Monday, 29 August 2011

Some changes and tweaking

With the kids back at school and some time to myself again, I've started concentrating on writing and research in my spare time again. I spent most of the summer trying to come up with some ideas of what to do next but nothing's really inspired me yet. Instead, I kept coming back to the idea of cleaning up what's already there; some of the older stuff on the website is in need of tidying up and redoing, especially in light of the progress I've made elsewhere, and I decided that some reorganisation was in order, too.

Since I started on this incarnation of the website in 2008 I've added quite a lot of articles and it's getting really unwieldy. There's not really much I can do about that right now, but after the latest slew of articles focusing on the gods, spirits and ancestors, I've kept thinking they need to organised a little better so I've finally split them off from the Cosmology section where I originally stuck them, and put them in their own section titled 'Gods'. I've also moved my old dissertation on the Dagda, and the article on the Cailleach into that section, seeing as they come under that heading too.

The biggest changes are in the Introduction section, though. As time goes by my thoughts on certain things are solidifying, I suppose, and lurking around various parts of the internet as I do I've seen some questions come up repeatedly. I've also seen some comments on what I've already written (and have been 'accused' of being American on one site, which amused me greatly. I'm not sure which amuses me more, though - whether it's because it seemed like that would be a bad thing, or because they decided I 'sound' American...) and some good points were made, so I decided to expand on the 'Celtic' Reconstructionism? article to address those. Some of it's just trying to clarify or explain things a bit better. Some of it I've added in to try and address the questions I see popping up a lot - like the differences between CR and Druidry.

The Scottish Reconstructionism article that followed on from 'Celtic Reconstructionism' has now been renamed and reworked a little too. I decided to rename it to Gaelic Reconstructionist Polytheism to better reflect where I'm at right now (and had been thinking about doing it for a while) - a bit of a mouthful, but the 'reconstructionist' bit seemed necessary to distinguish it from other kinds of Gaelic Polytheisms that aren't reconstructionist, like Sinnsreachd. Terminology: It's complicated.

There are some minor tweaks to the next article that's still up there - How To Get Started - and for now there's another article I've taken down while I decide what to do with it...There's a lot more that needs doing over all, especially for the links section, but I need to figure out how I can do that properly.

As ever, comments are welcome...

Tuesday, 23 August 2011

Frankenstein's ancestors...

Now here's something that's really interesting for you...

Ten ago the remains of several mummified corpses were found during a dig on South Uist - something that was exciting enough on its own, perhaps, but not least because they were then found to date from the Bronze Age. The evidence suggested that the corpses had been deliberately mummified, and had been placed in a bog for at least a year before being removed and then kept for many generations before they were finally buried.

Aside from being unique at the time, the find was exciting on a number of levels - providing evidence on Bronze Age burial practice, giving clear hints at what was presumed to be ancestor worship, as well as the implications as far as a belief in an afterlife are concerned, amongst other things.

The bodies were identified as male and female. Recent testing, however, has revealed that the mummies are in fact composites, made up of several different individuals and not all of the same sex:

A team from the University of Sheffield first uncovered the remains of a three-month-old-child, a possible young female adult, a female in her 40s and a male under the prehistoric village of Cladh Hallan.

But recent tests on the remains carried out by the University of Manchester, show that the "female burial", previously identified as such because of the pelvis of the skeleton, was in fact a composite.

It was made up of three different people, and some parts, such as the skull, were male.

Radiocarbon dating and stable isotope analysis showed that the male mummy was also a composite.

Aside from there being implications in this new discovery as far as ancestor worship/veneration is concerned, it's also thought that:

"These could be kinship components, they are putting lineages together, the mixing up of different people's body parts seems to be a deliberate act," [Prof Parker Pearson] said.

(Somehow I doubt the various body parts came together by accident, so er, yeah...definitely deliberate). So not only is there possible evidence of ancestor worship here, the mummies could also be evidence of how social bonds were formed and maintained within a community - or one way in which that was done, at least. The find also raises some interesting questions about sex and gender in Bronze Age communities - is the mixing of sexes significant, relating to their function? Or perhaps the sex of the various corpses that were incorporated was incidental, and their status or role in the community was more significant...

