27 May 2019

reputation-ruining jewellery

As the very observant and mostly correct Colette supposedly said: "Don't ever wear artistic jewelry; it wrecks a woman's reputation." Nevertheless, artistic jewellery is my favourite kind, which explains why I like to make it. In fact, I've now made so many necklaces from my vast and unwieldy sea glass collection that I've decided to release them into the world, through the medium of ecommerce.

Which is all to say, I have an etsy shop now where interested parties can find some of the reputation-ruining jewellery I've made.

21 Mar 2018

holey stones

For a couple of years now I have been compelled to look for hag stones whenever I am surrounded by pebbles. It all started on a trip to Black Isle, where I first learnt about the Brahan Seer and how he used to see the future by holding a hag stone to his blind eye. On that trip I spent a frustrating few hours scouring the beach, while J seemed to trip over them again and again. It would turn out in the coming months that he had a knack for finding them, whereas I did not. It wasn't until the following year that I really started to have better luck, after what might not unfairly be called a temper tantrum in which I addressed myself to the universe at large, asking if this was some kind of test of faith (in what? I'm not sure). Minutes after this little outburst I had found two fine examples, one of which is as big as a cob loaf and now sits on our doorstep, protecting the threshold.

Because hag stones have protective qualities, as well as prophetic ones. In the witchcraft museum in Boscastle we learnt that witches themselves use hag stones (or adder stones) for protection, but folk also use them for protection against witches, so I suppose you can conclude the stones themselves are indifferent about whose side they're on. In fact, there are all kinds of uses for hag stones: they can stop your bad dreams, keep rheumatism at bay, and ward off the evil eye and West Country piskies alike.

There is some debate over what qualifies a 'proper' hag stone. Some say it has to be flint, and some say that holes made by piddocks don't count, still others are strict that only river pebbles are legitimate. Personally, I think a hag stone is largely in the eye of the beholder, although there are undoubtedly some that just feel better than others. I have my favourites among our collection. The more you find the more you start to feel that some have hag stone powers and others are just holey pebbles.

What I haven't been able to fathom so far is why exactly a hole makes a stone more important. There's something to be said for relative rarity, like a four-leafed clover, but I feel that it must be something more than that. I think it all comes down to apertures and openings and portals, but what 'it' is I'm not sure yet. Why does something with a hole in it call us to immediately put it in front of our eye and peer through? What do we expect to see?

It's not just small stones. Big holes in big stones call to us too, and have the same kinds of properties. The standing stone in the field above has a hole through which you can see the mountains in one direction and out to sea in the other. There is also the Crow Stone in Wigtown and the Ballymeanoch holed stone, both of which are said to have been used in marriage ceremonies. Men-an-Tol also famously promotes fertility if passed through nine times on a full moon. But then, it's easy to see where the fertility rites come from...

Down in Dartmoor there is also the Tolmen Stone, meaning... holey stone stone. I am impressed as always at the consistency of lore across the Celtic fringes, so that a stone with a hole has the same significance in the far north-east as it does hundreds of miles away in the toe of the country.

Although I have no supporting evidence for this idea, my own instinct tells me that holes in stone are special because they create a passage through something that feels solid and impassable, like a window through the world itself. If even stone can be permeated, perhaps everything is much less firm than it seems.

It just so happens, as these synchronicities often do, that after I started writing this post about holes and stones last week I also started reading The Thing in the Gap-Stone Stile by Alice Oswald, in which I came across this in the poem 'Mountains':
Look through a holey stone. Now put it down.
Something is twice as different. Something gone
accumulates a queerness. Be alone.
Something is side by side with anyone.

28 Feb 2018

things that go bzzz and waaaaah in the night

As a polar vortex hits the UK and we lament that we didn't buy an extra bottle of wine this week, I'm strangely enjoying the sounds of this snow storm. With a red weather warning in place all but the most determined cars have left the roads, which means for once there is not the repetitive drone of traffic to contend with, and other things are making themselves known. For us that's mainly the sea, which is all in a lather and crashing and foaming away, and the wind, which is rushing past at some speed and bringing the blin'drift with it. Even here in civilisation, it's easy to feel very far away from everything.

