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.

sheaf-2
‘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

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