Good Reading : June 2009
behind the book Kate with her children far, far away The story for KATE FORSYTH’s young adult novel The Puzzle Ring came to her when she was a child. She tells gr about taking her young family to her ancestral country of Scotland to finally research and write the book. I was born in Sydney, Australia, and have lived here all my life. Yet the stories I grew up on were the old tales of the Scottish Highlands – stories of fugitive princes, martyred queens, seals that turned into beautiful girls, and lochserpents lurking in the depths. This is because the old tales of Scotland were passed down through the generations of my family, told to my grandmother, Joy Mackenzie-Wood, by her grandmother, Ellen Mackenzie, who was born in Scotland in 1840. Nonnie, my grandmother, was a wonderful storyteller, and knew great reams of poetry off by heart. Her two elder sisters, Aunty Clarice and Aunty Gwen, lived in a house with tartancovered chairs, paintings of stags and lochs, and bookcases laden with Scottish fairytales and history. Aunty Clarice kept shortbread in a tin with a photo of Eilean Donan Castle on it, and as she passed us the tin she always told us it was the Mackenzie family’s castle. ‘It was bombed by the English,’ she would tell us, in a voice with the faintest trace of a Scottish accent (despite being 28 goodreading ı JUNE 2009 born in Australia). ‘The Mackenzies had risen for the Old Pretender, and had Spanish soldiers hidden there with hundreds of barrels of gunpowder. The English took the castle and blew it up. They say the ghost of one of the soldiers still walks there, his head under his arm.’ We were thrilled by this story, and by tales of how Robert the Bruce was saved by a spider, and Bonnie Prince Charlie by a brave young woman called Flora Macdonald. I can remember Nonnie telling me how Mary, Queen of Scots escaped a gang of men who had murdered her Italian secretary. Poor David Rizzio was stabbed 56 times – one stab by each of the conspirators. His blood flowed down and stained the floor where he fell. ‘It can still be seen,’ Nonnie told me, in a low, dramatic voice, ‘even though so many hundreds of years have passed.’ Mary, Queen of Scots was taken captive but she escaped the palace that night, climbing down from her window on a rope made of knotted bedclothes. She was seven months pregnant with the future king of Scotland. A week later, she rode back at the head of an army, and defeated the rebels. That story began my lifelong fascination with Scotland’s most famous queen. One of my favourite family stories – just as romantic and tragic as any in Scottish history – was about my grandmother’s grandmother, Ellen Mackenzie. Orphaned when only a girl, she and her sister Jane were sent to Australia in 1858 by her uncle, who took control of the family estate. My sister and I always thought this was most unfair, and used to dream about going back to Scotland and winning back Ellen’s home as our own. In our imagination Ellen and Jane were wronged, the uncle was cruel, and her home was a beautiful old castle, on the shores of a loch, with all sorts of romantic secrets waiting to be discovered. We hoped that one day a mysterious letter would arrive, summoning us back to Scotland and our lost inheritance … I wrote a novel with just that storyline in 1977, when I was ten years old, called Far, Far Away. And then, 31 years later, I wrote it again, showing Ben, Tim (hiding behind his mum) and Ella at Eilean Donan.