Friday, 30 September 2011


While most of Britain basks in a last gasp heatwave, it's business as usual round these parts. It's a wee bit warmer than usual for this time of year, yes, but no less wet and generally grey. An Cailleachan have been busy battering the coast and the autumnal colours are decidedly dampened on the trees here. Offerings were made to them at the equinox, but otherwise things have been pretty quiet. 

The berry harvest has been good though - we've missed the best of the brambles, I think, but our own blueberries are still going strong. Our old friends, the baby snails, haven't disappointed:

But with careful removal of said friends, to avoid any extra accidental protein, we've had a good harvest so far and it's given me an excuse for some of these:

Although the recipe could do with some perfecting. Practice makes perfect, no?

And we've got some raspberries! Of the two bushes I've got in the flowerbed, this is the first year either one of them has put forth much in the way of fruit, and most of them have gone to the wee beasties in the garden, I think. The standard raspberry bush ended up getting crowded out by weeds and bushes that need trimming, I think, but aside from the other bush getting blown over, we have a modest amount of golden raspberries promising:

I've never tried them before, I don't think, though there are a lot of bushes that have spread and gone wild in the village. Rosie and I picked the only two that were good for eating, and Rosie bravely volunteered for a taste test:

It turns out they taste exactly like normal raspberries. They were met with approval.

The warmer weather has been good for the veg I've still got growing - the onions are about ready now, I think, but alas, after our berry harvest on Wednesday I decided to prune down some flowers that were crowding everything else out and that knackered my back again. Not as bad as it has been, but not great, and the onions can wait a while longer until I can walk again. The good news there is, I've at least been reassurred that fibromyalgia is an unlikely diagnosis for me - I just have the bog standard variety of chronic pain. Yay me.

With the pruning out of the way, however, I'll be able to get at my little devotional space I've arranged and set aside in the flower bed. It's been sadly neglected like most other things this year, but it seems something doesn't mind that because I startled a tiny wee frog as I was pruning. Sorry froggy. But I'm glad you found a home here.

Wednesday, 28 September 2011

Hello Wikipedians!

So I noticed a few hits on the old blog here coming from Wikipedia, of all places, and it seems that there is currently a debate raging over there with regards to rutabaga, of all things. So hello! Thanks for all the support and nice things that are being said.

I have to say, it's a bit weird to find myself being debated on a corner of the internet dedicated to a root vegetable...

While I feel very honoured to have my website referenced on a Wikipedia article, I have to say I'm quite surprised, too, because I wouldn't have thought that it qualifies from what I understand of Wikipedia's rules about what is and isn't suitable for referencing. I do make an effort to write my articles to a decent standard and put references in, but it's not like they're peer reviewed, or anything. Having said that, I do live in Scotland, so I could point out that I am carrying on the tradition and am speaking from experience.

I didn't grow up in Scotland, but my husband did so I've spoken at length with him and my father-in-law about the practice. I can say - for what it's worth - that it's definitely rutabaga that was (and still is) used for carving the lanterns, though here they really are called tumshies, neeps, or just 'turnips'. In supermarkets you'll find them on sale as swedes, but colloquially they are rarely referred to as such in Scotland, as far as I've ever heard.

I can also say that they're an absolute bugger to carve.

Anyway, I've been unable to ascertain for certain how old the tradition is, but like some have been saying on the talk page it's not something that can be said to be particularly 'ancient' or specifically pre-Christian - especially seeing as the tumshie itself only dates from the seventeenth century. So the start of the section on Hallowe'en is incorrect when it says:

Since early times,[when?] people living in Ireland and Scotland have carved turnips and used them as lanterns to ward off harmful spirits.[19] They are still popular throughout Britain and Ireland today at Halloween, [20]however their use goes back to a much earlier time.
This bit here:

The bonfires were replaced with hollowed out turnips (the common name for rutabaga in Ireland, Scotland. and Northern England) filled with glowing coals.

Is also a bit questionable, I think (there's also a full stop after 'Scotland' that should be a comma). The lanterns didn't replace the bonfires; in Scotland, the bonfires have arguably shifted to Guy Fawkes' night on November 5th - see Ronald Hutton's Stations of the Sun. It's true that tumshie lanterns aren't as common as they used to be, though, and most people carve pumpkins these days. Most years you'll find the odd piece in the paper about trying to revive the tumshie. 

I would also say that Samhain is not a Celtic festival, it's a festival that is Irish in origin. Given Scotland's Gaelic heritage, it is also referred to as Samhain (or Samhainn/Samhainn) in Gàidhlig. It's an important distinction that needs to be made, because 'Celtic' is a linguistic term that refers to a variety of languages. It is sometimes used as a cultural term but in this context it implies that Samhain is a festival that is found in all Celtic cultures. This is not the case.

Just my tuppence worth there.

