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!

 

 

 

 

 

A Tale of Two Sisters

It’s January already, which means that the end of my creative residency at Barry Mill is almost in sight. A good time, then, to reflect on how it’s gone so far, and what’s still left to do.

I was determined to finish my second novel The Bone Harp by the end of 2016, and I just made it! It’s taken about a year to shape this first draft, and I’ve been very lucky to be able to devote so much time to it. Without the generous support of Creative Scotland, I certainly wouldn’t have been able to immerse myself  quite so deeply in the project. I’ve spent an amazing few months just being around the mill in all its moods; and observing how visitors react to and interact with the building and its environs. My reflections have been recorded in these posts (it will be interesting for me to re-read them!), so I’ll turn my attention to the main purpose of the residency, which was to write my second novel. This week, I thought I would take a look at the inspiration behind the inspiration- the story of the Two Sisters.

‘Two Sisters’, or ‘Twa Sisters’ in the Scottish version, is a murder ballad, which was in itself inspired by an old folk tale, the origins of which are unclear. Versions can be found in many folk traditions, especially those of Scandinavia and Eastern Europe.I first encountered the ballad while browsing through my own collection of dusty old books. Sir Walter Scott collected a version of it in his 1868 Border Minstrelsy.

The premise is dark; a callous pre-meditated act motivated by jealousy and spite. Two sisters go down to a pond, lake or the sea, and the older one pushes the younger one in. There are many variations on this theme, but generally there is a man involved, and the older sister feels rejected or betrayed. One sister is described as dark, the other fair, making the obvious distinction between good or evil. In the Norse variants, the older sister is compared to soot, and the  other to the sun or to milk.

In most versions the younger girl drowns, but guilt has consequences. When the murdered girl’s body floats ashore, someone makes a musical instrument out of her bones and hair, generally a harp or a fiddle. This is then taken to the sisters’ parents by a third party, quite often a miller, in those versions where the mill pond features in the drama. The harp plays unaided and ‘sings’ of the older daughter’s guilt.

A Scots Gaelic version, ‘A’ Bhean Eudach‘ or ‘The Jealous Woman’  has the older sister murdering her sibling while she is sleeping by knotting her hair into the seaweed when the rocks are exposed at low tide.

Many contemporary folk musicians have been inspired to record versions of the tale.Canadian singer and harpist Loreena McKennitt’s song ‘The Bonny Swans‘ is a pastiche of several traditional variants of the ballad. In this version, the miller’s daughter mistakes her sister’s corpse for that of a swan. The Irish group Clannad has a version titled ‘Two Sisters‘  on their album Dúlamán. Just click on the song titles to have a listen. Bob Dylan performed “Two Sisters” in the late 1950s and early 1960s, and even recorded an impromptu version in a friend’s apartment. The much-recorded folk song ‘The Wind and the Rain’ is a further variant on the theme.

In The Bone Harp, I’ve used the narrative as a  backdrop to a modern psychological thriller, a story of two present-day siblings. I think the tale resonates with us because it’s dark and twisted and still very relevant. How many of today’s crimes are motivated by jealousy and resentment? Our base nature never changes. We just keep thinking up new ways of repackaging that truth!

In the coming months, I will be looking into further ballads, poems and stories associated with mills and milling, so ‘follow’ this blog for updates!

A Tyrant Spell

Last time, we took a look at some of our more extreme Scottish Yule/Hogmanay customs, and our desire to banish the dark and the cold with blazing logs, bright candles and huge bonfires. New Year Rituals are all about fending off the unknown and the uncontrollable. 

This week, it’s the turn of the dark and the cold to take centre stage! 

 “It’s far too mild for this time of year. It just doesn’t feel like Christmas/ January.” I bet you’ve heard that complaint a lot recently! We seem to have a deep need to experience the sort of atmospheric conditions we associate with the  season. Should January be dreary to match our melancholy post-festive mood? It’s all a bit of a chicken-and-egg scenario, but this close link between our psyche and the natural world has long been exploited by writers to add texture and meaning to their work. 