Who knows. It's speculated that there are other mummies out there that may have been overlooked in the past - due to the state of their preservation, or whatever (once they're put in the ground, the mummified flesh wouldn't survive unless the conditions were just right, so you wouldn't necessarily realise that straight away). But given the fact that Bronze Age burial practice is something that seems to have continued into the the early Iron Age, there are some interesting questions there too.

Saturday, 20 August 2011

More on the Laois bog body

Following on from my previous post about the bog body from Laois...Good news everyone, it's not a woman, it's a sacrificed king! OK, it could be. Let's be clear on that.

What was originally thought to have been a pair of well-preserved female legs, with the rest of the body being in poor condition (having been placed in a leather bag), turns out to have been a mistake. Further analysis has shown that the body was simply in a very contorted position, and the 'leather bag' was actually the man's torso.

Naturally, it's now being speculated that this is a sacrificed king, as per The Golden Bough era of interpretation:

“Irish kings in the ancient period were replaced after a number of years. The old king would be sacrificed and a new king chosen. It ties in with their religious beliefs surrounding the solar deity (male) and the deity of the land (female). The king ties in with the solar cycle – the waxing and waning of the sun.

The idea was that the king was married to the sovereignty, or the land. The goddess would become old and withered and she would need a new young consort to return her to youth and vigor and beauty. So the old king would be killed and a new one take his place. They wouldn’t have been that old, either.”

But that's not all! Remember the article about Old Croghan Man, with the nipples "representing the life-giving sun" being cut off? Yup. The article about the Laois bog body has the same expert commenting:

They will be pay [sic] particular attention to the bog body’s nipples. Whether or not his nipples have been cut could indicate whether he was a king. 
Kelly explained “The kissing or suckling of a king’s nipples was a gesture of submission,” Kelly said. “So by cutting the nipples, the king was being decommissioned.”

Other researchers have apparently claimed that the state of Old Croghan Man's nipples could be nothing more than the result of damage to delicate tissue from the waterlogged conditions, and aren't necessarily purposeful or the result of ritual, so it's not really clear that the nipples are a marker of ritual activity at all.

Either way, once again there's nothing particularly substantial offered in the Laois bog body article to concretely link the body with a human sacrifice or kingship. It's assumed that this is (or is likely to be) a king; it's assumed that this is (or is likely to be) a sacrifice, but very little is offered to support or even counter those points in order to provide a little balance. Yes, bogs are liminal places, and it's well-known that such liminal places - neither one thing another (land or water, in this case) - are often a focus of ritual activity or mythological symbolism. But it's equally the case that bogs by their very nature provide conditions where bodies are more likely to be preserved, and so the very idea of 'bog bodies' being a ritual thing could really simply be the result of accidents of preservation skewing our view.

All in all, it's not a very balanced article. The issue of human sacrifice is by no means universally accepted because it's notoriously difficult to prove conclusively. We can compare the Irish or the Celts as a whole to other cultures at the time who were also said to have practiced human sacrifice at some point or other, and say that on the balance of evidence it's likely that the Celts did too. But we can't really prove that what we find in the bogs is indicative of sacrificial intent. We can see that many of these bodies were dispatched in very specific ways. We can see there might even be a lot of similarities in the method (the so-called 'triple-fold death' method).

All too often these things get wrapped up in assumption, without considering the other side of the coin - the skeptics, those who are a little more cautious to leap to such conclusions (that doesn't make for such an exciting article, though, does it?). Sometimes people get a little too caught up in the imagination and then you end up with claims like Lindow Man being sacrificed by druids at Bealltainn simply because some mistletoe pollen was discovered in the contents of his stomach.

I was trying to find an article on this called 'Did they fall or were they pushed? Some unresolved questions about bog bodies?' by C. S. Briggs - well worth a read if you want a good, balanced view of the for and against, in ands outs of human sacrifice. I couldn't find that available online but I did find these ones that cite him, and look like they have some interesting things to say:

'Humans as ritual victims in the later prehistory of Western Europe,' by Miranda Green
Bodies from the Bog: Metamorphosis, Non-human Agency, and the Making of 'Collective Memory,' by Stuart McLean
Lindow Man

Thursday, 18 August 2011


Summer is well and truly on its way out. The kids are back at school, the trees are hanging heavy with fruit, and the brambles are all but finished flowering and getting ready to ripen.

