Myths in Isolation tales – an update

It is 3 months now since I received the first story submissions for the images I made during the first difficult days of lockdown. When I started drawing mythical creatures in isolation all those weeks ago I never dreamed they would become the catalyst for so many writers to bring new stories into the world.

It’s pretty hard to articulate just how impressed I am by all of them so far. Stories of magic, of compassion, change, transformation and hope. Many in the tradition of the folktales I have loved for so much of my life but speaking to who and where we are now as well. I hope one day to hear them being told around a bonfire on a warm summer evening… The experience of having writers create for illustration rather than the other way around has been a fascinating reflection for me of the way in which I read and absorb text to try to discover the right imagery to complement it.

And I would love to see them all published together in a book, I will make it happen somehow and I am currently seeking a publisher so if anyone out there can help please get in touch.

In the meantime I have started to publish them to my Patreon account because I really feel they should be seen by those who support me most directly first. But I do want more people to read and enjoy them and for the writers to get recognition for their new tales of mythical creatures that are so reflective of our times. So I will be starting to publish selected stories here as well. With links and information about the writers.

Although most of the tales do not directly reference the pandemic, like the images they have all been created in its shadow. For most of us who create the way in which our world experience feeds into what we make is a given. And this shared trauma with all of its aspects of uncertainty, fear and isolation but also hope for the future has forged connections and collaborations that we could never have anticipated a few months ago. I am hoping the writers will be happy to share their experiences of creating at this time too and their reasons for feeling inspired to write by these images.

My deepest gratitude to the people who have written for this, and are writing still for this. And to the hope that one day we will see these images and stories in print and be able to meet up in the real world and raise a glass or two to our collaboration in the virtual one…

On the edge of things – A story

The woman had always lived on the edge of things. Between worlds. One foot in the world of people and one in the world of earth and sky. For many years she balanced between them.

She loved people, but they could be difficult to be with and she struggled to understand so many things about them. She didn’t know the answers to any of the big questions, but she knew that she didn’t and that seemed to be something not altogether bad.
She wasn’t sure that some of them even had answers.
she walked alone each day with her thoughts and the sounds of birdsong and breezes. she was happy to be leaves and feathers, atoms and dust.

She knew the names of things and would murmur them as she passed. She knew she was utterly and wondrously insignificant in the scheme of things angd yet also a part of everything. Every tiny fly and wind blown blossom had its place and so did she.

As time went by she turned more and more to the quiet places. She pottered in her garden and watched the seasons change, the trees become misted with green, then emerald and shimmering in the wind, then flame fire bright then black bare bones against the grey sky again.. She watched the world turn and knew that change would continue. Because that is the nature of things.
She grew old in years and the birds became so bold around her she could almost touch them. She knew their names and their songs and they knew her song too.

She often stood so still in the morning air she could hear her own heart beating and feel the earths rhythm through her feet.
One day in May she stood in her wild garden, stretched out her fragile arms in the warm spring sunshine and waited. And the birds came. They sat light as feathered whispers along her arms and they perched on her wild head.
And she smiled to herself and thought, If only this moment could go on forever.
The people wondered in passing what had become of the woman who lived on the edge of things. They walked by the quiet place where she had once lived and saw nothing. Just trees. There might have been one more, but who counts trees?

Finding my light in the Lockdown – Myths in isolation.

I hope you are all getting through these weird times in ways that work for you. I hope you are able to breathe fresh air and that you can find some humour in our new obsessions. ( one of my current ones is trying to get hold of eggs. when my elderly hen Nancy finally laid her first of the year recently I could have kissed her, I nearly did to be honest, I am missing hugs from friends more than I can say)

I was close to panic at the beginning of the stay at home period of the crisis. After a couple of weeks of confusion about risk, anxiety about continuing to go into school after everything else had closed down and worry for friends and family I knew were very vulnerable, I was exhausted and stressed. I sat at my kitchen table and cried the Tuesday before they finally closed the school. My hypertension raged and I felt as though I was in fight or flight mode all of the time.
The decision, when it finally came, to ask us to stay at home came as something of a relief. Some of the constant fear subsided.

I managed to focus on work long enough to finish the book cover I was working on and send it off. I had another book cover and some colour spreads in my inbox but my publisher then emailed to say they were closed for now and my editor would be on furlough so there was now no idea when anything would go to print or be signed off/approved

For a few days I tidied cupboards, repotted plants and planted vegetable seeds to try to ground myself. It helped. I took long walks in the woods. I tried sporadically to work on my commissions, these things I now had no deadline for… without much success.
I have a piece to do for one of my Patrons but couldn’t manage to focus on that either. I felt frustrated and disconnected. I wasn’t drawing. It hurt, I could feel panic creeping back, and it made me feel rudderless.

Then I remembered my friend Su had created a drawing challenge at the beginning of February called ‘ A fortnight of fuckdoodlery’ for those of us who were feeling low and discouraged about all sorts of things. I messaged her and asked if she would consider setting up another to give us all something to focus on other than our current scary situation.

She very kindly obliged and made it an alphabetical challenge for the sake of simplicity. It was immediately a lifesaver for me. Creating for the sake of it helped me pick up a pencil again. I looked forward to curling up in a chair every day and finding something beginning with A to F

I decided to only use pastels and pencils as this was all about drawing rather than painting. Some were simple, some silly, some were from life, some were heartfelt. It gave me a chance to try to draw my Dad once more and be reminded of our last trip to Barcelona together.

This was Dad’s favourite hat, he lost it later that day, possibly in a taxi. He was sanguine about it as ever, ‘it’s just a hat‘ he said.

When I got to the Letter G I instantly thought Griffin! I need to draw a griffin… and as I started to draw him I realised he was expressing something about what I was feeling that day about this unsettling time, this strange bright spring shot through with darkness. I joked to my son that perhaps I should do a series of mythical creatures in self isolation. He raised his eyebrows in that ‘well? Sort of way he has, so the idea was born.

G is for Griffin. I didn’t finish him as I started late in the day and lack of light and tiredness got the better of me. But I am going to keep him this way. That was how that day was.

