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.

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

 

 

A Tale of Two Sisters

It’s January already, which means that the end of my creative residency at Barry Mill is almost in sight. A good time, then, to reflect on how it’s gone so far, and what’s still left to do.

I was determined to finish my second novel The Bone Harp by the end of 2016, and I just made it! It’s taken about a year to shape this first draft, and I’ve been very lucky to be able to devote so much time to it. Without the generous support of Creative Scotland, I certainly wouldn’t have been able to immerse myself  quite so deeply in the project. I’ve spent an amazing few months just being around the mill in all its moods; and observing how visitors react to and interact with the building and its environs. My reflections have been recorded in these posts (it will be interesting for me to re-read them!), so I’ll turn my attention to the main purpose of the residency, which was to write my second novel. This week, I thought I would take a look at the inspiration behind the inspiration- the story of the Two Sisters.

‘Two Sisters’, or ‘Twa Sisters’ in the Scottish version, is a murder ballad, which was in itself inspired by an old folk tale, the origins of which are unclear. Versions can be found in many folk traditions, especially those of Scandinavia and Eastern Europe.I first encountered the ballad while browsing through my own collection of dusty old books. Sir Walter Scott collected a version of it in his 1868 Border Minstrelsy.

The premise is dark; a callous pre-meditated act motivated by jealousy and spite. Two sisters go down to a pond, lake or the sea, and the older one pushes the younger one in. There are many variations on this theme, but generally there is a man involved, and the older sister feels rejected or betrayed. One sister is described as dark, the other fair, making the obvious distinction between good or evil. In the Norse variants, the older sister is compared to soot, and the  other to the sun or to milk.

In most versions the younger girl drowns, but guilt has consequences. When the murdered girl’s body floats ashore, someone makes a musical instrument out of her bones and hair, generally a harp or a fiddle. This is then taken to the sisters’ parents by a third party, quite often a miller, in those versions where the mill pond features in the drama. The harp plays unaided and ‘sings’ of the older daughter’s guilt.

A Scots Gaelic version, ‘A’ Bhean Eudach‘ or ‘The Jealous Woman’  has the older sister murdering her sibling while she is sleeping by knotting her hair into the seaweed when the rocks are exposed at low tide.

Many contemporary folk musicians have been inspired to record versions of the tale.Canadian singer and harpist Loreena McKennitt’s song ‘The Bonny Swans‘ is a pastiche of several traditional variants of the ballad. In this version, the miller’s daughter mistakes her sister’s corpse for that of a swan. The Irish group Clannad has a version titled ‘Two Sisters‘  on their album Dúlamán. Just click on the song titles to have a listen. Bob Dylan performed “Two Sisters” in the late 1950s and early 1960s, and even recorded an impromptu version in a friend’s apartment. The much-recorded folk song ‘The Wind and the Rain’ is a further variant on the theme.

In The Bone Harp, I’ve used the narrative as a  backdrop to a modern psychological thriller, a story of two present-day siblings. I think the tale resonates with us because it’s dark and twisted and still very relevant. How many of today’s crimes are motivated by jealousy and resentment? Our base nature never changes. We just keep thinking up new ways of repackaging that truth!

In the coming months, I will be looking into further ballads, poems and stories associated with mills and milling, so ‘follow’ this blog for updates!

Mill Gothic

In the last few months, I’ve been spending time looking at the landscape, and reactions to it, in terms of the sort of mythologies and folklore which respond to our need to understand our exterior world. As the year turns, and the days get shorter, the evenings darker and colder, it seems fitting that my thoughts should turn to the ‘shift’ which happens when the environment becomes more than just a backdrop; when our exterior and interior worlds collide and the setting begins to mirror our own anxieties and negative emotions.

This has been prompted in some ways by a chance comment (The Scotsman described my debut novel Beneath the Skin as ‘Stockbridge Gothic, which I like a lot!), and also by the fact that I’ve reached a critical stage in the writing of my second novel.