Anyway, another useful reference for you might be F. Marian McNeill's book, Hallowe'en: It's Origin Rites and Ceremonies in the Scottish Tradition. The song on page 33, called A Nicht o' Tine has a verse:

A howkit neep wi' glowerin' een
To fleg baith witch and warlock.

In other words: "A carved turnip with scowling face, to scare both witch and warlock." As far as I can tell the book was published in 1970 or 1971 - there's no date or ISBN number, but it was published by The Albyn Press in Edinburgh.

And one final thing, just to clarify: I am, in fact, a 'her'!

Book Review: Kindling the Celtic Spirit

One more review for now.

Kindling the Celtic Spirit
Mara Freeman

This is a book I bought early on in my first few tentative steps towards Celtic Reconstructionism, and at the time it was one of those fantastically inspiring books that got me very excited. This is the book that helped me see what a non-Wiccan/Wiccanesque style of practice might actually look like, and helped me see that Celtic Reconstructionist practice was actually workable; at the time I found it difficult to wrap my head around what to do because at the time - before the CR FAQ, before even the CR Essay, I think - there really wasn't much out there and I myself had been floundering after leaving Wicca behind and exploring various other paths like ceremonial magic and various forms of Druidry that all have fairly similar ritual approaches.

So I have a soft spot for this book, I really do. Let me be clear though: This is not a Celtic Reconstructionist book, or even written with such an audience in mind. It is written for what you might call a neo-Druid audience in mind, one that's looking for a more historically-minded approach without the Druid Revivalist trappings of Iolo Morganwg and Ross Nichols' dodgy history. It's also geared more towards the solitary practitioner than group practice, and the ritual outlines draw reference from traditional sources rather than neo-pagan ones, but here and there you will certainly find what might be seen as a neo-pagan approach, that don't necessarily agree with a CR approach - invocations to deities, Robert Graves, advocating developing a working relationship with the Good Folk...that sort of thing.

The book is laid out month-by-month, after a few introductory bits and pieces, and each month accommodates a particular focus relevant to the month, season, and related theme of the chapter. Tales and bits of folklore, animal lore, and spotlights on different deities are given in each chapter, and there are meditations to work on (there's also a CD that accompanies the book, with these meditations on it; you have to buy it separately, though, and I didn't so I can't comment on that). The festivals are dealt with as well - the eight festivals of the Wheel of the Year, but with a focus on customs and lore from historical sources - and there are some practical ideas and recipes for things to do for each of them - making a May Bough at Bealltainn, carving turnips at Samhainn, that sort of thing. There are also plenty of prayers, charms, poems, blessings and so on, many of which are adapted from the Carmina Gadelica or early medieval Irish manuscripts.

There is a very hearthy, domestic focus to the book which is something that really appealed to me, and I found the inclusion of practical, creative things to do for the festivals a nice touch as well. The adaptations and prayers are mostly well done, and while the guided meditations aren't really something that appeal to me personally, they're well written and I can see that they might work well for others.

Where it falls down, I think - and it's a problem that I find with most books like this - is that while the focus is mostly on an Irish or a more generally Gaelic practice, Welsh, Brythonic and Gaulish elements are also brought in here and there; an examination of the meaning of 'awen', the stories of Taliesin and Ceridwen, a section on Cernunnos, and so on. There is also the suggestion of a wassail bowl, which couldn't even be considered to be Celtic. All of this smooshing makes it a very hodge podge affair. To me, these are very different and diverse cultures - different languages, different histories - and while they might have the same Celtic roots, they've evolved in very different ways and deserve to be looked at and appreciated on their own terms.

It seems odd to have such a regard for historical practices, detailing folklore and customs from the various cultures, to then completely disregard their context and then mix them all up in a completely ahistorical way. This is rather disappointing, but at least Freeman is (usually) clear where everything comes from, and she's also quite good at referencing her sources. It would be easy to pick bits out that are relevant to one's own focus, but ultimately there's nothing here that comes from particularly esoteric sources and it would be just as easy to go to the source yourself.

It's a well-written, beautifully presented book. Ultimately, though, as inspirational as this book was for me, I'm not sure it's something I would recommend to a CR audience these days. Aside from being potentially confusing for the beginner, there are better sources out there to look to now, far more so than ten or even five years ago, so I think that looking to them instead would be more helpful - do your own research, or look to CR websites or groups that are out there.

Monday, 26 September 2011

Book Review: A World Full of Gods

Another review today - I've had this book for over a year and only just got around to reading it in the last week or two. It's a good meaty book and it's been taking up most of my free time in the mornings to get through it, but I've also had the chance to tinker away at another page on the website - this time, the introductory article on Irish Mythology. Most of the additions are links to the various myths links, with a bit of reformatting and a few tweaks here and there.

A World Full of Gods
John Michael Greer

There aren't many books out there (that I've seen) that take on the task of providing a good, meaty, philosophical discussion of polytheism - especially one that comes from a polytheist point of view. This is very much a book that is aimed at the polytheist, rather than the Wiccan or neo-Wiccan/Wiccanesque pagan, and that in itself is refreshing for me, because it's not something I come across often.

