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. 

Sunday, 5 September 2010

Book review: Irish Wake Amusements

O frabjous day! I've put my back out. Aren't I lucky?

Woe, woe is me! I'd probably be throwing myself dramatically onto a conveniently placed piece of furniture at this point, so I can sob loudly and pathetically for effect, but that would hurt. And also mean I'd have to be standing up. Or at least sitting somewhere strategic...Neither is an option right now.

But while I have nothing better to do than lie around feeling sorry for myself, at least I have some reading time on my hands. Which leads me to my next review:

Irish Wake Amusements
Seán Ó Súilleabháin

I read Ó Súilleabháin's other book, Irish Folk Custom and Belief a while ago and really enjoyed it, so I had high hopes for this one. Overall, I wasn't disappointed. As far as readability is concerned.

This book is short and sweet again, written in the same conversational style, and well referenced. It's a good, quick read that covers all of the basics of the subject, plus a bit more, although as with the last book, Ó Súilleabháin could have probably written something four times the size and still not covered anything. I have to say, though, this book doesn't feel as broad-brushed as Irish Folk Custom and Belief did, so I've come away feeling a lot more satisfied this time.

It's not the cheeriest of subjects to read about, but it's an interesting one, especially for someone like me who's been brought up in a very different sort of environment, where death is sidelined and kept quiet and solemn. Not so here.

Ó Súilleabháin keeps a tight focus on the basics - what happens before the wake starts, what happens when people join the wake, the kind of hospitality that is given and expected from the family of the deceased, and then goes on to the main part of the book - the wake amusements. He splits them all up into different types of amusements or games and devotes a chapter to each one, and then goes on to look at the reaction of the Church and how they tried to clamp down on the practice over the centuries - with little success - followed by an examination of the origins of customs. It was at this point that some of the problems became apparent with the book, since it wasn't so much an attempt at looking at the possible origins, but more defending folk's behaviour in these bygone times. They didn't know any better, these rustic folk, is the general gist, but in these enlightened times, we are all good Christians now, and do it properly...

This is a very sanitised version of events, in amongst all the detail. Having read elsewhere on the subject I've seen mention of far ruder and rougher games being played at Irish wakes (in E Estyn Evans' Irish Folk Ways, who says they're far too obscene to commit to paper) than Ó Súilleabháin describes here, and it seems that Ó Súilleabháin is actively trying to play this element down. There is the occasional mention of lewd or obscene behaviour, or the potential for it, but no details. It's almost as if you can tell that such things are mentioned in hushed tones, if that's possible in print.

Clearly, Ó Súilleabháin is writing to a particular audience. Clearly, someone who's read the book before me also thought that Ó Súilleabháin wasn't being entirely honest about everything - at one point, Ó Súilleabháin comments that modern wakes, where they are still practised, are devoid of drunkenness. "I'm sorry, but that's bollicks!"[sic]  writes my anonymous friend in the margin. I have to agree.

It's a shame that the book falls a little short on this point, but overall it does have a lot of good stuff to offer (and to be fair to Ó Súilleabháin, he's not the only one who didn't want to go there). One of the most useful aspects of the book is the detail that Ó Súilleabháin gives for all of the games that he lists, because, as he points out, few of them are specific to wake occasions. Most of them are the general sort of parlour games that can be found on any festive occasion, and so from a Gaelic Polytheist perspective, they can be referenced when trying to add a competitive or simple fun element to festivities at Lùnastal (for example). Some of them are well known already - Blind Man's Buff, Hide the Slipper, variants on games like Simon Says, and so on. This is especially good for me, looking for inspiration for involving the kids, but as Ó Súilleabháin points out, these games were traditionally for anyone but the elderly.

Like any book, it can't be taken at face value, and with this caveat in mind it's a very informative, and useful, book to read if you want to do some research in this area. Unfortunately, it's definitely one of those books you'll have to get from the library, because for such a small book it comes with an incredibly hefty price tag as far as I've seen. Count yourself lucky if you see it going cheap, and snap it up.