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Here’s a first excerpt from Sons of Alba, book 3: Son of Courage.  Uilleam, the son of middle daughter Ealasaid from Daughter of Spirit, is contemplating his future:

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After his grandfather died, Uilleam waited crouched under the eaves of the house for the better part of the day.  He watched the comings and goings, saw a rain storm sweep down the mountainside, unload its burden, and pass away to the north.  He was not sure what he waited for, but he knew the time would come soon to speak, to act.  
Mamaidh came out of the house – somehow Uilleam had known she would.  She needed solitude, as he did, especially in time of crisis.  He watched her pass, absorbed in her own thoughts.  Did she know he was crouched there?  Did she guess the silent trouble that he bore?  Some things the fiosachd told her, and others were dark to her.
He had known all his life about his mother’s gift of prophecy.  She did not speak overmuch of the fiosachd, but he knew it troubled her from time to time.  He was beginning to understand, himself.  But he was not sure if he was ready to tell her, if she did not already know.  
Perhaps she did know, Uilleam thought suddenly, watching his mother turn her steps toward the mountainside.  Perhaps she only waited to hear the words from her son.  He stood with decision and followed her.  As he walked, he crushed the heather underfoot, releasing a pungent fragrance, reminding him of the smell in Seannathair’s chamber that morning.  But that perfume had been like nothing he had ever smelled – and he was sure he could never find its equal on earth.  
Uilleam found his mother seated on a rock on the hillside, watching him approach as though she had known he would come.  
“Hello, a mhac,” she said with a wistful smile.  Uilleam wondered, not for the first time, how much he resembled his father.  With his tall, broad build and shaggy blond hair, he was nothing like his slim, black-haired mother.  He often felt as though she was seeing someone else when she looked at him.  
“Hello, Mamaidh,” he replied, sitting down beside her.  
“Do you know,” she began without preamble, “This is the very spot where I received the Calling to go to the Church?”
“Is it?” Uilleam inquired, interested.  He loved to hear the story of his mother’s life, and the idea of the Calling held particular interest for him now.  “How did you know?”
“Oh, I saw myself leaving,” she answered, gazing off toward the dun’s clustered houses.  
“Was it hard to leave?”
Mamaidh turned and looked at him hard and long.  “Yes,” she said simply.
“Do you ever wish . . . that things had been different?”
“Different?” she asked blankly.  “You mean if I had ignored the call?  If I had not been taken into slavery?”  Uilleam nodded.  Mamaidh took his hands firmly in her own.  “Never.  For then you would not have been.”
“Do I remind you of him?”  Uilleam said carefully.  He longed to know more of his father, but he knew memory of him pained his mother.
“Yes, and no,” she said, turning away.  “You look very like him – I’m afraid I didn’t give you much of my own looks.  But he was handsome, in his way.  You are like he was at the end – kind and strong.  But he had not your quiet spirit.  He was restless, and sometimes volatile.  But he was good, in the end.”  Mamaidh trailed off into silence, lost in memories both disturbing and dear.  
“I suppose I do have some of you, Mamaidh,” Uilleam said.  Mamaidh looked up at him sharply, searching him.  
“Of course, you do,” she said.
“I mean . . . I knew,” Uilleam struggled with the words.  “I knew Seannathair would die.”
“We all did, a mhac,” she said, her voice thickened with grief.
“No, I mean, before he was ill.”
Mamaidh’s eyes widened, and her hands around his clenched tightly.
“So, you have it too?” she asked in a hushed voice.  “A Dhia, I never would have wished it on you.”
Uilleam saw in her eyes all the regret he felt – she understood what it was to see some evil thing coming and not be able to stop it.
“I went into his room to make certain he was alright the night I had the dream,” Uilleam said, reliving the moment again with all the terror he had felt.  He had slipped into his grandparents’ chamber and listened to Seannathair’s breathing, thanking God that he was alive and well.  “When he took ill, I thought there must have been something I could have done – that I should have told someone.”
“There was nothing, a chuisle,” Mamaidh said, putting her arm around him compassionately.  “We cannot cheat death.”
“I know that, now,” he said, remembering the perfume that had surrounded him as Seannathair had spoken his last blessing on him.  He had seen a glimpse – just the barest glimpse – of the beauty awaiting Seannathair, and had known then that death was only the threshold of eternal bliss for those hidden in the Criosd.  
“It is never easy for us who have the fiosachd,” she said, gazing toward Dun Na Cloich.  “Sometimes, a vision is given to us to change what might come.  But mostly what we see is for comfort – to know that God is still caring for us.  And there are things you may face, as I did, that will make you doubt that.”
Uilleam shivered and pulled his brat closer around himself.  He could only imagine the things he might face on the course plotted out for him.  
“I’ll be finding out soon enough what it feels like to leave,” he said simply.  There was no easy way to tell his mother he would be parting from her.
“I know,” she said, expressionless.  “I’m going with you.”

