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.

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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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Batty’s Den

Hello once again from the Barry Mill Blog! As the blog was originally set up as part of my Creative Scotland Residency,  now successfully completed, I haven’t posted here for a little while. My second novel The Bone Harp should hit the shelves early next year, but what to do with all that delicious research into mill life, lore and literature?

I have a plan! A non-fiction book of folklore and landscape, which will preserve some of those lovely heritage tales you’ve been kind enough to share with me. You will be able to follow my progress here, and I’ll share with you any snippets of interesting information that comes my way, plus all the Barry Mill news. I will post it on the mill’s Facebook pages, or you can become a blog ‘follower’, so you don’t miss anything.

Last week, I took a walk to Batty’s Den. Most Carnoustie/Muirdrum residents will know  the den as a rather wild place beloved of teenage campers (my own sons included, years ago). I’ve never been there myself, but intrigued by a few paragraphs in the late Annie Thompson’s wonderful book, Carnoustie, in Old Picture Postcards, I ventured forth.

The den has been greatly side-lined since the development of the dual carriageway, and it is seriously overgrown.

I couldn’t help but compare it with the mill den at Barry, and the picturesque Craigmill Den, so well -maintained by Angus Council. As I emerged scratched and nettled, it struck me that we are missing out on a wonderful natural amenity. The Scottish ‘den’ is such a big part of our landscape, and ‘wild’ space so rare, it would make sense to have a ‘den trail’ around the local area for families to explore.

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What does Miss Thompson say about Batty’s Den?

‘The name may come from Patie’s [water-driven] flax-spinning mill which operated here in the 19th c. In 1820, the minister of Panbride, writing in the Statistical Account of Scotland, complained that the mill employed young girls who would be better off at home, as their presence encouraged young men to loiter around the mill.’

Oh dear, women getting the blame again! Miss Thompson goes on to say that no trace of the mill remains, nor the hump-backed bridge in the photograph, but Batty’s Den ‘remains a charming, leafy spot, in spring filled with primroses and wood anemones’.

battys den

Den, dean or dene; (OE denu); n. a hollow with sloping sides, or a narrow, wooded ravine, often with rivulet. E.g. Den Burn (Aberdeenshire), Dean Village (Edinburgh), Denholm (Roxburghshire).

Lummesdene (mentioned c.1100); Botheldene, 1159; Ellesdene, 1218; Strikerden, 1275;Denside, 1304.

 

 

 

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.

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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!

 

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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!

 

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

 

The Cry O’ Howlets

Fearfu’ soughs the boortree bank,
The rifted wood roars wild and drearie,
Loud the iron yett does clank,
And the cry o’ howlets makes me eerie.

Some  evocative lyrics there from the traditional Scots ballad ‘Are ye sleepin’, Maggie?’ (Hear the Dougie Maclean version here)  For me this is the perfect storm (forgive the pun) of language, rhythm and mood. The old Scots words add eloquence and mystery: boortree; the bower-tree or elm; yett, a gate and, the subject of this week’s post, the howlet or owl.

Country folk have always taken great pains not to get on the wrong side of this magical bird. Last week, I shared with you the story of an irate miller who marched his young son back to the howlet’s nest to replace some stolen eggs.

The term howlet, houlet, hoolit or houlet appears in Scots literature from the earliest times. The Scots Language Centre cites  ‘The Buke of the Howlat’, written by Sir Richard Holland in the middle of the fifteenth century, as one of the earlier poems referencing the owl. Click here to learn more. The houlet, unhappy with his appearance is given a feather by all the other birds so that he is “Flour of all fowlis throw fedderis so fair”, but he gets “So pompos, impertinat and reprovable” that the birds strip him again. An entry in the Register of the Privy Council (1663) reveals the word being used as an insult: “Calling her ill-faced houlett, lyk that catt, thy sister”. In his Historie of Scotland (1596)  James Dalrymple compares ‘traytouris’, or traitors, to ‘howlets’. A more humorous mention comes from this description in the Edinburgh Evening Dispatch (1891) of  ‘a douce lad wi’ a daylicht face, they say, an’ nane o’ the hoolit aboot him”.

The name itself suggests a howl, evoking that eldritch cry we’re all familiar with. Imagine a  time before electric light, a dark night and those eerie white wings floating above a moonlit mill. Little wonder that the bird features prominently in the myths and legends of most cultures. Owls were revered as symbols of wisdom, and dreaded as harbingers of doom. Definitely a creature to stay on the right side of!

The following lines by Sir Walter Scott reveal the sort of superstitious dread associated with the bird.

Birds of omen dark and foul,                                    
Night-crow, raven, bat, and owl,
Leave the sick man to his dream —
All night long he heard your scream.
 

The Gaelic word for owl is coilleach-oidhche, meaning ‘night-cockerel’. Despite this rather masculine label, the bird was associated with the Cailleach, the Crone aspect of the Celtic Goddess. The Cailleach was often represented by a blue-faced hag-figure, who stalked the land in winter, freezing the ground with her staff. In previous posts, we’ve seen how country folk honoured the Cailleach by burning the Yule Log. In a similar way, farm folk would make a corn dolly from the final sheaf of the harvest. The last farmer in the neighbourhood to finish his harvest was responsible for the safekeeping of the corn dolly, which was believed to harbour the Goddess spirit. Giving hospitality to the Crone in this way throughout the dark months would ensure the return of the light in Spring.

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‘Sunset Song’, a celebration of the novel by Lewis Grassic Gibbon at Barry Mill, 2015

There is a very fine line between the light and the dark. Yule logs, corn dollies, hags and howlets were important touchstones in the lives of our rural ancestors. Next time you see a white shape soaring over Barry Mill on your evening walk, maybe wish it a good night and move swiftly on!

I haven’t yet found a poem with an owl and a cornmill, but The Owl by Tennyson is very close! I’ll leave you with a few lines:

When cats run home and light is come,
And dew is cold upon the ground,
And the far-off stream is dumb,
And the whirring sail goes round,
And the whirring sail goes round;
Alone and warming his five wits,
The white owl in the belfry sits.

owl

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!