In my previous post, we looked at the poetry of jute mill women in Dundee, and next time we’ll see how the poetry and song of the corn mill measures up, but first, a slight diversion!
A recent short break to Ireland piqued my curiosity about the Irish corn mill, so I set about interviewing my sons’ Cork-born Granny, Joan Ireland. What does she remember about the mills of her childhood?
Joan was born in a cottage at Clonbanin Cross, Co.Cork, a place which has entered the history books as the scene of a shoot-out between the volunteers of the Irish Republican Army and British soldiers from the East Lancashire Regiment. Brigadier- General Hanway Robert Cumming was killed in the skirmish, which happened on March 5th, 1921, just ten years before Joan was born. Her grandmother, who witnessed the ambush, liked to recount the story with a few extra details which never made it to the history books. When a wounded volunteer burst into their kitchen, the grandmother hid him in the cupboard under the stairs and pulled her chair across the door. When the authorities came looking for him, all they found was the old lady, calmly knitting… Who knows what happened to the fugitive, but such a fascinating story, and proof that family history is a fragile thing. Interview your own grandparents without delay- find out how they felt about the events of their day. It may well be a voyage of discovery!
I asked Joan what she remembered about the mills of her youth. She grew up in an all-female household: Granny, Mum and four sisters. With only her mother in work, money was scarce. They kept hens and grew vegetables, but milk and corn had to be purchased from the nearest farm. I can imagine the little girls hauling buckets of milk along the boreen. Accidental spillages were rectified with water from the well- they prayed that no-one would notice!
It was the girls’ job to take the corn to the mill (possibly on the handlebars of the bike) and return with a sack of flour. The miller would sift the flour for them, so they took it home in two parts: the soft white product for baking and a pail of gritty husks for the hens. Once home, the flour would be stored in an enamel bin, while the sacks were washed, bleached and hung over the hedge to dry. They would then be carefully cut open and sewn into bedsheets and pillowcases. Nothing was ever wasted.
I can’t find any evidence of the mill near Clonbanin, but below is a replica of a saddle quern, from the prehistoric reconstruction at Craggaunowen, and a photograph of Bruree Mill, Co. Limerick, which I used to pass daily on my way to work.
Yesterday, at the Mill, I watched a robin settle amongst the snowdrops which grow in profusion along the mill-lade and recalled this poem. Christina Rossetti knew a thing or two about the Bleak Midwinter, but yesterday the sun was shining with the promise of spring, and lots of walkers were out enjoying the peace and serenity of the mill landscape.
The snowdrop (Galanthus nivalis) is one of the most eagerly-awaited flowers, heralding the beginning of British Springtime, although ‘February’s flower’, is not native to this country. There appears to be no record of snowdrops growing wild in Britain before 1770, and the first garden reference is in Gerard’s Herbal of 1597. However, it’s colour and modest demeanour have earned it a special place in our hearts and in our folklore.
It is, of course, considered to be the first flower of spring, symbolising purity and the cleansing of the earth after winter. Having been propagated originally as a garden plant, escapees were quick to colonise woods and river banks, giving the impression of ‘wildness’.
If you find snowdrops growing wild, take a closer look at the landscape. The flowers frequently appear where once a dwelling stood, as the bulbs are generally scattered by birds scratching for food. It is thought that monks may have brought snowdrops to Britain from Italy in the 15th Century, as the flowers are frequently found in the gardens of old monasteries.
Because of their presence in monastery churchyards, snowdrops share with other white flowers a folklore that suggests bad luck will befall those who bring them into the house. There is a suggestion that to do so would be to steal the flowers from the dead. In his Flora Britannica (1996), Richard Mabey records that in some parts of the country single flowers were given as death-tokens, and indeed the laying of a single flower upon a grave has become a poignant trope in literature and cinema.
According to legend,snowdrops first appeared when Adam and Eve were driven out of the Garden of Eden. They found themselves in a land of permanent winter, and were consoled by an angel, who promised that, even in a bleak and barren landscape, spring would surely follow winter. As a token, he blew upon some falling snowflakes which, upon touching the ground, were transformed into snowdrops. In this way, hope was born. Ever since then, snowdrops have appeared during the bleakest winter weeks as a sign of the better times to come.
This old poem reminds us of another traditional Scottish holiday which has been ‘lost’ with the passage of time.