I got off to a bit of a bumpy start with the book because much of the introductory stuff in the first few chapters were kind of obvious to me and I wasn't sure if the book was going to offer much for me to chew on - which is not to say that I think I know everything there is to say about polytheism, just that it's something I've had plenty of opportunity to think on over the years, and I'm pretty set in my ways by now. I was happily proven wrong, though, and once I got into the meat of the book I found a lot of good stuff (and to be fair, the more experienced polytheist or scholar of religion is invited to skip a few chapters near the beginning, to get on with it, but I wanted to read it from start to finish).

The first few chapters certainly help introduce the beginner to a good understanding of polytheism, and as much as I had some reservations about where it was all going I did appreciate seeing things being spelled out clearly, and in a way that helped me appreciate where others might have questions and confusions about certain things. I can see this being a good book to point people to, if they have some questions about how polytheism actually works.

I found the middle of the book more challenging and enlightening, and one chapter in particular helped solidify a few thoughts on something that had been bugging me for a while (chapter 8, dealing with offerings and reciprocity; the next one was interesting too).

For the most part the book is very straight forward, well-written and clearly thought out. There is a heavy emphasis on philosophy and logic in the way the subject is approached, and Greer does a good job of introducing the big words and concepts that the average reader probably won't have much familiarity with (and there's a handy glossary at the back in case you get lost).

Because of the philosophical focus of the book, it's not a how-to sort of tome, with ritual suggestions or an encyclopaedia of gods tucked in at the end so you can pick your favourites and invite them round to lunch. Nor is this the kind of book that I could really pick up and put down, or pick at here and there. This is a book that needs to be read from start to finish to appreciate it at its best, I think.

Over the course of the book, subjects like the different types of polytheism, and the ethics, myths, spirituality, ways of worship and the logic of polytheism are dealt with, as well as the question of why people might be polytheists. Greer keeps the focus of the book as general as possible, calling on various different cultures and polytheistic religions to illustrate his points - mainly Norse, Celtic, Shinto, Greek, Roman, with a few others mixed in - along with some analogies that help explain where he's coming from. Inevitably that means there has to be generalisations here and there to accommodate as broad a view as possible, but given the purpose and focus of the book I think it worked well. Both the commonalities and differences of polytheistic views and religions are taken into account, so it's pretty thorough. It would be nice to see something that focuses solely on Celtic Polytheism (though of course I'd say that), but as an introduction to polytheism in general, Greer has the right of it here.

One thing in particular that I appreciated is the emphasis on 'traditional polytheisms', which Greer stresses tend to be hard polytheisms. While generally I would say the arguments Greer presents are well done, there are some aspects that I think might be slightly lacking, and this lack mars my feelings towards the book in general. Inevitably in discussing polytheism there is going to be some comparison to the major monotheistic religions (especially Christianity) as well as atheism, and I think the author's own bias towards accepting a polytheistic viewpoint means that certain elements are glossed over when presenting all the various different arguments. For example, at one point the argument was made that the widespread belief in the afterlife - or various forms of the afterlife - is itself evidence that supports its existence. I don't think this is the kind of argument that stands up to objective examination, really, and this type of fallacious argumentation is all too common.

In addition to this, concluding that alternative viewpoints rely on 'special pleading' - and are therefore weak or invalid - is a common refrain throughout the book, while ignoring the fact that Greer himself does exactly the same thing. It comes across as hypocritical and lacking in any true objectivity or honest insights. If you're totally on board with Greer's own views and you're not interested in weighing up the arguments and examining them, then it's probably not a problem, but if you look at the arguments objectively, as he seems to think he's doing, then I'm not so convinced. I can imagine my atheist husband would say that Greer's argument in favour of polytheism, for one, relies on special pleading as much as anyone else's beliefs.

In some ways, perhaps, agreeing with Greer's arguments are beside the point; if anything, whether you agree or disagree it helps finish your own train of thought about these subjects, and helps you make up your own mind. Greer's apparent assumption that his conclusions are 100% logical and watertight can grate a little, though, and at times it does get a bit repetitive.

More and more as I've come back to this book, the faults become glaring and far outweigh any of the positives I originally saw. In particular, as much as I enjoyed the middle portion of the book, and appreciated the novelty of the book itself, the last couple of chapters weren't as good, to my mind. The chapters on myths and eschatology in particular weren't so much about polytheism, I felt, as they were arguments against monotheism (or, ultimately, any religion that claims to be the True Religion) so the book seemed to lose focus a little towards the end, and frankly, it felt unnecessary and somewhat prejudiced.