Since then it has become a sort of obsession, after doing the first few curled up in an armchair I found I was taking longer and longer over them and so finding this more and more problematic. I struggled to unfold myself afterwards my limbs grumped and groaned and the eye strain of working in the dim living room lighting started to show. I don’t know why I resisted returning to my desk to do these for so long, some strange sense of guilt that it wasn’t ‘proper’ work somehow? I am not sure. But by the time I got to R I was back at my desk.
Each day I posted the new drawing to social media and the responses were encouraging, affirming and sometimes poignant.
This also helped me more than I can say. Images are my main way of connecting with people, I can say more with them than with words.

A to F
Askafroa. Brownie. Centaur. Dragon. Fei Lian
H is for Hippocamp
I to L
Imp. Jackalope. Kelpie. Laume.

Then people started to suggest there might be a book in these pictures at some point. Maybe, I thought…maybe. Finally my friend Tom, who is a wonderful storyteller from Orkney added that perhaps people could write stories to go with the images and as I imagined giving all these isolated creatures a different voice it seemed it could be something lasting and positive to come out of these times. This has all exploded somewhat now. And I have many people wanting to contribute. This morning as I am writing this I have decided that anyone who would like to can do just that, so we can have as many voices as we like. I will need to be the final arbiter of what is published but anyone who wants to write a story or poem about any of the 26 creatures can go ahead and send them to me at katherinesoutarillustrator@gmail

M to P
Melusine. Nekomata. Otso. Phoenix.

These images are of themselves but also very much of me. They express so much about how I felt on that day. Some are unfinished, some polished. Some are dark and brooding, some thoughtful, some hopeful, even celebratory, some sad.

Q to U
Questing beast. Rainbow crow. Selkie. Tiangou. Unicorn
V to Z
Vampire. Wendigo. Xochiquetzal. Yeti. Zlatrog

I will be approaching my usual publisher about making a book of these when they are open again. I really hope they will take it up, but if not I will look elsewhere or possibly even think about crowdfunding and self publishing. This has been one of the most personal series of drawings I have ever done. I hope you find something that speaks to you in them.

Searching for the Fianna

Searching for the Fianna


Working on Daniel Allisons book ‘Finn and the Fianna’


When Daniel first approached me to ask if I would be interested in illustrating his retelling of the Finn and the Fianna stories I had several almost simultaneous reactions.

The first was excitement as I love these tales, they are epic stories full of the breadth of human emotion and experience as well as being full of adventure and strange, often terrifying magic.

The second was ‘help! This is a tight deadline! (Especially bearing in mind I would be away for a couple of weeks in the middle)

Closely followed by the third. Which was that this commission had arrived at precisely the right time, it would give me a chance to step away from the carefully considered colour work and style I use for the Folk Tales covers and explore pen and ink in a similar way as I had done during the #inktobers (#inktober is a challenge every October for illustrators to do a drawing a day in ink on a theme for that day) I had taken part in. and if I could do a drawing a day during October and make it work this deadline suddenly seemed much less formidable.

Daniels Manuscript arrived and I began to read… he had asked if I would illustrate every other story in the book, beginning with ‘The fate of Coull’ the tale of Finns parents. I was instantly absorbed and enchanted by his writing. and I can honestly say that if I have done good work on this project I feel it is a reflection in large part of the excellence of the storytelling in this book.

I am not going to reproduce any part of the book here, it is not published for some months yet so I don’t feel that would be appropriate. Daniel and I are hoping for an exhibition of the work to coincide with the book launch in Scotland next year so keep an eye on the news page if you would like to be invited.

I made a list of the stories I would be illustrating at the beginning of my sketchbook. I had decided to do all the work for this project in one A4 book so I could carry it with me and make notes/sketches whenever I wanted to.

I dedicated the next 15 pages to each story. Notes, sketches and in one case even the finished piece are on these pages. I remember after reading ‘the boar hunt’ I just wrote one thing on the page

‘will come back to this one when I can read it without crying’

I am incredibly grateful for the experience in illustrating for folktales and storytelling I have built up over the past 20 years, it has taught me a few things; one of which is that you don’t always need to tell the story in an illustration, reflecting an aspect, a feeling, a moment, is often more effective, and less is very often more…

Good storytelling creates a world of images in people’s minds, I prefer to work around that and present pictures that sit alongside that inner world and whisper quietly about the feeling of the tale, and hopefully speak a little of its essence.

I hope I have achieved that here to some extent.

One of the lessons I have taken from the pieces I have made here is that I need to allow them to be a little rougher and freer, not seek to produce something that looks too ‘finished’ to my eye, lest I lose some of the raw emotion the initial drawings have. Pen and wash is a more stark and immediate media so good for expressing feeling and I need to remember to treat it with respect.

I would love to do more pen and wash work, working in line and tone only is a discipline that can give a great deal of expression to a simple but strong idea. So if there is anyone else out there that would like to talk about working together I am here.


And I am looking forward to the next #inktober too, I missed it this year as I was working on this book!

Cover stories – Derry folk tales. Finding Manannán Mac Lir

‘In the beginning, when Ireland was emerging from the invisible cloak of time, Manannán Mac Lír was a prince of the Tuatha de Dánann,

there was nothing he loved more than leaping over the waves and riding his big horse Enbarr of the Flowing Mane across the sea until the hooves raised the waves thirty feet high and topped them with churning white foam’ 


The stories of the ever changing moods of Manannán Mac Lir make him a fascinating character, he is both generous and capricious, protective and cruel, a trickster who can change his shape at will and an inveterate clown. The image that stuck in my mind was one of him riding the waves with his beloved horse Enbarr of the flowing mane, churning the waves into foam and sending sailors scuttling for safe harbour. I sighed inwardly a little as I realised I was going to tackle water once again, something that always makes me nervous no matter how many times I depict it.
But this time it wasn’t the water that confounded me, it was ‘Manannán himself. That contrary sea god kept eluding me. Every sketch I made just came out looking too much like just another bloke on a horse. No magic was there, no sense of a greater power. I was also experiencing a difficult time in my personal life and became increasingly convinced that I wouldn’t find the magic again, not an uncommon problem for people who do what I do and one that can lead to a sort of horrified inertia if it goes on for long… 


Then away from home at a summer school where I was in a different environment and my mind was largely on other things something cleared a little and I tried once more to wipe the foggy window of my imagination and peer through to what I hoped still lay beyond. 
I reread the tale and was struck by this passage.
‘When he took the notion to catch a glimpse of his throne on the top of Barrule on the Isle of Man, the other part of his Kingdom, sure all he had to do was fill his lungs and blow and then he’d ride the towering waves. No wonder the locals along the Lough would shake their heads and mutter, ‘Manannán is angry today.’ Sure maybe he wasn’t angry, just homesick, for as I said before, nobody likes to be stuck in the one place all the time and he probably missed his other wee island in the middle of the Irish Sea’ 

There it was. The shift of focus that I needed. The notion that perhaps he should be more a part of the sea than riding on it, this shapeshifting God/magician of the sea.

