Category Archives: Background to my novels

Stone Circles and Sarah

In the second novel – A Megalithic Moon – our heroine, Sarah, finds herself transported back in time some five thousand years (ish).  For archaeologists and those with an interest in the past this is the Late Neolithic, a time of massive stone constructions, of megaliths, of stone circles.

For many years stone circles have fascinated me and so I was really very keen to weave these monuments into Sarah’s story.  There are some 1300 recorded stone circles in Britain and this is not the place to discuss each and every one of them.  Instead I wish to look at two stone circles in particular which feature in A Megalithic Moon, Boscawen Un and Loanhead of Daviot.  For those who want to find out more about stone circles I highly recommend Aubrey Burl’s The Stone Circles of Britain, Ireland and Brittany published by Yale University Press (2000).

In the very early pages of A Megalithic Moon the reader is introduced to one of my all time favourite sites – Boscawen Un – a stone circle in the heart of West Penwith, Cornwall.

Boscawen Un

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Boscawen Un on a very grey Cornish day…

Not a true circle the stone ring measures 24.9m and 21.9m in diameters making it more elliptical than circular.  The ring consists of nineteen stones varying in height from 0.9m to 1.3m and has two unique features.  Firstly there is a central stone which leans sharply to the north east.  Originally it was believed that the lean on the central stone was the result of people digging for treasure believed to be at its base but recent archaeological work has confirmed that the stone was deliberately placed in the ground at a lean.  Another interesting fact about the central stone is the presence of two faint, but real, carved axeheads near the base which can best be seen at the midsummer sunrise.

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The central stone with its deliberate lean.

Secondly all but one of the stones are of local granite, the odd one out is a solid chunk of white quartz.  For those of a pagan leaning, the quartz stone is significant as it serves to represent the feminine lunar deity (and thus the central stone is the male).  Quartz is often found on sites of ritual significance, the Duloe stone circle (also in Cornwall) is smaller but all of the stones are quartz.  Excavations at the Hurlers, a stone circle complex on Bodmin Moor, uncovered traces of a quartz pavement which highlights the importance of this material in the rituals of the past.  It is easy to imagine how the quartz in its freshly cut state might glow in the light of the moon.  The use of quartz is not restricted to Cornwal and much further afield in Aberdeenshire the recumbent stone circles often feature quartz.

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The single quartz stone in the circle.

The circle was restored in 1862 when three stones were re-erected and the hedge which originally cut through the ring was diverted around it.  Historically Boscawen Un was believed to be the Beisgawen yn Dumnonia named in the Welsh Triads as one of the ‘Three Principal Gorsedds’.  So much so, in 1928 the modern Cornish Gorsedd was inaugurated here.  Unfortunately recent academic work by Rachel Bromwich revealed that the Triads were in fact an eighteenth century forgery.

There is a west facing gap which may represent an entrance not unlike the one found at the Merry Maidens, another well known stone circle in West Cornwall, which can be seen from Boscawen Un.

 

Much later in A Megalithic Moon the reader is introduced to another kind of stone circle but much farther away, those of north east Scotland in Aberdeenshire.  Recumbent stone circles are so called due to a common feature of a large single stone lying ‘recumbent’ between two flanking uprights.  The recumbent always occupies a position on the circles arc between SSE – SW and the uprights are graded in size from the smallest on the northern arc and the tallest flanking the recumbent.  They are unique to this area of Scotland and are not found elsewhere except for in the south west of Ireland.

Unfortunately, agricultural practices of the 17th and 18th centuries resulted in many of the circles being destroyed.  Some well preserved examples which are worth a visit include Loanhead of Daviot, Easter Aquorthies, Sunhoney and Tyrebagger.

Loanhead of Daviot

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This recumbent stone circle is situated near the summit of gentle hill overlooking the village of Daviot and few miles from Inveruries.  Excavations conducted in 1934 provided evidence for the longevity of the site from the late Neolithic through to the Iron Age.  The site itself consists of two concentric rings of stone with a central cairn. In addition adjacent to the main stone circle is a late Bronze Age cremation cemetery.

The outer circle is 19.5m in diameter and is made up of ten upright stones and one recumbent.  Around the base of each upright a small cairn of stones were piled and in some evidence of burials were found.  Several of the uprights also have faint cupmarks engraved into the stones surface.