I'm not sure this is a book I could read again and again. I originally thought that I could see myself referring back to the more helpful parts now and then, but ultimately I haven't. Even from the start I was unable to give the book a resounding yes! as a recommendation, but felt that an outright no was unnecessary. However, as time has worn on I can't help but feel that the more I've learned about the author himself has perhaps made me feel even more negatively towards the book than I originally did. Ultimately, I can't in conscience recommend something that benefits a racist, and a known associate of racists and abusers. It's a shame that a good book on the subject has yet to come out, but I'm still looking...

Tuesday, 20 September 2011

Hail to the hooded crow...

Blogger has a handy widget that lets you know the kind of search terms people use that result in their stumbling across your blog, along with other fun stats and stuff. It's always entertaining, especially since one of the most common search terms these days involves 'king's nipples' or 'nipple cult'. A while ago, somebody stumbled across the blog after doing a search for 'matriarchal spaceships' (I think that one's my favourite). Yesterday, somebody arrived by way of searching for 'invoking Irish zombies.'

The mind boggles, it really does. But I'm sorry to disappoint.

Anyway, I've not had much to say recently aside from bits and pieces in the news and reviews (of which I'm intending to catch up on a few more at some point), and that's mainly because I haven't been doing much. I slipped a disc in February and I've been having problems ever since, though quite what the problem is now is yet to be determined; I'm undergoing another course of physiotherapy and it's been decided that my disc isn't the problem right now, and I suspect I'm heading for a diagnosis of fibromyalgia (though that's by no means certain); whatever the case, it seems I'm stuck with whatever it is for good now, and will be dependent on a cocktail of medication just to get through each day. I can't be too active, or else I end up in even more pain, and alongside not sleeping too well and taking a lot of drugs that can make you tired, well. There's not much chance of that happening often. So yeah, not up to much these days while I figure out the limits of my capability now. It's a voyage of discovery!

A life of pain and drugs is not a prospect I relish, to be honest (though I'm well aware my situation is nowhere near as bad as it could be; I know folks with similar problems who have it far worse than I do), but it's not something that comes as much of a surprise, really. Just before this all happened I'd taken a trip into town to run some errands, and just as my daughter and I had got off the bus and were walking towards the shopping centre, there was a hooded crow perched on a wall. They're very distinctive birds, with their light grey bodies, and I've seen them before on travels around the Highlands - always in large groups, though, usually flocking around roadkill, or something. I don't live in a part of Scotland where they're common, but I do live near the edge of where they tend to live, so it's not outside the realm of possibility to happen across one. But when you happen across one in unusual circumstances, and they have religious significance to you...well. I don't know about you, but I tend to take note of that. And if it was supposed to be a sign, then I wasn't expecting it to be a good one, given the associations. (Pointless aside: In Ireland, the hooded crow is the emblem of the O'Tooles of Wicklow. In the fourteenth century, they are said to have gone into battle with the cry, Feannóg abú! - Hail to the hooded crow! That's a kind of attitude I can admire...)

So anyway, here I am, lumped with it for the foreseeable future. And of course, I'm not the only one facing something like this, and nor am I first. When the general diagnosis involved a buggered disc I went searching for folk cures and charms to see how people dealt with it before the advent of Tramadol and the like (might as well make it a learning experience). I didn't exactly find much that could help! Take, for instance, George F. Black's Scottish Charms and Amulets:

Some of the natives [of North Uist] wear a girdle of the Seal-skin about the middle, for removing the Sciatica, as those of the Shire of Aberdeen wear it to remove the Chin-cough.

Well, I did see a seal sun-bathing on a rock near the shore last month, but I think people tend to frown on that sort of thing these days. Personally, I like seals alive more than I like them worn as a girdle in the hopes of relieving sciatica.

John Gregorson Campbell, on the other hand, has this to say about leum droma ('leap of the back' - a slipped disc, or bad back in general):

When the back is strained and its nerves are affected so that motion is painful, the afflicted person is to lie down on his face, and one who was born feet foremost is to step thrice across him, each time laying his full weight on the foot that treads on the patient's back. There is not cure unless the person stepping across has been born feet foremost.
Ronald Black, The Gaelic Otherworld, 2005, p228/490.

Technically speaking, I could give this one a go because my husband was a breech baby, but then again he's about twice the size of me, and even without a knackered back I suspect trying this would break me, even if I could persuade him to try.

At least there's Tramadol...

Saturday, 17 September 2011

The latest clever idea...

Another news item, it's a newsy kind of day. This time, my moral outrage is directed here:

HOLY WELLS, bridges, milestones, vernacular buildings, lime kilns and other industrial sites that post-date 1700 will be “left without any protection” following moves to “delist” them, the Institute of Archaeologists of Ireland has claimed.
In what it described as a “very worrying proposal”, the Department of Arts, Heritage and the Gaeltacht is seeking to exclude all post-1700 archaeological and historical structures and sites from the national Record of Monuments and Places (RMP).

I'm mentally filing this one under What The Fucking Fuck; who the hell thought this is a good idea? There seems to be overwhelming objection and resistance to the move, which is mildly comforting. Hopefully it will force the proposals to be shelved. Or dumped in the bin, for preference.

