Abi Elphinstone: How Scottish Childhood Landscapes Inspired The Night Spinner

A map, drawn by illustrator Thomas Flintham, from Abi's latest book The Night Spinner

When I sit down to write a book, the first thing I do is draw a map because it is only when my characters start moving from place to place that a plot unfolds. For my third book, The Night Spinner, I drew a railway line leading to a huddle of houses at the foot of a glen, then I sketched a river splitting a forest of silver birches before curving west through the moorland and spilling out to sea. I doodled a castle further north, and a cluster of islands beyond that, then a ring of snow-capped peaks rising into the clouds.

I named this fictional setting the Northern Wilderness, but as I looked at it I realised this world was only partly invented. Because I have walked through The North Door, I have run over the Rambling Moors, I have climbed The Barbed Peaks and I have swum between the Lost Isles. This was a map of my childhood and every place listed was somewhere in Scotland that I had explored as a young girl.

The blue door leading to the river and the folly
I grew up just outside a village called Edzell, in Angus. I always did have a feeling that there was something magical about where I lived, and about one walk that I used to do with family, in particular. After you leave Edzell, you cross an old stone bridge and then, on your left, there is a little blue door. You could miss it if you didn’t know it was there, but my parents knew about it and they pushed it open. And what lay beyond could well have been Narnia. On the left, thundering through a steep gorge, the North Esk River browned by peat from the moors and on the right, above the gorge, a little path that wove alongside rhododendron bushes, silver birches, beech trees and a long-forgotten folly. I watched salmon leap from the waterfalls, I read books tucked inside the folly and I listened to my father’s stories about trolls beneath the curved roots of an old beech tree.

That world beyond the Blue Door was a haven – a place where I felt magic might be possible after all – and I suppose it was only a matter of time before I borrowed it for one of my own stories. In The Night Spinner, Edzell becomes Glendrummie, the village Moll and her Tribe come across after stealing onto a train north as stowaways. The Blue Door becomes The North Door, the gateway to the northern wilderness which the Tribe must pass through to continue their quest. And the river beyond becomes the Clattering Gorge, home to a coven of terrifying witches.

Abi on the moor with her two dogs
We often take where we live for granted and assume that to find places of interest we have to travel for miles and miles. But I think we are often closer to stories than we realise. So, wherever you live, keep an eye out for the walks nearby just in case you, too, are poised on the edge of waterfalls and secret follies.

If the Blue Door showed me the magic of hidden nature, the moors taught me about the power of wild, open places. Every weekend my father would come into the kitchen holding an Ordnance Survey map and that meant we were going up onto the moors. Some days we’d look for eagles’ eyries; other days we’d skim stones across Loch Lee and listen to the stags bellowing. Sometimes we’d just sit beside the highest cairns watching the grouse pour over the heather. And out of those memories grew The Rambling Moors in The Night Spinner, complete with roaring stags, golden eagles and, inevitably, a goblin called Kittlerumpit (whose name I pinched from a Scottish retelling of the Rumpelstiltskin fairytale called Whuppity Stoorie) and a pack of hideous peatboggers.

So, if you’re struggling to come up with a story idea at home, take yourself off somewhere vast and still and silent. Without the din of traffic and the chatter of other people, stories are often easier to hear.

People swimming in Loch Duich
I didn’t only borrow Scottish places for The Night Spinner. I borrowed songs and mythical beasts, too. Fillie Crankie, the name of a bothy I place out on the Rambling Moors, was inspired by a tune ‘Killiecrankie’ that my younger brother used to play on the bagpipes. And one of the monsters I write about towards the end of the book stemmed from an icy swim across Loch Duich and my imagining if that loch, as well as Loch Ness, was home to a legendary beast. I often lean on legends or fiddle with fairytales to get the stories I want to tell so if you’re thinking about writing a story set up in Scotland, or a wild place like it, read about the selkies, wulvers and kelpies that already exist and use them to build your own creation.

I am a writer because the wilderness made me one – because the moors, glens and lochs in Scotland stamped a sense of wonder on my soul – and whatever book I write next, I know that The Night Spinner will remain closest to my heart. Writing it was like re-opening a (blue) door into my childhood and realising that there had been giants, witches and goblins there all along – it just took a while for me to find them.


My Top 5 Scottish Places To…

Read a book: inside Doulie Tower, beyond The Blue Door outside Edzell

Think up new stories: on the bench overlooking Loch Lee

Steal location names from: the Cairngorms

Create a magical creature: by the Rocks of Solitude, beyond The Blue Door outside Edzell

See a magical creature: the Fairy Pools on the Isle of Skye


Win a Night Spinner Pillowcase!

The NIght Spinner pillow case
The lovely folks at Simon and Schuster are giving away a fantastic, specially created Night Spinner pillowcase, which features the beautiful map from the novel (drawn by illustrator Thomas Flintham)! To be in with a chance of winning, just email us with the name of the real life Scottish location which inspired Fillie Crankie in The Night Spinner. The competition closes on Wed 1 March 2017 at 5pm.

Abi Elphinstone

The Night Spinner by Abi Elphinstone cover
Abi Elphinstone grew up in Scotland where she spent most of her childhood building dens, hiding in tree houses and running wild across highland glens. After being coaxed out of her tree house, she studied English at Bristol University and then worked as a teacher in Africa, Berkshire and London.

The Night Spinner is her third book and firmly establishes her as one of the most exciting children's writers to emerge in the last few years. You can follow her on Twitter and Instagram, visit her on Facebook or check out her website to find out more about her and her books. She also runs a children's books blog at www.moontrug.com.