The Writing of The Bonnie Road
The year is 1979, St. Andrews, Scotland. Margaret Thatcher has just come to power, and huge changes are afoot. An American widow, Rosalind Ehrhart, has been summoned to her uncle’s death bed. She has left a marital tragedy in California to fulfill the dying man's wishes, but is quickly plunged into the tumultuous world of family friends and town eccentrics. She finds herself drawn to a talented Scottish archaeologist, Angus Macleod, bitter at having lost his job at the University, but whose accidental discovery of something completely unexpected in a prehistoric site catapults him to fame. Despite herself, Rosalind is also caught up in the inextricable web of dark mischief spun by Morag Gilbride, hereditary Scots witch and trickster (whose pranks tend to backfire) and whose own private feuds gather like storm clouds on the horizon. Set in the town’s fishing and university communities, The Bonnie Road draws on a dark pagan undercurrent, spinning together mythology, archaeology, magic and love, laying out the path of transcendent self-discovery. As the story builds to a shocking climax, Rosalind must choose the life she most desires, even at the cost of everything she once believed in.
So many threads are collected in the years preceding the first draft of a novel. Perhaps the most important one happened in 1986. My daughter had just been born in Edinburgh (we lived in the Scottish Borders, Heriot, in the gatehouse to Borthwick Hall), and my mother was visiting from the States to help out. The three of us took a day trip to a nearby 15th Century Tower House called Smailholm. We arrived to find there was not another soul there. Upon entering the tower, we discovered large displays of puppet-like figures depicting vignettes from the Scottish Border Ballads. I’d long since fallen in love with traditional Scottish music, and was familiar with every ballad there. I adored the scene from Thomas Rymer, of the Queen of Fair Elfland on her milk-white steed appearing to Thomas as he rested in the Eildon Hills, knowing, of course, as I did, what a frightening and glorious destiny lay in store for Thomas down that “Fernie Brae.”
I began to wonder what form a contemporary version The Ballad of Thomas Rymer might take. I decided to place the novel’s protagonist Rosalind in Thomas’ role, having to choose between the three roads the Fairy Queen presents. They are the narrow road of righteousness; the broad road to wickedness; and the bonnie road to fair Elfland. In the tradition of the mystically–based Western Mysteries, of the Quest and the Trials and the Revelations, much dances just below the surface of our expectations and knowledge, waiting to be revealed in its time. This is where the clash and resolution of drama plays out, where the stakes are very high, and one's destiny can turn in an instant.
And then, there’s Scotland, the land and the people. Scotland’s wild and ancient landscape acts as a catalyst on every character in the novel. The transporting beauty of land, sea, and sky; and the history, archaeology, and customs are every bit as important to the story as character or plot. Scotland boasts an unusually large number of sites associated with folklorish mystery and magic, liminal places that contain pre-Christian elements of animism and resident spirits and deities of a uniquely Scottish persuasion. Many are the mountains in the West named for the most ancient Scottish Goddess, older than even her name, the Cailleach Bheur. Her presence infuses her land, and inspired the climactic episode in The Bonnie Road, taking place during the old Celtic Fire Festival of Samhuinn in the Highlands.