We've managed one whole ripened blueberry so far:

But once the rest start to ripen it looks like we'll be getting a bumper crop this year. In spite of the single, solitary ripe berry, I decided it was time to celebrate Lùnastal anyway; there's a chill in the morning air now, the days are drawing in, and the kids have gone back to school/nursery. From now on I think that will be a marker of autumn starting for us, because it ties in nicely with the summer ending and the new season beginning, and it tends to coincide with the kids needing new clothes and school uniforms, and having to think about the cooler or colder days ahead of us. It's a nice way to finish off the summer holidays and we still have time to fit most of the things I want to do in (in theory) without having to juggle it around school and homework and making sure the kids aren't too tired from a long day, and that they get to bed early enough etc.

So on Monday we celebrated, ahead of school starting on Wednesday. There wasn't much in the way of fruits to harvest, but I did manage to start harvesting some of the veg in the garden, so it was very much a start of the harvest season for us. The brilliant sunshine of the summer has turned to rain for the last few weeks or so, which has done wonders for the carrots and I realised they were looking about ready for pulling up. Whether it was because of the late start to the Spring season, or the fact that the soil was a little exhausted, or both, the veg has been slow to take off this year. I sowed the carrots back in May and I've read they should be about ready in 70 days or so, but they've only really just taken off.

Last year, I managed to harvest some gloriously mutoid looking Cthulu carrots:

This time round, I made sure I sowed the seeds a bit deeper, thinned the seedlings out properly if it was necessary, and had a go at making sure the soil was nice and loose. And this is what I ended up with:

There are still some growing - I tried a batch of purple carrots as well and they seem to be struggling to do much, along with a few more of these (I think they're a basic Nantes variety, but it just says 'organic carrot seeds' on the pack), but these ones came out spectacularly well. I pulled them up with a harvesting prayer (which I made up on the spot but with this sort of form in mind) - twisting each one out of the ground sunwise, and I managed to pull up a leek that had already matured as well (I think it grew from a leftover, broken off bit of leek I pulled up in the early Springtime, so it had a head start on the rest of the leeks I've sown, which languished for a long while in pots before I had the wherewithall to put them into the containers. They'll come later).

The onions aren't yet ready, but the carrots and the leeks meant I had the perfect opportunity for a good stew. The kids (and husband) clamored for a raw carrot each, and the rest went into to stew with the leek, some potatoes, onion, mushrooms, peas, and cabbage on the side. For afters I made cranachan and a choice of shortbread or oat crumblies to go with it, along with fresh raspberries; a good traditional harvest pudding. I had a go at some raspberry coulis as well. Once again the raspberry bushes in the garden haven't done much this year - no fruit, but at least they've grown well. Or one of them has. Hopefully that will help it survive the next winter a bit better, and give it a chance to fruit next year. The rowan has had a modest first fruiting, though:

Next year I might try picking some to dry and use for charms and such, like I did for my first year after moving here, but this year, these berries are for the spirits, I think.

So. We had dinner with our homegrown leek and carrots, followed by the cranachan (the crumblies were delicious, and follow a bannock sort of recipe so I counted them as that. It was a last minute decision and the first time I've tried them; I was going to try a struan bread to go with the stew but aside from a lack of funds to splurge on all of the ingredients at the moment, I'm a bit beyond being able to knead dough right now - still). Then, after dinner had settled a bit, the kids and I went outside to do some races - bike racing, scooter races, followed by a more sedate bubble blowing and catching competition at the kids' insistence. Tom decided he wanted to try riding his bike with the stabilisers off, so there was some wobbly and cautious attempts at that, too. We finished with a game of snap so I could join in as well, and the kids could calm down a bit before bed. Tom won at the scooting, while Rosie won at the cards so I declared them both champions; I declared that the bubbles couldn't have a winner after Rosie decided to use an umbrella to even out her slight height disadvantage against her older brother, but it was all in good fun and good spirits. For once Rosie didn't throw a strop at losing something, so the spirit of peace was kept.

