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In this new sneak peek of my work in progress, Hold Fast, a historical novel based on a true story, I imagine Ann McIntyre invited for a visit to Conrad Gugy’s manor while her sons and friends live in scarcity in the refugee camp on his land at Machiche.  Let me know what you think in the comments below.

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In my upcoming historical novel Hold Fast, I tell the story of Ann MacLean‘s real-life struggles in Canada’s first refugee camp, Machiche.

A place of conflicting identity, Machiche is the perfect setting for the story of a woman from two worlds.

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The American Revolution wasn’t the beginning of only one nation.  It was the catalyst to the birth of a second, too.

Think about it.  Without the American Revolution, how different would Canada be?

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One of the fun things about doing research for my historical fiction based on a true story, Hold Fast, is finding out about real-life characters that fit into the story.  Among the people Ann MacLean would have known at the refugee camp at Machiche, Quebec was the Loyalist captain Jeptha Hawley.

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In doing the research for my work in progress, Hold Fast, I’ve come across some very interesting facts.  Not least of these facts is the Scottish laird with the nickname “The Wicked Man”.

You see, when I got Ann MacLean‘s story, all I knew was that she was the granddaughter of a Scottish laird who lived in a castle on a cliff on the Isle of Skye.  It didn’t take much sleuthing to discover that castle was Dunvegan.  And based on the timeline (Ann arrived in Canada in 1774 at the age of 16) I narrowed her grandfather down to Norman MacLeod, the 22nd chief of Clan MacLeod.  That’s where things get interesting.

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Are you descended from a refugee?  The answer might surprise you.

With Syrian refugees so prominent in the news right now—and such a hot topic for debate—it’s easy to think that refugees are a new thing for Canada.  But they’re really not.  In fact, it was a group of refugees, mainly, that made up the bulk of citizens in the newborn country of Canada.

Some of your ancestors may have made the perilous journey into Canada and stayed for months or even years in a squalid, disease-ridden, food-scarce camp.  Some of mine did.

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I’ve been spending a fair amount of time in a Viking village with Uilleam in my work in progress Son of Courage, so I thought I’d share with you a few things I’ve learned about Viking religion.

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The Vikings celebrated their many gods in natural places such as sacred groves, stones, and pools, but they also had a unique style of worship architecture called the hof.  It was a wooden structure, square or rectangular, with an emphasis on height that wasn’t seen in other architecture of the time.

Often these hofs would be accompanied by some of the natural features like an oak grove or a pool.  In my fictional village of Vasthammar, I decided to incorporate both.  Historical accounts mention that these hofs, groves, and pools were often the sites of ritual sacrifices that would include all manner of animals and frequently human sacrifice as well.

The Vikings worshiped a large pantheon, but chief among their gods were Thor – the god of thunder, Odin – the god of war, and Freyr – the god of celebration.  Descriptions from the time mention statues of the gods present in the hof, and sacrifices would be brought to the god most likely to help based on their area of expertise.

After three centuries of missionary activity in Scandinavia and other territories, eventually the Vikings universally accepted Christianity and left their pagan ways behind them.  But vestiges still remained, as evidenced by the unique frame churches of Scandinavia that very closely resembled the old pagan hofs.

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Since Uilleam will be spending a significant amount of time in and around the hof in Vasthammar, I thought I’d share this interesting fact with you.

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.

My latest book, Sons of Alba, Book 2: Son of Redemption, centres around a real, pivotal battle that one way or another changed the face of Scotland.

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Funny thing is, in all the research I’ve done on this battle, virtually nothing is known for certain – the year, the motivation, the leader of the Anglo-Saxon army – almost all of it is up in the air.  Was it in 1016 or 1018 AD?  Did the Saxons invade Alba, or was it the other way around?  Did Uchtred lead the Northumbrian army, or was it his brother Eadwulf?  Everyone who knew without a doubt is dead, and they aren’t telling.

What we do know is this: Carham changed the map.

Before the battle, the kingdom of Lothian was firmly in the grasp of England.  After, it belonged to Alba (Scotland).  Also, the kingdom of Strathclyde, Alba’s ally against the Saxons, passed into Alban hands when their king, Owain the Bald, died on the battlefield.  He left no heirs, and history records that the new king was Duncan mac Crinan, High King Malcolm II’s grandson and the future Duncan I of Alba.  So, in one campaign, Alba consolidated the borders that we recognize today as the southern limit of Scotland.

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I wonder if Malcolm II knew, when he set out across the River Tweed, that he would change history in a single battle.

That battle has certainly changed life for two of my characters, Donnchad and Seumas.

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!) 🙂