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