It seems impossible at the moment, but late last summer we found ourselves camping on the summit of a hill in Inverness, on the remains of an old Pictish fort. It had been on a whim that I'd suggested we spend the night there as we stood in the goldening afternoon light, the air very still and full of leafy tree sounds. We set up our tent looking towards the Moray firth.

In the middle of the night we were woken by what can only be described as a close-by scream. I heard J tense up on the other side of the tent. We whispered so as to not wake tiddler, who somehow hadn't even twitched.

"Did you hear something?"
"Yes. What was that?"
"It sounded like someone screaching."
"It was close."

And it was moving, fast. There was no mistaking the Doppler effect, and the speed with which the sound had moved off was inhuman. I'm not exaggerating when I say I didn't sleep or move a muscle for the next hour. I heard the noise again, farther away this time, which was mildly reassuring, and eventually had to surrender unwillingly to exhaustion, imagining all the weirdest possible explanations.

The previous summer we'd had a similar experience, this time while camping in the middle of an ancient volcano in Ardnamurchan. We were woken by a sound like an enormous winged insect, so big it would have to have been one of those extinct prehistoric specimens you see in natural history museums. It seemed to fly right by our tent and then swoop away again, repeatedly. All three of us heard it on this occasion, and imaginations were running wild.

Blinding primordial fear aside, there was a sensation of feyness on both occasions, the feeling that we might not be entirely awake, or that we had planted ourselves on a threadbare patch in the fabric of the world.

On reflection, however, these were the sounds we heard: x x

25 Jul 2016

summer bylines

 The last couple of months I've found myself printed in two super lovely lit mags. It always feels more exciting to be published on paper rather than just online (not that I'd ever turn my nose up at digital platforms, or any platform, scrawl my poems on the backs of bus seats, please). Still, my old fashioned soul just feels giddy seeing my name in ink on the page.

When I saw that Severine was calling for submissions for their 'heroes' issue, I decided to send them a mini-biography of my great-grandma that I wrote last year. I was so happy they chose to include it, and I've been surprised and touched by how many people have told me they loved reading about my super cool great-grandma. I think all the print copies of the mag have sold out now, but you can read it for free online here.

Last month I was also extremely excited to be featured in issue three of RAUM alongside some honestly fantastic poets. I have to admit that I don't always read the publications I appear in cover to cover, but this lovely wee magazine I did and I loved everything. I love the poems individually, I love the variety, and I especially love how well they were chosen and put together because despite the call for submissions not having any specific theme they still form a perfectly cohesive collection. Hooray for great editing!

You can find my poem Rosslyn in the issue, which is one that means a lot to me as I first drafted it after my now-boyfriend took me to Rosslyn Chapel on our second date. It changed quite a lot between that first version and the version that appears here, but when I read it I still go right back to that strange, significant day. You can't read RAUM online but you can order it for not very much here, which I highly recommend doing and not just because I'm in it.

16 May 2016

the whangie, at last

Our Whangie tale starts about this time last year: J and I had been on a mini road trip and the last stop on our roughly plotted itinerary was the Whangie. It's just a wee bit north of Glasgow, and since all our resources told us it was an easy walk (and because it made me giggle) it seemed like the perfect conclusion to the weekend. So we parked up and set off on the well-worn path, the sun winking through encouragingly even though it was late afternoon by then. We asked a walker going in the opposite direction how far it was to the Whangie and she said ten minutes, tops.

When we hadn’t seen another walker for twenty minutes or more and found ourselves wandering across the top of a hill with no sign of a natural stone corridor, we started to think we might have taken a wrong turn somewhere. The sun was gone: it was now raining and the grass had become mud and essentially swamp land in some areas. J was not especially enjoying the way dirty sludge was oozing up around his toes in his sandals. We trudged along the crest of the hill looking for the way down, eventually staggering down a steep slope out of desperation and rejoining the path. Rather than go back and try again we decided to give up and go home, Whangie-less and moist.

