Tuesday, July 23, 2013

Cathie Dunn: Once in the Highlands

I've played Scottish characters, I've danced Highland dances, and sung Scottish songs, and loved every bit of it. But I've only ever spent a few days in Scotland. Nothing gets a writer into the feel of a place like actually being there. Visiting is good, but Cathie Dunn actually lives there. So it's no wonder that the smell of the heather, like her love of history, runs through her books. For her, "writing what you know" doesn't seem at all unreasonable!

Thank you, Maggie, for letting me visit your lovely blog. I’d love to tell your readers a wee bit about writing historical Scottish adventures.

Like you, Maggie, I love history. I'm fascinated by Scottish history, particularly medieval and Jacobite, English medieval and Tudor, and the Norman conquests across Europe. My bookshelves are creaking under the weight of history tomes, but in between those, you’ll find little booklets, their content collated in small Highland or Normandy communities, released by small local printers, which provide inspirations galore. Those are the jewels in the crown, as you’ll find important little details that make your book just that little more authentic.

My first published novel, a historical romance, Highland Arms, is set in the Scottish Highlands, near the dramatic hills of Glencoe and the hamlet of Ballachulish in 1720.
Having visited the area many times, the decision of where to set Highland Arms was an easy one. I loved creating a novel based on the stunning landscapes and troublesome history.

Even the ‘Drovers Inn’ mentioned in the novel is based on a real inn: the cosy Clachaig Inn! Visitors to the Scottish Highlands should check it out. (And no, I’m not on commission, sadly!)

Baile a' Chaolais, Ballachulish’s Gaelic name, means 'village of the narrows'. It lies at the junction where Loch Leven flows into the much larger Loch Linnhe. The original village lay in what is now North Ballachulish (Highland Arms is based just a couple of miles north along the shore of Loch Linnhe), with a settlement in South Ballachulish, now linked by a bridge, established later. I used a local historian’s accounts for details about smuggling activities in the area, which I incorporated into the novel.

Ballachulish is less than a mile from Glencoe village, at the entrance to the Glencoe hill range. The small villages nestle at the bottom of hills, with clouds always hovering low over the mountaintops. It is a highly atmospheric place. Scottish history buffs will know the sad story of the place, the Massacre at Glencoe that befell Clan Macdonald in 1692. You can still sense the desolation today as you travel through the glen. I used the melancholy of the area and incorporated it into a scene where the heroine travels on horseback, listening to tales of the (then) recent massacre. The low mist and drizzle, which tends to be the norm in Glencoe, completes the setting.

1720 was a time of great upheaval, only five years after the first Jacobite rising. Spies lurked everywhere, and Highlanders didn’t know who they could trust. Clans fought against each other, plotting and seeking their own advantage. Jacobites were lying low, defeated but not giving up. A tale of a ship carrying arms stranded in a northern Highland loch gave me with the perfect back story – the hero needed the muskets to start another rebellion. Or so he hoped...

So you see, it’s not necessarily the well-known historical accounts that provide authors with intriguing plot ideas; sometimes it’s the little stories, the tales collated and written down by locals, and spotted in a dusty little museum, that make the best storylines.

Start digging!

About Cathie Dunn

Cathie Dunn writes romantic suspense & adventure set in Scotland, England and Normandy. A hobby historian, her focus is on medieval and Jacobite eras.

She has two historical novels published: Highland Arms, a romantic Scottish adventure, and Dark Deceit, the first in The Anarchy Trilogy. She also self-published Silent Deception, a romantic spooky novella set in Victorian Cornwall. All her books are available on Amazon.

Cathie lives in Scotland with her husband and two cats and currently works on a contemporary romantic suspense set in Idaho, US, and a historical Scottish romance.

Find Cathie Dunn

Website/blog:   www.cathiedunn.com

Find Cathie Dunn's books


  1. Thank you for having me here today, Maggie. It's lovely to be here. :-)

  2. Always a delight to have you in, Cathie.