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.

foresterhill-wheel
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.

mill-of-minnes-2
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.

mill-rats
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!

 

 

 

 

 

Hogmanay hots up!

Building the biggest bonfire ever (Biggar), parading burning barrels through the streets (The Burning of the Clavie, Burghead) and setting alight to a Viking longship (Up Helly Aa, Shetland) are some of the more bizarre and quirky ways in which we usher in the New Year here in Scotland!

Most people will be familiar with the tradition of the first-foot, a dark-haired man welcomed as the first visitor through the door after midnight on December. 31st. This is not a uniquely Scottish phenomenon. The custom is observed in places as far apart as Greece, Georgia and Yorkshire. I remember my Gran shoving my father unceremoniously out of the front door at 23.55 before ‘the bells’, and not allowing him back in unless he was armed with a coin, an oatcake and a ‘wee dram’, to ensure prosperity and good luck for the following twelve months. I also remember Dad swearing as he rummaged outside in the coal bunker for a piece of coal- ‘Long may your lum reek’, being the appropriate toast as he was allowed over the threshold once more.

After my recent festive posts, I was delighted to hear from a local lady, Barbara, who was keen to share with me her own family traditions. In the 18th and 19th centuries, Barbara’s forebears migrated from Perth, Angus and Inverurie to various parts of America, including Texas and the colony of North Carolina. It’s fascinating to learn that despite a new start (one of the descendants was the ‘father’ of Kentucky Bourbon, which is a tale in itself!) they clung to the old ways. Below is Barbara’s recollection of the traditional Yule Log custom:

Christmas and Hogmanay were big family celebrations. On Christmas Eve, my Father or one of my uncles would bring in a big thick log to burn in my Grandmother’s huge fireplace. It was supposed to burn from the beginning of the evening until the dawn of Christmas day. We would light it with a piece of the wood left over from last year’s log. My Great-Grandmother said that if it stayed lit it would ensure that we would have light and warmth in the coming year. We would attend Midnight Mass, and I would worry that the fire would go out while we were away. But, it was always still crackling when we returned. Oh, and the house would be decorated with greenery to attract good luck (and the good will of the fairies, or so my Grandmother told me). The branch of a rowan tree was laid across the door to keep out bad luck (or bad witches, according to the same Grandmother).

All of these things have something in common- the bringing in of light and heat, and the banishing of cold and darkness. This is very interesting for me in my role of writer here at the mill. The mill building, closed up for the winter, is the chilliest, darkest building imaginable. The cold is unwelcoming, unnerving. It gets into your bones. It feels like a physical presence, and not one you’d want to spend much time with! Even a brisk walk through the den can be both beautiful and bleak, with the frost, the mud and the bare branches. It is the perfect setting for my second novel The Bone Harp. I suppose, as humans, we use ritual and custom to overpower the things we have no control over: the elements, the forces of nature, our safety.

Wishing you all a warm and bright Hogmanay. Long may your lum reek, and remember the rowan to keep those witches from your door…

up-helly-aa-2

More Yule Musings

Last week’s Barry Mill Blog post provoked quite a reaction. Many of you, like me, didn’t realise that Christmas Day and Boxing Day were not recognised holidays in Scotland until 1958 and 1974 respectively. That means, within our lifetimes, you might not necessarily have been guaranteed time off work over the festive season to spend time with your family. This week, I’ve been thinking about the 1640 Act which effectively banned Yule in Scotland- how did we celebrate the season prior to that, and has the emphasis always been on family and community?

Yuletide traditionally begins with late November’s Full Moon. Celebrations commence on the day of the Winter Solstice and continue for twelve days, up to and including New Year’s Day. ‘Yule’ invites many etymological explanations, but I like its association with the Old English iul, meaning ‘wheel’ ( from the Norse jhól). The Anglo Saxons loved wordplay, and this seems to suggest the turning of time. It also provides a very visual reference to the rising, or rebirth, of the Solstice sun.

Over the centuries, the Pagan festival of Yule has become inextricably linked with the Christian celebration of Christ’s birth, but the secular traditions of both seem to share the same Northern European roots. The fir tree, and the ‘bringing in of the outside’ in the form of evergreen branches, mistletoe, holly and the Yule Log are Germanic Celtic customs, which have been adopted and adapted over time.

In some parts of Scotland, the Yule Log (a symbol of everlasting light) was carved into the figure of an old woman, the Cailleach Nollaich. At dusk, the figure would be brought into the house and burned in the hearth; a farewell to the darkness of winter and to the Old Year. Similarly, the Yule candle was given a special place in the household. It was expected to remain lit throughout the festivities- if it was accidentally extinguished bad luck would ensue.

When we consider the rural calendar, this notion of a ‘beacon in the dark’ reminds us of a practice which was once so important that it was enshrined in early Celtic (Brehon) Law; the custom of offering  hospitality to all. Hospitality meant a response to the physical need for food, shelter and protection, but also a recognition of the worth and common humanity of neighbours and strangers.

 

I’ll leave you with a couple of verses from a very apt poem I discovered on the Scottish Language Centre’s website. William Beattie was an Aberdeen-based poet, and a lesser-known contemporary of Burns. Christmas hospitality at its best, but let’s spare a thought for poor Tibby!