Irish zombies?

Forget the nipple-obsessed Irish kings, now we have Irish zombies! Yay!

Two early medieval skeletons were unearthed recently in Ireland with large stones wedged into their mouths -- evidence, archaeologists say, that it was feared the individuals would rise from their graves like zombies.  

Although before we arrive at the zombies, vampires were considered (of course):

Initially, Read and colleagues thought they had found a Black Death-related burial ground. Remains of individuals buried at the end of the Middle Ages with stones stuck in their mouths have hinted at vampire-slaying rituals.
It was believed that these "vampire" individuals spread the plague by chewing on their shrouds after dying. In a time before germ theory, the stone in the mouth was then used as a disease-blocking trick.
Since the vampire phenomenon didn't emerge in European folklore until the 1500's, the archaeologists ruled out this theory for the 8th century skeletons.

To be fair here, as wacky as this bit might sound, the journalist does actually mention the proper word for it, revenants. But zombies and vampires? It's a perfect combination for a sensationalist article.

Except, of course...

In spite of the excitedly breathless opening paragraph, the archaeologists in question at no point during the course of the article ever mention the word 'zombie.' But of course, everybody loves zombies these days, so why not, if it gets people reading the article? The zombie word implies the eighth century Irish were concerned about the living dead rising with a penchant for other people's brains, though, whereas I think what the archaeologists were actually saying is that the dead might rise due to an unholy communion with Satan, or something, with the general intent of terrorising the local population or spreading disease (but not the living dead zombie kind). That's not something that necessarily implies eating other people's brains and turning the whole world into zombies.

But no. Zombies.

Wednesday, 14 September 2011

Book Review: Celtic Devotional: Daily Prayers and Blessings

Celtic Devotional: Daily Prayers and Blessings
Caitlín Matthews

I bought this book because I'd heard good things about it, along the lines of it being good inspiration for prayers and so on. Having read a few of the Matthews' collective works over the year and having not been particularly impressed, I'd held off bothering with it, but a preview of it on Google Books coinciding with a fit of boredom piqued my interest. At a penny and change for postage, second hand, I figured even if it was awful I wouldn't be losing out on much.

It's not bad. I can't say I found it to be fantastic, either, though. There are some genuinely good bits and pieces in here, but there is also a lot in here that as poetry goes, is not so good. I'm no expert in poetry, but I can spot clumsy and strained attempts at maintaining a rhyme or rhythm a mile off. Those I am an expert at...

For the most part I found the way it was all framed and phrased to be very off-putting. The book is very New Ageish, and that might sound more than a little snobbish but what I really mean is that much of it articulates ideas and concepts that are just alien to my thinking: Lots of Lords and Ladies, Grandmothers and Grandfathers (of this, that and the other), soul-midwives, self-contemplation and self-realisation, and love, light and life (notes of, drops of, glows of, greetings of, gems of, etc)...Some of the terminology does make me cringe a little, in amongst a good smattering of jargon.

The book is set out season by season, with prayers and invocations to usher in and see out each season/Quarter Day, and then there are daily prayers and invocations given for each day throughout each quarter, along with activities, meditations or contemplations to concentrate on that are relative to the theme of the quarter. There are kindling prayers on rising, smooring prayers on going to rest, and so on, but they are all to do with the soul rather than any literal kindling or smooring. In that respect, I can't help but wonder if smooring the soul each night is rather ill-advised? Hmm...Smooring is also explained as a Scots Gàidhlig word - it's not. It's a minor mistake, but an unnecessary one. But anyway, the soul theme in general is consistent with the over-arching aim of the book - the first chapter is titled 'Opening the Soul Shrine.'

In spite of my reservations and the New Age phrasing a lot of the time there really is some genuinely beautiful work in here. Matthews has certainly managed to capture the general essence and tone of Irish and Scottish poetry in particular (to my eye) and that in itself gives good inspiration to see the kind of things she's picked up on. As you work through you can see that much of it is pretty formulaic, which will either seem nicely consistent or thoroughly repetitive. I don't see myself ever actually working my way through the book day-by-day, to be honest.

I think the main problem I have with the book is that it's a 'Celtic' devotional, but aside from being framed around the use of the Irish names for the Quarter Days and the general idea of daily prayers that echo what you find in the Carmina Gadelica, there's nothing that's really Celtic at all. For one, the main inspiration is clearly Gaelic, but there's nothing really Gaelic in there and so the whole thing comes across as more than a little bit superficial. A lot of the prayers address 'Grandmother' and 'Grandfather', 'Lord' and 'Lady', or the soul-friend or soul-mentor of your choosing. In general, when anything theological is touched on, it's framed in terms of 'the Divine', which seems to be a way of keeping everything as neutral as possible in order to appeal to a broad audience. It's not something that appeals to me, though, and over all the books is not something I find to be particularly workable or adaptable to my own circumstances. For me, the quibbles permeate the whole content, so even the bits I do like I don't think would be something I'd find myself looking back on or using in my own devotions (your mileage may vary, of course).

