10 Mar 2017

collected curiosities

Winter has been quiet and so have I. This blog, kind of aimless as always, lost momentum last summer and I've been thinking about what it is I want it to be, if anything. I still haven't quite decided but these are a few wee interesting things I saw and learnt over the last few months.

Hag Stones, July 2016
I hadn't heard of the Brahan Seer, or Coinneach Odhar, until this weekend we went to Black Isle last July. He was apparently burnt in tar on Chanonry Point in the 17th Century after telling Lady Isabella Seaforth that her husband was having liaisons with other women in Paris, but there's no record of that happening (the burning that is; I think it's pretty safe to say the liaisons were happening). Other people say he actually lived in the 16th Century. Among his most famous predictions are the Battle of Culloden and the Caledonian Canal, but as his prophesies were passed down solely through oral tradition for hundreds of years before someone wrote them down, it's difficult to know for sure how accurate or real they are.

Whether you believe in the Brahan Seer or not, you can still replicate his supposed method of seeing. He apparently saw the future by holding up a hag stone to his blind eye - when I read this I got quite excited, because I've been looking out for hag stones ever since I read about them at the witchcraft museum in Boscastle in Cornwall last June. Hag stones (or adder stones as they're also called in various places) are stones that have a hole worn right through them, and they're used as charms to, among other things, protect your home or cure snake bites. We read that the beaches around Black Isle are a particularly good spot for hag stones, so I became convinced that this was a sign and I was definitely definitely going to find myself a hag stone on this trip.

To cut a long story short, after literally hours of intensely scouring Rosemarkie beach, I was left with a couple of fossils (cool, but not what I was looking for) and a stiff neck. My stupid boyfriend, on the other hand, had found no fewer than three hag stones. I was furious. The beach spirits had let me down big time.

Since then I have found a few hag stones of my own and we now have a collection of five.

The Burry Man, August 2016
On the second Friday in August, the Burry Man takes to the streets of South Queensferry. From morning to evening, he walks around town, accompanied by his entourage of a bell ringer and the guys that help him hold his arms up (because if he lets them drop to his sides, they'll stick) and drinks whisky everywhere he stops, I believe. Presumably through a straw?

We basically skived off work to go hunting for the Burry Man, with some rather vague info from the web in hand we turned up early in the morning before anyone else in S. Queensferry had woken up, it seemed. No sign of the Burry Man on the high street and we had no idea where to start. We asked a lady washing her doorstep whether she knew when he'd be coming round and she said he usually arrived in the centre of town later in the day. A little disheartened, we left to run a few errands before circling back to give it another try in the early afternoon. This time we headed into the residential area at the back of S. Queensferry and started following a trail of directions given to us by passers-by. After being led quite literally around the houses for a while, we started to get a bit paranoid that there was no such thing as the Burry Man and he was simply a myth perpetuated by locals to make visitors look like idiots. We asked a group of kids playing football on a driveway if they'd seen him and they said he'd just gone round the corner. We picked up the speed to silly walk levels and followed our noses into the next street where I heard the distant jingling of bells. With more excitement than was strictly reasonable rising inside us, we dashed towards the sound and, all of a sudden, there he appeared.

The troupe was a little more sombre than we had been expecting, tramping along the road as though stoically duty-bound rather than participating in a bizarre pagan celebration. But I cannot fully describe the wave of delight that came over me when we eventually found him, there, in the flesh (in the burrs, I suppose). No one acknowledged us, even though I was almost hopping like a feverish child on Christmas morning - they simply carried on their way, the bells ding-a-linging, the Burry Man making his way steadily through the town, and turned a corner and were gone. The whole encounter lasted perhaps three minutes. It was worth it.

Easter Aquhorthies, October 2016
On a trip to the north-east coast in October we stopped to see the Easter Aquhorthies stone circle on the way home. We'd actually seen a couple of very beautiful and facinating carved stones that same morning that were well off the beaten track and we found as much with intuition and luck than anything else, but that encounter feels a bit too special and intimate to share here somehow. I also loved Easter Aquhorthies though, which is an example of a recumbent stone circle, a particular structure that you only find in the north-east of Scotland and the south-west of Ireland. Just two places in the whole world, and one of them is here.

Goblin Ha', March 2017
Goblin Ha' in the ruins of Yester Castle is a registered ancient monument despite looking like a bunch of untended ruins where local kids probably have parties. It is one of the oldest examples of a Gothic stone arched vaulted ceiling, and folk say it was built by evil forces (hence Goblin Ha'). That's partly because the castle was built by a man called Lord Hugo de Giffard, or the Wizard of Yester, aided by an army of hobgoblins, or so they say.

I can't tell if this place is inherently spooky or if I'd just worked myself up into a bit of a state with all this talk of summoning evil entities and seeing a rather ominous bit of graffiti on the cold stone wall of the chamber. There is also a mysterious chute coming down from the level above into the hall, and an even more mysterious tunnel that disappears a long way down into the hill. Needless to say I did not feel particularly at ease in there and was happy to leave and get back into the daylight.

2 Sep 2016

what we saw on our holiday

Back in June we went on a trip to Cornwall. Here are some of the places we saw there and on the way.

Lud's Church, just south of Macclesfield, is like the Whangie's bigger English cousin. It's a labyrinth compared to the Whangie, but wasn't as tricksy to find, thankfully.

While we were there we heard a guide telling his group that legend said it had been made by a battle between Morgan le Fay and Merlin. We also saw a man with a very long beard and a strangely conspiratorial gait who I can only assume was an old druid come to pay his respects and maybe do a naked dance or something.

After several hours of driving on day two of the journey we stopped at Glastonbury to climb the Tor and eat our pies from Gloucester services (described as 'Heaven's waiting room' by a very weary James). It was a blissful respite at seven in the evening, the sun just starting to dip. As I was lying slumped on the grass, someone started to play the flute in the tower and I became even more reluctant to get up and back in the car for another two hours.

Continuing our Arthurian theme, we went to Tintagel and saw Merlin's Cave.

The waterfall at St Nectan's Glen would easily have been the best thing we saw all trip if it weren't for the fact that it's privately owned and you have to pay four quid to see it. You buy a ticket and then they let you through these big metal gates to get down. It takes away a lot of the magic of the place, which is a great shame because it is magical. Call me old fashioned, but I just don't think you should be able to own a naturally occurring waterfall in a forest. It seems wrong, you know? You wouldn't have to pay to see a waterfall in Scotland. It was very beautiful anyway.

Carnglaze Caverns are old slate quarries that you can now go and walk round. Also home to the UK's only licensed underground bar, apparently. It wasn't open.

Roche Rock is supposedly where a hermit used to live, but it's pretty extravagant for a hermit. You can climb up to the top via ladders which is fun.
And that's what we saw on our holiday.

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.

13 Jul 2016

a black and white time capsule

Some pictures from a black and white film I recently had developed that had been hanging out in my camera for over two years.

16 May 2016

the whangie, at last

Our Whangie tale starts about this time last year: James 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. James 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.