From A Yule Feast by William Beattie

“Cast aff yer sheen, an’ warm yer feet,

I’m sure they canna’ but be weet;

Hae, set them up on this bit peat

Anent the cutchack;

An’, Tibby, bring him ben some meat,

Ye senseless smutchack!

 

Make haste an’ gi’e ’m a glass o’ gin,

An’ that will make a’ right within;

Syne, Tib, I trow ye’ll need to rin

Forth to the stack

For peats, the roast will be ahin’;

An’ haste ye back.”

 

Lest we forget…

Stewart Kidd left in Aug 1914

                                                                           Returned

March 1918

                                                                           

 

I’ve already written extensively about the ‘graffiti’ which appears in the mill, and discussed how the need to ‘leave one’s mark’ has become a lasting legacy for those of us who are concerned with preserving the stories of the past. This inscription above can be found on the top of one of the pillars in the meal floor (basement).  As you can see, Stewart Kidd, Miller, returned, unlike many of his peers.

Armistice Day, November 11th, seems a fitting time to remember some of the people who lived and worked at Barry Mill, and became caught up in the turmoil of the Great War.

Stewart was one of six sons born to William and Fanny Kidd, who married November 28 1873, William, born in Blairgowrie, was a farm servant, but joined the railway as a pointsman, later promoted signalman. Fanny was born in Kirkmichael.  Stewart’s younger brother Edward followed him into milling and both worked at Barry Mill for a time. One can only imagine the heartache of Mrs Kidd as she bid farewell to all six of her enlisted sons.

Stewart and Edward joined the 13th Battalion, The Scottish Horse Yeomanry, The Black Watch (Scottish Highlanders). Their unit was involved in fierce fighting in Salonika, and later in France. We believe that none of the brothers were killed in action, which is something of a miracle, given the enormous and tragic loss of life during the conflict.

With every leave-taking, there comes a homecoming, at least for the lucky ones. Our two Barry Mill brothers would have come home to a very different country. They may have found their personal circumstances greatly altered too. Families bereft at the absence of the younger generation would have coped in the best way they could. Relatives may have died, sweethearts moved on. We know that Stewart married  Jessie Dempster on his return, three months before the Armistice. Their son, William was born in 1920, but sadly died in his first year.

The changing face of life on the land after the war is a theme poignantly explored in Lewis Grassic Gibbon’s Sunset Song. We paid tribute to his work in a special event at the mill in 2014, and hope to hold something  similar next year.The book was recently voted Scotland’s favourite novel, and it seems appropriate to end with a few words about Long Rob of the Mill, who, on the eve of war, argued fiercely against joining up:

‘For Long Rob had never come back to the Mill. It had fair been a wonder him joining the soldiers and going off to War the way he did – after swearing black was blue that he’d never fight, that the one was as bad as the other, Scotch or German….He’d been one of the soldiers they’d rushed to France in such hurry when it seemed the German childes were fair over us, and he’d never come back to Kinraddie again, just notice of his death came through and syne a bit in the paper about it. You could hardly believe your eyes when you read it…Well that was the Mill, all its trade was gone’

 

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…’

Grimm Reading…

I recently came across an intriguing and rather dark tale, thanks to writer and blogger Dawn Geddes.

“You’ll love it,” she promised. “It has a mill and an apple tree in it!”

Since the mill is currently surrounded by apples of every variety, what better season to share with you this Grimm (and very grim) fairy tale, ‘The Girl with No Hands’ (Grimm, 1857).

In the story, a poor miller is offered riches by the devil in exchange for ‘what lies behind the apple tree’. Presuming the devil wants to get his hands on the mill, the miller accepts and everything within his house transforms into gold. His wife, upon returning from the market, flies into a rage. Their only daughter has been sweeping under the apple tree all afternoon. When the devil shows up again to claim his due, the girl washes herself and draws a chalk circle on the ground so that she cannot be taken. Frustrated, the devil demands that the father keep all water away from her, because the water is more powerful than he. The girl then uses her tears as a charm to ward him off. Outwitted, the devil demands that the father chop off his own daughter’s hands….

There are many versions of this tale, and you can read some of them here: ‘The Girl Without Hands’.

The poet W. H. Auden famously declared that fairy tales are ‘among the few indispensable, common-property books upon which Western culture can be founded . . . it is hardly too much to say that these tales rank next to the Bible in importance’.

According to Melissa Ashley, of the University of Queensland, this particular story is both ‘important and resilient’. Records show that ‘The Maiden without Hands’ narrative is rated as having one of the highest levels of cross-cultural circulation. Traditional variants number into the thousands and have been recorded throughout Europe: Italy, the British Isles, France, Spain, Romania, Ireland and Germany, each country sporting several dozen examples. The story circulates in Russia, India, Canada, Mauritius, Brazil, Chile, South Africa, Scotland, Iraq, Iceland, Armenia, Nigeria, and Japan. An Indigenous Australian version exists, and contemporary variants have been collected in the US, South America, and Africa.

I would be very interested to find out more about the Scottish version of this tale, and how it fits within the native landscape. The enchanted nature of water is something which recurs frequently in mill-related folklore and poetry, and apple trees, of course, have their own mythic heritage.

For some moody and atmospheric images of the landscapes which inspired the Brothers Grimm, have a look at the website of Kilian Schönberger.

I’ll leave you with a picture from closer to home; a mill and an apple tree…

mill and apples