Tag Archives: Robert Kirk

Between Worlds

 

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”And see ye not yon bonny road
  That winds about the fernie brae?
That is the Road to fair Elfland,
  Where thou and I this night maun gae.” Sign outside Between World’s exhibition, K. Manwaring 30 Dec. 2017

This small but stimulating exhibition at the Palace Green Library in Durham, overlooked by the magnificent cathedral and castle, explores the Fairy and Folk Traditions of Northern Britain (including the Scottish Borders) – my main locus of interest in my current PhD research at the University of Leicester. It seeks to deconstruct the popular image of the ‘Tinkerbell’ type fairy derived from Peter Pan and other sentimental Victoriana (the byproduct of a high infant mortality and ‘cult of Childhood’). It focuses on the following: the supernatural ballad of  ‘Thomas the Rhymer’; Reverend Robert Kirk and The Secret Commonwealth of Elves, Fauns and Fairies; the Myth of Middridge; Lady Ragnall/The Loathly Lady; The Cauld Lad of Hylton (and the Lambton Worm); and Mother Shipton. These were laid out in a rectangular ‘circuit’, with cases displaying mostly rare manuscripts or editions (this being a library-based exhibition). Low lighting (no doubt to protect the MSS) and an atmospheric  (owls, distant bells, horse hooves, rough weather) soundtrack helped to create a suitable ambience.

 

For me, the highlight was seeing the ‘other’ Kirk MS, the only one I hadn’t seen in person (only on microfilm in the University of Edinburgh Special Collections library).  Unfortunately only one page of the small bound copy was on display in its hermetically-sealed case. As it is one of EUL’s icons it is extremely rare and valuable. Still, it was good to see it, as I was able to gauge the differences from the other versions (handwriting; phrasing of title; ordering of epigraphs; date) so familiar have I become with them.

The other highlight was beholding the first handwritten version of ‘Thomas the Rhymer’ (written down from an oral performance). It is so familiar, one forgets it was written down somewhere by somebody and sometime, and, before that, composed orally and kept alive through the oral tradition (apparently passed down through the female line). The handwriting was legible and it was reassuring to see that the wording was pretty much as I knew it. I had created an Anglicized version a long time back for performance purposes, but this wasn’t that dissimilar.

Many of the tales featured exist in ballad form too – there is a clear overlap between the two. There were headphones playing some on a loop, but perhaps more could have been made of this (I am thinking of the excellent multi-media exhibition at The Robert Burns Birthplace Museum in Ayr, which really celebrates the oral culture of his work).

One thing that was lacking from the exhibition was a sense of interrogation about the forces that influenced the remarkable proliferation of folk and fairy traditions in the north of England and the Scottish Borders – something I have written about in my paper on Borderlands (presented at ‘Haunted Landscapes’, a 2014 Falmouth Symposium).

Clearly, the curators were restricted by the space – too much would have ‘crowded’ the exhibition. They had to make it accessible, and appealing to all backgrounds and ages (they had ‘fairy doors’ at child hood running around the walls and a ‘Fairy Investigators Guide’ for spotting the different residents). Overall, ‘Between Worlds’ offers a good introduction to the supernatural heritage of the region, tempting visitors to look further by visiting the actual sites or by looking up the source texts.

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A recreation of the ‘Minister’s Pine’, Doon Hill, Aberfoyle, where you could leave a wish or a prayer. ‘Between Worlds’, K. Manwaring, 30 Dec. 2017

 

‘Between Worlds’ runs until 25 February 2018 at Palace Green Library, University of Durham https://www.dur.ac.uk/palace.green/

A Wayfaring Stranger: Interview & Reading with Kevan Manwaring

Jack Ratcliff, mules and small covered wagon, bw photo Pritchett

Listen to a 30 minute interview and reading with Rona Laycock, on The Writers’ Room, Corinium Radio, about my new novel, The Knowing – A Fantasy. Meet Sideways Brannelly, a trader between worlds, and hear about the research that went into the novel, my other books, my teaching, and up-and-coming events…

https://www.dropbox.com/s/f1ho0haidu94e8p/044%20-%20The%20Writers%20Room%20Transmission%2027-03-17.mp3?dl=0

http://www.coriniumradio.co.uk/

 

 

The Remarkable Notebooks of Robert Kirk

Kirk notebook - EUL - K Manwaring 2015.jpgFigure 1 One of Robert Kirk’s notebooks. Photograph by Kevan Manwaring 2015 (with permission of the Edinburgh University Library Special Collections).

Rabbit Holes & Chinese Whispers

In researching my novel, The Knowing – A Fantasy (the main iteration of my Creative Writing PhD at the University of Leicester), I undertook extensive primary source research of the novel’s historical focus: Robert Kirk, the 17th Century Episcopalian minister of Aberfoyle best known for his 1691 monograph,  The Secret Commonwealth of Elves, Fauns and Fairies. As a novelist I needed ‘telling details’ to bring him alive on the page as a fully-rounded character; as a researcher I was aware of the unreliable accuracy of the various printed versions of the monograph. Dictated from his sick-bed to his cousin, Robert Campbell (already establishing a possible gulf between ‘texts’ – the one Kirk orally related, and the one written down by Campbell); the Secret Commonwealth (as it became known, although its actual title varies from MS to MS) was not published until 1815 by Sir Walter Scott. This version, printed in an edition of 100, is riddled with transcription errors (or deliberate editorial interventions) but is one that has been most reproduced ever since – starting a century-spanning chain of Chinese whispers (Lang, 1893; Cunningham, 1933; and numerous cheap reprints). It was only through the scholarly efforts of Stewart Sanderson (1976) and Michael Hunter (2001), that this process was identified and to some extent arrested (although poor transcriptions still circulate, e.g. the ‘Lost Library’, Glastonbury edition).  I decided that the best way to avoid the risk of using an inaccurate version was to go back to the ‘original’ (easier said than done) and transcribe it myself.  It is only when I looked into the providence of the existing MSS that I realized that finding the ‘master text’ was going to be problematic. This particular challenge led me down the beguiling rabbit holes of the archives and resulted in some incredible results – but that is something I wish to discuss elsewhere. Here I shall focus on an unexpected byproduct of this quest – coming upon Robert Kirk’s notebooks. The focus of this blog will be on what I found.

But first, a summary of what we know about Kirk…

 

Robert Kirk – the Facts

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Figure 2 Kirk’s signature. Notebook. K. Manwaring 2015 (with permission of the National Library of Scotland).

 

  • Robert Kirk (born December 9, 1644; died 14 May 1692, aged 47 yrs and 5 months)
  • 7th son. Education: Edinburgh (BA); St. Andrews (MA).
  • Episcopal Minister, Balquidder (9 Nov 1664-); Aberfoyle.
  • Clerk of the Presbytery (appointed 23 Oct. 1667).
  • 1678: married Isobel Campbell, daughter of Sir Colin Campbell of Mochaster.
  • One son, Colin; 1st wife died Christmas Day 1680 (carved her gravestone himself).
  • Married Margaret, cousin of Isobel. One son – Robert Kirk (Minister of Dornoch 1713-1758).
  • Moved to Aberfoyle. Minister until death.
  • 1690/91: Oversaw printing of Bedel’s Bible (into Gaelic) in London.
  • 1691: Dictated The Secret Commonwealth of Elves, Fauns and Fairies.
  • 1692: Collapsed on Doon Knowe of unknown causes, died. Buried in Aberfoyle

Robert Kirk – The Legend

  •  Stepped into a fairy ring & ‘taken’ (as punishment for speaking about the Good Folk).
  • Exchanged with a changeling.
  • Rocks buried instead of body.
  • Appear to cousin at wedding; dirk over the shoulder.
  • Pregnant woman – dirk in his chair in study.
  • Offerings left at Doon Hill.
  • Still a prisoner in Fairyland.

