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…

 

Keep the Bone Fires Burning

It’s October. The nights are drawing in, the days are a bit raw and the shops are full of pumpkins. You don a scarf and gloves to walk the dog and when you step outside, the air is laced with the gunpowder scent of bonfires…

Which brings me rather neatly to bones! Indeed, I’ve spent the last two days writing about bones, but I don’t want to reveal any spoilers. The title of my second novel The Bone Harp might be a tiny clue.

How do bones connect bonfires and mills? Well, the word bonfire appears to comes from the Middle English bonefire, bonefyre or banefyre ‎(“a fire in which bones were burnt”). We also have the Scots word banefire. The Oxford University Press blog refers to a definition by Thomas Fuller, a 17th c.writer and etymologist.

“I meet with two etymologies of bonfires. Some deduce it from fires of bones, relating it to the burning of martyrs. But others derive it (more truly in my mind) from boon, that is good, and fires, whether good be taken here for great, or for merry and cheerful, such fires being always made on welcome occasions.” Thomas Fuller  (1660)

But that’s enough of the merry and cheerful. In some parts of Britain, according to the 1725 book Antiquitates Vulgares; or, the Antiquities of the Common People the ritual burning of animal bones was used to mark various saint’s days, such as the Vigil of St Joan, but evidence suggests that the burning of bones was a Druidic practice connected with Celtic festivals such as Beltane, and the Solstice. This is explored in the cult film The Wicker Man (1973), with its themes of pagan effigy-burning and human sacrifice.

So from bone-fires to bone mills! My research has brought me into contact with Narborough Bone Mill in Norfolk. The good folk there have kindly allowed me to use the images below, and I must confess to being fascinated with the process of milling bone. It is so far removed from what we do here at Barry Mill, and yet there is a connection. There would have been many bone mills throughout Dundee and Angus, as bonemeal was considered a top fertiliser (and indeed still is), and bones are notoriously difficult to dispose of…

But let’s slip back a century, and take a look at Narborough.

When in operation the mill was used for rendering down bones from local slaughterhouses and from the whaling industry, with bones transported up the River Nar by barge from the blubber-processing factory at South Lynn. After 1821, no whaling ships left Lynn, so the mill had to rely partly on collections made by the ‘bone wagon’ from local farms. (Remember the ‘rag and bone’ man?) Villagers would sometimes take a ‘penn’orth of bones to be ground’, just as Barry locals might once have taken small parcels of peas and beans to be ground at the cornmill.

As always, I’m eager for a dark side, and it didn’t take me long to find it.Some shiploads arriving at Lynn would allegedly include exhumations from German burial grounds with no questions asked. There was a saying that ‘one ton of German bone-dust saves the importation of ten tons of German corn.’ Recent excavations at the mill have uncovered a human skull, which  Radiocarbon dating shows to  759 years old. Incredibly,this person would have lived in about 1257 when Henry lll or Edward l were on the throne, and Kings Lynn was known as Bishops Lynn.

The bonemill at Narborough has received a substantial grant from the Heritage Lottery Fund, which will be used to repair and conserve the remains of the mill and tell the stories behind its historic significance in the area.Click here to find out more.

And Barry Mill is a water-driven corn mill and has never been used to grind bone. As far as we know… Happy Halloween.

 

 

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…’

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…