Saturday, 28 May 2011

In the garden, before another review

In spite of the gloriousness of April, May has been a total wash out. Earlier this week most of Scotland was battered by storms and heavy winds that got up to over 130mph. I'm not sure how strong they were round here, but it was enough to knock more than a few trees down around the village, and closed the coastal road even heading into Greenock - generally more sheltered than the road heading south into Largs.

This is the sort of weather we're more used to in late autumn or winter - it was so cold yesterday that we finally gave in and put the heating back on for a wee bit again. Suffice it to say, the cold, rain, and lack of sunshine means there's not much happening in the vegetable patch at the moment, and unless the weather improves dramatically then I'm not sure we'll have much to show for it come the autumn. Not that I've been able to do much in the garden anway.

One success is this:

The poppies are in full bloom at the moment, a bright antidote to the dismal grey sky. When I originally planted them I was under the impression that they were going to be proper red ones - these seem a little washed out and I presume that's just the variety, or maybe poor soil quality (or a bit of both).

I've sown some more to put out in the front garden, but these poppies are growing in the patch of flowerbed out the back that I set aside for a wee spiritual focal point. They're growing in between a small cairn I've built to comemmorate my ancestors, and a small pond I use as a focal point to put some offerings out when I'm gardening and weeding (sadly neglected this year, but Rosie is keen on tending things with offerings of daisies and buttercups when she thinks no one's looking).

The poppies themselves are dedicated to the memory of one of my grandads - Poppy, as I called him - who was a gardener. I'm glad they've come along so well since I planted them three years ago now. If only I could say the same for the vegetable patch...

But now, another review.

The Year in Ireland
Kevin Danaher

This is another one of those seminal books that should go on every aspiring reconstructionist's booklist if they happen to have an interest in Ireland. It's one of those books that I love so much that I'm hard-pressed to find much to say about it that's particularly negative.

Do you want chapters covering just about everything you want to know about the Irish festival calendar? Check. Do you want it illustrated? Check. A good read? Check check check. That's about all you need to know, really.

It's set within a very Catholic festival year so not everything will be relevant to a polytheistic context, but it does do a good job of giving a good idea of the cultural context in which you'll find the festivals. The book is laid out well, with each chapter dealing with a different festival, meaning that some of them are only a page long, if that. For the longer chapters there are various subheadings to help break everything up and make it easier to dip into for reference - definitely a good thing because I don't find the index at the back to be particularly detailed or helpful.

Danaher gives a good amount of detail for the more popular festivals, and covers a goodly amount of ground in terms of the scope of his research and the dissemination of it. For anyone wanting to get to grips with ideas for things to do for the festivals then this is really the first place you'll want to look, and it will give a lot of inspiration. I've mentioned other books that are a good supplement to this over the course of the reviews I've done, but this book will really be your go-to book, unless you want to start delving into journals and more specialised areas of research, or lengthier and more concentrated books like Máire MacNeill's The Festival of Lughnasa, or Sean O'Duinn's The Rites of Brigid.*

This is not a quick read by any means, I've found. It's not a massive tome but it does pack a lot of stuff into it, and there's a lot for the beginner to chew on. Had it been written by a not so accomplished author, it would probably be overwhelming in that respect, but Danaher is not only an excellent writer, he also seems to be genuinely passionate about his subject, and that shines through in his work and helps carry the reader along, I think. Plus, it's the sort of book that's good for dipping into every now and then - picking it up to read the relevant chapters as you go along through the year. For the beginner, I would recommend getting hold of a copy of this as soon as you possibly can.

* I thought I'd reviewed this already - and I'm still semi-convinced I did, but can't find it. This review here, from a promising new blogger, does a good job of pretty much mirroring my thoughts on it.

Another review, this time, four for the price of one...

This next review is long overdue - as some of the first books I ever bought for myself once I finally decided to take the plunge into Celtic Reconstructionism, they've been instrumental to my path and my research, and their value cannot be overstated.

The Silver Bough: Volume I-IV
F. Marian McNeill

Coming in at four volumes, the full set for the series may set you back a pretty penny if you indulge yourself in one go, but I can tell you straight away that these books are well worth it. I'd originally intended to review them all separately, on their own merits, but in the end I decided that was pointless seeing as I'm not sure they can be fully appreciated without reading each book, and many of their strengths and weakness are the same or very similar. I figured I'd probably just end up repeating myself.

First of all, I'll give an idea of what each volume covers:

The Silver Bough Volume I: Scottish Folk-Lore and Folk-Belief

Here we have an introduction to various aspects of folklore, from witchcraft and fairies, to different types of charms and folk practices. Of all the introductory tomes to the subject, I think this is the most accessible and strikes the right balance between hitting all the right bases without overloading the reader.

The Silver Bough Volume II: A Calendar of Scottish National Festivals Candlemas to Harvest Home

Covering Candlemas, Easter, Bealltainn, Lúnastal and the harvest festivals including Michaelmas, this is probably the best place to start if you want to find out anything about these festivals. Again, it's accessible and detailed, but won't overload. For some subjects - like Bealltainn - various different aspects of it are covered in several chapters, but for the most part this is the sort of book you can dip into as and when you get to each particular time of year to get an understanding of what the festivals are about, and for ideas of what you can do.

