By Susan Holloway Scott
I'm delighted to interview one of the original Wenches, wearing her Sarah Gabriel hat. Sarah’s newest book, THE HIGHLAND GROOM (Avon), has just this week arrived in stores, and it’s already earning well-deserved praise:
"A whimsical engaging historical romance with a wee bit of the paranormal," says Harriet Klausner of Genre Go Round Reviews, who gives the book 5 stars.
"A wonderfully romantic and magical book and one you don’t want to miss,” reports Char at RomanceJunkies.com.
THE HIGHLAND GROOM is a Top Pick for RomanceReaderAtHeart.com: “A finely crafted tale…Gabriel is infinitely adept at creating beautifully passionate moments between the fiery Fiona and her lusty Laird.”
But enough from the reviewers –– let’s hear what Sarah herself has to say. Here's Part I of our conversation:
Susan Scott: Please tell us a little about THE HIGHLAND GROOM, Sarah.
Sarah Gabriel: Fiona MacCarran, whose twin brother was the hero of TO WED A HIGHLAND BRIDE (Avon), arrives in the Highlands to teach English to Gaelic children at a glen school. Her grandmother’s will requires Fiona and her three brothers to meet some odd conditions involving fairies and fairy lore, which was their late grandmother’s hobby–or they will lose their inheritance to a nasty cousin. Mostly, the MacCarran siblings think the requirements are a lot of hogwash, but they have no choice.
A codicil requires Fiona to sketch some fairies from life and marry a wealthy Highlander with fairy blood. Certain she can never accomplish either of those, she goes to the Highlands intending to teach. Her younger brother, a revenue officer, warns her about the devilish smugglers in the region, but Fiona, who collects fossils and loves the rugged beauty of the Highlands, is content to explore.
Dougal MacGregor, Laird of Glen Kinloch, has a smuggling enterprise and a precious cache of fairy whiskey—made to a secret family recipe—to protect, and he doesn’t need a schoolteacher wandering the hills, especially one related to an excise man. His wacky uncles want to scare the girl away, but she sticks around, finding fossils (but no fairies) and teaching English, and manners, to their children.
Fiona and Dougal knock heads over smuggling and other matters, and encounter danger more than once. Yet they begin to understand, respect and care deeply for one another—despite differences in character and intentions that make a future together unlikely. If Fiona chooses a poor Highland laird, her family will lose a fortune—and the laird doesn’t need the complications of a society lady. After some risky adventures and wild, tender moments together, Fiona and Dougal soon realize that they need each other in order to protect the glen—and to fulfill what is in their hearts.
SS: Smuggling plays an important part in the plot of The Highland Groom. While many readers will already be aware of smuggling along the English coast, it’s fascinating to learn more about the whiskey smuggling trade in the Highlands. What inspired you to write about these uniquely Scottish outlaws?
SG: I wrote a Highland smuggling story, “White Fire,” a few years ago for APRIL MOON, an anthology shared with the wonderful Merline Lovelace and Miranda Jarrett, and I always wanted to return to the subject. Highland smuggling lends itself to sexy heroes, fun bad guys, danger, adventure and romance. The smuggling trade in Scotland flourished along the southwestern coast (the focus of “White Fire”), but it also occurred inland. Highland whiskey was produced in the hills and transported (often blatantly in typical Scottish in-yer-face style), down to the rivers and lochs, where it was taken by sea to Ireland or Europe, or into England.
Malt-based Highland whiskey was made in small batches of much higher quality than the cheaper grain whiskies produced in the Lowlands and England. What Highlanders smuggled is similar to the finest stuff available today. The English taste for excellent, affordable malt whiskey bolstered the illicit Highland whiskey trade even as their government tried to quell it. Add revenue officers often outsmarted and outdared by tough, clever Highland free-traders, and it’s a great recipe for fiction.
SS:The hero of HG, Dougal MacGregor, Laird of Kinloch, is one sexy free-trader, and a complicated character, too. What makes Dougal so irresistible?
SG: Dougal is one of my favorite heroes — a tough guy with a reserved and caring soul, who feels deeply yet says little about it. A proud loner with a hurtful past, he copes, and he’s strong enough to carry on alone if need be. He shoulders the responsibility of his people in trying times, and he is self-educated. Dougal loves his kin—his misfit uncles and a sassy wee niece—and he is able to love Fiona without expecting anything in return. I wanted this guy to find happiness! Emotional self-sufficiency in a quiet, intense, outdoorsy man can be very sexy—especially wrapped in taut muscle, dark hair and green eyes, and all kilted up in tartan.
SS: Your heroine, Fiona MacCarran, is part of Edinburgh society and a charity schoolteacher. At first she seems hardly the sort to fall in love with an illicit smuggler. Why did you decide to make her a teacher?
SG: I read some fascinating info about the educational system in the 19th century Scottish Highlands, and thought it would provide a great historical framework for a story. The Scots have always favored equal education for girls and boys (long before John Knox tried to derail that train with his essay on "the monstrous regiment of women”), and education was offered the poorer classes when possible. During the Clearances, when tragedy befell areas of the Highlands and Gaels were treated so badly, charitable societies tried to bring relief and education to Highlanders.
Highland schools differed from equivalent English country schools. Aside from the dual language factor and the dearth of translated texts, there were unique issues of distance and weather. When schools and teachers were available (often provided for by the laird), boys and girls were educated together in schoolhouses for practicality’s sake, and teachers sometimes traveled through large glens conducting lessons in households. Education was seen as so essential in Scotland that many lairds funded schools in their glens when circumstances permitted.
I created a society—"The Edinburgh Ladies’ Society for the Education and Betterment of the Gaels"—to send Fiona McCarran north to help them. Because she spoke Gaelic as a child, she teaches English to Highlanders, both children and adults. It is a calling of hers, along with her hobby as a fossilologist.
SS: How did you develop Fiona’s character to make her such a perfect match for Dougal?
SG: Fiona is independent, stubborn and caring, and hides her true feelings in much the same way that Dougal does, so on some level they understand each other. Others assume that she is cool, calm and capable, but she longs for wild adventure in contrast to her rather dull life in the city. The laird of Kinloch offers irresistible challenge and adventure — and Fiona wants a little taste of that before she returns to her safe life in Edinburgh. Of course, she gets more than she bargained for…she and Dougal are opposites in some ways, but when it counts, they are in perfect accord….
These are great questions and it's fun to talk about the book – and it's always exciting when a new book appears in bookstores. I love the chance to talk about the story and characters and the research, as it allows me to revisit characters I've come to love and had to leave when the manuscript was complete. I'll save the rest of my interview answers for Part II . . .
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Thank you, Sarah!
What do you all think is the lasting appeal of Scottish historical romances? Is it a rugged, kilted hero every time, mysterious legends or interesting history? Is it the way the reader can be transported to faraway romantic Scotland when the story is just right? Do you wish could visit Scotland — or have you done so already, and long to go back?