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Beasts, Monsters & Changing Tales

writing a fairytale

I love the old tales about battling monsters. It’s a real honour to have been awarded a grant from Creative Scotland to fund work on my current project over the course of the summer. This is a modern Scottish fairytale, written with the plan that it will form the text of an illustrated book for young readers.

My hero is a young boy (from modern-day Edinburgh) while my heroine is the sole surviving child of her family (in past-day, fairytale Edinburgh), having lost her three older brothers to the monster.

For the monster, I’ve taken my inspiration from the Nuckelavee – an Orcadian monster, a man fused to the body of a horse. Some parts of him are different to the original one. I figure this is par for the course - fairytales often mutate with each re-telling, their core elements staying the same while details change.

I think this happens more strikingly when the stories cross linguistic borders.

On a previous project I had as my source material an old folk-tale recorded in Gaelic on South Uist, in the Hebrides, and held at the School of Scottish Studies. In the course of my research into the story, I realised that it was a re-telling of a Catalan folk tale, which had been collected and translated into English by Andrew and Leonora Lang in a book of fairy stories.

This story must have then found its way to the Hebrides, where it changed into a new (but similar) version, and was re-told in Gaelic as a local, oral folk-tale.

In the Hebridean version, the hero is the youngest of three poverty-stricken sons, whose two older brothers failed in the quest; they have built a church to raise money, and need some holy water for it. In the original Catalan version, the hero is actually a heroine. She is the youngest offour wealthy children, whose three older brothers failed in the quest; they have built a palace, and then a church, and need some holy water for it. For anyone who’s interested, the story in English translation is ‘The Water of Life’, and it’s in Lang’s Pink Fairy Book.

I've been enjoying researching old Edinburgh, especially the area around Holyrood Palace and Dumbiedykes, as well as the High Street and the Castle. How incredibly lucky that a new app launched last month, which gives you a virtual tour of16th-century Edinburgh. It's been so helpful (and fun) to be able to virtually zoom around and get a feel for the streets at the time.

Big thanks to Creative Scotland for the funding as well as SmartHistory for this very handy app!

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