The Silver Bough Volume III: A Calendar of Scottish National Festivals Hallowe'en to Yule

Covering a slightly shorter period of the year, but with good reason because there's a lot to pack in. Chapters include covering Samhainn, Christmas, Yule, Hogmanay, and Handsel Monday. Much of what you'll find for Samhainn/Hallowe'en is also covered - with more additional details - in McNeill's standalone book, Hallowe'en: Its Origin Rites and Ceremonies in the Scottish Tradition.

The Silver Bough Volume IV: The Local Festivals of Scotland

Covering the different local festivals, grouped loosely by the time of year (although there's some need for a bit of backwards and forwards here). Of the four volumes, this one is probably of least immediate value and relevance to the beginner, but it gives good additional details for when you want to get stuck in a bit further, or are looking for customs that might relate to somewhere you have heritage from.

The value of these books - and the love I have for this author - cannot be overstated. Although I'd unreservedly recommend the whole set to anyone, however, that doesn't mean that they're not without their problems...

The first volume was published in 1957, with subsequent volumes coming out every couple of years thereafter. This means that not everything is necessarily as up to date as you might hope, and some of the interpretations given by McNeill aren't necessarily solid. I tend to be more forgiving of things like that in older books such as these, but they need commenting on all the same - McNeill's frequent mention of druids, and linking customs with 'ancient druid practices' need to be ignored, for example, because there's simply no evidence to support what she's saying there.

Likewise, because much of McNeill's research is based upon older books, it helps to know what you're dealing with there. She goes along with Fraser and his The Golden Bough sometimes, and for the Cailleach, for example, she draws upon MacKenzie's work. It has to be said that he's not necessarily the most reliable source for that kind of thing even if he is interesting. It helps to be a little circumspect there.

References are given throughout the volumes but in trying to follow up on some things, McNeill hasn't been as thorough as I would have liked. Having familiarised myself with a lot of the stuff she's drawn her research from I can see where bits have come from now, but it does cause a headache or two if you don't know to start with. What she does reference, however, is sound - she doesn't try to fudge anything with giving references that don't really follow what she's saying, so over all you'll find she's quite reliable.

Because of the cost involved in getting hold of all four volumes - not outrageous, but not necessarily within everyone's means - I've tried to find alternatives. The Scottish volumes of British Calendar Customs are a good substitute, but unless you can find them from the library you probably won't have much luck buying them and I would say they're probably not as readable as McNeill anyway. Sheila Livingstone's Scottish Customs, and Scottish Festivals, both draw heavily from McNeill, are cheaper and less detailed, and might do well for someone who's a little daunted by the prospect of getting stuck into four volumes right away. I reviewed those as well, and found them to be a little problemmatic, though, so my recommendation there comes with a bit of a qualifier.

The Silver Bough is by no means the only thing you'll ever need to read, but it does give a fantastic start, I think. Along with Ronald Black's The Gaelic Otherworld, I would recommend the first three volumes (at the least) as must-haves for the beginner.

Next up: Our Highland Folklore Heritage by Alexander Polson

Our Highland Folklore Heritage
Alexander Polson

A while ago I read and reviewed another of Polson's books, Scottish Witchcraft Lore, which - over all - I liked. It's one of those books I wish I could afford, so I could add it to my hoard. It was mainly for that reason that I picked this one up - to see if it was as good as the one I've already read, and to see if this book has anything to add to the subject.

For the most part, the answer to the latter point is: not really. In many respects, this book is like a precursor to Scottish Witchcraft Lore - Our Highland Folklore Heritage was published slightly earlier, and is slightly shorter in length, too, and in general there's quite an overlap in subject matter and content between them when dealing with witchcraft and related matter. This book has a broader scope at least, so it's not all the same sort of stuff by any means. For me, a downside is that what's missing here are most of the things that I enjoyed so much about Scottish Witchcraft Lore - mainly the interviews with witches and groundwork that Polson himself did for that book - so for me it's not really a cheaper substitute (this book is at least within my means if I want to buy it) in that respect. Then again, it would be pretty pointless writing two books that are basically identical, so looking at the book on its own merits, that's a big plus.

What this book does offer is a simple introduction to various aspects of Highland folklore - lore at sea, witches and witchcraft, fairy lore, second sight, ghosts, various kinds of spirits, and so on. Each chapter is quite short, but they hit all the right notes for giving a basic overview and there are plenty of stories, many of which Polson collected from his students during his time teaching in various places in the far north of Scotland. They probably aren't ones that you'll find published in too many different places, so that's a major plus too.

For the most part, each chapter covers things that you might already know if you've read other introductions to the subject, but Polson presents everything in a brisk but engaging style, at least (sometimes, it's more like he's just putting some notes down than attempting to write anything more flowery), and a lot of it is from the horse's mouth. Polson doesn't offer too much in the way of detailed analysis, rather he lets the material speak for itself and you can draw your own conclusions.

As a quick and straightforward read, and for anyone looking for a good introduction to the topic, or just something that adds a little more to the subject, I'd definitely recommend this one.

Bealltainn - part two

Mmmmmm. Cheese scones...

I finally got around to finishing off my Bealltainn celebrations just shy of two weeks after I started - there was ritual, there were offerings, there were bannocks, and scones, and stew,  and also skimming and saining, and making of charms, and cutting of rowan for the charm-making thereof...Things were a little muted, but I'm learning to adapt to a new life of not always being so mobile, and making the most of when I can.

