Like the witches who lurk around the farms and villages of its version of Ayrshire, Hag Storm is a book that comes in many guises; it is a tense family drama, an engaging work of historical fiction, and a ghost story spooky enough to send shivers down your spine.
While working in his father’s fields, young Rab finds an unusual stone with a hole in the centre. When he looks through the hole, he sees witches closing in on his home and family. He repeatedly discards the stone and ignores its unsettling perspective — until he realises that he is running out of chances to heed warnings and save his sisters from gathering dark forces.
Set in 1771, and introducing a 12-year-old Robert Burns whose tough circumstances closely match the poet’s own, this story was inspired by Victoria Williamson’s childhood love of Burns’ poem Tam O’ Shanter. It shares characters (even a horse named Meg!) settings and a mood of escalating tension with that celebrated text, but the author has used these raw ingredients to concoct an intoxicating potion that is very much her own.
The story has a Halloweeny mood, and almost feels as if it’s being told in the dusky colours of the cover. It is full of nuggets of folklore and witchcraft, but our favourite parts were when we got to know young Burns and his family – exploring his real-life struggle with poverty, his frustrations at having his education cut short, and particularly, his bickering and bond with his siblings.
At first reading, Hag Storm appears a significant departure in style from Williamson’s critically-acclaimed contemporary books, The Boy with the Butterfly Mind and the Fox Girl and the White Gazelle, but it also shares the traits that made them stand out – meticulous research brought to life with a powerful empathy for the trials its characters face.
If you are considering introducing a young reader to the work of Robert Burns and want to both excite them about his writing, and engage them in finding out about his life and times, this is the book you need.
Hag Storm, by Victoria Williamson, Cranachan
- Look out for our Q&A with Victoria, coming soon.