After the kids went to bed I did my ritual stuff as usual - devotions, offerings, singing of praises, saining, protective charms, and so on. It was a still, quiet night and the clouds had dispersed enough for some stars to twinkle in the sky and the full(ish) moon was bright enough to cast moonlight shadows. I didn't catch any last bits of the meteor shower, though, but there was a gentle breeze that played with my hair as I meditated and talked into the night. The stillness and then the odd breeze now and then made it feel like I was being listened to, like the calm night air was swallowing my words and thoughts and taking its fill.

Once I'd done my devotions and the saining, most of the evening was spent making rowan charms - I tried a few different styles, and tried using beads and additional charms as well to make them a bit more decorative. After all that, sleep was most welcome.

In the morning there wasn't much time for anything because the kids and I had to get the train to meet my mother-in-law - she was very kindly splurging on Tom and Rosie's winter wardrobes and it was a last minute arrangement. I'd planned to make butter and cheese that day (our last day of freedom) - maybe some bread if I was up to it - and take the kids for a picnic down to the beach (there have been some sightings of sharks so we were going to go and see if we could spot them), but those plans have had to be put on hold. By the time we got home from shopping we were all pretty knackered, so there was just about enough energy for putting up our autumn decorations:

We did these a week or two ago. I promised Tom that we'd do some 'stained glass' pictures after he did them at school, and by the time we got around to it I figured we should take the opprtunity to resume our tradition of making seasonal decorations for the house. On one of our walks around the village - taking the dogs to the woods - we'd spotted a squirrel climbing up the pebble dashing of the school and at one point it clung on upside down and then flopped onto the guttering for a wee rest. The kids thought it was hilarious and we talked about how the squirrel would be stocking up on nuts for winter, and the conkers would be ripe soon, and so on, so that gave me the idea for our theme. I Googled for stained glass patterns and found this one, which I copied free hand onto card and then cut one out for each of us (I'd credit the source but I can't find it now...); Rosie needed a little help with hers, but this one is all Tom's own work (aside from me tidying up the edges). I think it came out well.

Along with sticking up our artwork, there was the experimenting with skeachan recipes too. That was about it, aside from more offerings to round off a sedate finish to the celebrations. For now. We'll probably try and do our picnic and dairy stuff at the weekend, if the weather improves.

Wednesday, 17 August 2011

Skeachan Cake

Every now and then I take it upon myself to try and master a new recipe or two, especially if it's a good old stodgy traditional Scottish kind of thing. For a while now, on and off, I've been experimenting with trying to make a Skeachan cake - a 'treacle ale' cake. It's basically a fruit cake, made with a little black treacle and ginger, and the fruit is soaked in ale for about 24 hours before baking to make them all soft and juicy.

Technically skeachan is the 'treacle ale' - ale flavoured with black treacle, ginger and some other flavourings. I have a recipe for the skeachan itself (though I've not tried making it yet), but not the cake, so I had to look one up online. There were several to choose from but they all seemed to be lacking something, I thought, though I wasn't quite sure what - aside from not including enough ginger. Then one day I went on a trip to Luss - a nice little village on the shores of Loch Lomond with a fantastic tea room (they do the best soup I've ever tasted) - and they had some skeachan cake on offer. Obviously, for research purposes, I decided it was necessary to indulge in a slice.

After trying that and comparing my previous efforts, I found the recipes weren't far off after all, but definitely more ginger was needed, and the kind of ale you soak the fruit in is key. On the first few goes I tried some locally brewed pale ale and then a heather ale (Fraoch), but I think the cake needs a good heavy beer, so I ended up trying Guinness instead. That did the trick for my tastebuds. The cake I tried was topped with slices of crystallised ginger, which I think was definitely the missing ingredient. Now, after a bit of experimenting, I think I've cracked it:

It's a good cake for festive occasions and quite moist compared to some fruit cakes, and it's similar to the traditional Christmas black bun (but a bit less fiddly to make). So here's the recipe, if you want to try it:

Skeachan Cake

I cook by weights, but I've tried to adapt it to volumes as well. Bear in mind that I've rounded everything up to the nearest quarter cup for the sake of ease; the exact volume to weight ratios are a little less, but that shouldn't make much difference overall. You can easily adjust the ratios of dried fruit if you prefer (I like to use more sultanas and raisins, and a little less currant and peel), as well as the amount of ginger you use. I use quite a lot to give a fiery kick to it, but you might want to add it gradually to see how you prefer it. I've outlined the traditional method of combining the ingredients below, but you can get good results by just putting the ingredients for the cake batter altogether in a mixer, and then just stir in the fruit.

