Water, wood and stone: the inspirational fabric of the land

Tonight sees the final session in Finding Inspiration Through Folklore, a series of community workshops supported by Creative Scotland. We will be holding a sixth and final evening with story-sharing, music and song next month. More details to follow!

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ELLIE ROOK CUPCAKES!

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Things have been so busy recently, with the upcoming launch of my third novel The Unmaking of Ellie Rook (Polygon) that there hasn’t been time to update the blog on a weekly basis.

However, let’s take a look at what we’ve been doing over the last few weeks.

 

 

 

In Week Two we looked to the woods for inspiration and shared some stories inspired by trees and forests. Remember that old recording of  ‘The Teddy Bear’s Picnic?’ The song has been referenced in dozens of films and TV productions- often very unlikely ones such as Fear and Loathing in LA, Peaky Blinders and various psychological horror films. This is a prime example of society making its own mythology, placing an innocent children’s rhyme within an inappropriate or dangerous setting.

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This gives us the distinct feeling that something is ‘off’- it is disorientating and ‘uncanny.’

 

The uncanny is the psychological experience of something as strangely familiar, rather than simply mysterious. Although Sigmund Freud wasn’t the first expert to discuss this phenomenon, he did attempt explain it in terms of the ‘home.’ He claimed that the word comes from the German Heimlich, or ‘homely’, so ‘Un-Heimlich’ means the act of meeting something unexpected on familiar territory, either physically or mentally.

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This tree at Cramond, Edinburgh, looks like it’s waiting to trap the unwary…

No discussion of the forest could be complete without reference to my own favourite story, The Erl-King by Angela Carter. Carter certainly viewed fairy tales as a way of exploring ideas of how things might be different. “My intention was not to do ‘versions’” she wrote, “or, as the American edition of the book said, horribly, ‘adult’ fairy tales, but to extract the latent content from the traditional stories and to use it as the beginnings of new stories.”

For me, this is what is so inspirational about folk tales. They grow in scope and importance with each telling; every generation finds a new relevance and as creatives we have a chance to ‘make it new’.

In Week Three we looked at ‘what lies beneath’ and acclaimed local storyteller and musician Ken Johnston came along to share his take on the world of water, from selkies and kelpies, to the shipyards and fisher lore. Such an interesting evening!1C4BAFF1-294E-4DA4-9A5B-495913B8107F

Week Four was all about the fabric of these islands. Are you a beachcomber of a rock-climber?  Most folk will admit to having a little obsession with stone in one form or another.

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Hagstones or Witchstones, thought to offer protection against magic, sorcery and the undead

‘Certain natural rocks and boulders, appealing to the untutored imagination, were believed to be living objects with power to help or hurt mankind.’

~ J.M.McPherson, Primitive Beliefs in the Northeast of Scotland

Our ancestors took the stone obsession to a whole new level. In the Middle Ages ‘stone worship’ was condemned by the Church and among the acts of heathenism banned by King Edgar in the tenth century. It had little effect. It’s easy to see how certain stones of quirky appearance became the subject of superstition and folk belief.

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Clach-na-Charra nr Ballachulish. Holed stones were particularly magical

This week, we’ll be looking at the characters to be found in folklore. From witches to trolls and everything in between- they all have a story to tell…

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The Kelpie, by Thomas Millie Dow (1848-1919)

 

 

 

 

Happy Easter!

As Barry Mill gears up for another weekend of Easter Egg hunting, it seems like eggs-actly the right time to look at the origins of Easter and why we associate it with eggs!

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One of our most enduring customs here in Scotland is the ‘rolling of the eggs’, usually carried out with great excitement on Easter Sunday. While writing my current book (Grist! The Life, Lore and Landscape of the Scottish Watermill, to be published later this year by Little Toller Books) some great memories of my own childhood at my Gran’s cottage in Carnoustie came flooding back:

 

‘ I remember my great aunt spending the days before Easter Week dying hard boiled eggs and carefully packing them back into their boxes to be brought out with great excitement on Easter Sunday Morning. Without doubt, those beautifully coloured eggs were as magical as the chocolate variety. She had a tiny cupboard with drawers where she kept little vials of food colouring. She also used beetroot, tea and onion skins, boiling the eggs for ages in a big iron pot. Once the eggs had been carefully handed over, we went out into the (very flat) garden to roll them. It’s actually better if you can find a hill! The aim was to crack the shell of someone else’s egg, and once all the shells were successfully bashed, you were free to tuck in. I always remember the egg white being as tough as rubber, but very delicious!’

(From Grist! The Life, Lore and Landscape of the Scottish Watermill, 2019).

My Gran always reminded us that rolling our eggs represented the rolling of the stone away from Christ’s tomb, but during my research, I came across the following custom, associated with Beltane, which is remarkably similar. Beltane was, of course, one of the great Celtic Fire Festivals and would have occurred a little later, around May 1st. It symbolised the return of the light to the earth, and children were often given eggs to bake in the hillside bonfires. No doubt, as children do, they would have had great sport rolling them down the slopes.