(Sources: Rev. Patrick Graham, 1812; Sir Walter Scott, 1815; Andrew Lang, 1893; Katherine Briggs, 1940).

So far, so folklore. Already I had enough material to fire my author’s imagination. But ever one for ‘going the extra inch’, I decided to delve deeper – beyond the numerous articles – to see what further primary source material I could unearth.

 

Notebooks – The Discoveries

Within the 8 surviving notebooks (7 in Edinburgh University Library; 1 in the National Library of Scotland) there was a wealth of material to discover.  They are tiny – the size of matchboxes and very delicate. It is impossible to open the pages fully without risking damage of the spine.  The handwriting is infinitesimal, faint in places, and full of Kirk’s eccentric spelling and handwriting. Some sections are more legible than others. No full transcription of them has been undertaken. In my examination of them to date I have discovered:

  • Marginalia – signature; inscriptions, dates.
  • Drawings – several ink-drawings depicting occult symbolism.
  • Juvenilia – schoolboy daydreams, doodles.
  • Evidence of romance – poems to ‘sweethearts’, whimsical word-play.
  • The Stillingfleet episode.
  • An early version of The Secret Commonwealth.

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Figure 3 An early version of The Secret Commonwealth, as it appears in the London Notebook. Photograph by K. Manwaring, 2015 (with permission of EUL).

I was particularly thrilled by this quote of Kirk’s found in his London notebook (below). It leaped out at me as epigraph material. It is especially significant for being the earliest usage of the term ‘Fayrie Tale’ in the English language. For Kirk to have coined this seems very resonant, considering the nature of my project – one that explores the construction and transmission of folkloric narratives, and the juxtaposition of the historical with the fantastical.  Kirk’s rhetorical comparison between his account of the ‘secret commonwealth’ and the ‘discovery’ of the New World illustrates this superbly.  Kirk suggests that in the same way the first accounts of the New World were received sceptically – their reports, the ‘inventors of ridiculous Utopias’ – critical readers may question the veracity of his account. Kirk, the man of God, was at pains to adopt a ‘scientific’ approach to his survey (mirroring the way Kirk’s near contemporary, John Aubrey, the man of Science, seemed possessed with, at times, a kind of religious fervour in his search for and preservation of ‘antiquities).  And in this cross-fertilisation of methodologies and the fault-lines between a materialist and spiritual reading of the universe, we have the primary discourse of Kirk and Aubrey’s age. Indeed, Kirk’s whole endeavour seemed motivated by a desire to defend a spiritual interpretation of the universe against the burgeoning tide of the Age of Reason – a rearguard action doomed to failure in its day, as the wondrous became simply the curious; the sublime, ridiculous. Perhaps Kirk saw in the plight of the Good Folk – relegated to the hollow hills and the simple folk beliefs of the Highlanders  –  a foreshadowing of the fate of his own belief system and culture in the devastating aftermath of Culloden?

‘And if this be thought only a fancy and forgery because obscure and unknown to the most of mankind for so long a time, I answer the antipodes and inhabitants of America, the bone of our bone, yet their first discovery was lookt on as a Fayrie Tale, and the reporters hooted at as inventors of ridiculous Utopias.’ Robert Kirk

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Figure 4 The first mention in the English language of the phrase ‘Fayrie Tale’. I have quoted this for the epigraph of my novel, The Knowing.  London Notebook. Photograph by K. Manwaring 2015 (with permission EUL).

The Stillingfleet Influence

Most revealing is the account of the Stillinfleet episode, as related in Kirk’s ‘London notebook’, MS. La.III.545. (EUL). Here are the key details:

  • Late 1689: Kirk in London to oversee the printing & distribution of 3000 copies of Bishop Bedel’s Bible.
  • Records various sermons he attended.
  • Meets Edward Stillingfleet (1635-1699), recently appointed Bishop of Worcester, giving his valedictory sermon at St. Andrews…
  • Invited back for dinner where they discuss theological and spiritual matters. Stillingfleet scornful of the Fairy Faith, but his wife more sympathetic…
  • Meets Stillingfleet’s wife (just given birth to seventh child; wished to know if it could touch against the ‘King’s Evil’). Kirk himself a 7th son. Agreed to write to her on such matters…
  • An embryonic version of The Secret Commonwealth appears shortly afterwards in his London Diary (La.III.545)
  • Dedicates The Secret Commonwealth to ‘A Lady’.

Thus, it is tempting to conclude (as I choose to do so for the purpose of the novel) that the encounter with Lady Stillingfleet provided Kirk with the MO to set about researching and writing The Secret Commonwealth – that Lady Stillingfleet provided a ‘Muse’ figure to Kirk (the 7th child connection between all three of them – the Minister, the Bishop and his wife – may have provided sufficient motivation by itself; along with the Bishop’s professional disparagement of Kirk’s ideas). If it may seem fanciful to assume a Minister would be prey to such ‘weaknesses’ then we have the evidence of the notebooks to support the theory – for within them there are several poems to ‘sweet-hearts’ (at one point he invents an anagram of his latest object of desire, Mary Napier: Army Rapier). Kirk was made of flesh and blood and prone to flattery as much as the next man. When a beautiful, elegant, influential woman took an interest in your work, it would be hard for most not to want to rise to the challenge. The intense entries about Fairy folklore – an embryonic text of the Secret Commonwealth – that follow the Stillingfleet encounter – prove how Kirk became obsessed with the project as a result.

 

From Archive to Novel

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Figure 5 A drawing by Robert Kirk (detail). Notebook. Photograph by K. Manwaring 2015 (with permission of EUL).

As a result of my direct contact with these precious notebooks my novel project benefitted in several ways: I was ‘gifted a new subplot, one critical to the creation of The Secret Commonwealth; I was able to identify Kirk’s voice from the many examples I read (including the subtle clues of character revealed by his handwriting); the marginalia and juvenalia I discovered conveyed a sense of his fully-rounded character (his student daydreams; his romantic musings about women; the whimsical doodles; his recurrent pre-occupations); it afforded me a real insight into Kirk’s milieu, the period detail and debates of the Age; and it revealed to me Kirk’s hitherto unknown illustrations – as someone originally trained in Fine Art, a writer-artist who likes to illustrate his own work occasionally, this thrilled me – and demonstrated a whole other, imaginative side to Kirk.

Finally, in examining these obscure notebooks, filled with occult speculation, I felt I was experiencing a Gothic trope: the classic discovery of a lost journal, ‘the found document’, one which bestows upon the ensuing text an aroma of antiquity and authenticity. In this case, the notebooks were, of course, genuine – and my experience with them helped me in the creation of my own invented journal, one that ‘ventriloquizes’ Kirk’s voice (in a similar way to Ruth Scurr’s bold biography, John Aubrey: My Own Life):

‘Aubrey’s approach to his own and other lives was imaginative and empirical in equal measure. In imagining his diary by collating the evidence, I have echoed the idea of antiquities – the searching after remnants – that has meant so much to him. I have collected the fragmentary remains of his life – from manuscripts, letters and books, his own and other people’s – and arranged them carefully in chronological order. I have done so playingly (a word he used of his own writing) but with purpose. Ultimately, my aim has been to write a book in which he is still alive’.

