Saturday, 29 November 2008

Archive: Dunadd: An Early Dalriadic Capital - Alan Lane and Ewan Campbell

Dunadd: An Early Dalriadic Capital
Alan Lane and Ewan Campbell

I think it's fairly safe to say that this book is everything you ever wanted to know about Dunadd, with knobs on.

Given the detail involved - up to and including lists and catalogues of the finds and detailed analysis of soil reports and so on - it's probably safe to say that it's not going to be essential reading for most people interested in CR or Scottish history or archaeology, but it is likely to be one of those books that will be referenced in years to come if you happen to read more accessible ones.

The main remit of the book is to bring together the findings of the series of digs that were carried out there in the early 80's, which were aimed at finding evidence to date the site and give it a detailed chronology. The dig was successful in this, showing some occupation in the Iron Age, but mostly finding activity coming from the early medieval period, confirming that it was in use during the heyday of the Dál Riata.

That in itself doesn't make it of much interest from anything but an archaeology geeks perspective, really, but I bought it mainly because there's some good stuff on the idea of Dunadd being an inaugural site for the Dalriadic kings, both in terms of the history of people claiming that it was an inaugural site (it's a fairly recent idea), and in looking at whether there's any evidence to support such an idea (in short, yup). Like so many authors, they seem to shy away from going into the pre-Christian stuff in too much detail, but there are still some interesting points to ponder - the position of Dunadd in relation to the land, and the concentration of pre-historic monuments in the area seems to be a conscious connection with the past, legitimating the king's authority by his links with land and the evidence of the people before him.

There's also some good stuff on the history of Dunadd and Dál Riata in general, and the discussion at the end of the book brings it all together nicely. All this goes into a bit more detail than Saints and Sea-kings, and discusses points like the apparent contradiction between the history and the archaeology in more detail (the history says the Irish came to Scotland whereas the archaeology suggests the migration was the other way round); and concludes that the popular idea of the Irish taking over the area en masse, as we're told in historical records, isn't so clear cut, and that the Dariadic kings and the introduction of Gaelic to the area was probably a much slower process that happened through close trading links and cultural closeness between the two areas, rather than a political takeover at one point in time.

The main reason I bought it, though, is an article on interpreting the ogam inscription found near the summit of the site, by Katherine Forsyth, who argues that it's not Pictish gibberish as previously, but is indeed Gaelic. She discusses other studies of the ogam that have been carried out, and gives a tentative partial translation of the inscription as Finn manach, 'Finn the monk', or Fir(r) Manach, 'the men of Manaig' (with Forsyth favouring the former, rather than the latter translation). It's tempting to assume that this is referring to a monk involved in the inauguration of a king, but who can say for sure?

The book comes with a hefty price tag, so this was a luxury buy for me. I enjoyed it, and it's well written and well-referenced, but I wouldn't say it's essential reading and it's probably the sort of book to get out from the library to pick at the chapters that are of most interest, if you really want to, rather than to invest in.

Archive: Saints and Sea-kings - Ewan Campbell

Saints and Sea-kings: The First Kingdom of the Scots
Ewan Campbell

I mentioned this one in a review of another book from the same The Making of Scotland series by Historic Scotland a while ago, but it deserves its own review I think. The other book took a look at Iron Age Scotland, whereas this one looks at the eary medieval period and the coming (and going) of the Dalriadans who settled in the Argyll area of the west coast from around 400AD (although the dates depend on who you ask).

The series aims to provide "lively, accessible and up-to-date introductions to key themse and periods in Scottish history and pre-history", and while I'm not sure history can ever be lively for some people, I'd say the book delivers on its promise of being accessible. Nearly ten years on, it also still stands up as being relatively up to date - since this was one of the key texts for a module I studied (Early Medieval Gaeldom) and some of the things in there were fairly revolutionary at the time there's sometimes an excitement and defensiveness at some of the things that are said that are generally accepted as fact, which might date it a little. But maybe I'm thinking more about the tone of my lectures than picking up anything from the book.

