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).

barry mill under microscope

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!

fairy signs

 

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.

iceland

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!

sheaf-2

 

 

 

Panbride Mill

A chance find in the mill archive sent me on a mission to Craigmill Den this week. I was looking for inspiration for this year’s Weir-d Walk – and I promise to tell you more about it next time- but first, a wee digression.

This old cutting from The Courier (date unknown) shows  Panbride Mill, which sat at the head of Craigmill Den in times gone by. This photograph was taken before the start of WWI in 1914, and according to the article, the building had fallen into disuse at that point.

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I headed up there recently to see if I could find this same view. As you can see from this shot, the cottage on the left survives, but the mill has not.

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Like the burn at Barry, this stretch of water (originating in Monikie) served not only this mill, but the Panbride Bleachfields (now David Murray Transport) further downstream. Locally-produced linen was bleached here. The Weir, channels, sluices and lades which fed the pond in the grounds of Panbride House can still be found in Craigmill Den. What I find fascinating is that the sea originally came up much higher, and the mouth of the Craigmill Burn was wider, and used as a harbour for Roman ships bringing supplies to local garrisons. The remains of a Roman camp have been found in the fields to the east of the burn.

 

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Craigmill Burn from the top of the weir

 

The small mill in the photograph would have been a corn mill, like Barry. There must have been a dam, perhaps on the high ground at the back of the cottage, with enough of a fall to power the wheel. There’s a deep dip in the ground where the wheel channel must have been situated, but no trace remains of the tail race, where the water would have rejoined the burn. I suspect improvements to the footpath have altered the location considerably.

I was determined not to leave without finding some evidence of the old place, and I did indeed discover a pile of moss-covered stones between the trees.

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A deep hollow covered in weeds
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A single stone leads to a whole lot more!

 

It’s so sad when our heritage, however humble, however redundant, ends up as a pile of rubble. If only stones could talk! Are the old millstones buried here somewhere? I suppose we’ll never know, but I can’t help thinking we have lost something precious. Certainly, anyone who has heard the rumble of the machinery at Barry Mill, and the splash of the waterwheel, will agree with me.

All the more reason for me to keep writing about it! I’ve uncovered a lot of fascinating folklore and facts over the last year, and I’m keen to include them all in a new non-fiction book. If anyone has anything they’d like to share, whether it’s family history or interesting stories connected with the local landscape, I’d love to hear from you!

You can contact me at sandrairelandauthor@yahoo.co.uk

Mill Women, Part 2

My recent visit to the Verdant Works gave me the perfect excuse to compare mill poetry with Erin Farley, who is currently researching the subject in relation to Dundee’s textile industry. You can check out her amazing blog here. I suppose a part of me assumed that the long hours and poor conditions of factory work would leave little time or energy for creative pursuits, so it was a bit of a revelation to discover that many female jute workers not only penned poems about their lives, loves and concerns, but also managed to get them published in magazines. Lanarkshire-born Ellen Johnston, began working as a weaver at the age of eleven, and published a volume of verse in 1867.

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Women of Dundee, Verdant Works

By comparison, the female voice in the literature of the rural water mill is mainly silent. Our most familiar mill poems are male-authored, such as the nostalgic ‘Keepsake Mill’, by Robert Louis Stevenson, and Walter De La Mare’s quirky Five Eyes, about mill cats. One exception is Victorian poet and composer of hymns, Sarah Doudney. Her poem ‘The  Lesson of the Watermill’ is a rather sentimental call for her readers to live an upright life and look to the future rather then the past:

Listen to the water mill,                                                               writing

Through the livelong day;

How the clicking of the wheel

Wears the hours away.

Languidly the autumn wind

Stirs the withered leaves;

On the field the reapers sing,

Binding up the sheaves;

And a proverb haunts my mind,

And as a spell is cast,

” The mill will never grind

With the water that has passed. ”

 

While the Miller is celebrated in country ballad form as a bawdy rogue, his female customers tend to get a bit of a raw deal. Much ribald wordplay around the notion of ‘grinding the corn’ has led to the figure of the female farm servant being lampooned as either an innocent or a temptress. Below is part of a traditional song which tells the consequences of an ill-advised liaison between ‘the Miller and the Maid’. The girl is described as ‘wanton’ and seduces the Miller in order to evade the ‘multure’ or milling fee.

