Reviews

Book Review – The Witches of Culross by Rowan Morrison

Book Review

The Witches of Culross

by Rowan Morrison

Self-published

217 Pages

Release Date: July 19, 2023

 

 

 

 

As a historical fiction novel during the Scottish witch trials, there is a lot to unpack here. Overall the novel was incredibly vivid and captivating. The many women who were accused of witchcraft and ultimately killed for it were beautiful people, and the author has done them and their stories justice. They were simply women who tried to be mothers and daughters in peace but unfortunately lived in an era of wicked patriarchy.

The author, Rowan Morrison, describes in striking detail the women’s ordeal of being tortured into confessing and then publicly executed in front of their families and children. At certain points in the novel, there were such graphic scenes that it was horrifying and challenging to read. However, I believe it is crucial that the stories of these women and the atrocities they endured be preserved for future generations – which was the end goal of the author.

One thing to keep in mind is that walking blindly into this book may be overwhelming for some. If one is unfamiliar with the brutality and obscenities that took place during the era of witch trials in Scotland and Europe in general, one will be walking directly into the experiences of women who were raped, beaten, tortured, and so on. There was no trigger warning at the beginning of the book, so I feel that after reading it – it’s definitely something I want to mention to future readers. The novel is historical fiction, yes, and filled with tons of magical and folkloric aspects. These aspects however go hand in hand with violent scenes and many physical violations of women that are described in pristine detail. The author did a phenomenal job at tugging my heartstrings and making me physically and mentally feel the injustice of the innocent women who were burned to death, and worse if you can even imagine what is worse than that.

Before delving into the characters and the storyline in general, it’s best for future readers to also understand that there are several hundred words in the book that are not in modern English. This aspect required me to reference the back of the book (which has a substantial list of non-modern English words). For the first few hours of time spent with the novel, The Witches of Culross (pronounced Coo-riss), I spent a large portion of time referencing the definitions provided by the author of the Scottish English, Gaelic, and so on. This means, much of the initial reading time was spent translating what the characters in the book were saying and discussing. So, although the story is compelling, the reader will most certainly be looking up word meanings and phrases very frequently to try and decipher bits and pieces of the story. Due to looking up words, meanings, and names, it took me almost an hour just to get through the first chapter and actually comprehend what was going on.

“This inky cauldron of historical fact and fiction is dedicated to the accused witches who lived in a small town called Culross (pronounced Coo-riss) on the north shore of the Linne Foirthe (Firth of Forth). This royal burgh was built on the backs of the indentured. It was a time when whole families were bound to the slaves. It was a time when the word WYTCH awaited in the either to condemn innocents to death. It was a time when the blue skies of Scotland were lit with dancing flames fuelled by the flesh of burning women. May their souls rest in eternal peace with their ancestors.”
– Rowan Morrison, The Witches of Culross

The beginning of the novel is jam-packed with wonderful imagery. I was instantly taken to a place back in time, the year 1630 in Scotland, where majestic women called “taibhsear” existed in a world that would ultimately wrong them for simply being who they were. If you’re unfamiliar with the term, people who possess “dà-shealladah”, the second sight, which allows them to see spirits, are referred to as Taibhsear (pronounced tive’sher). Its literal meaning is “seer of the dead.” Taibhsear is not a personal name but rather a social designation. It was possible for Taibhsears to peer into both the afterlife and the present day. As a result, people began having glimpses of things like loved ones’ impending deaths.

The novel becomes incredibly interesting once past the initial few chapters, which take time to get through after you decipher the language. When we start to see the perspective of the “witch” and learn about her “two sights,” the story really starts to unfold. Catherine Mitchell, the initial main character and narrator of the novel, weaves together her reality throughout the story, which spans multiple generations that include mothers, daughters, and grandmothers. In the first few chapters of the book, readers are introduced to ideas of witches, witchcraft, viewpoints on reincarnation, discussions of Scottish poets such as Elizabeth Melville (who was the earliest known female writer in Scotland to see her work in print), the issue of how women were treated at the time, witch trials, the viewpoint of the Calvinists and their church, and much more. The Calvinist beliefs, in my opinion, easily fueled the “witch” burnings. The main idea of their belief system is as follows: According to Calvinists, everyone’s everlasting fate was predetermined at the beginning of time when God chose a small number of souls to bestow salvation. The only two possible outcomes are “you were chosen” or “you were not chosen.”

The historical novel which provides tons of facts will have the reader sitting on the edge of their seat with suspense, but simultaneously learning history and more due to the careful construction of this book by the author Morrison. One aspect that I noticed frequently throughout the book was the combination of Paganism and Christianity. The concepts of good and evil and god and the devil are rapidly found on the pages in this book. The book provides insight into the viewpoint of the said “witches” of Culross who frequently call the priest a “devil”. Based on the definition of the word in Christian and Jewish belief, it is rightfully so for him to be named that. The fluency between concepts of god and devil and good and evil can be found as an underlying theme in the book.

The strong history of pre-Christian Scotland is also mentioned in the book.

“Visions, that meant our kind were once exalted and buried in high places, are never to be spoken of.”

The narrator MC makes it clear that taibhsears were not always associated with evil or the “devil”. The people in that time period may have believed that visions seen may have come directly from God, and not Satan. It seems like in many ways there is a blurred line. These women who were accused of witchcraft and burned for it also believed in old ways, yet also may have potentially believed in God. It’s interesting to note that the witches burned may in fact, not have been full-blown Pagans.

