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 next 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.

iceland

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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Querns and Candlemas

As  the lovely snowdrops at Barry Mill prepare to put on a show for the Scottish Snowdrop Festival, I thought I’d take a look at early February and the range of beliefs and customs that herald the first signs of Spring.

In rural Scotland, February 2nd was known as Candlemas, a Scottish ‘Quarter Day’ when agricultural and other rents were paid. Traditionally, all the candles in the house would be lit, and nativity scenes tidied away. Candlemas was actually the last feast of the Christmas cycle. Particular attention was paid to the weather around this time too. Here’s a handy guide:

If Candlemas Day be dry and fair,
Half the winter’s to come and mair.
If Candlemas Day be wet and foul,
Half o’ winter’s gane at Yule.

Candlemas comes hot on the heels of Là Fhèill Brìghde, or the Feast of St Bridget (Feb 1st) which also marks that all-important mid-point between the winter solstice and the spring equinox. Originally this feast would have been recognised as Imbolc, one of the three fire festivals of the old Celtic calendar, the others being Beltane, Lughnasadh, and Samhain (Halloween). St Bridget, or the older goddess, Brigid or Bride, was the patron of many things, including farmers and poets but not, unfortunately, millers!

However, my research into the songs, ballads and folklore of the mill has lead me to an interesting and timely connection between Brigid and the task of grinding corn.

You may be familiar with the  ancient rhythmic waulking songs of the Western Isles, traditionally sung by the women preparing the newly-woven tweed. Click HERE for a snippet (from ‘Outlander’, just to add interest!). What is not so widely known (and indeed we are in severe danger of losing our milling past, hence this project) is that similar songs or blessings were sung over the hand-operated quernstones as the oatmeal was prepared. It’s unlikely that we will ever hear the music of them again, but thanks to Alexander Carmichael (1832-1912), a Scottish author, folklorist and antiquarian, some of the words survive.

Carmichael was born in Taylochan, Lismore, and brought up his own family in the Outer Hebrides where he was an exciseman. His work brought him into contact with a vanishing way of life on a daily basis, and he began to collect the  stories and folk poems of the islanders. His most important work is the Carmina Gadelica (‘The Hymns of the Gaels’) a fascinating compendium of prayers, invocations, blessings and charms. Not only does it afford us a glimpse of a hidden culture, but goes some way to documenting the transition between Christian and pre-Christian belief systems. As well as invoking Jesus, Mary and the saints, many of the charms reference other powers such as the older Celtic deity, Brigid or Bride.

The Quern Blessing, or Beannachadh Brathain, is described by Carmichael as a ‘labour song of the people’, and its measure would have been governed by the rhythmic motion of the body physically turning the millstone to grind the corn.

I find it curious that when milling became fully automated, and passed from being ‘women’s work’ into the hands of men, the songs have a very different purpose and tone, but I’ll come back to that in a future post. Today, here is a fragment of The Quern Blessing. It’s quite long and repetitive as you would expect with such a song, but you can see how it invokes a mother’s hopes for good times ahead. Happy February!

 On Ash Eve

We shall have flesh

The cheek of henWomen_at_the_Quern

Two bits of barley

We shall have mead

We shall have spruce

We shall have wine

We shall have feast

We shall have harp

We shall have lute

The calm fair Bride will be with us

The gentle Mary mother will be with us

And the spirit of peace

And of grace will be with us.

snowdrops-on-lade

An Aberdeenshire Miller’s Tale

Since my residency began in May, it’s been my privilege to meet some fascinating people, such as poet Petra Vergunst and artist Sheila Macfarlane. The experience has deepened my understanding of community and landscape, and helped shape my own creative practice. This week we have another name to add to that ever-growing list!

I’m extremely grateful to Mr Alex Green, of Foresterhill Mill, Oldmeldrum, for arranging a meeting with his father, Alex Green,senior, a mine of information on milling, rural life and traditional music, and a brilliant storyteller to boot! Expect to hear more from these two gentlemen in the coming weeks, but for now, let’s take a look at mill life through the eyes of Alex senior.

