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Witches, Burning, Butties, and Beer

Normally, I have no idea where that first elusive spark for a novel comes from. Sometimes a scene just pops into my head, sometimes it’s a title, but for Close To The Bone it happened in a borrowed estate car driving around the South Island of New Zealand in 2009. Oh, hark at me with the international travel.

 
 
Before the book tour kicked in, I had a whole week to explore the place and I was lucky enough to get an invite from fantasy novelist, map maker extraordinaire, and geographer Russell Kirkpatrick to join him on a road trip around some of the most stunning scenery in the world. We’d never met before, but he’d volunteered to share a car with a total stranger for seven days in the depths of the Antipodean winter. We saw the eerie round boulders in the surf at Moeraki, bought gloves and woolly hats in rain-drenched streets of Dunedin, cheered on the dirty penguins at Oamaru, stood in the footsteps of Gandalf and Wolverine, stood atop a glacier, and had one of the nastiest dinners in the history of mankind at a restaurant with a pirate in the window. We swapped stories, talked about writing, did manly outdoorsy things, and played music at each other.

And that’s when the spark arrived. Russell introduced me to a band called The Mars Volta (I retaliated with Biffy Clyro) and their album Octahedron. Now on that album there is a song called “Teflon,” and in that song there is a chorus about burning wheels and stacking tyres up to someone’s neck. And in those lyrics was the first spark of Close To The Bone.

The second didn’t come till three years later.

I’d heard for years that Aberdeen was quite unique in Scotland because the city would save up its witches and burn them all in one go to save money. Because, or so the scurrilous rumours go, Aberdonians are tight with their money. Then one day, in the pub, I mentioned this to a friend of mine who just happens to be the chief historian for Aberdeen City Council, Chris Croly, and he put the record straight. Aberdeen just happens to have the most intact financial record for any council in Scotland, going back centuries, and a couple of days later he took me up to the archives to look at them. The archives are a strange place; you’re not allowed to take a pen into the room because some people, when they discovered their great-great-great-great granny wasn’t a milliner after all, but made all her money down at the docks “being nice to sailors,” would attempt to change history with a biro. But the archive holds documents dating back to the thirteenth century and they’ll happily dig them out and show them to you. For free! As long as you don’t scribble on them …

Anyway, in 1597 there was major witchcraft panic—over five months around thirty people were burned at the stake. It was all there in the records: to kill Christen Mitchell, Bessie Thom, and Issobell Barroun all at the same time cost: eight shilling for the rope needed (two fathoms per person), three pounds and ten shillings worth of peat, two pounds for tar barrels, one pound ten shillings of wood. The stake they were all tied to cost sixteen shillings and eight pence. And the executioner, Jon Justice, got a pound for his trouble and not a penny more. All of it, meticulously recorded for posterity.

The reason the three women were burned together had nothing to do with saving them up to keep costs down, but all to do with the way witch-panics worked. One poor sod would be accused by a neighbour with a grudge—or a landowner who wanted them evicted, or a jilted lover—brought in for “questioning,” and tortured until they confessed to being a witch. Now, unfortunately for thousands of souls, King James VI was an idiot. He’d become spooked by a coven in North Berwick, who managed to convince him they were in league with the devil. Jamie Boy believed them and the template was set for panics up and down the country. The king said witches were in league with the devil and they operated in covens, so it must be true (he even wrote and published a book about it: Daemonologie). That meant the “questioning” wasn’t just about getting a confession that the beaten, shaved, bleeding, humiliated victim was a witch, but getting them to name co-conspirators too. And, under torture, they would: naming anyone they could to get it to stop. The people they named would be arrested and “questioned” too, kicking the whole cycle off again. Which meant you could start Monday with one witch in the cells and by the time Wednesday rolled around you had four. Everyone knew witches were dangerous things—the king said so, and they were in league with the devil, after all—and had to be got rid of ASAP. So they did …

All this time, those lyrics heard on my trip around New Zealand had been festering in the dark recesses of my mind and now they had something to latch onto. I could have a modern day witch hunt, with necklacing being the new burning at the stake. And to give it all a framework, I could indulge in a little convoluted naughtiness—for many years, I’ve been wanting to write an alternative history thriller; why not pretend that book already existed and someone was turning it into a Hollywood-style blockbuster? So, in Close To The Bone, they’re doing just that.

What started as a road trip ended up as a book about obsession, madness, and belief, all leavened with a hefty dollop of very, very dark, very Scottish humour. That’s probably why you’re not supposed to get into cars with strange men.

Stuart MacBrideis the best-selling author of the crime fiction series featuring Scottish Detective Sergeant Logan McRae. Close to the Bone is the eighth book in the series and will be available from HarperCollins on May 14, 2013.

 

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