There are plenty of pictures and illustrations with nice soundbites in helpful little boxes to help emphasise some of the more important facts that are presented, and the tone and language that's used is clear and there's not too much jargon. The lack of references, unless a text is specifically mentioned or quoted, is a problem, but not surprising for a book like this which is aimed at a younger audience rather than a specifically academic one, but overall the book is short and sweet and gives good pointers to further reading and sites to see. And at least with this book, you can look up the sites on CANMORE and check for the site reports yourself, unlike Cunliffe's book that also had the same problem.

On the plus side, the author presents the information clearly and in a straightforward and sensible manner. It's not an in-depth analysis of the subject, by necessity, but Dr Campbell does cover some of the more important quibbles over some of the details here and there. He covers the origins of the Dál Riata, what their everyday life would have been like, their social and political structure, religion (mainly in terms of the coming of Christianity, rather than anything useful about any pre-Christian beliefs) and the importance of Iona in the early medieval period, the sources that relate to or refer to Dál Riata, and their artistic accomplishments.

It's an easy read that doesn't repeat itself too much and doesn't rely on teh big wurdz to make the author sound intelligent. The only real negative in terms of the information that's presented is that there's an unfortunate mistake that mixes up Brythonic and Goidelic as Q- and P-Celtic languages, rather than P- and Q-Celtic. I'm not sure if there are later editions that have corrected it, but it's worth watching out for and noting. It's the only real clanger in the book.

It's a good series of books to get if you want a beginner's guide to Scottish history and archaeology and while it's not directly beneficial in terms of informing CR practice - although the mention of conical glass 'drinking horns' are interesting from a feasting perspective, I think - I'd recommend it for getting a good idea of historical background for someone looking to get a good introduction to the subject, as well as a good perspective surrounding the issues in studying it.

Friday, 7 November 2008

Archive: Nitpicking, CR-style

(Or maybe it's just me).

There have been a few interesting discussions going on in some of the Celtic lists I lurk on, recently, in the last few weeks. Combined with Erynn's thoughtful post the other day week (*ahem* yes, it's taken that long to write this...), I've been doing a lot of pondering recently - on the gods and their place in my life, and in the landscape that I'm feeling such a part of now. I've been pondering about it on and off for a good six months or so, but finally (and with a bit of prodding) I think I'm finding the words to get it all out in the open so I can see it, look at it and look back on it. So I can put it all into words and see just what's been knocking at my head for so long. Which has all taken over a week or so, so if I make no sense from hereon in, it's because I got to the point where I just couldn't pick at the damn thing anymore...

I want to say what I mean clearly, but at the same time seeing as it's so personal, I know what I mean but that doesn't necessarily mean that I'm conveying that meaning effectively to those of you reading this. With those excuses in mind...

Over the past few years I've been feeling increasingly drawn to the goddess Badb. It's taken a long time (or so it seems to me - and for reasons I'll go into shortly) but we seem to have found a comfortable rhythm to our interactions now. I leave her offerings and talk to her; I look for signs that she might send and interpret them accordingly (not just crow-related signs, but they figure largely in my relationship, even though hoodie crows specifically aren't all that common round here; I find meaning in corvids in general, for a variety of reasons). I don't hear her, loud and crystal clear in my head, but I feel that she's there listening. I don't see her clear as day in front of me, but I See her, an image in my head, dark and almost intangible, a vision I've drawn on paper many times since I was a child.

It's a very quiet thing, an internal, personal experience for the most part. There are no bells or whistles as such, no fireworks and great revelations. It just is, and at times it can be incredibly profound. Now I've accepted it, I find it a comfort. I don't see her as being a maternal figure for me (and don't feel the need for one), so I don't see that she looks after me in that sense, but I find comfort in the rightness of it; the truth in it all.

Her presence these days is almost imperceptible, except for a quiet tapping at the back of my head; a knock or a nudge every time I look outside each morning to see what the day brings. Some days it's more obvious than others (like this morning with the magpie hopping around my kitchen door and making a huge racket), but it's always there. I see her as an ancestor of sorts, because she's most commonly connected with the part of Ireland that my nan's family comes from, and of all the surviving members of my family that I know best, she's the one I feel closest to, and respect the most deeply. I see truth in it, in evolving this relationship with Badb, and find a sense of wholeness to my spiritual practices that I never felt before. It makes me feel good, but confused at the same time, in a way.

