Since the publication of my first novel, Castles of Steel and Thunder, a few people have asked me whether there was any specific inspiration behind the names of characters and places in the novel. The answer is yes, and I thought I’d write about some of that inspiration here. I’ve already written about the debt I owe Donald Omand’s Caithness: Lore and Legend, a collection of far-north folk tales I had the opportunity to illustrate back in High School. On some of the character names in the novel I’m also indebted to that book. Other naming inspiration came from place names across the wider Highlands, and various other methods authors often use to find things to call their characters (*gravestones*). I even used a variant spelling of my dog Brody’s name for one of the leading males, Brodie (I should note here that the two share few other similarities, and Castles of Steel and Thunder Brodie is infinitely better behaved). As a side note, it’s probably worth bearing in mind that if you ever find yourself talking to a writer, they may well be scanning your conversation for anecdotes, names, or other points of writerly interest (one of the characters in the sequel to Castles of Steel and Thunder is inspired by someone’s house name). So here is a little run-down of a few of the names in COSAT. Feel free to name your future children or pets after them. I’d be very happy if you did!
The name of the female lead in the novel is taken from Sysa, the name of a grassy hillock in the Caithness parish of Olrig, and the site of a well mentioned in the local “Piper of Windy Ha’ ” legend. According to that legend, the Piper of Windy Ha’ – a young man called Peter Waters – was enjoying a drink from the well when he encountered a fairy offering him a choice between becoming a preacher or being the best-known piper in the land. Inevitably, Peter chose the latter, leading him to a life of merry-making that culminated in him being carted away to Fairyland when he returned to meet with the fairy seven years later. In Castles of Steel and Thunder, Grey tells Sysa a legend based on this story (you can read much more about it in the book.)
The name of Sysa’s grandfather in the novel is derived from Grey Steil, an alleged robber, ruffian and freebooter who gave his name to a ruined castle here in Caithness at Loch Rangag. A bit like the Brody/Brodie comparison, Grey Steel and Grey Steil could not be more different (in Caithness: Lore and Legend Donald devotes a section to Grey Steil and one of his murderous campaigns). In contrast, the Grey of Castles and Steel and Thunder is a kind and loving parent figure, and his relationship with Sysa is one of my favourite elements of the story. I liked the name Grey, and also wanted to use the Steel surname (which would later come in handy of course, in the naming of both Steel Castle, and in the title of the book).
BRUAN, ELISE, ELVA & KRYSTAN
Bruan, Sysa’s father, is named after a ruined broch at Bruan, near Clyth, the site of another fairy abduction mentioned in Caithness: Lore and Legend. Sysa’s mother Elise is less connected to the Highlands – her name was inspired by an old friend of mine, who was very beautiful and also had a rather ethereal look. Elva – Sysa’s sister’s name – came from a gravestone (and if you are imagining me picking around cemeteries right now, I actually saw that particular gravestone on a TV segment). Krystan, the fairy, was named after another person of note in Lore and Legend, Cristan McPhail, a supposed witch harboured by two men near Spittal in the early 1700’s (apparently these two men were punished by being forced to sit in sackcloth ‘at the minister’s pleasure’ in front of the local church congregation. It appears that around that time in Caithness, frequent reference was made in Presbytery records to the existence of witches and their powers.)
LAVELLAN, ROGART, FYRISH & NEVER NIGHT
Lavellan (one of my favourite characters in the novel), is inspired by the real-life Lavellan, a giant shrew-type creature once believed to inhabit Caithness pools and rivers. In his book, Legends and Folklore of Scotland, R.S. Holland writes that the 18th century Welsh naturalist Thomas Pennant once visited Ousdale in search of the Lavellan. He didn’t find it, but was told that the preserved skin of the creature abided at a nearby farm. Apparently, the water the skin was soaked in was used to cure various ailments affecting livestock. Holland suggests that the Lavellan may have been a genuine animal, which had long since gone extinct.
Rogart, COSAT’s resident giant, is named after a place in Sutherland – the result of seeing the road sign on many trips down the A9 since childhood. Fyrish, the name of COSAT’s fairyland, is named after an Easter Ross landmark – a monument that sits atop hillside near Alness, and is said to represent the Gate of Negapatam in Madras. Finally, Never Night, the Fae folk’s name for Caithness, was inspired by a trip to the Highland Folk Museum in Newtonmore several years ago, where I saw an old poster breezily announcing trips to John O’Groats – ‘the land of the Never Night.’
The name stuck with me, conjuring thoughts of magic and drama.
That’s the thing about inspiration.
Just like magic, you never know when it’s going to strike.
Castles of Steel and Thunder is available in eBook and paperback format on Amazon. As a special lockdown offer, prices have been reduced to £4.99 (Kindle) and £7.99 (paperback) until the end of February 2021. You can find more details about the book, read some early reviews and purchase it here on Amazon. You can also read more about the story in the blog posts here and here.