Finella and Bella: a tale of two women

Recently I was asked to deliver a workshop at a local event on the topic of myth. Myth, folklore…it’s all grist to the writing mill! I chose for my theme a little known gem of a story from St Cyrus; the story of Finella, who killed a Scottish king. I’ve been greatly inspired by the woodcuts of acclaimed Scottish artist and printmaker Sheila MacFarlane- view them here, and learn more about Finella:!the-finella-prints/c1slr

I asked the participants to re-imagine the myth in their own way. In brief, the tale is as follows: Finella was a tenth century, Angus-born noblewoman, a huntress, whose only son was sentenced to death by King Kenneth II. In order to exact revenge, Finella lured the king to a remote cottage in Fettercairn, where she murdered him with a crossbow. On the run from the king’s men, she entered the woods near St Cyrus (now known as the Den of Finella) and jumped to her death from the top of the waterfall.

Rare orchids now bloom in that location.

Curiously, many of my workshop participants seized upon that almost inconsequential fact and wove their own symbolic and startling narratives. In one piece of work, the flowers become imbued with the spirit of Finella. In another, the blooms reach out across the centuries and connect generations.

I suppose we are continually creating our own mythologies from the remains of the past, both collectively and individually.

Although Finella’s name rarely appears in the chronicles of her time, closer to home, another young woman has left her mark for us to find. If you look closely enough in the Barry Mill basement, the name’ Bella’ can be seen inden of finellascribed on the timber in a neat, schoolgirl’s hand. Showing this to a group of writers is always a rewarding experience. At my recent Midsummer Magic writing workshop, one of the participants captured the ‘voice’ of Bella perfectly, imagining her as a turn-of-the century mill child.

I will be including Bella in my next novel The Bone Harp, where she will make her presence felt through that writing on the wall. I love the idea of the past colliding with the present, and the intriguing overlap of art and life.

Pictured: A terrifying leap- Finella’s waterfall.

Walking with rabbits and butterflies…

Week two of my residency, and a few thoughts about my first community event: The Weir-d Walk. It was to be a long and winding road- literally!

Since part of my remit in organising these workshops is to  evaluate how we react to, and interact with, the landscape, I’d carefully planned an ‘itinerary of inspiration’, with various writing prompts and a tale or two to tell at each stop along the way. An impressive number of keen ‘story-gatherers’ were able to join me on the day.

The purpose of the walk was to explore how our ancestors mapped out the land around them in terms of stories and poems, and to find out if we could, individually, create some new work from these traditional forms and ideas. The den at Barry Mill has something for everyone; running water, woodland, steep banks and the beautiful mill pond. Untamed yet strangely alluring, it’s easy to see how that hill, or this particular tree could provoke a response in our forebears. Taking a fleeting impression (an image, a scent, an awareness) and turning it into a piece of art- as humans, that’s surely what we’re about.

My head was full of questions. Have we lost our ability to be scared by certain features of the landscape – the man-shaped tree, the unfathomable pond, the misshapen rock? Do we still fine-tune our senses to deal with what we might encounter out in nature, or has our overuse of screen technology finally managed to separate us from our habitat?

So, what did I learn? My first challenge was how to tailor my content to suit 20 participants, ranging in age from 3, up to…well, I couldn’t possibly say. Oh, and we had a dog too. The adult/child divide very quickly became apparent. Grown-ups and kids are just not on the same wavelength, but this insight proved to be the most valuable lesson of all.

When it comes to creativity, here are my thoughts:

Adults are rabbits. All eyes, ears and twitching whiskers; we grown-ups are constantly and cautiously scanning our surroundings. We’re intuitive, sensitive, picking up on  strange atmospheres and nuanced body language. Amazingly, a faint scent, or a vague memory can send us hurtling back in time.

Most people never feel the need to process this data. However, to write/paint/compose music effectively, this is the information we need to begin.

Children are butterflies  Their minds  are constantly flitting from impression to impression. They’re conduits for every tale they’ve ever been told, a bank of words and images. Ask them to describe a witch, or a fairy, or a giant and the words are already there- uncensored! As adults, we learn to think before we speak. We are constantly editing our responses, shaping them into a society-friendly format.

It’s obvious, and very interesting, that children are informed by the books they have access to, and in many ways this is the essence of how the oral folkloric tradition works: old stories in…new stories out. Kids are proper little story mills, adding ‘feet and legs’ to the narratives they know and love, and this is  exactly the way our ancestors transmitted cultural information.

It’s exciting to think that our Weir-d Walk children might go on to develop their own versions of some of our mill-related folk tales, and I’ll discuss these in more detail in my next post. I’m sure our Weir-d Walk adults found their own inspiration in the den, and at the very least were infected by the kids’ enthusiasm! Children, after all, are our best teachers.

And the dog? He just came along for the walk!

weir-d walk fairies
The Weir-d Walk, Barry Mill, June 4th, 2016