From an Ancestor Search to a Historical Novel

I met Nancy Kilgore at this year’s Historical Novel Society conference which ran completely virtually. We connected during a conversation room focused on the topic of turning family history into historical fiction. Dust off those ancestral skeletons! Nancy is the author of two other novels, Wild Mountain and Sea Level. She is a graduate of the Radcliffe Writing Seminars, a psychotherapist and former parish pastor – all of which contribute greatly to her writing. Her latest novel is Bitter Magic.


Traipsing through a graveyard in Edinburgh, Scotland. That’s how my historical novel, BITTER MAGIC, began. Or at least the seeds of it began there. 

It was all about curiosity. I’d discovered that some of my ancestors had been “Covenanters” in 17th century Scotland and wondered what that meant. As I researched online, I found that these people had been instrumental in the Scottish Reformation, and that many of them were buried in the Covenanters Prison, part of the graveyard around Greyfriars Kirk. 

Soon I was off to Scotland and found myself at the kirk and the prison. 

The Covenanters Prison is a wide alley lined by crumbling stone-walled cells, scattered with ancient gravestones, and ending in a massive mausoleum. Though it hadn’t been a prison for over four hundred years when I got there, the prison gate was secured with a giant padlock and a sign, No Entry. 

Why? I wondered.

Because it’s haunted, the man next to me said. People have been scratched, knocked down, and terrorized in there, so the city has closed it off. Wow, I thought, the city of Edinburgh, so renowned for enlightened thought in literature and science, has verified a ghost story. But then I admitted to myself that I’d just had a horrible chill run down my spine as I looked through these bars. 

After their last battle, the Covenanter soldiers, defeated and captured, were brought to this field beside the Greyfriars Kirk. They were kept in these outside cells all winter, tortured, and left to die. Now, apparently, the ghost of the resident of the mausoleum, George Mackenzie, had come back to haunt the place with evil intent.

“Bluidy” Mackenzie was the cruel prison warden who was ironically buried here with the people he tormented.

But then I discovered another irony:  These same Covenanters had done their own share of torturing and killing. Before their notorious end, and during the “satanic panic” of the 17th century, they had been witch hunters. 

And in the heart of a Covenanter region occurred one of the most famous witch trials in Scottish history. There I discovered the story of Isobel Gowdie, and I was hooked

Isobel’s extensive verbatim confession has puzzled scholars ever since. Was she a shaman? A storyteller? A psychic? Psychotic? 

One thing was clear from her confession: Isobel, though an herbalist and healer, was not one of these women with only good intent who was accused and tried for witchcraft. Isobel’s story was more complicated than that. What was her life really like? 

And, in studying the Covenanters, I realized that their story was also complex. What was it in their strict religious dogma that made them fear this other and traditional kind of folk practice? And how did that juxtapose with their reformist and social justice ideals? As I delved more into 17th century Scotland, I found that the lines between the accused and the accusers were not so firm. The Christians believed in the fairy world that Isobel claimed to visit, and the cunning women like Isobel were, at least legally, Protestant Christians. In practice, their charms and rituals blended the old earth-based spirituality with Catholic prayers and practices.

With this novel I try to get beyond the stereotype good witch/bad Christian story. BITTER MAGIC is a story of human relationships and conflicting world views in the midst of a turbulent and pivotal time in history. 

Bitter Magic by Nancy Kilgore ~~ Bitter Magic, inspired by the true story of Isobel Gowdie and her witchcraft confession, reveals a little-known corner of history-the lives of both pagan and Protestant women in the Scottish Reformation of the 1600s as witch trials and executions threatened their lives, values, and beliefs.

The story is told by Isobel herself and also by Margaret Hay, a fictionalized seventeen-year-old noble woman. When Margaret stumbles across Isobel one day, it seems as though Isobel is commanding the dolphins in the ocean to dance. Margaret is enchanted. She becomes interested in Isobel’s magic, in fairies, and in herbal remedies; Isobel freely shares her knowledge. While Margaret worries that being around Isobel could be dangerous, she also respects Isobel’s medical successes and comes to believe that acknowledging the efficacy of herbal remedies or believing in fairies does not challenge her Christianity.

But Isobel believes in more than cheery fairies and herbal medicine. She has dark wishes as well, unknown to most people. Isobel seeks vengeance against the local lord who executed her mother for witchcraft. More important, Isobel’s trance experiences (or are they dreams?) lead her to confess to a wide range of sins, including consorting with the devil. Then, during her trial, Isobel names thirteen others, calling them all witches. To her great shock, Margaret hears her own name. Can her tutor, a Christian mystic named Katharine, save them?

Many thanks, Nancy. It’s amazing what a straightforward search for ancestors can reveal!


M.K. Tod writes historical fiction. Her latest novel, PARIS IN RUINS, is available on Amazon USAmazon CanadaKobo, and Barnes&Noble. An earlier novel, TIME AND REGRET was published by Lake Union. Mary’s other novels, LIES TOLD IN SILENCE and UNRAVELLED are available from AmazonNookKoboGoogle Play and iTunes. She can be contacted on FacebookTwitter and Goodreads or on her website

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One Response

  1. Hi, Mary:
    I don’t know if you remember me, as it has been over a year since we last emailed. You’d invited me to make a guest post based on my WiP, and I had some life events in the way. The topic was to be how one gets into the head of an enslaved protagonist, if I understood your original comment. I apologize for having fallen out of touch. I’ve been working on a story series, historical fiction, with a different enslaved protagonist, and wondered if you still wanted that point of view, now that I have 8 sections of the story online to illustrate points?
    Best regards,

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