One of the most unforgettable details about this novel is the way women were treated in 1600s Scotland. The author has done such an impeccable job at making readers feel every single last bit of what those women felt. The wild woman is within all women, and she is certainly present in this novel.

“Contrition was not an act that came easily to me. I was everything that righteous men frowned upon in a woman. I did not like to bend like a tree in the wind to the will of men. My mind was sharp and my tongue was blunt. The Kir’s religious restrictions that bound women to submission, were in opposition to my impulsive nature. Visions of death had left me with a craving for life, like an unbearable itch that needed to be scratched.”
– The Witches of Culross

In the above quote, we hear the internal thoughts of our main character and narrator, Catherine Mitchell. In this scene, she describes what daily life was like for women at the time, what it felt like to not agree with the men who murdered them, and how she felt about facing her own death. Early on in the book the narrator describes women being “punished” for giving birth to children while unwed. At the same time, the men who impregnated these women were able to walk free. With the extreme amount of rape mentioned in the book, I found this fact quite unsettling and disturbing.

I was hooked by the third chapter, thanks in large part to the developing relationship between Catherine Mitchell and James Sands. “My attention went back to the man with steel blue eyes who unknowingly held my heart.” With lines like that, it was hard to keep away from the story. The introduction of the character Isobell Inglis helped this fact as well. This chapter has a funny moment, which is a nice touch. The first two chapters were somewhat gloomy, but they worked well to convey the grim reality of women’s treatment during the witch hunts of that era. The craze over “witches” was so insane that at one point our main character tells the reader that priests would find women who picked berries off of bushes and ate them directly from bushes would be considered “unruly”. Actions like collecting bits and pieces of nature like seashells or sand, would be considered witchcraft. If such small things like these are considered witchcraft, it is no wonder at all why so many innocent women were raped, tortured, beaten, and burned just for the viewing pleasure of men who committed these acts under the law of “God”. Despite these harsh moments the author gifts us with small portions of sweetness with lines like, “The honeyed words of love that came from his lips found their way to the empty spaces inside me” or “I knew he loved me the same way the sea loves the moon.” These moments were a relief for me from the anguish and horrors that I read about these women living and dying through.

Death is one of the most prominent themes throughout this well-thought-out novel. There is mention of murder, suicide, and death by the bubonic plague. The theme of death is strung vividly throughout the pages and still, there was not any mention of any trigger warning at the beginning of the book that I can recall. As a Circulation Clerk in a library and a woman who reads non-stop, I found it odd that a trigger warning was not mentioned. If the author did this intentionally, I would personally assume that it is due to the fact that the author wants the reader to truly experience and see what happened to the women of Culross. This historical fiction novel loaded with facts is not sugar-coated in the slightest way and although I personally didn’t need the trigger warning, I’m sure some people would. Either way, I appreciate the boldness of the author for somehow finding a way to construct the sentences throughout the book as they are writing about their homeland, and the women who came before them.

“The ancient thread that had bound our souls, had finally brought us back together. Time itself, could not sever a bond that was once woven into the fabric of fate.”

This quote taken directly from the book corresponds to a delicate scene, but also the fact of what I’ve mentioned – the author paying tribute to her ancestral land and to the women who died there.

Literary elements included foreshadowing and beautiful imagery. The book also showcases the strong love between women, specifically mothers and daughters. Being that this is a multi-generational story, it really displayed how the witch trial craze that blazed across Europe and (most present here in the novel) Scotland, affecting multiple generations for years and years. It kind of puts in perspective to the reader the amount of trauma people hold and carry within their bloodlines, and how it is passed down from one generation to the next. We carry the traumas of our ancestors, but they are always there guiding us. This is a personal belief of mine, but also one that the author clearly displays in her magical book. I recommend this book, and despite the parts that were challenging to read – I hold this book dear to my heart! The passion and dedication the author put into this book blew me away.

About the Author

Scottish storyteller Rowan Morrison was born in a culture rich in tradition and myth. Morrison thinks stories are magical because when they are told or read aloud, the words become images that come to life and move through the listener’s or reader’s mythic imagination.

Words from the author:

“I tell and write in the ‘mither’ tongue, as Scots vernacular is incredibly beautiful. It was important to use Scots for the limited dialogue in The Witches of Culross. I wanted the language to be authentic, like the folk magic contained within the salty pages of the book. I was born a taibhsear with a strong connection to the spirits of the otherworld, to flora and fauna. I believe it is both a blessing and a curse. A lot of my own experiences of the second sight are contained within the pages of my book. I learnt my craft from the spirits that spoke to me in the darkness, the ancient land of my birth, the traditions of my ancestors, the fairy faith, witchcraft, healers of old and follow in the footsteps of the wise women that have walked before me.”

Learn more about the author here: www.rowanmorrison.co.uk

 

The Witches of Culross on Amazon

 

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About the Author:

Kimberly Anne is a USA freelance writer and Library Circulation Clerk from Chicago, Illinois. She holds a bachelor’s degree with honors in Creative Writing and English Literature. Kimberly Anne is also a member of the International English Honor Society. After devoting a decade to the personal study of global mythology, she began writing about mythology and ancient literature. She focuses primarily on Nordic, Germanic, and Slavic witchcraft and paganism. Kimberly is the official amanuensis of Patricia Robin Woodruff, PhD, MDiv. She spends her spare time communing with Landvættir, hugging trees, and chatting with her magical cats since she is a dedicated polytheist who also believes in animism. You can find her in the book stacks or on social media at @kimberlyanneinc