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

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

More Yule Musings

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

From A Yule Feast by William Beattie

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

I’m sure they canna’ but be weet;

Hae, set them up on this bit peat

Anent the cutchack;

An’, Tibby, bring him ben some meat,

Ye senseless smutchack!

 

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

An’ that will make a’ right within;

Syne, Tib, I trow ye’ll need to rin

Forth to the stack

For peats, the roast will be ahin’;

An’ haste ye back.”

 

The Christmas Mill

Barry Mill recently held its first ever Christmas Fayre, complete with Santa’s Grotto and vintage get-away car for the main man and his elfish helpers! A Victorian theme was chosen for the event; a typical Dickensian Christmas, but it got me thinking about how the festive season would have been celebrated in rural communities when the mill  was still very much a part of village life.

There is no doubt that the mill would have been the setting for occasional festivities in its day. In her book The Scottish Country Miller, 1700-1900, Enid Gauldie points out that it the days before the village hall, the mill was dry, warm and the most spacious building in the neighbourhood- perfect for a large gathering. The miller would provide the fare; generally grain-based. Perhaps a mill bannock; a large, millstone-shaped oatcake, baked on a bed of burning oat husks in the kiln hearth. There would be ale and music, and possibly dancing, but curiously the best feasts were a reward for work done, to celebrate a time of hard labour; the ‘winning home of new millstone’, for example, or  harvest home. Christmas, it would seem, has never been a traditional Scottish holiday.

I remember my own grandmother, a Dundee jute weaver, being slightly bemused at the ‘turkey and trimmings’ custom of the English holiday. She might heat up a steak pie, but otherwise the day went by unobserved. As a child growing up in England, I found this curious, and always felt a bit sad for her. Until her retirement at the age of 70, all her Christmas mornings were spent at work. The jute mill would close at midday, to allow the women more time with their families, but Hogmanay and Ne’erday (Jan 1st) were the traditional days of celebration in the winter calendar.

It was only while researching this post that I learned the reason for this. Up until the Reformation in 1560 ( Barry Mill would have been on its present site for over fifty years at that point), Christmas was an important religious Feast Day, but due to its association with the Roman Catholic Church, the Kirk dismissed it as a ‘Popish’ festival. In 1640, the Scottish Parliament banned the Yule holiday. Despite protestations, this ban lasted for 400 years. December 25th only became a public holiday in Scotland in 1958, followed by Boxing Day in 1974.

All this sounds a little depressing in the run-up to our own festivities, so next time, I’ll look at what was happening in the countryside before the ban- the Celtic celebration of Yule. Perhaps I’ll even find a mill connection!santa-at-the-mill