And I think it worked

Here is the extract from Derry Folk tales concerning Manannán Mac Lir. Reproduced with the kind permission of the author, Madeline McCullly. 
Manannán Mac Lír



In the beginning, when Ireland was emerging from the invisible cloak of time, Manannán Mac Lír was a prince of the Tuatha de Dánann, a race of supernaturally gifted people in Irish mythology. Sure didn’t he make places for all of the Tuatha to live in, for he was a responsible sort of being.

  Now after he’d done all that he went away out of Ireland and it was said that he died in battle at Magh Cuilenn at the hands of Uillenn Faebarderg, a son of Finn. Well, didn’t they bury him standing up on the Tonn Banks and they lived to regret it for a giant wave burst up from under his feet in the place known as the Red Bog at that time. And the brave Manannánrose again.   

  That lake got the name of Lough Foyle from one of the names of Manannán and so it’s been known ever since. And the brave Manannán was reincarnated as Manannán Mac Lír- the son of Lear- meaning the sea. But Manannán, being a decent sort went around Ireland after that,doing bits and pieces of good in his own way. He enjoyed moving about for he wasn’t one to stay for any length of time in any place.   

  Well, listening to all the myths of the Lough we hear that Manannán MacLir guards the Foyle well. He had a mighty sword called Fragarach that was forged for him by the gods. Manannán wielded it well and it was said that you couldn’t tell a lie or move with the swordat your throat and that’s how it earned the name of ‘The Answerer’ or the ‘The Retaliator’.

  Now this sword saw had some pedigree and Manannán fought many battles with it before he passed this weapon on to Lugh, his foster son. Manannán was the one who rescued Lugh from the sea at Tory when his grandfather Balor ordered him to be drowned (you see, there was a prophesy by a Druid that Balor’s grandson would kill him so he decided that he would kill Lugh first.) But Balor didn’t know that Manannán rescued Lugh and didn’t the very same Lugh kill Balor of the Evil Eye with the sword and fulfilled the prophecy? Now Balor and his shenanigans is another story for another time but let it be known that the evil man deserved it.

 After that Lugh give the sword to Cuchulainn who later gave it to Conn of the hundred battles. That was some sword, wasn’t it?  

  Sure this sword did other magical things for if you were the one using it, didn’t it place the wind at your command and it could cut through any shield or wall, and if you happened to be wounded by it, sure you’d recover without a scratch or scar.

  Some people still ask the question, “Who was Manannán MacLir?”

Now there’s a question and all I can say is that he was changeable. He could be one thing one day and a different one the next. It depended on the mood he was in. You wouldn’t know the likes of him for wasn’t he a God of disguise. He used these disguises to get his own way. One thing you can be certain of is that you don’t want to get on the wrong side of him for ‘tis a terrible temper he has when roused. All of us who live along Lough Foyle know that.

  Manannán was a trickster and a magician for couldn’t he turn himself into a three-pronged wheel in order to travel faster across the land and if that wasn’t enough didn’t he have a magic boat known as Scuabtuinne ‘Wave-sweeper’ so that he could ride hell for leather over the waves and there was no escaping him if you were the one he was chasing. 

  He must have given his poor parents, Lir and Aoib, a wild time when he was young. Sure there was nothing he loved more than leaping over the waves and riding his big horse Enbarr of the Flowing Mane across the sea until the hooves raised the waves thirty feet high and topped them with churning white foam. No wonder the poor sailors hated to see him coming but sure nothing his parents could do would stop him. He was a stubborn impudent fella.

  It was worse though, when he wrapped his invisible cloak around him and he would creep up unexpectedly and blow boats off-course and even sink some of them, for didn’t he have his kingdom under the water at the mouth of the lough, just where the sand banks are. Many an unwary boat disappeared on those banks between Magilligan and Inistrahull when Manannán played God.

  When he took the notion to catch a glimpse of his throne on the top of Barrule on the Isle of Man, the other part of his Kingdom, sure all he had to do was fill his lungs and blow and then he’d ride the towering waves. No wonder the locals along the Lough would shake their heads and mutter, ‘Manannán is angry today.’ Sure maybe he wasn’t angry, just homesick, for as I said before, no body likes to be stuck in the one place all the time and he probably missed his other wee island in the middle of the Irish Sea.

  He wasn’t invited too often to dine in any of the big palaces but once or twice he invited himself. Needless to say he always went in disguise. Sure one time he heard that the chieftain Aodh Dubh O’Donnell was having a big feast with musicians and all the local big-wigs and the bould Manannan dressed up as a bedraggled clown with water squelching in his shoes and a sword that was naked for the want of a sheath sticking out behind him. His ears were stuck through an old cloak and he carried three blackened sticks of holly wood in his hand. 

   When O’Donnell caught sight of him he wanted to know how such a dirty fella entered his house and not one of the guards on the gate stopped him. Manannán spoke up for himself and as boldly as you like, says, “I can leave as easily as I came in and none shall stop me.” It was a bit of a challenge he was throwing down, just to see what O’Donnell would do.

  Just at that moment the musicians started to play and the clown covered his ears and shouted above them, “By my word, O’Donnell, that music is worse than the noise of hammers beating on iron. T’would deafen ye. Would ye stop your people making that racket!”

  And with that he took a harp from one of the musicians and began to play on it and right away there was total silence in the banqueting hall for there never was the likes of that music heard in all of the land. It could have put a woman in labour or wounded men in battle to sleep.

  O’Donnell had a smile as wide as the ocean on his face, “I have never heard better music than your own. It is a sweet player you are.”

