Friday’s voyage to Edinburgh was a delight. I attended the IASH workshop ‘The Supernatural in Early Modern Scotland’ (thanks to Cailleach’s Herbarium for the alert). It was a bit tricky finding the Institute due to both construction and its rather hidden corner, but I only missed the very beginning. I thought I might feel a bit of an interloper as a medievalist in their midst as well as a stranger but I must say people went out of their way to be welcoming all day.
The event kicked off with the esteemed Julian Goodare (if you don’t know him, you might know the database he helped create) who spoke about the emotional relationships between humans and spirit guides. The history of emotions is an emerging field so it was interesting ground to tread, looking at the ways people engaged with the spirits or fairies whether it was a patron/client relation or something more close (many reportedly had romantic relationships) and looking into their backgrounds for evidences of trauma.
Liv Helene Williumsen explored the tale of the ninety-nine dancers of Moaness in Orkney. The geographical location suggested a remoteness well within sight, while the number suggested that the whole village must have been there, but the influence of ‘stark aill’ (strong beer) was blamed for whatever did happen.
Lizanne Henderson opened up the topic of supernatural animals in the period as everything from familiars to spirit guides to shapeshifted humans (is a human who’s shifted to animal shape still human or animal?). She brought up a variety of strange stories of animals and the supernatural, including the pig put on trial for murder (I had to mention to her the Colin Firth film The Advocate/Hour of the Pig which portrays that story).
After lunch coordinator Martha McGill presented a lot of material on angels in folk culture, including the angel coins pictured above and worn as protective charms. She touched on the unfortunate effects of the Protestant Reformation in destroying so much of the art history of Scotland though angels had been as plentiful as ‘brambles’ despite the kirk’s disapproval.
Michael Riordan focused on ‘The Whole Prophesie’ of Thomas Rhymer which had a variety of uses in the early Modern period and linked up everything from Jacobites to Rosicrucians and Masons. If you’re familiar with Thomas the Rhymer who met the Queen of Elfland, it’s the same one. I was most inspired because I think this will play into my Raven King paper for next month, so now I’m reading up on this.
Domhnall Uilleam Stiùbhart looked at the cultural contexts of second sight in the islands and Highlands. As in the Icelandic medieval stories, this wasn’t about seeing ghosts but seeing the fetch of a living person and knowing what would happen down the line. It was interesting to hear that novice seers would have to defer to older and more experienced practitioners, perhaps to exercise a kind of community control over the nature of the experience.
Before the roundtable discussion Hamish Mathison spoke on the nature of the supernatural in Burns’ Tam o’Shanter. He argued that Burns offers a nuanced balance of the ‘wild’ and the ‘domesticated’ in the landscape of the ruined church, a mixture of the comic and the Gothic which makes for a certain discomfort. It was a great note to end on.
If you’re wishing you could have been there, it may comfort you to know that there is a forthcoming collection of essays with a few additional folk who were not able to be there. You’ll want to pick that up.
Tam o’Shanter by Thomas Landseer