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The recumbent stone at Loanhead. Photo by M and K Grundy from geograph.co.uk.

The inner circle is 16.5m in diameter and forms a kerb of low stones to the central cairn which was built over a cremation pyre.  Here some 2.3kgs of burnt bone lay in the central space.  Interestingly the type of stone to be found in the central cairn consists mostly of quartz.

Just north of Loanhead a second recumbent is known, however all that remains is the recumbent itself and its two flankers.  A third circle was recorded in the 18th century to the south of Loanhead in the village of Daviot, sadly nothing remains of this circle.

 

Stone Circles and the Moon

A great deal has been written about the astronomical associations between megaliths and the night sky.  In relation to stone circles it was Aubrey Burl who pointed out that a circle is not the most efficient means to observe the night sky, rather a single line of stones would work considerably better.  Indeed there are scattered throughout the British landscape enigmatic lines of stones and often in association with stone circles, such as the previously mentioned Hurlers on Bodmin Moor.

So if stone circles are not for astronomical observations, what are they for?  Increasingly, there is a body of work which is leaning towards a lunar and/or solar explanation.  Often the emphasis is on the solstices, the rising and setting sun, midwinter and midsummer being the most popular.  However, there is some suggestion that the spring and autumn solstices were just as important if not more so, particularly in Cornwall where the people of the Neolithic and Early Bronze Age were most likely to be pastoralists rather than agriculturalists.

In regard to the recumbents of Aberdeenshire it appears to be the procession of the moon which was important.  Thus the recumbent were laid in line with the southern moon but not as it rose or set but when it was actually up in the sky.

The majority of the recumbent lie in the arc between the moon’s major rising and setting…” Aubrey Burl p227 The Stone Circles of Britain, Ireland and Brittany.

 Another feature of these recumbent circles is the presence of both quartz and cupmarks and again an association with the moon could be made.  The quartz shining brightly in the moonlight perhaps representing pieces of the moon itself and the cupmarks themselves do seem to generally align with either the major or minor moonset or moonrise.

To the users of the circles it may have been the steady procession of the moon above the recumbent that was wanted rather than a particular moment, minutes of moonlight when quartz glowed luminescently and when nocturnal ceremonies where performed.” Aubrey Burl  p226  ibid.

 And so, all of these elements are woven throughout Sarah’s story and have become my inspiration for the Daughters of the Moon – the Myhres an Loor.

Please find below some links to interesting websites about stone circles and megaliths in general.  Enjoy!

Stone Circles of North East Scotland

The Megalithic Portal

Stone Circles.Org.UK

 

Vikings in ‘A Viking Moon’

In ‘A Viking Moon’- the first of Sarah’s adventures – our heroine is transported back in time to Viking Denmark.  The story itself is set in roughly the mid 800s AD, a time of great change throughout Europe.  The following is a brief overview of the Vikings as encountered by Sarah.  For those who would like a lot more detail, my apologies but this is not the place for a lengthy discussion on Vikings.  There are some great sources of information out there on the internet or even in your local library.

Sarah’s story begins when she comes into contact with a Viking rune stone.  There are large numbers of rune stones throughout Scandinavia (some 3000), their name deriving from the runes written upon their surface.  Runes were a form of lettering used by the Vikings.  Rune stones were erected between the 4th and 12th Centuries and can be found anywhere the Vikings went.  They served mainly as a memorial to the deceased but were also used to mark territory, explain inheritance, boast and bring glory and to tell of important events.

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An example of a rune stone.

During the first twenty years or so of the 9th century, Danish politics were characterized by constant infighting and changes in kingship.  Often kingship was held jointly as was the case in 812/13 where Harald Klak and Reginfred ruled jointly but only until the sons of Godfred (an earlier king who died in 810) turned up and promptly exiled them both.  Harald and Reginfred then recruited an army but failed to win back the crown.  By 819 Godfred’s sons were bickering amongst themselves and all goes to seed until finally Horik remains and manages to hold onto power until 853 when he was overthrown by a rebellion within his own family.  It is during the reign of King Horik that Sarah finds herself and just prior to the civil war that was about to erupt.

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Map of Viking Denmark.

