Saturday, 18 April 2015

Book review: Myth and Magic: Scotland's Ancient Beliefs and Sacred Places

Myth and Magic: Scotland's Ancient Beliefs and Sacred Places
Joyce Miller

This book is on the Gaol Naofa recommended reading list, but until now I hadn't had a chance to read it myself.

Over all, this is a nice little book and an easy read, and I think it makes a good introductory book for anyone looking to learn about things like sacred places (both Christian and pre-Christian) and the beliefs associated with them, along with a bit of an overview of the Good Folk and other Otherworldly beings, and the kinds of charms, amulets, and talismans that are traditional to Scotland. It's going cheap, second-hand, so that's always a plus, too.

Some of the chapters are effectively lists of different kinds of places around Scotland, while other chapters give an introduction to different kinds of subjects -- healing and holy wells, festivals and rituals, stones, amulets and talismans, superntatural beings, and so on. We start off with one of the chapters that lists places of interest -- shrines and pilgrimages in this case, which I found a little off-putting to start with. A little preamble about them first would've been nice. Each entry in this chapter is listed by the saint we're dealing with, and there's a brief overview of the site (or sites) they're associated with. Then we move on to a more conversational sort of chapter, detailing the ways in which healing and holy wells are used. I preferred these kinds of chapters, as they were more informative and the listed chapters were a little repetitive, going over material or sites already covered elsewhere, and I'm not sure the choice of listing them by saint, or name of the site, is terribly useful. If you want to look up sites in a particular area or location then it gets fiddly...

For the most part the information given is pretty solid, and there's some genuinely interesting stuff in some of the chapters that I've not seen elsewhere. The chapters towards the end of the book - on stones, and on talismans and amulets, and the one on supernatural beings offered the more interesting stuff, for me, but it's a shame there aren't any references given anywhere in the book. There's a short, but pretty solid bibliography, but that's about it.

This problem with lack of sources is especially unfortunate when it comes to some of the more interesting tidbits I found in the book. In the second chapter Miller mentions a St Triduana, who she describes as a "Pictish princess from Rescobie in Angus... Triduana had converted to Christianity but she was desired by a pagan prince Nechtan. The prince particularly admired her eyes but, rather than submit to him, Triduana is said to have plucked out her eyes and sent them to her admirer on a thorn." As far as I'm aware there aren't any names of Pictish women recorded, so this reference piqued my interest. Looking into it further, however, I can't find any agreement that Triduana was actually a Pict. So just be aware that sometimes the author seems to put her own spin on things.

One serious niggle I have with the book is in the chapter on festivals and rituals, which gives some rather dodgy information:
Imbolc or St Bride's Day was the feast of the Celtic spring goddess, and celebrated the first day of spring. Beltane was associated with the feast of Bel, ruler of the Celtic underworld, and celebrated the renewal and growth of crops and the land. Lugnasad, or the feast of Lugh, was the same as Lammas and marked the start of the harvest. Samhain -- the feast of the dead -- marked the end of the yearly cycle and the first day of winter.
I mean, at least it doesn't say that "Samhain" is a god of the dead, right? But Bel just isn't a thing and Lúnasa and Lammas are two separate (though admittedly similar) festivals, and "Celtic" just isn't a useful term to use here... So although I'd recommend the book, I'd also recommend taking the information given with a pinch of salt unless you're already familiar with what's being talked about from other sources, or you follow it up yourself. For the most part it's really OK, but there is the odd clanger here and there. It's not a major downer, and it's par for the course in any book, but it needs noting, I think.

The title kind of implies that you're going to learn loads about pre-Christian belief and practice, but if you go in expecting to find this then you'll be disappointed... What you will find is a good overview of Scottish folklore and folk practice, and in this respect it's a good complement to F. Marian McNeill's The Silver Bough series, in particular. Miller covers much of the same ground, but gives a little more detail here and there, especially when it comes to places, so I think if you're looking for a more rounded view of Scottish folklore then it's a good book to get hold of. All in all, a good read with a few caveats.