A guest post by Suzanne d’Corsey
When Nimue Brown kindly invited me to offer a guest blog to her site, spurred by the publication of my novel The Bonnie Road, the topic of witchcraft in the book was the obvious choice to explore.
The Bonnie Road takes place at a pivotal time in the history of our Western neo-Paganism, in Scotland, 1979. This was when the secretive followers of the Auld Ways existed in a relatively static state; when a quiet movement was underway to uncover and make meaningful a pre-Christian legacy; when many strands twined together in the New Age movement, of passionate explorers of lay lines, earth mysteries, of UFO sightings, of Findhorn finding its feet, all these trends rising against the backdrop of Margaret Thatcher’s new government. Add to the mixture the encroachment from England of a relatively new style of witchcraft that came to be known as Wicca, and it was a swirling, heady, occult, confusing and exciting time for seekers. The face of neo-Paganism- and Scotland- was about to change forever.
When I began writing the novel, many years ago, the magical maelstrom was not my primary focus, at all. It was a by-product of simply setting this novel in a time and place I knew well, populated with eccentric characters which included the witches. (Not that ‘witch’ was used as a positive reference back then.)
The people I knew in Fife and further afield, who actually practiced the old customs and kept a sort of country wisdom, may or may not have been influenced by various other movements through the previous couple of centuries, including the Celtic Revival, Spiritualism and all. While the wonderful Silver Bough by F Marian McNeill was available, it was a description of what the people were doing at the time, not a research tool to discover Scotland’s pagan remnants, unless one were drawn to the study of folklore. Rather, the last major player to dramatically affect the expression and beliefs of the magical ways in Scotland was the Reformation and Calvinism. How curious then, that the next huge change would come from “The Wica,” as it gradually made its way north, till it caught fire and blazed across the world. But back then, this was the farthest thing from anyone’s mind, including those few Wiccan pioneers in Scotland, for whom secrecy was the norm.
I include a good few scenes in the novel of the uneasy alliance between Morag the Scottish town ‘witch’ and the secret coven in a neighboring village. To whet your appetite, here is a scene from the novel, part of Morag’s musings as she is in process of seducing one of the young coven initiates. I chose it because it draws in all the magical threads, of Scottish witchcraft, of Alastair Crowley, of the new Wiccans:
There was a new style of witchcraft migrating north from the Sassenachs. Morag had been tipped off a few years past when rumors circulated about “the Strathkinness coven.” The wee village already boasted a resident witch from a century past, who could gang aboot invisibly, and did all the usual folkish mischief. Her specialty was transferring her neighbor’s butter to her own churn. Caught in the act of cantrips on the last night of the year, she was overheard to make a charm by spinning a cow’s hide tether about her head and singing “Hare’s milk and Mare’s milk, an’ a’ the beas’ that bears milk, come tae me!” She must have been a lazy besum that she couldn’t churn her own butter, though Morag would never begrudge the use of spellwork to effect changes. The witch would also gang into a hare, a popular game among the auld Scots witches, emerging with the inevitable gunshot wound from a confused farmer, thus proving the witch’s credentials. Considering that Morag often enough flew on the raven’s wing, she knew this talent to be entirely feasible.
The magical group was very different, insofar as Morag could ascertain. Secretive coven- formed, a hierarchical High Priest and Priestess requiring initiation, magic which seemed to be codified in a process in the context of ritual. She knew how Alastair Crowley did things well enough. Her grandmother Morag had visited him in his house on Loch Ness, called Boleskine, and enjoyed some “parties’ there. There was a similar structure to their ritual, what with protective circles and invoking this and banishing that with much brandishing of swords and sticks and all, and being joyfully out of their minds with drugs and trance. Young and beautiful grandmother Morag had been made welcome, right enough, by the Master of Boleskine, who was curious to uncover the auld Scots magic, indeed to test whether it legitimately worked for his own purposes. Which were not at all the same purposes as that of a Scottish witch; the one a clever magus, the other kin to the wild. And so they came together like a hunter and a wild deer, enjoyed the exchange, kissed in kindness, and departed back to their own kind.
But this English group was quite different from Crowley’s Boleskine frolics. Staid. Proper. Genteel. At last she might be able to uncover the truth of their existence. Far as spying went, what could possibly be more enjoyable, and effective, than seducing the lovely young initiates of the so-called secret coven? That made everybody happy. A little magic of her own, and the lover, lost in a blissful trance, would barely recall any of his pillow talk. (Pgs. 103-4, The Bonnie Road)
Needless to say, things escalate, as they will when personal agendas are played out, in this instance through practical jokes, seduction, alliances and unexpected twists and turns leading to a horrific episode at Samhuinn in the Highlands. Depending on your viewpoint, of course.
I have taken great pleasure in layering descriptions of how things really were in the late 70s in Scotland among the followers of the Auld Ways, throughout the novel. It is only now, in hindsight, I come to find I’ve described a time that is slipping away from memory, or worse, being revised and often misinterpreted. If The Bonnie Road helps to shine a light on this dark time of Scottish witchcraft, and does so in an entertaining and enlightening way, no one will be more pleased than I.
“Let us open our eyes to the great mysteries that surround us…. for in them is our only solace in this fleeting world.” – Quote by Morag Gilbride, The Bonnie Road