Ruth Scurr, John Aubrey: My Own Life, (London: Chatto and Windus, 2015)

In my novel I imagine the discovery of Kirk’s ‘lost journal’ – one written while as prisoner in Elfhame.  My primary source research enabled me to simulate Kirk’s predilections and distinctive voice.  Although I modulated his idiom to make it more intelligible and enjoyable to the modern reader (‘accuracy’, if that were possible, would lead to alienation to all but a specialist audience) knowing Kirk’s work gave me a ‘base-line’ to work from. I had not only read and, at times, copied, his actual handwriting, I had transcribed a complete copy of The Secret Commonwealth (frustrated with the questionable providence and accuracy of the many print versions I decided to go back to the source text. It turns out there are several…).

There were plans to transcribe the Kirk Notebooks (Hunter 2001), but nothing yet has come to fruition and the secrets of Kirk’s formative years remain hidden away … for now. Who knows what treasures will be found in there when they are fully transcribed? To end with Kirk’s own admission: ‘Every Age Hath Some Secrets Left For Its Discoverie…’

References:

  • Dc.8.114: 1660/1-1672 (school notes on philosophy)
  • Dc.9.5: 1663-1664 (notes on lesson by Cant)
  • Dc.8.115: 1666 (mostly excerpts)
  • La.III.549: 1669 (‘occasional thoughts’)
  • Dc.8.116: 1674-1675/6 (excerpts and thoughts)
  • MS. 3932: 1679-1680 (mostly ‘thoughts’)
  • La.III.529: 1681-1683 (‘thoughts’)
  • La.III.545: 1689-1690 (London Diary)

All in Edinburgh University Library Special Collections except MS.3932 (National Library of Scotland). Source: Text-Criticism of Kirk’s Secret Commonwealth, Mario M. Rossi, 1949.

 ***

For an excellent overview of Kirk’s milieu and an annotated version of The Secret Commonwealth, I highly recommend The Occult Laboratory: magic, science and second sight in late seventeenth-century Scotland, Michael Hunter, Boydell Press, 2001

Extract from ‘Every Age Hath Some Secrets Left For Its Discoverie: Research undertaken for the Writing of The Knowing’ Powerpoint Presentation, Kevan Manwaring, University of Leicester, September 2016

Kevan Manwaring University of Leicester 2016 orcid.org/0000-0002-1756-5222

 Text & Photographs Copyright ©Kevan Manwaring 2017

Discover more on my research website, http://thesecretcommonwealth.com/

 

Ways Through the Wood

Hypertextuality in Fiction

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In writing my novel The Knowing – A Fantasy, a book which explores borders of different kinds, I have attempted to push the boundaries of not only genre, but also of form. Being more interested in the creative tension between – whether that is between the ‘Actual and Imaginary’ (as Nathaniel Hawthorne put it), the magical and the mundane, the secular and the sacred, the fictional and factual, Fantasy and Realism; or between cultures, countries, people, species… – I have fashioned a story that walks between worlds in myriad ways. To accommodate this porousness I have decided that the optimum way for the reader to interface with this – with the multiple paradigms I offer – is to create, for now, an e-book which allows the reader to interact with the text, to choose whether they wish to know about a particular character or subplot, or to stick with the main narrative (rather than swamp the text with footnotes).

I was mindful to avoid the fascinating, but overwhelming modernism of Ulysses, or the atomised postmodernism of House of Leaves (although I would nick a leaf or two from both of those books*) – that kind of level of experimentation comes at a cost to the narrative, and wasn’t right for my project. Similarly, at the other pole of culture, I didn’t want to evoke the flavour of those ‘Choose Your Path’ books which flourished for a while in my youth (e.g. Fighting Fantasy; or my favourite, Lone Wolf). However fond I was of those back then, that approach wasn’t fit-for-purpose either. This project wasn’t about the ‘deciding the outcome of the story’. I did not want to give away complete authorial control.

However old-fashioned, I still believe in the power of storytelling, and the craft and responsibility of the storyteller. I have a penchant for prose stylists, but also have a weakness for a decent storyline, well-wrought characters, snappy dialogue, and emotional engagement. I want to be swept along by a story.

So, a rattling yarn, but one told with elan and a substructure of complexity – with a depth of ideas and research underpinning the (hopefully) purring prose.

And so I have used hypertextuality to allow for multiple narrative threads to co-exist. I like the idea of each link being a kind of portal to a pocket universe, to another modality or mindset. It bestows upon the reader agency – one that is intrinsic to the novel, for The Knowing, is, on one level, an epistemological enquiry: in plain English – What do we know? How do we know what we know? Why is some knowledge perceived as more valid than others? I, as the writer, was driven by my epistemological hunger (following the idea of ‘write what you want to know’, and developing ‘archive fever’ in my PhD research). The characters are driven by their desire to know. Janey in particular is ‘gifted’ with the ‘knowing’ (Second Sight), which allows her to discover things beyond her experience or 5 senses. She uses this to access the memories of her ancestors, the McEttrick Women, via the heirlooms kept within her mother’s old biscuit tin. Deploying metonymic representation, each ancestor is symbolized by an object. When Janey holds them in her hand, she receives a download of memory. This psychometry I wished to suggest in the way the reader taps on the image in the e-book – which allows them to access that ‘voice’.

Critically, the choice to do this is driven by the reader’s desire to know.

I also like creating visual furniture within the novel – paratextuality – being fond of marginalia, and having discovered, within Robert Kirk’s journals and manuscripts many fascinating and revealing examples. For me, a book is an aesthetic experience as much as a narrative one – this may seem at odds to some with the concept of an ‘e-book’, but even within that format it is still possible to enjoy stunning cover art, fine font, illustrations, and so forth. And so I have delighted in creating motifs for each of the characters, and labouring endlessly over the minutiae of formatting and text navigation.

Also, I do not find the use of an e-reader antithetical to this aesthetic consideration, but intrinsic – for it captures the tension I revel in, between the ancient and the modern. To read the voice (sometimes actual, sometimes fictionalised) of a 17th Century Scottish minister in such a state-of-the-art form makes it more poignant – the ghost in the machine. And the hidden magic of the e-reader echoes the journal that Janey receives from Kirk – written on ‘Janus paper’, which allows a reader to view what the writer is scribing upon its twin, wherever in this world or another they are, attuning to the consciousness of that reader and translating accordingly.

This allows for a ‘hybrid’ voice, somewhere between Kirk’s 17th Century idiom, and Janey’s own – a deliberate choice, for I decided that coherency and fluency was more important to the narrative effect than strict accuracy to Kirk’s idiolect and ecolect. Of course, I have tried to evoke it – and having transcribed his monograph, and poured through his notebooks, I am deeply familiar with it – but have tempered its more obscure eccentricities (erratic spelling; idiosyncratic rendering of Gaelic; obscure references) in favour of clarity.

Still, I hope his, and the other voices I have ‘channelled’ come across convincingly – they certainly felt real to me as I wrote them. Time and time again, it feels like one is merely the amanuensis, taking down the character’s dictation – in the way that Robert Campbell, Kirk’s cousin, took down the minister’s words as he lay upon his sickbed, the words that would become The Secret Commonwealth of Elves, Fauns and Fairies – a lost version of which I would go onto discover in the archives, but that is another story…

The Knowing by Kevan Manwaring is published as an ebook on 20th March and will be available via Amazon’s Kindle store.

*Joyce’s heteroglossia; and Mark Z. Danielewski’s ‘leaves’ motif – fragments of text, of experience – symbolized by Janey’s heirloom wunderkammer, her box of leaves.

