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Magic and Mysticism in 17th century SCOTLAND with Nancy Hayes Kilgore

11th September 2021

#TalkingLocationWith...Nancy Hayes Kilgore, author of Bitter Magic, set in 17th Century Scotland.

I’m on the train from Glasgow to Inverness, on my way to the region where my historical novel takes place. As I gaze at the landscape, the noise and stress of getting here begin to fade. Out there is a vast silence. A Scottish landscape of fields and moors flecked with heather and gorse and rolling away to the mountains in the distance. In the sky above, a universe of clouds bearing down on the land.

For the past two years, I’ve researched and written several drafts of Bitter Magic, a novel inspired by the famous witchcraft confession of Isobel Gowdie in 1662. I’ve imagined the castles, the fields of flax and rye, and this land bordering the North Sea, and now I want to see and feel it firsthand.

Suddenly outside my window a bird wheels and alights on a hillock. A crow.

Isobel Gowdie was a “cunning woman” who practiced magic and claimed she could turn herself into an animal – a cat, a hare, a crow. Could this crow be Isobel? Is this a sign for me?  Now that I’m in the land of legend and folklore, its magic and mysticism seem to be seeping into my consciousness.

“I shall go into a hare” from Isobel’s 1662 confession.

In Nairn, I visit castles and churches, but my most passionate desire is to see the Downie Hill, a sacred spot that is central to Isobel’s story. This is the place where Isobel claimed she met the fairies. The fairies would bring her inside the mound, and there she would meet the fairy queen and see the elves “wighting” and “dighting” – fashioning their elf arrows..

After studying the Ordnance Survey map, I drive round and round the country roads, searching for the “Downie Wood.” I almost give up, but all of a sudden, I spy, across a wide expanse of field and hidden behind a thicket of trees, an enormous mound. A mound-shaped hill thrusting up out of the flat land that I would have missed if the sun hadn’t been shining directly on it.]

Morag in Scotland

When I tell Morag, my new friend and AirB&B host, about my search, she’s eager to join in on the mystery hunt, and on this sunny July day we set out in her little sports car with the top down. We stop at a roadside lay-by at the Downie Wood and begin to hike the path leading in. Now we can see the hill, but the terrain is uneven and covered with six-foot ferns. This, I learn, is bracken. I frown at the prospect of forging through all of that, but Morag, a more intrepid hiker than I, takes the lead and I follow her, pushing aside the brush and ferns. At the top the bracken is as thick as below, but we find a small clearing and stand in the bright green forest.

A sudden quiet descends. The sun sparkles and the ferns shine green and radiant, and we are drawn inward, to a stillness in tune with this place.

I look down. On the ground beside me is a crow feather.

I pick it up, take it home, and tack it on the wall above my writing desk.


Nancy Kilgore is a pastoral counselor and the author of two previous novels, SEA LEVEL (RCWMS, 2012,) and WILD MOUNTAIN (Green Writers Press, 2017.) BITTER MAGIC will be released by Sunbury Press in August.

Catch Nancy on Twitter and via her website nancykilgore.com

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Enter the 2021TripFiction 'Sense of Place' Creative Writing Competition!

A story in which the location plays as important a role as the rest of your words.

2,500 word maximum, 750 word minimum

Judges include Victoria Hislop and Rosanna Ley

First Prize of £1,000 / US$1,350

Prizes total £1,750 / US$2,362 

Winning entry published on TripFiction site and publicised on Social Media

Entries close 6th November 2021