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.

box of books
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!

 

weir-d walk fairies
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!

 

twosisters
The Bone Harp, a novel based on the ballad of the Two Sisters. Watch out of dark deeds by the mill pond!

 

Mill Women, Part 2

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.

women-of-dundee.jpg
Women of Dundee, Verdant Works

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,                                                               writing

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,                       miller

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 rhymes associated 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:

 

‘Merry may the maid be

that marries the miller                                                             Women_at_the_Quern

for foul day and fair day

he’s aye bringing till her;

Has aye a penny in his purse

For dinner and for supper;

And gin she please a good fat cheese

And lumps of yellow butter.’

 

mill and apples

Concerning Spring

I wonder if the sap is stirring yet,

If wintry birds are dreaming of a mate,

If frozen snowdrops feel as yet the sun

And crocus fires are kindling one by one:

Sing, robin, sing;

I still am sore in doubt concerning Spring.

                                        Christina Rossetti

 

Yesterday, at the Mill, I watched a robin settle amongst the snowdrops which grow in profusion along the mill-lade and recalled this poem. Christina Rossetti knew a thing or two about the Bleak Midwinter, but yesterday the sun was shining with the promise of spring, and lots of walkers were out enjoying the peace and serenity of the mill landscape.

The snowdrop (Galanthus nivalis) is one of the most eagerly-awaited flowers, heralding the beginning of British Springtime, although ‘February’s flower’, is not native to this country. There appears to be no record of snowdrops growing wild in Britain before 1770, and the first garden reference is in Gerard’s Herbal of 1597. However, it’s colour and modest demeanour have earned it a special place in our hearts and in our folklore.

It is, of course, considered to be the first flower of spring, symbolising purity and the cleansing of the earth after winter. Having been propagated originally as a garden plant, escapees were quick to colonise woods and river banks, giving the impression of ‘wildness’.

If you find snowdrops growing wild, take a closer look at the landscape. The flowers frequently appear where once a dwelling stood, as the bulbs are generally scattered by birds scratching for food. It is thought that monks may have brought snowdrops to Britain from Italy in the 15th Century, as the flowers are frequently found in the gardens of old monasteries.

Because of their presence in monastery churchyards, snowdrops share with other white flowers a folklore that suggests bad luck will befall those who bring them into the house. There is a suggestion that to do so would be to steal the flowers from the dead. In his Flora Britannica (1996), Richard Mabey records that in some parts of the country single flowers were given as death-tokens, and indeed the laying of a single flower upon a grave has become a poignant trope in literature and cinema.

According to legend,snowdrops first appeared when Adam and Eve were driven out of the Garden of Eden. They found themselves in a land of permanent winter, and were consoled by an angel, who promised that, even in a bleak and barren landscape, spring would surely follow winter. As a token, he blew upon some falling snowflakes which, upon touching the ground, were transformed into snowdrops. In this way, hope was born. Ever since then, snowdrops have appeared during the bleakest winter weeks as a sign of the better times to come.snowdrops-on-lade

Happy Fester E’en!

First comes Candlemas,                                                              pancakes

Syne the New Mune.

The first Tyseday efter that

Is aye Fester E’en.

This old poem reminds us of another traditional Scottish holiday which has been ‘lost’ with the passage of time.

Fester E’en, or Fastern’s, as the lines suggest, was observed on the ‘first Tuesday of the Spring light’, and  finds its modern equivalent in our more familiar Shrove Tuesday or Pancake Day. It was essentially the last Feast Day before the Fast of Lent, and medieval Scots were expected and encouraged to take part in games, which included ‘tourneying, mumming and othere festivities’[i].

For ordinary folk, this usually amounted to a fiercely-fought ball game through the village, with teams determined by trade, location and marital status. You might be on the ‘Uppies’ or the ‘Doonies’ side, depending on which end of town you lived in, or the married men’s team versus the bachelors. (Sorry, no girls allowed, but that may have changed!) Versions of these games still survive in Jedburgh (the Jethart Ba’) and Kirkwall (Kirkwall Ba’).

As always, there is a fascinating  mill connection! The Duns Ba’ has been held in the Border town since the earliest times, and the ‘goals’ were originally the Kirk pulpit and the Mill hopper!  Check out The Dunse History Society for a full description, but here is an interesting snippet from a Victorian account:

‘The opposing parties were married and single men. The goal for the former was the Parish Church, which was left open for the purpose, and one of the Mills in the Parish for the single men. Those reaching the mill with a ball were dusted by the miller as proof of their success. The prizes were for the Kirking or Milling of the first ball 1/6d., the second 1/- and the third 6d.’

An earlier, anonymous account of the event written in 1833 records:

‘The parties however rarely met on equal terms. The young men spent with previous exertions [ i.e. drinking before the game] were no match for those fresh opponents [married men] and not infrequently ended in their being plunged in the mill-lade. If however in spite of all opposition the mill-hopper was fairly reached the game was won and then came the honours. The miller entertained them with pork and dumplings and what was of far more importance dusted them especially their hats with flour. Like the laurel wreaths of other regions this marked them out for the gaze of their fellow townsmen.’

In the evening celebrations were held. These are described in a poem by R. M. Calder, the Polworth poet;

An’ then the ba’ men wi’ thir friens
Adjourn tae some ane o’ the inns
Where lang syne yarns the landlord spins
On what he’s done and seen
And when the noise and din hae ceased
Then pork and dumplings crown the feast
Washed doon wi’ toddy o’ the best

Is this a custom we could revive in Barry? Now there’s a thought!

jethart-ba

[i] F. Marian McNeill. The Silver Bough. Vol 1, ( Maclellan, 1957)

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.

quern-find

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

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