A number of times over the last year we've thought about going back to finish what we started, but every time it came to it we were either too tired after a day of activity, or there was something more pressing or local to be done. Which is how the Whangie became a kind of running joke that we started throwing out as an insincere suggestion to the question What shall we do today?

"There's always the Whangie," one of us would scoff, hilariously, as though the Whangie didn't actually exist and so it would be totally impossible for us to visit it.

This weekend, however - almost exactly a year since we first tried to find the popular rock formation and failed embarrassingly - we decided to try again. Our egos had sufficiently recovered and it felt right. This time we went prepared in walking boots and coats, which turned out to be very unnecessary since it was a beautiful day. We walked up the hill again with a sense of trepidation and déjà vu, determinedly took the path we had forsaken last time around, and just as we were beginning to get a bit anxious that we'd cocked it up again - whammo! The grassy slope of the hillside became the distinctive ragged jaw of the Whangie.

Feeling more proud of ourselves than we really had any right to be, we high-fived obnoxiously and made our way into the crevice. The name 'Whangie' probably comes from the old Scots word 'whang', meaning a slice or to slice. It's said that it was carved by the devil's tail slashing the hillside, which is pretty typical of suspicious Christian reactions to older Pagan folklore. It's an atmospheric place to be sure: it's got all the necessary symbolic characteristics to be a natural setting for worship or Beltane-type fetivals (you can see from the photos how the sun kind of pours in strangely, and the narrow corridor is quite birth canal-like, so... yeah, all that.)

"Crikey, it's getting a bit Hanging Rock, isn't it?" I said as we walked up into the narrowing chasm. All we were lacking was some spooky pan pipe music and there might have been some floating corsets on the cards.

And that's the story of how, after a year of thwarted attempts, we finally found the Whangie.

13 Apr 2016

the tallest tree in britain

It's April, which means it's basically summer, which means we can go camping again without people giving us looks of horror. Mostly. I have to admit that the camping aspect of the weekend wasn't the most comfortable. For a start, we'd decided to leave after work on Friday night, to get the most out of the weekend, you see? So we drove for two hours into the middle of nowhere, pulled into a lay-by, and pitched the tent in the dark and the rain. I woke up at 7:20, cold and unable to get back to sleep. So I woke J up as well. Considering we had no real concept of where we were at the time, I was pleasantly surprised to find we were, in fact, on the edge of a forest, surrounded by dramatic mountainous landscape. We had a breakfast of porridge pots as we watched a trail of cloud sneak around the base of a hill.
 By half eight we were at Castle Carrick, on the banks of Loch Goil, which I'm sure is always very lovely but looked particularly wonderful in the early morning light with cloud toppings slowly drifting away like something very big and gentle was wiping sleep from its eyes. As we pulled into a quiet hotel car park opposite the castle a bus pulled in after us. It was empty. A few minutes later it left again, as empty as it had arrived.

 Puck's Glen is just a short distance away from Benmore Botanic Gardens and is a real life fairy glen. The information board described the walk as 'magical' and it was extremely justified. The place was trickling over with green, so much green. And there was water coming out from everywhere, everything from gushing waterfalls to dripping mossy banks. As we walked along the upper glen there was a quick hail storm and we just stood there laughing, in this weird beautiful place.

As with so many really wonderful places, the photos don't even come close to doing it justice (which didn't stop me taking nearly a hundred of them, but I'll spare you.) In the upper glen there were all these fallen trees crossing the river that had baby trees growing on them, and at the top of the hill there was this high waterfall that I can only describe as a flume. There's something about waterfalls: you know how falling water negatively charges ions which produce serotonin in us when they get to our bloodstream? Walking through Puck's Glen you can feel yourself getting a bit of a waterfall high, which is probably why it has that magical feel.

That's it for this edition of mystical science corner.

 Speaking of extremely beautiful places, we also went to find a beach known as Ostell which is a white sand bay that looks directly north to Arran. It was worth squelching across a saturated heather field to get to, because it was lovely and secluded and the sun was out and we both got slightly sunburnt noses from lying there, which was also worth it.