Kings during this early period were not the most powerful, because most communities were loyal to their local chieftain.  A king had to conduct religious rituals and lead his subjects into battle.  He was expected to keep a force of fighting men and ships to protect his people and their property from attack.   But when a king died, a new king would be chosen from the members of the reigning royal family.  A person’s age, health, reputations and popularity were all taken into account.

The steading of Geir is situated in the southern part of the island of Zealand or Sjoeland as it was known at the time.  One of the greatest concerns at this time were the raids from lands across the sea.  It was not just the Danes, Norse and Swedes who raided their neighbours. In Sarah’s story the Kurlanders/Kurshes were often considered a great threat.  Kurland (Courland) was situated in the north west corner of what is modern day Latvia.  In reality the situation got so bad that in 853 the Danes launched a campaign against the Kurlanders, there was a major sea battle and the Danes were defeated.  Another contributing factor to the brief civil war in Denmark that wiped out many of the contenders to the throne and ended Horic’s rule.

Geir was once a ‘styraesman’ or ship commander who through many successful raiding trips accrued enough wealth to buy land and a steading.  It was possible using wealth and ambition for any man to become a member of the aristocracy and so it was for Geir who by the time Sarah turns up is referred to as a Jarl or Lord.  Apart from kings society was divided into three main groups Jarls, Karls and Thralls.

Jarls were often the wealthiest and most powerful people, owning and ruling large tracts of land.  A Jarl would usually have a small band of household warriors to fight for him if needed.  The second tier of society belonged to the karls.  They were free men and women who sometimes owned their own farmsteads or rented from the landowners.  In Viking times the eldest son would inherit his father’s land, younger sons would need to make their own way either by joining raiding parties, become professional warriors or merchants.  Some could become hunters, fishermen or crafts men.  The poorest landless karls were servants or farm workers.  At the very bottom of Viking society were the Thralls these were slaves who had no rights and were bought and sold like any other piece of property.  Most slaves were captured during raids or battles, some were karls who had lost their freedom after going bankrupt or committing a crime.

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Reconstruction of a Viking woman spinning using a drop spindle. Photo by P van der Sluijis via wikimedia commons.

Viking women enjoyed far greater respect and independence than many of their contemporaries in other parts of the world.  They were allowed to own land and property and sometimes a daughter would inherit a share of her parents’ wealth.  However, a women’s status varied according to her position in society.  Thus, Astrid as wife of the Jarl would have considerably more freedom and authority then the wife of a farm worker.  When a woman’s husband was away either trading or raiding, she was responsible for the smooth operation of the business or farm in his absence.  A noble woman such as Astrid would be expected to make decisions and organise protection of the steading should it be necessary.

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A depiction of two female warriors of royal birth participating in a sea battle. From Olaus Magnus’ History of 1555.

Some women had other jobs apart from being wives and mothers.  There were female skalds (storytellers), carvers, merchants and others who played a part in the religious ceremonies.  Certain women were thought to be prophetesses who could tell the future and give people advice in their daily lives.

 

Messing about in Boats

Actually the Vikings were highly skilled shipbuilders, producing some of the finest ships of their time.  They were essential to the Viking way of life.  They built vessels of many different shapes and sizes.   In 1962 five ships were excavated near to the city of Roskilde in Denmark.  There was a ‘knarr’  an ocean going trading vessel, with an open hold amidships, and only needed 6-8 men to crew; a ‘skeid’ or ocean going warship which was 30m long and 4m wide with space for 60 oars or a crew of 65-70 men; a ‘byrding’, a small trading or transport vessel only needing a crew of 5-8 men, wind powered and perfect for the Danish and Baltic coast; ‘snekke’, a small warship built for speed and maneuverability only needing a crew of 30men.  The last vessel was rowing/sailing combo probably used for fishing or seal hunting.

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The oarsmen did not have seats instead they would sit on their sea chests (wooden chests that would contain their personal belongings).  If a vessel had need of a sail it would most likely have been made from wool with leather reinforcing strips.  Another feature of most vessels would have been the steering oar – this was positioned on the right hand side at the rear and gives rise to the English word ‘starboard’ coming from the Norse word ‘styra’ or ‘to steer’.  The vessels themselves were clinker built meaning that the planks of timber that made up the body would be overlapping each other and then the spaces between would be filled with moss, wool or animal hair drenched in tar to ensure water tightness.  The decks would be open with little or no protection from the elements, at the best an oilskin tarpaulin was rigged up bivouac style.