Eggs are ancient symbols of new life and rebirth, which chimes well with the Christian celebration of the resurrection of Jesus, but Easter actually takes its name from the pagan goddess Ostara.easter egg 2

Jacob Grimm ( of fairy tale fame), writing about Easter in the 19th century, pointed out that the Old High German adverb ôstar “expresses movement towards the rising sun”, as did the Old Norse term austr, and potentially also Anglo-Saxon ēastor.

Whatever your Easter holds, have fun, and hopefully you’ll join us at Barry Mill for one of our eggstraordinary egg hunts!

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Down the rabbit hole…

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).

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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.

arbroathTo 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!

 

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   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!

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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.

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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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Batty’s Den

Hello once again from the Barry Mill Blog! As the blog was originally set up as part of my Creative Scotland Residency,  now successfully completed, I haven’t posted here for a little while. My second novel The Bone Harp should hit the shelves early next year, but what to do with all that delicious research into mill life, lore and literature?

I have a plan! A non-fiction book of folklore and landscape, which will preserve some of those lovely heritage tales you’ve been kind enough to share with me. You will be able to follow my progress here, and I’ll share with you any snippets of interesting information that comes my way, plus all the Barry Mill news. I will post it on the mill’s Facebook pages, or you can become a blog ‘follower’, so you don’t miss anything.

Last week, I took a walk to Batty’s Den. Most Carnoustie/Muirdrum residents will know  the den as a rather wild place beloved of teenage campers (my own sons included, years ago). I’ve never been there myself, but intrigued by a few paragraphs in the late Annie Thompson’s wonderful book, Carnoustie, in Old Picture Postcards, I ventured forth.

The den has been greatly side-lined since the development of the dual carriageway, and it is seriously overgrown.

I couldn’t help but compare it with the mill den at Barry, and the picturesque Craigmill Den, so well -maintained by Angus Council. As I emerged scratched and nettled, it struck me that we are missing out on a wonderful natural amenity. The Scottish ‘den’ is such a big part of our landscape, and ‘wild’ space so rare, it would make sense to have a ‘den trail’ around the local area for families to explore.

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What does Miss Thompson say about Batty’s Den?

‘The name may come from Patie’s [water-driven] flax-spinning mill which operated here in the 19th c. In 1820, the minister of Panbride, writing in the Statistical Account of Scotland, complained that the mill employed young girls who would be better off at home, as their presence encouraged young men to loiter around the mill.’

Oh dear, women getting the blame again! Miss Thompson goes on to say that no trace of the mill remains, nor the hump-backed bridge in the photograph, but Batty’s Den ‘remains a charming, leafy spot, in spring filled with primroses and wood anemones’.

battys den

Den, dean or dene; (OE denu); n. a hollow with sloping sides, or a narrow, wooded ravine, often with rivulet. E.g. Den Burn (Aberdeenshire), Dean Village (Edinburgh), Denholm (Roxburghshire).

Lummesdene (mentioned c.1100); Botheldene, 1159; Ellesdene, 1218; Strikerden, 1275;Denside, 1304.

 

 

 

Panbride Mill

A chance find in the mill archive sent me on a mission to Craigmill Den this week. I was looking for inspiration for this year’s Weir-d Walk – and I promise to tell you more about it next time- but first, a wee digression.

This old cutting from The Courier (date unknown) shows  Panbride Mill, which sat at the head of Craigmill Den in times gone by. This photograph was taken before the start of WWI in 1914, and according to the article, the building had fallen into disuse at that point.

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I headed up there recently to see if I could find this same view. As you can see from this shot, the cottage on the left survives, but the mill has not.

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Like the burn at Barry, this stretch of water (originating in Monikie) served not only this mill, but the Panbride Bleachfields (now David Murray Transport) further downstream. Locally-produced linen was bleached here. The Weir, channels, sluices and lades which fed the pond in the grounds of Panbride House can still be found in Craigmill Den. What I find fascinating is that the sea originally came up much higher, and the mouth of the Craigmill Burn was wider, and used as a harbour for Roman ships bringing supplies to local garrisons. The remains of a Roman camp have been found in the fields to the east of the burn.

 

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Craigmill Burn from the top of the weir

 

The small mill in the photograph would have been a corn mill, like Barry. There must have been a dam, perhaps on the high ground at the back of the cottage, with enough of a fall to power the wheel. There’s a deep dip in the ground where the wheel channel must have been situated, but no trace remains of the tail race, where the water would have rejoined the burn. I suspect improvements to the footpath have altered the location considerably.

I was determined not to leave without finding some evidence of the old place, and I did indeed discover a pile of moss-covered stones between the trees.

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A deep hollow covered in weeds
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A single stone leads to a whole lot more!

 

It’s so sad when our heritage, however humble, however redundant, ends up as a pile of rubble. If only stones could talk! Are the old millstones buried here somewhere? I suppose we’ll never know, but I can’t help thinking we have lost something precious. Certainly, anyone who has heard the rumble of the machinery at Barry Mill, and the splash of the waterwheel, will agree with me.

All the more reason for me to keep writing about it! I’ve uncovered a lot of fascinating folklore and facts over the last year, and I’m keen to include them all in a new non-fiction book. If anyone has anything they’d like to share, whether it’s family history or interesting stories connected with the local landscape, I’d love to hear from you!

You can contact me at sandrairelandauthor@yahoo.co.uk

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.

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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!

 

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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!

 

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