Wednesday, March 13, 2013

Witches on Wednesdays - travel and the landscape

Early comments from readers indicate that many are enjoying the historical details of the Taskill Witches series. This is wonderful news! I thought this week I would share a bit about the landscape of the books, and in particular what travel would have been like in the early 1700s -- because that influences the way the stories unfold and the limitations set upon the characters by their circumstances. The stories are in part adventures, and the characters are in danger and often on the run. It was important to be as accurate as I could when considering travel.

As previously mentioned, the books are set in Lowlands Scotland. Whilst the Lowlands are not as wild and dramatic as the Highlands, the region is still marked by rugged coastline and rolling, often steep hills. It would have been rough terrain in the early 1700s. The only way to travel would have been by foot, by horse, or by horse and cart/carriage. There were no roads as we would understand it, at best there would have been tracks or lanes where the most direct and most frequently traveled routes had been worn in by travelers.

We have to surmise that for everyday folk, a rider on a horse would have been the quickest way to travel, because a horse pulling a cart or carriage on some of the roughest terrain would be slower. Wealthier people who could afford a team of horses – which they could purchase or hire – could move about more quickly. In my reading it became apparent that for those without wealth, hiring a horse and cart would have been out of their reach financially. How did everyday people move their goods about? If a person needed to move home, they often pulled their worldly goods on a wooden sledge-like device. It makes me tired just thinking about it!

In books 1 and 2, THE HARLOT and THE LIBERTINE, the stories are mostly set in Fife, around St Andrews, along the coast to the East Neuk, with parts of the stories in Dundee and Edinburgh. One of the challenges of portraying a journey during a historic period is knowing how long it would take, given the terrain. As writers we strive to make this as accurate as possible because we don't want to pull anyone out of the story by suggesting an arduous journey was just a hop, skip and a jump away.

On one of the writer's loops I am on I chatted about this problem and a fellow author had a great suggestion. Use the Google maps feature to assess the distance, but do it by pedestrian route. That way you're going to get a reasonably accurate idea of how long the journey might have taken in the past. I must admit it's something I never thought of doing for longer journeys, but it works and it proved really helpful. For example, a walking journey from St Andrews to Edinburgh would be about 51 miles and take around 17 hours on foot, with part of that journey by ferry across water. That way I estimated that by foot would take a couple of days, but I could just about have a character travel a similar route by carriage within one day - but only if they left at the very whip crack of dawn!

In my reading and my research in the museums, it became apparent how varied life could be even in one region. In the small villages around the coast, life frequently revolved around the daily catch. In the cities, it was markedly different. During the 18th-century Edinburgh was one of the most densely populated cities in Europe. If you visit Edinburgh today you can get a really good idea of this side of city life by visiting the People's Story Museum  and the Museum of Edinburgh. The majority of people lived in rented rooms in tenements which were overcrowded, unsanitary, and a huge fire risk. When I learned about this side of city life, I decided that one of the darker characters in THE LIBERTINE would be a landlord, with his own burly henchman who collected rent from impoverished tenants! Lennox, the hero, uses fire in order to rescue the woman he loves. Such was the fear of fire getting out of control, that it's a powerful weapon when he chooses to use it! ;-)

The three Taskill siblings, Jessie, Maisie, and Lennox, were born in the Highlands and the ultimate goal of each character is to find each other again and to return to the Highlands where they would not be persecuted for witchcraft. In this snippet from THE LIBERTINE the heroine, Chloris, reflects on the differences between the city life that she has known in Edinburgh, and what might life might be like in the Highlands:

As the coachman guided the carriage toward the older part of the city, where the well-to-do merchants had their homes, they passed through the more cluttered and ramshackle parts of the town. Here the street vendors and traders sold their goods on either side of the narrow track left for the carriage, and noxious smells rose from the gully at either side of the street.
The coachman yelled from his perch, warning people out of his path. The man was weary, having been told to deliver Chloris and fast about it.
As she glanced out of the carriage Lennox's description of the Highlands whispered through her mind. Previously she had assumed it a lonely, barren place, only fit for sheep and wild Gaelic speakers, but Lennox's words had reformed her Lowlands' view of the heathen north. What he had described to her was a romantic place, a place where people could live and love without censure, a place where kin, clan, and coven were cherished. On that last fateful meeting he'd also told her that it would be hard, that they would have to build a new life together. It was a dream that would never be realized, an impossible dream. And now that she was forced back to the life she had known before, the yearning she had for Lennox and a life with him twisted like a knife in her chest. 
The bitter irony of her situation made her eyes smart with unshed tears. She'd almost been ready to abandon her fears and leave with Lennox, and instead she had to return to the pitiful existence she'd had before, in order to protect him and his people.

The other town in THE LIBERTINE is St Andrews. St Andrews is the religious capital of Scotland, an ancient pilgrim site, and has a very different feeling to Edinburgh. As a visitor nowadays it feels more like a seaside market town, and that is reflected in the novel.

In the third book, THE JEZEBEL, I was able to explore the fastest way to travel during the early 1700s – by boat or ship. Even though travel by sea was fraught with its own set of problems, it was still much quicker than going overland. In THE JEZEBEL, Maisie Taskill has to travel from London to the Highlands of Scotland, to escape her keeper, and to reunite with her kin. Here's a snippet:

Inhaling the damp saltiness in the air, she breathed in gratefully. Out here on the ocean waves the elements wound their way into her, lighting her spirit. It called to her. Nature was more vivid out there and as the ship drifted over the waves, freed of land and the trappings of civilized life, it harkened her back to her memories of her young early life in the Highlands, where people lived much closer to the elements and to the seasons, moving within the rhythms of time and tide.
Maisie peered across the water at the distant shoreline. It was too far away for her to see the details but she saw the colors of the cliffs and the changing height of the coastline, the occasional bay marked by a blur of cottages. She tried to gauge how fast they were traveling. It was so hard to tell, but she knew it was faster than traveling on land by coach. That's why she had tried to find a ship to take her. Besides, the ship continued to travel through the night, aided by the tides and the wind in the sails, making progress where a coach and horses would have to rest at an inn overnight. A break in her journey like that might mean her master would find her.
A dark shiver went through her as she considered what Cyrus's reaction to her absence might have been. She tried not to think upon it—tried to convince herself that he would not pursue her. That was futile. He had invested many years in her, nurturing her craft, using it to further his progress in government matters.

The ship Maisie travels aboard is bound for Dundee and her original plan is travel onwards from there by horse/carriage and on foot to the Highlands – a long, gruelling journey. However, because the ship's captain comes to the rescue, the onward journey from Dundee to the Highlands is done by ship as well. In my reading, I found that quite common, the North Sea was teeming with ships and the coastal waters around Scotland – though treacherous - were busy with ships transporting goods.

If you are interested in the landscape of historic Scotland, Old Roads of Scotland is a great resource.

I'll do a separate post about books on witchcraft that have been particularly interesting later on, but I want to recommend this book, A History of Everyday Life in Scotland, 1600 to 1800, as a really good primer for what life was like for ordinary people during the period. The book is set out as a series of academic papers and there's heaps of useful information there for historians and writers. 

Next Wednesday I'll post little bit about law and order during the period. If you are reading the Taskill books and have any questions about the period or background details please post them on any of these Witches on Wednesday's blog posts and I'll do my best to answer them!

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