At the World’s End

Meggie’s Journeys by Margaret D’Ambrosio
Polygon, 1987

A few days ago, #ReclaimTheseStreetsPorty, one of the groups formed after the abduction and presumed murder of Sarah Everard in London, attached a series of posters and banners to a fence at Portobello Beach in Edinburgh.

‘Our Bodies Our Minds Our Power’, said one. Others said, ‘Educate your sons.’ ‘Strong women stay strong.’ ‘Good men challenge violence in word and deed.’ ‘Be a radical dreamer.’

Many people stopped to look more closely and read a list of victims of violence against women in 2021 and 2020. Some passers-by were disturbed or confused. Others were moved by the signs.

It’s possible that no one who saw them knew the name of Margaret D’Ambrosio. She was a writer who was killed by her partner 21 years ago in Port Seton, along the coast from Portobello.

Book cover: Meggie's Journey

D’Ambrosio’s book, Meggie’s Journeys, has been out of print for many years (it apparently went into a second edition with a new publisher in 1988). It once sold well at the First of May Bookshop and West & Wilde. It is women’s writing rather than queer writing, except in the sense that it describes a wisdom which accepts many ways of love and of life. It is a Celtic fantasy novel of legendary times on the land which would one day be called Edinburgh. The dedication reads: To the Old Ones: Nothing is ever forgotten. We’re delighted to have a copy in our archive.

But nearly everything about D’Ambrosio’s writing seems to have been forgotten.

A search on the internet reveals much more about her death than her life. She and her partner were found in their flat on 23 January 2000: she had been murdered; he had committed suicide.

The Herald reported that she had been interested in New Age beliefs, sang in folk clubs, and had worked at the Bull and Bush pub in Lothian Road around the time her novel was published. Did she publish anything else? The paper didn’t say.

Polygon, her publisher, was the literary imprint of Edinburgh University Press at the time Meggie’s Journey first appeared. And it seems unlikely that they would have accepted D’Ambrosio’s novel unless she had a history as a writer – possibly under a different name. In 2002, Polygon became an imprint of Birlinn an independent publisher based in Edinburgh. Today, it continues to publish literary fiction and poetry by such well-known Scottish writers as Liz Lochhead and Edwin Morgan.

In 1987 Polygon had an imaginative list. Its books were sometimes found in the First of May and Lavender Menace. The cover Polygon gave D’Ambrosio’s book was beautiful and unusual, different from the primary colours usually found on radical books. It featured old-fashioned, softly coloured pen-and-ink drawings by Hazel McGlashan of Celtic symbols such as plants and animals, and at the bottom of the cover, waves on the sea.

The cover represents the book well. It is a picture of what Iron Age culture may have been like, similar to the Boudicca series by lesbian writer Manda Scott. Speaking at the Edinburgh International Book Festival, Scott said she wanted to portray a society where the sexes were equal and nature was not exploited as in modern times but considered a source of wisdom and spiritual power. D’Ambrosio’s vision seems to have been similar, but while Scott’s novels are stories of conflict, Meggie’s Journey is closer to poetry. It is meant to take us into the state of mind of her Celtic characters.

The novel explains that Celts believed in the Otherworld, similar to the Christian Heaven – but instead of being remote, it existed within nature and the world we know. In certain places and times, human beings could slip through the barriers into a truer world than our own.

In the novel, Meggie is questing for the Well at the World’s End, which will show her the face of the Goddess. On the four seasonal Celtic festivals (which include Beltane, still celebrated in Edinburgh), she journeys to the Otherworld. Her companion is Annis, sometimes an old woman, sometimes a young maiden.

Meggie meets the Sidhe, a race of spiritual beings well-known in Celtic legend. White ravens and beautiful spirits speak to her. She survives the realm of the Barrowbane and the River of Lamentation. She makes a reconciliation with Death and comes to the Well at the World’s End. But while she has been on her quest, time has passed, and the Celtic world has faded away.

At the end of the book a young woman from modern Edinburgh meets Meggie by St Margaret’s Loch, under Arthur’s Seat, and the doors to the Otherworld reopen for both of them.

The book itself is more like a vision than a 20th century novel. Plot and character are less important than the vision of the Otherworld and its realisation within ourselves.

The vision is composed with care and in detail. D’Ambrosio even composed music to go with the poems in the book. The story of 175 pages seems to contain a lifetime’s imagination.

There is no hint as to how or why D’Ambrosio came to write the story. She cites only a few sources. She may have explained more when she gave a reading from the book, and some people must still remember it. It’s to be hoped that more about her life and her other writing will emerge. The novel seems to address the pain of bereavement, and as she reaches the World’s End, Meggie says, ‘Between death and love, life dances forever.’ The work she might have done if she had lived is lost, but we still have her novel and perhaps, a quest of our own – to speak out together and protect women – and to remember her as a radical dreamer, part of Edinburgh’s creative history.