“Oh,” answered the clown, “one day I’m sweet and another day I’m sour.”

  “Come sit at my table,” says O’Donnell, and let me give you more fancy clothes.” But the clown would have none of it. So, afraid that he might leave, the O’Donnell put twenty men to hold him and even more outside the gate and that brought the fiercest anger on the clown. 

  “Begod,” he said, “T’is not with you I’ll be eating my supper tonight and if I find you giving one stir out of yourself or your big castle between this and morning I will knock you into a round lump on the ground.” 

  With that he took up the harp again and played music even more sweet and when the whole gathering were listening he called out,” Here I’m coming, watch me well now or you will lose me.”

  Sure they didn’t know that the clown was Manannán and he swung his invisible cloak around him and disappeared. Now the men were all watching the gate with their axes lifted up to stop him leaving but Manannán nipped each one and they swung around, thinking they were going to hit the clown, but instead they struck each other until they were all lying drenched in blood on the ground. 

  When they were all lying dead, the clown took the gatekeeper to one side and whispered, “Let you ask twenty cows and a hundred of the free lands of O’Donnell as a fee for bringing his people back to life. Take this herb and rub it in the mouth of each man and he will rise up whole and well again.”

  You might well ask why Manannán was so good to the gatekeeper. Sure didn’t he have a bit of sport and play with the mother before the child came into the world at all and who is to say that he might even be the Gatekeeper’s father. Anyway, that is how the gatekeeper got the cows and land from O’Donnell and the men were grateful to be back in the land of the living again.

  That was the sort of thing Manannán did for fun and he was known to say that a life without humour is like a tree without leaves or a spring without water.

 Manannán was always up to something when he wasn’t chasing the women for as you’ve probably gathered, he was a wild man with the ladies and always had a great liking for them,but not everything went his way for he never got the woman that he coveted above all others -the Princess Túaige.  

  It might surprise you to know that Manannán had a wife by the name of Fand and she was a goddess in her own right but sure they had an argument and three demons attacked her kingdom. And t’is here that the brave Cúchulainn enters the picture for sure didn’t he take Fand as his mistress and him had a wife of his own! 

  Now when Cúchulainn’s wife Emer heard this didn’t she come after him and Fand was looking for a way to escape Emer when she saw her own husband Manannán appearing in a ‘magic mist’ and she cleared away off back with him. Begod, it came as a great surprise that he took he back for he wasn’t known to be a forgiving god. But then, wasn’t she a bit of a poet and used it as a bit of flattery:


When Manannán the great married me

I was a wife worthy of him.

A wristband of doubly tested gold

He gave me as the price of my blushes…


So just in case Cúchulainn would follow her didn’t Manannán shake his cloak of invisibility between her and him so they might never meet again in time. And what did poor Cúchulainn do but take a draught of forgetfulness to ease his heartache at losing Fand. 

  It’s a pity when they were burying Manannán that they didn’t bury him horizontal for if you were a God, being buried upright meant that you could face and vanquish your enemies. Maybe that’s why the Tonn Banks are so beset by angry waves that they form one part of a triad known as “The Three Waves of Erin”. Many shipwrecks have occurred there and the spirit of Manannán still rides on the storm wearing his invisible cloak. I haven’t seen him myself but sure you wouldn’t catch me on a boat anywhere near the Tonns. 


Cover Stories – Connor Quinn and the Swan maiden

The story of Connor and the Swan maiden follows a familiar theme in folktale and one which some might find problematic in these times of heightened awareness of the power imbalance between male and female characters in so many traditional stories. 
(Although I think if we tidy up and ‘correct’ our traditional tales we are potentially just pretending these things never existed/don’t exist, better to be aware and discuss and also look for the stories that subvert these ideas, they are out there…) 

In ‘Connor Quinn and the swan maiden’ the protagonist manages to capture a shapeshifting Swan woman by picking up her cloak and they marry. Many Selkie stories have a similar theme, the man usually concealing the Selkies sealskin to force her to remain with him. 

But Beatrice (for that is the swan maidens name) is no passive victim here, she has power and agency, she is self assured and unafraid and her marriage to Connor is a bargain she strikes on her own terms.

Beatrice could leave whenever she wanted to, her feather cloak hung in her own chamber in plain sight to all. But she chooses to stay, honour her bargain and sample the human life for a while, (including bearing children for what I suspect from the story is the first time in her long life) maybe she stays out of curiosity? perhaps to punish her sisters for fleeing so readily when she was captured? The opening paragraph of the story makes it clear that her connection with them is a very close and elemental one but she then cuts them from her life very thoroughly for a while.

Personally I think it is curiosity, she has observed humanity for millennia and is looking for new experiences and new ways of being. To me she is a powerful nature spirit, uncompromising in her desires and decisions, when Connor breaks the terms she has set out she leaves immediately, taking their two children and rejoining the sisters whom she has shunned for seven years. 

Beatrice is unashamed in her nakedness, she is unashamed of everything. There was no other way she could be for me. As she emerged almost luminous from the dark background I found myself a little in love with her myself, well, a lot in love with her to be honest. I took her to be framed immediately after scanning and she now hangs at the top of my stairs to greet me every morning. 
I often wonder whether the heady, erotic opening passage of this story and the feeling that perhaps I was potentially looking at Beatrice through Connors eyes were what made me develop such a passionate attachment to this piece. But this is not a male gaze here, it is my gaze. My connection with her is of a different nature I think. I would be interested to know how you respond to her as well.

She does seem able to connect with other women too, when I asked Rab Fulton for permission to reproduce her story here, this was part of his reply:

‘Your illustration added so much to the Galway Bay Folk Tales Book, and it still inspires me it is so beautiful.

I recently showed your illustration to a women’s group in Galway. The group is made up of a mix of Traveller and Migrant women. I work with them to help them create stories for their children and friends.Anyway i wanted them to begin talking about folk tales. I deliberately chose not to tell them the story as i wanted them to make their own story using their own ideas and experiences. Instead I showed them your illustration to start a conversation going – and they were awestruck. It was incredible how your illustration really touched something in them and ignited their imaginations. So they’ve been working on a new swan maiden story, which we hope to publish in 2018. If you’d like to see a draft of that, give me a shout and i’ll send it on to you.’