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As always, feel free to tell me honestly what you think!  🙂

Before the Reformation, before the Roman Catholic tradition we know today, there was a vibrant, active church called the Cele De, or Culdees – the Clients of God.

When you think about St. Patrick’s Ireland and St. Columcille’s Scotland, this is the tradition you’re picturing.  It’s also the tradition in which I placed my character Ealasaid in Daughters of Alba, Book 3: Daughter of Spirit.

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Here are some things that made the Cele De unique.

They took their name from the same word for those who swore fealty to a king.  This doesn’t mean “subjects” in the way we think of it – the Celts didn’t automatically become subjects when their king was crowned.  Clients would offer a vow of fealty and promise a tribute of goods in exchange for the protection of the king.  They often had a say in who would become king.  While not a true democracy, there was voting involved.

Just as in the choosing of a king, the Cele De voted on church leadership.  The monastic community voted for their abbot, rather than having one appointed long-distance from Rome.  An abbot’s authority rested on the fact that his people wanted him there.

Women were given high stature.  Far from being secondary to men, the women of the Cele De had authority and a role to play in the Church.  For example, St. Brigid of Kildare was an Abbess of 5th century Ireland who founded many monasteries as well as a school of Art.  Priests and nuns of the Cele De were permitted to marry.  Although some still chose a life of celibacy, it was not forced on them.

The Cele De upheld scholastic and artistic excellence until the 12th century, with the advent of the new Saxon queen, Margaret.  While her zeal for the Roman church tradition was laudable, it had the unfortunate side-effect of effectively wiping out the Celtic church.

I’ll be digging into the Cele De again as I begin to write the story of Ealasaid’s son Uilleam in Sons of Alba, Book 3: Son of Courage.

We all know the iconic tartans of Scotland – each clan has their own, some tame, others quite wild.  But this was not always the case.

In the days of Alba, checked patterns would certainly exist, and regional variations would depend on what natural dyes were available in certain areas.  But the tartan system as it is today had not yet taken shape.

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Fabric was an important part of Alban life, especially for women.  In a subsistence culture where everything had to be made from scratch, every garment went through a long process that took up nearly all the women’s time.  This is why so many of my female characters are involved in fabric making at some level.

First the fibres would be harvested – flax for linen shirts (or leines) and wool for the mantle (brat).  The brat was worn somewhat like a cross between a kilt and a toga.

For linen, the flax would be beaten to remove the hard outer shell, then the fibres could be spun into thread.  For wool, obviously the sheep were shorn.  Then the women carded the wool with combs to align the fibres, and this, too, was spun into yarn.

Since this was before spinning wheels were invented, the women spun by hand.  They would do this constantly, even while walking around.  They stored the unspun fibres on a distaff – a long, straight stick that they could tuck under one arm, and they would feed out a thread onto the spindle, which was a smaller stick with a heavy, balanced round of metal or wood called a whorl.  The spindle would go up and down a bit like a yo-yo as it twisted and collected the thread.

 

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Now the thread could be dyed.  One of the most famous natural dyes from Scotland is woad – a yellow flower that produced a rich blue colour.  This pigment was also used famously to paint and tattoo Celtic warriors (a la Braveheart).  Other natural pigments they might have used came from lichens, berries, flowers, leaves, stems and roots that they could find nearby such as heather and dandelions.

Once the thread was dyed, the women used a simple frame loom to weave it.  This was the process that produced the distinctive checked pattern of the later tartans, as the weavers formed colour patterns or “setts” in the warp and weft of the cloth.

