My Year at the Mill

No poetry this week, but I’ll begin with a few timely lyrics from Chris Rea:

Look deep into the April face /A change is clearly taking place/ Looking for the summer.The eyes take on a certain gaze/ And leave behind the springtime days/ Go looking for the summer. 

April is a big month for Barry Mill, as the Easter Duck Races herald the start of another busy summer of welcoming visitors to the property. For me, it’s also an opportunity to look back and reflect on the progress of my writing residency at the Mill.

This time last year, I was anxiously waiting to hear if my application for Creative Scotland funding had been approved. Knowing the field is intensely competitive, it was a nail-biting few weeks, even though I’d done my homework, and the National Trust for Scotland was on board with my proposal. The Creative Scotland selection process is rigorous, with your application discussed at length by a panel of experts in your field. Even though my debut novel, Beneath the Skin, had been accepted for publication at this point, I still wasn’t convinced I would be taken seriously.

box of books
First print run of Beneath the Skin (Polygon), September, 2016

 

Finally, I received the email I’d been haunting my inbox for: ‘We are delighted to inform you…’ As soon as that word ‘delighted’ popped up, I began to breathe again. I think it was a full twenty minutes before I could read the rest of the letter!

So what has this funding meant for me?

First of all, it’s bought me time. As many of you will know, I worked for many years as a cleaner in my local Co-op, in order to fund myself through an undergraduate degree, and then the Mlitt in Writing Practice and Study at Dundee University. As many writers will know, the effort of being creative while working in mainstream employment can be stressful and draining. So, clocking into the Co-op at 6 a.m. every morning (which is my most creative period) was always going to be a problem. Creative Scotland agreed to fund a twelve-month residency at NTS Barry Mill, which meant that I would have the great luxury of time to write my second novel (which takes as its setting an old watermill!).

And what has it meant for the mill?

The residency has included provision for a series of workshops, in which I have been able to observe how people react to and interact with the mill. One of the most popular events was The Weir-d Walk, when I led a gang of willing ‘victims’ through the mill den to the weir. We encountered a lot of folklore on the way, but I’ll tell you more about that next week!

 

weir-d walk fairies
The Weir-d Walk, 2016

 

Working in partnership with the National Trust for Scotland has opened up another strand of enquiry for me. How can we engage people with their heritage through the arts? As the provider of food, the mill has always been at the heart of the community. Can it now move forward with a new identity, as the custodian of local culture? It is the perfect venue for storytelling, exhibitions and readings.

I also set out to research and document some of the many ballads, stories and poems associated with Mill life, and this has been an absolute joy. Regular followers of this blog will have shared some of my ‘finds’, and if you haven’t already, do scroll through the posts! Still, I feel that I’ve only uncovered the tip of a very large iceberg. This is the exciting part of Creative Scotland’s generosity – I have met so many interesting and helpful artists and creative professionals this year, and have gathered so much material. I am really looking forward to some collaborative projects in the future, and a chance to shape my thoughts about mill life and lore into some kind of non-fiction miscellany. Mill Life and Lore? There’s a book title already!

And the all-important second novel?

The Bone Harp, my second book, was completed in January, and has been met with great approval by my agent, Jenny Brown, and my publisher, Polygon. An announcement is imminent- watch this space!

 

twosisters
The Bone Harp, a novel based on the ballad of the Two Sisters. Watch out of dark deeds by the mill pond!

 

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!

A Tyrant Spell

Last time, we took a look at some of our more extreme Scottish Yule/Hogmanay customs, and our desire to banish the dark and the cold with blazing logs, bright candles and huge bonfires. New Year Rituals are all about fending off the unknown and the uncontrollable. 

This week, it’s the turn of the dark and the cold to take centre stage! 

 “It’s far too mild for this time of year. It just doesn’t feel like Christmas/ January.” I bet you’ve heard that complaint a lot recently! We seem to have a deep need to experience the sort of atmospheric conditions we associate with the  season. Should January be dreary to match our melancholy post-festive mood? It’s all a bit of a chicken-and-egg scenario, but this close link between our psyche and the natural world has long been exploited by writers to add texture and meaning to their work. 

‘Pathetic fallacy’ is a rather old-fashioned term for lending human attributes to inanimate objects (The ‘cruel’ sea, for example). This has been developed in modern literature to include the use of abstract phenomena to reflect human mood and emotion. Storms, rain, moonless nights, floods- whatever natural event you can think of can be used as a mirror for human angst. This is a powerful device and synonymous with Romantic and Gothic literature. The following poem by Emily Brontë  (the recent BBC drama To Walk Invisible is a must-see) demonstrates the deeply intuitive interaction (and power-struggle, perhaps) which takes place between human and nature. The chill that runs through it is palpable.

 

Spellbound

The night is darkening round me,
The wild winds coldly blow;
But a tyrant spell has bound me
And I cannot, cannot go.