Wild Things

Wild Thing, you make my heart sing …

urisk-by-kevan-manwaring-march-2017

An Urisk. Illustration by Kevan Manwaring 2017

I must confess a fondness for fauns. And for their shaggier cousins, especially the Urisk – described as a ‘rough hairy spirit’ it is thought to prefer the solitude of wild, mountainous places. Folklorists were careful to differentiate these from the more domestic Brownie. One cannot imagine an Urisk performing any household chores – they are as to Brownies as the Lynx is the domesticated cat. They are believed to gather once in a blue moon at the ‘Corrie of the Urisks’ in the Trossachs, as evoked in this poem by Sir Walter Scott:

By many a bard, in Celtic tongue,
Has Coire-nan-Uriskin been sung;
A softer name the Saxons gave,
And call’d the grot the Goblin-cave,
 
Gray Superstition’s whisper dread
Debarr’d the spot to vulgar tread;
For there, she said, did fays resort,
And satyrs hold their sylvan court.

 

coire-nan-uriskin

Coire-nan-Uriskin, from JP MacLean, 1900

Yet apart from this one mad Highland fling, when presumably vigorous moonlit capering and rutting takes place (the crack of horns, tang of musk, and primal howls thick in the air), they are solitary by nature, and perhaps even a mickle melancholic.

It is tempting to draw comparisons with the wild men of myth and legend who, driven mad by massacres, war and other madnesses of humankind, retreat to the wild. Merlin himself was said to have experienced such a dark night of the soul – fleeing to the woods of Caledon and becoming for a while, Myrddin Wyllt, ‘Merlin the Wild’. There he conversed with a pig, as recorded in gnomic verse (a resonant choice, as swine were thought to be creatures from the Underworld, being a gift from Arawn, Lord of Annwn, according to Y Mabinogi). It was not until Gawain came to find him that he was ‘talked back’ into his wits and back to Camelot. When Llew Llaw Gyffes was turned into an eagle by the betrayal of Blodeuwedd it took his wily uncle Gwydion to track him down (again, a swine guides – this time to foot of an oak tree where putrefying flesh reveals the location of the bedraggled eagle-man) and to sing his soul back home, via bardic utterances. In the Irish legend of ‘Mad Sweeney’, Buile Shuibhne, already a loose cannon, is driven mad by the Battle of Mag Rath, and flees in the form of a bird – cursed by Bishop Ronan for his disrespect – wandering Erin and beyond for many many years, before finding sanctuary in the House of Moling (another saint-in-waiting). Here he receives the milk of human kindness and the Word of the Lord, having paid for his crimes with his dilated suffering. In all these cases the ‘wild man’ seems to be suffering a form of Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder. Interestingly, Robert Macfarlane describes a real life example in The Wild Places – the Leopard Man of Lewis, who roams the heath and peat naked, except for a body covered in the tattooed markings of his totem. His identity remains a mystery but there is some speculation that he is an ex-soldier acting out his PTSD.

Of course ‘green men’ have haunted the folk consciousness for centuries, if not longer. Their wild eyes and foliating mouths and nostrils convey a feeling of being overwhelmed – the irruption of chthonic longings, the inside turned out. The sheer boskiness of such fellows (and they are commonly adult males, although green women and children do crop up) is best expressed in Ted Hughes’ poem, ‘Wodwo’:

What am I? Nosing here, turning leaves over
Following a faint stain on the air to the river’s edge
I enter water. Who am I to split
The glassy grain of water looking upward I see the bed
Of the river above me upside down very clear
What am I doing here in mid-air?

Yet the Green Man is also brilliantly evoked in other masterful poems, especially ‘The Green Man’s Last Will and Testament’ by John Heath-Stubbs, and ‘Lob’ by Edward Thomas – based upon a character Thomas met on his restless peregrinations, ‘Lob’ evokes the genius loci of the Chalk Downs:

At hawthorn-time in Wiltshire travelling
In search of something chance would never bring,
An old man’s face, by life and weather cut
And coloured, – rough, brown, sweet as any nut,
A land face, sea-blue-eyed, – hung in my mind
When I had left him many a mile behind.

Extract from ‘Lob’, Edward Thomas

It is interesting to note how ‘wild men’ seem to haunt the wilder fringes of the world – both in poetry (Grendel in Beowulf) and folklore (the Wendigo, Sasquatch, Big Foot and Yeti…). It is as though we must give wilderness a ‘human’ face – personify it to make it vaguely relatable. There is little scarier than the nameless unknown, the disinterested void that shakes our anthropocentric solipsism. We want to turn it into something cosy – a bescarfed and pleasant Mr Tumnus in Narnia; or hauntingly beautiful, such as the Piper at the Gates of Dawn in The Wind in the Willows. And yet it is good to remember that the ‘pan-ic’ we can feel in nature – that frisson of fear at the prospect of being benighted or lost – is thanks to Pan, and that satyrs are little more than priapic rapists, lusting after an passing nymph.

And yet these creatures of the wild – perhaps uncomfortably like us except for the ‘grace of God’, the ultimate hobo fallen on hard times – can sometimes bestow an adrenalin shot of wildness into tame lives, bestow wild gifts – though at a price (as in Elizabeth Barrett Browning’s ‘A Musical Instrument’), and drive us into maenaedic raptures with their devilish music (listen to The Waterboy’s ‘Return of Pan’ and see what I mean).

I speak from experience, having had an Urisk jump into my latest novel, The Knowing. He certainly livened things up! I enjoyed spending time in his feral company, as did, I think, the Reverend Robert Kirk – author of the monograph, ‘The Secret Commonwealth of Elves, Fauns and Fairies’ – a respectable Episcopalian minister in his parish of Aberfoyle (in the Uriskish Trossachs) until his field-work got out of hand…

The Knowing – A Fantasy by Kevan Manwaring is released for preview as an ebook on 20th March.

Watch ‘The Return of Pan’:

Read ‘A Musical Instrument’:

https://www.poemhunter.com/poem/a-musical-instrument/

Read ‘Wodwo’ in full:

https://allpoetry.com/poem/8495307-Wodwo-by-Ted-Hughes

Read ‘Lob’ in full:

https://www.poemhunter.com/poem/lob/

A great blog on Urisks:

http://faeryfolklorist.blogspot.co.uk/2012/01/corrie-of-urisks-trossachs.html

 

 

The Curious Journal of Robert Kirk

Recently a curious journal in an antiquated hand came into my possession…

ms-5022-page-one-with-hand

It appears to be from Robert Kirk, a Scottish Presbyterian Minister who is best known for being the author of The Secret Commonwealth of Elves, Fauns and Fairies, (1691). He is said to have stepped into a fairy-ring and disappeared. Folklore has coalesced around his parish ever since.

kirk-tombstone

Offerings on the grave of Robert Kirk, Aberfoyle (K. Manwaring, 2014). When it was opened it was discovered the coffin was full of stones.  In local belief Kirk had been taken by the Sluagh Sith, the People of Peace, punished for revealing their secrets, and is a prisoner there still. Only a living descendant can free him…          

The journal bore Kirk’s distinctive initials…

 

kirk-monogram

Kirk’s name, inscribed into the binding of the journal. K. Manwaring, 2015

Kirk’s hand is virtually illegible at times, but here is what I have managed to transcribe so far…(the spelling has been modernized).