All in all, it's a beautifully presented book if nothing else. Ultimately I'm not sure I'd jump up and down raving about it and recommending it to anyone who might care to listen to the crazy lady.

"The Cailleach is milking her goats to-night; don't you hear the milking-lilt?"

The tail end of Hurricane Katia seems to have blown itself out now so this one's probably a little late, but, as a kind of tradition I've just decided to keep up with, it's times like this that sharing stories and lore about her seems like a good way to honour the Storm Hag. She was definitely singing her milking-lilt these past few nights.

This is another story from K.W. Grant's Myth, Tradition and Story from Western Argyll (1925, p10), and this time it's about the Cailleach Bheinn a' Bhric. Enjoy:

“Beinn a' Bhric” - Trout Mountain – is in Lochaber. It's presiding genius was a “Bean-shìdhe” - fairy woman. (Sìdh, the abode of the gods; not sìth, peace as so often rendered.)

The Cailleach tended her herds of deer in Glen Nevis, and often milked them there, especially in the “dead” months of winter. The huntsmen heard her song as she milked her deer; for all Highland milkmaids were wont, in times past, to charm the milk from the cattle by keeping time with their fingers to a ringing lilt. The song of the Cailleach was unlike that of every other milkmaid; it was peculiar to herself, and unique in every respect.

Sometimes the women folk accused her of driving her deer to the shore to feed on dulse, or upon the tender blades of their winter kale. This was no more than women's gossip; the herds of the Cailleach loved not such pasturage.

It was known among the huntsmen that, as certainly as any one of them caught a glimpse of the Cailleach he might stay at home for that day, for he should have no “shooting-luck.”

Once when the tempests of late Autumn marched down the hills, a young hunter of stout heart, on hearing that the Cailleach was abroad, determined to brave her. From dawn till sundown, he hunted in the deer forest of Loch Tréig, the chosen haunt of the Cailleach, but never a trace of deer or roe did he light upon. When twilight came he betook himself for shelter to a hut built for that purpose by the huntsmen. As he gathered wood and leaves wherewith to light a fire on the hearth, he began out of sheer bravado to rhyme a taunt against the Cailleach, imitating her peculiar tune as he hummed the stanzas:-

The grizzled Cailleach, tall and stern,
Tall and stern, tall and stern;
The grizzled Cailleach, tall and stern,
Swift she glides o'er peak and cairn.

Cailleach Bheinn a' Bhric horó!
Bhric horó! Bhric horó!
Cailleach Bheinn a' Bhric horó!
Warder of the mountain well, etc.

The hunter had completed but a few stanzas when the Cailleach, lilting as was her wont, approached and saluted him.

“I am aware,” said she, “that thou hast wandered far to-day in search of game. I have come all the way from “Lagan-nam-féith” - Quagmire Hollow – since the first spark of fire fell on thy tinder, to give thee sure luck in hunting. To-morrow, as I milk my deer, watch thou, and whichever of the deer becomes restive, I will strike with the knob of my fetter. (A fetter was made of plaited horse-hair with a loop at one end and a knob of hard wood at the other for fastening it.) Note it well; take good aim, and thou shalt have good luck.”

The hunter obeyed; and from that day forward he never hunted in vain.

Sunday, 11 September 2011

Book Review: Folksongs And Folklore Of South Uist

Another review to be getting on with:

Folksongs And Folklore Of South Uist
Margaret Fay Shaw

This is one of those seminal works by one of the most prolific and passionate folklorists of the day - and what an amazing woman, too!

Comparison with Alexander Carmichael's work is going to be inevitable with this book, and Shaw herself handily points out the places where there is an overlap with the songs of the Carmina Gadelica. Part of the appeal of this book, then, is seeing how Carmichael's work measures up (especially bearing in mind the criticisms laid against him at times), but I would hasten to add that Shaw offers a lot more than just different of songs that you might be already familiar with.

As the title suggests, it's not just songs to be found here - there are stories, recipes, a chapter on traditional dyes, proverbs and riddles, and a bit about Shaw's own experiences during her time on the island. Many of the songs also have musical scores accompanying them, which is great if you want to have a go at singing yourself (alas, I'm about as musical as a guitar with three knackered strings).

The glimpses of folklore - much of it seasonal, detailing Hogmanay celebrations and so on - are described with passion and a charm that bleeds through onto the pages. It's hard not to fall in love with the people and the place that Shaw describes, just like Shaw herself did. Over all the book itself is perhaps not as useful as the Carmina Gadelica - it's certainly not as wide-ranging being only one volume rather than six, but it's a good complement to it, and it contains things that I haven't seen anywhere else. The recipe for a traditional strùthan along with a more modern version, in particular, is something that I found extremely useful.