We camped at a spot further around the coast, on the edge of some woodland again but this time right next to the beach, looking across at Bute. The second night was colder than the first, but I gallantly waited until eight to wake J up on Sunday morning. We packed up and headed north to see a tree.

The tallest tree in Britain lives in Ardkinglas Woodland Garden, but we'll get to that. First I want to tell you a story about an old mill. In the late 1600s there was a man, Sir James Campbell of Ardkinglas, who had eight daughters. A young man, John MacNaughton of Dunderave, was in love with his second daughter, Jean, and wanted to marry her. But it simply wasn't done for the younger daughters to marry before the eldest, and so Sir James resisted. Eventually he gave in and allowed them to marry, but to John's horror on the morning after his heavily drink-fuelled nuptials he woke to find the woman next to him was not his beloved Jean but her older sister. (I have some issues with how he had managed to get through the entire wedding, reception, and wedding night without realising he'd married the wrong Miss Campbell, but apparently she was 'heavily veiled'.) Being an honest Christian man (and probably feeling a bit guilty that he'd consummated the wrong marriage) he continued to live with the older sister, but Jean often visited the house and when she fell pregnant John was thrown into prison. Luckily for him, Jean roped in a local fisherman and they broke him free, at which point the lovers fled to Ireland. Sir James pursued them but was ultimately wounded in a scuffle and left them to it. After a while Jean and John left Ireland and went to Holland where their own daughter, Jean again, was born. They then, for whatever reason, shipped the young child back to Scotland to her grandfather. She was known there as Sìne Dhuidseach (Dutch Jean) and she grew up and married Duncan of Achacharn. Her grandfather initially gave them a lease of Ardnomhar that would last, rather poetically, "as long as the woods grew and the water flowed". That turned out not to be true when he later tore up the lease and threw them out (who knows why, I can't find anything about it). But he did at least give them the mill so they could earn a living, which was better than nothing I suppose.

This soap opera yarn brought to you courtesy of the leaflet about the old mill at Ardkinglas (embellishments by me.)

The tallest tree in Britain is a mighty tall tree. It's a champion tree, which is a mystery in itself as the plant folk (botanists, I should say) don't know how the first champion tree seed found its way to the British Isles way back when. Ardkinglas is also home to the widest tree in Britain, and to be honest neither of them look completely out of place alongside all the other monster trees in the area. I don't know what they're doing up there. Maybe it's something in the water.

13 Nov 2015

the pig-scratchers build a castle

In the Yonne region of Bourgogne, hovering on the map amongst a scattered constellation of villages with names full of hyphens and restaurants serving dubiously filled sausages, is the chantier de Guédelon. A twenty-year-plus project, now many years in progress, the idea was to build a medieval castle from scratch, using authentic tools, materials, and methods. And there are the costumes too, apparently a vitally important aspect. It's something they call "experimental archeology". It's basically bloody nuts.

J had written a letter to the Scottish government some time ago about Guédelon, suggesting that a similar project could be used to train apprentices in Scotland. They had referred him to Historic Scotland, who said they would give him a grant to travel to Guédelon, take part in the project, and come back with his findings. I had been incorporated into the venture as an extremely nervous and substandard interpreter with a concerning lack of medieval building site vocab, and had also hand-fashioned both of our costumes as per the requirements of the 'master builder course'.

When the funding still hadn't come through two weeks before we were due to be at the site, and we were tearing our hair out over a seemingly endless amount of paperwork and innumerable obstacles, things were looking decidedly impending-disaster-y. There were flights and trains and a car to be booked, forms that still hadn't been sent, and I had accidentally dyed J's peasant shirt a delightful salmon pink rather than the advertised 'terracotta brown'. But, as they inevitably do in these situations, all sliding parts improbably slotted into place within days of us leaving the country.

