Saturday, 5 October 2013

What’s In a Name?

My historical novel, The Beltane Choice, is set in areas covering northern England, and over the border hills into southern Scotland. The year is AD 71.

Why did I write about that particular era? It was simply because I loved teaching about Celts and Romans to my primary school classes in Aberdeenshire, north-east Scotland. There was such a lot we could discover about the influx of the Roman armies and how they dominated the land that was lived in by the Celtic tribes.

It was particularly good to be able to teach about how the further north the Roman armies marched, the less hospitable they found the landscape…and subsequently the more resistant they found the northern Celtic tribes. I chose that particular year since it was a crucial time for the Celts of Northern Britain. In the annals of Roman history, as in the works of Tacitus, the domination of the Brigantes of the north was strategically important for the Roman Empire. Subduing the Brigantes meant the Roman Army could march even further north, into the lands we refer to as Southern Scotland-in particular into the lands of the Celtic Selgovae. 

Vespasian -wikimedia commons
The island of Britannia was the last outpost of Europe to be conquered, The Roman Empire dominated pretty much everywhere else, and there was more than one determined Emperor who wanted to claim he had subdued the whole of the known world. In AD 69 Vespasian (Titus Flavius Vespasianus) became the Emperor of the mighty Roman Empire. He was no stranger to Britannia since he had been part of the Claudian invasion in AD 43. By AD 71, Vespasian's commanders were infiltrating further and further north into the lands of the Brigantes. 
History isn’t everyone’s cup of tea, but it is mine, and I itched to use my scant factual knowledge in a work of fiction. The plot of The Beltane Choice changed over the different draft stages, but in essence what I wanted to contrive was some way of having a unity amongst normally warring Celtic tribes, in order for them to stand more united against the super-disciplined Roman legions. The relationship between my Nara of the Selgovae, and Lorcan of the Brigantes, became the lynchpin of the plot for The Beltane Choice.

Sometime around the year 2000 I visited Hadrian’s Wall country. Housesteads-a Roman Fort on Hadrian’s Wall, in Northumberland-was a great place to steep myself in the remains of a Roman encampment. I also visited the nearby Vindolanda, another Roman Fort, to get more background knowledge for teaching purposes. Travelling to those sites gave me some idea of what the countryside looks like. Some places change a lot over the centuries, but I can’t imaging the rolling hills of the North Pennines, and the Cheviot Hills, changing so drastically that they would have been vastly different. The lower slopes, I imagined, would have been much more wooded with mixed plantings, but the view from the high tops I could easily imagine.
The Scottish/English  Border present day
Some years later, when I wrote the first draft of my novel, I created my fictional landscape for The Beltane Choice. I’d never written a historical novel before so I contrived to find names I liked which had some authenticity. By that, I mean I took names from a fairly recent Ordinance Survey map. The names I honed in on were ones which had a particularly nice cadence, or ones which sounded like they, perhaps, had a Celtic connection from way back. I don’t speak Gaelic, and am not familiar with the Northumbrian dialect, so any names I chose were just because I liked, and wanted, to use them. I pulled up my memories of the landscape I’d travelled in during my Housesteads, trip and matched them up with my knowledge of Galloway in Scotland. The crannog village of Gyptus I set in a lake scene that stuck in my mind, though I can not recall which lake it was. It was definitely a smaller one in the Lake District of England.  

When it came to writing about the battle scenes with the Roman armies, I picked WHORL as the main place for the action. I have no way of knowing if there ever was an immense battle there, between Brigante tribes and the Roman army, but in my work of fiction that’s where it happened. I used other authentic place names, or very close to other names, for other places during my Roman/ Brigante conflict.

Roman history tells of conflict happening to the north of Eboracum (the current city of York) around AD 71, the Roman army settling back at the Eboracum garrison afterwards. Treaties were then signed between the Brigantes and the Roman Governor, Petilius Cerialis, to the effect that if the northern Celts did not attack Roman occupied areas, then the Romans would not attempt another surge north. Those same documents, written by Tacitus among others, state the agreements lasted some seven years before there was a change of Roman policy. By then Julius Agricola had been made Governor of Britannia and he wanted to show his worth by conquering the whole island. I used this basic piece of history as a part of the basic plot for The Beltane Choice. 