For a non-alcoholic version I think soaking the dried fruit in a flat ginger beer or cordial could work, adapting the amount of dried ginger for the batter.

225g (1 1/4 cups) Raisins
225g (1 1/4 cups) Sultanas (golden raisins)
350g (2 1/4 cups) Currants
75g (1/4 cup) Citrus peel
250ml (1/2 cup) Ale
225g (1 cup/2 sticks) Butter 
225g (1 1/4 cups) Dark brown muscavado sugar
1tbsp Black treacle (or molasses)
4 large eggs
225g (1 1/2 cups) Plain flour
3 tbsp (approx.) Ground ginger
1 tsp Mixed spice
200g (approx) Crystallised ginger
Optional: Glacé cherries


1. Soak the raisins, sultanas, currants and citrus peel in the ale for at least 24 hours, stirring occasionally.

2. Preheat the oven to 160C (adjust for a fan oven - about 10C less) and grease a large cake tin.

3. Cream the butter and sugar together until fluffy.

4. Beat in the treacle, followed by the eggs.

5. Mix in the flour and spices (to taste).

6. Stir in the soaked fruits and the cherries.

7. Pile the mixture into the cake tin and cover the top with the crystallised ginger, using scissors to cut it to the desired thickness. 

8. Bake for about 2 1/2 hours, or until cooked.

9. Allow to cool, then enjoy. Goes nicely with a little bit of cranachan.

Monday, 15 August 2011

An outsider looking in

One of the recent posts over at the Wild Hunt blog got me thinking (dangerous, I know). It wasn't so much the posts that got me thinking - though I was glad to see it being covered - but the comments, really, many of which (at first) I found to be disappointing or just sad and apathetic.

Jason made a post on the recent protests and actions against the threat to the San Francisco Peaks; in short, there are plans to expand a ski resort in the San Francisco Peaks in Arizona, despite the fact that the mountains are considered to be sacred by the indigenous groups there. The resort want to use wastewater to make snow - something that the protesters are objecting to strongly.

This isn't the only point that's being protested against, but for some reason people seem to be getting hung up on it, rather than looking at the bigger picture. In order to get the snow up there, pipelines will have to be laid, which will involve bulldozing ceremonial sites and digging up part of the mountain in order to lay the pipe. The comments in response to Jason's article were almost overwhelmingly - at first, anyway: "So? We use wastewater for drinking as well, it's only a bit of snow."

I find this kind of response is disappointing on many levels. Judgements were being made with little attention to the actual facts, and instead only one aspect is being focused on that is being dismissed as irrelevant. Even if the type of water being used for the snow was the only issue at stake here, however, the fact remains that the proposals go against the religious beliefs of a people and a minority. Their religious beliefs are being ridden roughshod over for the sake of profit; once again, a sacred site is under threat because money is to be made from it, and those who are protesting against it are being dismissed as a vocal minority with no real point or purpose. Is it just me, or is there a big disconnect here?

One of the things that a lot of Gaelic Polytheists - reconstructionists - have to reconcile is the fact that while we honour the dé ocus an-dé, the "gods and ungods" within a specific cultural focus, most of us aren't living in the lands where those gods originated from. And yet a large part of our practice focuses on building a relationship with the land we live in, as well as the spirits who live there.

Tied in with that, one of the inevitable questions for some folk is how to respect local beliefs (and spirits) that aren't Gaelic (I'd say "Irish, Scottish, or Manx", but that's a bit of a mouthful), and carry out our practices without causing offence. In the US there are some practices that are taboo in indigenous practice that are common in a Gaelic context; in Ireland, for example, it's common to pour a drop of whatever your tipple is - a wee offering for the Good Folk - if you happen to enjoy a drink outside. For some indigenous people, alcohol is a taboo and considered a poison for the ground. As much as it's a simple matter of respect and common sense not to piss off local spirits by offering what they might consider poison, it could also be considered a matter of hospitality. Hospitality is considered to be a virtue in Gaelic Polytheism, and that should include taking into account the needs and wants of our honoured guests.