So it was that we found ourselves arriving on the grounds of a partially-constructed château bright and early on a Thursday morning, after a very chilly night in a tent on what appeared to be a deserted campsite. Our first meeting was with a man who, sitting across the réfectoire table in a dusty orange smock tied with a rope belt, shuffled through our forms and said: "Aha! Les Anglais!"
 "Er, well, Scottish," J said. There were effusive apologies.

We spent our first morning exploring the site on our own, and I realised that despite all my anticipatory complaining I was actually just a smidge in love with the place. It managed to combine my twin interests of timber-framed constructions and period dramas. I hopped gleefully from the basket weaver's workshop, to the fabric dyeing house, to the paddock, saying hello to every animal we crossed paths with. As we walked around the castle courtyard there was someone in the roue d'hamster, winching a stone up to the battlements. The tap tap tap from the quarry echoed through the hallways of the upper chambers. Trailing us everywhere was the smell of wood fires and sun-drying clay. But as the morning wore on and we got closer to having to don our smocks and take to the tools, we started to wonder what we'd be asked to do. We passed the pig pen where a man was scratching a large hog with a stick.
 "That man is scratching a pig with a stick," I said.
 "Well now we know what we'll be doing for the next three days," J said. He took up his much-used but yet-perfected French accent, "'We will make ze rosbif pig-sctratchers scratch ze pigs.'"

(The only person who referred to us as 'rosbifs' for the whole trip was J. The other bâtisseurs did on occasion call us other things, however.)

We ate lunch in the réfectoire with everyone else, and it became apparent that they had their own cliques that made it feel like the canteen on your first day at a new school. Except the cool kids' table was full of burly French builders, and everyone was drinking wine. J and I sat together on the end of a different table and tried not to make idiots of ourselves, perhaps fearful that we really would be made to scratch the pigs if we looked too ridiculous. But Guédelon lunches were not your standard limp cafeteria dinners - they were two-course affairs, plates piled high with crudités and boeuf bourguignon and fresh baguette and cheese. They were the best meals we ate all trip. Not that we'd necessarily earned it by that point, but we would.

As we walked back into the site after lunch, now dressed in our medieval threads, I started to feel extremely self-conscious. J, in his salmon pink shirt, actually blended in well with the others. I on the other hand had suddenly realised I was wearing a bright white dress, of all things: a vision of impracticality. Casper does Little House on the Prairie, or something. All around me were capable-looking women with their sleeves rolled up and ruddy-faced men. What on earth were they going to do with me and my noodle arms, clomping around in my granddad's steel toe caps?
 "Don't worry, you'll build up that pig-scratching arm in no time," J said reassuringly.

We were introduced to the master tiler, who gave me the customary double-air-kiss before leaning in to do the same with J. Before I could say anything, there were roars of laughter. "He nearly got you!" our welcome-man cackled. Poor J laughed it off admirably, but a look of worry was crossing his face. He was the new boy and he didn't speak a word of French - an easy target for this kind of prankery.

Our afternoon was spent making huge clay bricks in wooden moulds in the tuilerie. After showing us the method, the laddish prankster boss sauntered away and only reappeared at intervals until closing time. This was actually a good thing, as it left us with a pleasant, serene chap called Phillipe who spoke enough English to have conversations with J as well as me. We wound away the hours rolling what J called "dung balls" (mixtures of clay and hay) and churning out the bricks while the curious public trickled by making enquiries. By the end of the day I was fielding questions myself, having realised that there were only really three that just recurred again and again (what are they/what's in them/what are they for?) (bricks/clay/no one knows)

The next day we turned up again and spent the first half an hour trailing the site manager, Patrice, around all the pockets of activity, looking for somewhere to put us, I gathered. We eventually ended up at the banker shed with a tailleur who had an earring like a pirate. Though he swaggered around swinging his tool belt with some bravado, he turned out to be quite a nice guy who seemed to enjoy the novelty of testing his English, though we noticed that he too seemed to disappear for most of the day, leaving us to our own devices. He set J to work on a block of sandstone (grès) so full of iron that it was nearly completely black, and later admitted that the blacker the stone the harder it was to cut.
("They give this block to the newbies," J hissed later as we took a break to contemplate the impossible stone. "They don't actually want to use it, they just keep it here as a torture device.")