The process wasn’t finished yet, though.  In a wet climate like Scotland’s, waterproofing was very important.  In the days long before wellies and macs, the only way to keep out the weather was through a technique called waulking.  First the wool was cleansed from impurities using urine for its ammonia and scrubbed with fuller’s earth.  Then it was rinsed and laid out and the fun part started.  Women formed two seated lines with the fabric between their feet, and they pelted it to the rhythm of waulking songs, some of which can still be heard today.  The pounding rubbed the fibres together until they became felted and virtually waterproof.

Highborn Albans might have embroidered and trimmed clothing, and decorative tapestries in their homes, but the average person lived in one or two sets of leine and brat at a time.

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In a day and age where we can run out to the store and buy a new outfit, I can respect a culture of women who spent nearly all their time clothing their people.  (And be thankful I don’t have to!) 🙂

At the time of my Alba novellas, the structural landscape of Scotland was just as diverse as its people.  I thought I’d give you a visual taste of some of the buildings you might see if you wandered into my books.  😉

 

Brochs

 

These weren’t much in use at the time of Daughters and Sons of Alba.  But plenty of them remained from older times, most of them in ruins.  I put a ruined broch in Dun na Cloich Leith:  Aigneis, Ealasaid, and Eithne’s home.  Like many of these circular towers, this one was likely plundered for its building stone over time.  Brochs were made by the ancient Picts for defence and consisted of a double wall of unmortared stone.

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An intact broch

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A ruined broch like the one in Dun na Cloich

 

Duns

 

The average Alban lived in a dun – a hill fort with an earth wall, populated with round, thatch-roofed stone houses.  Although the duns are gone, the marks of their presence remain, ringing hilltops across Scotland.  Here’s one like Dun na Cloich Leith.

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Castles

 

With the influence of the nearby Saxon and Norman cultures, castles were a new thing in Alba, but not unheard of.  Castles of this time were very simple – not the pretty, airy things that came along later.  As with duns, there are virtually no untouched examples of castles in Scotland from this time.  They are all either ruined or replaced.  This is somewhat how I imagine castles like Allt na Cathrach or Sgain.

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Longhouses

 

The Vikings brought with them a different style of building – long, low rectangular houses with an A-frame roof covered in thatch or sod.  Here’s how I pictured the houses in Thorsbjorg.

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Monasteries

 

Ecclesiastical architecture is another unique class.  Borrowing from earlier Roman influence, the monasteries of the Irish Gaels had rectangular common buildings such as churches and libraries, narrow round watch towers, and little beehive-shaped huts for the monks’ cells.  Here’s a monastery much like Cill Linnhe.

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Sacred Sites

 

The Celts from ancient times had an affinity for the spiritual, and loved to mark these places in various ways: Standing stones, springs, and cairns can still be seen everywhere in Scotland.

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Some impressive standing stones

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A Saint’s spring like the one the Daughters of Alba bathed in

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A burial cairn

 

Crannogs

 

Though none of my characters live in a crannog, this distinctly Celtic building form bears some mention.  These were floating villages built on wooden pilings out on a loch, much like the round houses of the dun, but built of timber or wattle and daub instead.

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I hope this little virtual tour of medieval Alba has helped inspire your imagination as you read Daughters and Sons of Alba.  🙂

 

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We all know what a martyr is, right?  Someone who dies for their faith, like the millions of heroes who have died rather than renounce the name of Jesus Christ.

But did you know that in the Celtic Church there were two other kinds of martyrdom that don’t involve bloodshed?  I first encountered this interesting fact when I was researching for Book 3 of Daughters of Alba.

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The word Martyr comes from the Greek word for “witness”, but has since come to connote something of a sacrifice.  Although dying for Christ is the ultimate sacrifice, there are other ways according to the Celtic tradition.

Red Martyrdom

This is the one we know.  Death.  Red is an obvious label for this one.

Green Martyrdom

The Irish monastic tradition stemmed from this idea.  Christians wanting to connect on a deeper level with Christ would dedicate part of all of their lives to living alone in a solitary place.  This might be your stereotypical life-long hermit, or someone taking a spiritual retreat.  But the green martyrdom was a way to sacrifice when lives were no longer in danger.