This isn't the first book I'd necessarily look to as far as research goes, but it does come in handy. It's well-researched and well-referenced so you'll find pointers to other places you can look to, and I think it would be a great addition to the bookshelf for anyone with a particular interest in Scottish folklore and song.

Saturday, 10 September 2011

The 'R' word

A week or so ago I had the dubious pleasure of having a run in with a racist on my f-list over on Facebook. And not just any racist, but a racist who is identifying as a Celtic Reconstructionist.

I've been hanging out on a few groups on Facebook lately, and that's where I met the person in question. This wasn't someone who I knew very well - he'd posted a few questions on a group, as someone new to CR and trying to figure a few things out, and I offered some opinions here and there. At this point there were no hints of racism - it was never brought onto the groups - and after a while we did the whole Facebook friends thing. Then came the racism...Post after post after post on his status updates, some of which were trying to articulate a point, others of which were just the same racial slur repeated three or four times in one sentence, mostly aimed at 'Paki's' and Muslims, and how they're 'taking over Scotland' (or will do, within the next 50 years or so. Forcing Shariah law on us all etc).

After I suggested that perhaps he could refrain from engaging in such ignorance and offensiveness (that would be a polite rewording of what I said), he defended himself by saying he didn't see it as racist at all - he was just stating the facts - and that was that. Unfortunately it didn't stop any of the subsequent replies to the post arriving in my inbox, so some of his friends stepped in and agreed with him - it's not racist, defending your culture, especially when it's under attack from religious extremists. Close the borders! GAELIC PRIDE WORLDWIDE!

And of course, obviously I just don't know any better, wallowing here in my self-hating, liberal, politically correct white guilt.

Somebody obviously hadn't read up on CR and what it stands for, and this is what's really irked me about the whole thing, and that's why I've been stewing about it for a bit. It's not like there isn't a whole website dedicated to exactly that, or anything...Or in the CR FAQ:
People practicing or endorsing racism are not accepted as a part of CR any more than KKK members are accepted as a part of mainstream liberal Christian denominations. We work hard to expose people using CR or a link with Celtic culture as an excuse for racism and condemn them for their prejudices and acts of discrimination.

And, seeing as racism and homophobia and all the rest tends to walk hand in hand, let's not forget:
Knowing that humanity originated on the African continent, we believe that we are all of one blood, all one human family. CR as a whole is strongly anti-racist and welcomes people of all races, ethnicities and colors who wish to follow Celtic deities in a CR style.

CR firmly and absolutely rejects racism, sexism, homophobia and other forms of discrimination that divide people into warring camps.

It's sad that things like this need to be restated. It's sad that things like this even have to be said at all, but there you have it: It does, and may be the only thing that can be hoped for is that such people will decide that CR isn't for them after all.

As far as I'm concerned, there's no excuse for racism, and there's certainly no excuse for jumping into a religion so it can be twisted to give a veneer of spiritual justification for racism and ignorance, or to reinforce a twisted sense of cultural superiority. The sources we look to in the process of reconstructing our practices show that ignorance and lies are something to be reviled. Being inhospitable or ungracious towards your guests is considered to be utterly offensive. Racism and bigotry encompasses all of these things. It has no place in Celtic Reconstructionism at all. It has no place in Scotland either, and I'm glad that the nationalist party who are currently running the show at Holyrood feel the same. The same can't be said for the BNP. Or the EDL. Or the SDL. But I digress, perhaps.

As far as I see it, at the heart of Celtic Reconstructionism - in all its many expressions - what makes you a part of CR is what you do, how you act, the gods you worship. Skin colour, blood, sexuality, place of birth...These have nothing to do with making a person eligible or ineligible, better or worthier as a reconstructionist, and nor should they.

Thankfully these kind of bigots are very much a minority, but therein lies the problem, in some ways. Perhaps because these problems with racists are (generally) few and far between, racism and bigotry isn't something that's talked about as much as it should be within the community as a whole. In this instance, for example, it seems that at least one person didn't get the memo, anyway. Then again, there are always going to be some who jump in first and then read later, so there will always be a few who will probably ignore the obvious anyway.

A lot of the time it's the negative things that stick in people's minds rather than the positives, and the only way to try and counter them is to speak out against them. Even though it might be just a small minority, any racists or bigots that are given free rein could potentially damage the community as a whole, and mire CR in a seedy image of bigotry and white supremacy (and some people would say reconstructionists have enough of an image problem without being seen as a bunch of racist bigots as well). Without speaking out, they can go round spreading lies, and their racist agenda under the guise of religion, and then it's a black mark against us all. I'm not saying that the person I had a run in with is doing this, by the way. But I do think it's a potential risk that folks like this might take it upon themselves to do so.

