THE LAST BEAR
Winner of the Robin Jenkins Award for books inspired by Scotland's forests
Click here for Mandy's author page.
A haunting and compelling novel set one thousand years ago in the remote northwest Highlands of Scotland, The Last Bear recounts a tale of ecological and spiritual crisis from the viewpoint of one extraordinary woman.
Taking the story of the extinction of the brown bear as its focal point, a story of love, jealousy, family and faith unfolds as Brigid, the last in a long line of medicine women, tries to live out her life in a time of upheaval without losing her cultural roots. Her personal struggle is set against a transforming world, as powerful Viking families clash with Celts and old pagan beliefs are challenged by Christian faith, changes that reach even into the timeless depths of the forest.
Haggith weaves evocative descriptions of the natural world into a narrative that binds the characters ever more tightly into intrigue. Who killed the last bear in Scotland, and with what consequences?
Praise for The Last Bear
‘The Last Bear is as much poem as prose, a lament for the last bear in Scotland, and the human ways of life that died with her. With the imposition of an alien religion the old harmonies are disrupted; the last bear is the final sacrifice of the old order. The Last Bear focuses on a pivotal historical moment, yet the results echo on down the centuries: the pain and loss of the last bear is, in fact, our own.’ Margaret Elphinstone
'Beautifully written, this is a wonderful mix of legend and historical romance: a moving and exciting first novel from a fine writer.' Historical Novels Review
See review on the Vulpes Libris book blog at: http://vulpeslibris.wordpress.com/2008/04/18/the-last-bear-by-mandy-haggith/
About Mandy Haggith
Mandy Haggith first studied Philosophy and Mathematics and then Artificial Intelligence, and spent years struggling to write elegant computer programs that could help to save the planet. A decade ago she left academia to pursue a life of writing and revolution, and has since travelled all over the world researching forests and the people dependent on them, and campaigning for their protection. In 2003, she returned to Glasgow University to study for an MPhil in Creative Writing, gaining a distinction. This is her first book-length collection of poetry. Her first novel, The Last Bear, is also published by Two Ravens Press. She lives on a woodland croft in Assynt, in the Scottish Highlands.
An extract from The Last Bear
From the knoll that sheltered my hut from the brunt of storms, I watched the harvest festival. On the south side of the loch, silhouette people danced around a fire. In any other year of my life I would have been there. When I was little I used to help my mother run the ceremonies, and in recent years I had led the sacred dancing. Now, banished from the village, I was no longer even part of it.
Sounds and scents tugged from my memory. Drumming. Rhythms for dancing. Birch wood smoke. Roasting meat, the taste of mead, the smell of sweat. Dancers twirling and stamping. I scrutinised the images for details: the shine of wet skin in firelight, green and blue flames sparring in the heart of the blaze.
I knew exactly what it was like to be beside that fire, under the full harvest moon. I could picture how the dancers’ boots were laced, and the stitching on the drummer’s bodhran. I could hear the cheers and see the smiles on the dancers’ flame-eyed faces. I would never forget the pattern of sparks as we threw the pine branch on to signify the end of the dancing.
Even from here I could see it was a big one this year. Since the villagers had begun clearing the woods for pasture in what James the monk called ‘improvements’, they seemed to have been overtaken with a frenzy for burning, and the fires marking the seasons had grown ever bigger.
Across the loch, the fire shuddered and swelled. The flickering movements of people stopped. I guessed that the ceremonies had begun. The villagers would be giving their harvest offerings, figures and animals twined from barley straw. Mothers would be encouraging their children to hurl their corn-creatures up to be consumed by the highest flames. They would be giving thanks for the food that had nourished them and their animals through the summer, thanks for the grain and hay now safely stored in the barns for the winter to come, thanks for the heather honey that would heal their wounds and salve the bitter times ahead. The great cup of mead would be passing from mouth to mouth, to remind everyone of the sweetness of Mother Earth as they blessed her for the harvest gifts.
I cursed to myself. Now that the ceremony was led by the monkish James, I could only guess what was done and said. But one thing was for sure: it would not be Mother Earth to whom thanks would be offered. It would be the new god, the god of the night sky and underground fires, the god of heaven and hell, of mastery and power.
A great copper bowl engraved with the sacred bear had been the drinking vessel for as long as anyone could imagine. I shuddered at the thought of it being used to toast this cruel new god. I wondered if Bjorn was there, joining in the Christian prayers.
I looked up at the sky and tried to calm my anger by gazing at the moon, dodging cloud creatures chased in from the sea by the west wind. I called out to her, ‘At least no priest can overthrow you, Sister Moon. They can steal our sacred things, destroy our sacred places, take over our ceremonies, but they’ll never silence the rhythm that you dance to; they’ll never still your tides.’ I felt better after speaking out loud, and smiled as the moon shone through a scampering cloud and the motion in the sky made her glide and roll. In her light I could make out Beithe and the calf lying by the shore, chewing the cud.
The fire on the far side of the loch damped down. That would be the peats. I had been there in the spring for the peat-cutting, and helped to stack the turfs so they would dry over the summer months, but I would miss the sharing out of the precious fuel after tonight’s moon fire.
In the traditional harvest ceremony, the burning of the peats was always the moment of deepest worship. They were a gift direct from Mother Earth, slices of her very flesh, to keep us warm through the winter. I did not like to think what the priest would be saying to the villagers at this moment. Til the hunter, one of the few villagers I ever saw these days, told me that the priest encouraged them to sing the old songs of praise, but that he insisted that they change the words. It was always the father, not mother, who should be thanked. Instead of earth, it must be heaven. Instead of trees, their branches full of the patterns of life’s struggles, it must be crosses, upright and regular, cut by man at his meanest.
I sighed. I was chilly, but the memory of the peat burning had galvanised me. ‘I, at least, shall honour the Earth,’ I declared, and turned away from the loch towards my hut.