In 1597 in Aberdeen, Scotland several individuals were executed for alleged witchcraft or sorcery. The majority of those accused were women, many of them midwives or healers whose abilities were thought to be satanic powers derived from devil worship. Confessions of said diabolical activity were obtained by various forms of torture or physical abuse, after which the “guilty” were usually burned at the stake. This is the historical background for Ailish Sinclair’s debut novel The Mermaid and the Bear.
The story focuses on a young woman named Isobel who flees to Scotland to avoid an arranged marriage to a cruel and wicked man. Although she is educated and comes from a well to do English family, she finds employment (as well as refuge, friendship, and love) working as a kitchen maid in the household of a Scottish laird. Her idyllic life is shattered, however, when envy and jealousy lead to accusations that she and two other women at the castle practice the dark arts.
The book is written in two parts each starkly different in tone and style:
The first part is the love story, the setting and dialogue evoking a land of ancient stones, fairytale castles, and misty lochs where a maiden is mistaken for a mermaid and the castle laird a bear. The descriptive passages in these chapters are so atmospheric and the language so lyrical that 16th century Scotland seems the perfect setting for this unlikely romance.
Then the narrative abruptly changes to the horrors of the Aberdeen witch trials. The author doesn’t spare the reader from the graphic and brutal treatment of the accused and some may find the transition jarring.
I read The Mermaid and the Bear precisely because of my interest in Scottish history and my curiosity about the Scottish Witchcraft Act of 1563 and specifically the Aberdeen witchcraft trials. In all, some 400 people were executed in Scotland during this period including Bessie Thom and Christen Michell, both of whom are actual historical figures featured within the novel. Ailish Sinclair does a wonderful job of fleshing out these two characters and making them an integral part of this fictional work.
I found the love story between Isobel and the Scottish laird Thomas Manteith less compelling and somewhat contrived, but since I don’t usually read romance novels, others can decide for themselves whether it’s typical of the genre.
On the whole this debut novel by Ailish Sinclair is an engaging read that can be enjoyed for its beautiful description of Scotland, its romantic story, and/or its historical portrayal of Aberdeen. I look forward to her upcoming book Fireflies and Chocolate inspired by the children kidnapped in Aberdeen in the 18th century.