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July 16, 2014

Books retell Scottish lore for modern times

“Sometimes I think that truth is a place. In my mind, it is like a city: there can be a hundred roads, a thousand paths that will all take you, eventually, to the same place. If you walk toward the truth, you will reach it, whatever path you take.”

— From “The Truth is a Cave in the Black Mountains”

With the Scottish Open just over and a political bid for Scottish independence, it’s only appropriate that Scotland takes the stage this month as two new releases offer up traditional Scottish lore retold for modern times.

First, Neil Gaiman fans will be delighted with a tiny tome of retold legends from the Inner and Outer Hebrides, a group of islands off the coast of Scotland. “The Truth Is a Cave in the Black Mountains: A Tale of Travel and Darkness with Pictures of All Kinds” is set in a not-quite-historically- accurate 17th century Scotland where we follow a wee man on a quest for gold to bring the King (perhaps the Bonnie Prince Charlie) back to the land. Anyone can take the gold from the cave, but the price is high, namely a piece of one’s soul. Gaiman conceived of the story after reading the works of Otta Swire on the folklore of the Isle of Skye. Created originally to be read in the oral tradition set to the illustrations of his friend, Eddie Campbell, Gaiman is currently on a worldwide book-reading tour.

Matching Gaiman’s stylized storytelling is Katherine Harbour’s “Thorn Jack,” a retelling of the Scottish ballad Tam Lin, which dates back to the late 1500s. In the updated tale, 18-year-old Serafina (Finn for short) Sullivan and her professor father have moved to a small Hudson Valley college town following the suicide of her older sister, Lily Rose. Finn falls for Jack Fata, the scion of the town’s oldest and wealthiest family. She discovers her sister’s journal describing mythical creatures that resemble Jack’s family members and realizes she must save Jack from his mother’s diabolical scheme. As in Tam Lin, the rose is the magic key, and true love conquers all obstacles.

Harbour originally wrote “Thorn Jack” when she was 17. It has been compared to Stephanie Myers’ “Twilight,” “The Night Circus” by Erin Morgenstern, and “A Secret History” by Donna Tartt. If you are looking for something similar to pass the time during the last few weeks of summer break, this is an easy read.

What do the Hudson Valley of New York and Glasgow, Scotland have in common? Aye, short ribs paired with that proverbial European favorite, Nutella. Jaybe’s Bar-B-Que in the Dennistoun section of Glasgow and Zuppa Restaurant in the renovated Warehouse District in Yonkers each have a version of Nutella ribs. I was skeptical at first, but the flavor really was delicious and complex, and that’s the truth.

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