It has to be said, the CR community as a whole has a pretty good track record on speaking out. It doesn't tolerate this kind of thing, as people like Steven Akins will know (never claiming to be a reconstructionist, though, because he could go one better, oh yes - an anciente druid manuscript with a stunning pedigree, surviving through the ages in the hands of pretty much every prominent occult personality in the history books, with nary a mention anywhere during the course of hundreds of years or so. Until it fell into the hands of a white supremacist with a dim view of Jews, homosexuals and queers, and reconstructionists in general, of course...).

If there's one thing that all kinds of CRs can agree on, whatever part of the umbrella they might shelter under, it's that racism and bigotry have no place here. Labels are a slippery thing; anyone can go round calling themselves a Celtic Reconstructionist whether they fit under that label or not, and they can go round saying what they like. One thing I hope people understand, though, is that this is not something that's tolerated by the community as a whole. And anyone who might be labouring under the misapprehension that it is tolerated, or even celebtrated, well...I think it's safe to say that there's no place for you here.

55. Tell him, let him be merciful, just, impartial, conscientious, firm, generous, hospitable, honourable, stable, beneficient, capable, honest, well-spoken, steady, true-judging.

Wednesday, 7 September 2011


Yes, that's a whole lot of exclamation marks there, but with good reason, I think.

I've just received a letter from the Perth and Kinross Council informing me that the Allt Cailliche Hydropower Scheme for Glen Lyon has been withdrawn.

I'm not sure if that means that the hydroscheme has been given up on entirely, or if there may be a revised application lodged in future, I've not found anything online about this yet. For now, though, it seems that the future of Tigh nam Bodach is a bit brighter than it was when the application was first lodged.

I'll keep a look out for any news on this, but at the moment I'm just so pleased and relieved that this has had a happy ending. It might just be the first hurdle, but for now I'll take the good news happily and celebrate.

Monday, 5 September 2011

Book Review: Early Medieval Ireland 400-1200

Early Medieval Ireland 400-1200 (Longman History of Ireland Series)
Dáibhí Ó Cróinín

This is one of those books that's great for the history buff, and it's certainly one of the more readable tomes on the subject. Anyone looking for a good introduction to the early Medieval period in Ireland, this is probably the book I'd recommend you pick up first.

No, it's probably not the most exciting bedtime reading, but for considering what it aims to deliver to the reader, it does a fine job. It's primarily aimed at university level students or the serious amateur historian, so it offers a good introduction to pretty much all of the key areas you'll want to know about, and it's well-referenced if you want pointers to further reading. It's not too heavy on Teh Big Wurdz and jargon so you won't be stuck reading the same paragraph again and again, trying to figure out what the hell it's supposed to be saying - always a plus in my book.

The areas covered include the beginnings of Christianity, the Church and its influence, the growth of early Medieval Irish literature, society and law, the Vikings, and then a bit about the political landscape. Each chapter covers a specific topic and is fairly self-contained, and provides a good introduction to the main points and issues surrounding that particular subject.

In addition to all of this, because it's fairly wide-ranging in its scope it makes a good place to start if you want to get an idea of the basics without having to spring for several lengthier books that go into more detail. It gives a solid foundation before you think about going on to the more specialised (denser and perhaps drier) books like Kelly's Early Irish Law, Patterson's Cattle Lords and Clansmen, Byrne's Irish Kings and High Kings, or McCone's Pagan Past and Christian Present, and so on...Educational and efficient! Nobody could complain about that in today's economic climate, eh?

You won't find much in here about pre-Christian Ireland, although there is a good discussion on the arguments for and against the pre-Christian origins of ogam. The lack of anything particularly meaty about pre-Christian Ireland might be off-putting to some, but what it does do is give a good idea of the kind of things surrounding the time when the tales were being written down, and how influential the Church came to be, and so on. This is all good stuff to know, even if it doesn't help in giving any practical ideas.

There isn't much that detracts from the book in terms of content; I'm sure some could criticise parts of it for not going into enough detail here and there, but at the end of the day, it's an introduction and it can't cover everything. It's not necessarily the cheapest book you'll find, especially if you buy it new, but otherwise if there's just one book you want to splurge on for introducing you to medieval Irish history, then I'd probably recommend this one.

Thursday, 1 September 2011


Another bout of tweaking, this time some reorganising of the Resources section.

The links section has been a bit of a mess for a while now, so I've done some tidying up and reformatting there; any dead links should be gone now, and I've added in some more bits and pieces, but also removed some to keep the focus more tightly on Gaelic Reconstructionist Polytheism. I've decided to stick to what I know, as it were, to avoid confusion.

In the process of all that I decided to split off the pdf and .doc files into a new page:

Article Downloads

And then I decided to reorganise the Big Book List. That involved splitting off the older books into a list on its own:

Antiquarian Books

This is mainly because these are often the kinds of books that are problemmatic in one way or another, and it's unwieldy to have them lumped all together with the more reliable ones. They can still be useful but I think it's better to get a solid footing in the more modern works first.

Anyway, that's it for now...