There's nothing like living with constant pain - of varying degrees, at least - and the side effects of medications meant to help control the pain, to give someone a bit of a boot up the arse as far as spirituality and practice go. Or me, that is. And as far as life in general goes, really. At the moment I'm in a medical limbo between getting a diagnosis (the ins and outs of which are far too boring to go into) and getting the appropriate treatment for my particular problem, so I'm both waiting and doing what I can in terms of living and coping without too many drugs fogging up my brain, and adapting life to within means I'm actually capable of. Fun.

Inevitably, it seems, compromises will have to be made in future. From now on, if my back isn't up to it then the festive dinners may not always be slavishly cooked from scratch, the bread not freshly baked, or the butter freshly churned, as I'd prefer, but the intent remains the same. Likewise, ritual may have to become more internalised at times, rather than accompanied by ritualised actions and gestures, but until I ever reach the point where I can delegate these things, what will be will be. I do those things because I enjoy doing them, because it makes sense to me; not because I have to, not because it makes me more spiritual in some way.

One thing I can still do, though, is read. I haven't done as much reading as I'd like lately, really (medication and brain fog etc), but I have a small backlog accumulating, and over the next however many posts I'll be trying to clear it. First up is:

Celtic Flame: An Insider's Guide to Irish Pagan Tradition
Aedh Rua

As I understand it, this was originally written as a CR101 book, but never quite made it that far, for one reason or another. The author himself stresses that he no longer identifies as CR, although the influence of some of those who were involved in the early stages of the CR community (especially Alexei Kondratiev) is unmistakeable. The book also begins with a veritable who's who of movers and shakers as far as the founders of CR are concerned.

Perhaps because of all this - both the author's involvement, the influence, and the many names invoked here - I can't help but feel that the focus of the book gets a little confused at times. On the one hand, it's not a CR book, but one that describes the author's own path and beliefs. Fair enough. On the other, it seems that the audience the author is talking to is meant to be, or expected to be, CR, since this is the community most often referred to.

This might be indicative of the fact that the book and the author evolved in their path over the course of its writing, or else it could be that the author simply assumes that the CR community, or those interested in it, will indeed be his audience. If it's the latter, I don't think it really works too well; if it's the former, then it's probably symptomatic of the fact that this is a self-published title and, like so many under that heading, in need of some editing - and certainly elsewhere, in terms of layout, formatting and proofreading, it could use some work too. There's nothing major here, but the Bibliography alone causes a headache if you actually want to find something; the references don't always seem to match up to what's being talked about, and so on.

It's an odd sort of book. In terms of doing what it offers, I think it does well - you come away with a good idea what the author's path is all about, even if there is some confusion as I've mentioned. I would have to disagree that it's 'authentic Irish pagan tradition' as the author presents it; rather, it's one way of doing things, and I have to say I find language like that a little concerning and disconcerting. The chapter on values, however, genuinely offers something that I've not seen elsewhere - outside of Alexei Kondratiev's article on Celtic Values, which it draws heavily on - although it maybe ends up going on a little too long as far as how they relate to different levels of society is concerned.

The author also goes out of his way to include a good amount of Irish (and in the ritual chapter, Scottish Gaelic, too) - introducing Irish words for concepts he's explaining, explaining what they mean, and so on. That's a definite plus, but along the way all these different words gets hard to keep track of, and I didn't realise there was a handy glossary given at the back until I'd nearly finished the whole book (it's not listed in the contents page). The Irish in particular seems a bit confused to me, with - as far as I can tell - Old Irish and modern Irish mixed up at times, but always with modern pronunciations given (when they're given at all). This may be an issue of spelling/proofing more than anything else, but I would be leery of using any of it myself without checking it thoroughly first. In the ritual chapter, I have to give the author props for being upfront and honest that his Irish isn't up to adapting the Gàidhlig of the Carmina Gadelica, but I'm not sure that simply adapting the Gàidhlig with Irish deities is nothing more than something of a fudge - this is supposed to be Irish Paganism, it seems to detract a little from that.

The ritual format is not something I personally get along with - tools, casting a circle to make a sacred space, invocations to deities and so - but some of the poetry here is quite good and inspiring. With the Carmina Gadelica being a major source for inspiration here, it's maybe not something that will be unfamiliar, but I'm always interested in what other people do with it, and how they approach the material.

The section on gods also bears mentioning - the way the gods, spirits and ancestors are split up into the 'head' gods, 'specialist gods (of skill) tutelary spirits/gods, and so on - is genuinely nothing I've ever seen before and interesting for that alone, even if I don't entirely agree with the reasoning. One problem I have here is that the gods are listed in terms of attributes and symbols (including lunar/solar stuff for good measure), with a handy reference guide on what to call on them for - it comes across more like a menu for rent-a-god than anything with real depth, and certainly is one of the points where the author and most CRs would most definitely disagree.

His views on the Fomorians are a little too black and white - he has them as demons, eternally pitted against the Tuatha Dé Danann. At the very least, this seems to ignore the fact that after the Fomoire were defeated at the Second Battle of Mag Tured, they're never mentioned in an adversarial role again (as far as I can recall. The TDD themselves take on that role, against the Milesians, even). It also ignores later Irish folk tradition. Other types of spirits are included under the Fomorian title, though, including Scottish ones like the Fachan, which not only confuses the Irish focus in the book otherwise, but also doesn't address the point that although they might seem similar, but that doesn't mean they're the same...I think if you find this book of interest, this is a chapter best ignored.

