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The Inspiration for Gabaldon's Castle Leoch - an Editorial Review of "Sisters of Castle Leod"

Updated: Nov 16, 2022

Book Blurb:

Millions are fans of Diana Gabaldon's popular Outlander books and television series, but few know that Gabaldon's fictional Castle Leoch was inspired by a real Scottish castle, Castle Leod. The two sisters who lived there at the turn of the twentieth century were among the most fascinating and talked-about women of their era.

Lady Sibell Mackenzie is a spiritualist, a believer in reincarnation, and a popular author of mystical romances. Petite and proper, she values tradition and duty. Her younger sister Lady Constance, swimming champion and big game hunter, is a statuesque beauty who scandalizes British society with her public displays of Greek-style barefoot dancing. The differences between the sisters escalate into conflict after Sibell inherits their late father's vast estates and the title 3rd Countess of Cromartie. But it is the birth of Sibell's daughter that sets in motion a series of bizarre and tragic events, pitting sister against sister and propelling Sibell on a desperate mission to challenge the power of fate.

Sisters of Castle Leod, by award-winning author Elizabeth Hutchison Bernard, is the emotionally charged story of two sisters torn apart by jealousy and superstition, and the impossible leap of faith that could finally bring them together.

Author Bio:

Elizabeth Hutchison Bernard is an award-winning author of historical fiction. Her latest novel, SISTERS OF CASTLE LEOD (release date: January 19, 2023), is the haunting, emotionally charged story of two sisters torn apart by jealousy and superstition, and the impossible leap of faith that could finally bring them together. Her 2017 release, THE BEAUTY DOCTOR, is a riveting medical thriller that takes place in the early days of cosmetic surgery when the world of medicine was a bit like the Wild West and beauty doctors were the newest breed of outlaw. THE BEAUTY DOCTOR was a finalist for the Eric Hoffer Book Award, National Indie Excellence Awards, AZ Literary Awards, and is a Book Readers Appreciation Group Medallion Honoree. TEMPTATION RAG: A NOVEL is a page-turning story of love and revenge and a deeply human portrait of racial and gender inequality in the ragtime era. "Music, art and culture spring from every page of this delightfully artistic work." (Readers' Favorite Book Review, 5-stars)

Editorial Review:

Sibell is a sensible and appealing girl, given to a strong imagination and occasional assumed flights of fancy; she is, in many ways, older than her age of seventeen. Bookish and withdrawn, with strong stirrings of justice and social equality. she is also subject to occasional strong senses of the supernatural. She is the very willing and unofficial guardian of her younger sister Constance, five years her junior. Her beloved father is now dead and her mother a distant and very detached figure who has married again, rather precipitously, and is most happy and comfortable in London Society, unlike her eldest daughter. For Sibell also happens to be Sibell Lilian Mackenzie, the title of the Countess of Cromartie, a title allowed to remain in the female line upon the death of her beloved father through the direct intercession of Queen Victoria herself – a firm and close friend of her grandmother. Concerned and flustered with all her newly inherited responsibilities to the Estate, to the army of servants at the home, Castle Leod, and to the people of the far-flung district of Ross and Cromarty in the Scottish Highlands – she is also increasingly aware of the increasingly wayward behaviour, attitudes, and comportment of her younger sister.

Very much subject to the conventions of the time, Sibell is obliged to leave her Highlands of Scotland to endure three years of “the London Season”, to see and be seen. The young and attractive girl, still a minor by law, would be a great prize indeed for all eligible suitors. She resolutely evades all offers of marriage and earns a reputation for being haughty and aloof.

The routine was always the same. Before each fruitless encounter arranged through my chaperone Aunt Millicent, Duchess of Sutherland, I was primed with propaganda by well-meaning friends of the family.

Surely you'll find the baron to be a most charming companion. And he has his own money.”

Between us, the earl is rumored to be a man of extraordinary physical attributes.”

My dear Sibell, it's inconceivable you should settle for anything less than a duke!”

How could I explain I was not like other young debutantes set on achieving the most boast-worthy match? I was too much of a romantic or, if not that, at least I hoped for someone who might share my distaste for languishing in the drawing rooms of London. How I ached for the wild moors and mountains of home!

