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!

 

 

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…

 

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.

 

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

The year begins…

Having been granted an award by Creative Scotland to enable me to undertake a creative residency at Barry Mill, Angus (please see the About page for all my thank yous!) I am really looking forward to the challenge of the coming year.

As part of this project, I will be delivering five community writing workshops, documenting reactions to, and interactions with, the mill and its environs. I suspect this is not going to be a task for the faint-hearted. Not only is there a certain level of expectation surrounding my own work, but I’m also conscious of the weight of almost 500 years of history at my back! I have to do the mill justice in terms of the wealth of literary tradition associated with it.

But for my first post in the Barry Mill Blog, let’s begin at the beginning, and like most good things in life, this idea/project/mission begins and ends with a book…

Book number one is Sir Walter Scott’s Minstrelsy of the Scottish Border, which was first published in 1802,just twelve years before Barry Mill was rebuilt after a catastrophic fire. At that time, the meal mill was an integral part of the community, processing oats, mainly; a grain which, according to Dr Johnston,  ‘in England is given to horses, in Scotland generally supports the people’. With a mill in every village, and possibly at every crossroads, it is unsurprising that mill life features heavily in Scottish literature, and I’ll blog more about that in the future. The piece which caught my eye in Scott’s collection is ‘The Cruel Sister’, a version of a border ballad which describes the rivalry between two sisters. Their argument over a suitor escalates and ends tragically on the banks of the mill pond. But I’ll come back to that too.

Curiosity aroused and inspiration tweaked, I set about plotting my own version of this narrative. As a writer who likes to explore themes of landscape and atmosphere, I didn’t have too far to look for the perfect setting.

Which brings us to book number two; my second novel, The Bone Harp. Set in and around a fictional version of Barry Mill, the book uses the traditional tale of ‘The Cruel Sister’ to explore a dark narrative of modern relationships, sibling rivalry and betrayal.

Like the novel, this blog is really a story within a story. This is the story of the  making of The Bone Harp; a journey through the creative process in the most inspirational of landscapes.

Let’s begin…