White Martyrdom

St. Columcille is credited with the origin of this term, but he was by no means the first “white martyr”.  When he chose to sail across the Irish Sea to Iona to share the gospel with the Pictish people of modern-day Scotland, he was making a sacrifice in penance for a horrific massacre.  Plenty of people to this day sacrifice their lives to travel to a distant land and share the gospel out of a motivation of love.  Nowadays we call them missionaries.

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You might not be a Red, Green, or White martyr, but you can still be a witness wherever you are.  You can still give a sacrifice out of love for Christ.

Here’s the opening excerpt from my new work in progress, Sons of Alba. It’s a sequel to my recently published 3 part saga, Daughters of Alba, so if you haven’t read Daughters, here’s your SPOILER ALERT.

In this scene, Anndrais, the family patriarch, has gathered his family to receive his last blessing, and we are introduced to the three “sons” from the title.

As always, feel free to give me feedback of all kinds, and share your own work too.

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As each breath became more difficult, Anndrais mac Eoin thought more carefully about what he would use it for. Pain gripped his chest, his throat, as his body laboured for air. The room was in a fog – shapes moved beyond in the vagueness, becoming more and more corporeal as the forms of his family began to lose their substance. Still, he waited. He would not speak until they were all here.

At last, someone was coming – it was Ruairi, grimly herding young Seumas into the room. Anndrais could only recognize his middle grandson by his fiery red hair. So like his mother, he thought with a smile. It was a shame he would not be there to help to raise him. They would need help. But there was a Help greater than any Anndrais could offer, and Anndrais would be with Him soon.

At the thought, the soft, bright mist seemed to envelop him a little more, and Anndrais felt joy beyond any he had ever experienced in his mortal days. There was a brief temptation to let go and slip into that joy, but no – he had unfinished matters. He took an agonized breath as deeply as he could, clinging to the pain as his only anchor to the flesh.

“Everyone’s here, now, mo leannan,” Ceanna’s voice said somewhere nearby. Anndrais sought her in the mist and found her. Hers was the only clear face in the room – beatifically sweet, smiling, but tearful. She felt the moment as he did – regretting the parting that must soon take place, and yet clinging to their last moment together with thankfulness.

“Ceanna, a bhean, the hearth of my home,” he began, and the room was silent as everyone strained to hear his last words. It took all his strength just to speak them, and between words he slumped in his bed, panting with the effort. “I loved you always, and I love you still.” He felt her squeeze his hand. No more needed to be said between them. She knew.

“Aigneis,” he said, and focused on her face, framed by fair hair so like her mother’s. “Ealasaid,” he found his second daughter’s face, sorrowful and pale amid her dark locks. “Eithne,” his youngest was easy to find with her bright hair. “I am proud of each of you, and what you have become. You are all wonderful mothers, each in your own way. Care for your mother. Raise your sons . . . in the way of the Criosd.”

Then Anndrais turned to his sons-in-law. “Domhnall, you have cared well for Aigneis, and I thank you. Dun Na Cloich Leith will always look to you, and give you fealty in return.” Anndrais gathered strength again. This was the most important part of what he was to say. “But you will be away in Allt Na Cathrach, and the dun needs a chief to lead here. I ask you, Ruairi a’ Gobhann, will you carry on the chieftainship of Dun Na Cloich for my clann?”
There was a shocked silence, then a murmur of approval ran through the room.

“What say you, Ruairi?” Anndrais gasped. The fog was drifting in, again. He must not slip away before he was finished.

“I am not worthy of such an honour, m’athair-ceile,” he said, and Anndrais could hear the emotion thickening his voice.

“You are worthy as my son. Please care for my clann.”

“I will, m’athair-ceile,” Ruairi answered.

“Then from this day, you will be known as Toisiche of Dun Na Cloich Leith, and I will give my fealty to you.”

Anndrais lay panting as he listened to the others congratulating Ruairi. His people would be cared for. Quietly, he beckoned his grandchildren closer, those least in his family. Yet they were the future of his line, the legacy that would last beyond his final breath.

Uilleam came first – he was a strange child, in that he seemed to recognize what other children, and often other adults, did not see. He looked upon death with grief, yes, but an acceptance that surpassed even Ceanna’s peace. Uilleam understood as Anndrais now did, the joy awaiting those who died in the Criosd.

