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!

 

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!

 

 

Territory and Tribe

Staying with the theme of ‘getting away from it all’ (see last week) I’ve been in Edinburgh again, mingling with the Bookish People. They’re definitely a separate tribe, recognisable by a certain faraway gleam in the eye and a slow, stooping gait as they struggle from the book shop with enough reading material to see their days out. Helpfully, the Ed Book Fest organisers are now issuing a free bag with every book purchase, presumably to encourage you to buy more!

One of my highlights this year has been ‘A Journey to Authenticity and Belonging’, featuring Sharon Blackie . Her new book, If Women Rose Rooted, chimes with many of my observations and thoughts  in relation to the landscape and how we interact with it. Using indigenous myth and folklore, Blackie lays down a blueprint for a more authentic and sustainable future. Her themes of rootedness and belonging resonate strongly with me in terms of my residency here at the mill.

In addition to my own creative workshops, there are other events taking place throughout the season at Barry; the main one being Music @ the Mill. Now in its eighth year, this is a music festival which is very family-oriented in character. Last weekend, we had over 600 revellers in the mill grounds, completely transforming the usual serene quality of the setting. A sense of community prevailed, however, and I took the opportunity to speak to the locals about their memories of and feelings about the mill.

What came across was a deep affection for the place, and a strong sense of identity associated with it. Some of the festival-goers had never visited before, but had strong family links; others told me that they experience a sense of being ‘at home’ when they walk in the mill den. In her talk, Sharon Blackie discussed notions of belonging, and how we can have an innate attachment to a place even if we don’t live there, or are an ‘outsider’; a relationship without ownership.

The following extract is from If Women Rose Rooted by Sharon Blackie:

‘Once we were native to our own places; once we belonged. There is a Gaelic word for it […] in Irish the word is dúchas; in Scottish Gaelic, dùthchas. It expresses a sense of belonging to a place, to a certain area of land; it expresses a sense of rootedness, by ancient lineage and ancestry, in the community which has responsibility for that place.’

The mill has been firmly rooted at the heart of the community for centuries (‘Barry’ has existed in some form for almost 800 years) so it seems reasonable to suppose that this ancient connection between mill and landscape; kith and kin is an indefinable and inextinguishable force, an energy still very much in evidence.

Book festival or music festival: pick a tribe…

Next week, I’ll be looking at what particular challenges this idea sets up for me, as I draft my second novel, The Bone Harp.

 

Switching Off and Tuning In…

There was a stillness on the beach this morning that I’d never noticed before: no breeze, no chill, no threat of rain. Usually my daily- dog- walk head is crammed with endless ‘to-do’ lists, mental post-its and meaningless chatter, so to stand on the beach and focus on this absence was a real pleasure. The  day holding its breath, waiting to unfold.

So for today’s post- my thoughts on walking and silence and creativity. Inevitably, this is going to bring us back to monks…

Last week, I mentioned Balmerino Abbey, which first held the lands at Barry in the early Middle Ages. I’m fascinated by the suggestion that the original mill may have existed as far back as 1240. The unmade road which snakes its way past the mill cottages and over the old stone bridge was once part of the original road from Dundee to Arbroath. I can just imagine the slow, silent progress of the monks, perhaps with mules and wagons, as they journeyed from Balmerino to Arbroath Abbey.

The monks were part of the Cistercian Order, which undertook to live in a ‘spirit of apartness’ from all worldliness. They lived (and indeed still do) a life of contemplation, in solitude and silence.

In her book The Scottish Country Miller, Enid Gauldie explains that the ancient mills of monastic origin were carefully sited so that the lie of the land and the natural force of the water could be incorporated into the milling operation without too much human interference. This willingness to work in harmony with the natural world underpins the ethos of the Cistercians.

 

reading monk
‘Monk Reading’ at Hospitalfield, Arbroath

The monks can certainly teach us about what we now term ‘mindfulness’, a bit of a buzz word these days, but a valuable tool  in the quest for a calm and creative mind. In writing workshops, there tends to be a lot of discussion about ideas, images and perspectives, but I’m keen to discover how silence and contemplation can impact on the creative process.

In his 2007 Walking and Art Residency in the Canadian Rockies, artist Andrew Stuck began to explore the connectivity between art and meditative walking. He went on to found the Museum of Walking, which facilitates poetry walks and other events in the urban landscape.

For me, the slow rhythms and steady heartbeat of the mill have done much to highlight the negative impact of our current frantic pace. Our minds have not been designed to cope with an endless bombardment of  ringtones, bleeps and social media updates.