The most famous type of vessel is the ‘drekar’ or dragon ship, the name derived from the wooden carvings on the front of the ships.  They were the finest of all warships, very ornate and well built.  A common misconception is that warships would sail with the shields over the oar ports – it is unlikely this happened unless in port as it would be far too easy to lose a valuable shield overboard.

The Vikings used the sun, the moon and the stars to navigate but they would also use the depth and temperature of the ocean to judge their position.  They also used their knowledge of the habits of seabirds and mammals to guide them.

 

The Gods

There are a great many books and internet sites that deal with the plethora of Viking gods, goddesses and all things otherworldly.   Viking deities were divided into two groups the Vanir who came before and were a race of peaceful gods, Freya and Frey being examples and then there is the Aesir who came later and deposed many of the Vanir.  They were a warrior race of gods and include gods such as Thor and Odin.  The following is a brief (and probably unsatisfactory) account of those that Sarah encounters in ‘A Viking Moon’.

The first goddess to turn up is Freya an indigenous goddess who is being held hostage by the Aesir to maintain spiritual peace.  She is very powerful and her areas of expertise include love, sex, fertility, magic, witchcraft and death.  Her priestesses are called ‘volvas’ and are greatly feared by the general population.  In later times she is labelled the ‘Queen of the Witches’ by Christian priests and her followers were heavily persecuted.  Cats are also special to Freya, her chariot is drawn by two huge gray cats called Bee Gold (honey) and Tree Gold (amber).  To be kind to cats was to invite Freya’s blessings.  In the story Astrid offers a prayer to Freya but at the same time she is spinning wool.  Spinning has a magical quality about it and was once associated with divination, the magical art of transformation and the cycle of life.  But it is also associated with the goddess Frigga, Odin’s wife.

 

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Freya and her spindle – from ‘A Book of Myths’ by Helen Stratton (1915).

Later in the story Sarah has an encounter with a ‘volur, women who were believed to have prophetic powers.  These women would travel around the countryside staying at the halls of local leaders, interpreting dreams and predicting the future.  During the ceremony the chief prophetess would sit on a platform or special chair whilst her companions would chant sacred songs and she fell into a trance.  It was believed that her soul left her body and soared over the earth giving her great wisdom and insight.  The ‘volur’ would carry a wand of alder to signify her power as a representative of the goddess.

In the final chapters Sarah meets Thor and Aegir (sort of).  Thor was and is a very popular Viking god and as such much has been written about him.  He is the god of thunder, lightening, wind, rain, physical strength, good weather and crops.  As such he was very popular among the farmers of the Viking countryside.  His hammer was called Mjollnir, archaeologically his popularity can be attested to by the significant numbers of hammer pendents found.  He was regarded as a straightforward and reliable god even if he was not the sharpest knife in the draw.  Aegir is regarded as the god of the sea and fishing and would be well known to the sons of Geir.  It is not unusual for sudden and violent storms to sweep across the Baltic, sometimes it is even possible to think that have been sent by the gods…

A Thor hammer pendent (modern design by Hayman Celtic Jewellery).thors-hammer

 

On a final note, sacrifices to the gods and goddesses were common.  The kind of sacrifice made would very much depend on what you wanted.  They could range from a simple offering of food at a field-side shrine for a good harvest to the death of an prize animal or even in some cases a person perhaps in exchange for success in battle.  It went without saying that a simple prayer to deity was not enough, there must be payment if you wanted them to listen.

 

 

Character Back Stories

 

Every storyteller knows to get the attention of their audience the characters need to be believable, to have an realism.  It is not unusual to hear people say, “I know someone like that” or “Gosh, doesn’t that sound like Aunty Mabel?”  For the characters to be believable the storyteller will give their main characters a history.  Their history might not be obvious or told to you directly within the story but it is there all the same.

Below is the back story or histories of several of the main characters in the Sarah Tremayne series.  

