Water, wood and stone: the inspirational fabric of the land

Tonight sees the final session in Finding Inspiration Through Folklore, a series of community workshops supported by Creative Scotland. We will be holding a sixth and final evening with story-sharing, music and song next month. More details to follow!

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ELLIE ROOK CUPCAKES!

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Things have been so busy recently, with the upcoming launch of my third novel The Unmaking of Ellie Rook (Polygon) that there hasn’t been time to update the blog on a weekly basis.

However, let’s take a look at what we’ve been doing over the last few weeks.

 

 

 

In Week Two we looked to the woods for inspiration and shared some stories inspired by trees and forests. Remember that old recording of  ‘The Teddy Bear’s Picnic?’ The song has been referenced in dozens of films and TV productions- often very unlikely ones such as Fear and Loathing in LA, Peaky Blinders and various psychological horror films. This is a prime example of society making its own mythology, placing an innocent children’s rhyme within an inappropriate or dangerous setting.

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This gives us the distinct feeling that something is ‘off’- it is disorientating and ‘uncanny.’

 

The uncanny is the psychological experience of something as strangely familiar, rather than simply mysterious. Although Sigmund Freud wasn’t the first expert to discuss this phenomenon, he did attempt explain it in terms of the ‘home.’ He claimed that the word comes from the German Heimlich, or ‘homely’, so ‘Un-Heimlich’ means the act of meeting something unexpected on familiar territory, either physically or mentally.

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This tree at Cramond, Edinburgh, looks like it’s waiting to trap the unwary…

No discussion of the forest could be complete without reference to my own favourite story, The Erl-King by Angela Carter. Carter certainly viewed fairy tales as a way of exploring ideas of how things might be different. “My intention was not to do ‘versions’” she wrote, “or, as the American edition of the book said, horribly, ‘adult’ fairy tales, but to extract the latent content from the traditional stories and to use it as the beginnings of new stories.”

For me, this is what is so inspirational about folk tales. They grow in scope and importance with each telling; every generation finds a new relevance and as creatives we have a chance to ‘make it new’.

In Week Three we looked at ‘what lies beneath’ and acclaimed local storyteller and musician Ken Johnston came along to share his take on the world of water, from selkies and kelpies, to the shipyards and fisher lore. Such an interesting evening!1C4BAFF1-294E-4DA4-9A5B-495913B8107F

Week Four was all about the fabric of these islands. Are you a beachcomber of a rock-climber?  Most folk will admit to having a little obsession with stone in one form or another.

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Hagstones or Witchstones, thought to offer protection against magic, sorcery and the undead

‘Certain natural rocks and boulders, appealing to the untutored imagination, were believed to be living objects with power to help or hurt mankind.’

~ J.M.McPherson, Primitive Beliefs in the Northeast of Scotland

Our ancestors took the stone obsession to a whole new level. In the Middle Ages ‘stone worship’ was condemned by the Church and among the acts of heathenism banned by King Edgar in the tenth century. It had little effect. It’s easy to see how certain stones of quirky appearance became the subject of superstition and folk belief.

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Clach-na-Charra nr Ballachulish. Holed stones were particularly magical

This week, we’ll be looking at the characters to be found in folklore. From witches to trolls and everything in between- they all have a story to tell…

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The Kelpie, by Thomas Millie Dow (1848-1919)

 

 

 

 

Finding Inspiration through Folklore

 

This week saw the start of a series of creative community workshops I’ve agreed to run as part of my Creative Scotland award for my non-fiction book Grist! The Life, Lore and Landscape of the Scottish Watermill.

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The book is now complete and with its publisher, Little Toller Books. As I await the copy edits, it seems like the perfect time to reflect on the process of gathering all that information, and what I hope to achieve with these community sessions.

Here is a blurb which, I hope, will find its way onto the jacket of the finished book, because I think it says quite a lot about the problematical nature of keeping our storytelling heritage alive:

 

‘Inherited narratives about our landscape and rural traditions are a lot like Granny’s best china; valued in a certain nostalgic fashion, but in danger of being cast aside by the modern impetus to de-clutter. People do not always see their own stories as part of our wider cultural heritage, and yet they are key to our understanding of ourselves. Stories are heirlooms. They deserve to be dusted off and given the chance to shine.’

Grist! The Life, Lore and Landscape of the Scottish Watermill (Little Toller Books)

storytellerPeople do not tend to value their own stories They discount them, failing to regard their anecdotes as ‘history’ or even ‘folklore in the making.’ The older generation may find it difficult to share personal experiences or view it as self-indulgent or boastful. We need look no further than the recent D-Day commemorations to see how modest and humble our heroic veterans are. A cry I frequently hear from children and grandchildren is, “I wish we’d recorded the stories while they were still here.’ There is always a measure of regret when stories are lost, so the first of my sessions was entitled, ‘How to be a story keeper.’