Sacred places are increasingly coming under threat at the expense of progress. Whether it's the hydro-electric proposals that are threatening the safety and integrity of Tigh nam Bodach and Gleann Cailliche, or the motorway that ploughed its way through the Tara-Skryne valley, or the Slane Bypass that protester's claimed threatened Newgrange's status as a World Heritage site (which has been given a reprieve - for now - thanks to the ongoing economic downturn)...or whether it's something like the San Francisco Peaks that's at stake. It's a slow and seemingly inevitable march.

Pitted against progress and profit, there is the question of conservation and cultural integrity. These two sides often seem at odds, and I think ultimately if we want our own beliefs and sacred places to be respected and protected, then it's an issue that goes both ways. It's a case of being stronger together, and supporting others in their struggles to preserve their own sites even if it's not on our own turf, or relating to our own religion. 

As a reconstructionist, I honour the gods from a specific culture. Part of my focus is looking to the lore, the history, the archaeology of that culture. I see that culture preserved within the landscape around me here, in the language on the signposts by the side of the road and in shops (always underneath the English, in smaller lettering as if a lesser language, however). Around me lie the memories, experiences and expressions of those beliefs and practices that I aim to incorporate into my life - such as that might be. This land I see around me is sacred, and I'm not the only one to share that view:

Cairns at Loch Loyne, 2008

Even today, people leave a mark, a sign of remembrance and perhaps thanks at having been present in such a landscape (and this isn't the only place I've seen).

Given my views it's only natural that I might err on the side of conservation, and I can understand why others do too. Why some people - pagans, reconstructionists, polytheists who also might see the land as sacred - don't care about these things, I don't understand. What's happening at the San Francisco Peaks, and probably many other places around the world, they're not happening in my back yard. There's probably not a lot I can do about it, being all the way across the Pond. But as a polytheist and an animist it saddens me that these places are being lost, and in the process freedoms are also being lost. Apathy reigns and big business wins, all because it's just a bit of snow.

But it's not. It's not just snow. It's not just a few pylons, or just a road. It's all wrapped up in belief and tradition, sacredness and ceremony, integrity and culture. None of that should be lost for a ski slope, or a road, or a hydro-electric scheme. At the least, none of it should be lost without a fight for it first.

Friday, 12 August 2011

'Late prehistoric' bog body found in Laois bog

Thought to be the body of a woman, with some interesting details about the deposition of the body:

The body is estimated to be over 2,000 years old. It appears the torso and head, which were in a leather bag, did not survive. The legs, however, were not enclosed by the bag and were preserved by chemicals in the peat.
Found in the Cul na Móna bog between Abbeyleix and Portlaoise, it was discovered by an employee operating a milling machine on Wednesday evening.

Saturday, 6 August 2011

Heilan' coo's mostly...

Ooooooh yeah, down a bit...That's it...

Susie likes having a good wash. She's a show heifer, so she needs to look her best before the judges come and see her. Today she only had a shampoo and blow-dry (no, really), but usually she'd have a bit of conditioner rubbed in too. Timotei is the best, apparently. It takes about 5 litres per cow. Coo.

We met Susie (Siusan) today at a family event in Glasgow, along with some of her friends. And her daughter, also called Susie:

Mum is Susie Ruadh ('red'), while daughter is Susie Dubh ('black'), because one day this wee calf will end up black all over, just like her dad. Susie Dubh was only born in April, while I think her mum must be at least four or so.

Susie Dubh lapped up all of the attention and enjoyed a good scratch or two, especially on her chest and all the hard-to-scratch places a cow might have (at the front anyway!). They have very soft and thick coats. I could've petted them all day.

This is their friend, Una Ruadh:

In addition to a good bit of grass or hay, it seems they enjoy nibbling on zips and licking body warmers given half a chance. One little girl was horrified when she realised that her beautiful purple body warmer was covered in cow schleb. It seemed rude not to point out what the cow was doing to it once I noticed...

