Clare B. Dunkle

Background Notes about By These Ten Bones

By Clare B. Dunkle. New York: Henry Holt, 2005.

moon through branches

"You know that I feel you are producing a serious and valuable piece of literature about Scotland in this book."
—Ross Noble, curator emeritus of the Highland Folk Museum (email to the author)

"It was like a Harry Potter book…"
—twelve-year-old reader (answer on target reader questionnaire)

These quotations represent the two very different goals of By These Ten Bones. To write the book, I did extensive research, visited Scottish castles, museums, and wildlife parks, and worked closely with one of the world's foremost experts on the medieval Highlands. But no twelve-year-old wants to read a book just because it has been meticulously researched. First and last, readers want a thrilling story.

It may seem strange to use a monster story to teach readers about the Highlands, but that is because we no longer think as the medieval Highlanders did. We distinguish between fantasy and reality, but to the Highlanders, our fantasy was reality: they believed that ghosts, witches, monsters, angels, and demons walked the earth every day. In creating fantasy episodes for my Highlander characters to confront, I show how rich their heritage was concerning otherworldly events. No matter what spooky situation takes place in the book, my Highlanders are never at a loss for a theory about what is going on. Medieval Highlanders even turned to their spirit lore to explain occurrences that we now understand are natural: in the book, when a child is born with a cleft palate, the town leaders are sure that a witch is at work.

It is very difficult to learn about Highland life from historical works about Scotland because almost all works describing the Middle Ages in Scotland actually describe only the Midlands and Lowlands. During the period shown in this book (the late 1500's), the Highland culture was entirely foreign to inhabitants of the rest of Scotland. This cultural break occurred in part because of the extremely rugged terrain of the Highlands, which kept outside travelers to a minimum. Medieval Highlanders spoke a language different from the rest of Scotland, maintained a tribal structure when their fellow countrymen had adopted a feudal one, and traded with Ireland while the rest of Scotland was trading with Flanders and France. Nominally ruled by the Scottish kings, the Highlanders largely ignored these monarchs, fighting their own wars and administering their own justice. Thus, in many ways, the Highlands differed radically from the medieval Scotland that is described in books.

In the 1500's, Europe was grappling with the enormous changes of the Protestant Reformation. In central and southern Scotland, the wealth of the Catholic Church had been attracting worldly men for centuries, and this corrupt clergy was an easy target for reformers led by John Knox. But Catholicism was an integral part of the Highlanders' Gaelic tradition, and the Highland clergy had not been spoiled by great wealth. Consequently, the Reformation did not take place in the Highlands during this time. In my book, Reformation ideas come from outside the Highlands, in the form of Lady Mary, who has lived in Europe, and Black Ewan, who has wandered in the Midlands. Father Mac, the priest in the book, tells of a fellow clergyman who has been burned by the Catholic Church for heresy, but that burning has taken place in Europe. Very few heretics were burned in Scotland, and in general, the initial stages of the Reformation took place in Scotland with very little violence.

Witches, unfortunately, were another matter altogether. Between 1563 and 1736, Scotland brought approximately 3,000 people to trial for witchcraft, an astonishing number for such a small country. As a result of the frightening events occurring in my Highland town, a witch trial takes place in this book. While some of my target readers had a hard time believing that anyone could take the accusations seriously, Ross Noble remarked that they reminded him of actual court transcripts. "Witches" were routinely accused by their neighbors, as Lady Mary is in the book, and many of them were tortured and killed. Scotland executed its last witch in 1727.

My characters do not understand English; they speak Gaelic, which Ned, an Englishman, speaks very badly because he is a foreigner. My characters do not speak Scots, that cousin of English that we know best from the poems of Robert Burns: Highlanders never spoke Scots at all, and they don't speak it even today. However, I have deliberately avoided using any Gaelic words or names because Gaelic looks very strange to American teens. Instead, I have used English translations of Gaelic words, reasoning that this is the way my characters themselves would think of them: my Gaelic-speaking characters would instantly recognize the words' meaning and pronunciation, and my English-speaking readers should, too.

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