BITTER MAGIC – Nancy Kilgore

Chapter One: Margaret

Auldearn, Scotland, 1660

Down the stairs I skipped, round and round in a spiral, the stones cold, the tower dark but for a sliver of light from one small window. Out the castle door, and I could see in all directions. To the north the sea, to the south the mountains, and all around me fields sloping away. Inshoch Castle stood on the highest spot for miles and miles.
Built over a hundred years ago by my ancestors, the Lairds of Park and Lochloy, the castle gleamed in the late-day sun, formidable with its tall keep and towers. This was my home, and I was proud of it, proud to be the Lady Margaret of the ancient clan of Hay. At the same time, I felt constrained by those walls and ached to fling them off like a winter cloak in spring.
I looked back, and the window of the Great Hall gaped, a black hole in the stone that was bright and stark in the western sun. No one was watching. If I had asked, my mother wouldn’t have let me come out this evening, so I’d made my escape when she wasn’t looking. She worried about the Royalists, the Catholic highlanders who would swoop down in packs like wild dogs to steal our cattle and horses. But those savages hadn’t raided us in at least five years, and I was seventeen, after all, not a child.
I threw my cape around my shoulders and stomped on.
Of a sudden, something brushed across my face. A fluttering and croaking and a mighty wing, black and shiny, flapping and rising. A shiver of fear ran up my spine. A crow. The crow carried secrets of the spirits, messages from beyond, I’d been told. Was this a message for me? The crow lifted its great body with a shrill cawing sound, flew above the towers and into the sky.
The sky faded to lavender as evening haze descended and I walked. Past the fields of flax, feathery greens ruffling in the wind, past the machair, that grassy plain where the cattle grazed, past the loch with its herons and turtles, down the sandy path to the sea. There was no one else in this wide land, not even a farmer. As if I were the first person in Eden.
Beware, said Mister Harry Forbes, the minister. Beware of Eden, beware of paradise, for it is here the snake doth lurk, it is here temptation lies in wait. “Curiosity!” he’d shouted. As with Eve, it is woman’s temptation, and woman’s sin, to be curious. But why would my curiosity be a sin, when Uncle Alexander, with his books and letters, was the most curious person I knew, his learnedness a virtue admired by all? I shook off these stifling thoughts and stepped lightly along.
The tide was low, and the strand spread wide and far, extending over a mile to the waters of the Firth. The Moray Firth, this inlet of the North Sea, where I could be free. I could breathe with the wind, wade with the sea birds, run and splash in the cold waves. Today the wind blustered, waves pummelled the shore, and gulls shrieked. I pulled my cape tighter.
A figure appeared on the distant sandbar. With her plaid draped around her shoulders and her dress blowing, she made a study in greys and browns in the landscape. She bent and pulled a rake through the sand.
I scrambled down the path, slipping on the scree as pebbles tumbled down the dune, landed on my feet, and walked towards the woman. She bent again and raked in steady motions, plucking cockles and placing them in a basket. There was about her some dignity, and something else, something compelling. Though just a peasant woman, judging from her dress, she held herself with pride.
The sea churned, the waves rolled, and with them two dark humps, rising and falling in the green water. Dolphins. The grey-brown woman faced the sea and raised her arms as if beckoning to them.
I hesitated, then walked across the sandbar as the barefoot woman straightened and looked back at me. The hood of her plaid flapped in the wind, hiding and then revealing light eyes in a pale face, her look both open and inscrutable. She turned again towards the water and lifted her arms, swinging them back and forth as if conducting an orchestra. The dolphins jumped and twisted in the air.
Could they be following her commands? Those are my dolphins, I thought, the two that were here so often, showing off and commanding attention like children. I had always felt that they knew me. Did they know this woman too? I felt a cry welling up and pursed my lips. Was I angry at this woman for intruding or at the dolphins for favouring someone else?
I swallowed my jealousy, another sin, and clapped my hands, as I always did at their performance, so as not to let them down. “Excellent!” I shouted.
The woman peered at me.  She was younger than I’d thought, perhaps closer to thirty, and now she looked familiar, one of the farm-town women, perhaps. Her face had been marked by the pox, and her fixed stare shifted as the corners of her mouth curved up. Some kind of light was shimmering around her body.
“Titania and Oberon!” I cried.
The woman furrowed her brows. “What say ye, mistress?”
“Those are the names I’ve given them. After the fairy queen and king.” The dolphins jumped again and dove beneath the surface.
“The fairies, ye say?”
“Yes, in Mister Shakespeare’s play.” It was something I wasn’t supposed to read, but when I’d found the volume with A Midsummer Night’s Dream in Aunt Grissel’s library, I’d begged and begged until she let me read it. To think, a world apart, where the fairies dance and frolic, an enchanted world!
The dolphins came close, raising their soft snouts out of the water with a smile. They seemed to recognize me too, and I called their names again: “Oberon! Titania!” Now there were two or three more, and they cavorted and jumped in the water.
“Mister Shakespeare’s been to Elfane,” the woman said, “but ye need not travel to London to find it.” She spoke as if she knew my thoughts, my longing to go to London, now that the ban on theatre had been lifted, and see a real play.
“The fairy kingdom.”
The fairy kingdom. Mister Harry preached about this belief in fairies, this “superstition of the Devil to keep the people ignorant and away from God.”
The woman flicked her wrist and called out a rhyme:

Go with the fisheries gone to sea
and bring home mickle fish to me,
bring the mickle fish to me,
go out with the fisheries gone to sea.
In the name of the Trinity three,
The Father, the Son and the Holy Ghost,
In the name of St. Andrew and Trinity three,
Bring the mickle fish to me.

The dolphins dove and disappeared.
I gaped. “Did they understand you?”
“Aye, mistress, and they’ll do my bidding. I’ll have a good harvest when the boats come in.”
“How did you learn to talk with the dolphins?”
She looked around and lowered her voice. “’The fairies.”
“The fairies taught you?”
She nodded.
“Do you believe in fairies then?”
She launched into Gaelic now, and, though I spoke it a little, this was too fast for me. But there was one word I understood: tul-shirinn, “It is absolute truth.”
I felt my legs shaking and looked around to make sure my family was not watching, even though I knew they were far away in the castle. If they could see me now, asking about the fairies, or if, God forbid, Mister Harry were about… I shuddered but forced myself to stand firm. “And have you seen them?”
“I have an da shealladh, mistress.”
“The two sights. I see the other world, the place of the spirits, where be the fairies.”
My eyes widened. “The other world? The place where Titania and Oberon live? And that is real?”
The woman bowed her head in assent. Veiled but piercing eyes looked up at me. “And where be the dead.” The wind had picked up, and she wrapped her plaid round her shoulders. “I mun’ go now.” She turned and walked back along the strand.
“But—” I wanted to say something, to say, “How?” and “When?” and “Can I come with you?” The words stuck in my throat, and I could only watch as the woman of second sight walked away, her body small and graceful beneath her garments.
I wished Titania and Oberon would come back; I wished they would come when I called them, when I lifted my arms and beckoned. But the dark descended, and they didn’t return.