I honour the gods of the Gaels in my daily practices, as well as the probable Brythonic deities of this area, and I sometimes honour specific ones other than Badb - the gods of this place (in specific, Clota, or is it *Clota? The goddess of the river, who was probably venerated by the Britons who lived here. And in a wider sense, Bride and the Cailleach in my seasonal celebrations especially) and also the gods of the people who came here from Ireland. But of them all, I seem to have the most personal relationship with Badb. I've yet to feel the need to make any sort of formal, ritualised dedication to her, but maybe I will some day, who knows. In honouring her and listening to her, I see that as making enough of an obligation to her for now, and as I explore what she means to me, and how she fits into my spiritual practices and beliefs, I'm seeing a lot of similarities between her and the Cailleach Bheur.

As far as Badb in particular is concerned, it's something that's taken a very long time to accept, for me, because she's not exactly an obvious goddess to find yourself developing a relationship with when you're so drawn to expressing your spirituality in terms of Scottish cultural practices like I am. I feel an intense connection with this land and I see the gods as being very localised at their core so it feels odd to be so drawn to a deity that has such a tenuous connection, at best (in an overt, direct sense as far as I know), with this place. The gods of this place that I honour are very real to me, but yet I don't feel the same sort of relationship with them. I tried that by joining a flamekeeping order dedicated to Bride, once, and while I feel it was right for me at the time, I wasn't - ultimately - meant for her.

There are these deities like Bride, the Cailleach or even Manannán that are more directly associated with Scotland than Badb, as far as I'm aware. In pondering and pursuing all this I feel like I've gained a greater undertanding of Bride and the Cailleach on a more personal level, but not in the same way as I identify with Badb. In order to reconcile all of this with myself, I've been thinking, doubting myself, pondering and coming to the same conclusion over and over again that it is what it is and it's really not going to go away. No, no, it can't be...Oh but it is, and get over yourself...

But that doesn't mean that deities like Badb can have no associations, or potential associations, with Scotland. Which makes me think that I'm interpreting all this on a fairly literal level, really, and makes me think I'm quibbling about details to a painful extent...Which isn't surprising, given my personality, but still it's something that troubles me at times. On the one hand I balk at the idea that Gaelic=essentially the same no matter which country, because I'm the sort to focus on the nuances and details. As far as modern politics goes, there are vast differences (as well as similarities) between Ireland and northern Ireland, let alone adding Scotland into the mix, but all of them are often lumped under the Gaelic umbrella. And yet I find the historical and cultural similarities and crossovers, as well as the differences, incredibly informative. Inevitably, and perhaps especially because I live in one of those melting pots of Brythonic and Gaelic practice, along with everything else, things all mix into one at times.

Pondering all this, Erynn made a timely post on how she sees her relationship with the gods, in which she quoted Whitman:

Do I contradict myself?
Very well then I contradict myself,
(I am large, I contain multitudes.)

Looking at the quote itself, I can certainly identify with this on a personal level, and it made me think that yes, the gods may have been very localised as I see them most commonly, but they've also become very widespread, as I also see them; I may be focusing on a particular culture in my practices, but I also can't avoid the wider connections between Scotland and Ireland, and the many crossovers between them throughout time. I'm keeping it in the family at least, and even if I can only say my perceptions are a modern evolution of what might have been, I'm calling it as I see it.

As my practices have evolved I seem to have unconsciously been accommodating this apparent contradiction, to my mind, by honouring the gods of this place that I live on, on a localised as well as a more national level (i.e. the Brythonic Clota of here, Strathclyde, alongside Cailleach Bheur and Bride), along with the gods that are commonly associated with the 'Gaelic legacy' of Scotland's association with Ireland as a whole, over the years, centuries and even millenia. It all melts into one, and the labels of 'Scottish Reconstructionist' and 'Gaelic Polytheist' meld together.

This doesn't bother me as far as my personal practices are concerned; I do what I do and I've done what I've done, and regardless of the labels I've assigned to those practices, I've found incredible depth and meaning in them. But I like to get the labels right...

