Water, wood and stone: the inspirational fabric of the land

Tonight sees the final session in Finding Inspiration Through Folklore, a series of community workshops supported by Creative Scotland. We will be holding a sixth and final evening with story-sharing, music and song next month. More details to follow!

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ELLIE ROOK CUPCAKES!

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Things have been so busy recently, with the upcoming launch of my third novel The Unmaking of Ellie Rook (Polygon) that there hasn’t been time to update the blog on a weekly basis.

However, let’s take a look at what we’ve been doing over the last few weeks.

 

 

 

In Week Two we looked to the woods for inspiration and shared some stories inspired by trees and forests. Remember that old recording of  ‘The Teddy Bear’s Picnic?’ The song has been referenced in dozens of films and TV productions- often very unlikely ones such as Fear and Loathing in LA, Peaky Blinders and various psychological horror films. This is a prime example of society making its own mythology, placing an innocent children’s rhyme within an inappropriate or dangerous setting.

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This gives us the distinct feeling that something is ‘off’- it is disorientating and ‘uncanny.’

 

The uncanny is the psychological experience of something as strangely familiar, rather than simply mysterious. Although Sigmund Freud wasn’t the first expert to discuss this phenomenon, he did attempt explain it in terms of the ‘home.’ He claimed that the word comes from the German Heimlich, or ‘homely’, so ‘Un-Heimlich’ means the act of meeting something unexpected on familiar territory, either physically or mentally.

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This tree at Cramond, Edinburgh, looks like it’s waiting to trap the unwary…

No discussion of the forest could be complete without reference to my own favourite story, The Erl-King by Angela Carter. Carter certainly viewed fairy tales as a way of exploring ideas of how things might be different. “My intention was not to do ‘versions’” she wrote, “or, as the American edition of the book said, horribly, ‘adult’ fairy tales, but to extract the latent content from the traditional stories and to use it as the beginnings of new stories.”

For me, this is what is so inspirational about folk tales. They grow in scope and importance with each telling; every generation finds a new relevance and as creatives we have a chance to ‘make it new’.

In Week Three we looked at ‘what lies beneath’ and acclaimed local storyteller and musician Ken Johnston came along to share his take on the world of water, from selkies and kelpies, to the shipyards and fisher lore. Such an interesting evening!1C4BAFF1-294E-4DA4-9A5B-495913B8107F

Week Four was all about the fabric of these islands. Are you a beachcomber of a rock-climber?  Most folk will admit to having a little obsession with stone in one form or another.

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Hagstones or Witchstones, thought to offer protection against magic, sorcery and the undead

‘Certain natural rocks and boulders, appealing to the untutored imagination, were believed to be living objects with power to help or hurt mankind.’

~ J.M.McPherson, Primitive Beliefs in the Northeast of Scotland

Our ancestors took the stone obsession to a whole new level. In the Middle Ages ‘stone worship’ was condemned by the Church and among the acts of heathenism banned by King Edgar in the tenth century. It had little effect. It’s easy to see how certain stones of quirky appearance became the subject of superstition and folk belief.

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Clach-na-Charra nr Ballachulish. Holed stones were particularly magical

This week, we’ll be looking at the characters to be found in folklore. From witches to trolls and everything in between- they all have a story to tell…

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The Kelpie, by Thomas Millie Dow (1848-1919)

 

 

 

 

Happy Easter!

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!

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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.easter egg 2

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!

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Telling the truth

Having just completed my fourth novel, I’ve now thrown myself into the writing of Grist: The Lore and Landscape of the Scottish Watermill. (Little Toller Books). I’m discovering that writing non-fiction is a very different experience to creating fiction.writing

Novel writing can be a lonely experience because you’re very much inside your own imagination. It’s so subjective What if readers don’t share your vision- what if they don’t ‘get’ it? I think this is a question that haunts all fiction writers. When I was working on my debut Beneath the Skin, such concerns were far from my thoughts. I was crafting something new, saying what I wanted to say, but there’s nothing like reading your first reviews to put things in perspective! At some point, you realise you have crossed the line from ‘writer’ to ‘professional author’, and the pressure is on to marry your creative ambition with the demands of the marketplace.

This week, I caught up with freelance journalist and author, Dawn Geddes. Dawn produces articles for publications such as the People’s Friend and is Book Correspondent for the Scots Magazine. She is currently working on a supernatural novel for young adults, so how does she juggle both?

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“Flitting between journalism and fiction work can be difficult, because you’re using a very different muscle. With non-fiction, you have the truth firmly by your side and you’re weaving your own path through it all to give the readers an account which is both fascinating and factual. You still have to grip your audience and hold on to them, but you can never stray from the truth, which is a real skill in itself.  With fiction writing you get to play around so much more and really flex those creative muscles. In lots of ways I find it much harder. There are still ‘rules’ to follow, but I get to build my own worlds and tell my own truths which is incredibly satisfying.”

 

I have to agree with Dawn- fiction means more freedom, but so far I’m thoroughly enjoying my foray into non-fiction. Perhaps because I’m telling other people’s stories, and it’s not so personal, my new project doesn’t seem to be sparking quite the same self-doubt and trepidation as a novel! As soon as I open the file entitled ‘GRIST WIP’ I am transported to a lost age of country miles and jute sacks.

I have confidence that the past is such a fascinating place to visit, you’ll come to love the world of the watermill as much as I do! Look out for further updates…

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Grist to the writing mill!

