Bitter Magic by Nancy Hayes Kilgore is historical fiction based on the true story of a confessed witch, Isobel Gowdie.
Important in the backdrop of this time period is Oliver Cromwell, one of the most controversial figures in English history. He served as Lord Protector (head of state) of the Commonwealth of England, Scotland and Ireland for five years until his death in 1658. Cromwell was a hero to many Englishmen—and to the Covenanter Scots to whom he’d promised to restore their church. Until, that is, he turned traitor and joined with the English Royalist Presbyterians to demolish the Covenanters at the bloody battle of Auldearn, Scotland.
On page one we meet our young, bright protagonist, seventeen-year-old Maggie of Inshoch Castle, on one of the highest points overlooking the sea in what is now known as County Moray. The castle is located on the northern peninsula shore above Inverness, Scotland. County Moray is also the location of the earlier terrible Battle of Auldearn, where a family member was murdered.
Maggie and her family–father John, mother Elizabeth, sister Lucy, and wee brother John–are all of the ancient clan of Hay. This evening, after dinner with her family, Maggie walks across the beachgrass blowing on the dunes down to the windy shore. There she sees a woman calling to the sea and raising her arms as if beckoning something. Two dolphins appear. Maggie has often seen them frolicking and named them Titania and Oberon.
The woman turns to see Maggie and the two sense they have common interests. They talk briefly before the woman, Isobel, turns back to the dolphins. She chants several lines of a verse, after which they leap happily and soon disappear beneath the surface.
Maggie understands that the dolphins clearly understand the woman in the water. How does Isobel communicate with them? Maggie aches to know. She and Isobel talk more. Isobel reveals she possesses two sights: the visible and the invisible world. Maggie yearns to learn more about life beyond the visible world. But Isabel needs to leave, so Maggie returns home to her Eden, as she calls it.
Maggie’s parents are deeply concerned that she’d been alone near dark at the edge of the sea. By doing this, she’d placed herself in danger of the English Royalists. Since the war, they still lurk in the area and often appear out of nowhere. They steal cattle, horses, murder people, and kidnap people who may never be seen again.
The times are turbulent as the Covenanters seek to restore their Covenanter faith. But that waits until Maggie’s Uncle William escorts the banished Charles II back to Scotland. Meanwhile, Maggie and Isobel’s friendship grows.
Rumors of witches, women with seemingly supernatural powers, have been in the air for months. Isobel is one of several suspected of being a witch, Maggie soon learns. Her pastor condemns these witches; two women have already lost their lives and two more are in the early stages of trial.
I highly recommend Bitter Magic for anyone interested in learning about 17th-century Scottish culture, church roles, lives of women both poor and rich, and, of course, witchcraft, based on the true story of a confessed witch. This book came into my hands in an unusual way and I sensed this was no coincidence. I researched and found myself deeply drawn to both the story and the author’s beautifully detailed writing. I saw how the religious conflicts Scotland experienced in the 1600s thread into our conflicts. Without becoming a spoiler, I’ll share only that Kilgore uses a sure solution to these horrific conflicts to end her story. And, thus, Bitter Magic becomes both a compelling and exceptional book of hope.