And here is the story in full, reproduced with the kind permission of Rab Fulton from his book for the History press of Galway Bay Folk tales. 

Connor Quinn and the Swan maiden 

One day as the light was fading Connor Quinn walked the length of the lake of his estate. When he came to the ancient ruins of his family’s ancestral home, he sat down and looked at the water stretching away from him. A gentle breeze cooled him. The sun was low on the horizon and the rippling water glowed red and gold. As he rested he saw three swans moving gently on the water. Each bird was attired in feathers as white and dazzling as midnight stars and they moved with a grace and nobility that showed their superiority to any of nature’s other creations.
​As the creatures drew closer to the shore Connor was touched by a deep and terrible melancholy. Compared to the perfection and contentment of the three birds his struggle for wealth and power seemed pitiful. His whole live had been dedicated to bringing renewed honour and status to his family, but suddenly he understood that his name and his history had no more importance than a speck of dust in a giant’s eye or grain of sand in the hand of God. The swans, on the other hand, seemed to Connor to exist with a complete disregard to the limits of time and space.
​The swans moved across the lake, drawing nearer to the shore were Connor sat. The young man wiped his eyes and carefully hid himself behind a broken wall. Sending a wish and a prayer out to the infinite he peered over the ruin and saw, to his delight, that the swans were now stepping onto to the grassy bank some thirty or forty feet away. One of the creatures nodded its heads and stretched out its great white wings. Connor was horrified to see hands suddenly sprout out from the middle of the creature. With a sickening rip the hands tore the swan open and out stepped a young woman. The swan’s form was now nothing more than a beautiful cloak, which the woman folded with great care and placed on a rock at the water edge.
​The two other swans likewise opened up to reveal two more women, each of whom likewise folded her robe and placed it on the rock. The three women walked away from the lake until they came to a flat piece of ground only a few yards in front of Connor. Each of the women was similar in appearance, with copper skin, thick black hair and dark eyes. Even the curve of breasts and the musculature of limbs were replicated in each of the women. The only difference seemed to be in age, and so Connor knew that the three were sisters.
Before the gaze of the astonished young man the three swan women formed a small circle, facing outwards and clasping each other hands. First they dipped and curtsied, then stood upright and stretched towards the red and purple sky. It seemed to Connor that some invisible force was connecting the three for they moved with such perfect synchronicity: when one bowed, her sisters did the same; when one bent a knee, whilst stretching her arms wide, the movement was perfectly and instantly replicated by her two companions.
Then, with a gleeful yell each released her grip and leapt forward. Mesmerized Connor watched the youngest of the sisters stomp the grass with her naked feet, then slap her hands on the naked flesh of her thighs and belly. Her sisters too were yelling and jumping in a frenzy, their skin glowing scarlet in the dying sun’s light, their hair a wild raven black aurora. As they spun and screeched sweat spun off the tips of their fingers and the point of their breasts and their musky scent filled Connor’s nostrils and mouth, choking him and filling him with terror and lust and white hot sparks that blazed through his groin and his gut until in a sudden rush of madness he scrambled over the rock and ran roaring towards the women.  
With a yelp the maidens ran to the lake. The older two grabbed a hold of their cloaks and in an instance transformed into swans. The younger sister tripped only a few feet from the rock. She cried out for help but her two sister beat their great white wings and took flight. Connor jumped over the fallen woman and snatched her swan cloak. With that he turned and walked all the length of the lake back to his own grand house. Not once did he turn around, for he knew the young woman had no option but to follow him. When he arrived home he went into his hall and walked towards the great hearth were logs blazed and spat. Holding the cloak before the fire he turned and faced the swan maiden.
There she stood in that great hall, with its tapestries and furnishings from all the corners of the world, with a hundred candles glittering and the great oak beams overhead. There she stood naked and defenseless, but no tears spilled from her dark eyes. Instead she stood proud and wary looking first at her cloak and then directly at Connor.
‘I know what you want Connor Quinn,’ she said, ‘And I will be your wife, your willing wife, but only if you do two things for me. You must give up gambling for it is a childish folly and I have sworn never to become the bedmate of a fool or a boy. And you must never bring a member of the O’Brien family into this house, for they are an enemy to me and mine.’
Connor rang for a servant and asked for a bible to be brought for himself and clothing for swan maiden. He swore then to keep his side of the bargain and smiled as he made his pledge. Gambling was a pastime he good easily forgo, and the O’Brien family and Connor’s family had for many centuries been the bitterest of foes and none had ever stepped a foot into the others dwelling.
​So it was that Connor married the swan maiden. After they were wed Connor gave his wife her own chamber that opened onto the great hall. It was only then that she let him know her human name, Beatrice. The chamber contained everything a woman would need for comfort; a great bed, soft chairs, a box of sewing material, a rope to summon a servant at any time of the day or night. There was a large window that looked over the lake, and hanging from a hook on the wall was the beautiful swan cloak. Connor kept to his side of the bargain and his wife to hers and the cloak remained untouched as the months and the years went by.
​Many sages have written and sang and extolled the innumerable virtues that go toward making a marriage successful. None though have ever mentioned the benefits of mistrust and uncertainty. Yet it was these two attributes that helped bring closeness between Connor and his wife. Having committed to sharing a life together they both were not sure what to do next. In the weeks following their wedding they kept a resentful distance from the other. Each assigned malign motives and desires to the other that with every day became blacker in the imagination. When finally they confronted each other it was only to discover that their fears lacked any foundation.
​From that moment they both were more careful and attentive of the other’s needs. One morning Connor came into the hall to find his table had not been set for breakfast. A servant was called for and an explanation demanded. ‘The mistress of the house asked that we lay the Master’s meal out in her chamber’ explained the serving girl.
​Connor went into his wife’s chamber. There they both sat facing each other, a small table between them. They ate a little; they drank a little, and said not a word during the meal. With the meal over Connor attempted to break the uncomfortable silence.
‘If you wish, I could have food put out by the lake for your two sisters.’
‘That pair, they’ve food enough. What they need is a stick across their backs.’
‘You know why. When I needed them most they fled.’
‘Would you rather return to them?’
‘Oh Connor, do you want rid of me now?’
‘No. But I would not have it said that I forced you to live a life filled with sorrow.’
‘And I would not have it said that I broke a pledge.’
‘So you will stay.’
‘I will.’
‘In which case,’ declared Connor with a grin, ‘I will get a stout stick to teach your sisters a lesson.’
Beatrice smiled and shook her head. ‘Oh dear husband, I pity the man who ever tried to hurt me or mine.’ She put her hand on his. Her skin was soft and her grip firm. She kissed Connor on the cheek. ‘If you are free this evening, perhaps you would care to join me for supper.’ Sparks shot through Connor’s belly, and he laughed at his fortune and his folly. ‘Maybe,’ he said and kissed his wife’s hand.