The other children came to the bedside, and Donnchad ensured that Catriona and Muirne had a place in the front where they could see. Anndrais was surprised by the fright in their eyes, especially the little girls. They had seen death before, but never at such close range. Anndrais realized he must look frightening to them, after months of wasting illness. But there was no time to calm fears.

“Caitidh, Muirne, my darlings,” he whispered, smiling at their wide eyes. “Grow in the beauty of the Criosd, as your mother and aunties did.” He looked up at his three grandsons, now at the threshold of manhood.

“Donnchad,” he said to the eldest, “Your life is plotted out for you, so you are blessed in that. Rule always as the Criosd would have you rule – with justice, righteousness, and mercy. Do not rely on the strength of your arm,” he said, and Donnchad laughed nervously – he was already a large-boned boy, like his father, “But the strength of your heart.” Donnchad nodded solemnly, holding onto his little cousins’ hands.

“Seumas,” he said, turning to his redheaded grandson, “I love you dearly, and I think you may become chief after your father. But you have much to learn before you become a man, and your blessing will lie in a steady life, an honourable life. Care for your sisters, and always care for those in need.” Seumas was scowling slightly – it was a habitual expression for him, especially when he was receiving the counsel of his elders.

“Uilleam,” Anndrais said, seeking the wise gaze of his youngest grandson, “You have journeyed the farthest to come home to me, and I am blessed to have met you. I know that nothing can restore to you what you have lost, but God will be your Father always. Care for your mother. God has a destiny for you, and I think it will be a great one.”

Uilleam met his gaze with steady blue eyes, and Anndrais was suddenly reminded of the night, seven years before, when he had stood eye-to-eye with Uilleam’s father. The boy was so like his father in looks, it was uncanny. But there were never two people more unlike. Anndrais found himself drifting again, loose on the current of thought and memory, and Uilleam spoke, breaking his reverie.

“It is time to leave,” he said. He paused to kiss Anndrais’ forehead, and left. The others followed suit, and Anndrais felt his forehead cool from the touch of their soft lips long after they had left the chamber. With tearful embraces, his daughters took their leave of him, one by one. Even his sons-in-law came near to embrace him. And then Anndrais was alone with Ceanna.

She spoke no word, but came to lie on the bed beside him. Her fingers wove in amongst his, and her cheek pressed cool against his forehead. In the quiet, when words became unnecessary, the pain began to ebb. Breathing, essential for talking, was irrelevant now, and Anndrais would take a deep breath after a long pause, wondering how long it had been since his last. Robbed of anything solid to focus on, his eyes roamed on things he might once have called unreal. But he had been wrong. The things he saw were more real than the bed on which he lay, than his wife curled up against him and the tears that rolled into his hair.

Indescribable colours flooded his vision. He longed to share it with Ceanna, but he could not make himself heard. A breath plunged him back into pain – the intervals between were growing longer now. Now he could no longer feel Ceanna beside him, and the soft noise of her breathing grew distant. Oh, yes, breathe. It was shallower now, barely a breath at all. The music, the sweet perfume, the joy . . .

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My latest books, Daughters of Alba, have a lot of Gaelic (Gaidhlig) in them.  A lot.

When I wrote them I was having fun with learning the language and trying to make my work as authentic as possible.  But some of my early readers begged me for a pronunciation guide.  So, in honour of D of A coming out yesterday, I’ve started putting together a list of names and common terms I’ve used in the books.  I’ll keep adding to the list.

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Here are some general notes on pronouncing Gaelic that might help you out.

There are a lot of “extra” letters in Gaelic.

Blends of as many as 3 vowels at a time usually end up sounding like “uh”.

Any time you see an “h” in a word, the letter before it is softened, or sometimes even cancelled out altogether.

For example:

“ch” = a hiss in the throat like at the end of “Bach”

“mh” and “bh” = “v”

“dh” and “th” = disappears entirely

Consonants are different than what we’re used to.

“S” alone at the beginning of a word = “sh” (like the Irish “Sean”)

“T” alone at the beginning of a word = “tch”

“C” = always hard sound like “K”

If you want to sound like a pro, say it with an accent.

Seriously.  There’s a reason the Scots and the Irish speak with that lilting rhythm: it comes from their native tongue.  To get the rhythm of Gaelic down, you’ve got to get away from the rhythm of English.

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If you’re reading D of A and want to know how to say the names and words properly, then check out the new Gaidhlig guide.