I was given an elegant piece of limestone (calcaire), destined to be a step in a spiral staircase. After a frustrating hour or two I felt like I was getting the hang of using the chisel and dummy to rough out the shape, but it was hard work and it left me with a circle of rubbed-away skin on my right-hand forefinger, and a numb arm. When the pirate came back towards the end of the day he gave a satisfied 'not bad' nod to my work. It made me so glad I'd worked my fingers to the bone.

The following day was our last on the site and we were given to the mason up on the battlements, building the actual walls of the castle. Pascal had clearly given some thought to his medieval persona and had gone with a kind of jester appearance, complementing his short stature and rotund shape with a purple shirt and a pointed, gnome-like hood. He had the reddest neck I've ever seen on a person, and after a day up there in the heat of the sun we understood why.

Unlike our previous mentors, Pascal did not disappear for most of the day, but he notably did not lay a single stone. He repeatedly told us to take it easy and liked to play a game he called "ne pas faire des bêtises" (don't do anything stupid). This was basically a point system whereby he clocked up a point for any mistakes we made and whoever had the most points at the end of the day owed the other a beer.
 "Ask him how we earn points," J said. I asked. He replied.
 "He says that he'll give us points if he thinks we're doing well," I said. "It's totally rigged."
Pascal grinned, and sauntered off to chat to the gathering crowd.

Despite his jokes (and, as it would turn out, his tendency towards rather saucy remarks) he was a relaxing authority to work under, in that he didn't really seem to regard doing any work as a priority. The thing he enjoyed most was ringing the bell for lunch, and when J asked if he could have a go in the hamster wheel (Pascal didn't speak a word of English beyond repeating things J had just said as though tasting them in his mouth, but the two of them had managed to establish a kind of communication system that transcended language) he was more than happy to oblige. At first he gave me the job of bringing the stone in from the pulley, but when I couldn't lift the heavy trap doors he sent me down to operate the brakes instead. As he demonstrated how to work them he looked at me very seriously and more or less told me that if I wanted J to not die, I should probably do this right. J gave me a thumbs up from inside the wheel.

We hoisted the stone up to the top without incident, and shortly afterwards Pascal said it was finishing time. I looked at him suspiciously, and asked "Really?"
 "That's what my watch says," he shrugged. I looked. His watch was an hour fast.

We left Guédelon for the last time, shrugging off our medieval clothes and stretching our aching arms. It was the closest I'll ever come to going back in time, and it was weird, and French, and weirdly French. There are stones on the left-hand battlements of a real-life castle that I laid, and when that specific section of wall crumbles down prematurely, I will remind everyone that Pascal told us to take it easy.

17 Sept 2015

led astray by fairies in the trossachs

J and I went to the Trossachs for a couple of days where we saw some very impressive hills and my feet got a lot wetter than I normally like them to be while they're still inside shoes.

Doon Hill, the Fairy Knowe, is a wee hill in Aberfoyle where fairies live, they say. At the top is an old pine tree that is said to be the entrance to fairy land, where the spirit of Reverend Robert Kirk is held captive after he wrote his book The Secret Commonwealth which revealed the secrets of the fairies and caused them to snatch him away. He was found dead in his nightshirt on top of the hill on the 14th May 1692, though whether it was really the fairies or some other perturbed party... who knows.

If you walk around the pine tree seven times your wish will come true. If you walk around it seven times backwards - well, best not do that.

The glade up at the top of the hill is strewn with cloutie ribbons and gifts now. When we arrived there in the drizzling rain we realised maybe we should have brought something, but we didn't even have a coin between us (and J could not be persuaded to leave his hat.) Then, on the way down off this really very small hill, we somehow managed to take the wrong path and ended up wandering around in the rain for a good twenty minutes longer than it should have taken us to get back. We were squelching by the time we made it back to the car, and I can only assume we were right in thinking we shouldn't have come empty-handed.