‘The wind has changed’, to quote Mary Poppins (odd choice of reference, true, but I’ll explain next time, even though M.P. NEVER explains anything ), and in my work-in-progress, a sudden storm provides the catalyst for the simmering resentments and preoccupations of the characters to break through the surface. This is underpinned by a darkening of the atmosphere; the setting becomes a hostile entity.

In many ways, this is a Gothic cliché, but it is a cliché because it resonates with us. As humans, we are susceptible  to minute changes in atmosphere. Fear is a result of our perception (real or imagined) of a shift occurring within our context, an unexplained ‘otherness’. Gothic is what happens when the setting bites back. For more of my thoughts on the idea of ‘the Uncanny’, check out my personal blog here.

Throughout my residency, I’ve had a great opportunity to observe the daily life of the mill; its times of quiet, and of chaos. From a single volunteer silently cataloguing the past, to hundreds of people enjoying a social event, the mill is in constant flux; comings and goings, arrivals and leavetakings. Can the thoughts, feelings and motivations of those associated with any building, past or present, leave an indelible energetic thumbprint? Individuals can be acutely conscious of ‘atmosphere’. How many times have you ‘felt’ the residual effects of an argument in a room, even when the row is over? Any environment is a sponge to these effects, and ‘writing the Gothic’ requires the writer to be just a shade more sensitive than most…

Any thoughts? Next time, I’ll be looking at this idea in more detail…

mill-window
‘Gothic…where the exterior and the interior collide…’

Apple Lore

Close readers of this blog (there must be one or two) will have noticed that I’ve missed a week. But what a week that was! First we had Bloody Scotland, where I enjoyed my three minutes in the ‘Spotlight’, and then it was the launch of my debut novel Beneath the Skin. Pop over to my own blog for my thoughts on that!

But back to apples….As I recall, we’ve been looking at the dark and murky world of the Brothers Grimm, the Girl with No Hands, the mill and the apple tree. Apples have been featuring quite a lot in my life recently. At Barry Mill we held our first Apple Day, and our visitors were keen to pick some of our heritage apple varieties.

There’s something quite special about wandering through an orchard, and this week I met with Aberdeen-based poet and tree expert Petra Vergunst. Petra met me at the Mill, and we spent a happy hour wandering through the grounds and talking trees. She is currently undertaking a ‘magical’ tree project which no doubt we will return to in this blog, but for now, let’s talk apple trees…

King Arthur’s mystical Otherworld, Avalon, was known as Avallach, the Isle of Apples. It was there that the Fairy Queen, Morgan le Fay, resided. She held the power of life and death. The Celts believed that the power of healing, of eternal youth and of rebirth were all contained within the apple, and the tree itself (Quert) formed part of the Ogham tree alphabet. The apple tree often plays host to mistletoe, a plant sacred to the Druids, and according to the Irish Druid tradition, silver apples, cut from the bough of a magical apple tree, could lull listeners into a trance with their own peculiar music.

Apples, with their link to the afterlife, play a big part in the customs and rituals associated with Halloween, or Sambhain. Cutting the fruit in half reveals a pentagram, the symbol of magic and witchcraft. In many rural areas, it was customary to leave the last of the apple crop on the trees for the spirits to eat.

For more on the apple in mythology and folklore, click herebarry-mill-apples.

Even Grimmer reading…

Last week’s rather Grimm tale; The Girl With No Hands, provoked quite a bit of interest, so I set myself the task of finding a more local version. Surely there must be a Scottish rendering of the story, complete with mill and apple tree? If you thought last week’s offering was dark and blood-thirsty, read on!