As I walked home the mist spread across the machair in filaments—like the fairies, I thought, beings of light and air that came and went. To my right lay the farm-town, a dreary cluster of peasant huts in a semicircle, grey humps rising out of the earth like the dolphins in the sea. It was a familiar sight, but now it took on a different hue, no longer background but foreground in my mind. I wondered who that woman was. Did she have a special place in this community? Was she a “cunning woman,” someone who could cure sickness and injury with her magic? Tiny columns of smoke rose from the huts and blended with the mist in a cloud of mystery.
The wind settled, the air grew still and colder as darkness descended, and I walked faster, my boots sinking down in the damp earth.
A rustling sound from a copse of oak made me start. Was it a Royalist? An evil spirit?
A murder of crows rose and circled, screeching and squawking, and I ran, my heels sinking and pulling up from the mud with a sucking sound. Only when the castle, lit by the last rays of sun from the west, came into sight did I slow down.
As I stepped into the drawing room, my mother, Elizabeth Brodie, the Lady of Park, looked up. She was tall and regal in her blue brocade gown, and her expression was unreadable—a combination of disapproval and relief, perhaps. “Margaret! Where have you been?”
“Just walking, Mother.”
“By yourself? You know the danger. And your gown and boots! Covered with mud.”
“But it wasn’t dark yet.” I looked down and saw that the hem of my woollen gown and my beloved red boots were wet and stained. I hadn’t given them a thought until now, my head had been so filled with fairies and crows.
My father, puffing on his pipe, looked up from his accounts book. He frowned but said nothing. Perhaps Father did not mind my going out by myself? But no, this would not be right. Father would lecture me often on the subject.
Mother beckoned me to the carved oak table where she sat with an open book. Candlelight illuminated the pages and flickered on the tapestry behind her, where a heron posed and a fox lurked. I took the opposite chair, closest to the fireplace.
“I will read aloud from the Westminster Confession,” Mother declared. “This is the new confession, the crowning document of our faith. It was written in 1643, the year of your birth, Margaret, and approved in 1647, when your sister Lucy was born. We all must learn its wisdom.”
Lucy glanced up from her chair by the fire, but her face showed no expression, and she quickly lowered her head back down over her sampler. She was not interested in religion or history, though she made a good show of it when necessary.
I settled in, warming my back and my wet shoes by the fire. “Mother,” I said, before she could begin to read, “I want to visit London.”
“London? What new notion is this?” she asked, glancing quickly at Father, who sat at his desk in the back of the room.
“I could go with Aunt Grissel,” I said. “She travels there often with Uncle Alexander.” Grissel was my mother’s cousin, and her father, Uncle Alexander, was the Laird of Brodie. “I could see Covent Garden and Bridewell Palace, the new fashions, the shops, and the great ships in the harbour. And a real play by Mister Shakespeare!”
Mother shook her head. “London is dirty, ridden with disease and vermin of all kinds, both animal and human.”
“Och!” Father’s voice came out of a haze of pipe smoke. “London is the Devil’s playground! Have you not heard Mister Harry speak of that place, with all its pompous papistry? And those plays are dens of iniquity, where drunken knaves carouse and brawl.” He thumped down his fist with finality and bowed his head again over his book.
I clenched my hands.
Father must have sensed my anger, for he raised his head and his voice, shaking his pipe at me. “And let this be a warning, daughter. You must not again go out roaming in the evening, or ’twill be the Devil to pay.”
I knew what he meant, of course. The Devil to pay was his strap, and I had felt it many times. I set my jaw and determined that I would find a way to break these chains.
Mother cleared her throat and read from the parchment before her: “They whom God has accepted in his Beloved, effectually called and sanctified by His Spirit, can neither totally nor finally fall away from the state of grace.”
I sighed. Instead of a dance introducing me to society, like the English girls, I had to learn theology from the Westminster Confession, the catechism, and verses from the Bible. To be accepted as an adult and admitted to the kirk, I would be examined by the session. I felt a flutter of fear in my heart at the thought of that austere gathering. I’d rather have had a dance.
And now, with spring arising and the light increasing to encompass the whole day and most of the evening, wouldn’t it be lovely to run along the strand and dig for cockles like the grey-brown woman? I turned my eyes to the light and imagined the fairies dancing with the dolphins. Did that woman really see the fairies?
Bessie Wilson came up from the kitchen, pushing back her kerchief and wiping her hands on her apron. With her sunken cheeks and beady eyes, she reminded me of a hawk. “Would ye be wanting anything else, m’Lady?” she asked Mother as she picked up the tray. She smiled at me, obliterating the image of the hawk; even though she had only one tooth showing, a greyish one at that, her smile shone with warmth. Bessie had been with us since before I was born, and I was her favourite of the Hay children.
“No, thank you, Bessie,” Mother replied, waving her hand, and Bessie sailed back through the door and down the tower stairs. The kitchen was on the ground floor, accessible by the tower stairway that also led to the outside door.
Of a sudden Mother’s shoulders sank, and she hunched over the book with a sigh. She struggled to her feet, huge in her voluminous layers of skirts. The baby was due soon, and we were hoping for a boy this time. As no doubt everyone had hoped when both Lucy and I were due. No one expected wee John, who was four, to live. If Father died when Lucy and I were still unmarried and there was not another boy child, the estate would revert to the Marquess of Huntly. The Marquess, also known as the Duke of Gordon, was the ward holder for all the lands. And then what would happen to us? Would I be forced to marry one of the Brodie boys? Unlike their grandfather, the Laird, Uncle Alexander, whose conscience and piety radiated all around him, Jack and William spent their time racing about the countryside, shouting and teasing the farm girls.
“I must see to wee John,” Mother said, holding her back as she waddled to the staircase. “You may continue your study.”
“May I sit with Bessie first, Mother?”
Mother gave me a sceptical glance, as if talking was too much of a chore, but nodded before disappearing up the stone stairwell.
In the kitchen Bessie was pouring water into the fire pot. Her cup of tea sat on the big wooden table, and above the table hung ropes of onions and herbs. The kitchen smelled of fish and rosemary from our supper.
“Bessie,” I said, “I must ask you about the fairies.”
Bessie started, her eyes fearful. She slumped onto a stool and indicated for me to sit on the other one. “What is it you want to know, Maggie?”
Bessie had warned us about the fairies. “You must never go near a fairy mound,” she’d said, “or they will grab you and take you to their home beneath the hill. They’ll put a substitute child, a changeling, in your place, and your family will never know that you’re gone.” Mother, though, had said that these were all stories, superstitions, and that true Christians did not believe in them. She’d instructed Bessie not to talk about fairies with Lucy and me.
“I met a woman who sees them and talks to them. The fairies taught her to talk with the dolphins.”
Bessie narrowed her eyes.
“It seems to me a wonderful thing,” I rushed on. “The fairies can help her, like the fairies in Mister Shakespeare’s play.”
Bessie’s pale eyes darted back and forth under her black eyebrows, looking to the doors and back. She lowered her head and whispered, “You mun’ not talk with that woman.”
“But why? She seemed to do no harm.”
“She may not seem to, but when you see the straws in the wind, they will be the fairies flying. And then you must sanctify yourself, so the fairies and elves canna’ shoot their arrows at you.”
“I know, you’ve told me that. And I don’t believe it.” I set my mouth with determination. “But I sanctify myself just in case.” I made the sign of the cross on my forehead and chest and recited, “In the name of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Ghost.” Bessie had taught us this, though we couldn’t let Mother and Father know. To them it was another Catholic superstition. “But that woman,” I said, “is not a fairy.”
“I know that woman. Her name is Isobel Gowdie. And you must always sanctify yourself when you see her.”
“But, Bessie, why?”
“I say no more.”

