google, to find out about  eighth century sailing craft, just how much technology was available at the time to build these two-masted frames of alder covered with stitched hides and sealed with grease?

(Don't underestimate how far these primitive boats could travel- in the 1970's a sailing enthusiast decided to recreate one and sailed from Ireland to Newfoundland.)
Then, I have been delving into medieval Christianity and the kinds of things that were happening in monasteries at the time, most notable of all (apart from missionary expeditions) the crafting and writing of scripts. It wasn't so easy, as the paper was vellum - sheep, calf or pig skin stretched very thin and scoured, then coated with lime. So I have been away from my manuscript, storing up on facts and figures. 
Readers like these kinds of details. People like to read and learn at the same time. They like to travel, just as long as they can stay at home while they are doing it. 

Friday, November 20, 2015

The Salieri Complex

20th November 2015

There ought to be an award for British playwright Peter Shaffer for just being so damn profound: The Scriptor Profundus Literary Award. Shaffer asks grown-up questions like: What is the true nature of passion? And then we've all seen the movie Amadeus with Tom Hulce as Mozart - flashy and visually gorgeous, but listen carefully to what Shaffer is asking: what's the relationship between the artist and art?
We are a culture that needs its heroes.  We make them sometimes out of thin air (cf any Kardashian and in a similar vein Trump)  In the case of art, we want the vessel to equal the wine. But that is rarely the case, and the opposite is often true.
To take a trivial example: Bing Crosby, crooner and Hollywood good guy, was a monster at home: two of his sons referred to him as authoritarian and committed suicide; he courted Grace Kelly while his first wife was dying of cancer; he threatened to kick his daughter out if she had pre-marital sex. But the impulse is to believe in the myth, to just keep singing White Christmas.
Salieri in Amadeus has a similar problem with Mozart: How could God plant such divine music in the heart of a buffoon?

Closer to home, I just found out that Laurie Lee, writer of Cider With Rosie, the kind of book that I want to curl into and re-read until I drop out of its pages by force of gravity, was abusive on the home front, too. His daughter recently recounted how she had to go into psychotherapy over his controlling parenting. Cider with Rosie used to be put into the hands of all teenagers in the British school system as an example of sheer beautiful descriptive writing. And it's all about his memories of home: his knuckle-headed mother, their topsy turvy house and the seasons of the lucious Cotswold countryside he grew up in.
There's my hero Steinbeck, too. Fascinated as I am by his life - Monterey and all that - I have to admit that the man should never have had children.
So, because Shaffer just won the profound man of the year contest, let's remind ourselves of his conclusion in Amadeus: you shouldn't confuse the wine with the vessel.

Appreciate the art for what it is - a gift from the gods. Truth is, the gods don't seem to care that much about the nature of the vessel they dispense their elixir into. Just be glad they see fit from time to time to pour a little into each of our all-too-human cups.

Friday, November 13, 2015

Me, Myself and the Lampost

13th November 2015

I was on the phone with my agent this week. Agents are busy people, something that we earthlings mired in our own worlds don't always appreciate. He had just got back from the Frankfurt Book Fair, and he talked to me in between a conference call with Australia and another with England. He has over twenty clients and manages the literary estate of Louisa May Alcott, so my fifteen minutes were precious and we got a lot done: I was anxious to talk to him about some Scottish publishers I had discovered, because he has been reading (on his way to Frankfurt) my latest book (nothing to do with the Veil Of Time series - no time travel, no ancient past, just Scotland as usual); he thinks it's ready to go out into the world, and so he will put together a list of prospective publishers. We both agree that Scotland is really where my writing belongs. I am excited because that is also where I belong, and perhaps this will get me back there.

                                                  Kathryn Robertson

Blades of frozen grass poke out of the five inches of snow that have fallen during the  frigid night. Colorado is about to enter its Narnia phase, an analogy I fall back on every year at this time, though it doesn't run very far. No Snow Queen - unless it's me. No lion - unless I am it. No innocence of children - unless that is my role, too. The sages say we create our own reality. We are the movie we choose to watch as well as the screen and the projector.