My research took me back many centuries. The earliest literary version of The Maid Without Hands can be found in the Vita Offae Primi, which was composed at the end of the twelfth century. The setting for this story is the ancient Kingdom of Northumbria, and the miller’s daughter becomes the daughter of the King of York. Fleeing her father’s lustful intentions, the girl is rescued by Offa, a legendary King of the Angles. In the tradition of all good fairy tales, the couple settle down and have children. Some years later, Offa is called upon to fight alongside the King of York and together they celebrate a great victory. Offa’s message to his wife (presumably, stick the kettle on, I’m on my way home ) is sabotaged by the evil father, and Offa’s men, back at base, receive instead an order to march the family into the forest and cut off their hands and feet. The mother and children are saved in the nick of time by an elderly hermit, and are reunited with Offa. I’m sure they lived happily ever after…

Interestingly, the Girl with No Hands narrative is a favourite among the storytellers of the travelling community, where it seems to have been adopted from the Gaelic tradition. No mills here, but an apple does feature in the tale. This version, ‘Daughter Doris‘ ( be warned-it’s particularly dark) was collected by the  School of Scottish Studies in 1955. A wandering piper called Davie Stewart was busking outside The Blue Blanket pub in Edinburgh’s Canongate, when he was invited to share some of his stories with the School.

In the absence of a mill in the above tales, I’ll finish with a story about an apple. At Barry Mill, we have a heritage orchard featuring many indigenous Scots varieties, including  ‘Bloody Ploughman’, which  has a very interesting tale behind its name. Legend has it that, in the late nineteenth century, a ploughman was caught stealing apples from the estate where he worked (Megginch  is often mentioned) and was shot dead by the gamekeeper. His grieving wife was given the bag of apples but discarded them on the ‘midden’, where a solitary seedling emerged. The seedling was rescued and named in memory of – The Bloody Ploughman. Bloody-Ploughman-385-x-385

The fruit of this beautiful old variety is a brilliant deep blood red. When fully ripe the inner flesh becomes stained with pink.

So an apple with a legend all of its own. Next week, given the season, I’ll take a closer look at the mythology of the apple…

 

Grimm Reading…

I recently came across an intriguing and rather dark tale, thanks to writer and blogger Dawn Geddes.

“You’ll love it,” she promised. “It has a mill and an apple tree in it!”

Since the mill is currently surrounded by apples of every variety, what better season to share with you this Grimm (and very grim) fairy tale, ‘The Girl with No Hands’ (Grimm, 1857).

In the story, a poor miller is offered riches by the devil in exchange for ‘what lies behind the apple tree’. Presuming the devil wants to get his hands on the mill, the miller accepts and everything within his house transforms into gold. His wife, upon returning from the market, flies into a rage. Their only daughter has been sweeping under the apple tree all afternoon. When the devil shows up again to claim his due, the girl washes herself and draws a chalk circle on the ground so that she cannot be taken. Frustrated, the devil demands that the father keep all water away from her, because the water is more powerful than he. The girl then uses her tears as a charm to ward him off. Outwitted, the devil demands that the father chop off his own daughter’s hands….

There are many versions of this tale, and you can read some of them here: ‘The Girl Without Hands’.

The poet W. H. Auden famously declared that fairy tales are ‘among the few indispensable, common-property books upon which Western culture can be founded . . . it is hardly too much to say that these tales rank next to the Bible in importance’.

According to Melissa Ashley, of the University of Queensland, this particular story is both ‘important and resilient’. Records show that ‘The Maiden without Hands’ narrative is rated as having one of the highest levels of cross-cultural circulation. Traditional variants number into the thousands and have been recorded throughout Europe: Italy, the British Isles, France, Spain, Romania, Ireland and Germany, each country sporting several dozen examples. The story circulates in Russia, India, Canada, Mauritius, Brazil, Chile, South Africa, Scotland, Iraq, Iceland, Armenia, Nigeria, and Japan. An Indigenous Australian version exists, and contemporary variants have been collected in the US, South America, and Africa.

I would be very interested to find out more about the Scottish version of this tale, and how it fits within the native landscape. The enchanted nature of water is something which recurs frequently in mill-related folklore and poetry, and apple trees, of course, have their own mythic heritage.

For some moody and atmospheric images of the landscapes which inspired the Brothers Grimm, have a look at the website of Kilian Schönberger.

I’ll leave you with a picture from closer to home; a mill and an apple tree…

mill and apples