A year after they were wed husband and wife were sat at the breakfast table. The previous twelve months had seen a change in Connor’s fortune. Investments yielded stunning returns, merchants up in Galway City begged his patronage, powerful men took account of his views on the great politics of the state. Good fortune seeped into the very soil he walked on and the air that he breathed. His lake was packed with large and sweet tasting fish, the trees appeared wider and their foliage thicker. There was less sickness amongst his tenants and none could recall when last his crops had been bigger and more abundant.
‘Who knows,’ said Connor, ‘ maybe one day I could regain all the land my family once controlled here in Munster and up in Connacht. It would only be fitting; Queen Medb was my ancestor after all.’
‘That would explain your nose,’ said Beatrice. ‘I thought I had seen it’s like before.’
‘Dear wife, you must be very distracted. Queen Medb lived a thousand years ago.’
‘Was it that long ago? How strange.’
Connor took a bite of meat. His wife frowned, looked at her husband.
‘Husband, I have unexpected news that terrifies me almost as much as it fills me with joy. I have a child in my belly.’
The birth, when it came six months later, was a long and agonizing enterprise. After twelve hours a trembling serving girl was sent with a message to Connor as he paced the great hall. ‘The mistress fears she is dying, and begs you give her a good and Christian burial.’
‘Can I see her? Should I call for her sisters?’
The serving girl curtsied and returned into the mistress’s chamber. The door had no sooner shut than a shriek of pain and rage resounded through the building. The serving girl stepped back into the hall. ‘Begging your pardon Master, but the Mistress says that you need not attend to her yet, nor send for her sisters.’
‘What were her exact words,’ demanded Connor? The girl’s face reddened and she shook like the final leaf on a tree in an autumn storm.
‘Come,’ said Connor gently, ‘a penny for an honest answer.’
‘Well, begging your pardon master but the mistress only shook her head when I asked if you could see her. When I mentioned calling for her sisters, her reply was more loud and fulsome.’
‘Her exact words please.’
‘To be exact she said “My sisters can go to hell, and take the fool that dares consider inviting them.”’ Quickly the girl added; ‘The midwife asked me to say that the mistress’s response shows her strength and resilience.’
Connor laughed in relief and handed the girl a coin.
Beatrice endured ten more hours of pain, stabbing like a blade into womb as her body pushed and kneaded life into the child. Ten hours she suffered as none of her kind had ever suffered before. Ten hours of arduous agonizing journeying into motherhood and womanhood, with death and life alike attending her, each offering peace or punishment as the mood took them. At last a final scarlet stab between her legs and suddenly Beatrice was free of weight and of worry, as the wailing child was placed on her sweat soaked breast. ‘Tell me husband he has a son.’
​It is a rare achievement to balance ambition and contentment, yet for seven years Connor manage to do precisely that. Eighteen months after the birth of his son, Beatrice bore him a daughter. Now Connor had a child to inherit his estate and a child to offer in political marriage. Yet political calculation did not blunt the affection Connor felt for Beatrice and his children. As his income grew, so the great hall filled with the sound of merriment as the children crawled, walked and ran circles around parents and servants.
During summer the family walked the length of lake, taking food and drink to the ancient ruins. At first Connor was afraid to return to those ancient stones. ‘It is important,’ explained Beatrice, ‘that we make that spot ours. My sisters must understand they have no ownership over any of this land. It belongs to you, my husband, and you alone.’
The swans were seen on the first family expidition. They floated on the waters white and magnificent, paralleling the progress of the little group. The oldest child had stopped to look at them. They stopped too, to stare at him with their black eyes. Beatrice had grabbed the boy’s shoulder and hissed at the birds. They flapped their wings and took flight. That was the last time they disturbed the family picnic.
No matter how many times they visited the broken ruins, Connor always began the picnic with the same words. ‘Here is where I first met your mother,’ he would explain to his children. ‘She was dancing.’ Each time he said this he sounded astonished as if only realizing for the first time how blessed he was. Beatrice, for her part, would grasp her husband’s hand and laugh, ‘Oh, grá mo chroí.’  
Exactly seven years after he had first saw his future wife dancing with her sisters on the banks of the lake Connor kissed Beatrice and his children and promised to bring them a little something when he returned in a few days time. It was the season for horse racing, a time when the powerful meet to shake hands, slap backs, cut deals and quietly or boldly – depending on the disposition of the men involved – shape the politic and commerce of the land. Connor never missed a festival and though he never enjoyed a flutter he sponsored a number of celebrated races.
As well as the sports on and off the racetrack a racing festival was (and is to this day) the arena in which all men, from the meanest labourer to the wealthiest banker, could observe whose influence was waxing fat and full and whose influence was on the wane.​Connor’s prestige was clearly on the rise; he was a figure to be observed, pointed at, and, if lucky, win a shake of the hand from. With the last of the day’s meetings finished the great men of the west retired to a tavern, to eat, drink and assess what hand Fortune dealt to each of the day’s players. Connor’s successes that day included an amiable discussion about the sacred and societal importance of marriage with Mayor Lynch of Galway, who after many childless years had recently been blessed with a son. Connor ate well and drank deep.
As the night wore on ever more men packed into the tavern. Candles sputtered and smeared the hot gloom with a thin and smoky light. The air was thick with the reek of horses and earth, of onions and stewed meat. The festive banter was punctuated with laughter and shouts and the occasional thumping of the table. In the midst of all this a cheery voice called out ‘Is Connor Quinn so elevated above us he cannot enjoy a bet on the horses like all us mortal men.’ To which Connor replied equally merry, ‘A drink for that man to dip his tongue in.’ But his heckler was not satisfied with the tankard that was placed in front of him.
​‘In all seriousness Connor Quinn, your behavior is troubling. If the greater can’t spare a coin on chance why should the lesser. If we all followed your example no risks would ever be taken. Nothing ventured as they say and nothing gained. Soon it would all be stagnation from Ballyhannon to Belmullet.’
​‘Of I have taken many a risk in my life and made many a gain as many of these gentlemen will testify. I have more than enough coin and would not take the chance for gain away from others. Indeed happy as I am in life I now extend a drink to everyone in this fine place!’
​‘And doubtless you would ask us all to raise a glass to health and happiness of you and your good estate.’
​‘Not at all. I need no more joy and wellbeing. As for my estate, how could it b e any better. The trees on my land are bigger than houses. So many fish are packed into my lake that you could walk across their backs and never wet the soles of your feet. My home is filled with tapestries from the Indus and beyond, and furnishing inlaid with gold and ivory. My son is as handsome as a prince, my daughter as happy as a princess, and my wife as good and as fair as an angel from heaven.’