All in all, this seems to be a book that came so close, and yet didn't go far enough in some areas. To a certain extent it feels unfinished in a way that I can't exactly put my finger on. Certain parts feel like they need fleshing out - a little spit and polish wouldn't go amiss in general - and over all I think it would've done better to stand on its own merits rather than in the shadow (even nominally) of CR.

Wednesday, 18 May 2011

The baobhan sìth - 'fairy furies'

One of my favourite tales from Scottish legend is about the baobhan sìth - a kind of otherworldly vampire I suppose you could say. I've been trying to find the version of the tale that I remember studying at university, but alas it doesn't seem to be amongst my paperwork.

My trawls on the internet have turned up a couple of versions but they're not as good as the one I remember - there was something about it that I found genuinely creepy. But still, it's a good story, and I mentioned werewolves a few posts ago so I figure why not vampires now, eh? Of the following tales, the first one is closest to how I remember the story going.

So without further ado:
A notion was prevalent among the people of Lewis, and of the Highlands and Islands generally, that it was imprudent to wish — or rather to express a wish — for anything at any time of the night without simultaneously invoking the protection of the Deity.

If the invocation were forgotten or neglected they believed that their wish would be granted in some terrible manner. Probably this superstitious belief originated in the following and kindred stories.
Three men were hunting in the hills of Kintail. Having had but little success, and being reluctant to return home empty-handed, they agreed to pass the night in one of the shielings or huts, of which there were many on the moors. ('Shielings,' says my informant, 'much larger than those to be met with in Lewis.') Having lit a fire in the shieling they cooked some venison, of which they made a repast. After their meal they pulled some dry grass and moss and spread it on the floor to serve as a bed. Two of them sat on one side of the fire and the third at the other side began playing the trump (Jew's-harp). One of the two began to talk of their unsuccessful day's toil, but added that they would not grumble at their ill success were they now with their sweethearts. His comrade agreed with him heartily, and at the same time expressed a wish that their three sweethearts should be with them in the shieling.

Immediately three tall, handsome young women made their appearance, two of whom crossed over to the two men, the third remained with the musician. The fire was dimly burning, and the man could not see how things were going with his comrades and their two strange visitors, but he noticed to his consternation a stream of blood flowing towards the fire from the place where they were, and looking at the same time at the woman who sat by him he observed that her feet were not like human feet but like the hoofs of a deer.
His fears were terribly aroused, and he wished heartily to make his escape. He made an excuse to the woman that he must go out for some water to drink, but she ofiered to go herself. He declined and rose to go out. He no sooner made a movement to the door than the woman got up, and endeavoured to lay hold of him before he reached the door, but he escaped and ran with all possible speed towards the nearest human dwelling.

The woman pursued him with a speed equal to his own. At length he reached a glen which was inhabited, and there the woman gave up the chase, and exclaimed several times: 'Dhith sibhs' ur cuthaich fein ach dh'fhag mo chuthaich fein mise.' You ate your own victims (?), but my victim (?) escaped from me.

On the day following the people of the glen went to the shieling, where they found the mangled remains of the two men, their throats cut, their chests laid open, and their hearts torn away. I asked my informant who these women were. He wondered at my ignorance, and replied that they were 'Baobhan Sith' (Fairy Furies). He often related similar stories.
Carmichael, Celtic Review Volume V, 1905, pp163-165.

Reading between the lines we might think there's a clear implication of some hanky panky going on between the two victims and their otherworldly partners before (or during, let's say) their untimely demise. In this version of the tale there's also an implied link between the venison the hunters ate and the deer hoofs the baobhan sìth presented themselves as having - the baobhan sìth emphasises it when she says, "You ate your own victims (?), but my victim (?) escaped from me." In effect, offence has been caused - the men ate her kind (or kine) - deer being commonly associated with the sìth as being their 'cattle' - so she will devour him in return. Their wish for company gave the baobhan sìth the opportunity to carry out their revenge.

This next excerpt gives two other versions. The first version doesn't mention deer at all, and the tale is a more clear-cut case of vampirism and being careful what you wish for (and perhaps especially when you wish for what could be construed as 'loose women' - obviously a big no no in those times). I've tweaked the formatting to add some paragraphs in:

Four men from Strathmore, who were hunting among the hills, sought shelter one night in the shieling at Airigh nan Guthach, between Loch Droma and Braemore. To while away the time, one of them supplied vocal music puirt-a-beul while the others danced. One of the dancers ere long gave utterance to a wish that they had partners. Presently four young women came into the hut. After some introductory conversation, partners were appropriated, one of the women seated herself by the musician, and dancing was resumed, and was now carried on with much more vigour and enjoyment.

After some time spent thus, one of the men observed drops of blood falling from one of his companions. Concealing the alarm that the sight caused him, he told his partner that he wished to go outside for a little. She did her utmost to induce him not to go, and only when he proposed to let her hold an end of his plaid while he was without did she give a reluctant consent. Outside he pinned the free end of his plaid to the turf wall of the hut, and fled for his life. When his flight was discovered, his partner started in pursuit. Her companions spurred her on, calling " Cha bu tu do mhathair air t' aois. A Stiana chaoil, nach beir thu air!" "You are not your mother at your age. Slender Christina, can't you catch him!" Christina wailed back "Chaill mise mo dhubhach, 's dh' ith thusa do dhubhach!" "I have lost my dubhach, and you have eaten your dubhach." Before she could overtake the fugitive, he found refuge in a horse fold at Fasa-grianach. Once he got in alongside of the horses she was powerless to harm him. When daylight came he gave the alarm, and a party of friends and neighbours went to the shieling, and found only the lifeless remains of the other hunters. The creatures with whom they had associated had sucked the blood from their bodies.

