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.