The giant trees are bending
Their bare boughs weighed with snow.
And the storm is fast descending,
And yet I cannot go.

Clouds beyond clouds above me,
Wastes beyond wastes below;
But nothing drear can move me;
I will not, cannot go.

                            Emily Brontë (1818-1848)

Emily was the middle sister of the three most famous sisters in the history of English Literature. (Her oldest sister was called Charlotte; Anne was the youngest; and she had a brother called Branwell). All of them died tragically young.

 

My own task during my creative residency here at the mill has been to observe this setting in all of its seasons. I have written extensively about the summertime, when the mill is open to the public. I have facilitated many workshops where the community has been invited to react with the mill and its landscape. We have lots of images of children enjoying the environs, writing fairy stories and having picnics,

But in the bleak mid winter all that stops. What is the mill like when the lights are off and the doors are bolted? When the only human interaction is between the imagination and the dark?

I’ve included a short extract from The Bone Harp, my second novel (first draft just completed) which takes as its setting a fictionalised version of Barry Mill. This has been made possible by the combined generosity and support of Creative Scotland and the National Trust for Scotland.

In this passage, protagonist Lucie, having fallen in love with someone she shouldn’t have fallen in love with, has reluctantly ended the relationship…

 

I don’t like it down here when dusk starts to fall. I don’t trust this landscape where the trees crackle with secrets, and the water smells wild, and the midges and the bugs and the birds take on a new urgency. I get up from the bench. Walk, and keep on walking. The path is littered with snails which crunch beneath my feet, making me wince with every step. As the rain starts again I tell myself to go indoors, crack open the Pinot Grigio and watch something crap on the telly. Something that doesn’t include beginnings or endings. A sparrow swoops too close, the vibration of its feathers a frantic chord that tears at my nerves and I break into a half-jog. The urge to keep moving is overwhelming, as if my own hurt, my disappointment, is woven into the fabric of the place and I’m caught up in its cobwebs. Skirting past the mill, I find myself heading up towards the road, negotiating the rough track in my unsuitable sandals, not knowing, not caring where I’m going. I’m hunched up, hugging myself, and the rain is slick and cold on the exposed parts of me. I close my eyes as I walk, tilting my face to the rain.                                                                      

(An extract from The Bone Harp by Sandra Ireland)

Hopefully you will have the opportunity to find out more about Lucie in 2017. Meanwhile you can read my debut novel Beneath the Skin , which is equally dark and creepy!

 

 

The Goldfinch

This week I was privileged to spot a very rare bird.

Carel Fabritius’ ‘The Goldfinch’(1675) alighted in Scotland in November and will fly back home to  the Royal Picture Gallery Mauritshuis, in The Hague, this month. So for a short time only, this iconic painting can be viewed at the Scottish National Gallery in Edinburgh.

goldfinch
The Goldfinch by Carel Fabritius, 1675.

 

The painting has never before been shown in Scotland, and has been exhibited in the UK on only a handful of occasions.

Fabritius’ depiction of a pet goldfinch chained to a perch is subtle yet exquisite. Finches have been highly prized throughout history for their melodious song. In Holland, goldfinches were popular pets, kept in captivity attached to a chain, and trained to perform tricks. The goldfinch is depicted at the centre of many iconic Madonna and Child paintings, sometimes ‘chained’ to the baby Jesus with string or something similar. Like the robin, the distinctive splash of red on its feathers is attributed to it giving succour to Christ on the Cross.In the goldfinch’s case, the bird is said to have drawn a thorn                                                                                                                 from his brow.

In Fabritius’ painting, the goldfinch’s understated loss of liberty is made all the more poignant by the fact that the artist lost his life to a freak gunpowder explosion in Delft in 1675, just months after he completed this work. Immediately, the painting takes on an almost premonitory quality. Donna Tartt, using it as the key to her Pulitzer Prize-winning novel, The Goldfinch ( Abacus, 2014), must have felt this too. Her protagonist, Theo, is caught up in an explosion with tragic consequences that will have a bearing on the rest of his life. The painting inspired me to read this excellent novel, and it was a real struggle to put it down in order to write this!

I’m intrigued by the connection between art and place. To view this painting and then rediscover it within the pages of Tartt’s novel adds an extra frisson to both creations.

As always, there is an unexpected link to my Barry Mill residency here. In my second novel, The Bone Harp, my central character Lucie, is repelled by birds. The insistent beating of their wings represents for her a particularly chilling sort of music. Goldfinches are frequent visitors to the mill grounds, and I have tried to include many such tangible links to setting within my own work.The first draft of the novel is almost finished, so hopefully one day soon you will get the opportunity to find out more! I will leave you with a short passage from my work-in-progress:

It’s barley, I can see that now. That last time, when the sky was low with rain and mist, only the green edge of it was visible, but now acres and acres lie before me. A vast tawny fur, shifting in the breeze, and beyond that the sea. It’s tipping over into full golden ripeness. Not long now. I let my fingers trail through the wiry whiskered ears of corn and it needles my skin. The tall fibrous stalks are straight as soldiers, and there’s sharp edge to the path, where the plough scored the earth just six months ago. Only six months ago I’d arrived here, intent on breaking new ground.