I don't think I noted this one's name down:

She's only a yearling, and is obviously unimpressed with being shown off to the great unwashed. Some of her friends had a little adventure recently, after a dog walker let their three dogs off their leads to run rampage through the country park where the herds of Highland cow's graze. As a result of the dogs giving the yearlings some unwanted attention, several took fright and stampeded, taking down fences and hedges until they ended up in the south-side of Glasgow. I think seven managed to escape from the park and end up in the city, and one of them apparently even wandered into a mechanic's garage, damaging a few cars before being rounded up safely and taken home (imagine explaining that one to the insurance company!). Luckily, none of them were injured, just a little freaked. If this is one of the heifers involved, she's not telling. She's feeling a bit coy:

Who, me?

The heilan' coos had a few friends along too, including a very chirpy-looking Anglo-Nubian goat:

And a Welsh badger-faced lamb:

For once, I met some horses that didn't hate me - these were Clydesdales, called Duke and Baron:

They enjoyed a good scratch too.

So, to conclude: I got to pet some heilan' coo's, and now I can die happy...

Wednesday, 3 August 2011

Online research tips for the beginner

After seeing a few things around and about on the subject of books and the internet, as far as the beginner is concerned, I figured I'd put a few thoughts of my own together. Books - and other sources - are a tricky subject for the beginner because it's difficult to know where to start, and what to rely on. And especially when that involves looking on the internet.

It's all well and good being pointed towards a book list - even a short one aimed at beginners, like the one on the CR FAQ. I think the books listed there are excellent choices, but one problem a lot of folks have is investing the money in buying those books. There are plenty of places that these kinds of books can be found second hand at more than reasonable prices, but even so, that might be stretching an already non-existent budget too far for many these days.

There's always the option of trying to find them at the library, but that's not necessarily a satisfactory solution if you have to order them through Inter-Library Loan, if that's an option at all (I'm lucky I can get access to an academic library, because a lot of the books I want I couldn't get at my local library, unfortunately). It's important to remember that these books are recommended for a reason - they're not perfect, by any means, but they offer a lot of good information that wll give any fledgling reconstructionist a good start.

In the internet age, though, people are increasingly used to finding answers straight away, and looking things up on Google offers a much quicker and cheaper solution, and it might be tempting to ignore books that aren't freely available in favour of those that are. There are lots of books and articles available online, in full, along with plenty of websites dealing with various kinds of 'Celtic Paganisms' that might appeal to the beginner. The problem with this, of course, is that websites aren't necessarily always reliable or trustworthy, and nor are books. This post here on Discernment offers a lot of good advice on how to approach and assess the reliability of different sources, and Maya's essay here makes a good compliment to that. 

The internet can be incredibly useful as a tool for research, if it's used wisely. It can also be a minefield, but knowing where to look - and how - can help narrow things down. Instead of just doing a web search, using Google Scholar can help you find far more reliable sources than you normally would (though I find a lot of neo-pagan sources crop up there as well, and while that might not be so bad for some, they're not necessarily the sort of focus I'm looking for), and while much of it may not be freely available, you can often find a few gems that are downloadable as pdfs. For many, admittedly, this is just a quicker route to a rapidly expanding wishlist...
One of the biggest advantages researching online can offfer is all of those free books, and occasionally articles or journals that are fully available, for free. Again, though, it's a double-edged sword. It's tempting to assume that just because a book seems to be well-written and well-researched, and has an authoritative or academic tone, then it's all good. This isn't always the case, because the author often has their own approach and bias in how they look at the sources, so it often helps to know where they're coming from, and to read as widely as possible in order to try and balance one view, or one approach, with another. Those pointers I've linked to above will come in handy - I think at the most simplest level, the best thing to remember when you're reading something is asking the question where did that come from? Until you know, and can see it's from a good source, look elsewhere as well and try to verify the point. If it seems a little off the wall, it probably is.

When you're reading academic tomes in particular, it helps to know the kind of angle they're coming from. I've outlined some of the approaches to Celtic Studies and Archaeology here already, and bearing this in mind is a good way to make your own mind up on things. Reading books on the same subject from these different approaches might leave you with conflicting views on certain things, and you're going to have to make your own mind up and decide what you think is right. When you start doing your own research, you'll find that there are rarely any quick answers.

