Supernatural Scotland

Charles I Angel as charm

Angel of Charles I, the last minted for circulation © Fitzwilliam Museum, Cambridge

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.

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Tam o’Shanter by Thomas Landseer

Charcoal Burners, Black Sails & Magic

Uskglass Charcoal Burner

Admittedly I’ve not left the house since I got here, but don’t let my indolence fool you! I am ready to rise to the opportunity and sure enough, I will be. Thanks to Cailleach’s Herbarium mentioning it on Facebook, I got on the waitlist and now have ticket in hand to attend ‘The Supernatural in Early Modern Scotland’ this Friday. A workshop at The Institute for Advanced Studies in the Humanities, University of Edinburgh, it looks to be a fascinating day (see the whole list of speakers here).

So many interests colliding in useful ways! It’s great to have the feeling you’re in the right place at the right time.

And speaking of collisions: the above illustration is of course the lovely Charles Vess. It’s for the last story in Susanna Clarke’s collection The Ladies of Grace Adieu. In my usual way I had hoarded the last few stories last summer, thinking when I read them there would be no more of her writing to read as she has nothing else out at present (yes, that’s how my brain works). I didn’t know the interest I would develop in charcoal burners in the meantime! So it was the first thing I read when I got back here. A delightful tale with saints (including Brigit), Uskglass and of course the titular charcoal burner.

Total collision count: dissertation subjects, two forthcoming conference papers, and the new all-consuming medieval project, Rauf Coilyear. I’m teaching Rauf in the upper division medieval class this fall. I love it when a plan comes together.

Meanwhile I am playing dolls with Miss C and catching up on Black Sails with my sweetie. Life is good.

The Big Trek

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Back to Scotland: the big trek is even bigger this time around. Albany to Philly to Manchester then Edinburgh where I’ll catch the train to Dundee. Depending on how timing works, I will either catch up with my family at Granddad’s or back at the house. As usual, I’m still packing.  It’s been so hot here in NY that I have to remind myself it’s going to be (gloriously) cooler in Dundee. Hurrah 🙂 It’s been a taxing year. Happy to escape.

Ca’ canny an’ flee laigh

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Henry Meynell Rheam: The Sorceress (1898)

The Scots Language Centre posted a photo this week that gave me a new motto:

This windae is in a leebrary in Aigle (‘Edzell’) in Angus. Caw cannie an flee laich is an auld saw that micht be set in Inglis as “Go carefully and don’t take on too much.” Tak tent that the ‘apologetic apostrophe’ kythes in the spellings here. The spelling laigh shuid be soondit as ‘lay-ch’ (wi the ‘ch’ as in loch).

Photie taen bi Steve Murdoch.

The Proverbs of Scotland give a slightly different version:

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And I was struck by a similar note in Jessica Abel’s email today (if you’re not following her posts on making a success of your creative life, you’re missing out) lamenting how easy it is to forget these resolutions:

 I keep telling you that taking on too much is a recipe for things not happening, so why do I think I’m immune? I’m coughing my lungs up; I’m clearly not immune to anything. Life has taught me this lesson over and over again. When will I learn?

I am doing better on the whole at not taking on ever-more stuff. I know that seems ironic given yesterday’s announcement, but the way I’m handling that project is the model for how to do things now: clear timelines (giving myself space to finish what I’m working on  now), careful collaboration with trusted people (knowing you can count on people is half the battle), not doing everything myself (this is opening the doors for others).

But there are always temptations: the more I delve into Medieval Scots literature and culture, the more intrigues I find, like Nicnevin and the Weird Sisters…

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Reflections on Celts

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I dropped by the McManus to check out what was on and caught the Reflections on Celts exhibit which combined a few of their own treasures with borrowed items from the British Museum and the National Museums of Scotland. You can see my pictures here (along with the other two exhibits on) and read more about it here. I was unable to resist buying things in the shop but mostly kept myself to buying cards to send off to other people and a book on medieval Scotland because that is a woeful lack in my knowledge (and a potential site of new research). As you can see, Duncan’s Riders of the Sidhe has come down from the upstairs gallery to gallop through this exhibit.

‘Tis the Season

Grades are in and I am safely come to Dundee. There were happy family greetings, gifts, and packages waiting — and even a bit of sun. And much silliness, of course. Now #tea and the opportunity to idle and write. There’s time to let much of the madness of a harsh year slip away, if only to return to the resistance later strengthened.

At passport control, the fellow asked ‘Purpose of your visit?’

‘To avoid having to hear about that orange idiot twenty-four hours a day.’

‘Fair enough.’

Summer Snapshots