Abi Elphinstone: How Scottish Childhood Landscapes Inspired 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.
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.
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.
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