Goldfinches dart in and out of the hawthorn. Their wings go  thrip thrip thrip against the leaves, a noise like someone plucking strings. It unnerves me. I should go back, but I’m mesmerised by the rise and fall of the barley- it’s like the whole field is breathing. I want to plough into it, feel it surround me, and I’m so unnerved by the notion that I take a step back,and fall heavily…

                                                   From The Bone Harp (unpublished) by Sandra Ireland

henriette-browne
A Girl Writing; The Pet Goldfinch by Henriette Browne 1870.

 

My debut novel Beneath the Skin (Polygon) is out now, and is available from all major book outlets.

Poltergeist in the machinery

As I’ve mentioned before, one of the most rewarding parts of my residency has been connecting with other Scottish artists working in many different genres. At first glance, the work of some may seem far removed from the daily life of a 200 year old watermill, but uncovering areas of  commonality is always a challenge and a joy.

Stephen Watt is a Scottish poet and spoken word artist. He is the author of the poetry collections Spit (Bonacia, 2012) and Optograms (Wild Word Press, 2016), Dumbarton FC Poet-in-Residence, and several-time slam poet winner. I met Stephen at that fine festival of crime, Bloody Scotland, when we were both selected to take part in this year’s ‘Crime in the Spotlight’ programme; a series of mini-events designed to showcase the talents of the next generation of crime writers. I think it’s fair to say that both Stephen and myself have quite tenuous links to crime. Our literary interest lies more with dark deeds, perhaps, and the psychology of evil. The similarities in our work became apparent when I listened to his latest opus.

Stephen is one half of Neon Poltergeist, a Gothic-inspired collaboration with sound engineer Gareth McNicol. Their recently-released EP is an alchemy of spoken word, eerie music and chilling sound effects. The poems are an often-disturbing exploration of some dark characters, both historic and modern, including John Sage (‘Dragfoot’), the torturer of Edward Longshanks; Edward Mordrake, cursed with a second face on the back of his head, and the Moors Murderer, Ian Brady.

The EP’s title, 55.862670 -4.231142 (and I had to ask!) are the coordinates for the Glasgow Necropolis. This struck an immediate chord with me, because it locates these haunting words to a specific site; renders the content a kind of Gothic geo-poetry. It also ties in very neatly with the themes of folklore, location and the land that I’ve been exploring throughout my residency.

For me, this EP is an exciting concept, opening up new avenues of collaboration in terms of the mill landscape and its legends.Throughout the coming months, I will be conducting research into traditional mill poetry and the ballad tradition. The fusion of traditional words with a modern sound is an interesting one, and  the creak and grind of the machinery in the mill has been used on several occasions as a backdrop to  musical and spoken word events. I think Barry Mill would certainly lend itself to Neon Poltergeist’s bold new interpretation of traditional forms!

In the meantime, click here to listen to ‘Edward Mordrake’…but not with the lights off…

 

Ghost Mill

In my previous post, I was discussing the sort of energetic footprint we leave behind, when we live/work/visit a specific setting. Animals slip so quietly through the world, betrayed only by the faintest of markers: scent, sound, tracks in the earth and so on. Happily for writers, humans are not so subtle!

As adults, our perception of place is invariably skewed by experience, memory and expectation. A setting cannot exist in isolation from its human inhabitants.

We are noisy, clumsy, territorial and aggressive and it’s easy to imagine a residual trail of such behavioural memories staining the fabric of a place. Or perhaps buildings, in the true Gothic sense, mirror our own thoughts, feelings and fears, reflecting them back at us, rather than recording them.

However we choose to interpret the dynamic between setting and character, the relationship is integral to any complex psychological drama.

I find poetry helps me to understand my own impressions of place. There’s something about the immediacy of  the form that allows me to distil my own feelings into the right words. In attempting to convey a sense of continuation, and the overlapping of layers of time, I came up with the following poem:

                                                                       Ghost Mill

The wheel turns.

 

Dust falls from every wormhole;

every sandstone pore. Spores slacken

with the thump and thrum;

the din of timber.

The mill exhales, expands,

loosening old lives

like buttons on a waistcoat.

 

The wheel turns.

 

Shapes shift in the dark;

sparks blue as eyes;

the scent of old smoke.

The re-formed flour ghosts

of old men settle

beneath the faint silver of

their names.

 

The wheel turns.

 

The damsel in the machinery,

skirt dappled with

pawprints, slack-jaws gossip

down through generations;

until the past

meshes with the present.

 

On and on.

 

And still…

 

the wheel turns.

 

Sandra L. Ireland, 2015

 

puddle-mill

 

 

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…’