I haven’t posted here for a while. Re-reading these articles reminds me fondly of my creative residency at Barry Mill, a time of knowledge gained, research collected, tales told. It was a special time, one when my second novel Bone Deep slowly took shape in the shadowy corners of the old mill.

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Two Sisters launch books

Time has moved on. Bone Deep, published by Polygon, can be acquired in the usual formats  from all the usual outlets, and will soon be available to readers in India, Germany and the US! It will  be joined on the shelves next July by another psychological thriller, The Unmaking of Ellie Rook, also from Polygon. To keep up to date with developments and events, browse my website https://sandrairelandauthor.com  .

But back to the mill! I’m currently researching and writing a non-fiction book about the landscape and folklore of the Scottish watermill, which will be published by Little Toller Books   this year. This has been made possible by the generous support of Creative Scotland.I’m uncovering lots of interesting little snippets, which I’d like to share with you on the Barry Mill Blog, so- all you lovers of forgotten folklore, hidden histories and landscapes with just-out-of-sight stories- this is for you!

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My recent visit to Iceland Noir (put it in your diary for 2020!) made me think a lot about light. Sunrise was typically around 9.30 am in Reykajvik, with nightfall about 4pm. Cloud cover means that daylight is in very short supply. Icelanders seem to embrace it, with fairy lights and candles everywhere. All the waterways in Reykjavik seem to twinkle with ethereal dancing reflections.

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How easily we can flick a switch and banish the shadows. All manner of digital screens distract us from the dark.But what of our forebears? Any study of the living arrangements of those folk, so like us, is thought-provoking and often difficult to imagine. How about this observation of Scotland in the 17th century?

‘We laid in a poor thatched house, the wall of it being one course of stone, another sods of earth, it had a door of wicker rods, and the spiders’ webs hung over our heads as thick as might be.’

Christopher Lowther, 1629

(from T.C.Smout’s A History of the Scottish People, Fontana, 1998)

 

I don’t like the dark; I don’t see very well in it and the absence of light makes me nervous, so I don’t know how I’d cope with being left in utter blackness once the sun goes down. No wonder stories around the fire took on such huge significance and meaning. In Bone Deep, one the of main characters, Mac, speaks of the ‘civilised circle of light’, beyond which the dark forces of nature are lying in wait. Imagine the utter terror of children as they’re bedded down for the night, folktales still fresh in their imaginations. Maybe they were made of sterner stuff!

How did people possibly see to mend their nets or card their wool? How about a lamp fuelled by fish livers?

Also from Smout’s ‘History’, Osgood Mackenzie, the creator of the gardens at Inverewe, remembers the Highland upbringing of his parents and grandparents. Everything was done by candlelight, paraffin being unheard of in the pre-war years. Tin lamps, which burned fish-liver oil, were sometimes purchased from travelling ‘tinkers’, but bog-fir splints, or torches, full of resin were the mainstay for those struggling with daily chores. It was the children’s job to collect and stack them in a corner of the cottage, ready to be lit when additional light was needed.

Until next time- wishing you lots of light!

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Panbride Mill

A chance find in the mill archive sent me on a mission to Craigmill Den this week. I was looking for inspiration for this year’s Weir-d Walk – and I promise to tell you more about it next time- but first, a wee digression.

This old cutting from The Courier (date unknown) shows  Panbride Mill, which sat at the head of Craigmill Den in times gone by. This photograph was taken before the start of WWI in 1914, and according to the article, the building had fallen into disuse at that point.

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I headed up there recently to see if I could find this same view. As you can see from this shot, the cottage on the left survives, but the mill has not.

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Like the burn at Barry, this stretch of water (originating in Monikie) served not only this mill, but the Panbride Bleachfields (now David Murray Transport) further downstream. Locally-produced linen was bleached here. The Weir, channels, sluices and lades which fed the pond in the grounds of Panbride House can still be found in Craigmill Den. What I find fascinating is that the sea originally came up much higher, and the mouth of the Craigmill Burn was wider, and used as a harbour for Roman ships bringing supplies to local garrisons. The remains of a Roman camp have been found in the fields to the east of the burn.

 

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Craigmill Burn from the top of the weir

 

The small mill in the photograph would have been a corn mill, like Barry. There must have been a dam, perhaps on the high ground at the back of the cottage, with enough of a fall to power the wheel. There’s a deep dip in the ground where the wheel channel must have been situated, but no trace remains of the tail race, where the water would have rejoined the burn. I suspect improvements to the footpath have altered the location considerably.

I was determined not to leave without finding some evidence of the old place, and I did indeed discover a pile of moss-covered stones between the trees.

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A deep hollow covered in weeds
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A single stone leads to a whole lot more!

 

It’s so sad when our heritage, however humble, however redundant, ends up as a pile of rubble. If only stones could talk! Are the old millstones buried here somewhere? I suppose we’ll never know, but I can’t help thinking we have lost something precious. Certainly, anyone who has heard the rumble of the machinery at Barry Mill, and the splash of the waterwheel, will agree with me.

All the more reason for me to keep writing about it! I’ve uncovered a lot of fascinating folklore and facts over the last year, and I’m keen to include them all in a new non-fiction book. If anyone has anything they’d like to share, whether it’s family history or interesting stories connected with the local landscape, I’d love to hear from you!

You can contact me at sandrairelandauthor@yahoo.co.uk

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.

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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.

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‘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.

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