Published: 22 March 2021

Mortimer’s Deep – A Medieval Story

Mortimer’s Deep by Simon Taylor
Balnain Books, 1992

Translated into German by Rainer Schmidt. Published as Der Mönch by four German publishers including Weltbild (Augsburg, 2004).

Mortimer’s Deep – It’s Origins

Off the Fife coast, near the village of Aberdour, lies the island of Inchcolm, where the stark ruins of a monastery are visible across the water.

Book cover: Mortimer's Deep

The channel between the village and the island is known as Mortimer’s Deep. It’s a dangerous stretch of water. One story says that around 800 years ago a group of monks were taking the body of a nobleman named De Mortimer to the island for burial. A storm blew up, the boat began to sink. And the monks threw the body into the Forth to save their lives.

The name of the channel is the only suggestion that this really happened. But Simon Taylor, a medieval scholar, takes the legend as the starting point of his vision of queer and Scottish medieval history.

Changing Light

The novel begins in 1224 as Martin de Dunfermline, a young church clerk, travels to Inchcolm Priory. He is on a mission he conceals from everyone. To learn the truth about the proud, brilliant and cruel Prior Simon de Quincy, his former mentor.

As Martin crosses the Forth, the water, and the stone of the priory change colour as the clouds come and go. There are many journeys to Inchcolm in the novel. And everything shifts and transforms for the characters as they leave the ordinary world.

The changing light on Inchcolm is a warning for the reader as well as for Martin. We can look into the queer past, but we can’t be sure what we are seeing. Taylor builds the vision of Scottish and queer history in his novel on a structure of fact.

Mortimer’s Deep takes place mainly at the end of the 12th century, during the reign of William the Lion in Scotland and (among others) Richard the Lionhearted in England. There was no shortage of lions, wolves, foxes and other predators in politics or the church. Joining a monastery was a retreat from the world, but it was a life of hardship and, for queers, condemnation by the church.

‘Spiritual friendship’

However, when Mortimer’s Deep was written in the 1980s, perceptions of queer history were in flux. The American historian John Boswell had just published his controversial book, Christianity, Social Tolerance and Homosexuality. Boswell found evidence of tolerance of same-sex relationships in early Christian writings – and in some cases, support.

In the novel, Simon Taylor acknowledges his debt to Boswell.  As punitive as the church was, especially after the 12th century, Boswell believed there were also long-lasting traditions of same-sex ‘spiritual friendship.’

Photo: Inchcolm Island and Abbey
Inchcolm Island and Abbey.

On Inchcolm, Martin de Dunfermline meets an old monk who speaks for those traditions. Once handsome, now old and blind, Brother Michael has been forgotten by most of the monastery. But it turns out he was once Prior Simon’s lover.

Martin eagerly begins talking to him. Brother Michael agrees to tell him what he knows about the mysterious Simon. But in exchange, he asks that Martin hear his own story, from the early days when he fled to Inchcolm to escape Sir William de Mortimer, his sexually abusive master, and found refuge on the island. He speaks for the life of the monastery – the harsh conditions, the trivial quarrels – and the attempt to reconcile monastic ideals with the love for other men which sustains Michael’s sanity.

Making the past speak

Michael’s story deals with Scots royal quarrels, intrigues among cardinals, false miracles, mysterious deaths, and the corrupt papal court in Rome. His own good looks, he says, have been his curse. But his conscience and honesty have brought him nearly as much trouble. A complex character, he makes the past speak, for Martin – and for us.

The novel works on several levels. It is a mystery story, which follows Martin’s quest to unravel the life of Simon de Quincy and his own past. It is a story of the friendship between Brother Michael and Martin. But it is also a gothic novel, sometimes a horror story, and the multilayered story of a same-sex community.

Simon Taylor researched his story closely. The church intrigues of the time and Scotland’s tangled relationship with England and the Papacy are woven into the plot. At the end is a unique feature – a catalogue of characters with the known facts about them in ordinary type and the novel’s inventions in italics.

Mortimer’s Deep – It’s Legacy

Mortimer’s Deep was published in 1992 in an edition with a coppery, textured cover by the small Scottish publisher Balnain. But, like its hero, it also travelled on the continent. Mortimer’s Deep was featured on the continent at European bookfairs, thanks to the Scottish Publishers Association (now Publishing Scotland). It was translated by the German publisher Schneekluth. Promoted with a tv appearance and a CD featuring monastic chants, it went through four German editions as Der MönchThe Monk. Like many queer novels, it found more than one home and survived.