‘When forty weeks had passed and gaen,                       miller

Hech hey sae wanton

When forty weeks had passed and gaen,

Hech hey sae wanton she

This lassie had a braw lad bairn,

because she’d got her corn grund,

Because she’d got her corn grund,

meal and multure free.

Many versions of this narrative were printed on broadsides, and sold on the street for a penny. Such scurrilous stuff was hugely popular, but no doubt provided an accurate reflection of how women were viewed in the male-dominated world of the corn mill. In my recent interview with former miller and musician Alex Green, we can see that these social attitudes and gender roles were to continue for many decades. Women had a limited presence in the meal mill, and certainly no influence. It is interesting to contrast these literary stereotypes with the women of the pre-industrial era. The notion of the matriarch grinding the family corn at the quern is an empowering one, and the spirituality of the charms and rhymes associated with the practice reflect this power.

It’s not all doom and gloom for the rural woman, however. Some ballads (although not many) show that girls of a certain class (probably the daughters of farmers, blacksmiths etc) did have a certain amount of freedom in choosing a husband. The Miller, with his abundance of corn and land, was considered quite a catch, as you can see from the following verse:

 

‘Merry may the maid be

that marries the miller                                                             Women_at_the_Quern

for foul day and fair day

he’s aye bringing till her;

Has aye a penny in his purse

For dinner and for supper;

And gin she please a good fat cheese

And lumps of yellow butter.’

 

mill and apples

An Irish Diversion

In my previous post, we looked at the poetry of jute mill women in Dundee, and next time we’ll see how the poetry and song of the corn mill measures up, but first, a slight diversion! signpost

 A recent short break to Ireland piqued my curiosity about the Irish corn mill, so I set about interviewing my sons’ Cork-born Granny, Joan Ireland. What does she remember about the mills of her childhood?

Joan 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. Brigadier- General Hanway Robert Cumming was killed in the skirmish, which happened on March 5th, 1921, just ten years before Joan was born. Her grandmother, who witnessed the ambush, liked to recount the story with a few extra details which never made it to the history books. 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 her mother in work, 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- they prayed that no-one would notice!

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 product 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.

I can’t find any evidence of the mill near Clonbanin, but below is a replica of a saddle quern, from the prehistoric reconstruction at Craggaunowen, and a photograph of Bruree Mill, Co. Limerick, which I used to pass daily on my way to work.

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The Melder-Sifter and the Big Bad Wolf

 

In a (slightly belated) celebration of International Women’s Day, here is an obscure little folk tale which you may recognise! It involves a young girl, a big bad wolf and, of course, a mill.

 

In this story, Red Riding Hood rather typically doesn’t have a name. She is referred to only as the ‘melder-sifter’, which I’ll come to in a moment. The wolf is big, but perhaps not as bad as we’re often led to believe, and I’m afraid he doesn’t get a fair trial

 

A young servant girl was tasked with sifting a melder of corn at the Mill of Glascorrie, near Comrie. In the days before the role of ‘miller’ became a recognised trade, it was up to the farm servants to grind their own corn, so our ‘melder-sifter’s’ shift was long, hard and dusty. No doubt she emerged from the mill exhausted, still with a sack of meal to lug to the farm.

 

The day being fine and warm, she lay down on a grassy bank at the side of the road and immediately fell asleep. When she awoke, she was conscious of a heavy weight by her side, and heavy breathing in her ear! There beside her, snoring softly, was a huge shaggy wolf…

 

The girl tried to jump up, but discovered herself trapped. The wolf was lying on her cloak. She had no option but to untie her cloak and leave it to the wolf. She fled for home, and didn’t stop until she was safely inside her own cottage.

 

The next day, the villagers came upon shreds of the cloak (perhaps it was red) all along the road. There were bits of it in the hedgerow, and scraps fluttering in the trees. Convinced that the little melder-sifter had met a similar fate, the men of the village set about hunting down the wolf, which they believed to be responsible too for the slaughter of their livestock.

 

The wolf was eventually pursued into the hills and slain by one Robertson of Nathro, and in the tradition of such tales, he and the little melder-sifter were duly married.

 

If folktales have a message, I’ll leave you to figure that one out!

Interestingly, many of the placenames in Forfarshire (the old lieutenancy district of Tayside and Angus) contain the word ‘wolf’: Wolf Hill, Wolf Burn, Wolf Craig and so on. Geography and folklore reminds us of a time when the landscape was a dark and dangerous place.

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Illustration by L.Leslie Brooke from ‘The Golden Goose Book’ (1905).