The next book in my Celtic series is due to be published on the 16th December. This novel continues the story of one of the secondary characters in The Beltane Choice. It is no accident that it is named
After Whorl - Bran Reborn.  

Look out for it coming. It's a story in itself, but I do recommend reading The Beltane Choice first! 

Since the final proof of After Whorl - Bran Reborn isn't quite signed off yet, you'll have to wait a little longer to read an early excerpt from it. However- you can enjoy a little excerpt, today, from The Beltane Choice:

The carnyx?
There was a moment of sheer silence before alarm ensued for the battle horn was rarely sounded except during celebrations. Or to herald war. Beltane well over, it was an alarm call, an impending threat to Garrigill. Warriors burst into the roundhouse, two exhausted messengers limping in behind them to deliver their devastating news.
“The Romans marched north-west from their base at Eboracum. They mobilised the whole Legion, and swamped the warriors of Swale the day of Beltane. Their Roman leader, Governor Petilius Cerialis, is determined to subdue the whole of the Brigante tribes and continues north.”
His companion continued. “They stop only to make overnight marching camps while the weather stays fair. They will be on the move again today. The hill fort at Whorl is now in their sight.” The man collapsed in a heap at Tully’s side, unable to stand any longer. “Rode the first part of our journey…ambushed by a scouting party close to Whorl…we came the rest on foot.”
With Lorcan and Brennus both gone from home, Gabrond and the top ranking warriors flooded the roundhouse. Nara made to leave them but was halted by Tully’s peremptory commands.
“Nara, you will take the place of my son.”
The others took up their positions. Which son Tully meant was not important. At a nod from her, Carn passed Tully a potion before he issued a breathless stream of orders.
Support for the Brigantes under attack was planned. Messengers were dispatched to nearby settlements requesting aid. Bran and Roc took over the mobilization of battle-ready warriors from Garrigill, as many as possible to support their besieged tribespeople of the southern areas.
That decision made, Tully turned to her.
“Make haste to the weapon store. Make sure all is well with the distributing of weapons, and fit yourself out. You can only do the work of a branded-warrior when kitted out properly.”
Tully’s words croaked with the suffering he attempted to suppress, for now he was pained in body and in heart; powerless to do anything physical to help his people.
Dashing to the weapon store, Carn’s father had already laid out every possible weapon that was in their armoury, alongside all the new ones lately fashioned. A sense of purposeful urgency dominated the movements of everyone around as Nara selected new weapons for herself.
Where was Lorcan? Was he safe?
“This short sword and that shield are likely to be a good weight for you, princess,” Carn’s father said as he selected weapons from the stockpile, handing them over to her as she hefted a spear of her choice to check its balance. A quick pick at the pile of small knives and she was ready. The long curved ended rectangular shield was indeed just right for her. Though she had never fought and killed in a real battle she was well trained and knew how to defend her body with the barrier.
Lorcan was well trained. Wherever he was he would be safe. Yet, her heart still fretted.
Since all was well with their organization at the weapon store, Nara headed to the horse enclosure. Gabrond and Feargus had selected which horses would go, and they were being made battle ready. Though not yet twenty summers old, Feargus was a most competent horseman and would travel with the herd.
“Eachna will remain at Garrigill,” Feargus told her. “Your filly will be available to you if you need her, but you must take over her daily care.”
His speech halted for a moment to clutch Carn to his side as she rushed to him, silent tears coursing down her cheeks, her arms circling his waist, almost squeezing the breath out of him.
“Why has Rowan not been allocated?” She was surprised to see the bold stallion still in the far field of the horse enclosures.
“Tully ordered he be left for Lorcan when he returns to Garrigill.”
“The horses will be seen to, Feargus. I pray the gods to stand with you.”


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