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.

weir-d walk fairies

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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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!

 

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 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).

 

 

Buried Treasure

Who doesn’t love a tale of buried treasure?

This week Carnoustie residents have been enjoying a ‘behind the scenes’ look at the site of the Late Bronze Age settlement recently discovered in the town. Click here for the full story

Alan Hunter Blair, project officer for GUARD Archaeology, which excavated the dig site on behalf of Angus Council, describes the precious artifacts uncovered here as ‘the find of a lifetime.’ The finds include a sword still in its wood and animal skin scabbard, and a spearhead decorated with gold. The excavation also revealed the largest Neolithic hall so far found in Scotland, dating from about 4000 BC.

spear

 

In milling terms, by far the most interesting ‘treasure’ has to be the discovery of rubbing or quern stones on the site. We’ve always been excited about the idea that a water mill has existed here at Barry since at least the sixteenth century (and probably as far back as 1240), but here is proof that our Neolithic ancestors were grinding corn just a few miles down the road over 3000 years ago!

With all this talk of buried treasure, it seems like a good time for a bit of folklore!

Like most stones, broken millstones (and querns, which were deliberately smashed by the authorities to compel people to use the mill) have been reappropriated and used in all manner of ways. Millstone segments offer a flat, dressed surface which can have many practical applications, but they also seem to retain a certain supernatural provenance! They show up in stories as well-covers, hearthstones and so on- often portrayed as portals to another world.

The following tale comes from Airlie, in Angus. A certain householder was baffled when the oatcakes she baked on her ‘new’ hearthstone kept disappearing. Time after time she would return to the kitchen to find the hearthstone empty, yet not a soul around. When no logical explanation could be found for the thefts, the Airlie house was thought to be haunted by some devilish (and oatcake-loving) sprite and was promptly demolished. As the last of the walls toppled, the hearthstone moved and a shocking discovery was made. Underneath it lay a mysterious subterranean dwelling. In similar stories, a fairy hand is spotted rising from the hole to snaffle the bannocks. A clear case of one woman’s floor being a fairy’s ceiling!

No doubt such narratives helped to make sense of the landscape; those ancient Pictish souterrains and barrows which must have appeared so alien and magical to rural folk. As the earth at Balmachie gives up its secrets at last, we all become a little more knowledgeable about the lives of our ancestors. We no longer need to make up stories to explain the things we don’t understand, but just as the sword, the spear and the quernstones are held in trust for future generations, so too must we take steps to preserve our equally precious folklore and traditional stories, so thank you for reading the Barry Mill Blog!

Next time, with Pancake Day on the horizon, I’ll be looking at the lost Scottish festival of Fester E’en.

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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!