In Narnia terms, we are also the lamp post, the light and hope that already live within us. Outside my  study window a sparrow picks at an apple still clinging to the frozen tree. The thermometer says it is only eight degrees Fahrenheit. The little bird's cocktail-stick legs must be numb. She endures the cold and the frozen apple because that's what's on offer this morning. No questions asked. As far as I can tell, that's the only way forward -- step into the wardrobe and then step out on the other side. Somewhere out there in the snow shines a lamp post, so just keep moving towards the light.

Friday, November 6, 2015

Veil of the Pagan

Last Saturday on halloween,  TV evangelist Pat Robertson rolled out his annual warning that this festival, despite all appearances, is actually a ruse of satan. The holiday has to belong to satan, the thinking goes, because it's pagan. Good God, what was the point in burning all those hundreds of thousands of witches if these pagan rites were to continue? Put away your costumes, lock your doors; chain up your daughters!
Pat Robertson would also think Native American holy days are satanic. Or anything else not instigated by to the church fathers. In fact nothing but boys' choirs, kneeling sinners and flesh-eating supplicants are permitted.
But the root of this evangelical thinking is sheer intolerance.  Of course, say the evangelicals - we worship a jealous god. Somehow they have circumvented the teaching of the Christ they profess to venerate, that mountain, lake and field preacher who taught love and tolerance above all else. They have cherry picked the scriptures that foster paranoia and ignored the gospel that is "good news."

Looks like a Colorado Christmas to me!

Truth is that any monument to Christianity you can name, down to Westminster Abbey, and including the sacred Isle of Iona, was built on a pagan site. In Scotland the church is called The Kirk (from circle) because churches were inevitably built on scared pagan circles. The yew trees that often line Christian garveyards are the actual trees left over from the pagans who venerated the yew as a symbol of eternity. If you think the early Christians were putting up Christmas trees in Judea and bringing in mistletoe and greenery to decorate their houses, or rolling eggs down the hill at Easter, think again. These are some of the completely benign pagan customs that survived the Christian onslaught.
Candlemas was a feeble attempt to co-opt the pagan celebration of Imbolc which marks the beginning of spring. Christmas, Hannukah, all hark back to pagan celebrations of the winter solstice. Such sin!

So, Halloween. All Hallows Eve. All saints. No, it's the end of the Celtic Year, Samhain. A time when the thin veil between what we know and what we only think we know grows thin (a fitting meditation for evangelicals of all stripes.) It celebrates the grey area between life and death. It is in Spanish pagan terms the day of the dead. Dias de los Muertos. Pagan. And it's fine. Get thee behind us, Pat Robertson.

Friday, October 30, 2015

A Harsh Mistress

October 30th 2015

The moon floats in that region where music and poetry lie, almost more a presence than a physical entity. No matter that our generation casts the umbrella of science over it and deems it just a piece of earth thrown into the abyss but caught in our planet's gravity. In fact, perhaps that's why we identify with it so much - it's the same force of attraction anchoring our feet to the surface of this spinning ball we call home.  Most definitely female this mystical orb in the night sky, unless you're german, for which Der Mond stays resolutely masculine and creates a whole different mentality with it. La Luna. What else could she be? In English, we took the German word and gave it a sex change. The moon is she, a harsh mistress, as the song goes.

And she floats through the world's literature in the same eerie way she moves through the heavens.
King David of the Psalms called the moon "the faithful witness in the sky." In ancient Hindu literature, Shiva and his consort Parvati wear the moon on their foreheads because they are beyond the sphere of time. In Europe, the moon was almost always equated with the goddess (even the Germans had Frigga of the Full Moon) until she got kicked out of the sky by the old man...

And so it goes into modern literature. Yeats was rather obssessed by it (Blood and the Moon, Cat and the moon.) And this from Sylvia Plath's poem "The Moon and the Yew Tree":  

This is the light of the mind, cold and planetary. 
The trees of the mind are black. The light is blue.

