The Highlands Are Grimdark: How Scotland Influenced My Raven Queen

Scotland is a beautiful country. The mountains, rivers, forests, and lakes are really something to behold. The entire country looks like it was molded straight out of a fantasy world. A grimdark fantasy, that is.

Everything about Scotland, the Highlands in particular, screams grimdark. From the frightful weather to the systems of governance, the mythos to Scotland’s long, bloody history of invasion and violence, it certainly inspired my playground for The Raven Queen. There were other inspirations, to be sure, but Scotland was first among many. I’ll tell you about all the others someday.

[Spoiler Alert: I come from a long line of Scots-Irish hillbillies who still haunt the Highlands and Appalachia. Scotland the Brave will always be dearest to my heart, and most especially when played on the scalded cats.]

Cold and Rainy

Scottish standup comedian Billy Connolly put it succinctly in one of his older bits, “From Scotland with Love.” He regaled his audience with how many people come up to him and tell him that they went to Scotland (the few who did) and say they were disappointed because it rained their entire vacation. His response?


Billy Connolly

And that pretty much sums up the Scottish experience. It’s cold. It’s rainy. No, the locals aren’t happy about it, but they make do. Stereotypically, they’re as grim as dour as the weather is, but you can find that the locals are hardy with a good sense of humor at best. Of course, this good-humor and endurance can make it all the more heartbreaking if these more likable characters die in vicious, terrible ways.

On the flipside, a grim climate can create hardened characters. Do I need to explain how weather can set the scene? From grizzled antiheroes to sadistic villains, the Scottish-inspired weather can highlight darker shades of grey in morally ambivalent character – or explain ambiance without ever having to actually say “it was a dark and stormy night.” In Scotland, that’s would be redundant.

And to really hammer in Scotland’s weather patterns, look up haar when you get a chance. Haar is a thick fog that rolls in from the freezing North Sea, brought in by the warmer weather during what passes for summer on the cool British Isles. It looks like a cloud overtaking the entire landscape, blanketing it in thick mist where the unthinkable lurks.

Strange Weather, Stranger Landscape

If you think the weather in Scotland is unforgiving, and can be downright spooky, wait until you see the landscape. From deep lochs to rocky soil, icy mountains to old, gnarled forests, Scotland’s terrain can be the stuff of deep, dark legends.

That tracks when you think about it. The Scottish Highlands are an ancient terrain, going all the way back before the dinosaurs. Them, the Appalachians (another spooky inspiration, especially if you’re into cryptids and cosmic horror), and the fjords in Scandinavia used to be part of the same mountain range on the supercontinent Pangea. In all these landscapes today, legends abound about trolls, monsters, and other creatures going bump in the night.

On a less supernatural note, Scotland’s peat bogs are full of creepy wonders, from carved idols and dolls to the infamous peat bog mummies. These bog mummies have been found elsewhere in Europe, including Denmark and Ireland. But their existence offers a unique treasure trove of ideas: were these human sacrifices like my protagonist in Raven Queen, Arise is? Were they executed criminals? Both?

The Clan System

Speaking of executions, every society needs a system of government, even in grimdark fantasy settings. These often give way to the political intrigue we love so much about many grimdark fantasy works, from Joe Abercrombie to George R. R. Martin.

Monarchies are boring though. They’ve been done to death in nearly every fantasy work known to man. So why not spice things up a bit and deliver another power system? Maybe a smaller, nuclear system where ascending to the top is supported by birthright, but not necessarily guaranteed by it?

Enter the Scottish clan system. Clan comes from the Gaelic “clan” meaning children and describes a close-knit kinship system (the similarly sounding ‘Chlann” means family). While chiefdom is handed down like a monarchy now, back in the day, it’s said that any male who was related to the clan chief could throw in his lot for the chiefdom. Fodder for line of succession drama, anyone?

Many old Scottish clans claimed ancestry from the gods. Even later, during the many wars in Scotland, the right to rule was often considered divine, or it was claimed to be by the chiefs and kings trying to press their claim on territory.

Speaking of territory, the clan system as it was in Scotland brings us feuds, feuds, and more feuds. There are feuds that happened in Scotland that put the Hatfield-McCoy feud to shame, and they feature all the delicious drama: betrayal, massacres, and cruel starvation. One feud got so bad that people on the Isle of Skye couldn’t have food imported and had to eat cats and dogs to stay alive.

Witch Trials

Scotland had at least five witch trials. Beginning in 1594, a few women were accused of trying to curse the king and his wife. The king inspected them personally and wrote about his “discoveries” in a treatise called Daemonologie. This king was James VI of Scotland, James I of England who brought us the King James Bible, and the following translation of Exodus 22:18: “Thou shall not suffer a witch to live.”

Before that, “witch” could’ve been poisoner. Either way, it kicked off a few more witch trials through the seventeenth century. Exacerbated by the Protestant Reformation, Scotland’s witch trials had all the gruesome works that can inspire grimdark plots and subplots: torture, burning at the stake, public humiliation, and ghosts. The Spanish Inquisition simply had a better PR department.

I could go on and on. In fact, I did. Magic is capital-F Forbidden in the world that gave birth to my Raven Queen. Witchcraft is powerful and terrible and costly.

Homage Due the Queen

On a final note, I borrowed somewhat from Celtic Mythology as well as drawing inspiration from Scotland’s climate and history. One of my other genetic kin, the Irish, share many qualities with the Scots, though neither will admit it sober. (Which reminds me of my favorite bagpipe joke—but I’ll save that one for another time.)

The Morrigan, Celtic goddess of death, fate, and war, is a powerful figure and a member of the Tuatha de Danann, a race of gods. Numerous stories exist about her, and she figures quite heavily in Irish folklore.

While she’s not generally considered Scottish in the least, the Morrigan and the symbology of corvids play heavily in Raven Queen, Arise. Specifically, the power of the feminine, death, and crows and ravens acting as guides to the underworld. Because Highlanders are of Celtic stock, I still tend to think they’d be huge fans of the Morrigan.

If you want to see the end result of my inspiration for Raven Queen, Arise, check out the book today!

Published by Dave Reed

daydreamer-in-chief, romantic & writer

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