There's sometimes a tendency to dismiss older books in favour of newer ones, simply because they're old and therefore out of date. Most of those books and articles that are available online are out of print, and yes, it's a good thing to remember that there's often a lot wrong with older books, simply because of the way approaches to research and interpretation have changed over the years. But that doesn't automatically make new books better, or strip those older books of any value whatsoever. There's a lot of stuff in those older sources that come in very handy to the modern reconstructionist, not least because there are translations of material that have since been relatively ignored. Since these older sources are now out of copyright they are often easily found online, in full, and this is where we come back to the issue of relying on the internet, and these free sources, in our reading.

Aside from Google Scholar, some of the best places to start looking are on,, or Google Books, and there's also a huge library of Scottish-focused books at Electric Scotland as well as lots of books on the Isle of Man at (Scribd can also be a minefield of useful books, but they're not always books that are copyright free and there's a tendency for them to disappear once they're discovered, so it can be hit or miss.)

And that's nice and all, but when you're being cautioned about these books being potentially problematic sources, where do you start? While I would say that the histories that you can find are often very outdated in approach and you're probably better off sticking with more up to date books, one of the biggest strengths of some of these old sources is that they can contain eye-witness accounts of customs and traditions that have since died out or only continue privately. Many of these can be found in old journals (for example, when I was researching stuff for the Michaelmas struan, I found some particularly useful articles at

Alexander Carmichael's Carmina Gadelica is one of the best sources to look if you're wanting inspiration for practices:

Volume 1
Volume 2
Volume 3

There are six volumes in all, but because of the way they were published, over several decades, not all of them are out of copyright yet. The full six volume set will probably set you back a pretty penny, but you can buy an abridged version that just contains the English translations cheaply, which makes a good starting place. With the abridged version you lose the Gàidhlig and the extensive notes/glossary and indexing that you find in the full volume set. Then again, the first two volumes in particular are the most helpful to the aspiring reconstructionist, because later volumes were 'improved' and 'polished' more so than the first two. The volumes available online are therefore perhaps the most helpful for the beginner (though the others shouldn't be ignored, by any means).

Compare Carmichael's work with Douglas Hyde's Religious Songs of Connacht, and you'll see a lot of similarities along the way, which is especially helpful if you want to work out your own songs or prayers and base them on, and it goes to show that what Carmichael recorded on those remote islands can be just as useful for the Irish Reconstructionist as the Scottish, or simply Gaelic (labels are a tricky thing).

Looking on, you'll find a wealth of good stuff if you look up Folklore journals, or the Celtic Review, or search for well known and prolific authors like Kuno Meyer and Whitley Stokes. Much of this work will be outdated, and especially in the case of the translations provided by Meyer and Stokes, are much in need of looking at again in a modern context. This is happening, but it isn't necessarily widely available, and in the meantime we can find some gems in albeit somewhat imperfect formats.

As for websites, is a great starting point, which is good for a reconstructionist in particular, and links that I've posted previously, like to the Ulster Institutional Repository and the Carmichael Watson Project. Looking at the various universities who offer Celtic Studies as a discipline can also be helpful, such as Ulster, Belfast, Dublin, Glasgow, Edinburgh, Aberdeen, Cambridge, Berkeley, Harvard, and so on. Otherwise - generally speaking - a good way to determine the reliability of a website is that if it actively sparkles, it's probably not too good as far as historical accuracy and research go. References also help.

What can I say? Sometimes I'm a bit slow...

Thanks to some random and unrelated Googling, I accidentally discovered that the Carmichael Watson project has a blog.

Given the time of year an' all, I thought I'd just leave a pointer to a very handy article on the tradition of the Corn Dolly (or Cailleach) in Scotland:

Once a widespread European custom was to form a corn dolly or maiden out of the last sheaf at harvest time. Traditions of such customs were still in living memory during the 1960s in Scotland, and perhaps they are still being carried out in some parts of Europe.
I really should pay more attention to these things. Lots of good stuff there...