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).
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.
To 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!
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.
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!
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.
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.
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.
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!
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!
My recent visit to the Verdant Works gave me the perfect excuse to compare mill poetry with Erin Farley, who is currently researching the subject in relation to Dundee’s textile industry. You can check out her amazing blog here. I suppose a part of me assumed that the long hours and poor conditions of factory work would leave little time or energy for creative pursuits, so it was a bit of a revelation to discover that many female jute workers not only penned poems about their lives, loves and concerns, but also managed to get them published in magazines. Lanarkshire-born Ellen Johnston, began working as a weaver at the age of eleven, and published a volume of verse in 1867.
By comparison, the female voice in the literature of the rural water mill is mainly silent. Our most familiar mill poems are male-authored, such as the nostalgic ‘Keepsake Mill’, by Robert Louis Stevenson, and Walter De La Mare’s quirky Five Eyes, about mill cats. One exception is Victorian poet and composer of hymns, Sarah Doudney. Her poem ‘The Lesson of the Watermill’ is a rather sentimental call for her readers to live an upright life and look to the future rather then the past:
Listen to the water mill,
Through the livelong day;
How the clicking of the wheel
Wears the hours away.
Languidly the autumn wind
Stirs the withered leaves;
On the field the reapers sing,
Binding up the sheaves;
And a proverb haunts my mind,
And as a spell is cast,
” The mill will never grind
With the water that has passed. ”
While the Miller is celebrated in country ballad form as a bawdy rogue, his female customers tend to get a bit of a raw deal. Much ribald wordplay around the notion of ‘grinding the corn’ has led to the figure of the female farm servant being lampooned as either an innocent or a temptress. Below is part of a traditional song which tells the consequences of an ill-advised liaison between ‘the Miller and the Maid’. The girl is described as ‘wanton’ and seduces the Miller in order to evade the ‘multure’ or milling fee.
‘When forty weeks had passed and gaen,
Hech hey sae wanton
When forty weeks had passed and gaen,
Hech hey sae wanton she
This lassie had a braw lad bairn,
because she’d got her corn grund,
Because she’d got her corn grund,
meal and multure free.
Many versions of this narrative were printed on broadsides, and sold on the street for a penny. Such scurrilous stuff was hugely popular, but no doubt provided an accurate reflection of how women were viewed in the male-dominated world of the corn mill. In my recent interview with former miller and musician Alex Green, we can see that these social attitudes and gender roles were to continue for many decades. Women had a limited presence in the meal mill, and certainly no influence. It is interesting to contrast these literary stereotypes with the women of the pre-industrial era. The notion of the matriarch grinding the family corn at the quern is an empowering one, and the spirituality of the charms and rhymesassociated with the practice reflect this power.
It’s not all doom and gloom for the rural woman, however. Some ballads (although not many) show that girls of a certain class (probably the daughters of farmers, blacksmiths etc) did have a certain amount of freedom in choosing a husband. The Miller, with his abundance of corn and land, was considered quite a catch, as you can see from the following verse:
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!
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 hereto 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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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!