MS RB.013. 91 TRANSCRIPT (EXTRACT)

I sit in the near-dark of my chamber, gazing at the black mirrors which surrounded my bureau. They seem to catch the available light, gradations of black-upon-black, like Dr Dee’s scrying glass. I might as well be a necromancer, for do I not dabble with fallen angels, with invisible spirits and occult powers? Within my own parish I would have been burnt as a witch, were such a thing still common. The terrible executions stopped half a century ago, but the crime of witchcraft is still a capital offense. I doubt most would look mercifully upon my research into the secret commonwealth. In my defence I would argue that the existence of the Subterraneans, and of esoteric communications between mortals, is proof of the celestial hierarchy and God’s glory. All my efforts have been to this one aim in this, in a secular and corrupt age.            

My time being in this world but short, I took most pains in those languages and parts of learning which were deemed useful for that place of the world which God designed for me and man called me to, as my post. I applied myself to my studies as a young man in Edinburgh and St. Andrews; and as Clerk of the Presbytery I have laboured at the great work, to bring the Light of the Word to the Gaelic North – first in my metrical psalters and later in Bishop Bedel’s Bible, translated into the Hibernian tongue.            

And it was the printing of the latter which took me to London — three thousand were to be printed and distributed amongst the parishes of the Tramontaines: surely a Godly endeavour in that English Sodom? And while I oversaw this great labour, marvelling at the infernal engines of the rolling presses, the workers black as devils in the colours of their trade, that I steeped myself in the spirit of the age, the Glorious Revolution. I attended churches of every hue and persuasion – Anglican to Roman Catholic to Quaker. In my pocket-book I recorded sermons and observations, my mind awhirl at the diverse exegeses. The capital is a veritable Babel of voices, of opinions, and arguments.            

I feared that if I remained there much longer I would be as the figure from the Gypsy-teller’s cards, falling from the lightning-riven tower. After my day’s toil, I wandered those lychnobious streets, horrified at the depravity I beheld – a demi-monde of poverty and disease, harlotry and opium dens, thievery and murder. With every day a deep longing for the uncorrupted hills of my parish, for the untainted mountains and minds of the Highlands, ached in my breast.

In such a precipitous state it was perhaps inevitable I would stumble.

*****

There the journal entry becomes almost indecipherable, but further study may enable me to decode more of this remarkable account. What we are to make of it I shall leave you, dear reader, to deliberate…

 

 

 

 

An extract from The Knowing by Kevan Manwaring 2017, advance e-book version available from 20 March. Watch this space…

Copyright © Kevan Manwaring 2017

Writing The Knowing

Practice-based research in the creation of a novel

 

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A writer’s retreat. View across Gairloch Bay, Wester Ross. K. Manwaring 2016

 

In the creation of my contemporary fantasy novel, The Knowing, the main focus of my Creative Writing PhD at the University of Leicester, I have undertaken extensive experiential research as part of the practice-based research of writing the novel itself. It has to be emphasised that the writing of the novel is the research, for it is as much a scrutinization of the creative process as a dramatisation of that process through the characters, setting and plot.  The PhD began as an examination of the ‘Longing, Liminality and Transgression in the Folk Traditions of the Scottish Lowlands and Southern Appalachians’ (as my initial research question framed), at least when it became ‘conscious’ – in September 2014  when I began my part-time research degree – yet creative aquifers had been at work long before that.

I have long been interested in the folklore, tales and songs of the Scottish Borders, but things crystallized the day that Janey McEttrick, my main protagonist, walked into my head with her mane of red hair, steel-string guitar and second sight. She wanted her story told, and she wouldn’t let me go until I told it. She’s the kind of woman that you simply cannot turn down. And, besides, I fancied spending time in her company, having been hanging out with an Edwardian aviator and the lost of history for over a decade (in the writing of my 5-volume series, The Windsmith Elegy). I felt the need for a change of register, to write something set (mostly) in the present day, and from a different perspective – looking back at the Old World from the perspective of the New.

A Scottish-Native American folksinger, hanging out near Asheville, North Carolina, Janey’s story dramatizes the diasporic translocation I was interested in. Descended (on her mother’s side) from a long line of singer-seers, she epitomizes the cross-fertilisation that took place when waves of Scottish and Scots-Irish migrants upped sticks – through force or choice – and undertook the perilous crossing to the Americas, settling all the way from the taiga of Canada to the swamps of the South, but in particular, in the Appalachians where the mountainous terrain made them feel at home. They brought their songs and tales and folklore with them, in many instances preserving and customizing in fascinating ways. When I heard how Elizabethan ballads were discovered being sung by the early song collectors I was intrigued, and wondered what else might be preserved in these polders – what traces of the Old World could be found in the New? How had they adapted and mutated? And how the so-called Celtic Fringes had extended their borders into the West – to the point that the plaid of the clans became the classic checked shirt of the cowboy, and in a million other peculiar ways Celticity reinvents itself, a restless global meme: a way of seeing and a way of being that transcends genealogy.

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The grave of Robert Kirk, the Fairy Minister, Aberfoyle, K. Manwaring 2014

I have found the most effective way to bring alive the world of my characters is to have analogous experiences. If I cannot go to the actual place where they lived, then I will go to somewhere equivalent and equally as evocative – for it is always in the telling detail, discovered beneath one’s feet, that the location comes alive. And often by walking in the footsteps of your characters – real or imaginary – you gain an insight into them. So I opt for a ‘method-writing’ form of approach, especially as I want to be able channel the voices of my characters (mainly Robert Kirk and 9 generations of McEttrick Women) as convincingly as possible. Note I didn’t say authentically – for authenticity in prose is as much a performance as anything. For genuine authenticity one would only be able to write about oneself, one’s limited world – resulting in mere solipsism – whileas a novelist, with sufficient empathy, research and skill, can and should write about lives for beyond his or her own. To undertake such a creative challenge requires requires an almost fanatical obsession with research. A PhD, in particular, requires nothing less. It is the ultimate anorak. And in the journey of the research one is engaged in a continual feedback loop – gauging one’s ideas against what one finds, discusses, is challenged by, and practices.

And so off I set on my quest, following my wandering star …  Here is a summary of my practice-based research to date:

  • In August 2014, hearing the call of the Borders, I decided to walk Hadrian’s Wall –an 84 mile long path from Newcastle to Carlisle, following the line of the Roman Empire’s northernmost border – with my partner, Chantelle Smith.
  • From here we headed farther north, to the coast of Wester Ross – to a croft I have returned to again and again as a place of inspiration.
  • Heading south I visited key sites associated with the Border Ballads, Thomas the Rhymer, Tam Lin and Tam o’Shanter, as well as climbing Schiehallion, the ‘fairy mountain’ in the Cairngorms.
  • In 2015 I walked the West Highland Way solo, a 100 mile long distance footpath from the Lowlands to the Highlands, camping along the way, and climbing Ben Nevis (4000ft).
  • From these trips emerged my collection of poetry, Lost Border (Chrysalis 2015), which I performed at the Cheltenham Poetry Festival 2016 with Chantelle.
  • In 2015 I also became a Postgraduate Fellow in North American Studies, based at the Eccles Centre, the British Library. This year long fellowship enabled me to undertake research in that amazing research library.
  • I also received a Postgraduate Fund which enabled me to spend time at the Vaughan Williams Memorial Library, Cecil Sharp House, Camden – as I delved into the archives, researching the field trips undertaken by Cecil Sharp and Maud Karpeles to Southern Appalachia, 1915-1918.
  • This was augmented by a field trip to North Carolina in late summer 2015, made possible by the generosity and hospitality of my American friend, Debbi McInteer. I joined her and her family on a road trip from Jamestown RI, to Asheville, NC, visiting key locations associated both with Cecil and Maud, and my fictional characters. I got to experience the fabulous music and meet some descendants of tradition-bearer Jane Hicks Gentry and the Ward Family.
  • While in the States I ran a workshop based upon the folkloric motifs of Thomas the Rhymer and Tam Lin (‘The Wheel of Transformation’); try out some wild-writing; and co-host the ‘Crossways Medicine Show’ – a social gathering and sharing of cultural songlines.
  • Out my research into the Scottish Borders, I developed a ballad and tale show with my partner, called ‘The Bonnie Road’ which we performed in 2015 in various venues.
  • I was granted the fantastic opportunity to spend a month at Hawthornden Castle International Writers Retreat in late 2015. Here, in the home of the poet William Drummond, I wrote the second draft of my novel (160,000 words).
  • While at the castle I made several forays into Edinburgh to visit the fabulous archives at the National Library of Scotland and the University of Edinburgh. In their Special Collections I was able to see first-hand the surviving manuscripts and notebooks of Robert Kirk, the 17th Century Presbyterian Minister, and author of the monograph, The Secret Commonwealth of Elves, Fauns and Fairies (a key character in my novel).
  • In 2016 I instigated, commissioned and edited Ballad Tales: an anthology of British ballads retold, to be published by The History Press, June 2017. This features 19 retellings of traditional ballads, pushing the envelope of genre and gender, setting and sexual politics.
  • My practice-based research really began when I first started performing ‘Thomas the Rhymer’ in my early 20s, and visited the Eildon Hills, wild-camping upon them in the hope of inspiration or encounter!
  • And my connection with Kirk began in earnest when i created and performed a monologue in character, with Fire Springs, for ‘Voices of the Past’, Bath Literature Festival 2002.
  • Finally, I really felt I could not write a novel about a musician unless I had some first-hand experience to draw upon, and so my practice-based research has also involved learning the guitar and plunging into ballad-singing. I certainly have found the latter to be something I enjoy both in isolation (e.g. while walking the long-distance footpaths such as Offa’s Dyke) and amongst friends (starting ‘Sunday Song’ with Nimue Brown as a place to share in an informal way). And studying the former has certainly given me more of an insight and appreciation of songcraft.
  • Other activities have included: presenting papers at conferences on aspects of my research; writing a blog (Bardic Academic: crossing the creative/critical divide); tweeting; undertaking commissions which allow me to explore the creative/critical voice in my writing (eg Marginalia; Houdinis of Bewilderland) and entering competitions, eg The Re-imagined Book, winner of the AHRC 10 Essay Prize.

And, until it is all complete, the journey continues…

 

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Field Research. On the road to Applecross, looking towards Skye, K. Manwaring, 2016

 

 

 

 

A Sassenach in Auld Reekie

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Edinburgh in the time of Robert Kirk. Wenceslas Hollar 1670

I returned to the handsome capital of Scotland, Edinburgh, to spend a week in the archives at the National Library of Scotland. I had received a small grant from the University of Leicester to support my time there, transcribing a rare 17th manuscript I had discovered in their Special Collections last December. Over the following week I laboured away in there from opening time until mid-to-late afternoon. Special Collections is such a pleasant place to work in – high up in the NLS, its floor to ceiling windows afford a fantastic view over the Hogwartsian rooftops of the city, towards Arthur’s Seat, the volcanic summit, and the Salisbury Crags, which dominate the skyline of this dramatic city – the backdrop to myriad dramas, intrigues, conspiracies, plots and sub-plots, tragedies and love stories over the centuries.

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Special Collections, National Library of Scotland. K. Manwaring

 

I stayed at the central SYHA hostel – a large, busy, but clean and convenient, base, brimming with Italian and German students, making breakfast a lively affair.

After my daily transcribing I would check out the city’s attractions, which are numerous and impressive. I caught the tail end of the Fringe on my first full day, so I took in a cross-section of shows (one about a lost Nick Drake recording; an adaptation The Master and Margarita) and enjoyed the festive ambience on the Royal Mile, where talented buskers were milking the madding crowds for all their worth. In the evening I caught the festival finale fireworks, exploding in time to a classical concert over the castle. It was a spectacular end to what must have been an exhausting month. One day was quite enough for me, and I was happy to knuckle down for the rest of the week. However, I still found time at the end of my stay to be a tourist again, and took in a couple of walking tours – one of the Royal Mile; and a Ghost Walk one. Both were free on delivery and you just paid what you thought it was worth at the end, an equitable arrangement, which was clearly worthwhile for the guides, with groups of twenty plus each time, often several times a day. Being a part-time tour-guide myself (a handy bit of summer income) I watched how the tours were delivered with interest. I was impressed by the level of detail and the projection above the noisy traffic and hustle and bustle. Both guides could more than hold their own, and hold a crowd’s attention for a couple of hours. I rounded off my stay with a visit to the Whiski Bar, where I enjoyed a couple of fine malts (a peaty one; a sherried one) while listening to a great Scottish folk band, a trio who belted Scottish and Irish classics with gusto and skill. The next day I walked off my hangover going up Arthur’s Seat – it was inevitably quite busy, but it still was great to escape the pellmell of the Royal Mile. It did the trick, blowing away the cobwebs, and helping me to get a perspective on the week.

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Edinburgh’s wealth is in its vast reserve of time, which it sells in diverse configurations, from history tours to single malts. Everything celebrates the past, glutting upon its depthless history. It is as though it is built upon a time-reservoir, akin to its volcanic roots – a chrono-thermal resource which fuels the city. Visitors come from far and wide to bathe in these time-springs, to receive their special ancientness, returning home refreshed, their wallets and purses lighter. We hope some of the ‘authenticity’ and sense of belonging and identity rubs off on us. We leave, walking a little taller, channelling our own inner Wallace or Bruce. We might besport embarrassing tartan tat, Outlanders dancing a caper. Somehow it feels okay. There is a wealth of fascinating history there – and it is a fine-looking city, darkly handsome, with its Piranesian levels of wynds, bridges, teetering tenements, gothic towers, dungeons, dives, courts, penthouses and promenades. Exploring it is like stumbling around the torturous catacombs of a novelist’s brain. For a while we are all characters in search of a plot, playing our roles – tourist, punter, mark, local, rake, beggar, laird.

Long live Auld Reekie!

Riding the Wall to Wester Ross

Pit-stop on Rest and Be Thankful Pass - a windy spot!

Pit-stop on Rest and Be Thankful Pass – a windy spot!

I’ve just come back from an epic three-week trip around the north of Britain – some of it was R&R and some of it was field research for my new novel…

Hadrians Wall copyright Kevan Manwaring 2014

In week 1 I walked Hadrian’s Wall (112AD) with my partner Chantelle, an archaeologist (and folk-singer) who works for English Heritage. It was on her ‘bucket list’ to do before her birthday – and so, all kitted up, off we set. I rode up to Newcastle on my Triumph Legend motorbike and met her off the train. We stored the bike at a storyteller’s garage and began our walk – 84 miles over 6 days from coast to coast, going east to west from Wallsend (east of Newcastle) to Bowness-on-Solway (west of Carlisle). We stopped at hostels and used a courier service to get our larger luggage from place to place – carrying just a daysac with essentials in (ie waterproofs!). It was the butt end of Hurricane Bertha and we had to walk into driving wind and rain for the first two or three days, but the weather mercifully improved towards the end of the week. The middle section from Chesters to Birdoswald was stunning. Although the wall wasn’t always visible (turned into roads, railways or cannibalised for building) the way was clearly-marked with white acorns (this being a National Trail). Every roman mile (just short of a mile) there was a mile-castle, inbetween, two turrets, and now and then a substantial fort (eg Housesteads being the most impressive) or garrison town (eg Vindolanda, famous for its amazingly preserved ‘tablets’ recording the minutiae of the daily lives of the inhabitants). The trail passes through the Northumberland National Park – bleak and beautiful. It was very poignant walking this remarkable piece of Roman ingenuity – the Roman Empire on my left, the untamed wilds of the Picts on my right – aware of how it was the first division of this country into north and south. This ‘divide and rule’ policy is worth being in mind in the light of the looming Referendum.

