Sunday, 11 May 2008

Archive: Scottish Customs/Scottish Festivals - Sheila Livingstone

Scottish Customs and Scottish Festivals
Sheila Livingstone

These are two separate books by the same author, but seeing as they basically go hand in hand, I might as well lump them together.

I saw them recommended on a college book list somewhere so thought I'd give them a go. I wasn't really expecting much in the way of new information, so when they arrived any high hopes I might have had weren't exactly dashed. Livingstone draws heavily on McNeill's The Silver Bough as a source, so for the most part it's a rehashing of that work. This is good and bad in a way, because they're shorter volumes and there's only two of them. In that sense, it will cost a lot less to buy them than all four volumes of McNeill's work and being shorter, there's less detail to overwhelm someone who's new to the subject, if they're looking for a basic nuts and bolts sort of introduction. They're much easier to get hold of than McNeill's work, and therefore much cheaper as well.

That said, I did find some elements to be problematical, mainly Livingstone's emphasis on the customs and festivals relating back to the Druids. It was alllllll about the druids, when really there's nothing concrete to prove such a link; McNeill does this too, to be fair, and it's clear that this is where Livingstone's drawing her information from. Being a relatively recent book, though, I would have expected it to reflect a more modern attitude to the issue. It's easy to read around, but I found it very (and probably unreasonably) grating.

The Scottish Customs book is perhaps a little more useful than the Scottish Festivals book because it offers a little more in the way of detail, and is less reliant on McNeill. It splits the customs into different headings like Birth, Death, Marriage and so on, and then details the customs under separate sub-headings, making it good for flicking through and quick reference. It covers pretty much the same stuff as Margaret Bennett's Scottish Customs from Cradle to the Grave (which is the one I'd recommend for quality and quantity of information), but Livingstone's book is less academic and therefore a little more readable, in some respects, because it takes a more conversational, less analytical tone.

My first port of call would still be The Silver Bough, but as I said, the advantage of Livingstone's books are that they're more accessible and easily available. I'd recommend them with the caveat to be a little more circumspect about the druid issue than Livingstone is, for starters.

Archive: The Scottish Cellar - F Marian McNeill

The Scottish Cellar
F Marian McNeill

This is a sister companion to another book, The Scots Kitchen. Whereas The Scots Kitchen deals with recipes and customs associated with food and cooking, this book focuses on drink.

It's less heavy on the recipes than the other book, focusing more on the culture and customs associated with drinks, drinking and hospitality. The focus is mainly relatively modern customs and culture from around the eighteenth century onwards, and the emphasis on the provision of hospitality, and the different types of hospitality (in the home, in the taverns and so on) was illuminating for me. McNeill also includes drinking songs (with music provided) and blessings from a variety of sources that I haven't seen before, so that was useful and interesting.

There are still plenty of recipes to brew your own wines and ales, or make caudle, sowens (a type of gruel/drink), whisky nog and things like that. I was hoping to find some pointers about the Bealltainn caudle that was made as a drink (rather than the batter), but was disappointed on that score, and was expecting a little more folklore than there turned out to be. Over all there's plenty to be getting on with if I ever wanted to make my own brews for libations or whatever (hawthorn or rowanberry liquer would seem apt), though, and McNeill goes into particular detail about her efforts to find, or reconstruct, an authentic 'Pictish' heather ale.

McNeill writes in a style that I'd call 'jolly hockey sticks' - what ho! - and that might be hard for some readers to get used to because it's very dated and can be hard to read at times. The recipes also use a lot of ingredients that probably aren't widely available any more, and use measurements that are outdated (and would have to be converted into cups and so forth for anyone across the Pond) so some of them are of limited use. It shouldn't be too difficult to modernise them, once you've looked up what some of the terms mean as well (I've no idea what 'sack' is, as an ingredient).

Overall, the book was interesting, but not overwhelmingly so. It was cheap at least, and I'm tempted to go looking for a more up to date book that covers similar recipes in a more straightforward manner, using modern terms and measurements that perhaps offer substitutes for ingredients that aren't necessarily available anymore.

Archive: Hallowe'en - F Marian McNeill

Hallowe'en: Its Origin Rites and Ceremonies in the Scottish Tradition
F Marian McNeill

Erynn commented on one of the reviews I just did that it's good to go straight to the sources that record customs closer to the time that they were actually practiced, before they developed or degenerated into something different (and I agree). This book was kind of the other side of the coin, because it relates much more to the surviving Hallowe'en practices of the time that McNeill was writing, and within living memory, and that in itself is interesting too because in some ways it's easier to relate to the traditions that were recorded because they're by and large practiced in a more urban setting that's relevant to most people these days, rather than an agricultural or pastoral setting that's pretty much the preserve of big business, barring a few brave souls that homestead and aim for self-sufficiency.

McNeill covered Samhuinn and Hallowe'en traditions in volume three of The Silver Bough, so to a certain extent most of this little book covers much of the same material, with a few added anecdotes that you won't find elsewhere. It's very short, so it's less in depth than The Silver Bough but it still manages to give a good overview of the main elements associated with the festival.

The main aim of the book is to provide practical ideas to put on a good Hallowe'en party according to Scottish traditions, so it makes for a good read for anyone looking for ideas this coming Samhuinn if you're going to be in a group. McNeill gives instructions for carving turnips, recipes for traditional Hallowe'en foods, pranks, divination rites and games to play, and covers other customs like guising and 'thigging' for apples, nuts and pennies around the neighbourhood (from which trick-or-treating evolved, I'd guess). For the divination chapter, McNeill omits the outdoor divination rites, saying that they've now fallen out of use for the most part, but these can be found in The Silver Bough.

All in all, the book's very straightforward and not too heavy on the detail. There's not really much on offer that you can't find in The Silver Bough chapter or (for the recipes) using the power of Google, but it does make for a handy quick reference because of its short length and simplicity. The directions for the games and rites are clearly stated and more practical considerations are accounted for as well, whereas these things have to be figured out yourself if you're referring to The Silver Bough. It's not difficult, but some people might appreciate the overall structure and flow to the proceedings that McNeill gives here.

Ultimately, not an essential tome for the bookshelf, but it's one I like having because of the much more modern focus on the customs as a comparison to other books that deal with the older ones.