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)

 

 

 

 

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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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).

 

 

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…

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‘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…