Querns and Candlemas

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!

 On Ash Eve

We shall have flesh

The cheek of henWomen_at_the_Quern

Two bits of barley

We shall have mead

We shall have spruce

We shall have wine

We shall have feast

We shall have harp

We shall have lute

The calm fair Bride will be with us

The gentle Mary mother will be with us

And the spirit of peace

And of grace will be with us.

snowdrops-on-lade

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

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

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

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.