Croft life -  with Chantelle. Copyright Kevan Manwaring 2014

Croft life –
with Chantelle.
Copyright Kevan Manwaring 2014

In week 2 we rode up (Chantelle pillion) to a friend’s croft on the coast of Wester Ross, right up near Ullapool, overlooking the Minch towards Skye and the Outer Hebrides. It was an epic 375 mile ride through the most spectacular scenery – Rannoch Moor, Glen Coe, Glen Shiels…but the storm made it hard going, even dangerous as I battled against high winds and poor visibility. We stopped a night at Glen Coe – soggy as drowned rats but still smiling – before making the final push to the croft where we holed up for a week with provisions, reading and writing material and a bottle of good malt. After a week of motion it was blissful to have a week of stillness, giving our blisters a chance to heal. It was here I celebrated my 45th birthday. My partner treated me to a lovely meal in a local inn – a kind of ‘Valhalla of vinyl’ where we played pool and listened to old classics.

Not the Castle of the Muses, but Eilean Donan, the 'Highlander' castle. Copyright Kevan Manwaring 2014

Not the Castle of the Muses, but Eilean Donan, the ‘Highlander’ castle. Copyright Kevan Manwaring 2014

At the end of this week we rode south 225 miles to the Castle of the Muses in Argyl and Bute – an extraordinary edifice inhabited by Peace Druid Dr Thomas Daffern, 9 muses, and his library of 20,000 volumes. It was here we celebrated our first anniversary with a performance of our show ‘The Snake and the Rose’ in the main hall. Although the audience was small it was still a special way to mark the day. My friend Paul Francis was also present – he’s known by many names including Dr Space Toad, the Troubadour from the 4th Dimension, Jean Paul Dionysus… He’s a great singer-songwriter. After our show we gathered around the hearth and shared poems and songs. The next day Chantelle had to catch a train back home (work etc) but I stayed on for a meeting about forming a ‘circle of Bardic Chairs’. Although it was a small affair we took minutes and a seed was sown. The plan is to have a larger meeting (open to all bards, bardic chair holders, gorseddau, etc) in Stratford-upon-Avon, home of The Bard (William Shakespeare) on his birth/death-day, 23rd April, next year. Watch this space!

In the 3rd week I explored the Lowlands and Borders on my bike – riding solo. On Monday I went to Aberfoyle, home of the Reverend Robert Kirk (author of The Secret Commonwealth of Elves, Fauns and Fairies). It was thrilling to visit the grove on Doon Hill where he was said to have disappeared. A Scots Pine grows on the spot, surrounded by oak trees – all are festooned with clouties, rags, and sparkly offerings of every kind. A magical place. That night I stayed with a musician, Tom, whose croft we’d been staying in. He kindly put me up and we shared a poem or song over a dram.

climbing Schiehallion - the fairy mountain

climbing Schiehallion – the fairy mountain

On Tuesday I decided to climb Schiehallion – the mountain of the Sidhe, right up in the Highlands, so I blatted north past Gleneagles and made an ascent, ‘bagging’ myself a Munro (over 3000ft) though that wasn’t my reason for doing it. Afterwards I visited the Fortingall Yew – the oldest living tree in Britain, possibly 5000 years old. It’s decrepit but still impressive.

Bardmobile in the Rhymer's Glen - Eildon Hills in the background

Bardmobile in the Rhymer’s Glen – Eildon Hills in the background

On Wednesday I visited the Eildon Hills and the Rhymer’s Stone, before going onto Abbotsford, the impressive home of Sir Walter Scott (author of Minstelsy of the Scottish Borders among many others). I ended up at New Lanark, a World Heritage Site – a well-preserved mill-town created by social reformer, Robert Owen, to house, feed, educate and uplift his workers, near the Falls of the Clyde, made famous by Turner, Coleridge, Wordsworth and co. On Thursday I headed Southwest to Ayrshire and the home of Rabbie Burns, Scotlands’ ‘national poet’. The visitor’s centre had an excellent exhibition bringing alive his poems, but I was most thrilled to visit the Brig o’ Doon and the Auld Kirk – immortalised in his classic poem, ‘Tam o’ Shanter’. Then I headed down the west coast to the Machars and the Isle of Whithorn, where St Ninian made landfall and founded the first church north of the Wall. This seemed like a fitting terminus of my Scottish meanderings – from here you are said to see five kingdoms (England, Isle of Man, Ireland, Scotland and the kingdom of Heaven) yet there was one day left.

Further south - Isle of Whithorn

Further south – Isle of Whithorn

On Friday I explored the Yarrow and Ettrick valleys and found Carterhaugh near their confluence – the site of Tam Lin. The meeting of their respective rivers was more impressive – a swirling pool called ‘The Meetings’ near a gigantic salmon weir. It was a very wet day though and my energy was starting to wane. I gratefully made it to a fellow storyteller’s place who had just moved over the Border, not far from Coldstream. Despite having literally just moved in (that day!) her and her husband kindly put me up in the spare room amid the boxes. We didn’t spend long catching up– a quick cuppa – before whizzing north to Edinburgh for the Guid Crack Club. This meets in the upstairs of the Waverley Inn, just off the Royal Mile. I was very tired but happy to watch the high calibre of performance. I wasn’t planning to do anything but in the need I did offer my Northamptonshire Folk Tale, Dionysia the Female Knight, which seemed to go down well. We ate out at a new Greek place and got back late, sharing a glass of wine by the fire. Dog-tired I slept in til 10.30 the next day – then had to ride 250 miles south to Rockingham, near Corby in the Midlands.

Holy Island copyright Kevan Manwaring 2014

Holy Island
copyright Kevan Manwaring 2014

I stopped at Holy Island (Lindisfarne) as I crossed the Border – worth visiting for the ride across the tidal causeway if nothing else, although it felt a ‘thin place’ and calming, despite the tourist hordes. Then it was time to hit the road – and I roared down the A1 (and A19) back south to my old home county. Here I was warmly welcomed by Jim and Janet. I had performed at their solstice bash earlier in the summer and now they were treating me like an old friend. We had a good catchup over dinner and around the fire.

In the morning I made my final pit-stop, at the Bardic Picnic in Delapre Abbey, Northampton – my old neck of the woods. Here I would walk my dog every day. Here 7 years ago a small group of us (6!) held hands and did an awen to announce the beginning of this event which has blossomed, thanks to my friends hard work into a small festival. The sun put his hat on and the crowds came out. Although I was road-weary and unable to take in much of the bardism, I did stick around for the Chairing of the Bard before hitting the road – and the final push across the Cotswolds to home in Stroud.

After 2500 miles and 23 days I finally made it home and I was glad to be back. If only I could have stayed…(the next morning I had to get to Bath for 9am to run an 11-hour tour to Glastonbury, Salisbury and Avebury with 4 Americans – it’s a Bard’s life!).