Sarah Tremayne

Sarah is the only child of Michael and Julia Tremayne, born on the night of a full moon at the beginning of May 1999.  Her memories of her early years are ones filled with laughter and love until disaster struck.  At the age of eight years her mother was killed in nasty car accident on the A30.  Sarah remembers that day well, it was the day her happy, innocent world came crashing down around her ears.  Her father, in his grief forgot he had a daughter, retreating into the past and his work.

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By the time Sarah was ten her father in his wisdom decided running wild over the moors and cliffs of Cornwall was not the best education for a young lady, so he sent her to boarding school.  St Bridget’s School For Young Ladies was nothing like any of the stories Sarah had read about.   It was, in her words, ‘stuffy, pretentious, stuck up and full of girls’.  Not being the girly girl sort Sarah had very little patience with those who were more concerned with hairstyles, who’s wearing what and what shade of nail polish goes best with the orange tank they just bought at Top Shop.

Perhaps it was a personality thing, Sarah didn’t like the school and the school (and just about everyone in it) didn’t like Sarah.  Apparently she has an independent (or should that be stubborn) streak which did not please people.   Her lack of conformity made her enemies among almost all the girls and her lack of toeing the line made her enemies among all the staff.  However, as with all good stories there was Rose among these thorns – Rosie – Sarah’s lifeline and best friend.   Why they were such good friends was anyone’s guess, Rosie was the opposite to Sarah – calm, quiet, studious and rock solid.  It was Rosie that made life bearable at school. But (and there is always a but) all that changes when Rosie’s father loses his high paying job in the City taking the family – Rosie included – back to his family home in Orkney.

It wasn’t long until things went horribly pear shaped for Sarah and a run in with the school bully found Sarah walking calmly out the school gates and to the nearest train station.  Heading for the place of her heart – Cornwall, Zennor and Nan.

 

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Map of Cornwall fom 1785

 

Nan

Nan is the mother of Michael Tremayne (Sarah’s Dad).  She lives in the little hamlet of Zennor on the north coast of West Penwith in the county of Cornwall.  Living in the cottage she was born in and her mother was born in and her mother before her.

 

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The village of Zennor (by R Hughes – geograph.co.uk)

 

 

Nan is a small bird-like woman with eyes that see more than they should – don’t try to lie to her, she will know!  Her two great loves are her herb garden and her dog (Brad the dog).  It is not unusual to hear her chatting away to the giant yellow Labrador whilst tending her garden.  Considered eccentric by those too young to know better she is Sarah’s safe haven, her arms and heart giving lots of hugs and love when it was needed most.

 

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The inspiration for Brad the Dog.

 

Nan’s personal history is one of non-conformity (it might be genetic), at the age of eighteen she found herself pregnant and without a husband.  To this day no one knows who Michael’s father was and many are sure that Nan herself doesn’t know either.   Bringing up her son on her own in the face of the gossips resulted in a personality that tells it like it is – woe and betide any who don’t agree.

Professor Michael Tremayne

A professor in archaeology, currently living and working in London.  His love of archaeology stems from a chance find on the slopes of Zennor Hill, that looms over the hamlet of Zennor.  His second great love was his wife Julia.  They met by chance (?) on a lonely path that winds itself along the high points of West Penwith, she stumbled into his arms twisting an ankle on the uneven surface.  The rest was history.

For the Professor life was never quite the same after Julia had her accident.  Although his mother encouraged him to face the world again for the sake of Sarah, every time he looked at his daughter he was reminded of Julia.  He retreated to London sinking ever deeper into his work leaving Sarah to be brought up by his mother.

The night before Sarah’s thirteenth birthday he had a dream.  He remembered the day she was born and how happy he had been, he remembered Julia’s words, “be there for her, always, no matter what, promise me”.  Waking up he realised that he had not kept that promise.  It was too late to fix the past but he made the decision that all would change and that very morning he got into his battered old jeep and headed for Sarah’s school.

Julia Tremayne

Not a lot can be said about Julia, she arrived at Zennor with a twisted ankle and never left until the day she was killed in a car accident on the A30.

Unbeknownst to her new family she was one of an ancient group called the Mhyres an Loor or Daughters of the Moon.  Very little is known about the Daughters as they hold their secrets very close (and I don’t want to spoil things for the readers of future books).

 

There is a lot to be said for a mysterious mother figure…

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