The story is told with some or other of the following differences. The number of the men was three. They were on their way home over the Dirrie Mor to Lochbroom. They sought shelter in the hut from a storm. One of the dancers or the musician chanced to lower his glance, and saw that the women had hoofs. The musician stopped the music in his alarm, and his companions thereupon fell lifeless corpses. He started up to flee for his life. The woman at his side laid hold of his plaid to detain him. He threw off the plaid and fled. Her response to the incitement of her companions is "Mise 's mo dhubhach, mise 's mo dhubhach" "I and my dubhach, I and my dubhach!" 
In a "Guide to Ullapool and Lochcarron," published a few years ago, the name of the shieling is given as Airigh mo Dhubhach, and is derived from the wail of the mothers of the dead men "airigh mo dhubhach" 'shieling of my sorrow' but the name, as we have heard it, is Airigh nan Guthach. The word dubhach, so far as could be ascertained, is obsolete, and its meaning unknown. The reference, however, is evidently to the blood sucked from the victims by the hags, and the term is doubtless to be compared with dubhaith, a pudding, and duthatch, great gut, anus, sausage.
Rev. Robertson, 'Folklore from the West of Ross-shire,' in Transactions of the Gaelic Society of Inverness Vol XXVI, 1907, pp268-269.

So there you go. Scottish vampires.

Monday, 16 May 2011

Newark Castle - a day out

Try again, shall we? Blogger ate the first attempt...

It was a busy weekend and then somelast week, with an old friend coming to stay with us for a wee holiday. Naturally, playing the goood host I had to figure out a few things that we could do that would keep us entertained, and as it happened this mostly involved me failing at public transport (although to be fair, it mostly failed me), and getting slightly tipsy in places in and around Glasgow, which was fun for us, but maybe not so fun to describe here.

One of our better successes was a trip to Newark Castle in Port Glasgow - not too much of a trek for me or my knackered back. In the three years that I've lived in this part of Scotland I've never got round to visiting it, although I've wanted to. It's a castle tucked away next to some imposing shipyards - what's left of them now - and the main road for the west coast of Scotland south of Glasgow. Blink and you'll miss it, as you drive past.

It doesn't look like much from the front at the moment, considering the fact that it's all covered in scaffolding, so here's the back view:

(And so begins my best tour guide impression). It started off life in the fifteenth century as your typical tower house, surrounded by a defensive wall with corner towers that were used as lookouts. The wall was removed in the sixteenth century by the towerhouse's most famous occupant, Patrick Maxwell. He was a nice man. Or not. When he wasn't busy soldiering, he was busy killing his neighbours, friends, being generally unpleasant, and at one point locking his wife away for six months. Even his mother complained to the authorities about him at one point (the complaint didn't get very far, though - being best mates with King James VI probably came in handy there).

Patrick's wife eventually managed to escape her lovely husband after 44 years of marriage and bearing sixteen children. She ended her days in poverty, so not exactly the happy ending but probably an improvement with how it could have ended with ole Paddy. As I said, a nice guy, Patrick. Or not.

Anyway, from this angle, you can see just how close the remaining shipyards are to the castle:

And just how marvellous the weather was that day. The odd-looking tower to the right is all that remains of the original defensive wall that surrounded the tower. Here's a better view:

Which was eventually turned into a dovecot (or doocot, as it's called in Scots). Seeing as my friend and I were the only people there at the time, the castle steward was very forthcoming about everything, and opened the doocot for us so we could take a look inside:

Normally it's locked to the public, because there's still the opening for the original toilet - that the guards would have used as they stood lookout, I guess - and there's always some clever sod who has to try it out...You can go inside on request. Although in our case, the steward was more than happy to offer. What with the weather, we were probably going to be the only visitors that morning, at least. And no wonder:

That's a view from the battlements at the top of the tower; the lumpy horizon in the photo, that meets the clouds, are the houses at the top of the hill that surrounds Port Glasgow. The black cloud moved sloooowly, but it pretty much says DOOM.

The building is remarkably well-preserved, even if there are some major works under way at the moment. There are the obligatory spiral staircases (which my friend navigated with some trepidation, she's not keen on them):

Odd nooks and crannies:

Floor supports, no longer in use:

And outside, the opportunity for some mood shots:

Where that tree is, and further up river, there used to be more shipyards that crowded around the castle - since the decline of the industry, the derelict buildings have since been removed and the area returned to grass and woodland (and road). It used to be the other way round at one point, though - at the turn of the last century, with no occupant looking after the castle it fell into disrepair and was threatened with demolition to make way for more industry. It was eventually taken into state care in 1909 and preserved.

In the old days, ships couldn't get much further up river than this, and so Port Glasgow grew up on the old lands of Newark Castle to accommodate the imports and exports to and from Glasgow - tobacco, cotton, rum, sugar. Books never really mention slaves, but I've heard rumblings locally - one of those things everybody knows, that slaves passed through here.