One man (and one man alone) attracts her imagination - and her heart. This man, twice her age, is Major Edward Blunt, Major in the Royal Engineers who she originally met in discussions to develop hydroelectricity for the district and to bring light and power to all those far-flung people within her estate. This relationship develops into a formal engagement, and is announced at a grand Reception at Castle Leod. It is marked by an appearance, so early as to be unusual, of an apparition with which Sibell is very familiar – the ghostly image of “The Night Watchman” – emerging from his usual place from behind the Grandfather clock, as well as the discovery of a slaughtered deer hanging from the branches of a tree outside.

Sibell is besotted. A society wedding follows in London in 1899. Her wayward sister Constance, with her own fierce wish for independence, is present as a bridesmaid. Even before Edward is recalled to the War in South Africa, Sibell knows that she is pregnant. Her pregnancy is not an easy one, but her baby daughter Janet is born. Three days later, Edward returns and, for a brief period, they are an ideal devoted young family. This child will remain the strongest influence upon her and responsible for much of her subsequent behaviour for the rest of her life.

But then tragedy strikes, causing Sibell to embark upon a quest to understand the reasons for her sudden misfortune and find a way to reverse fate. She travels to Venice, a place she had visited on her honeymoon and where she believes her daughter was conceived. She is accompanied by her mother, from whom she has inherited her sixth sense and a taste for all things of a supernatural nature. She feels a distance between her and her rational and pragmatic Engineer husband. She feels more than distanced from her sister Constance. They have not, in fact, spoken in months and Sibell has shunned her, feeling that Constance in some way engineered a set of circumstances to improve her own financial situation by deliberately defying a family superstition in a bid to inherit her sister's title and estates. It is 1901 and the old Queen is dead.

In Venice - “the most haunted City in Europe” - events take a chilling and more supernatural turn in Sibell's young and eventful life. Invited to a Ball with her mother, who is accompanying her, (her sensible Engineer husband Edward having remained behind, steadfastly agnostic despite her accurate forecast of an earthquake), she is accosted by a dark handsome man, a dealer in precious stones with an Arabic appearance and costume (this being a High Society Venetian Masked Ball), a Greek name, and impeccable English manners. He separates Sibell from the crowd and into a waiting gondola for a view of Venice by night. The setting is pure and perfect Mills and Boon, impossible to refuse – surely every young girl's fantasy!

My thoughts turned again to Demetrius. The smoothness of his tanned skin. The elegant way he held his cigarette as if it floated between his fingers. And his eyes. If I were to consider them apart from the rest of his face, I'd swear they belonged to a much older man, someone who had known the depths of pain and passion.”

But Sibell, Countess of Cromartie is made of sterner stuff and the handsome Demetrius is not all he seems to be. He is already acquainted with her mother, it seems, and has a professed great interest in spiritualism. He tells her that ever since he saw her photograph in a London newspaper he dreams of her every night and wakes drenched in perspiration. It is either a genuine “cri de couer” or a well above-average chat up line. In a subsequent note of apology the following morning he tells her that perhaps she is not yet fully ready. He gives her also the name of a person in London who can help her. Her mother nowhere to be found, Sibell loses herself in the narrow streets and alleys of Venice and has a most unusual encounter with a strange old gentleman who turns out to be the proprietor of the very shop she is seeking, L'Arte de la Magie'. He had recognised her as a seeker of knowledge immediately and admired her 'fine violet aura'. In his strange shop, he invites her to cut the Tarot cards and he reads the three she has chosen: 'The Hermit', 'the six golden balls' and 'the King of Wands'. He tells her she is a seeker of truth who wishes to leave the material world behind, that she is of high birth and title, but some event in her past has brought tragedy and obstruction. He concludes by telling her she lacks faith and that she must open her mind and go beyond! He is sympathetic, but sternly tells her it is time to set herself to follow her destiny, in her case by giving vent to her feelings, beliefs, and aspirations through a career in writing.

