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 next 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!

fairy signs

 

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.

iceland

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!

sheaf-2

 

 

 

Keep the Bone Fires Burning

It’s October. The nights are drawing in, the days are a bit raw and the shops are full of pumpkins. You don a scarf and gloves to walk the dog and when you step outside, the air is laced with the gunpowder scent of bonfires…

Which brings me rather neatly to bones! Indeed, I’ve spent the last two days writing about bones, but I don’t want to reveal any spoilers. The title of my second novel The Bone Harp might be a tiny clue.

How do bones connect bonfires and mills? Well, the word bonfire appears to comes from the Middle English bonefire, bonefyre or banefyre ‎(“a fire in which bones were burnt”). We also have the Scots word banefire. The Oxford University Press blog refers to a definition by Thomas Fuller, a 17th c.writer and etymologist.

“I meet with two etymologies of bonfires. Some deduce it from fires of bones, relating it to the burning of martyrs. But others derive it (more truly in my mind) from boon, that is good, and fires, whether good be taken here for great, or for merry and cheerful, such fires being always made on welcome occasions.” Thomas Fuller  (1660)

But that’s enough of the merry and cheerful. In some parts of Britain, according to the 1725 book Antiquitates Vulgares; or, the Antiquities of the Common People the ritual burning of animal bones was used to mark various saint’s days, such as the Vigil of St Joan, but evidence suggests that the burning of bones was a Druidic practice connected with Celtic festivals such as Beltane, and the Solstice. This is explored in the cult film The Wicker Man (1973), with its themes of pagan effigy-burning and human sacrifice.

So from bone-fires to bone mills! My research has brought me into contact with Narborough Bone Mill in Norfolk. The good folk there have kindly allowed me to use the images below, and I must confess to being fascinated with the process of milling bone. It is so far removed from what we do here at Barry Mill, and yet there is a connection. There would have been many bone mills throughout Dundee and Angus, as bonemeal was considered a top fertiliser (and indeed still is), and bones are notoriously difficult to dispose of…

But let’s slip back a century, and take a look at Narborough.

When in operation the mill was used for rendering down bones from local slaughterhouses and from the whaling industry, with bones transported up the River Nar by barge from the blubber-processing factory at South Lynn. After 1821, no whaling ships left Lynn, so the mill had to rely partly on collections made by the ‘bone wagon’ from local farms. (Remember the ‘rag and bone’ man?) Villagers would sometimes take a ‘penn’orth of bones to be ground’, just as Barry locals might once have taken small parcels of peas and beans to be ground at the cornmill.

As always, I’m eager for a dark side, and it didn’t take me long to find it.Some shiploads arriving at Lynn would allegedly include exhumations from German burial grounds with no questions asked. There was a saying that ‘one ton of German bone-dust saves the importation of ten tons of German corn.’ Recent excavations at the mill have uncovered a human skull, which  Radiocarbon dating shows to  759 years old. Incredibly,this person would have lived in about 1257 when Henry lll or Edward l were on the throne, and Kings Lynn was known as Bishops Lynn.

The bonemill at Narborough has received a substantial grant from the Heritage Lottery Fund, which will be used to repair and conserve the remains of the mill and tell the stories behind its historic significance in the area.Click here to find out more.

And Barry Mill is a water-driven corn mill and has never been used to grind bone. As far as we know… Happy Halloween.

 

 

Ghost Mill

In my previous post, I was discussing the sort of energetic footprint we leave behind, when we live/work/visit a specific setting. Animals slip so quietly through the world, betrayed only by the faintest of markers: scent, sound, tracks in the earth and so on. Happily for writers, humans are not so subtle!

As adults, our perception of place is invariably skewed by experience, memory and expectation. A setting cannot exist in isolation from its human inhabitants.

We are noisy, clumsy, territorial and aggressive and it’s easy to imagine a residual trail of such behavioural memories staining the fabric of a place. Or perhaps buildings, in the true Gothic sense, mirror our own thoughts, feelings and fears, reflecting them back at us, rather than recording them.

However we choose to interpret the dynamic between setting and character, the relationship is integral to any complex psychological drama.

I find poetry helps me to understand my own impressions of place. There’s something about the immediacy of  the form that allows me to distil my own feelings into the right words. In attempting to convey a sense of continuation, and the overlapping of layers of time, I came up with the following poem:

                                                                       Ghost Mill

The wheel turns.

 

Dust falls from every wormhole;

every sandstone pore. Spores slacken

with the thump and thrum;

the din of timber.

The mill exhales, expands,

loosening old lives

like buttons on a waistcoat.

 

The wheel turns.