The shipyards were the mainstay of Port Glasgow's industry, and before the days of metal ships, there was a need for wood, of course; from the eighteenth century onwards, this was often brought up the river in specially adapted ships with hatches in the side, that could release the timber into the water when they reached their destination. The timber was then left in timber ponds near the shore, where the wood was kept in the water to season it until it was needed. What's left of the timber ponds can still be seen poking up out of the river:

Just - you'll see it better if you enlarge the photo. The ponds started to fall out of use with the advent of iron ships, and the dredging of the Clyde up to Glasgow. Once ships had direct access to the city, Port Glasgow began its inevitable decline in the industry it was famed for.

A slightly different view up river:

And you can just about see Dumbarton Rock on the opposite shore - Alt Clut, the main hillfort of the Britons of Strat Clut (Strathclyde). A little further along from the timber ponds, on the Port Glasgow side of the shore, are the remains of a couple of crannogs - probably Iron Age, but possibly early medieval, and probably related to the activity over at Dumbarton Rock. You can just about make out the outline of them at very low tide, the mounds that are the remains of the islands the crannogs were situated on.

So that's about it. My tour guiding has officially run out of steam. I think in my first entry I did for this, that got eaten, I made a little housekeeping note - I'm trying to get back into writing again, after a long hiatus thanks to the ongoing back problems I've had (am having), but in the meantime I've been on and on at my husband and resident webtroll that the Tairis website has been frustratingly slow and unstable. Magic and all sorts of web wizardry have since happened and the site is now on a brand spanking new host and server (or different ones, anyway) and so far it's been running a lot better. Hopefully it will stay that way. 

Friday, 6 May 2011

History in the making

Politics is always a tricky subject to delve into, but I think it would be remiss of me not to mention the fact that yesterday's elections for the Scottish Parliament looks like it's going to bring the biggest win for the Scottish National Party since devolution. In fact, it's looking like there's the possibility that the SNP will be able to form a majority government in Holyrood for the first time ever - the first majority government in Scottish Parliament for any party.

I'd only just moved back to Scotland in 2007 when the SNP won enough seats to form a minority government in the Scottish Parliament at Holyrood, and that in itself was historic enough. In the wake of last year's election for Westminster, though, which resulted in a controversial and very uncomfortable coalition government between the Conservatives and Liberal Democrats, this election for the Scottish Parliament was always going to be interesting.

For the Westminster elections last year, the Tories and Lib Dems brokered their coalition deal mainly off the back of the fact that the previous Labour government at Westminster had lost support with people who were angry at the economy going down the toilet, and that the Prime Minister, Gordon Brown, hadn't even been elected - he'd just taken over when Tony Blair stepped down and decided against holding a re-election (because, people said, he knew it was unlikely he'd win). Amongst other issues, of course.

Since the coalition, though, the Lib Dems have taken a hammering after being accused of many broken promises and failing to temper unpopular Tory policies, and so on. As such, their unpopularity off the back of the Westminster coalition was inevitably going to affect their performance in the Scottish Parliamentary elections yesterday (as well as the local government elections in England, and the Welsh Assembly elections as well).

Scotland has always, historically, been a Labour stronghold (although the north tends to vote Lib Dem), but the performance of the Scottish Labour party leader in the election campaign over the past few weeks, in particular, has proved an utter embarrassment to them. He's managed to hold his seat, scraping through with a majority of just 151, and the party as a whole has taken a bit of a hit in losing some previously safe seats. 

The SNP, on the other hand, have managed (they say) to perform impressively over the past four years considering the fact that they've been a minority government. As such, and considering their expectation of winning support from disaffected Lib Dem and Labour voters, they were expecting to make good gains in the election yesterday, and so far have been proven right. There are still results to come in, so a majority is far from certain as yet but some news outlets are already calling it as pretty much the expected outcome.

This means that one of their most cherished policies stands a good chance of getting the go ahead; they failed to get the support for it from the other parties in the last four years (mainly due to the fact that there was a disagreement on how the referendum should be phrased), but now - if they get a majority, or can get enough seats along with the Green party (who also support a referendum) - there is a realistic chance that they can push through a referendum on Scottish independence. The Scottish Labour party, in fact, have been running a scare campaign on this very issue, as a last ditch (and desperate) attempt at clawing back some support - it seems the negative campaigning hasn't gone down too well.

Alex Salmond (the leader of the SNP, and First Minister for Scotland) has said that the referendum is unlikely to go ahead until 2014, and of course there are no guarantees of a yes vote from Scottish voters. The campaigning over the issue is likely to get heated, especially given the fact that the Scottish media - newspapers especially - are generally anti-SNP, and pro-union. Even if there is a yes vote, however, there's no guarantee that it will get anywhere because ultimately it will be in the hands of Westminster. Their refusal to act on a yes vote would have huge implications, of course.

We live in interesting times, indeed.

Thursday, 5 May 2011

And a little bit more...with added werewolf

I apologise if I'm harping on about this whole Tigh nam Bodach thing, but I'm genuinely concerned about it, and so I'm keeping a keen eye on developments.

Yesterday BBC Scotland did a piece on the controversy for the regional news, a video of which you should be able to view at the link below. The folklorist Margaret Bennett is interviewed, and there are some good atmospheric shots of the site to go with it. I don't think there are any regional restrictions on videos like this, so you should be able to watch it wherever you are. If you can't watch it, though, there's an article that accompanies it, but the video is more in-depth:

Colin Wilson, of the Glenlyon History Society, said Tigh Nam Bodach was not a protected site.
He said: "What we would like to see happen is a site like this being especially considered in terms of the environmental impact of the scheme.
"Unfortunately it can be overlooked because it is not a scheduled monument.
"It is noted by Historic Scotland but is not scheduled yet."