​The stranger stood up with a suddenness that knocked his fellow imbibers sideways. ‘Gentleman, listen to the great Connor Quinn. The way he talks you would think he was one with God and our savior. Maybe he should be given an ould bit of mackerel to turn it into a feast for thousands. Or perhaps we could ask him to turn a basin of dishwater into a casket of finest Spanish wine.’
​No one laughed. Not a voice was raised in agreement or dissent. Every man there, from the labourer to the overseas trader, remained silent as Connor stood up and carefully gave his reply. ‘Stranger, if you are as honest a man as you are foul mouthed, you will come to my estate now and see for yourself that I spoke the truth. You will then return to this place and tell these gentlemen that every word I spoke was free of falsehood and exaggeration.’
​‘I accept the challenge. What’s more I will add another round of drinks for these good witnesses.’ With that the stranger took out a purse and spilled gold coin on to a plate. ‘This should keep everyone in good form until I return.’
​Connor and the stranger got up on their horses. As they galloped across the country, trees grabbed at their hats, and hedgerows at their boots. Above them the moon and stars shook and shone as white and bright as swan feathers. It was only when they arrived at Connor’s estate that the two riders allowed their creatures some rest. Trotting along a laneway, Connor gestured to the trees on either side. ‘Big as houses, as I said. And look over there, observe the lake. You can see the backs of the fish glinting in the moonlight.’  
​When they came to the great home, Connor invited the stranger to lay a hand on the stonework and take a look at the turrets and carved figures leering down from above. ‘It would take a morning to walk around this building, and a hundred years of to knock it down.’ The stranger nodded but said not a word.
​Inside, Connor showed the stranger his great furnishings inlaid with precious metals and jewels, the tapestries from the furthest corners of the known world, the hearth open like a vast mouth in which a great yellow and red flame licked and lolled ‘The fire and the candles are always lit, no matter the hour or the season,’ boasted Connor Quinn. The stranger nodded and finally spoke.
‘I admit to being impressed. You spoke the truth my friend.’
Connor gestured to the two chairs by the fire. Between the chairs was a small ornate table, on which Connor placed two glasses and a decanter of whiskey. ‘I am glad to win your approval; you will of course transmit your opinions to the witnesses.’
‘Of course,’ said the stranger with a smile. ‘I give my word as a high ranking member of the ancient and noble O’Brien family.’  
Connor trembled with dread. He tried to speak but his mouth was dry and his tongue swollen and heavy. Unable to breathe he yet forced himself to fill the glasses. With the taste of the whiskey he snapped back into a semblance of composure. Another drink was poured. With a merry ‘Slainte!’ Connor clinked his glass against O’Brien’s. All was not lost, his wife and his children were asleep in their chamber. He need only remove his unwelcome guest as quickly as possible and all would be well.
‘It is well that an O’Brien has visited my home. Our families have spilled too much blood and anger over the centuries. Let us drink to our mutual good fortune and continuing prosperity. Let us also commit ourselves to meeting again at a more hospitable hour.’
Connor stood but the O’Brien remained in his chair. He stretched out his legs, took a sip of his whiskey, gazed at the fire. Finally he turned to look up at Connor. ‘Well I guess I should take my leave now. There is a tavern filled with gentlemen who are awaiting my honest assessment of your possessions. I will, on my word as a gentlemen and an O’Brien, tell them that everything you said was true. That your trees are as big as houses; your lake packed with fish a man could walk across the backs of. I will tell them about your rich furnishings and delightful tapestries. I will tell them about the blaze in your hearth and the glitter of your candles. But I will also make sure to tell them, on my word as a gentleman and an O’Brien, that yours Connor Quinn is the worse hospitality in the whole of Ireland. Never before has my mouth suffered such a brief acquaintance with another man’s uisce beatha.’
Connor sat down again. A true gentleman, he would rather a knife in the belly than such an indictment. Wounds can be recovered from and scars displayed with pride, but a reputation for frugalness in a host is an injury as evil as it is fatal. ‘Ah now O’Brien, you need only have said that you had time enough for a proper welcoming. There is more whiskey in the cabinet over there and some cheese and fruit, though it would be my pleasure to wake the kitchen and have a more substantive supper prepared.’
‘Whiskey and cheese sounds a grand enough supper. Go raibh maith agat.’
The two men ate and drank and drank and ate. Connor kept his voice low and was grateful when the O’Brien follow his example. The whiskey, as whiskey does, induced a conviviality between the two men. Connor wondered why he had not met his guest before, and his guest explained that he had been raised in the court of England. ‘I have returned to oversee my family’s commission to control piracy in Galway Bay. My approach is more one of regulation that eradication. But even in England I heard news of your own improved standing in life. What is the secret to your success’
‘A good and loving marraige,’ declared Connor. ‘Ni ceart go cur le cheile!’
O’Brien raised his glass in agreement, ‘It is very true. Only unity bring strength. But I see you glancing towards that door there. Is that where your wife rests.’
‘My wife and my two children.’
‘Well,’ whispered the O’Brien. ‘Let’s finish the evening soon, and finish it as strong friends.’ He took a packet of cards from his pocket. ‘Let us play a quiet game Connor Quinn, before I go out to tell the world of your honesty and good fortune?’
The guest dealt the cards and the host happily picked up his hand. They play in silence, the only sound in the vastness of the hall the slurp of lips imbibing, the clink of glasses touching, the sigh and snap of cards playing. Connor won a couple of hands; the O’brien likewise. After a while the O’Brien spoke softly. ‘What is a game between friends without a little flutter…?’ Connor agreed and the game began in earnest.
Both gentlemen remained polite and outwardly affable, but it the game had changed into a competition as savage as any battle or politicking. At first the men were equally matched in intellect stamina, but as the whiskey brought weariness and confusion to Connor, the O’Brien became ever more focused and full of vitality. The hours crawled by as Connor first lost his wealth, then his land, then his beautiful furnishings and tapestries. In a last desperate bid to win it all back Connor lost his grand house.  
The O’Brien sat back in his chair and raised a glass to his stupefied opponent. Connor was numbed and shocked at the massive and utter reversal of his fortune. When he heard a door slam he leapt up in terror, grabbed a hold of the O’Brien and dragged him across the hall. ‘To hell with hospitality!’ he roared and threw his enemy out into the cold pre-dawn darkness.
He walked back into the hall, placed a hand on the door of his wife chamber. A great fearful melancholy echoed through his belly and heart. Wiping away tears he opened the door.
​His wife was standing by the open window. Outside the sky was grey and purple. The two children stood in front of their mother. Behind Beatrice stood two woman with feathery capes draped over their shoulders. Connor reached out to his wife, but one of her sisters opened her mouth in a wide terrible grimace and hissed. The other sister took the swan robe from the hook it had rested on untouched for seven years. She placed it on Beatrice’s shoulders. ‘You have no more hold on me,’ wept Connor’s wife. Before his eyes she and her sisters began to mutate into great white birds. As Beatrice’s arms transformed into wings she touch her children and they two began to change.
One by one the five creatures leapt up to the window and flew off into the blood red sky of the new morning. And that was the very final ruin of Connor Quinn.

