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Kate Foster on the real life inspiration behind The Maiden

Kate Foster on the real life inspiration behind The Maiden

Some of the stories we learn as children remain with us throughout our lives.

As a child there was one story I found fascinating and terrifying in equal measures, the gruesome tale of a murder that had happened in my village some 300 years earlier. A vengeful woman had stabbed her rogue of a lover with his own sword, in a crime of passion. He was Lord James Forrester of Corstorphine, a village on the outskirts of Edinburgh. She was his mistress, Christian Nimmo. A terrible fight had broken out between the two of them on the day of the village fair and she had taken his life under a giant sycamore tree on the grounds of his castle. Her ghost is still said to haunt the scene.

The trial of Christian Nimmo must have been sensational at the time and its folklore remains part of the local community, told in school lessons and lending its name to the village pub. As a child, growing up in Corstorphine I could never walk past that sycamore tree without fearing I might see the ghost of Christian Nimmo, known as the White Lady of Corstorphine, shimmering in its leaves.

Years later, I began to wonder about what had really happened, not just on the fateful day of the murder but also what might have led up to the incident. I was no longer afraid of Christian Nimmo but had a curiosity about her case. Was she truly guilty? Who else might have wanted the scandalous Lord Forrester dead? He had other lovers: who might they have been and might they, too, have had motive to murder him? I spent time researching and reading accounts of the case. Was it as clear-cut as we all assumed? What might drive a woman to kill the man she’s having an affair with? What else had Christian wanted from life? What were her ambitions?

In lockdown 2020, with time on my hands and a place on the Curtis Brown Creative online six-month novel writing course, I began to write my own, fictional, answers to these questions and the result is The Maiden.

At its heart my story is a murder mystery. But it is also an attempt to lay the frightening spectre of Christian Nimmo to rest by questioning a longstanding narrative and giving her a living, human voice. The Maiden is also an attempt to give voice to the other women I imagined were living in Edinburgh at that time, like the ambitious prostitute Violet Blyth, who becomes Lord Forrester’s other mistress and the main witness to the murder. But can we believe Violet’s testimony?

Condemned to death, the story plays out under the threat of Christian Nimmo’s execution at the Maiden, a guillotine that was used in 17th century Scotland to despatch the very worst criminals and became the inspiration for the title of my novel. When I visited the Maiden at the National Museum of Scotland in Edinburgh last summer, and stood at its foot, I imagined the terror she must have felt when she was sentenced.

The Maiden is published by Mantle on 27 April 2023

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