Monday, 3 November 2008

Archive: The Secret Commonwealth - Brian Walsh

The Secret Commonwealth and the Fairy Belief Complex (by Robert Kirk)
Brian Walsh

Written in the late 17th century by Robert Kirk, seventh son of the minister of Aberfoyle (and later a minister himself), The Secret Commonwealth is one of those important books that you need to read if you want to know anything about beliefs in fairies and the Second Sight in Scotland...Or you should think about reading, anyway...

There are many different versions of The Secret Commonwealth available to buy, and you need to be careful which one you choose. Trust me on this. I bought a different (cheaper) version of this years ago, with an introduction by Alan Richardson, followed by the reprint of Andrew Lang's work and R B Cunninghame Graham's introduction.

It quickly became apparent why Brian Walsh's book is recommended above any other - partly because he gives a good outline of the history of Kirk and The Secret Commonwealth, and the inherent problems or weaknesses with the earlier major publications of the text (such as Andrew Lang's biography of Kirk, which isn't entirely accurate) and partly because some of the more modern authors, like Richardson, tend to be a little off the wall (for my tastes, anyway). In his introduction, for example, Richardson discusses the commonly held belief that Kirk didn't, in fact die, but was spirited away by the Good Folk for giving too much away, and mentions this with the belief that King Arthur (the King of Britain) didn't really die either. Or Elvis (The King). Or Jim Morrison (The Lizard King). Naturally, like all of these Kings, Kirk lies in wait to return when he's most needed...Except Elvis and Jim do have the nasty habit of turning up in the most unlikely of places, but that's by the by...


Anyway. Lang's version, the earliest publication of the manuscript from 1893, can be found on sacred-texts, so if you're just interested in the text itself, or what Lang himself had to say, there's no need to buy a copy. This version doesn't include A Short Treatise of the Scotish-Irish Charms and Spels, though, as Walsh does (and it's worth a read), and the text is presented in a much more readable manner in Walsh's book, although the language and spelling might still give you a headache...

What Brian Walsh does is provide a historical context to the work, showing that Kirk's ideas and information generally came from three sources: the native folk belief complex, Christianity (Protestant), and neoplatonic or hermetic beliefs, and in picking all these pieces apart, it helps give an understanding of where everything comes from.

As far as Kirk's work itself is concerned, I have to admit that there wasn't a massive amount in there that interested me in terms of learning anything new about folklore, but I can't help but feel that I'm doing it a disservice in some respects, because I approached it with the hope of learning more about folklore and this isn't just what the book is about. I'm not sure I was able to fully appreciate the theological context of Kirk's work as Brian Walsh obviously does, and while the historical context is interesting to me, that's not what I wanted so much.

Added to this, my lack of interest at times was partly to do with the fact that I've read it elsewhere and in more than one place. That's hardly Kirk's fault, seeing as he was writing a good 200 hundred years before most others, and he can hardly be faulted for the beliefs remaining fairly consistent during that time, or other people referencing him later on. I have to admit that Kirk's frequent Biblical references were also offputting for me - not because it's Oh noes, Teh Bible! but simply because it's not something I have much familiarity with or understanding of. Considering the time he was writing (in the late seventeenth century), and the fact that he was a minister, it's not surprising, but since I'm not an expert on the Bible, or the finer points of Christian theology, a lot of it I just had to wade through without really being able to form much of an opinion of it.

Kirk's treatise on charms piqued my interest the most, because (aside from the fact that I'm interested in that sort of thing) some of the examples of charms he gave showed remarkable similarity in terms of the style and formula used with some of the charms and songs that are found in the Carmina Gadelica. Here Kirk offers some things I haven't seen before, and it's interesting to see how things change, or don't, over time; I think this is one of the things that makes the book so important to read.

With Walsh's outline of and commentary on where such ideas might have come from, it helps give an idea of how to examine folk beliefs, and how Christianity may have affected them, in a more critical manner. Kirk's often fairly unorthodox views on the subject - arguing that the Second Sight isn't evil, as was the common perception at the time, because the person afflicted with it was born with it and didn't seek it out - are interesting too from a historical perspective, if you like that sort of thing, but I'm not sure that overall it's something to get too excited about.