Lovely review of Painting the tales here… And below a few other comments I have received.

‘Just received this beautiful book in the post, rich in myth, folklore, and nature’s magic. Congratulations, Kate! Thank you for all that you do to keep wonder alive in the world’
Terri Windling.

It’s lovely, and I’m very pleased SUFFOLK is on the cover!
James Mayhew

Katherine Soutar is a prolific and sensitive artist who has been commissioned to supply the cover illustrations for The History Press’s series of Folk Tales and she has now followed the commission with a lovely publication of her work, telling the tale of The Tales. A beautiful treasury of images that reference the stories within, with simple but stylish typography and layout, something to be proud of. Anyone for a good tale?

Robert Hallmann

Beyond The Border Wales International Storytelling Festival

I really enjoyed meeting Nikky and being interviewed by her. A lovely human with amazing energy, I look forward to hearing much more of her story in future….


I attended and performed at Beyond The Border Wales International Storytelling Festival and created a plenary poem capturing soundbites and the atmosphere. There was an eclectic mix of narrative performance explored through live music, literature and traditional storytelling.

Beyond The Border celebrates the finest musicians and storytellers from Wales and the World, including Sweden, Finland, Italy, India, Belgium, Norway and Palestine….

Expect fables and myths, music and magic, love stories and laughter, fun and games for children and fairy tales for grown-ups, all in the beautiful grounds of our castle by the sea.

I managed to have a chat with legendary storyteller Taffy Thomas MBE, the mysterious illustrator Katherine Soutar and the magical Tinc Y Tannau. Take a listen to the audio interviews, the poem I created and join the conversation…


Photos include Taffy, Katherine, Tinc Y Tannau and the festival…

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Desert ramblings, inspirations and invitations

As some of you may have already noticed I am very fond of Morocco…

Since my first visit in 2015 I have returned many times to this beautiful, vibrant and friendly country. Most often travelling to the deep Sahara in the south to spend time with my Saharaoui friends camping, camel trekking and learning about nomad traditions and culture.

I have also spent time collecting stories, sharing my art and making paintings, sketches and photographs for an illustration project I am working on, which hopefully will one day become a dual language book.

Another abiding passion of mine is the study of natural history. As a child I went everywhere armed with a net, a plastic box and a copy of ‘The young naturalist’in the hope of finding something new I could take home and identify ( my very patient Mum could tell you some stories about my adventures…the wardrobe of flies…the bucket of toads…the paint tin of dragonfly nymphs….I was a one child biblical plague at times!) 

I now take only my camera, which is better for the wildlife, for me and certainly for those I share a house with…and spending so much time in the desert has given me the opportunity to rediscover that childhood joy and wonder at seeing new wild things for the first time. Taking so many photographs has also led to me thinking about them as more than just source material for illustrations or an aid to identifying wildlife or plants and I have become interested in them in their own right. So I was delighted when one of my desert photographs was selected to appear in the beautiful book of Celtic and Arabian stories and photographs produced by the confluence  group. (You can learn more about them here
 It was taken at a nomad camp I visited in Chegaga in April 2017

The book also features my first original story, The fox and the moon, which I wrote after seeing a wild Fennec for the first time.
I love this wild and beautiful place and have enormous respect for the people who live there and know so much about its moods, it’s landscape and its inhabitants large and small. Walking and camel riding through this stunning wilderness then camping under the stars and waking in the soft light of dawn to find the tracks of Jerboa, Fennec fox and scarab criss crossing the dunes until they are smoothed away by the morning breezes is a very special experience.

I wanted to be able to share this with like minded souls so together with my friends there I have set up a small family run desert tour company so we can give people the chance to experience the desert first hand. 

If you would like to travel with us to the desert to share these moments, looking for the flick of a sandfish diving into the dunes, listening to the soft plopping of camel feet across the sand and watching the magic that is the creation of sandbread, at which my friends are experts, you can! 

Go over to to  check out what we can offer. For artists and photographers the desert is an exciting source of inspiration and focus and I am happy to provide art tutorial by prior arrangement, just bring along your sketchbook and sense of wonder.