 

My intrepid participants were a mixture of writers, poets, musicians and artists, hoping to find inspiration for their own work from the stories of the past.One of their first tasks was to write down their favourite story from childhood. Almost all of the resulting tales had been passed down orally from a parent (usually mum, or a grandparent), and spiced up with a liberal helping of imagination. We discussed how stories change from telling to telling, which is a perfect illustration of how our own folkloric tradition has evolved.

nuckelaveeFrom our own fondly-remembered stories of the recent past, we moved on to some characters from the mists of time. The Nuckelavee (from Orcadian knoggelvi, meaning “Devil of the Sea”) was a creature of abject terror and spoken of with bated breath until comparatively recent times. Although many creatures of folklore tend to have a dualistic nature, benign unless provoked, the Nuckelavee was sheer evil, a proactive demonic force. (thanks to Orkney.jar for info)

Given the strong Viking influence in Orkney the creature appears to be a fusion of the water horse or Kelpie from Celtic mythology and something from a dark Norse legend. The related nökk or nykk was a Scandinavian water-spirit often associated with mills. The creature had the ability to stop the waterwheel, but upon investigation, the miller might find only a beautiful saddled pony. Woe betide him if he tried to mount the steed. The nökk would take off at full gallop until it reached the sea, submerging them both in a flash of flame. For generations, island mothers would threaten their children with the words, ‘The Noggle will get you!’

We also looked at the ‘Mither of the Sea’ narrative, also from Orkney, which describes the age-old seasonal battle between the benign mother-personification of summer and the spine-chilling Teran, god of winter. We reflected on the powerlessness of those coast-dwellers, risking their lives in the fishing grounds and trying to make sense of the squalls and swells which claimed the lives of their husbands, fathers and brothers.

 

sheaf-2From themes of light and dark, we moved into the realm of eternal life, with corn dollies and harvest lore. The personification of the grain goddess and the cycle of life played out in the turning seasons is a powerful narrative found throughout most cultures.I love the story of the ‘clyack sheaf’, the last sheaf of the harvest, which Scottish farmers often fed to their pregnant livestock to ensure good health and vitality over the lean winter months.

 

 

Fascinating stuff, and I can’t wait until next week when we’ll be taking a peek into the woods! In the meantime, be a story keeper this week. Write down the stories you remember from your childhood and keep them safe.

Carly

 

Happy Easter!

As Barry Mill gears up for another weekend of Easter Egg hunting, it seems like eggs-actly the right time to look at the origins of Easter and why we associate it with eggs!

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One of our most enduring customs here in Scotland is the ‘rolling of the eggs’, usually carried out with great excitement on Easter Sunday. While writing my current book (Grist! The Life, Lore and Landscape of the Scottish Watermill, to be published later this year by Little Toller Books) some great memories of my own childhood at my Gran’s cottage in Carnoustie came flooding back:

 

‘ I remember my great aunt spending the days before Easter Week dying hard boiled eggs and carefully packing them back into their boxes to be brought out with great excitement on Easter Sunday Morning. Without doubt, those beautifully coloured eggs were as magical as the chocolate variety. She had a tiny cupboard with drawers where she kept little vials of food colouring. She also used beetroot, tea and onion skins, boiling the eggs for ages in a big iron pot. Once the eggs had been carefully handed over, we went out into the (very flat) garden to roll them. It’s actually better if you can find a hill! The aim was to crack the shell of someone else’s egg, and once all the shells were successfully bashed, you were free to tuck in. I always remember the egg white being as tough as rubber, but very delicious!’

(From Grist! The Life, Lore and Landscape of the Scottish Watermill, 2019).

My Gran always reminded us that rolling our eggs represented the rolling of the stone away from Christ’s tomb, but during my research, I came across the following custom, associated with Beltane, which is remarkably similar. Beltane was, of course, one of the great Celtic Fire Festivals and would have occurred a little later, around May 1st. It symbolised the return of the light to the earth, and children were often given eggs to bake in the hillside bonfires. No doubt, as children do, they would have had great sport rolling them down the slopes.

Eggs are ancient symbols of new life and rebirth, which chimes well with the Christian celebration of the resurrection of Jesus, but Easter actually takes its name from the pagan goddess Ostara.easter egg 2

Jacob Grimm ( of fairy tale fame), writing about Easter in the 19th century, pointed out that the Old High German adverb ôstar “expresses movement towards the rising sun”, as did the Old Norse term austr, and potentially also Anglo-Saxon ēastor.

Whatever your Easter holds, have fun, and hopefully you’ll join us at Barry Mill for one of our eggstraordinary egg hunts!

