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

Mill Gothic

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…

mill-window
‘Gothic…where the exterior and the interior collide…’

Even Grimmer reading…

Last week’s rather Grimm tale; The Girl With No Hands, provoked quite a bit of interest, so I set myself the task of finding a more local version. Surely there must be a Scottish rendering of the story, complete with mill and apple tree? If you thought last week’s offering was dark and blood-thirsty, read on!

My research took me back many centuries. The earliest literary version of The Maid Without Hands can be found in the Vita Offae Primi, which was composed at the end of the twelfth century. The setting for this story is the ancient Kingdom of Northumbria, and the miller’s daughter becomes the daughter of the King of York. Fleeing her father’s lustful intentions, the girl is rescued by Offa, a legendary King of the Angles. In the tradition of all good fairy tales, the couple settle down and have children. Some years later, Offa is called upon to fight alongside the King of York and together they celebrate a great victory. Offa’s message to his wife (presumably, stick the kettle on, I’m on my way home ) is sabotaged by the evil father, and Offa’s men, back at base, receive instead an order to march the family into the forest and cut off their hands and feet. The mother and children are saved in the nick of time by an elderly hermit, and are reunited with Offa. I’m sure they lived happily ever after…

Interestingly, the Girl with No Hands narrative is a favourite among the storytellers of the travelling community, where it seems to have been adopted from the Gaelic tradition. No mills here, but an apple does feature in the tale. This version, ‘Daughter Doris‘ ( be warned-it’s particularly dark) was collected by the  School of Scottish Studies in 1955. A wandering piper called Davie Stewart was busking outside The Blue Blanket pub in Edinburgh’s Canongate, when he was invited to share some of his stories with the School.

In the absence of a mill in the above tales, I’ll finish with a story about an apple. At Barry Mill, we have a heritage orchard featuring many indigenous Scots varieties, including  ‘Bloody Ploughman’, which  has a very interesting tale behind its name. Legend has it that, in the late nineteenth century, a ploughman was caught stealing apples from the estate where he worked (Megginch  is often mentioned) and was shot dead by the gamekeeper. His grieving wife was given the bag of apples but discarded them on the ‘midden’, where a solitary seedling emerged. The seedling was rescued and named in memory of – The Bloody Ploughman. Bloody-Ploughman-385-x-385

The fruit of this beautiful old variety is a brilliant deep blood red. When fully ripe the inner flesh becomes stained with pink.

So an apple with a legend all of its own. Next week, given the season, I’ll take a closer look at the mythology of the apple…

 

Grimm Reading…

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….

There are many versions of this tale, and you can read some of them here: ‘The Girl Without 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…

mill and apples

 

Another Time and Place…

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.

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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…

 

Living in Harmony with (our artistic) Nature

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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