As Barry Mill gears up for another weekend of Easter Egg hunting, it seems like eggs-actly the right time to look at the origins of Easter and why we associate it with eggs!
One of our most enduring customs here in Scotland is the ‘rolling of the eggs’, usually carried out with great excitement on Easter Sunday. While writing my current book (Grist! The Life, Lore and Landscape of the Scottish Watermill, to be published later this year by Little Toller Books) some great memories of my own childhood at my Gran’s cottage in Carnoustie came flooding back:
‘ I remember my great aunt spending the days before Easter Week dying hard boiled eggs and carefully packing them back into their boxes to be brought out with great excitement on Easter Sunday Morning. Without doubt, those beautifully coloured eggs were as magical as the chocolate variety. She had a tiny cupboard with drawers where she kept little vials of food colouring. She also used beetroot, tea and onion skins, boiling the eggs for ages in a big iron pot. Once the eggs had been carefully handed over, we went out into the (very flat) garden to roll them. It’s actually better if you can find a hill! The aim was to crack the shell of someone else’s egg, and once all the shells were successfully bashed, you were free to tuck in. I always remember the egg white being as tough as rubber, but very delicious!’
(From Grist! The Life, Lore and Landscape of the Scottish Watermill, 2019).
My Gran always reminded us that rolling our eggs represented the rolling of the stone away from Christ’s tomb, but during my research, I came across the following custom, associated with Beltane, which is remarkably similar. Beltane was, of course, one of the great Celtic Fire Festivals and would have occurred a little later, around May 1st. It symbolised the return of the light to the earth, and children were often given eggs to bake in the hillside bonfires. No doubt, as children do, they would have had great sport rolling them down the slopes.
Eggs are ancient symbols of new life and rebirth, which chimes well with the Christian celebration of the resurrection of Jesus, but Easter actually takes its name from the pagan goddess Ostara.
Jacob Grimm ( of fairy tale fame), writing about Easter in the 19th century, pointed out that the Old High German adverb ôstar “expresses movement towards the rising sun”, as did the Old Norse term austr, and potentially also Anglo-Saxon ēastor.
Whatever your Easter holds, have fun, and hopefully you’ll join us at Barry Mill for one of our eggstraordinary egg hunts!
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!
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.
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!
In the last few months, I’ve been spending time looking at the landscape, and reactions to it, in terms of the sort of mythologies and folklore which respond to our need to understand our exterior world. As the year turns, and the days get shorter, the evenings darker and colder, it seems fitting that my thoughts should turn to the ‘shift’ which happens when the environment becomes more than just a backdrop; when our exterior and interior worlds collide and the setting begins to mirror our own anxieties and negative emotions.
This has been prompted in some ways by a chance comment (The Scotsman described my debut novel Beneath the Skin as ‘Stockbridge Gothic, which I like a lot!), and also by the fact that I’ve reached a critical stage in the writing of my second novel.
‘The wind has changed’, to quote Mary Poppins (odd choice of reference, true, but I’ll explain next time, even though M.P. NEVER explains anything ), and in my work-in-progress, a sudden storm provides the catalyst for the simmering resentments and preoccupations of the characters to break through the surface. This is underpinned by a darkening of the atmosphere; the setting becomes a hostile entity.
In many ways, this is a Gothic cliché, but it is a cliché because it resonates with us. As humans, we are susceptible to minute changes in atmosphere. Fear is a result of our perception (real or imagined) of a shift occurring within our context, an unexplained ‘otherness’. Gothic is what happens when the setting bites back. For more of my thoughts on the idea of ‘the Uncanny’, check out my personal blog here.
Throughout my residency, I’ve had a great opportunity to observe the daily life of the mill; its times of quiet, and of chaos. From a single volunteer silently cataloguing the past, to hundreds of people enjoying a social event, the mill is in constant flux; comings and goings, arrivals and leavetakings. Can the thoughts, feelings and motivations of those associated with any building, past or present, leave an indelible energetic thumbprint? Individuals can be acutely conscious of ‘atmosphere’. How many times have you ‘felt’ the residual effects of an argument in a room, even when the row is over? Any environment is a sponge to these effects, and ‘writing the Gothic’ requires the writer to be just a shade more sensitive than most…
Any thoughts? Next time, I’ll be looking at this idea in more detail…
I recently came across an intriguing and rather dark tale, thanks to writer and blogger Dawn Geddes.