‘Pathetic fallacy’ is a rather old-fashioned term for lending human attributes to inanimate objects (The ‘cruel’ sea, for example). This has been developed in modern literature to include the use of abstract phenomena to reflect human mood and emotion. Storms, rain, moonless nights, floods- whatever natural event you can think of can be used as a mirror for human angst. This is a powerful device and synonymous with Romantic and Gothic literature. The following poem by Emily Brontë  (the recent BBC drama To Walk Invisible is a must-see) demonstrates the deeply intuitive interaction (and power-struggle, perhaps) which takes place between human and nature. The chill that runs through it is palpable.

 

Spellbound

The night is darkening round me,
The wild winds coldly blow;
But a tyrant spell has bound me
And I cannot, cannot go.

The giant trees are bending
Their bare boughs weighed with snow.
And the storm is fast descending,
And yet I cannot go.

Clouds beyond clouds above me,
Wastes beyond wastes below;
But nothing drear can move me;
I will not, cannot go.

                            Emily Brontë (1818-1848)

Emily was the middle sister of the three most famous sisters in the history of English Literature. (Her oldest sister was called Charlotte; Anne was the youngest; and she had a brother called Branwell). All of them died tragically young.

 

My own task during my creative residency here at the mill has been to observe this setting in all of its seasons. I have written extensively about the summertime, when the mill is open to the public. I have facilitated many workshops where the community has been invited to react with the mill and its landscape. We have lots of images of children enjoying the environs, writing fairy stories and having picnics,

But in the bleak mid winter all that stops. What is the mill like when the lights are off and the doors are bolted? When the only human interaction is between the imagination and the dark?

I’ve included a short extract from The Bone Harp, my second novel (first draft just completed) which takes as its setting a fictionalised version of Barry Mill. This has been made possible by the combined generosity and support of Creative Scotland and the National Trust for Scotland.

In this passage, protagonist Lucie, having fallen in love with someone she shouldn’t have fallen in love with, has reluctantly ended the relationship…

 

I don’t like it down here when dusk starts to fall. I don’t trust this landscape where the trees crackle with secrets, and the water smells wild, and the midges and the bugs and the birds take on a new urgency. I get up from the bench. Walk, and keep on walking. The path is littered with snails which crunch beneath my feet, making me wince with every step. As the rain starts again I tell myself to go indoors, crack open the Pinot Grigio and watch something crap on the telly. Something that doesn’t include beginnings or endings. A sparrow swoops too close, the vibration of its feathers a frantic chord that tears at my nerves and I break into a half-jog. The urge to keep moving is overwhelming, as if my own hurt, my disappointment, is woven into the fabric of the place and I’m caught up in its cobwebs. Skirting past the mill, I find myself heading up towards the road, negotiating the rough track in my unsuitable sandals, not knowing, not caring where I’m going. I’m hunched up, hugging myself, and the rain is slick and cold on the exposed parts of me. I close my eyes as I walk, tilting my face to the rain.                                                                      

(An extract from The Bone Harp by Sandra Ireland)

Hopefully you will have the opportunity to find out more about Lucie in 2017. Meanwhile you can read my debut novel Beneath the Skin , which is equally dark and creepy!

 

 

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

The Goldfinch

This week I was privileged to spot a very rare bird.

Carel Fabritius’ ‘The Goldfinch’(1675) alighted in Scotland in November and will fly back home to  the Royal Picture Gallery Mauritshuis, in The Hague, this month. So for a short time only, this iconic painting can be viewed at the Scottish National Gallery in Edinburgh.

goldfinch
The Goldfinch by Carel Fabritius, 1675.

 

The painting has never before been shown in Scotland, and has been exhibited in the UK on only a handful of occasions.

Fabritius’ depiction of a pet goldfinch chained to a perch is subtle yet exquisite. Finches have been highly prized throughout history for their melodious song. In Holland, goldfinches were popular pets, kept in captivity attached to a chain, and trained to perform tricks. The goldfinch is depicted at the centre of many iconic Madonna and Child paintings, sometimes ‘chained’ to the baby Jesus with string or something similar. Like the robin, the distinctive splash of red on its feathers is attributed to it giving succour to Christ on the Cross.In the goldfinch’s case, the bird is said to have drawn a thorn                                                                                                                 from his brow.