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The wheel, Foresterhill Mill

Alex Green is an Aberdeenshire man, and one of Scotland’s foremost tin whistle players. His father milled at Foresterhill Mill, Oldmeldrum, and then at Mill of Minnes, Udny. I think it’s fair to say that his childhood memories of growing up in a mill begin on a somewhat painful note. At the age of five, Alex lost two fingers in the mill machinery and was in hospital for three weeks. This prevented him taking music lessons, but determined to keep up with his musical family, he taught himself to play the tin whistle, and I suspect the missing digits became something of a legend!

Having just finished my second novel, in which my fictional miller is  a bit of a devilish character, I was keen to learn how real-life millers fitted into the social structure between the wars. As the most educated man in town (with the exception of the school master, and the minister), the miller was the go-to person for sorting out village affairs. Along with the blacksmith, he was certainly the most influential person in daily life. With oats serving as the currency of the day (oats were legal tender), the miller could be considered a banker of sorts, and the mill a bonded warehouse. He also enjoyed a special connection  with his landlord, the Laird, a relationship he was keen to keep sweet!

Alex gives a brilliant account of the ‘forelock-tugging’ that went on in those depression years. Nothing was too good for the Laird, to the extent that Alex’s father would refuse to place the Laird’s meal in a common jute sack, but instead would raid his wife’s linen press for white pillowcases. The Laird’s oatmeal was always delivered in clean white cotton!

The children of the mill, the smithy and the farm were the lucky ones. Alex remembers being sent to school in clean clothes, and wondering why so many of the other children would appear day after day in the same ragged things. It was only later that he realised they owned only one set of clothes. Having a second shirt and being able to change, was the hallmark of a ‘comfortable’ lifestyle. The mill family, with enough land for a cow, pigs and hens, was self-sufficient. They had dairy products, vegetables, corn and fruit, as well as trout and wildfowl.

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Mill of Minnes, Aberdeenshire

Whisky and beer were too expensive, but the miller would make a spirit from fermented sowens,  the‘mealy sids’, or husks. Sowens was generally made into a sort of porridge or brose, but the thin, fermented sowens was very potent and kept in the mill for a little tipple!

The employment term for labourers and farm servants traditionally began on Martinmas,November 28th. Fairs were held in most towns a few weeks prior to this, and the advent of the railways meant it became easier for people to travel outwith their own neighbourhood in search of work. The farmer or his grieve (farm manager) would approach a likely-looking man and inquire if he was ‘tae fee the day?’ If the reply was yes, a wage would be agreed, the farmer would proffer a shilling or two, referred to as ‘arles’, to bind the bargain. The men would then adjourn to a nearby public house, where the farmer would stand the man a dram. Such agreements, though purely verbal, were legally binding.

In practice, however, farm servants were invariably cheated out of monies due. Supplying them with ‘perks’ or foodstuffs in kind was one thing, but neither farmers nor millers were keen to part with cash! This goes some way to explaining our curious ‘writing on the walls’ here at Barry.

Most farm servants were illiterate and couldn’t read a contract, even if one was offered. They certainly wouldn’t have kept diaries, so names and dates were simply written down in the workplace on a convenient surface. An instant employment record, and a reminder of names, start dates and so on, when it came to wages. Millwrights and other visiting workmen would do the same thing, so there could be no argument over the bill, or whether the job had been completed. Significant events (such as the installation of the elevator at Barry) were also jotted down. The dates of severe flooding, bad storms and  deep snow can all be found in other mills.

Alex and I never did get round to chatting about music, ballads and folklore, but I’m sure we will. I’ll leave you with some lovely little anecdotes.

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A plague of rats!

The first one concerns Blind Dan, a previous incumbent of the Mill of Minnes. He may have been blind, but he managed to mill as competently as anyone else by having everything in a certain place. Woe betide anyone who moved any of his tools etc! The downside was that the rats knew he was blind and stopped hiding. Visitors were astonished to see them all sitting up on the sacks in broad daylight as large as life!

We did touch briefly on mill superstition. Alex’s brother returned home on one occasion with some eggs he’d taken from an owl’s nest. This was such bad luck, he was immediately marched back to the nest in the dead of night and forced to replace them! The owl is a big player in the world of Scottish folklore, so we might well return to the howlett  next week!

For all you kelpie lovers out there…as mentioned previously, each stretch of water was believed to be inhabited by a kelpie, whose mission was to guard the mill from all misfortune. According to Alex, that particular gem is absolutely true!

 

 

 

 

 

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!

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…