Margaret Skea Interviews Kate Munro from A House Divided
Kate Munro has no personal place in history, but she is a key figure within the fictional family at the centre of my series of historical novels set in 16th c Scotland. I catch up with her in 1597, in a chamber attached to the side of a bastle house at Braidstane, a castle belonging to a minor laird in Aryshire. From the outside it looks as if it was built to house a pig or two, but if it was, that’s not how Kate is using it. I have come armed with questions designed to challenge any claims she may make as a healer, for I know she practises as a wise woman, but I’m not sure what I was expecting – a bubbling cauldron perhaps, with ‘eye of newt and toe of frog’, but it certainly wasn’t this ordered room. The walls are lined with shelves filled with jars and bottles, all neatly labeled. Bunches of herbs hang from the rafters and a basket by the door is filled with fresh sprigs of lavender. She looks up as I enter, her frown of concentration, as she pours over a well-thumbed copy of an Herbal, changing to a smile of welcome, though I detect a wariness in her eyes. Immediately I’m forced into a grudging admiration, for my Latin is minimal at best and I doubt if I could make sense of the book lying open before her.
KM: You have questions you wish to ask?
MS: If I may.
She tilts her head in assent. To put her (or perhaps myself) at ease, I begin by asking, in a roundabout way, for women are sometimes sensitive about these things, her age.
MS: Can you tell me when and where you were born?
It is the right choice, for her shoulders relax.
KM: I was born in the Year of our Lord 1565, in a tower house by Renfrew, the second child of Thomas and Anna Cooper.
MS: Second child? I didn’t know…
KM: You wouldn’t. She pauses and chews on her lip before continuing.
I had a brother. He died.
Something in her set expression stops me enquiring any further, so I hurry on.
MS: Your father was a merchant?
KM: Yes. He ran goods to the Low Countries and always brought us back presents. She gestures towards the book lying on the table in front of her, a smile lighting her face. This was a present for my mother and is my most prized possession.
MS: It was your mother who encouraged your interest in herbs?
KM: My mother and my grandmother before her. They aye took me out into the woods and fields when they went to gather remedies. My patients have them to thank that I do not poison them by mistake.
MS: So your mother would be proud of what you do now?
KM: I think so yes.
I pick up on her hesitancy.
MS: You are not sure?
KM: She treated our family and close aquaintances only, and never for payment. I do not know how she would feel about my receiving money for what I do.
MS: But it is necessary?
KM: Look around you. What would you do? I have no husband, no other means of support: for myself, or my children. The Montgomeries have been more than kind, this house a testament to that, but I have no wish also to live on their charity.
I hesitate, then decide to risk a question about her living conditions.
MS: You didn’t come here when you married, then?
KM: No. My husband’s family had a tower near our own in Renfrewshire. I have been here but six years.
MS: What brought you here – to Ayrshire?
KM: Our house was destroyed – as a result of my husband’s involvement in a feud. Oh, not what you think – he stood against needless killing and we suffered the loss as a result, but I was proud of him for that.
Her head is up, a note of challenge in her voice and I surprise myself by quoting,
MS: ‘Render to no man evil for evil.’
The flicker of a smile, a gentle mocking.
KM: You know your Bible?
MS: Some, but you know Latin I see; forgive me if I think it a little unusual.
KM: My mother believed in education, and so I shared my brother’s lessons. Until, that is, her voice hardened, he went to college. There was no need then to retain a tutor. A girl has no need of an advanced education.
There was no disguising her sarcasm. She looked past me as if seeing somewhere far away.
KM: It was my greatest desire that I should attend college, and my greatest disappointment that I could not. I had a hope that my own daughters would have more opportunity…
She broke off again and I took the chance to turn the conversation. In an even more difficult direction as it happens.
MS: What children do you have?
KM: Two girls and a boy…remaining.
A shadow crosses her face.
KM: There was another girl, but we lost her also – in a needless riding accident. It was hard…for both of us, but for my husband especially.
I hesitate over the next question, but I need to know.
MS: Your husband, is he also dead?
There is a long pause in which she regards me steadily, as if assessing whether I am to be trusted or not.
KM: His death is something I’d rather not talk about. Though he has been gone these six years since, the pain of our parting has never left me.
MS: I’m sorry. I should not have pried.
She shakes her head.
KM: No need to apologise. I am not the only woman to lose a husband, nor a child, I should be…am grateful for what is left to me. Only…
MS: You have no other relatives?
She narrows her eyes, as if she thinks it a trick question, but answers readily enough.
KM: Not close family, no. I am all the more grateful that the Montgomeries took me in.
Another pause, which I fill be asking about her son.
MS: Your boy, what age is he?
KM: Robbie? Fifteen.
MS: And thinks himself as good as twenty no doubt?
It’s an attempt to lighten the conversation, but there is no answering smile.
KM: He thinks himself old enough to fight, and has no other ambition, much like all men. My brother was barely older than Robbie is now when he ran away to join the Scots Guards. When the word came, my mother shrank in on herself, and no one could reach her. It broke my father’s heart. That was when I knew that I wanted to heal and not hurt.
MS: How long have you practiced as a wise-woman?
KM: That is a word for the superstitious. I do not think of myself as such, but rather as an herbalist and a physician, though as a woman I cannot claim the title.
She gestures towards a shelf set high in a corner that I hadn’t noticed before.
KM: It isn’t only old Latin that I can read, I am familiar with Galen, with Paré and the works of Da Vinci, and as you see, I possess a pharmacopeia and many pamphlets: on treating wounds, on the complications of pregnancy, on the four humours and their effects – though I’m not altogether convinced of the truth of that theory.
MS: Religion does not favour your profession. Does that concern you?
KM: Religion may not, but I believe God looks kindly on those who seek to alleviate the pain of others, and I care more for His opinion than that of any churchman, of whatever ilk.
There is pride in her voice and a spark in her eyes, as if she dares me to contradict as she continues,
KM: I have trained myself and am as capable in providing medical treatment as any man, and one day, perhaps, it will be possible for a woman to be recognized as such.
Despite the reservations I had before I came, I find myself believing her, or at least trusting that it might be so. She stands up, and though her smile is gracious, I recognize that she intends the interview to be at an end.
I had been going to ask if there was anything she would change, in her life or in the world around her, but I think I already know the answer to that.
Margaret Skea grew up in Northern Ireland at the height of the ‘Troubles’, but now lives in Scotland. She is an accomplished speaker / Creative Writing tutor and workshop presenter having spent a number of years teaching Leisure classes at college level. She has also won or been placed in numerous competitions including, for short stories, Neil Gunn, Winchester, Mslexia, Fish and her debut novel, Turn of the Tide. received the Beryl Bainbridge Award for Best First Time Author 2014. This character interview relates to the opening of the sequel A House Divided, which was long-listed for the Historical Novel Society New Novel Award 2016.
Both books can be purchased / ordered in bookshops in the UK and through Amazon. The Amazon links are:
Turn of the Tide: http://books2read.com/u/3yPDaB
A House Divided: http://books2read.com/u/4DAlJO
She began the third title in the series while on an Hawthornden Fellowship in Feruary/March 2016.
More information is available on her website www.margaretskea.com
On Twitter @margaretskea1