The author who used her primary school short story as inspiration for her debut novel
Some of the stories we learn as children remain with us throughout our lives. Fairy tales and adventures become part of our own imaginations; ghost stories can still scare us when we are adults.
As a child, growing up in Corstorphine on the outskirts of Edinburgh, there was one story that terrified me. It was part of our village folklore. It was the gruesome tale of a murder some 300 years earlier in the heart of the old village.Corstorphine is a suburb of Scotland’s capital now, but in the 17th century it was a small village surrounded by farmland. On the day of its Lammas Fair in 1679, the festivities came to an abrupt halt when a vengeful woman stabbed her lover with his own sword, in a crime of passion.He was James Forrester, Laird of Corstorphine and by all accounts a rogue. She was Christian Nimmo, a young well-to-do lady who had fallen for his charms. But she wasn’t just his mistress, she was his niece by marriage. The pair were embroiled in a scandalous affair until that afternoon. He had been drinking in the inn, and she flew into a rage when they met under the sycamore tree, next to the dovecot in the grounds of his home, Corstorphine Castle. She stabbed him to death with his own sword.Following a trial in Edinburgh, Nimmo was condemned to death at Scotland’s guillotine, a decapitation machine known as the Maiden. After her death, her ghost was said to haunt the scene of the crime, dressed in the white hooded cape she had worn to her execution. The ghost, known as the White Lady of Corstorphine, is still talked of today and a local Wetherspoons is named after it. Nimmo is described as ‘godless’ in the accounts of her trial and the entire narrative of the events is one of vengeance, jealousy, and cold-blooded murder.Nimmo’s trial must have been sensational at the time and the story remains part of the local community in Corstorphine. I remember writing a short story about it in primary school. In my mind, which was reflective of the way Nimmo was described, she was a terror.As a child I could never walk past the dovecot or sycamore tree without fearing I might see the White Lady of Corstorphine. But more recently, I began to wonder about what had really happened, not just on the fateful day of the murder but also what might have led to it.What I found interesting was my own response to the incident, as an adult. I was no longer afraid of Nimmo but had a curiosity about her case. Was she truly guilty? Who else might have wanted the scandalous Forrester dead? He had other lovers: who might they have been and might they, too, have had motive to murder him? How, and why, did a man of high social standing seduce his own niece? How does the power balance of their relationship look in a modern light?In lockdown 2020, with time on my hands I began to write my own, fictional, answers to these questions and the result is The Maiden.By autumn of that year, I had a work in progress and I pitched the idea at Bloody Scotland’s new writing competition, Pitch Perfect. To my amazement and delight it won.Bloody Scotland is a brilliant showcase for fiction writers and within weeks I signed up with my marvellous literary agent Viola Hayden at Curtis Brown and a few months later I had a book deal with Pan Macmillan’s stunning imprint, Mantle Books. The Maiden was published this spring.It has since been shortlisted for the Bloody Scotland debut prize and longlisted for the McIlvanney Prize. What an incredible journey from that short story I wrote in primary school.My novel does not attempt an accurate historical account. It has its own plot which is very different from what happened. I also didn’t want to restrict the setting to rural Corstorphine but broaden it out to the reek and debauchery of old Edinburgh. I created a second main character, Violet Blyth who is my own imagined version of an Edinburgh prostitute of the time. She works in a brothel in a high street close until meeting Forrester. She becomes his other mistress and the main witness to the stabbing. But can we believe Blyth’s testimony?At its heart my story is a murder mystery. But it is also an attempt to question a longstanding narrative and give voice to unheard women.The Maiden was used in 17th century Scotland to despatch the very worst criminals and became the inspiration for my title. I visited the Maiden at the National Museum of Scotland in Edinburgh last summer, and imagined the terror Nimmo must have felt when she was sentenced. No wonder she attempted an audacious escape plan. But did she succeed?I pass the empty site of the sycamore tree in Corstorphine from time to time but I’m no longer looking for the White Lady. Ghost stories can still scare us as adults, but in writing The Maiden I hope I have brought a real woman to life and laid a frightening spectre to rest.
The Maiden by Kate Foster (Mantle, £14.99) is shortlisted for the Bloody Scotland Debut Prize 2023. The winner will be revealed at Bloody Scotland on 15 September. For more information, visit www.bloodyscotland.com