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History Buff is a site
for history lovers everywhere. It is also a site very interested in women
of the past. Although I (sadly) no longer have time to continue these interviews, here is an archive of Q&As about women's lives
in history. And please feel free to stop by History Buff's
sister site for archaeological discoveries making news today. Enjoy!
historical fiction writer I am fascinated by news stories featuring the
past as it's unearthed and reimagined and brought to life. I spend a
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Friday, July 20, 2007
Q&A With Historical Romance Author Deborah MacGillivray
* Why did you choose to set your novel A RESTLESS NIGHT in 13th century Scotland?
I spent twenty years helping my grandfather, a retired British Historian, sort, restore and rewrite the history of our family in Scotland and England. That is where I came across the basis for my historical novel, A RESTLESS KNIGHT, set in the year before the rising of William Wallace. I was working on pages for the history of my family in the late 1200s, and thought it a perfect story for a marvelous Historical Romance.
I used to get stories of Robert the Bruce, William Wallace, Andrew de Moray and Sir James Douglas as bedtime tales from him, instead of the usual faerytales. It wasn't until I was about nine, that I understood these weren't family members! The period is one I am comfortable with, so I guess my fascination with the family story took root and possessed me.
* How much of your protagonist's life is based in fact and how much is fiction?
It's hard to set a precise percentage. There was an English Knight who did claim a lady in our family. However, so many records of this period were destroyed by Edward Longshanks in his campaign to bring the Scots under his fist. He actually took all the Scottish Regalia, the Stone of Destiny (only recently returned•so they say), and sent wagonloads of records of the Scots South to England. Nearly all these records just are not there today. It cripples efforts to really root out fact from fiction. Add in centuries of lost, ruined or destroyed documents...it’s often very frustrating trying to solve the riddles.
I was working from a story that was being translated by my grandfather, which was written down by another ancestor back in the 18th century, who copied it from another document to preserve it, who copied it from "tales" spoken around fireside. I spent several years trying to prove as much as I could. Then I finally stopped. The document, real history or just a fictional account•even exaggerated a bit•was still in and of itself something very special.
I understood the fascination of the tale•two cultures, Pagan and Christian clashing, two manners of life Scot and English•well, it just had all the elements you need to make a super story. It obsessed my mind to the point I just had to write my version. The actual tale was stronger, darker and much longer, but as a new writer I knew it would never be published in that form. They just do not publish historical sagas of the 500-600 page range anymore. Someday I will see it in print for collectors interested in the story in its less kind, less politically correct form.
* Tell us something surprising about the women of 13th century Scotland.
The women of the Highland clans were different from the Lowland clans. The lower country clans were often as much Norman or English as they were Scot. They spoke, dressed and affected many of the courtly manners of the English, even spoke their language, which was French. Many possibly were losing their Gaelic or had lost it completely. This saw the females’ rights and freedoms (or lack of them) stemming from English laws and rules.
The women of the Highland clans were different. They still kept their maiden names. This proves troublesome to people researching their family trees today. When Mary Ogilvie wed John Macgillivray...she didn't become Mary Macgillivray, but remained Mary Ogilvie her whole life. This is often (including in my own books) not reflected in female character names. You would have to stop the story and explain to people unfamiliar with this why anomaly exists within your novel. Halting your story is a big No No, so for expediency your editor will want you to work within the perimeters of what readers know and understand. It's okay to feed them history in small bites, but don't stop your Historical Romance to give a History lesson. If people want history, they will read a history book. Another quirk, it is incorrect to call a woman Mary MacIain. Mac means 'son of', so a name like MacIain means 'son of Iain'. Well, a female is not a son of anyone! She is a daughter. So the proper female name would be Mary nic Iain. Again, you won't often see this form of female name used in Scottish Historical Romances. Originally, Tamlyn MacShane was Tamlyn nic Shane. My editor suggested the change to the familiar.
The women of the Highlands, for a large part, were descended from the ancient race we now call the Picts. They were one of the few matriarchal societies that have existed in the world. Women could marry more than once•meaning they practiced polyandry, similar to polygamy only it was 'her turn'. In truth, this was a very viable situation•if all parties got along. One man stayed and protected the fortress and her, another would farm and a third would hunt. Of course, men being men, they had to go ruin all this! Women could own land, held titles in their own right, could divorce their husband and all dowries were paid to them directly over a period of years so that if she divorced a man she generally left him broke! Right of Line would pass through the distaff side, making for a stronger king. Instead of father-to-son, titles and rule passed through her blood. Any male•son, brother, uncle or father•could be considered for head of the clan.
Many of these rights survive even today. Scotland has always had divorce for females, while Ireland and England did not.
* Often, historical romance writers will choose to tell the story of an extraordinary heroine who defied the conventions of her time. In medieval Scotland, what was the *average* woman’s life like?
The average woman had it very hard. It was feudal times. Women were born to the land. Most were born, lived and died within the same smallholding; few ever traveled more than 50 miles from their homes in their whole lifetime. Sickness, disease, and childbirth took their toll. Frequently, food supplies were not plentiful. In Scotland they learnt to eat seaweed and the root of silverweed in hard times. What medieval knowledge was passed from healer-to-healer. Most had few choices in marriage. You could be given in marriage without love or choice. You had to get the lord’s permission to marry. They rose before daylight and labored until dark. During the bleak winter months, if they were lucky to have livestock, you shared your small home with the animals! They had to cook, weave, sew, make candles, and try to prepare food for saving. Even the strongest woman would be worn down by this constant grind. It was a grim life, likely why we write about Ladies highborn. Their lives were hard enough, but there was a bit more hope to their existence.
* There is a sequel to A RESTLESS NIGHT called IN HER BED that has just been released. Both books feature proud Scottish heroines. In what ways are Tamlyn MacShane and Lady Aithinne Ogilvie distinctive of their time (13th century) and country (Scotland)?
In the women of Glen Shane and Glen Eallach I drew on their Pictish roots. I have them granted a charter by Malcolm Canmore affirming their right to rule in the ancient Pict ways. The holdings of Tamlyn's Glenrogha and Aithinne's Coinnleir Wood are lands and titles that have passed through to them from their mothers. The charter upholds their right to pick their own husbands. These were women of ancient Scots blood, who held titles and lands, and no man could tell them what to do. They were steeped in the Ways of Auld. Yes, Christianity was making great inroads during this period, but the Highlands also clung to ancient beliefs.
I wanted these women to reflect this reverence of the older Scotland. It provides the conflict that drives the whole series. Here were these women of Ogilvie blood, who are used to ruling in their own manner, suddenly faced with the cultural conflict of having arrogant English lords imposing their will upon them, their Christian piety.
While this puts me in the unique category of writing Scottish Historicals with the heroes not in kilts, I wanted to draw on the lesser used elements of the history and pocket lore of this fascinating period.
Thank you Deborah! And feel free to visit Deborah MacGillivray online for more information about her novel A Restless Knight and its fabulous sequel In Her Bed.