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Hand-me-down stories

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At Craggaunowen

Stories are made to be passed on. The recent death of my much-loved mother-in-law, Joan, has reminded me yet again that the window of opportunity is fleeting. Say what you have to say while there’s still time, and don’t forget to listen

Only last year,Joan told me the following tale (over one of her amazing Irish Coffees, no doubt!). I was asking her about Irish watermills, but I learned a lot more besides. Enjoy.

 

 

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Joan O’Connor was born in a cottage at Clonbanin Cross, Co.Cork, a place which has entered the history books as the scene of a shoot-out between the volunteers of the Irish Republican Army and British soldiers from the East Lancashire Regiment on March 5th, 1921. Brigadier- General Hanway Robert Cumming was killed in the skirmish. This happened ten years before Joan was born, but her grandmother liked to recount the story with a few extra details. When a wounded volunteer burst into their kitchen, the grandmother hid him in the cupboard under the stairs and pulled her chair across the door. When the authorities came looking for him, all they found was the old lady, calmly knitting… Who knows what happened to the fugitive, but such a fascinating story, and proof that family history is a fragile thing. Interview your own grandparents without delay- find out how they felt about the events of their day. It may well be a voyage of discovery!

I asked Joan what she remembered about the mills of her youth. She grew up in an all-female household: Granny, Mum and four sisters. With only Mum, Lena, working, money was scarce. They kept hens and grew vegetables, but milk and corn had to be purchased from the nearest farm. I can imagine the little girls hauling buckets of milk along the boreen. Accidental spillages were rectified with water from the well- I wonder if they ever got found out?!

It was the girls’ job to take the corn to the mill (possibly on the handlebars of the bike) and return with a sack of flour. The miller would sift the flour for them, so they took it home in two parts: the soft white flour for baking and a pail of gritty husks for the hens. Once home, the flour would be stored in an enamel bin, while the sacks were washed, bleached and hung over the hedge to dry. They would then be carefully cut open and sewn into bedsheets and pillowcases. Nothing was ever wasted.

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Joan Ireland 

Down the rabbit hole…

After an exciting start to the year with an invitation to the Mathrubhumi International Festival of Letters, and the launch of Bone Deep in Kolkata, I’m enjoying a slight change of pace this week. It’s back to ‘old claes [clothes] and porridge,’ as my grandmother might have said. Porridge, quite literally! I’m back to researching and writing my non-fiction work GRIST! The Lore and Landscape of the Scottish Watermill. (Little Toller Books, 2019).

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But, oh dear- I cannot resist falling down that research rabbit hole. I’m currently reading about a writer I’ve only ever heard about in passing, and I never realised he was born in Monikie, just a few miles from where I live.

Alexander Balfour was born on 1 March 1767, into a family of very humble means. He was one of twins, presumably an unexpected burden for his poor parents. He was raised by a relative and, after a very brief education, apprenticed to a weaver at the earliest opportunity. This brings to mind the novel I’ve just completed, Sight Unseen,which references the plight of young children who were ‘sold off’ to the Scottish textile trade at a very tender age. I can’t imagine how anyone in such a position could retain the energy and drive to follow a different path, but Alexander, obviously a resourceful young man, became a teacher at the parish school, and many of his ex-pupils praised his particular brand of teaching. At the age of 26, he became one of the clerks of a merchant manufacturer in Arbroath, marrying the following year.

He’d started writing at the age of twelve, and his persistence paid off. He was soon published in the ‘the poets’ corner of his local newspaper, and later contributed verse to the British Chronicle newspaper and to The Bee of Dr. Anderson. In 1793 he was one of the writers in the Dundee Repository and in 1796 in the Aberdeen Magazine. He followed  this success with several novels.

I must admit to feeling a certain affinity for this man who came to publishing later in life and via an unorthodox path. But how does he fit in with my milling theme? I was actually writing about the power, both physical and metaphysical, of water. It brought to mind an occasion in my own life when I was taken to visit the Seaton Cliffs at Arbroath.

arbroathTo the eastern end of Victoria Park, at Whiting Ness, lies the ancient St Ninian’s Well. I was about seven or eight, and well-versed in the dangers of unhygienic practices, but here, you could scoop the water from the rock with an iron ladle! Goodness knows how many generations of lips had touched it. I remember the feel of the cold water trickling down my gullet and imagining it transforming me somehow. Such is the power of water.

Alexander Balfour, apparently, wrote about the well in his novel, Highland Mary, 1826. I haven’t read it- more research required!