Fester E’en, or Fastern’s, as the lines suggest, was observed on the ‘first Tuesday of the Spring light’, and finds its modern equivalent in our more familiar Shrove Tuesday or Pancake Day. It was essentially the last Feast Day before the Fast of Lent, and medieval Scots were expected and encouraged to take part in games, which included ‘tourneying, mumming and othere festivities’[i].
For ordinary folk, this usually amounted to a fiercely-fought ball game through the village, with teams determined by trade, location and marital status. You might be on the ‘Uppies’ or the ‘Doonies’ side, depending on which end of town you lived in, or the married men’s team versus the bachelors. (Sorry, no girls allowed, but that may have changed!) Versions of these games still survive in Jedburgh (the Jethart Ba’) and Kirkwall (Kirkwall Ba’).
As always, there is a fascinating mill connection! The Duns Ba’ has been held in the Border town since the earliest times, and the ‘goals’ were originally the Kirk pulpit and the Mill hopper! Check out The Dunse History Society for a full description, but here is an interesting snippet from a Victorian account:
‘The opposing parties were married and single men. The goal for the former was theParish Church,which was left open for the purpose, and one of the Mills in the Parish for the single men. Those reaching the mill with a ball were dusted by the miller as proof of their success. The prizes were for the Kirking or Milling of the first ball 1/6d., the second 1/- and the third 6d.’
An earlier, anonymous account of the event written in 1833 records:
‘The parties however rarely met on equal terms. The young men spent with previous exertions [ i.e. drinking before the game] were no match for those fresh opponents [married men] and not infrequently ended in their being plunged in the mill-lade. If however in spite of all opposition the mill-hopper was fairly reached the game was won and then came the honours. The miller entertained them with pork and dumplings and what was of far more importance dusted them especially their hats with flour. Like the laurel wreaths of other regions this marked them out for the gaze of their fellow townsmen.’
In the evening celebrations were held. These are described in a poem by R. M. Calder, the Polworth poet;
An’ then the ba’ men wi’ thir friens
Adjourn tae some ane o’ the inns
Where lang syne yarns the landlord spins
On what he’s done and seen
And when the noise and din hae ceased
Then pork and dumplings crown the feast
Washed doon wi’ toddy o’ the best
Is this a custom we could revive in Barry? Now there’s a thought!
[i] F. Marian McNeill. The Silver Bough. Vol 1, ( Maclellan, 1957)
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!
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 week’s Barry Mill Blog post provoked quite a reaction. Many of you, like me, didn’t realise that Christmas Day and Boxing Day were not recognised holidays in Scotland until 1958 and 1974 respectively. That means, within our lifetimes, you might not necessarily have been guaranteed time off work over the festive season to spend time with your family. This week, I’ve been thinking about the 1640 Act which effectively banned Yule in Scotland- how did we celebrate the season prior to that, and has the emphasis always been on family and community?
Yuletide traditionally begins with late November’s Full Moon. Celebrations commence on the day of the Winter Solstice and continue for twelve days, up to and including New Year’s Day. ‘Yule’ invites many etymological explanations, but I like its association with the Old English iul, meaning ‘wheel’ ( from the Norse jhól). The Anglo Saxons loved wordplay, and this seems to suggest the turning of time. It also provides a very visual reference to the rising, or rebirth, of the Solstice sun.
Over the centuries, the Pagan festival of Yule has become inextricably linked with the Christian celebration of Christ’s birth, but the secular traditions of both seem to share the same Northern European roots. The fir tree, and the ‘bringing in of the outside’ in the form of evergreen branches, mistletoe, holly and the Yule Log are Germanic Celtic customs, which have been adopted and adapted over time.
In some parts of Scotland, the Yule Log (a symbol of everlasting light) was carved into the figure of an old woman, the Cailleach Nollaich. At dusk, the figure would be brought into the house and burned in the hearth; a farewell to the darkness of winter and to the Old Year. Similarly, the Yule candle was given a special place in the household. It was expected to remain lit throughout the festivities- if it was accidentally extinguished bad luck would ensue.
When we consider the rural calendar, this notion of a ‘beacon in the dark’ reminds us of a practice which was once so important that it was enshrined in early Celtic (Brehon) Law; the custom of offering hospitality to all. Hospitality meant a response to the physical need for food, shelter and protection, but also a recognition of the worth and common humanity of neighbours and strangers.
I’ll leave you with a couple of verses from a very apt poem I discovered on the Scottish Language Centre’s website. William Beattie was an Aberdeen-based poet, and a lesser-known contemporary of Burns. Christmas hospitality at its best, but let’s spare a thought for poor Tibby!
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.
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: