Wednesday, 29 December 2010

Last one of the year

I started off trying to revise a piece I did about fire a while ago - probably one of the very earliest articles I wrote. I wanted to flesh it out and add proper references and all that, because when I originally began posting stuff I never bothered. The lack of referencing made it difficult for me to go over stuff and look at the material I'd collected again, and it didn't really help anyone else either, I quickly found. Without references, for all anyone knows, I'm pulling this stuff out of my arse. And I might be over-cautious in my referencing these days, but for the most part it's because I want to be thorough, and I want people to be able to look stuff up if they need or want to. Even if by 'people' I mean just me. Don't take my word for it, neh?

So I started off thinking it was going to be a simple task, for the most part, because I had a vague idea of what needed to be added in. I ended up getting a little frustrated, though, because aside from the fact the fact that the subject kept expanding - more background was need! - I fairly sure, from my reading elsewhere, that Nagy's book The Wisdom of the Outlaw would be good reading on the subject. Kim McCone's Pagan Past and Christian Present references Nagy a lot in his chapter on 'Fire and the Arts,' anyway. Unfortunately, in this respect, my attempts to get a hold of Nagy's book have been thwarted so far.

Four Courts Press have been promising to re-publish it 'soon' for about two years at least now, and whether that's because of financial constraints on their end, or it's being revised thoroughly by the author and the process has been held up...or whatever...I don't know. All I know is that I pre-ordered a copy a good few years ago now, all excited at the prospect of a new edition, and I suspect that my credit card details have got fed up being stuck with the publisher and have wandered off elsewhere by now...And I can get it from the library, except it's been checked out for the past couple of visits I've made, and is now checked out until March at least, if I remember right. Boo. Hiss.

Being thwarted in this respect, I looked elsewhere. And so the subject began to expand and evolve even more into something entirely different. The direction it took wasn't entirely surprising, but until now (since finishing the last set of articles), it's not something I've ever really been interested in...

I ended up researching the whole idea of creation myth in an Irish context. There isn't one, but there are hints, and the whole symbolism and meaning surrounding the concept of fire - especially in relation to water - is pretty much the starting point in that respect. Kinda. So as the idea grew, I wrote, and as I wrote, the focus evolved. And at times, I had no idea where the hell I was going with this. For one, I'm not entirely comfortable with Indo-European studies, and this is a subject that inevitably relies a lot on it in drawing most conclusions by way of comparison. Sometimes these make sense, and are clear. Sometimes, given the resources I have to hand, I couldn't help but feel that some parts have been slightly fudged over in order to fit a hypothesis of they're all the same in the end.

But still. Sometimes my brain, and my books, take me to unexpected places. In some ways, it's kinda like having a holiday, because with folklore you can let it speak more for itself and in a way I prefer doing that. This is a far more speculative area, by comparison, so it allows a little freedom as well as frustration of interpretation, I guess.

I've never really been one to lament the lack of a creation myth or find it problematic, really. On the one hand, I'm aware that without it we miss out on one of the most fundamental aspects of cultural beliefs and outlooks. But on the other, with everything else we have, I've always felt we can get a pretty good idea of the basics at least. We see origin stories on a much smaller level all the time in Gaelic tradition, and in some way at least they often encompass creation as well. In a way, I can't help but feel that these are part and parcel of the whole concept anyway.

In spite of my frustrations with finding some books I wanted, I'm very thankful to one person in particular for their help in locating one article that I would otherwise have missed out on. They'll remain nameless, unless they'd prefer otherwise, but my thanks go out nonetheless because it helped me out of a real hole I found myself stuck in.

Other than that, there's nothing much else to say, other than I might change my mind about what I've written and completely write over it at some point as new information comes to light...I try to be as comprehensive as I can with this, so I may add, tweak, or revise completely at some point as new sources come to light. But here it is in all its glory for now. My only hope is that it makes sense(!):

Creation myth(s)

A few things I haven't done include linking in the basic concept of fire-in-water in relation to the Otherworldly well of Segais, which bears the fire-in-water motif and also seems to link in with trees and, by extension, the sacred tree (the bile); also the point that the duile all seem to fit neatly into the scheme of the three realms, with the exception of fire (or 'spark'), that seems to transcend. I'm not sure if they fit here, or in later articles that might now need revising. Or something. And I do think I could add something about the Cauldron of Poesy, but I'd like to hunt up some good commentary about that before I form an opinion on that...

OK, I'm just thinking out loud now...

New tomb found near Heuneburg

Well this is exciting:

German archeologists have unearthed a 2,600-year-old Celtic tomb containing a treasure of jewellery made of gold, amber and bronze.

The subterranean chamber measuring four by five meters was uncovered near the prehistoric Heuneburg hill fort near the town of Herbertingen in south-western Germany. Its contents including the oak floor of the room are unusually well preserved. The find is a "milestone for the reconstruction of the social history of the Celts," archeologist Dirk Krausse, the director of the dig, said on Tuesday. 


Unlike other tombs found in the area, this one seems to be intact, so it'll be very interesting to see what they find there. Pretty amazing that they dug the whole thing out and moved it intact to preserve it properly.

Tuesday, 21 December 2010

Newgrange video

Just thought I'd post a link to a video of the sunrise at Newgrange, here. Alas I wasn't able to watch it on one of the webcams that were being streamed - I had the joys of my daughter's nursery class Nativity play to go to. So rather than watch the sun rise, or go out myself and take some wonderfully evocative photos of a Scottish solstice sunrise, I instead have pictures of my daughter dressed as a pink 'Christmas fairy' dancing round a small boy who looked decidedly unimpressed at being forced to dress as a Christmas tree. Don't ask me what that's all about, I've no idea. Especially as far as the story of the Nativity goes...

The article that goes with the video is worth a read as well, and there's some good stuff here to, if you haven't already seen it and are looking for a bit of time to kill. We had a bit of sun for once this morning, and the weather has been giving some great scenes recently, like this one:

It's easy to imagine Manannán lurking in those mists.

But today I saw some spectacular views of the sea almost completely still and all patchy with ice, and the clouds hanging low and swirling around over it all. I might try to see if I can get a shot tomorrow - unfortunately I was on the bus so couldn't stop today.

For me, any celebrations at this time of year are the usual family-oriented ones, leading up to Hogmanay, which is the main focus of my celebrations at this time of year. Whatever you're celebrating, I hope you have a good one.

Sunday, 12 December 2010

Book Review: Land of Women

Land of Women: tales of sex and gender from early Ireland
Lisa Bitel

No book is perfect, and I often find myself split 50/50 on my opinion of what I think of a particular work. I think this book is a fine example of that problem - I see good and bad, and find myself conflicted about it overall. The bibliography and references are great, and give me plenty to go on. I find some of it useful in my research...but there's this lurking sense of disappointment, too.

I think I can overcome the flaws this time, unlike, say, Dames' Mythic Ireland. I really wanted to like that book too, but all things considered the interpretations were just a bit too bonkers for me to really recommend it confidently to anyone, other than for curiosity...

This book isn't bonkers, at all, really. But my problems with it still leave a bittersweet taste...I think the problems fall into two camps: One is the lack of balance to the arguments and evidence presented overall, and the other is the author's bias in some of her interpretations that I find disagreeable and distracting.

The way the chapters are laid out give a repetitiveness and skewed view to everything discussed that becomes difficult to overcome when read from start to finish. The arguments and evidence are laid out clearly and confidently, but each chapter tends to end up falling on the negative, rather than a balanced view, and on reflection, I think that has a lot to do with the fact that many of those points were oft repeated. No bad thing for referencing and dipping into, to be fair, but I felt that overall it wasn't such a good thing for readability. Yes, I get the point, now can we move on....No? Oh...

Each chapter follows a basic premise - looking at certain aspects of women's life in early Ireland - and I suppose given the evidence to deal with it's inevitable that the picture is going to be very negative, all things considered. What I mean is, we can look to the laws and penitentials and so on, to see what life was really like, but that's all skewed to an ideal that was never really a reality, and it's all skewed against the favour of women. But in practice, the lines were not so clearly drawn, all of the time, necessarily. And while this is all very definitely acknowledged and discussed, my reading of it seemed like this comment was an afterthought, and often contradictory to the overall tone. I'm aware, however, that it's a trap that's easily fallen into, and one that I may have unintentionally fallen into myself with the latest load of articles I've done covering marriage. So maybe I'm not one to talk there.

A hard dose of reality for the romanticists? Definitely not a bad thing. I just think in the end I would've preferred the points to be hammered home somewhat closer to the middle ground. But another problem I have with this book - a problem of perspective more than anything - is the treatment of the likes of Medb, Badb, and the Morrigan as purely literary creations and imaginings. No sense that while the author herself may see them only as that - creations - those writing about them at the time may have thought otherwise, or understood that those before them saw things differently, at least. That kind of grated, and the bias towards this interpretation really skewed things in a light that I didn't agree with.

As I said, though, there's a lot going for the book as well. My disappointment is probably proportionate to my high hopes for it (having dipped into it on Google books and thinking it was good). As a resource, it's useful and gives plenty of food for thought, and since it's well-referenced, any arguments you may have with it can go on endlessly with yourself if you really want to. Like any book it has it's flaws, and I suppose I just really wish they weren't as disagreeable as they seem. On this one, I'd definitely recommend reading before judging.

Saturday, 11 December 2010

Unexpected guests

There must be something in the water, because I've been having thoroughly odd dreams lately. One I had yesterday seemed to involve Lugh, and I can only really half-remember it all now but it seems that he really wanted to make himself known even if I didn't see him. These things don't happen very often to me, so I'm inclined to think that I should do more than simple offerings and libations in the garden to acknowledge him.

He and I have unfinished business, it seems, after all these years of not really wanting much to do with each other, and so I'm pondering on that, and trying to figure things out. A lot of my efforts over the past year or so have been aimed at really connecting with the underlying themes of Lùnastal, and of course he's intimately connected with the whole thing.

These past few Lùnastal festivals I've felt that I've had some success with it all, and while I think I can still build on that and really cement my practices into something solid, I've never really had the expectation that Lug himself would really want much to do with me. Maybe my dream is telling me different. Maybe my dream is telling me that deep down I think otherwise. Either way, it seems I should try. If someone comes knocking then one should be a good host, even if you invited them in the first place...

At Lùnastal I had a stab at doing some praise poetry in Lug's honour - I'm not a poet by any stretch and really, I figured it was personal and not being a professional I should keep it to myself. On the one hand, it seemed to be well-received, so that was something...On the other hand, there was something unfinished to it. Maybe that's it. Maybe I should finish it. Or try. I dunno.

So here it is, I'm offering it up. As I said, I'm no poet so it's nothing fantabulous, but it comes in honesty and earnest, if anything, and that's all I can do, really. While I've tweaked bits here and there just now, the overall form and feel has been kept, so it has the idea that this is being said towards the end of the celebrations, after the games and the feasting, in front of the fire:

In Praise of Lug
Oh Lug son of Ethliu,
Many-skilled and wise,
I sing my praises to you,
Renown that is plain.

Oh Lug of lofty deeds,
Golden are the fields,
Heavy hang the fruits,
Ripeness of fame.

Oh Lug of pure form,
Bright is the smile,
That smiles on you,
Beloved is the name.

Oh Lug of peace,
Peace to this earth,
The fruits of labour,
Each year the same.

These offerings I give to you,
These games I’ve held for you,
This fire that burns for you,
In your name.

Peace be with you,
Peace on this land.

Friday, 10 December 2010

Book review: Scottish Customs from the Cradle to the Grave

Scottish Customs from the Cradle to the Grave
Margaret Bennett

For once, I'm not sure I have much to say about a book. In a good way. Because I really can't think of much to say other than: I like it.

As far as finding information on various life passages, this about the only book you need to start you off. Like British Calendar Customs, it's more like a source book, with excerpts from various different authors from around the seventeenth century onwards. Bennett gives a bit more commentary than Banks did, but it's still quite light and lets the excerpts speak for themself.

The book covers customs associated with childbirth, baptism, courtship, marriage, through to death. It's all laid out in a logical order and the various different subjects that come under each chapter are well-grouped together, so finding things is easy.

One of the most charming bits about the book is that Bennett herself contributes some of the material from her own diaries and memories, as well as those of her family and students. You get the impression that not only is she passionate about the subject, she's the sort of person you could talk to for hours on end about it all, and she'd always come up with something you've never heard before.

The source material also includes bits from newspaper articles and interviews that Bennett herself (or her students) have recorded, so you get a good mix - more than most books offer. It's very dense and thorough. I can see that might be offputting for anyone wanting to read it from start to finish (and to be honest, I didn't - this is the sort of book I've had for years and have picked at various chapters as needed until I'm done), but as a resource it's excellent. It doesn't give everything you need to know, but it gives a good solid start so you can go on to hunt up more information if you want to. Does it have its limits? Yes. (For one I'd like to have seen more discussion of handfastings). But the solidness of this book far outweighs the slight niggles you might have.

Monday, 6 December 2010

Catching up on reviews

Feeling kind of bereft with nothing to write about at the moment - I'm picking at bits, but I haven't really decided on what to do next, yet, and I need to go to the library again at some point before the new year, if possible, so I should really get a move on I suppose...Then again, I didn't get to the library last weekend because of the snow, and it doesn't look as though it's going anywhere anytime soon. So maybe not.

But in the meantime, I've got a few reviews to catch up on from my last batch of library books and a bit of extra reading I've done.

I know. Exciting

British Calendar Customs: Scotland Vol III - June to December, Christmas, the Yules
Mrs M MacLeod Banks

This is one of those books that have been like trying to get hold of the holy grail: So impossible to find, you end up wondering if they actually exist...

Well this one does, apparently, although I can't vouch for volumes one and two because it seems they've gone missing from the library where I spotted this volume purely by chance. I've seen the books referenced a lot in some of the reading I've been doing over the years, so obviously I had to have a look, even if I'm missing out on the other two.

I suppose given my quest and my happiness at getting hold of a copy, it was invevitably going to be a bit of a let down - it didn't blow my socks off, let's put it that way - but it did offer some good bits and pieces here and there that I found useful. Really, my lack of excitement about it is more to do with the fact that I'm already familiar with most of it by now, and that's not the fault of the book or the author.

The book is a collection of excerpts from other works, so it's only natural that it draws from all of the usual suspects - Alexander Carmichael, Revd. Napier, Campbell, Pennant, Martin, Gregor, and so on. In that respect it's very useful if you don't have access to all of the works themselves because it's all handily compiled in one place (or, three volumes) because it excerpts all of the relevant bits under the relevant day. In this day and age it's not so much of a plus, really, if you have internet access and can look them all up on I probably would have been a lot more excited about the book if I couldn't do that.

The book is ordered by month, with excerpts listed for relevant days that have particular customs associated with them, and Banks makes her own contributions and a little commentary here and there as well. For the most part, though, she lets the material speak for itself, unless it's necessary to add context (June starts off with a lot of Bealltainn customs that have been shifted from the start of May, for example, so she adds commentary here - this was all especially useful, or would've been when I was doing research on that).

The larger entries are also subdivided by subject matter, though the layout there is a bit confusing and repetitive. You still have to sift through the chapter, because sometimes a subject is listed again with more information later on, so it could have been a real plus but it ends up a bit of a headache if you want to make a quick reference to something. That's a minor inconvenience, really, though.

One really useful aspect of the book is that it makes a good compliment to F. Marian McNeill's work in The Silver Bough. McNeill doesn't always reference things in as much detail as would be helfpul to do more research on something she touches on, I find, but here you get the sense of a lot of bits and pieces that McNeill's drawn from but hasn't necessarily mentioned. This alone makes me want to get hold of the other volumes by Banks, but alas, it seems it's not meant to be just yet.

Ultimately, I can't say I love this book, but if Scottish folklore is your bag, I'd definitely recommend adding this one to your list. If anything, it's an excellent resource for the lazy researcher...

Wednesday, 1 December 2010

And finally, introducing...

I can't remember how long ago I started the article on marriage - three months or so? It's taken a while, anyway, and although previously I said that it looked like I was going to have to split it into three parts or so, it ended up having to be six...

Yes, I pretty much managed to end up writing the best part of a book in the end, around 30,000 words or so. It kind of took on a life of it's own, but that's what you get when you try to be thorough, I guess. And even then, I know there's more I could've added, given enough time and resources. But anyway, seeing as that completes the life cycle on Tairis, for now, I've split off the articles on Death and Burial, and Birth and Baptism, and lumped them all together under a new section called 'Life Passages'. 

So with that caveat in mind, here:

  • Part One - covering the earliest evidence, early Irish law and sacred marriages etc.
  • Part Two - covering informal marriages in Ireland and Scotland, as well as handfasting
  • Part Three - covering the later evidence for marriage customs in Scotland and the Isle of Man
  • Part Four - covering the later evidence for marriage customs in Ireland
  • Part Five - covering the early evidence for attitudes towards sex and sexuality
  • Part Six - giving some thoughts of ritual elements and rites to add to a reconstructionist ritual

Given the length of it, I've had to repeat bits here and there in the hopes that while the whole thing should be cohesive, each article can stand on its own (ish). And while yes, I've proofread it, there are still probably some clangers I've missed, so hopefully it will all make sense. After so many thousands of words, my fingers sometimes end up not quite doing what my brain tells them to.

With that, enjoy. I'm not sure what I'm going to move on to next...I rather fear I may have to clean the house tomorrow while Rosie's at nursery.

Oh, the horror!

Tuesday, 30 November 2010

Happy Irn Bru Day!

Scotland has the dubious honour of being one of the only countries in the world where a locally produced fizzy, caffeinated beverage outsells the number one fizzy caffeinated beverage in the world, Coca Cola. It's safe to say that Scots like their Irn Bru, not least because you get a generous 20p back on each glass bottle you return to the shops for recycling...

And so inevitably today, with the kids celebrating St Andrew's Day at school and Tom being duly dispatched with something tartan attached to his uniform, as requested, it was inevitable that as part of their 'traditional Scottish fare' on offer, he got to sample some of this:

The nation's beverage (made from Scottish girders). Along with some Tablet, and some shortbread.

I recommend checking out the Wikipedia page for the Irn Bru, by the way...

But also, the kids got to perform some traditional Scottish songs, and Tom's class did Katie Beardie. I can't find a decent video for that, so instead, I shall post a few videos of other Scots favourties in honour of the day. The first one:

Is commonly sung as a lullaby to babies. The next one is a personal favourite of Mr Seren's:

But my personal favourite is this one:

And with that, Happy St Andrew's Day! Oh, and don't forget The Haggis Hunt.

Friday, 26 November 2010

Really, it's about respect...

I find myself in a bit of a pickle.

It seems I've had partial success since yesterday's post, as Lady Cattra Shadow the Scarlet Cat has at least taken down the articles she ripped from my site (as you'll no doubt see if you click on the links of my previous post). I'm thankful for that, and appreciate her quick response on that matter at least.

Unfortunately, it appears she's still passing off some of my photos of the turnip lanterns I've carved over the past few years as her own, or she's at least using them without permission for the sake of making her own buttons and illustrations for other people's articles she's hosting on her sites. See this?

Those are the first turnips I ever carved. And now they've been sparklified and are more sparkly than Edward Cullen in glorious daylight, so people can use it to link to her blog. 

You'll also find this picture of another turnip, from another year, being used in a few places:

Possibly more pictures elsewhere as well, I don't know.

And I've asked once again for her to remove them, and once again, I've received no response from her. I think that's poor show. But really, now I'm stuck with two options: Leave her be, except for a quiet rambly snark to myself here on my blog, or b) issue takedown notices through the DMCA with both Blogspot and Photobucket to force her to stop using my work.

Option b) seems overkill. I mean, yes, this is the internet and of course it's SRS BZNS, and yes, it would be within my right to do so as the copyright holder for those pictures - it's thoroughly (legally and morally) wrong to use my work without regard for copyright laws or even my thoughts on the matter, but still. If I do that Lady Cattra will more than likely lose her blogs and Photobucket albums for breaching their terms and conditions, and all I really want is for her to stop using my pictures. It's not too much to ask, surely?

Why does this annoy me so much? Honestly, I'm surprised at myself that I'm annoyed. I mean, they're only pictures, aren't they? And it's not like this sort of thing has never happened on the internet before...It's rife within the neopagan community in particular.

To be fair, this is the first time that this sort of thing has happened with my work, that I'm aware of, so it's kind of new territory for me. And my dismay is not so much that somebody's taken my stuff (it's not like it's uncommon, as I said), but that the person who took those articles, and continues to use my pictures, has an outlook that is so antithetical to my own. Her beliefs and my beliefs are apparently very different, spiritually, and we don't find ourselves in agreement on many points, I think.

People have asked to use my work and my pictures before now, and I've always said yes because they asked, and I was more than happy to share and help a friend out, or whatever, because the people asking have generally been on the same wavelength as me. Had I the choice in this case, though, I would not choose to have my work associated with someone like that, not least because they don't seem to see anything wrong with just taking things as they please to suit their own purpose and blog stats. Although I have to say I'm amused at the fact that Lady Cattra appears keen to prevent people from stealing her work (or the other articles she's copied and pasted from elsewhere, that is - try right clicking on one of her pages). Clearly she thinks it's wrong for people to do it to her, but doesn't hold those same standards for herself. Hmm.

Plus, it's just rude.

I put time and effort into my research and writing. I enjoy doing it, and I enjoy sharing it - and I might as well do something with it. Realistically, though, I know that once I put them out there, there's not a lot I can do beyond that. People will take from them what they will, good or bad - ideas and interpretations that maybe I didn't intend, on the one hand, or on the other, I'm well aware of the fact that there are some unscrupulous people out there who are more than happy to pass them off as their own. Or they see a pretty picture, and decide to use it as their own.

To me, though, those pretty pictures are memories. Those are pictures of intimate spiritual experiences that I've chosen to share on my blog or website because I believe that in doing so, maybe it will give people a better idea of what reconstructionism is all about, in that it's not just about reading and book lists and researching and talking about stuff. It's about doing and living, and expressing one's beliefs, too (and it's not just me who's doing this, I hasten to add. I'm not special or nuffink). But in sharing what I do, I learn about myself, too, and it helps me figure out what works and what doesn't as I evolve along this path. Sometimes I look back and see what I can do that would work better, sometimes it's other people that help me figure stuff out. For someone to come along and blithely take those photos without a second thought other than 'those'll look great on my blog!', that kind of irks me a little. It's disrespectful.

But as I said, in making a choice to share this stuff, I open myself up to various problems, not least having my stuff stolen. And they're only pictures, aren't they, really? Unless I want to take a legal route, for the sake of some pictures on someone's blog in an insignificant corner of the internet, there's not a lot I can do, other than make it very clear that I'm not happy about it.

I suppose I should be flattered. But it's kind of like being flattered that a burglar chose my house to nick stuff from, rather than them next door with the bigger house and nicer fixtures and fittings. It's not flattering, really. Not at all.

Really, it's about respect.

Thursday, 25 November 2010


So I got a comment on my flickr account asking to use one of my photos for a St Andrew's edition of a food magazine (website thing, that is). Cool, I think. How flattering. So of course I say yes - they can use the picture with the proper credit, and I thank them for asking. Because it's always nice when people ask before using your things, especially on the internet when some people are under the impression that the whole thing is 'public domain'.

I don't expect payment for it - I used to work for a local newspaper so I know how difficult it is to produce these things and make a living from it, but they offered to put my name on it and want to send me a wee something as a show of appreciation. A wee something's really not necessary (and I'm a little leery of giving out my address to random people on the internet, to be honest, even nice people who work for magazines), but it's a nice gesture.

But I did wonder how they found the photo, so I did an image search and sure enough, it's the first result for 'brodick bannocks' on Google, so that makes sense. It's also the second result on the image search. Except that photo isn't linking to my flickr account, or my website where I use the photo. No, it's linking to someone's blog. How rude, I thought, nicking my photo like that without asking. So I take a look. And find that they've ripped a whole load of pages of recipes, including the photos, from my website. And my article on Samhainn.

See: The Blog - Recipes
See: My website - one, two, three, four, aaaaand five
See: The Blog - Samhainn
See: My Samhainn article

Oh, and the blog author's ripped a picture of the turnips I carved a few years ago to make an icon to link to another website, plus a few more for image links, and they've reposted the Samhainn article again. Without any attribution.

Now that's just really rude. And ironic, considering the fact that they have a little icon saying 'Blog with Integrity' on their side bar.

I've left comments asking for the articles to be removed, but whether that does anything I don't know. The comments are being screened, so people won't see it even if the blog owner ignores it. I wouldn't be so annoyed if they'd at least given some credit, and asked first.

Plagiarism's bad, y'all.


Seems it was worse than I realised, even. She's also ripped:

Turnip carving
Celebrating Samhainn - Scottish style
Samhainn divination

Compiling screen captures, just in case...

Monday, 15 November 2010

Hibernation and reviews

My hearth shrine, decorated with the tasteful skull-shaped lights for Samhainn...

It's been an odd transition period from summer-half to winter-half round here. Interminable rain and grey skies, and now gloriously frosty and sunny mornings (followed by more rain), and although I celebrated Samhainn two weeks ago now it feels like the transition into winter has only just secured itself and sunk its teeth in. The cold's making me feel kind of hibernaty - no bad thing when I have a pile of books to get through.

I got a pile of articles from my last trip to the library, and some of them are really good. Some of them I haven't got round to yet, but I thought it might be useful to give a brief rundown of the good ones before I go on to do a book review....

  • Women, milk and magic at the Boundary Festival of May
    Patricia Lysaght

    This one is from Lysaght's Milk and Milk Products book (not the most inspiring title), which is a collection of essays on all things dairy in the Gaelic and Scandinavian world (primarily) from a historical perspective. I didn't read the whole book, but did pick at a few of the articles - well worth a read, especially some of the Scandinavian stuff that show the similarities between the folk customs surrounding milk charms and protecting the 'produce' (toradh, as the Gaels would call it). But this article stood out, so it was worth photocopying - it's a good overview of Bealtaine in Ireland, and includes a good amount of modern folklore and customs that were recorded by the Folklore Commission in the 1940s in particular (something that most other sources tend to lack). I shall probably use it to take a look at updating my Bealltainn article at some point.

  • Hearth-Prayers and other Traditions of Brigit: Celtic Goddess and Holy Woman
    Séamas Ó Catháin

    From JRSAI Vol, 122, 1992. I was hoping for the article to have far more information about Irish hearth-prayers than it actually did, but still, this was a good read. If oddly tangential at times. But I did get some useful stuff from it, not least a slightly different version of an Irish smooring prayer:

    Coiglímse an tine mar a choiglíonns cách,

    I rake this fire like everyone else,

    Bríd ina bun agus Muire ina barr;

    Brigid below it with Mary on top;

    Dhá aingle déag d'aingle na ngrást,

    Twelve angels of the angels of the graces,

    Ag cumhdach mo thí-sa go lá.

    Protecting my house till down.

    And the point that aingeal is referenced in both Irish and Scottish versions, and refers to either angels, or fire. As a non-linguist, the clever ambiguities of the language can't be appreciated without articles like this to help me...

  • 'Handfasting' in Scotland
    A. E. Anton

    In the Scottish Historical Review, Vol 37, 1958.

    Trying to figure out the whole debate around handfasting has been a bit of a bugger, quite frankly, because everyone knows that handfasting is an Anciente Celtic form of marriage. But it isn't (in the historical sense), although most sources arguing against it refer to each other rather than the historical sources that would be actually helpful. Yes, the argument may be convincing, but how about going into some detail, eh? Seeing as everyone references this article in arguing against handfasting-as-marriage, it seemed sensible to go to the source. It's thorough, and yes, it's convincingly argued (ha), although it's taken more than a few reads to absorb it all properly. I'm glad I got hold of it, though. TLDR: Handfasting comes from the Anglo-Saxon word handfæstung, which referred to the custom of shaking hands on agreement of a contract. In this case, a contract of betrothal - an agreement to marry at some point in future.

And so, onto the book review, one of my latest library snags:

Marriage in Ireland
Art Cosgrove (Ed.)

Originally published in 1985, this is a collection of essays on marriage throughout the history of Ireland. Each chapter is written by a different author, and covers a distinct period in history - from marriage in early Ireland, through to the twentieth century. The exception to the rule is Caoimhín Ó Danachair's (KevinDanaher's) article on 'Marriage in Irish folk tradition', and it really stood out for me as the best of the lot (also, the most helpful, to be fair).

The weakest eassy was the first - 'Marriage in early Ireland' by Donnchadh Ó Corráin. It's well written and informative, to be sure, but having gone into the subject in great detail already it seems that there are better sources to look at this (Bart Jaksi's chapter in 'The Fragility of Her Sex?', Fergus Kelly's Early Irish Law, and Daibhi Ó Cróinín's Early Medieval Ireland spring to mind), and for the most part it's probably safe to say that this is simply for the reason that those sources are more up to date and thorough. I couldn't help but feel that some of the issues were fudged a little here, but the article was sparser in references than I'd've liked it to have been, so it was difficult to follow up or check some of the points that seemed a little off (mainly linguistic points, possibly a matter of odd spelling).

Cosgrove's own chapter on 'Marriage in medieval Ireland' was a good read, and helpful for my reasearch, too, and the rest of the chapters were good too, though less relevant and therefore of slightly less interest to my aims. The last chapter in particular, 'Marriage in Ireland in the twentieth century' was more than a little dull for me, but then statistics have never really been my thing. It will surely be useful to anyone who needs (or wants) to know about marriage statistics of socio-economic groups, or rates of illegitimacy and so on. Me? Not so much.

Ó Danachair's article takes a slight detour from the chronology and focuses on folk memory, which he defines as being around 200 hundred years or so, and folk traditions. What you find here is pretty much what you'd expect from the author - good research, good writing, and engaging to boot. In many respects, this chapter gives a personality to the people being talked about in the other chapters, and while there was a little bit of overlapping in subject matter here and there between this article and the preceding one, on 'Pre-famine Ireland', it at least added to my understanding rather than made me switch off.

One thing I would liked to have seen is some mention, at least, of 'Teltown marriages' and the debate surrounding them, along with the problem of nineteenth century authors, in particular, heavily romanticising and even purposely rusticating the whole subject. OK, so that's two things. But this is a fairly small book, and to be fair there's only so much that you can cram in in such a short space. What it does offer is good, the few reservations I have with the first article aside, and it focuses on historical record, rather than general. I could quite happily have got stuck into a whole lot more, though.

Saturday, 6 November 2010

Like an annoying thing on an annoying day, with annoying sprinkles on top...

My oh my, how time flies. No sooner did I go to the library, than a month suddenly vanished and I had to return my books. In my head, it's been a few weeks, tops. But no, the books I got from the grown up library (as the kids call it, because I had to explain why they couldn't come too, and that's all I could think of) were due back today.

I didn't get around to reading even half of what I was intending to, but I did get the research I needed done, at least. I kind of ran out of steam with the Understanding the Universe book - not that it's not good, it just wasn't scratching the itch I was hoping it would and in the end I just didn't finish it. I have a more pressing itch to scratch at the moment, so I might go back to it at some point, because while I was at the caravan I did make good progress with it and I might as well go the whole hog.

I don't like to hold on to books during term time, in case someone else needs them (because if they get recalled, I won't be able to return them immediately, necessarily. Which would be expensive for me and inconvenient for everyone else), so I've returned all but one of them - British Calendar Customs: Scotland - because I'm fairly sure nobody will miss that for another month or so, and when I get the chance I really want to get stuck into it.

This time, at the grown up library, I remembered to take my book list. So that's an improvement on last time at least. I managed to get the articles I wanted to hunt up, and a few of the books I forgot. Yay. But this is also where the annoying part comes in, because I've been trying to work on my next article - on marriage this time, following on from the pieces I did on Afterlife and Ancestors, and then Death and Burial - and I've kind of hit a wall. Marriage is unexpectedly complicated.

I thought it would be difficult in the sense that there's not much to go on in terms of pre-Christian evidence (and there isn't, in terms of ritual pointers, which is what I really want to know about), but noooooo, there's a whole lot of other things to consider, too. I thought it would be a matter of cup rituals - a maiden bestowing a cup of on her intended to signify her acceptance of him, and then vice versa when he accepts it, and so on...then early medieval Irish marriage laws...then more recent folklore evidence. But not so much. 

Research has been a hard slog and I seem to have collected a huge amount to sift through - more so than usual, and I'm already at the point where I know I'm going to have to split the whole thing into at least three parts. This is partly to do with the fact that I want to be comprehensive, and I want to show that marriage as it was is a very limiting topic for some in the present day. But my general aim in writing these articles is to give an overview of historical practices and outlooks, and that kind of conflicts with my own views on the subject. I'm fine with that, but at the same time I'm leery of how my attempts at being somewhat objective, at least, might be construed.

Marriage and babies was an ideal, yes. The laws didn't recognise gay and lesbian partnerships as being applicable for marriage unions (although homosexual relations in and of themselves weren't condemned either), and choosing not to have kids? Unheard of. It allowed for men to have more than one wife, but not women. And so on. As I said, it's complicated. And I'm leery of coming across as saying heterosexual marriage, between a man and woman (who subjugates herself to her husband) is the norm and the ideal in a reconstructionist and Gaelic Polytheist context, while trying to come across as even vaguely objective. I'm leery of coming across as saying that a man and woman should marry so they can have babies. End of. Because although to all intents and purposes I'm a walking embodiment of the heterosexual 'norm' - married, two kids, housewife - I don't think that should be the case for everyone. I don't think that those who choose alternatives to the 'norm' should be marginalised, because with modern technology, modern medicine, modern laws, we simply don't live in a world where such a narrow view should be considered to be desirable. I guess I have to have more of an editorial slant on the subject than I usually prefer, just to be clear.

But I'm kind of digressing. My main problem in writing the article is that there are still bits that I don't feel like I fully understand - not just that I'm not sure I can articulate properly, but I'm just not sure of at all. It's affecting my ability to put down the research I've collated into something even vaguely coherent. There seem to be a lot of holes, and there are conflicting opinions that all seem to confidently state that this is how it was, which then contradict everyone else. Which makes it evident that I need to do more research to fill in a few gaps before I can make up my mind with confidence.

This is where the really annoying part for today comes in. On my list of forgotten items that I managed to pick up today, was Bart Jaski's Early Irish Kingship and Succession. On a whim, I bought a copy of The Fragility of Her Sex? a while ago, because it was relatively cheap and I figured it would get me out of a research blackhole quicker than getting a copy from the library would, since the articles seemed to cover the issue of marriage in early medieval Ireland (turns out: not so much, but what I did find was useful, at least). Jaski has an article on marriage in there, and it was very helpful to what I needed to know, in parts, if not wholesale. I managed to piece bits of the rest together from here and there (and gods bless Google Scholar, Google Books, and in my endeavour), and started to feel that at least as far as the cup-bearing issue, and the early Irish law were concerned, I had it covered. Then I looked up 'marriage' in the index of Early Irish Kingship and Succession, and the first thing that I looked at detailed almost everything I've written so far. If not word for word, then pretty much in the same order and not really disagreeing with anything I've said so far.

So much for my attempts at original research. I've basically followed in the footsteps of someone else already, for no good reason, because I should've just got his book instead - and could've, if I'd remembered the damn book list a month ago. I mean, it really looks like a bad case of plagiarism, cheekily disguised by the fact that I've attempted to make it look like I haven't by just referencing the same sources...It's a bit of a bummer, to say the least. Or maybe I should feel buoyed by my apparently on-the-nose research skills.

But it's not all bad - oh no and definitely definitely not. In looking up some of the journals for articles I wanted to photocopy, as usual I picked a few of the other volumes off the shelf and had a quick flick through. As luck would have it, I found a good article called 'The Drink of Death' that essentially looks at the inversion of the cup motif, in relation to the king's marriage to the land, along with an article on tattooing in insular Celtic tradition by Charles MacQuarrie. I read the latter on the train home, and it offers a lot of food for thought, not least in the fact that he points out that as far as the Picts and woad go, they are said to have painted themselves. It's iron needles that they and other insular tribes (certain, and specific tribes, MacQuarrie suggests) used for tattooing, and these tattoos tended to be of animals on the face, arms (close to the wrist) or thigh. They were either indicative of some sort of 'bloodthirsty' pact (i.e. uncivilised, pagan), or else an expression of some sort of spiritual (civilised but arguably not necessarily Christian, given the precedents) ideal. So basically, considering the next tattoo I have in mind, it's all cool beans. Although I doubt it will be on my face...

Friday, 5 November 2010

Some more bits on Orkney (and Shetland)

I'm not sure if the following is an update on the previous article I posted a while back, about the discovery of a Neolithic tomb in somebody's back garden, but if it is then work has started on excavating it:

See the BBC article

There's a link at the bottom of the article to some videos by one of the archaeologists working at the site. Definitely worth a watch. And I feel sorry for them - as exciting as the dig must be, the weather at the moment must be miserable.

There's also a piece (a few months old now) on how it's looking like Neolithic houses on Orkney were painted:

"There has been evidence at some other Neolithic sites where paint pots have been found with remains of pigment but they were considered to be for personal adornment rather than being used on a wider scale for the decoration of buildings.

"This is a first for the UK, if not for northern Europe.

"The use of colour in this particular way was always suspected but this is the first concrete evidence we have of it."

He added: "It is not Rembrandt though, it is pretty basic designs."

Over on Shetland, a prehistoric house has been discovered during the building works for a gas plant, with lots of unusual features. See The Shetland Times for more details.

All I can say is, I'm sooo saving my pennies for a holiday next year.

Monday, 1 November 2010


Sometimes, after a celebrating a festival, I have these niggles. Things might not have gone right, or the way I wanted them to. Things might feel just a, somehow; like I haven't really connected, or connected as much as I'd like to, and I'm missing something, somewhere. Sometimes, maybe I'm just being too caught up in the details, and my biggest problem is not being able to let go and really give it up. Sometimes, maybe deep down, I know there's a hint I should be taking - a warning I've received that I just don't want to take on board, or else I've done something wrong and have a bit of making up to do. More offerings, more readings, lots of thinking usually helps sort that out.

This morning, sititng here after a night of celebrating, I don't have those niggles or worries. Or maybe a little, deep down, because I'm not having those it's niggling. But that's just me. I'm used to me and my brain after all these years. Things went well, I think.

We started the general Hallowe'en theme on Friday, really, with the Hallowe'en parade at school for the primary school kids. I invited my mother-in-law because she was keen to see the kids in their costumes and just wanted to be Nana, I think, so the more the merrier for that (and yes, inevitably she brought half of the 'seasonal aisle' from the supermarket with her for the kids). Tom went to school as a Power Ranger (although I've no idea which one, aside from the fact that he was 'the red one') - he was adamant that he wanted to go as a Power Ranger because Nana had given him a fancy helmet at her birthday dinner, she'd found it in a cupboard, destined to be a birthday present for a child she never saw again, so decided Tom should have it. It has lights on it and all that, so it's officially the best thing ever in Tom's eyes. See?

And yes, Rosie went as a witch. Whether she was supposed to be a good witch or a bad witch, only Rosie knows, because she forebore to comment on that...

Tom was supposed to go to a school disco in the evening, but just as I picked them up from school my cold was starting to really settle in, and after dinner and some cold medicine it completely slipped my mind. Whoops. But he got to go to a party the next day at a friend's house, while Rosie and I decorated some shortbread 'people' and set the garden in order for the winter - it turned out it was too waterlogged for much more than a light lawnmow, but at least it's a bit tidier than it was now.

And then after the party, hyped up on sugar and who knows what else, we did our seasonal picture and started on the carving. The kids decided that snow is what winter's all about, so we did snowmen. Or snow beings. For once, I stood back and let them do it, aside for helping with a bit of gluing here and there:

Tom's is on the left, wearing a decidedly pimp hat. Rosie's is a snow bird; she insisted it should have wings.

We had an embarrassment of turnips and pumpkins this year, which took a while to carve, although none of the tumshies were my own that I grew this year. I decided to pick those just before the full moon, which seemed to be an auspicious time for it, and it turns out they'd been pretty badly munched on the outside (by slugs, I presume, but I'm not quite sure, really). They weren't any good for carving but I figured they'd keep long enough for me to at least use them in the stew I was intending to make for our Samhainn dinner, but no. They were a little too soft and weren't looking too good, so oh well. They weren't in good shape and I had reservations about using them at all, anyway, the squidgyness just sealed it for me.

So in the end, I bought some tumshies, and a couple of pumpkins, and Nana arrived on Friday with two more pumpkins. For most of them, the kids designed the faces and then I drew them on and carved them out:

Mr Seren and I did the two largest pumpkins in the middle - his is the cheerful one on the right, and mine's on the left. Tom was quite enthusiastic about doing some scary faces, so most of the rest are his designs (including the tumshie in the middle, with what looks like a handlebar moustache. Stylish). It was good to have the whole family involved, and it added to the festive atmosphere.

I carved two on Saturday and the rest of them yesterday. After I'd done some devotions and offerings, we set the lanterns out on the sideboard by the dining table while we had our Samhainn feast. I used some of the turnip for a mash with some carrots, and we had a beef stew (with some of my homegrown leeks) and potatoes too. Then we moved the lanterns to the window in the front room, along with some tasteful battery operated lanterns that flashed on and off in all different colours (we had a green skull, a white ghost, and a green spider) to let guisers know we were ready, and the kids got changed into their costumes. Tom was a Power Ranger again, and Rosie settled on dressing as Satan's Little Helper after I persuaded her out of the fairy outfit she really wanted to put on...

And so, as we waited for the guisers to come, we did some dookin' for apples:

And then Blind Man's Bluff, Musical Bumps and Musical Statues, and I sat down with the kids and showed them some photos of my grandparents - the only photos I have of any ancestors, really. I told them about my Grandads and my Granny (all the dead ones, that is), and had a good time reminiscing before our first guiser knocked on the door (who turned out to be Tom's best friend, dressed as a vampire). The rest of the guisers came in fits and spurts until we ran out of sweeties and nuts at around 8pm (and then closed the curtains and removed the lanterns from the window), just in time for the kids to have a bath and then bed. They were extremely hyper and overtired, but didn't struggle with sleep too much. Most of the guisers put on a good show for their treats, and had jokes and songs at the ready. Why did the skeleton not cross the road? Because he didn't have the guts...Arf.

With the kids in bed, that left me to do my own devotions, more offerings, a saining, and putting up protective charms. At the front door we have our Samhainn guardian, Will the Skellington (as Rosie has dubbed it), keeping lookout for us (he's been up for a week or so now), but I usually make a rowan charm to hang at each festival so wanted to do that. I couldn't find any rowan but coincidentally one of the cow beads I used as a charm for my hobhouse at Lùnastal was lying on the floor by the back door. I've no idea why it was there, but I took that as a hint and used that instead. All good. I took a little time to raise a glass to my ancestors, including Badb, who I consider to be my ancestor deity, and those I know (or know of) who've died recently, and then just took some time to sit and listen and reflect. All was still and peaceful. Before bed, I put out some food and drink, as I usually do.

I woke this morning to a magpie sitting on the fence by the offerings I left out the back, staring right in before flying off when I saw it, so to me that seems to be a good sign (I have a thing for magpies). I've had corvids of all kinds coming and going all morning, too, in a good orderly fashion. I'll be finishing things off this evening with some bannocks (or something along those lines), and some closing offerings, so I'm not quite finished yet, but it's been a good festival so far, not least because the kids really got into the spirit of it all and we all joined in. It's good that they're getting to the age where they want to get involved in things, even if it's just like having a party to them.

Next year we'll probably take the kids out guising and I might try some charms in a bowl of crowdie or mash; I'll have to think about what sort of charms I can use, seeing as marriage isn't exactly something the kids are particularly worried about...Rosie would like a party, too. I'm not sure about that, though. That would involve being sociable. And having the house overrun by screaming children...

Monday, 18 October 2010

The latest haul

It's sad that going to the library makes me feel all warm and fuzzy inside, isn't it? But it does, so there.

Thanks to my marvellous organisation skills I took my last haul of several months ago back to the library last weekend and completely forgot to bring the list of books and articles I wanted to get in exchange. I'm clever that way. But at least I didn't run up any fines this time, and I did manage to get pretty much all of the books I was after. No Wisdom of the Outlaw as I was hoping (I was too late by two days, apparently...this book has a habit of disappearing on me one way or another...), but so far the other books I got have more than made up for it. These include:

Understanding the Universe in Seventh Century Ireland - Marina Smyth
British Calendar Customs: Scotland Volume III - Mrs MacLeod Banks
Lady With a Mead Cup - Michael J. Enright
Folklore of County Wexford - Ó Muirithe and Nuttall (Eds.)
Rites of Marrying: The Wedding Industry in Scotland - Simon R. Charsley
A Third Manx Scrapbook - W. W. Gill
Milk and Milk Products from Medieval to Modern Times - Patricia Lysaght (Ed.)

And then a couple of journals for some articles that I've been after for a while. I was unable to use the photocopier in the end, so not being able to find the rest of the articles on my list was no great disaster, and I have more than enough to be getting on with, at least. Some of the books I intend to read all the way through, but most I'll probably just use for reference - I've already discarded Rites of Marrying as not being what I was after, and some of the articles I got in the same subject area were disappointing to say the least.

Otherwise, so far I've got stuck into Marina Smyth's book, which has been interesting in terms of dealing with early medieval cosmology, but in some ways it's not quite what I was hoping for. She's concentrated solely on a Christian context so far, and I was hoping she'd go into evidence of native hangovers creeping their way in at least here and there. Not so much, but still lots to chew on.

Sadly I couldn't find much at all in the way of useful books on the Isle of Man. Most of those are antiquarian and therefore in the Special Collection at the university, which means I have to arrange access and so on. Seeing as I can get access to them online through, there's not much point going to that hassle. There were a few books on the shelves in Manx, which I'm sure would be a fantastic read, but not much good to me right now seeing as I don't speak the language. So the book I did get in that respect was about all that I've not had my hands on before now.

I've had Lady With a Mead Cup out before now, this time I got it out for researching my next article (on marriage, in case you hadn't guessed - which is turning out to be far more complicated than I anticipated) but I might give it a full read if I have the time. There's some good stuff in there.

What with chicken pox and school holidays I've not had much time for reading or writing lately, and I'm kinda feeling it. Hopefully with the kids going back to school tomorrow I'll be able to get stuck in to it again.

Friday, 15 October 2010

Just a picture post...

I'm not long back from a trip to Kirkcudbright, in the south-west of Scotland. I got a few photos and thought I'd share, along with some I took on my trip there last year that give some better views than I got this time round.

The area we stayed in is full of castles, a former stronghold of the Black Douglases, so lots of juicy history to be had. We took a stop at Threave Castle, one of the major players in the whole mess, and got some fantastic views:

The main part of the castle is fourtheenth century, built by Archibald the Grim, with fifteenth century defences added to safeguard against siege (which ultimately didn't do much good - the crown won).

I might as well add in an (almost) Otherworldly cow while I'm at it:

There's a lot of wildlife to be seen around the castle - there were ospreys nesting during the summer, with several chicks, but it seems they've left for the winter now. There was a heron, though, wading through the river in search of something tasty:

And ravens!

Words cannot describe how happy that made me. I've never seen a raven before, I don't think. They really are huge. And beautiful. It's funny, though - in the past these would have been a thoroughly bad sign, but I feel honoured to have caught sight of such a rare bird now.

The sunshine didn't last long and the mist soon rolled in in the days to follow (but not before a fantastic show of the Milky Way right above us on our first night there), but the change in weather brought its own moody beauty:

And a reminder that this is the area the original Wicker Man was filmed...Very atmospheric.

Last year we got in a prehistoric monument or two at Cairn Holy, some neolithic chambered tombs:

This one has evidence of an outside chamber by the entrance that was probably used for feasting (the remains of a hearth were found). The other one is larger:

With a very impressive view across Argyll:

No doubt situated on that spot to take advantage of the view.

For now, it's good to be home where there's central heating and my own comfy bed. A little cold was worth it, though.

Tuesday, 5 October 2010

'Significant' find in Orkney

The archaeologist in me is quite excited:

Neolithic tomb found in garden

"WHEN Hamish Mowatt decided to investigate a mysterious mound as he tidied an Orkney garden, he had little idea he would uncover a hoard of bodies that had lain untouched for around 5,000 years. 
Archeologists believe the tomb he discovered under a boulder outside a bistro in South Ronaldsay could lead to new insights into how our neolithic ancestors lived and died.

But they face a race against time as water washing in and out of the newly
uncovered tomb could wash away its contents and dissolve any pottery and human remains inside."
(Says The Scotsman)

 I seriously need to save some pennies to visit Orkney.

Sunday, 3 October 2010

Samhainn preamble

Debate rages in the Seren household...Figuratively speaking.

First of all, there are lots of pretty, shiny and sparkly outfits lining the aisles of the supermarket marked 'seasonal', prompting Rosie to look at all the beautiful things and marvel at what her next dressing-up outift might be. The general consensus seems to be that she doesn't care, so long as it's shiny, sparkly, pretty, and comes with a broomstick. A hat would be good too, if it's pointy. Coincidentally, Nana has already bought her a witches' outfit (or two...depending on size, y'see), so we should be good for that. A broomstick shouldn't be hard to come by, and with enough glue and sparkly shite, we'll be set as far as Rosie's concerned.

Tom's quite set on dressing up as a 'skellington' again, as he did last year, but might be swayed to go as a Power Ranger now, after Nana passed on a birthday present that never got given in the end. Two years later, it's probably safe to say that the intended child has moved on from that stage in their life, and now Tom is more than happy to benefit. Tom has no idea what a Power Ranger is, really, but if it comes with a cool helmet that lights up, and a phone that flips out, it's all good as far as he's concerned. We're now into the realm of 'my friends will really like this', so he's a bit keener on the idea of dressing up than he used to be. And it's not Transformers, so that makes a refreshing change, personally speaking.

But all this commercialism has prompted a few questions - from Rosie, mainly - about what Hallowe'en's all about, really. These questions are mainly concerned with whether or not there'll be cake and/or sweeties involved, as well as sparkly outfits, and so far she's not been disappointed. But my explanations of things have sparked debate with Mr Seren, mainly because I told the kids (amongst other things) that they should dress up on Hallowe'en because lots of ghosties and fairies will be about, looking to cause mischief, and they need to blend in to make sure they don't get caught up in said mischief. This is called 'guising' I said, because you dress up in 'disguise'.

Ah, says Mr Seren. That's nothing to do with Hallowe'en, that's Bonfire Night - Guy Fawkes' Night. Because kids make an effigy of Guy Fawkes and go round asking for a 'penny for the Guy' - hence, 'Guy-sing'. Ah, but no, I said. Because guising is also found at New Year's/Hogmanay, which has a lot in common with Hallowe'en/Samhainn, and you also dress up in disguise. It's to do with Hallowe'en primarily, but quite a few of the customs have become conflated with Bonfire Night and Hogmanay in some ways. And it's spawned a lot of Hallowe'en customs that are seen as 'American', like trick or treating - originally you'd go round in your disguise and perform a skit, sing a song, or maybe tell a joke, for a donation, and if you weren't satisfied you'd play a trick on the household who offended you, but you'd do it anonymously. The disguise helped. Or they'd be targeted anyway, if they were just unpopular in the neighbourhood. But the main focus was that if you were stingy and inhospitable, you'd get yours. It was surreptitious, not blatant like it is today. Mr Seren comes from a time when kids still had to beg their bit, pre-trick-or-treating, and sees the modern take of trick or treating as an erosion of tradition. Erosion, or continuum? I ask. I'll have to think about that..., is the reply.

But in general, Mr Seren wasn't convinced with it all, so brought it up at dinner with the in-laws today. There was general agreement that yes, it was more to do with Bonfire Night these days, but in the good old days it was different. Maybe, in a half-remembered way...

My brother-in-law mentioned that Hallowe'en, for him, was the night of 'Going out in the galoshes', which rang a bell for Mr Seren, something he'd forgotten. Although he didn't remember actually going out in galoshes (a kind of wellington boot - probably quite plausible given the weather in these parts, at that time of year), it referred to the dressing up for Hallowe'en in general, and going out and performing for treats. And then trying to steal turnips from the farmer, who was well prepared for the occasion and turned a blind eye, really, so long as you didn't take the piss.

I mentioned that the 'galoshes' put me in mind of the mummers' play, The Goloshan, which was a Hogmanay tradition and also required dressing for the occasion as well. We're both intrigued by the possible connection, but Google has made me none the wiser, so far...

So there's that, our wee debate. Then there's the question of what the kids will be doing at Hallowe'en, seeing as it's a Sunday (possibly going to a Hallowe'en party at a friend's, then); along with our own traditions that we're building. Because it's something that's embraced more generally - by supermarkets, that is - there's more of a build-up for the kids than most of our festivals and they're more interested in it now that they're older and more aware of things. Tom remembers the tumshie lanterns and pumpkin from last year, but Rosie not so much. She just knows it's kind of exciting. I've told them that people will be coming to the door asking for sweeties, and we'll have to carve the lanterns to scare the ghosties away, and they seem quite enamoured by the idea. Also, that we'll have a proper good dinner with dessert and more sweeties...

Children; easily pleased. Me; quite chuffed at the kids being enthused.

Sunday, 26 September 2010

Day trip

Not really a GP/CR oriented post, but I thought I'd post some pictures from our wee family day out yesterday, because we got to see some glorious scenery and thought it might be of interest to some of you. Living near the Highlands and Islands as I do, I don't get to see it anywhere near enough, except from afar, staring at it from the shores of the Clyde where I live, so we have some serious making up to do for that. Luckily for us, the weather was with us - sunny and warm, even if there was a little bit of an autumnal bite to it.

Last year when I travelled that way, it was kinda like this:

But this time, it was like this:

I'm fairly sure those two photos are from the same area, although not the exact same spot.

Our first stop, though, was Loch Long:



So peaceful and quiet - the Loch of the Ships (Loch Luing in Gàidhlig). And quite striking in that autumn seems to be lagging a few weeks behind us across the water - here where I am now, the trees are turning all kinds of yellows and oranges, reds and browns. But in Argyll - not more than 20 miles from me as the crow flies, but far more sheltered, I guess - the blackberries were still ripening and trees were still mostly green. It's an odd feeling, being somewhere that's really quite close, but so different.

We managed to get a little lost on our travels (not for the first time) and ended up parked beside a fourteenth century castle - Carrick Castle:


Bits of it are fourteenth century, anyway. It's built right onto a rock (Gàidhlig - carraig, hence the name 'Carrick') so in spite of its imposing presence from a distance, it looks a little precarious close up. Mary Queen of Scots stayed there once, apparently.

Again, it was so peaceful and quiet. The castle is privately owned now so we couldn't go in, but the shores around it are accessible and the kids got thoroughly soaked having a paddle. Eddie, our older dog, impressed the locals with his obsession for rescuing sticks and pebbles from the loch, and seeing as that's the only way to keep him quiet, it was appreciated, too.

On our way back to the road we were supposed to be on, we went through a forest of suspicious and slightly annoyed-looking red squirrels from the looks of things:

We didn't see any, though, more's the pity, but there were plenty of sheep and Highland cattle as we made our way out of the woodland. Sadly, I didn't get any photos of them, either. 

Getting back on the right road, we came across this:

In 'Hell's Glen'. The water was very cold and crisp, and I stopped to fill a flask of it in exchange for a silver penny (as had others before me). At the bottom of the road we were on there was supposed to be a "heart-shaped setting of white quartzite stones" in a field, where tinkers (itinerant travelling people) traditionally married. I didn't manage to spot that either, but it's not something I've ever heard of. Always good to find some new tidbits.

Flying past at 60mph I managed to get this:

And while I'm not sure which loch it is, it opens out onto the Clyde and the side of the coast that I live on. We took the ferry home and found that it's much cheaper than we thought, so hopefully there will be more exploring in the future. Argyll, to me, is really where my heart is.  

Saturday, 18 September 2010

Some Scots rhymes

Reading through a nice wee book on Scottish nursery rhymes, I found some seasonal ones for Hallowe'en I thought would be nice to share, especially if you've got kids or have the opportunity to go guising. Looking in my copy of McNeill's Hallowe'en, she gives them as well, and the music to go with them.

Here's one called Tell A Story, a reminder of what you should do when you go guising:

Tell a story,
Sing a sang;
Dae a dance,
Or oot ye gang.

And here's one about witches (although unsurprisingly, some versions have it as faeries):

Hey-how for Hallowe'en!
A' the witches tae be seen,
Some black, an some green.
Hey-how for Hallowe'en!

And finally, this one was for running around and making mischief, rattling neighbour's windows:

The nicht's Hallowe'en,
The morn's Hallowday;
Gin ye want a true love,
Ye hae nae time to stay.

Tally on the window-brod,
Tally on the green,
Tally on the window-brod,
The morn's Hallowe'en.

Oot ye gang = Out you go
Gin = if
Tally = Tally-wack, hit, strike
Window-brod = window shutters

From Chambers' Traditional Scottish Nursery Rhymes, and McNeill's Hallowe'en.

Wednesday, 15 September 2010

Review: Surviving in Symbols

There's only so much colouring in and drawing a parent can take of an afternoon, so yesterday I took my youngest off into Greenock after she finished nursery, to kill some time before we had to go and get the elder sibling from school. We had some books from the library that were long overdue so those got returned, and we took a nose around the library to see how good their history section was. The answer was not great, but I did pick up a few books to have a gander at when I got home. Hurrah.

My current in-teh-leck-choo-al reading is JP Mallory's Aspects of the Táin, which I got from my last trip to the university library, but it's slow going and a little dry so far, so some lighter reading is in order, I think. My brain can handle that. So from my trip to the local library yesterday, I got a book on modern Hogmanay celebrations, a book on Scottish Nursery Rhymes, and one of The Making of Scotland series that I haven't read yet. The latter is one of those short and glossy type of books with lots of pictures in it, so it's been a quick read, and as it deals with the Picts, it's been an enjoyable one. Time for a review, before I forget.

Surviving in Symbols: A Visit to the Pictish Nation
Martin Carver

As part of The Making of Scotland series, there are a few things I expected of this book: A straightforward, easy read, covering the basics; lots of pictures and illustrations; and a few problems with proof-reading here and there (but no biggy). And that was pretty much what I got...

Of the other books I've read in the series, I'm not sure this is one of the better ones - although I suspect my vague disappointment here is more because this is a subject I enjoy, so there was a lot of things I wanted to see being discussed. You can only fit so much in.

There is still a lot of good stuff packed in here, but there are a few bits and pieces in the book that I think could have been done better, on the whole. For one, I would have thought putting the Picts into context - who they were, when they were, where they were, and addressing or challenging some of the common misconceptions about them would have been a good thing to start with. But apparently not. As a result, I found the introduction a little dense, jumping straight into Columba and Adomnán, Bede and Northumbrians. Don't be put off, though.

The first illustration in the book is a tattooed artisan, carving Pictish symbols onto stone, with the accompanying blurb suggesting: "They may have carried their patterns in their heads, but here we speculate that some images at least were carried on their bodies, by one of the very oldest forms of picture-making - tattooing with natural dyes." I take this to be an oblique reference to woad tattoos (because everybody knows the Picts were covered head to toe in woad tattoos - Mel Gibson and Keira Knightly said so, so it must be true...), but at no other point in the book is the issue raised or even mentioned. It's pointed out that as 'Picti' they were known as 'the Painted People', but that's about it. It would have been nice to see some discussion of what this meant, and what other evidence there is, if any, for something that's now so ingrained in how people see them. In a way, though, maybe it's understandable in trying to lift the Picts out of their quagmire of woad.

Aside from that, the meat of the book is good. The author makes the point that the Picts were just like anyone else at the time; they were (to all intents and purposes) Britons, not some sort of pre-Celtic, non-Indo European, matriarchal, Bronze Age relics. They spoke a Celtic language, as far as we can ascertain, but one that had probably evolved differently to their Brythonic neighbours further south. Their material culture was distinctive, but not so different from anyone else. They drew heirs from matrilineal lines when needed, just like their contemporaries elsewhere did. They were not a different, separate race, but at some point, they could have been considered to be a nation.

Carver looks at the issue of the 'Pictish oghams', Pictish monuments, the conversion to Christianity, how they lived, and where, and for the most part it's well done. He gives a good introduction to the basics without being too biased in favour of one theory or another, but does point out what is most commonly accepted by academics. For someone who isn't so sure of the subject, this does a good job of building a solid foundation for further study.

To a degree, some of this is out of date now - there's no mention of the Pictish symbols possibly being a laguage, for example, since the book is now eleven years old. But there is some discussion of things I've not seen widely discussed elsewhere - like the issue of the 'Pictish' oghams being Pictish at all, as well as a good overview of Pictish burial practises. The author is certainly at his best when dealing with archaeology, as an archaeologist himself.

As a gentle introduction to the subject, it does a good job. It's short, but to the point, and the pictures and illustrations help to break it all up a little and give more detail in some of the most important areas that are covered. The book covers the main points, and throws in a good bit extra here and there, and gives a good list for further reading, and really, that's all you can ask for.

For the most part, if it falls short at certain points it's because there isn't enough space to go into more detail, rather than things being just plain inaccurate, but as far as this is concerned, I did feel the book was too focused on the Picts' relationship with their neighbours - Northumbrians especially - rather than their own internal politics and make up. I would liked to have seen more about that, but then again the focus does help to show that they weren't mythical blue wee people that nobody else in the early medieval world ever happened to mention...

References would have been nice, though. And an index.

Thursday, 9 September 2010

Yup, another update...and some other thoughts

After getting the last few articles on the festivals finished off, I've put together some thoughts on celebrating Midsummer and Là Fhèill Mìcheil, which you can find here:

Celebrating Midsummer
Celebrating Là Fhèill Mìcheil

And after some moderate success with my attempts at making a modern version of the traditional strùthan, I've added the recipe to the long list of other varieties of bannocks. If I ever manage to get hold of some barley meal I'd like to try some barley bannocks, but otherwise that section is finished for now as well, I think. Purty picture included:


While I was doing the article on Là Fhèill Mìcheil I got to thinking about how to go about ritualising it - there's a lot to work with in terms of maybe trying to back-engineer some sort of ritual based on Carmichael's description of it in particular, but I have some reservations about that and I've run into a bit of a dead end with my attempts. In particular, it kind of feels a little bit like I'm trying to 'pick' a deity to fit the festival, but it really does seem that Manannán is a good fit. He and Michael seem to share a lot of similarities - associations with horses, the sea, a shield....Maybe that's just my personal bias, seeing as he's a god I tend to have a lot to do with, and I've been reading about him a lot lately. It kind of raises a few questions, though (assuming I'm onto something), especially considering his firmer associations with Midsummer. Perhaps my biggest problem in attempting anything like this is that I don't really emphasise the 'lesser' festivals in my practices, so I'm probably not the best person to try. And liturgy has never been one of my strong points.

In the meantime, though, I've got to thinking about cheery things like death and the afterlife...So I started working on an article about that, during my kid-free mornings, and realised that it really needed to be two articles. Surprisingly, I got long winded. How unusual.

The first one I've done is called:

Afterlife and Ancestors

I've tried to look at as many sources as I possibly can, as I usually do, but I'm sure there's a lot more I could've added, and hopefully will over time as things come to my attention. For once, it's sadly lacking in anything specifically Scottish, so it would be good to think more on that, but what little there is that I found is almost identical to the Irish sources anyway (not exactly shocking). 

Gàidhlig lessons will be starting again soon, so I really need to start going over my last year's worth of lessons before they start. I've been a thoroughly bad and neglectful student over the summer, it has to be said. Bad Seren.