Reading through Walsh's work helps give you an idea that Kirk is writing from both a very personal perspective (perhaps influenced by the fact that he was a seventh son, and supposed to have the Sight himself), and trying to write about existing beliefs that he encounters in his community and the people he meets, whilst maintaining a suitably Christian regard for it all.

It would have been nice to see something more critical and indepth in terms of what it all means, but that's not the purpose of this book and Mr Walsh makes that clear from the beginning. Walsh avoids giving too much personal interpretation on Kirk's work, but he does give an interesting chapter on the Body of Air that Kirk mentions a lot in his manuscript, and he goes into some depth here. He also lists the common motifs of the fairy belief complex as outlined by Cross and Slover from their study of Irish beliefs, which helps put it all in a wider context, especially if you're going to read (or have read) something like Evan-Wentz's The Fairy-Faith in Celtic Countries.

Saturday, 1 November 2008

Archive: Samhainn 2008 (2)

Like last year I decided to carve the turnips in advance of the day itself, to spread things out a little, so I set to work on them the night before Samhainn after the kids had gone to bed - it's not a good idea to have two helpful children around knives so I thought it best to keep them out of the way. Next year I might spring for a pumpkin, because I'm sure they'd love scooping the innards out.

Before I started, as the sun began to set and the night closed in I was looking out the front window, I was thinking about what I was going to do for the evening. A huge flock of crows landed in the trees across from the house and began to caw raucously, playfully hopping about and chasing each other. I don't think I've ever seen so many crows all at once, and while there was a bit of an Alfred Hitchcock undertone to it all ("Fuck off you cellists!" to quote Eddie Izzard), I couldn't really ignore it as a definite sign. The night was closing in and it seemed as if they were saying that now was a good time to start celebrations. Something Otherworldly was definitely in the air.

I did three tumshies this year (and have the blisters to prove it) - carving them isn't as tough as you'd expect but after a while it can get hard on your hands. This time round I made sure to make the holes for the faces big enough to allow enough air in for the candles, but I wasn't careful enough as I carved them and accidentally cut between the eye and the mouth on a couple of them. No biggy, I don't think, but maybe using something more suitable to delicate work will help next year. They all looked suitably scary and threatening.

After I'd finished carving, I made some offerings to the Good Folk in the hope that they'd take a hint and stay away, and that was that for the night, really, it was quite late. I slept pretty well, but don't remember any dreams.

In the morning, I made the bannocks - Pitcaithly bannocks this time, and they were very nice, a lot like shortbread. Well, they basically are shortbread, but citrusy (three parts flour to two parts butter and one part sugar, but with a tablespoon of ground almond and a handful of candied peel). They came out well and didn't break, so I took that as a good sign. I broke one in half and duly left it as an offering, and Mr Seren took us into Glasgow where we spent the day doing fairly mundane stuff, getting some warm tops for winter.

Mr Seren didn't stop long in Glasgow, so I took the train back with the kids and managed to time it perfectly for the sunset, which was beautiful. First we went past Dumbarton Rock, or Alt Clut as it was known, home to kings of Strathclyde way back in the late Iron Age (or so it's thought), and situated on the other side of the Clyde from us. It's a volcanic plug of basalt, if I remember rightly. Then we went past Inverkip Powerstation a little later when the sun was much lower:

Mr Seren's fascinated by the powerstation, and calls it The Hive. It was built in the 70s but never used (as I may have posted before...), because the price of oil sky-rocketed during it's construction, and yet it's always a hive of activity. Obviously it's a front for nefarious government experiments, but Mulder and Scully don't seem too interested in it, sadly. Or, in reality, it's been kept as a back-up powerstation ever since but it's going to be knocked down soon, once they've decided how to go about it, and what to do with the land. I hope they make it into a nature reserve, but it's more likely it will be used for housing. But I digress.

