Saturday, 28 June 2008

Archive: Folklore of Scottish Lochs and Springs - James M MacInlay

Folklore of Scottish Lochs and Springs
James M MacInlay

I'd had my eye on this one for a while, and seeing as it isn't available from the library, I eventually managed to convince myself that that was justification enough to buy it. Because, y'know...I might be missing out on something...It wasn't too expensive, either, so if it ended up being a pile of crap then I wouldn't have wasted too much money. (But of course, now you can just read it online...).

Thankfully, it didn't disappoint. Too much. The copy I got was a facsimile reprint of the original version from 1893 and considering its age, it's no surprise that it has all the usual problems of a book from this time period - the often somewhat self-conscious comments about how it's all a pile of silly superstition anyway, to point out that the author in no way believes in this sort of thing; the noble savage/primitives view of the Celts when referring to pre-Christian beliefs; an occasional smattering of Aryan ideology creeping in and frequent comparison with Egyptian, Syrian and Persian cultures, and so on. Unlike some books of this time, none of these elements are emphasised too heavily and MacInlay tends to use them to support his arguments of the Scottish evidence he presents, rather than the other way round.

I was hoping to find some good information about folklore and practices at wells in particular, especially the types of offerings that were left, and their associations with trees as well. I know. The things my brain ponders are just fascinating...But there are lengthy chapters on both of these, as well as chapters on charm-stones, water spirits, healing and their association with saints. Some chapters were more interesting and more relevant to my interests than others, and one minor annoyance I found as I got stuck into it was that times, much of the evidence provided wasn't about Scotland at all and came from England, Ireland or Wales, and refreshingly, occasionally, the Isle of Man, too. On the one hand this was interesting and helped to provide a wider context for the evidence of practices from Scotland, but on the other hand sometimes it was apparent that such evidence was being given because MacInlay didn't have anything to say about Scottish practices on the subject. One of the worst chapters for this was the chapter on Weather and Wells, which aside from the practice of sailors 'buying' a favourable wind was almost completely focused on lore from England. It was interesting to read, but not exactly relevant to the title of the book and I couldn't help but feel that it was being used to pad out the chapter, rather than inform.

In spite of this, there were some genuinely interesting bits and pieces to be found in the book, and MacInlay gave a lot of information about wells from urban centres as well as the more rural ones that modern books on folklore tend to focus on, as well as more general lore on lochs and other bodies of water. MacInlay also offers references to much older historical sources, as far back as the fourteenth century, which is invaluable considering the more modern books on subjects like this tend to refer to books like MacInlays, rather than the older sources, so he offers something different from a variety of angles.

I was particularly intrigued by the mention of a well in the city centre of Glasgow, where it's recorded that up until around the end of the eighteenth century it was common for small offerings made of tin-iron, shaped to look like various limbs or parts of the body, to be nailed to the tree that overshadowed the well (dedicated to St Thenew), presumably in thanks for its curative powers relating to those parts of the body. It struck me as being very reminiscent of the finds from the Gaulish shrine to Sequana. The chapter on charm-stones also offered some good stuff on serpent stones (which he describes as being usually made of brightly-coloured glass) and their use in curing cattle of disease and so forth, and he also offered a few bits on festival practices that I hadn't seen before (especially the practice of building gigantic towers at Lammas).

No references are given in the book, except when direct quotes are given (which isn't unusual for books this old), so sometimes there were certain things that MacInlay wrote that would have been good to follow up (like the description of the Lammas towers, for one). Unusually, however, he does provide a fairly comprehensive bibliography of the works he's referred to in the course of writing the book, which is invaluable, and he also offers some personal observations from his own fieldwork.

This is a very comprehensive work on the subject, and in spite of its problems it's certainly one I'm glad to have bought for future reference. Given its fairly narrow scope it's probably of most interest for someone who's got a good grasp of the basics and wants to get stuck into more of the specifics of certain areas of lore.