Maybe it’s time to switch off, and tune in…

Living in Harmony with (our artistic) Nature

As Barry Mill enjoys a busy summer season, my thoughts are turning to my personal writing goals, and how I can integrate my creative needs with the busy, commercial life of the mill. Barry Mill’s tagline is ‘Living in Harmony With Nature’, and there’s a balance to be achieved between the wildness and serenity of the landscape and the summertime buzz of visitors and activity. So, in many ways, the property reflects this conflict between our outer, materialistic life and the inner, otherworld of the mind.

My challenge is to achieve this same sort of balance- interacting with visitors and workshop participants on site, while still responding to the mill as a source of  inspiration and discovery for the purposes of my own writing.

My workshops to date have been an important personal learning opportunity for me. With writing exercises and creative prompts based around the senses, I’ve been aiming to open up a conversation about our perception of the environment. I’ve observed first-hand the way in which children can fuse their imaginative and day-to-day experiences, while adults struggle to lay down their cares and responsibilities long enough to attain that necessary ‘creative headspace’. There is a point where we must clear the mind of clutter, to create a vacuum where ideas, images and direction can take root.

Concentration is the keyword here, but it must be concentration of a certain quality which, in a roundabout way, brings me to monks. I suspect that monks (and nuns) knew a thing or two about the practice of creative concentration.

This week, I’ve been looking at the link between the monks at Balmerino Abbey and Barry Mill. The Abbey was founded in the early 13th century, and the site of the present mill formed part of the Balmerino estate. Corn mills would have been established wherever there was a settlement, so although official documents date Barry Mill from 1539, we can assume that there’s been a mill here for almost 800 years. Of course, historically, and realistically, it is doubtful whether the monks would have visited the mill for any practical purpose (perhaps they looked in on their way to Arbroath) but I can’t shake off the feeling that there’s a timeless, meditative quality to be experienced in the mill den.

Poet Jane Hirshman, in her essay collection Nine Gates: Entering the Mind of Poetry (1997) describes the ‘wholeheartedness of concentration’ as a place where ‘world and self begin to cohere’, a ‘grace state’, where ‘time slows and extends’. Total absorption, then, in the creative task. I’m keen to explore this link between the landscape and its impact on creative concentration, but for now, I’ll finish with a timely and evocative quote from Robin Wall Kimmerer. This is from her book, Braiding Sweetgrass: Indigenous Wisdom, Scientific Knowledge and the Teachings of Plants.

‘It came to me while picking beans, the secret of happiness… I snapped them off where they hung in slender twosomes, bit into one, and tasted nothing but August, distilled into pure, crisp beaniness.’ pangur

Illustration from The White Cat and the Monk, a retelling of the 9th century ode ‘Pangur Ban’ by Jo Ellen Bogart and Sydney Smith

A Long Way Down…

Another community workshop, and another chance to observe how people react to Barry Mill! This time the session was aimed at families, and the challenge was to collaborate on a poem or short story inspired by the five senses, although colour and memory could just about be allowed to sneak in there as a means to an end.

Lots of (very enjoyable) planning went into this one. Not only did we have the sounds and textures of the mill to play around with, but I’d smuggled in some outside help. Can you describe the piquant aroma of nutmeg or the fresh burst of mint and rosemary? We had art materials too…and the children soon got busy ‘chalk-rubbing’ (similar to brass rubbing but messier) the various surfaces to be found in the mill: the iron mesh of the kiln floor, the ridges and whorls of the slate flagstones, the pitted grittiness of the millstones. Very soon the kids resembled our legendary miller in last week’s poem, pale little chalk dust and flour ghosts!

But words came too! Lots of exciting poems, haiku and amazingly inventive stories. If I’d learned anything from that first ‘Weir-d Walk’, it was to expect the unexpected. Children have a very different take on their surroundings at times. I’d brought along magnifying glasses and torches, intending them to get ‘up close and personal’ with the mill; the silvery pencil inscriptions to be found on every bit of timber; the glittering cobwebs at the kiln window. They did enjoy that, but what interested me the most was their enjoyment of danger! Their conversation revolved around the big vistas- the sheer drop from our fairytale bridge (there ARE trolls underneath, in case you were wondering), the sensation of being pushed by the wind at the top of the outside staircase…and what if you fell down through the kiln floor into the fire pit?

What if…? Isn’t that the question that provokes the very best writing?

Until next time…watch out for trolls…

 

 

get creative workshop kids up tree