And that's exactly the problem, really - it's never been investigated so it's not considered significant enough to be protected. As far as I've read, it's thought that the shieling itself is probably no older than the seventeenth or eighteenth century (and that's being generous), but that doesn't mean that the stones or the tradition itself are older.

One thing I turned up to see if anyone else was covering the story is this post by David Clarke, who notes a similar curse associated with the Hexham Heads - a pair of 'Celtic style' heads found in 1972. This story involved claims of a werewolf haunting anyone who possessed them. Funnily enough, Anne Ross is again involved, and once again she had a bad experience when the stones were brought to her house in Wales:
When I interviewed Ross in 1994 she told me the stones brought an “evil presence” with them: “There was no doubt the haunting was that of a werewolf,” she told me. “The thing took form very gradually, and when it actually became not just audible and hinted at but tangible and visible, something had to be done, because it was definitely growing…” (the house was subsequently exorcised, but that’s another story….)

Anne Ross, it seems, had quite the collection. More on the Hexham Heads here, which gives a bit more detail of Dr Ross' experiences.

I'm told that objections or comments may still be considered by the local council, even though the official window for commenting has now closed. Different councils hold different policies on that, so there's no guarantee, and some will consider anything they receive right up until the date. Details about lodging a comment/objection can be found here, with an email address given on the page that you can use to comment. The application number you need to quote is 11/00061/FLL.


Là Bealltainn shona dhuibh!

I hope yours was a good one - or will be, if you haven't celebrated yet.

Before I go on I have a little confession to make: I've never seen The Wicker Man. Not the original, not even the allegedly appalling remake they did a few years or so ago. I've been to stay in Kirkcudbright - where they filmed the original - three times now, and I've still not seen it. And now, having stayed there for Bealltainn, I should probably hang my head thoroughly in shame...

The weather, however, was beautiful in Kirkcudbright - we're on a long run of fantastically sunny weather here in Scotland (this part of it, anyway) and we're making the most of it while it lasts. Thanks to the length of the dry spell - officially record-breaking now - parts of the Highlands, as well as parts of Ireland and England, have been experiencing wildfires. We've seen some ourselves, on the hills around here as well, but today at last the rain has returned, so that should help.

A lot of the time when I celebrate the festivals it seems like I'm celebrating the promise of the season to come - the lengthening days, the first few flowers bringing the promise of Spring and the trees turning green; the colder weather and darker nights promising the frosts and snows of Winter, and so on. This time, it seems that Summer has decided to come early. Considering Winter stayed so late, and Spring doesn't seem to have known what the hell to do about it all, it's a nice change.

I'm in an odd sort of inbetween here, though. While we were in Kirkcudbright I went to the beach in the early evening of Bealltainn eve, as the sun was setting, to make my offerings and devotions, but I've yet to manage finishing things off here at home (for reasons I'll explain in due course).

On Saturday, we had a good long day at a farm near a place called Borgue (which I'm noting for no other reason than the fact that thankfully, we weren't assimilated), which had a creamery and a huge adventure/assault course there. Tom went down this:

In what amounted to a large metal capsule. Rosie was told she was too wee. This did not go down well.

Then there was this:

A 3D maze with lots of slides and so on, and against my better judgment, seeing as children under 10 had to be accompanied by an adult, I took Tom around while Rosie finished her lunch. It was fun, but I didn't last long before my back began to point out that I really shouldn't be doing that sort of thing; it'd been a lot better at this point, so I thought I'd be OK but didn't want to push it, so handed over the adventuring duties to Mr Seren.

We got home quite late, and seeing as there was nothing in the caravan for dinner Mr Seren was duly sent off on a foraging mission to the nearest chippy to procure us a feast of fish supper (for Tom), sausage supper (for Rosie), haggis supper (for me), and black pudding supper (for Mr Seren), while the kids and I eagerly awaited food and Doctor Who.

Down in England you'd simply order whatever it is you want with chips, but here in Scotland you order 'suppers'. In England, the main staple food to accompany chips is either pie (steak and kidney, or chicken and mushroom, and so on), fish, or battered sausage. Here in Scotland, you get a far wider range - steak pie (no kidney - a fact I, personally, lament), mini pizza, sausage, haggis, black pudding, and probably a whole other lot I've forgotten. I remember as a student in Glasgow, I ordered a steak pie supper once, and when I got home I was horrified to find that the pie had been fried along with the chips. I've since learned that they'll fry the pizza, too. Or you can get a 'pizza crunch' (a battered and fried pizza). You can order them non-fried, of course, but deep-fat fried is the standard. Usually you get the option of salt and vinegar to have on them, but over in the east of Scotland (like Bo'ness, where I used to live), you get the option of 'salt 'n' sauce'. The sauce is vinegar with a little brown sauce mixed in, to spice it up.

Generally speaking the haggis or black pudding comes in a sausage shape, about six inches long and battered (of course); as far as I'm aware they're a specifically Scottish thing - I've never seen them in chippys anywhere else, anyway.

And so behold! A haggis supper (no sheep's stomach's involved):

Black pudding (blood pudding, I think some of you might know it better as) supper:

Round where I live the haggis is darker and spicier (and tastier), and you usually get two pieces of whatever meat/fish you've ordered instead of one. As it turned out, Mr Seren preferred the haggis and I preferred the black pudding, so we went halfsies. 

