This book has been sitting in my “To Read” pile for some time and, I am ashamed to say, that it was the recent death of the author that prompted me to tread it. That is a shame because it is an excellent book.
It is about Skaaha, the Gaelic, possibly Pictish, woman warrior of Irish mythology. I should explain immediately that the spellings used by Janet Paisley are anglicised to help her readers to be able to pronounce the names and the Gaelic spelling, as written down by Irish monks a thousand years after the possible events is Sgathach or Scathach. Her sister’s name, Eefay is really spelled Aoife, and the same applies to many of the names of the other characters in the book. The only name that we know to be real is Cartimandua, but that is a Latinised version of a Celtic, possibly proto-Welsh, name. There is no evidence that Skaaha actually existed apart from the mythological poems of the Ulster Cycle But that is the case with all pre-Roman Celtic societies. Celtic society was not literate. It did not produce written records.
But this does not matter. This is not a history. It is a work of literary imagination, a story, a prose poem, an entertainment. It is something in which we know that the Celts excelled. Their enemies, the Romans, tell us this. Also, there is the evidence that two of the greatest Latin stylists, Virgil and Livy, came from Gallia Cisalpina, the Celtic lands along the Po Valley, south of the Alps. We do not necessarily have to believe everything that the Romans allege about Celtic drunkenness and licentiousness, as this was the Roman excuse for conquest, bringing “civilisation” to savages. It is, however, reasonable to assume that they had a totally different culture to that of the Romans.
This is the basis from which Janet Paisley starts. She creates a wholly believable culture in which women could be warriors or blacksmiths, in which they shared husbands, in which marriage was not for life, and in which women were held in high repute. We know this because Cartimandua was the Queen-Regnant of the Brigantes at the time of the Roman invasion, and Tacitus tell us that it was the public whipping of Queen Boudicca of the Iceni, and the rape of her daughters that led to the revolt that nearly drove the Romans from Britain. Although this is not a history, it does use what historical evidence is available to make sure that the story is believable.
And what a story it is. It is straightforward adventure thriller. Will Skaaha and Eefay survive the machinations of the villainous Queen Mara? Will the chief Druid, Suli, an old blind woman be able to guide Skaaha through the perils surrounding her? Will Skaaha sleep with Ruan the Druid or Fion the warrior? Or both? Will the enemy raids along the coast be successful? Or will Skaaha fight them off? It is an exciting tale, and you do care about what happens to the protagonists.
But it is also a tale about Celtic mythology, about the celebration of the great festivals of Imbolc, Beltane, Lughnasa (spelled Lunasa in the book) and Samhain (spelled Sowen). Of course, we have no idea how these festivals were celebrated. We can guess that Beltane was a fire festival because “tan” means fire in Welsh and we know the times of year at which they were celebrated. Indeed, we still celebrate May Day (Beltane), Lughnasa (Lammas), Samhain (Hallowe’en) and Imbolc (Winter Solstice) to this day. We do not know what happened even though the Romans tell us that they got drunk and had sex. Janet Paisley creates a believable spirituality for these festivals. That, in itself, is remarkable.
I do have some quibbles. In one scene, an eagle catches a rabbit in its claws. A hare would be plausible, but a rabbit in pre-Roman Britain is simply inaccurate. There are arguments about whether it was the Romans who introduced rabbits to Britain after the conquest of 43AD or the Normans after 1066, but it does not matter. There were no rabbits in Britain at the time that the story is set.
My other quibble is that Janet Paisley says, in the Author’s Note, at the end of the book that these islands were called Alba (Scotland) or Albion (England). She ignores the Welsh word Prydein completely although this is clearly the word from which the Romans derived the name of their province, Britannia. As a Welshman, I find it rather tiresome and annoying to be written out of our history, our shared history, in this way. There is clear evidence that Welsh was spoken in Scotland. Place names using the word Aber (confluence) give it away, as in Aberdeen, Aberfeldy, Aberlour and Abertay, give that away. So does the use of the word Strath for valley. The Welsh word is Ystrad, and refers to a wide valley.
None of this distracts from the sheer pleasure of reading this book, and that is exactly what you should do.