 

Shapes shift in the dark;

sparks blue as eyes;

the scent of old smoke.

The re-formed flour ghosts

of old men settle

beneath the faint silver of

their names.

 

The wheel turns.

 

The damsel in the machinery,

skirt dappled with

pawprints, slack-jaws gossip

down through generations;

until the past

meshes with the present.

 

On and on.

 

And still…

 

the wheel turns.

 

Sandra L. Ireland, 2015

 

puddle-mill

 

 

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…

 

Territory and Tribe

Staying with the theme of ‘getting away from it all’ (see last week) I’ve been in Edinburgh again, mingling with the Bookish People. They’re definitely a separate tribe, recognisable by a certain faraway gleam in the eye and a slow, stooping gait as they struggle from the book shop with enough reading material to see their days out. Helpfully, the Ed Book Fest organisers are now issuing a free bag with every book purchase, presumably to encourage you to buy more!

One of my highlights this year has been ‘A Journey to Authenticity and Belonging’, featuring Sharon Blackie . Her new book, If Women Rose Rooted, chimes with many of my observations and thoughts  in relation to the landscape and how we interact with it. Using indigenous myth and folklore, Blackie lays down a blueprint for a more authentic and sustainable future. Her themes of rootedness and belonging resonate strongly with me in terms of my residency here at the mill.

In addition to my own creative workshops, there are other events taking place throughout the season at Barry; the main one being Music @ the Mill. Now in its eighth year, this is a music festival which is very family-oriented in character. Last weekend, we had over 600 revellers in the mill grounds, completely transforming the usual serene quality of the setting. A sense of community prevailed, however, and I took the opportunity to speak to the locals about their memories of and feelings about the mill.

What came across was a deep affection for the place, and a strong sense of identity associated with it. Some of the festival-goers had never visited before, but had strong family links; others told me that they experience a sense of being ‘at home’ when they walk in the mill den. In her talk, Sharon Blackie discussed notions of belonging, and how we can have an innate attachment to a place even if we don’t live there, or are an ‘outsider’; a relationship without ownership.

The following extract is from If Women Rose Rooted by Sharon Blackie:

‘Once we were native to our own places; once we belonged. There is a Gaelic word for it […] in Irish the word is dúchas; in Scottish Gaelic, dùthchas. It expresses a sense of belonging to a place, to a certain area of land; it expresses a sense of rootedness, by ancient lineage and ancestry, in the community which has responsibility for that place.’

The mill has been firmly rooted at the heart of the community for centuries (‘Barry’ has existed in some form for almost 800 years) so it seems reasonable to suppose that this ancient connection between mill and landscape; kith and kin is an indefinable and inextinguishable force, an energy still very much in evidence.

Book festival or music festival: pick a tribe…

Next week, I’ll be looking at what particular challenges this idea sets up for me, as I draft my second novel, The Bone Harp.

 

Stories and Stone Circles

Everyone encounters the urge to ‘get away from it all’ from time to time, but for me, that means leaving behind the peace and solitude of Barry Mill and picking up the pace a little!

Edinburgh during the Fringe is as far as you can get from Barry Mill…or is it?

The festival city is a melting pot of culture, art and ideas The Old Town teems with tourists and street performers, musicians and mime artists, while the New Town goes all continental on us; locals sipping wine under the stars, hugging the patio heaters, to a distant backdrop of bagpipes and fireworks.

Strangely, despite the allure of all this mayhem, I found myself in a stone circle on Calton Hill. Regent Road Park boasts the most fantastic views over Salisbury Crags, with the Scottish Parliament and Dynamic Earth buildings nestling in the valley below. The circle is comprised of representative rocks from every area of Scotland.

I loved this cryptic ‘sword-in-the-stone’ type of message (‘Whose the tread that fits this mark?’) and, of course, the Angus Stone (right)

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It made me think a lot about how the landscape can not only inspire our stories, but be used in the telling of them- an objective, no doubt,for the original stone circle builders: our ancestors.

We have a ‘quiet garden’ close to the mill, a circular patch of grass with a tree in the centre. I’m certain it would lend itself to a  feature such as this. I can imagine words scored into stone or poetry etched on wood.

Barry Mill and the bright cultural lights of the city- perhaps not so far apart at all!
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It made me think a lot about how the landscape can not only inspire our stories, but be used in the telling
of them- a familiar aim for the original stone circle builders, I’m sure.

We have a wonderful spot
at the mill, a quiet circular lawn with a tree in the centre, which would
lend itself to a such a feature. I can imagine words scored into stone or poetry etched on wood. Barry Mill and the bright cultural lights of the city- perhaps not so far apart at all!

 

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