Here's one of Argyll and Bute, just as the sun dipped down below the horizon as we were coming into the station (you can see the crap on the window of the train too, but nevermind):

I didn't have much time to cook a proper meal in the evening so I cheated and bought most of it ready made before I left the city centre. We had braised steak with shallots and a gravy with chianti, with roasted parsnips and potato and fresh veg, followed by apple pie and honey ice cream or custard, and it was yummy. In spite of the fact that the apple pie fell splat on the oven door as I was trying to take it out.

Tom was very interested in the tumshie lanterns, and Mr Seren did the honours with lighting them and putting them in the window. The guisers turned up in a slow but steady stream, and it was all very fun and exciting. People round here seem to make a big thing about celebrating Hallowe'en, much more so than last year when we were over in Bo'ness, and during the week, as I was walking the dogs in the evening I'd see groups of kids walking around with torches, visiting particular houses where they'd go in and come out screaming and laughing. I'm guessing it was some sort of house of horror trail around the village.

I made offerings of milk and honey, gingerbread, some of the nuts and sweets we'd been handing out to the guisers, and a splash of whisky to the ancestors, on my little shelf, and left out food, set aside from dinner earlier, for any visitors during the night (and hoping it was out of Mungo's reach, scavenging little sod that he is). Offerings for the gods and spirits were left as well, including some more of the bannock I'd made earlier.

I'd been meaning to do more but I was tired and decided I wasn't good for much except sleep. Tom needed a little attention, too, so it was still quite late before I got to bed but I was incredibly restless and didn't really sleep. By 4am I gave up and decided to get up, so I came downstairs and meditated a little on my family and ancestors and held an impromptu vigil. I've been lucky this year not to have lost anyone, but I realised that my sister had, recently even, and so I paid my respects to the little niece or nephew that could have been but never was.

I realised I hadn't done any divination that night, either, so I got out my ogam set and picked out three staves from the bag. They always seem to come out with the most appropriate feda for each festival, and this time was no exception - it all seemed to relate to family, hinting at a particular female member and I wonder if it's something to do with my nan. She's been very ill recently, with an infection in her colon - probably a seed that got stuck there. It's quite common, especially for her age, but it's hit her hard and she hasn't wanted any visitors. I'm not sure whether I'm reading into my worry for her, or if there's a genuine message there. Either way, I eventually managed to get some sleep, and luckily for me it was my weekend lie-in. I know I dreamed this time, but I can't remember what it was about at all.

The next day I felt quite drained so we didn't do much. During my impromptu vigil the night before I realised I'd been unconsciously concentrating my three nights of celebration into three different focuses - the first night on the spirits, the second night on the ancestors, the third night was going to be for the gods. I got some flowers - red, yellow and orange, and was going to decorate my little shelf where I have my little sacred space but I realised I didn't have anything to put them in that would fit, so they went on the mantelpiece above the fire instead. I also realised I'd forgotten to sain the house the night before, so I did that using some of the water I collected at Bealltainn like I usually do. The house feels much better for it.

I took the dogs for their evening walk and went down to the shore where I left some offerings and meditated for a while. The night was clear and still and the water hardly made any noise as it lapped away at the beach, and all was calm and peaceful. Down at the sea I usually dedicate my offerings to Manannan and the river, and Manannan in particular seemed to feel close.

There were no great revelations or signs, but I felt like I'd been heard, and after I got home I made more offerings - rum and coffee grounds to Badb this time (she seems to like them - I gave the spiced rum we got from St Lucia because I'd run out of whisky and couldn't find the mead I'd bought for the occasion, and for some reason I always give coffee grounds now, perhaps because I love the stuff so much and it's something genuinely important to me in an odd sort of way), gingerbread, nuts and milk to the gods in general, and bread and butter and more treats from the previous night for the spirits. I don't know why I separate it out like that, but it feels right and seems to work. As I came back inside and closed the door, the first thing I saw was a spider - one of those ones with a huge round arse - was weaving a web in the corner of the door, tucked in behind the curtain. I always take spiders as a sign of good luck in the home, and this year I must be very lucky indeed.

So that was my Samhainn. A little disorganised, some of it unexpected and unplanned, but all of it good. Tom's back, looking extremely happy with a giant lollipop, and Mr Seren is bearing a box of Belgian chocolates all for me. Yes, I'm very lucky indeed.