In Fabritius’ painting, the goldfinch’s understated loss of liberty is made all the more poignant by the fact that the artist lost his life to a freak gunpowder explosion in Delft in 1675, just months after he completed this work. Immediately, the painting takes on an almost premonitory quality. Donna Tartt, using it as the key to her Pulitzer Prize-winning novel, The Goldfinch ( Abacus, 2014), must have felt this too. Her protagonist, Theo, is caught up in an explosion with tragic consequences that will have a bearing on the rest of his life. The painting inspired me to read this excellent novel, and it was a real struggle to put it down in order to write this!

I’m intrigued by the connection between art and place. To view this painting and then rediscover it within the pages of Tartt’s novel adds an extra frisson to both creations.

As always, there is an unexpected link to my Barry Mill residency here. In my second novel, The Bone Harp, my central character Lucie, is repelled by birds. The insistent beating of their wings represents for her a particularly chilling sort of music. Goldfinches are frequent visitors to the mill grounds, and I have tried to include many such tangible links to setting within my own work.The first draft of the novel is almost finished, so hopefully one day soon you will get the opportunity to find out more! I will leave you with a short passage from my work-in-progress:

It’s barley, I can see that now. That last time, when the sky was low with rain and mist, only the green edge of it was visible, but now acres and acres lie before me. A vast tawny fur, shifting in the breeze, and beyond that the sea. It’s tipping over into full golden ripeness. Not long now. I let my fingers trail through the wiry whiskered ears of corn and it needles my skin. The tall fibrous stalks are straight as soldiers, and there’s sharp edge to the path, where the plough scored the earth just six months ago. Only six months ago I’d arrived here, intent on breaking new ground.

Goldfinches dart in and out of the hawthorn. Their wings go  thrip thrip thrip against the leaves, a noise like someone plucking strings. It unnerves me. I should go back, but I’m mesmerised by the rise and fall of the barley- it’s like the whole field is breathing. I want to plough into it, feel it surround me, and I’m so unnerved by the notion that I take a step back,and fall heavily…

                                                   From The Bone Harp (unpublished) by Sandra Ireland

henriette-browne
A Girl Writing; The Pet Goldfinch by Henriette Browne 1870.

 

My debut novel Beneath the Skin (Polygon) is out now, and is available from all major book outlets.

Poltergeist in the machinery

As I’ve mentioned before, one of the most rewarding parts of my residency has been connecting with other Scottish artists working in many different genres. At first glance, the work of some may seem far removed from the daily life of a 200 year old watermill, but uncovering areas of  commonality is always a challenge and a joy.

Stephen Watt is a Scottish poet and spoken word artist. He is the author of the poetry collections Spit (Bonacia, 2012) and Optograms (Wild Word Press, 2016), Dumbarton FC Poet-in-Residence, and several-time slam poet winner. I met Stephen at that fine festival of crime, Bloody Scotland, when we were both selected to take part in this year’s ‘Crime in the Spotlight’ programme; a series of mini-events designed to showcase the talents of the next generation of crime writers. I think it’s fair to say that both Stephen and myself have quite tenuous links to crime. Our literary interest lies more with dark deeds, perhaps, and the psychology of evil. The similarities in our work became apparent when I listened to his latest opus.

Stephen is one half of Neon Poltergeist, a Gothic-inspired collaboration with sound engineer Gareth McNicol. Their recently-released EP is an alchemy of spoken word, eerie music and chilling sound effects. The poems are an often-disturbing exploration of some dark characters, both historic and modern, including John Sage (‘Dragfoot’), the torturer of Edward Longshanks; Edward Mordrake, cursed with a second face on the back of his head, and the Moors Murderer, Ian Brady.

The EP’s title, 55.862670 -4.231142 (and I had to ask!) are the coordinates for the Glasgow Necropolis. This struck an immediate chord with me, because it locates these haunting words to a specific site; renders the content a kind of Gothic geo-poetry. It also ties in very neatly with the themes of folklore, location and the land that I’ve been exploring throughout my residency.

For me, this EP is an exciting concept, opening up new avenues of collaboration in terms of the mill landscape and its legends.Throughout the coming months, I will be conducting research into traditional mill poetry and the ballad tradition. The fusion of traditional words with a modern sound is an interesting one, and  the creak and grind of the machinery in the mill has been used on several occasions as a backdrop to  musical and spoken word events. I think Barry Mill would certainly lend itself to Neon Poltergeist’s bold new interpretation of traditional forms!

In the meantime, click here to listen to ‘Edward Mordrake’…but not with the lights off…

 

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’