Writing a Scottish-set Regency series has been great fun. It’s allowed me to mix romance, danger, adventure, pirates and whisky smugglers with wonderful settings, feisty heroines and gorgeous heroes. I’ve been able to draw on my many trips to the Highlands and to do lots of research into everything from bagpipes to shipwrecks. I’ve flown to Fair Isle and walked the walls of ruined castles. I love my job!
Particularly lovely has been the reader feedback; I’ve already been asked if there will be any more Scottish Brides books and because I always enjoy revisiting a series, I’d never say never. There are some characters who are already asking for a sequel… One reader told me that they wanted to join the Highland Ladies Bluestocking Society, the club that two of my heroines belong to. I'd like to be a member too!
The idea for the Bluestocking Society arose from my reading about the Scottish enlightenment and the discussions and intellectual meetings that took place mainly in Edinburgh. The Poker Club, the Select Society and the Oyster Club were examples of real Scottish clubs where scientists, writers and thinkers met to discuss ideas and eat delicacies such as salt haddock. These were male-dominated (as in the picture) but it struck me that well-to-do, independent minded women could also form their own society. The members of the Highland Ladies Bluestocking Society discuss books and reading but they also have an improper side and an interest in activities as various as life drawing and belly dancing!
Christina, the heroine of Claimed by the Laird, does not have time for such frivolity, however. As the actual if not the titular head of the MacMorlan Clan she is the laird in all but name and runs the estates on behalf of her hopelessly inefficient father, the Duke of Forres. It is Christina who cares for the tenants, oversees the running of the castle and tries to rein in the duke’s more extravagant excesses. She also organises the local whisky-smuggling gang.
Wench Susan has written some wonderful pieces about Scottish whisky smuggling here and here so I won’t say much about how whisky was made and distributed other than that it was fun to research! I went to the Gairloch Heritage Museum where they have an exhibit showing the process of whisky distilling and giving some of its history. What particularly fascinated me was that the recipe by which the whisky was made was passed on as a closely-guarded secret. Also secret was the location of the stills since an army of “gaugers” were combing the glens on behalf of the government in London, looking for the smugglers in order to make them pay their taxes!
The location of the whisky still in Claimed by the Laird was based on a place I know well, the Tea House on the Cuillin estate in Wester Ross. Now it is a bothy offering shelter to walkers in the mountains. In the eighteenth and nineteenth century it hid a whisky still. The “tea” was a euphemism for whisky. It is the perfect spot for a whisky still, remote and hidden, with a good supply of running water. These days it’s the perfect place for a picnic!
The Cuillin estate also provided the inspiration for another element of the story. SPOILER – When Christina escapes the gaugers she appears to walk away across the waters of the loch. At Loch Cuillin the stony shore of the loch is forever moving with the currents and the rainwater washed down from the hills. One day we were able to walk quite a long way out into the water on a path that lay just below the surface and it was this that gave me the idea for Christina’s dramatic escape. Here I am with Angus MacLeod checking out ways to cross the water!
With a toy boy hero, a smuggling heroine, a ragged band of neer-do-wells, a second secret love story and lots of steamy romance, Claimed by the Laird was a fun way to finish the Scottish Brides trilogy.
“I do not understand how a woman like you comes to be involved in something like this,” Lucas said. He looked around the room. “You don’t need the money,” he said slowly, “and after what you have said tonight I would swear you do not do it for the excitement. So why do you do it?”
She was silent. After a moment she sat down in one of the armchairs, half-turned away from him. He watched the play of firelight and shadow across her face. She was just drunk enough to be indiscreet, he thought, whilst sober enough to be coherent. It could be interesting.
“I’m good at it,” she said, after a moment. Her chin came up. She looked defiant. “I am the taster, the only one with the ability to judge when the whisky is ready to be distilled. It’s important… a skilled job.”
“I’m skilled at picking pockets,” Lucas said. “It doesn’t mean I should do it.”
“Are you?” For a moment she sounded intrigued. “What an extraordinary talent to possess! How did you develop it?”
“I had a misspent youth on the streets,” Lucas said. He had not meant to talk about himself but with Christina it was all too easy to let down his guard and forget. He could see her looking at him curiously; it was not pity he could see in her eyes but compassion. “I was an orphan,” he said. His voice was harsh. He had never told anyone but Jack about his childhood. He was astonished to hear himself telling her now. “I had to learn any number of tricks to survive.”
“I’m sorry.” Her voice was soft. “Your parents-”
“I don’t speak of them.” He slammed the door shut before he could betray himself entirely.
“What you do is different,” he said, as much to remind himself as to provoke her.
“Of course.” A defensive note had crept into her voice. “I do not have to fight for survival. But equally I don’t act for personal gain. The rest of the gang divide up the profits. They need the money. I don’t.” She rushed on, her words tumbling out far quicker than normal in her hurry to justify herself. “You’ve seen the poverty in the village, Mr Ross. Many of the young men have left to join the highland regiments, or taken their families overseas. There is no work, nothing to keep people here ever since my grandfather put up the rents sixty years ago and offered his tenancies to the highest bidder. He drove people from the land.”
Lucas had recognised the poverty in Kilmory village within the first day of being there. What Christina said was true; there was little work on the land now, few ways to give any man a job and a living wage. And with that loss of work went a loss of self-respect. He understood that; he knew how fiercely a man’s pride and his independence were tied up in his ability to provide for his family. Christina’s grandfather had destroyed the traditional bonds between the laird and his people and it seemed that her father had done nothing to try to improve their welfare even though he was reputedly a rich man.
“Is it too late to reverse that process of decline now?” he asked.
Christina shrugged. “I do not know. But papa…” For a second she faltered as though considering the disloyalty of speaking out against the duke. “Well, he has no interest in the land, no interest in anything other than his studies. By the time he inherited his estates the damage was done and he handed his lands over to be administered by those who could make him the greatest profit.”
“It sounds as though your father is not really concerned with the future of his people,” Lucas said, “whilst you work to limit the harm he can do by feeding them and keeping a roof over their heads.”
“Oh…” She sounded embarrassed. “I would not have you think that papa cares nothing for people. Truth is he does not really notice. He is a scholar, caught up in matters of more academic importance…” Her voice faded away unhappily.
Fiddling whilst Rome burned, Lucas thought. It seemed to him that the Duke of Forres was like a great big overgrown child who indulged his whims without thought for the consequences or the toll it took on others. It was not sufficient to ascribe his neglect to eccentricity or scholarly absorption. He was draining his lands of their money and his people of their livelihoods for personal gain.
“So it is left to you to give the people of Kilmory back their self-respect,” Lucas said. “I imagine you do the same at Forres, and all the Duke’s other estates.”
“I don’t run smuggling gangs there,” Christina said, “but I do try to help the people make a living.”
“A dishonest one, in Kilmory’s case,” Lucas said.
Her lips twitched into an enchanting smile. “Do I infer that you disapprove of me, Mr Ross? I had no idea that you were so incorruptible.”
“”Smuggling is illegal,” Lucas said.
She raised a brow at his blunt tone. “Well, theoretically, yes-”
“There’s no such thing as a theoretical criminal,” Lucas said. “You either are or you aren’t.”
If you haven’t yet caught up with the series I am offering a set of the three books to one commenter today. My question: Do you enjoy a wee dram of whisky or do you prefer a different drink, alcoholic or otherwise? And have you ever made your own drinks to a secret or not-so-secret recipe?