By this point in the narrative, the author has the reader successfully ensnared in the web of her very elegant and polished narrative; the style of Daphne du Maurier springs to mind. Like Sibell, Countess of Cromartie, the reader has no option but to follow the path, wheresoever it might lead. Where we are led, in fact, is to a realm midway between Mary Shelley and the more mannered exchanges of Jane Austen, with a heady whiff of brimstone and the occult thrown in for good measure. These episodes and events are related with skill and verve; the reappearance to Sibell, for example, of the familiar spectre of the Night Watchman, appearing from his customary place to communicate and give warning of an attempted suicide attempt. Briefly, the two sisters are reconciled and then alienated once more as further proof of Constance's profligacy, her avarice, and her downright dishonesty. Sibell makes her first tentative steps into writing. Constance, on the other hand, gets written about: 'Constance (Sibell concludes) loved to challenge nature. I preferred to cherish it. Yet, accustomed as I was to thinking we were opposites, I wondered if perhaps we really weren't. Each of us, in our own way, was an explorer. She in the wild places of the Earth, and I in whatever lies beyond.''

We have constant reminders, however, that while Sibell explores the arcane and the Occult, and is periodically hypnotised by the man recommended by Demetrius in Venice (thus recalling her previous life in ancient Phoenicia) of the facts of her extraordinary privilege, her aristocratic lineage – and her wealth. Her Aunt, to cite but one example, invites the sisters for lunch at the prestigious location of Claridges in London:

''Her favourite table was ready and waiting; a prime location beneath one of several arched openings with an unobstructed view of the Restaurant's magnificent centrepiece, a colossal vase of three hundred white roses atop a tall marble pedestal. The moment we were seated no less than three waiters rushed over to fill our water goblets, after which the Maitre D' quickly returned to recite the day's featured selections and, with a flourish, handed each of us a menu.'' None of them would have batted an eyelid. This is simply one of many instances of Sibell's aristocratic background and life of privilege.

These exercises in hypnosis (allied to Sibell's firm and fast belief in the supernatural, her recollections of a previous and seemingly favoured existence in ancient Tyre) take Sibell on an unaccompanied journey on the Orient Express all the way to Constantinople where once again the mysterious and doubtless smouldering Demetrius appears. He acts as a guide, first of Constantinople and then to Lebanon, the site of the ancient civilisation of Phoenicia. In this difficult, if not downright dangerous journey to a secluded ancient ruin she is temporarily enchanted and overcome by Demetrius as he speaks eloquently of their shared life and bonds in the ancient past, their destiny, and of their shared daughter still to come. The side of Sibell that always displays common sense triumphs over her spiritual and emotional side and she promptly leaves, returning home to her sensible and shrewd business-minded husband. Seven years pass before their paths cross once more, and in very different circumstances.

Elizabeth Hutchison Bernard took great pains in the research of the extraordinary lives of these two very different sisters. She supplements the many available facts with a rich, sustained, and believable narrative, which is the mark of a good writer of historical fiction. Thus we learn of the very mixed fortunes of the sisters, their husbands, children, and their careers: Of Sibell and her successful and prolific career as a creator of 'pagan' literature, and her faithful ancient Phoenician spirit guide; and of Constance, the liberated free thinker and radical whose behaviour leads to her being shunned and demonised by aristocratic polite society and of the complete polar opposites of their wealth and fortunes. When challenged by her sister, Constance defends her position and behaviour thus:

''How will our Society ever advance if people are kept in ignorance? All their lives, they have been lied to. Told that what is beautiful is ugly, what is good and pure is filthy and morally depraved. Someone has to show them the truth.'' These are fine sentiments indeed but not likely to soothe the sensibilities of society at large. When we meet the two sisters together for the last time it is in an atmosphere of great sorrow and regret but in final reconciliation and the revealing of truths.

This is a fine piece of storytelling that veers between the genres of romance, mystery, and the supernatural. In its creation, a great amount of hard work and empathy is very evident. It is clear that the writer has entered into the lives of these two sisters on many levels.


“Sisters of Castle Leod” by Elizabeth Hutchison Bernard receives 4.5 stars from The Historical Fiction Company


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