Author’s Statement

Who were the Covenanters? When I found this term among my ancestors, many of whom were Presbyterian ministers, I was curious. Little did I know that this question would start a journey into writing Bitter Magic, a novel about a famous witchcraft trial during the Scottish Reformation. As a Presbyterian minister myself, a feminist, a mindfulness teacher, and a Wicca explorer, I was drawn into this story—a story of Christian visionaries who instigated the Reformation and raged against the oppression of the monarchy but themselves tried to wipe out another belief system, the traditional folk culture led by women. This was a clash not only of beliefs but of whole cultures at a pivotal time in history. I wanted to go beyond the typical good witch / bad Christian story and explore the passions, fears, ideals, and complexities on both sides of this clash.
Bitter Magic is based on events surrounding the famous trial of Isobel Gowdie in 1662. It tells the story of three strong women: Isobel, the “cunning woman”; Katharine, a devout Covenanter; and Margaret, a young girl torn between the two. Isobel is a psychic, folk healer, and magic practitioner. She experiences trance-like states in which she communes with the dead and travels with the fairies. Katharine, a highly educated and earnest Covenanter, is a tutor to the Laird’s daughters and a Christian mystic who experiences the presence of Christ in visions. Margaret, a daughter of the Laird, becomes fascinated by the charismatic Isobel and secretly seeks her out to learn magic. But she also admires her tutor, Katharine, and feels torn between the two belief systems.
Margaret apprentices herself to Isobel and in a subplot falls in love with Andrew, an English soldier. But her meetings with both have to be clandestine, as her Covenanter family believes that magic is of the Devil, and her father hates the English who occupy his country. As Margaret becomes more entrenched in Isobel’s world of fairies and healing and magic, her father and the minister are gathering evidence for Isobel’s witchcraft trial. They both believe that Isobel has an evil power capable of harming and killing them.
Is Isobel a healer who uses her psychic powers for good, or is she a witch who practices magic to harm people? Are the Covenanters heartfelt and devout in their principles of love and mystical union with Christ, or are they so consumed by fear of the “other realm” of fairies and magic that they seek to kill its practitioners? Bitter Magic explores these questions as the story unfolds toward the inevitable witch trial.


Nancy Kilgore is a writer and psychotherapist living in Burlington, Vermont. She has published two previous novels, Wild Mountain (Green Writers Press, 2017) and Sea Level (RCWMS, 2011), and has also had work featured in anthologies and literary journals. Her website is

Embark, Issue 9, July 2019