Our bodies are sixty percent water - seventy-three percent in the case of the brain and the heart. The moon affects the tides, so how could it do otherwise than exert itself on our watery lives? Of course, women already know this. Men have to learn it. We are creatures of the moon. Lunatics, all.

Friday, October 23, 2015

Isle of the Druids

October 23rd 2015

In my research for book three of my Veil Of Time series, I have been looking into the island of Iona.  Iona is much closer to where I grew up in Argyll than the Isle of St. Kilda I was talking about last week. In fact, I have been to Iona several times. Not only is it a beautiful little island built on some of oldest rock on the planet, but it has a very long history and, with its impressive monastery, might even be considered to be a sort of centre of Christianity. For it was from here that St. Columba, who had come over from Ireland, built the first monastery and started sending out monks to convert the heathen land of Scotland and beyond.

Apparently, he even converted the heathen Loch Ness monster. (No wonder the poor animal has been in hiding ever since!)
But if you scratch a little beneath the surface, a different island of Iona emerges. This is one that goes back to the original meaning of the name Iona, Ioua, which means Yew tree. Now the yew tree was a significant symbol of pre-Christian religion, namely Celtic paganism. Yew groves were highly sacred, because the yew tree can last for thousands of years and must have seemed to possess a certain eternal quality. Many grave yards in Scotland today are still surrounded by the ancient yew trees that marked these spots in the long centuries before the church staked a claim on them.

Iona was in fact a sacred site to the pagans long before it came under the aegis of the Roman church. In fact, another name it went by is Innis nam Druidneach, Island of the Druids. It was here that kings and queens and notable people of Scotland were buried facing the setting sun which for the Pagans symbolised death and resurrection. Another such island was the Holy Isle off Anglesey in Wales, to which the Romans chased the druids and druidesses of early Briton and slaughtered them to a man/woman.
There are no yew trees on Iona now. There are no Pagans either. Christianity, at least Roman Christianity has had an irrational fear of the pagan from the start, and has done enormous damage to the human psyche in the process.
Some New-Age pagans believe that Iona is a geomantic power site - a vortex. I don't know about that. All I know is that Iona is a powerful place in my imagination and a vortex around which, one way or another, my story called Dark Matter is going to revolve.

Friday, October 16, 2015

At Sea - The Island of Hirta

16th October 2015

For an author, the process of being drawn into a story can be creeping and creepy. Ever since I heard of the island of Saint Kilda, or Hirta as it was known to the natives, I have had a growing pull towards the place.

To sail out to Hirta, first you have to get out to the island of Harris, which is already forty miles from the mainland of north western Scotland. And then you have to sort of hang about the port of Leverburgh, hoping that in your two-day window for sailing, the weather is going to behave enough that you can board the small ferry to cross another sixty miles of sea and disembark into a dinghy with the swell around these far-flung islands threatening to add you to its list of casualties.
From pre-history until 1930 Hirta was occupied by a hardy bunch of Gaelic speakers. The island was  cut off for nine months of the year, and the islanders spent the only fair months hunting seabirds on the treacherous cliffs. Hirta was owned by the MacLeod toffs, who would show up once a year and demand reels of tweed, feathers, fulmar oil for the privilege of living on MacLeod land.  No wonder that the population declined until the community couldn't support itself (besides, the Royal Navy had its eye on the place.)

In 1930 Hirta was evacuated.

These people in 1930 look like they hail from centuries earlier. They had never seen a tree and they kept pieces of drift wood as treasure. This story of Hirta is treasure itself for any author, and I want to go there in the worst way.  I did get the island into my first published novel Veil Of Time by positing my protagonist's childhood care-giver as the last bride to be married there.
But I want to set foot on the island with its shells of houses along the one semi-circle of a street by the shore. I want to stand still and listen, and then perhaps they will talk to me, those voices that somehow get caught in moments, the voices of a sea people who lived out their solitary lives in concert with the waves and the cry of sea birds.