 

Telling the truth

Having just completed my fourth novel, I’ve now thrown myself into the writing of Grist: The Lore and Landscape of the Scottish Watermill. (Little Toller Books). I’m discovering that writing non-fiction is a very different experience to creating fiction.writing

Novel writing can be a lonely experience because you’re very much inside your own imagination. It’s so subjective What if readers don’t share your vision- what if they don’t ‘get’ it? I think this is a question that haunts all fiction writers. When I was working on my debut Beneath the Skin, such concerns were far from my thoughts. I was crafting something new, saying what I wanted to say, but there’s nothing like reading your first reviews to put things in perspective! At some point, you realise you have crossed the line from ‘writer’ to ‘professional author’, and the pressure is on to marry your creative ambition with the demands of the marketplace.

This week, I caught up with freelance journalist and author, Dawn Geddes. Dawn produces articles for publications such as the People’s Friend and is Book Correspondent for the Scots Magazine. She is currently working on a supernatural novel for young adults, so how does she juggle both?

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“Flitting between journalism and fiction work can be difficult, because you’re using a very different muscle. With non-fiction, you have the truth firmly by your side and you’re weaving your own path through it all to give the readers an account which is both fascinating and factual. You still have to grip your audience and hold on to them, but you can never stray from the truth, which is a real skill in itself.  With fiction writing you get to play around so much more and really flex those creative muscles. In lots of ways I find it much harder. There are still ‘rules’ to follow, but I get to build my own worlds and tell my own truths which is incredibly satisfying.”

 

I have to agree with Dawn- fiction means more freedom, but so far I’m thoroughly enjoying my foray into non-fiction. Perhaps because I’m telling other people’s stories, and it’s not so personal, my new project doesn’t seem to be sparking quite the same self-doubt and trepidation as a novel! As soon as I open the file entitled ‘GRIST WIP’ I am transported to a lost age of country miles and jute sacks.

I have confidence that the past is such a fascinating place to visit, you’ll come to love the world of the watermill as much as I do! Look out for further updates…

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Grist to the writing mill!

I haven’t posted here for a while. Re-reading these articles reminds me fondly of my creative residency at Barry Mill, a time of knowledge gained, research collected, tales told. It was a special time, one when my second novel Bone Deep slowly took shape in the shadowy corners of the old mill.

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Two Sisters launch books

Time has moved on. Bone Deep, published by Polygon, can be acquired in the usual formats  from all the usual outlets, and will soon be available to readers in India, Germany and the US! It will  be joined on the shelves next July by another psychological thriller, The Unmaking of Ellie Rook, also from Polygon. To keep up to date with developments and events, browse my website https://sandrairelandauthor.com  .

But back to the mill! I’m currently researching and writing a non-fiction book about the landscape and folklore of the Scottish watermill, which will be published by Little Toller Books   this year. This has been made possible by the generous support of Creative Scotland.I’m uncovering lots of interesting little snippets, which I’d like to share with you on the Barry Mill Blog, so- all you lovers of forgotten folklore, hidden histories and landscapes with just-out-of-sight stories- this is for you!

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My recent visit to Iceland Noir (put it in your diary for 2020!) made me think a lot about light. Sunrise was typically around 9.30 am in Reykajvik, with nightfall about 4pm. Cloud cover means that daylight is in very short supply. Icelanders seem to embrace it, with fairy lights and candles everywhere. All the waterways in Reykjavik seem to twinkle with ethereal dancing reflections.

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How easily we can flick a switch and banish the shadows. All manner of digital screens distract us from the dark.But what of our forebears? Any study of the living arrangements of those folk, so like us, is thought-provoking and often difficult to imagine. How about this observation of Scotland in the 17th century?

‘We laid in a poor thatched house, the wall of it being one course of stone, another sods of earth, it had a door of wicker rods, and the spiders’ webs hung over our heads as thick as might be.’

Christopher Lowther, 1629

(from T.C.Smout’s A History of the Scottish People, Fontana, 1998)

 

I don’t like the dark; I don’t see very well in it and the absence of light makes me nervous, so I don’t know how I’d cope with being left in utter blackness once the sun goes down. No wonder stories around the fire took on such huge significance and meaning. In Bone Deep, one the of main characters, Mac, speaks of the ‘civilised circle of light’, beyond which the dark forces of nature are lying in wait. Imagine the utter terror of children as they’re bedded down for the night, folktales still fresh in their imaginations. Maybe they were made of sterner stuff!

How did people possibly see to mend their nets or card their wool? How about a lamp fuelled by fish livers?

Also from Smout’s ‘History’, Osgood Mackenzie, the creator of the gardens at Inverewe, remembers the Highland upbringing of his parents and grandparents. Everything was done by candlelight, paraffin being unheard of in the pre-war years. Tin lamps, which burned fish-liver oil, were sometimes purchased from travelling ‘tinkers’, but bog-fir splints, or torches, full of resin were the mainstay for those struggling with daily chores. It was the children’s job to collect and stack them in a corner of the cottage, ready to be lit when additional light was needed.

Until next time- wishing you lots of light!

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