I took some of the feast, and some extras, to the beach with me to make my offerings. The dogs were in tow to give them the chance of a final runaround before we holed up in the caravan for the evening, and I find that they tend to be a good guard and guide for this sort of thing - being out and about at a traditionally dangerous time of the year/season. The beach is right on the mouth of the River Dee, and the tide is amazing - it goes out for miles and miles and then comes right in, and when I got out down to the beach the tide was right out. Mudflats as far as the eye could see until a faint glimpse and glimmer of water lapping around the rocks of the island with the lighthouse on it in the distance.

But it gave ample opportunity for our youngest dog Mungo (mostly sheep dog, so very energetic) to leg it, to run free and frolic without a care in the world. The only problem was, there was a hell of a wind and it was against me so he couldn't hear me calling him (or chose not to, I suspect); he disappeared and our other dog Eddie loyally followed, and I was forced out onto the mud and over the bladderwrack to desparately try and at least find them. Not the most dignified start to my celebratory efforts, and I wasn't wearing the most appropriate footwear either:

Mungo had thoughtfully stomped on me to encourage me to run with him. Thanks Mungo:

Mungo says no problem.

But eventually he came back, with Eddie trotting happily behind him, and Mungo was put on the lead, somewhat chastened. I gingerly made my way over to the rocks, where the ground was less muddy; I was slowly starting to sink out of the flat so figured it was a good idea to get to safety.

At last I was able to concentrate, and I have to give it to the sod of a dog, he'd taken me out far enough to get a beautiful view:

If you like mud, I suppose...

This is the mouth of the Dee - Deva (*Deva, I should say). Blessings were made to her, and I found a good spot in the rocks - a smooth cavity in them, like a small recess - to make my offerings, and then I took time for prayers and further blessings as I took in the view, the salt sea air, the fading sun, the wind in my hair and the mud between my toes. All was peaceful and calm in spite of the wind raging away. A stillness hung in the air as I meditated a little and did my thing.

Eventually the moment was over and it was time to go, and I turned to pick my way through the rocky bits and seaweed. As I'd come into the beach I'd seen something lying on the shoreline, and as I made my way back I found myself picking my way through the rocks towards it. Mungo was leading the way there so I decided to check it out and found it was a child's jacket, Star Wars themed (Tom's latest obsession), apparently recently abandoned or lost. The beach was completely deserted so it had no discernable owner, and seeing as it was Tom's size, it seemed appropriate to pick it up. A Gift for a Gift? A gift from whom? Hmmm.

I went back to the caravan site, where Mr Seren was letting the kids have a final runaround before bed, and we eventually headed back to the caravan. I'd picked up some raspberry wine while we were at the farm earlier in the day (Cairn o' Mhor wine - I've yet to try one I didn't like), so that was cracked open after the kids were asleep, and some of that, along with more offerings were left at the caravan before we made our way home mid-morning on Sunday. When I got up in the morning and let the dogs out, I took in the view to see if there were any signs to be seen. A cow mooed, as if in greeting.

Signs to be heard, then.

Mungo again decided to run off as I was making the last few checks to the caravan, evidently feeling it unfair that one walk that morning wasn't enough. This time he jumped the balcony gate, and I had to leg it after him as he went to find wherever the kids had got to (to the park again, to let me get on with it). And so - after slipping a disc in February and never really recovering - my back is a little knackered again. It didn't like the running. The adventuring the day before probably didn't help either, admittedly.

As such, in between the pain and not being very mobile, I've had to put off my plans to sain the house and finish things off in the way that I'd like. I'm usually in less pain during the day, so while I prefer to do these things in the evening, I've had to admit that it's far more sensible to do things when I'm more able to, rather than when I'd prefer to. I was hoping to do it today, but of course, today is not such a good day. Maybe tomorrow.

Sunday, 1 May 2011

Tigh nam Bodach - making the news!

A happy Bealltainn to you all!

We're back from our wee trip away - boring work stuff and sensible parenting dictating that a day at home tomorrow, to rest, would be good for the kids before they get back to school and all that. It's been a busy few weeks and the earlier sunrises now aren't helping. I'll do a separate post on how my celebrations for Bealltainn went (are going, really), I just wanted to make a post about the continuing threat hanging over Gleann Cailliche and Tigh nam Bodach while my photos from our trip finish uploading...

The last time I checked, over 50 objections had been lodged and published on the council planning page for it, and now the controversy has been noted by the newspapers (in good timing, of course, for the Cailleach and her family to be taken out of their shieling for the summer):

THEY have watched over the high moors of Glenlyon for thousands of years as part of a ritual that goes back to pagan Scotland. 
And local legend has it that "strange and terrible" things will happen to anyone who disturbs the peace of the three ancient carved stones at Tigh nam Bodach.

But a development company has now been warned that it risks invoking the curse of the Cailleach - the old woman and protector of the glen - if it pushes ahead with plans to build a hydro-electric power station in one of the remotest parts of Highland Perthshire.

I have to say, I can't help but think that had they gone for emphasising the heritage angle instead of the curse (duh duh DUH), it might have helped garner more support from people who might otherwise dismiss all this as the stuff of a few fringe, possibly tree hugging, loonies. But then, that wouldn't be half so entertaining to read now, would it?

One interesting bit, though - I'd heard one of the stones had been removed once, some years ago, and then returned with reports of strange experiences prompting its return. I had no idea it was Anne Ross!