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Rachel Burge on the inspiration behind her new book Waking the Witch

Rachel Burge on the inspiration behind her new book Waking the Witch

A few years ago I decided to write a novel, but there was just one problem – I didn’t have a story. I spent months scribbling down half-baked ideas and banging my head against my laptop, when my boyfriend gave me some advice. “Find an old news story and use that. If you base it on fact, half the work will be done for you. It’ll be easy.”

I scoffed at his optimism, but his advice wasn’t so ridiculous as it turned out. My first book, The Twisted Tree, wasn’t based on true events, but it was inspired by an existing story from Norse mythology. The challenge of giving ancient tales a contemporary twist and wondering ‘what if there were more to the story’ felt liberating. Instead of staring at a blank screen, I had a rich world of lore and well loved characters to feed my imagination.

The same thing happened with my new book, Waking the Witch. I was looking up “remote places in the UK,” hoping to find somewhere atmospheric to set a creepy story, when I came across Bardsey Island (Ynys Enlli), off the west coast of Wales. Cut off from the rest of the world, the tiny island has no roads or amenities and only a handful of residents. What it lacks in human activity, it makes up for with wildlife. The island is home to hundreds of seals as well as a huge colony of cormorants and other seabirds.

As I researched the place, I was excited to discover its fascinating history and folklore. Bardsey has been a site of holy pilgrimage since the 5th century and there are 20,000 saints and holy martyrs buried there. It’s said to be so holy, that anyone who dies on the island goes straight to heaven. Given it’s just over a mile long, there’s a running joke that you can dig anywhere and find bones. Bardsey used to have a thriving community, but like many islands the population has slowly dwindled. The schoolhouse was shut down in the 1950s and many of the buildings now stand empty. Tourists can rent one of the few holiday cottages in summer, as long as they can get there. There’s only one man who runs boat trips and the crossing is dependent on the weather. He once took some tourists for the day when a storm set in, leaving them stranded on the island for weeks.

I was intrigued to discover the residents leave in winter and take their farm animals with them. Some years ago, the BBC made a documentary about the Island Trust’s search for someone to act as a year-round caretaker. They recruited a family from the mainland, but their son was injured on the rocks on their first day and they decided to give up the position. I felt sorry for the family, but thrilled by the prospect of setting a novel in such a place. Why might the locals leave and take their animals? Does something sinister stalk the island in the darker months? Bardsey sounded the perfect location for a supernatural novel, and I knew there was a story I could set there – I just had to dig deep and find it.

A breakthrough came when I discovered Bardsey’s link to Arthurian legend. The island claims to be the site of Avalon and Merlin’s last resting place. In various stories he’s trapped in a tree, cave or tower. Interestingly, Bardsey does indeed have a tower – in the form of a red-and-white striped lighthouse. After seabirds kept crashing into it (as many as a thousand birds were killed in a single night), they replaced the rotating white beam with a fixed red LED light, which birds aren’t drawn to.

Weaving together this information with my own re-imagined take on Arthurian legend, I came up with Waking the Witch. The story may be magical and otherworldly, but I love knowing it’s based on fact too. And as an author with an over-active imagination, I like to think my version of events might even possibly be true.

Waking the Witch is published by Hot Key Books on 18 August 2022

BBC documentary clip:

Bardsey Island boat trips:

Bardsey Island lighthouse:

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