“You’ll love it,” she promised. “It has a mill and an apple tree in it!”
Since the mill is currently surrounded by apples of every variety, what better season to share with you this Grimm (and very grim) fairy tale, ‘The Girl with No Hands’ (Grimm, 1857).
In the story, a poor miller is offered riches by the devil in exchange for ‘what lies behind the apple tree’. Presuming the devil wants to get his hands on the mill, the miller accepts and everything within his house transforms into gold. His wife, upon returning from the market, flies into a rage. Their only daughter has been sweeping under the apple tree all afternoon. When the devil shows up again to claim his due, the girl washes herself and draws a chalk circle on the ground so that she cannot be taken. Frustrated, the devil demands that the father keep all water away from her, because the water is more powerful than he. The girl then uses her tears as a charm to ward him off. Outwitted, the devil demands that the father chop off his own daughter’s hands….
The poet W. H. Auden famously declared that fairy tales are ‘among the few indispensable, common-property books upon which Western culture can be founded . . . it is hardly too much to say that these tales rank next to the Bible in importance’.
According to Melissa Ashley, of the University of Queensland, this particular story is both ‘important and resilient’. Records show that ‘The Maiden without Hands’ narrative is rated as having one of the highest levels of cross-cultural circulation. Traditional variants number into the thousands and have been recorded throughout Europe: Italy, the British Isles, France, Spain, Romania, Ireland and Germany, each country sporting several dozen examples. The story circulates in Russia, India, Canada, Mauritius, Brazil, Chile, South Africa, Scotland, Iraq, Iceland, Armenia, Nigeria, and Japan. An Indigenous Australian version exists, and contemporary variants have been collected in the US, South America, and Africa.
I would be very interested to find out more about the Scottish version of this tale, and how it fits within the native landscape. The enchanted nature of water is something which recurs frequently in mill-related folklore and poetry, and apple trees, of course, have their own mythic heritage.
For some moody and atmospheric images of the landscapes which inspired the Brothers Grimm, have a look at the website of Kilian Schönberger.
I’ll leave you with a picture from closer to home; a mill and an apple tree…
This week, I’ve had the perfect opportunity to observe how people react to Barry Mill. As part of my Creative Scotland residency, I held a Folklore and Memory drop-in event, with the intention of documenting a range of memories, anecdotes and stories. My challenge is to consider these responses, and use them as a literary resource on which to draw.
I was ably assisted by fellow writer Elizabeth Frattaroli, who sat outside for hours with a pile of questionnaires and a pot of coffee (plus shortbread for the purposes of bribery). She proved to be amazing at encouraging confidences; soon both locals and visitors (one all the way from California) were reminiscing merrily.
I had hoped that anyone who remembered the mill when it was still open for business might come along and share their stories. I was keen to learn about the operation of it, or perhaps hear some anecdotes about past millers, either from Barry or elsewhere. In the main, however, our tales came from those who remembered the mill den as being ‘our own private play park’, a place of adventure far away from the adult gaze. The stories we collected can be seen in our ‘mill door gallery’ (see image). I love this snippet from ‘Sheena’:
There was a special place beside the weir; a tree shaped like a hammock. I would spend hours there as a little girl, when I wanted time on my own away from my brothers and sisters. I’d sit and watch the waterfall, and the little wrens. Once I saw a kingfisher and watched it come and go along the water for ages.
As a writer, this is wonderful material. It provides a great visual image to aid the imagination- the waterfall, the tiny darting birds and the odd-shaped tree- but also says so much about this little girl, and her chaotic home life. This illustrates perfectly the link between landscape, mood and character; a connection I’m keen to explore further.
The final words go to Elizabeth, who has discovered for herself the power of the setting:
I didn’t grow up here, but I discovered the mill last year and come here often. The place is so peaceful and calming. When you walk down the steps, it’s as if a weight has been lifted and you find yourself away from the hustle and bustle of normal life. There’s nothing like standing in the sun at one with nature, listening to the running water and the birds and the trees. Barry Mill can transport you to another time and place…