Watch out for poetry inspired by my trip on the poetry page…

Isles of the Ever-Living

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Islands of the Ever-Living

Kevan Manwaring

(the second part of a two-part article. Last time we looked at Isle of the Dead)

No Country for Old Men

Isles of the Dead often blur into Islands of the Ever-Living – in the mythic imagination it is hard to see the join – but the latter are completely in the Otherworld (despite claims that Avalon can be found in Somerset). Ever culture has them – consoling fictions to the reality of death perhaps. Ireland has one of the most famous, Tir nan Og, the Land of the Ever-young. WB Yeats visited it many times in his immortal poetry, as in ‘Sailing to Byzantium’:

That is no country for old men. The young

In one another’s arms, birds in the trees

Those dying generations – at their song,

The salmon falls, the mackerel-crowded seas,

Fish, flesh, or fowl, commend all summer long

Whatever is begotten, born and dies.

The American novelist Cormac Mccarthy probably had that last line more in his head when he wrote the novel that was turned into the Oscar-winning Coen Brothers’ film, No Country for Old Men (USA, 2007) – a paradigm away from the fey afterlife depicted in Irish myth, although the state of California seems to do its best at being a modern analogue for Tir nan Og, with its Tinsel-town fairy glamour and cult of the young and beautiful, in reality ‘youth without youth’ – perpetuated by plastic surgery ad nauseam. In science fiction, the tropes of myth, legend and fantasy have been transplanted into future utopias. In the Seventies’ Sci-Fi film Logan’s Run there is no old age – because everyone is culled when they turn thirty. This is akin to the cult of dead celebrities – of film stars (James Dean and Marilyn Monroe) and pop stars (Buddy Holly; Richie Valance; the ’27 Club’ of Hendrix, Joplin, Morrison, Cobain, Curtis, Hutchence, etc) forever young, forever beautiful.

In the ‘grey havens’ of the ageing West, where people are living longer, it seems few allow themselves to grow old gracefully – no one is willing to open the ‘strong door’ to let in reality, as in the tale from The Mabinogion. Bran’s company – the classic seven survivors – spend eighty years on a timeless island called Gwales, off the coast of south Wales (possibly Grassholm) in the enchanting presence of their decapitated leader, whose severed head – like Orpheus’s – began to sing. His potent presence dilated time – a cryogenic Face of Bo with the charisma of Captain Jack Harkness and John Barrowman’s vocal talents!

In the Celtic Tradition the Otherworld overlaps with our own and can be accessed via a spring, a grove, a cave, at dawn, twilight, at the cross-quarters (‘The Immortal Hour is always now’ Kathleen Raine). Tir nan Og can be visited through certain lakes, e.g. Lough Corrib, Lough Gur and Lough Neagh. Both Oisín and the warrior O’Donoghue entered Tir nan Og, according to some traditions, through the waters of Lake Killarney…Indeed, almost any body of water could serve this purpose, as it acts as a mirror for the subconscious and soporific effects extends brainwaves from Alpha to Theta, allowing greater synaptic leaps and more lateral connections.

Music and song can create this effect too – in another Irish legend, ‘Midhir’s Invitation to the Earthly Paradise’ is not only a classic description of the Ever-living Lands (‘‘the young do not die there before the old.’) it provides a sonic portal, altering the consciousness of the listener.

Timelessness and its unfortunate consequence, time displacement, are common traits of the Ever-living Lands – a day in Otherworld becomes a year here, or vice versa. The most haunting example of this Oisín’s three hundred year ‘honeymoon’ on Tir nan Og with Niamh of the Golden Hair.

Other Celtic heroes spend time enchanted in the form of animals – hawks, boars, stags, wolves, birds, even insects – their human selves in a kind of chronological stasis, surviving for sometimes millennia until finally released, fully cognisant of their time in animal form but physically unaged. The anamorphic poetry of Amergin and Taliesin (‘I am stag of the seven tines…’ etc) is possibly an example of druidic metempsychosis – the transmigration of the soul into different life-forms: reincarnational evolution and past life memory. The dream of other lives the awakened human soul remembers.

Sleeping by a fairy mound or tree is always a risky gambit – as Rip Van Winkle discovered. And stepping into a fairy ring can be even deadlier – seventeenth century Scottish minister, Robert Kirk, did just that and reputedly vanished from God’s Earth – leaving behind his ‘rough guide’ to Faerie: The Secret Commonwealth of Elves, Fauns and Fairies, a MS of which can still be viewed in the National Library of Scotland.

Bardsey Island boasts ‘the time-eating goblins of Ynys Enlli’, at least the ferry over does on its behalf. The medieval monks spin-doctors claimed there is no death there, and ‘no one dies except of extreme old age’ – the rhetoric of a medieval version of a holiday brochure, a health farm for the soul?

Yet the monks of Mount Athos, belonging to a community of Greek Orthodox monks, are said to be the world’s healthiest people. The great and the good have gone there to be purged of the ills of Western civilisation.

Giraldus Cambrensis talks of Insula Viventum, an island whose inhabitants knew no death, reputedly ‘Inish na mBeo’, the ‘Isle of the Living’, in Lough Cre, east of Roscrea, County Tipperary.

In his novel Spiritwalk, (1992) Charles de Lint has a Djibwe elder, a First Nations tribe medicine man mention Epangishimuk: ‘the spirit land in the west where Nambush ruled and the spirits travelled after death’, (Spiritwalk, p120). The Path of Souls that spirits of the dead travel to reach the west is called ‘meekunnaug’. (ibid p144)

In the Finnish epic the Kalevala, the heroes LemminKainen and Ilmarinen makes various sorties into an otherworldly realm called ‘Pohjola’, that is The North Country, defined as ‘A dark and dismal country to the north of Kalevala, sometimes identified with Lapland itself.’ There the inhabitants lived free from care because they posses the Sampo, a magic corn, salt and coin-mill; the Scandinavian equivalent of the ‘land of milk and honey’.

Dunbavin, in his book Atlantis of the West suggests: ‘the Elysian Fields may indeed be held to be the ultimate source of the Atlantis myth’, (p282-3) albeit in a circuitous way, as he tries to prove they are in the Irish Sea.

In The Odyssey, that ultimate quest back home, to Ithaka (which to the hero, becomes a kind of paradise) blind Homer describes the Elysian Fields:

The Deathless Ones will waft you instead to the world’s end, the Elysian Fields, where yellow-haired Rhadamanthus is. There indeed men live unlaborious days. Snow and tempest and thunderstorms never enter there, but for men’s refreshments Ocean sends out continually the high-singing breezes of the west.

The Odyssey, Homer, IV, 549-643

Tied in with these geographical ‘lost’ islands in history, folklore, folk tales, place memory and genius loci – what currently is called psychogeography. These are more than rocks in the sea – they carry ‘freight’, the weight of our expectations, projections and participation with them over the years.

Celtic tradition and beliefs are expressed spiritually through the land: the landscape is filled with places where spirit is present. Every time we experience it, this presence encourages us to make an imaginative act that personifies the place to us. Then we perceive its qualities personally. This is the anima loci, the place-soul. When this is acknowledged and honoured, ensouled sacred places come into being.’ Pennick, Celtic Sacred Landscape, p13

It is no coincidence that a plethora of sacred islands can be found like rosary beads around the shores of the British Isles – not only did the Celts migrate West via the water, but the monks and hermits would ‘island hop’ in the hope of more remoteness more solitude, so they could be closer to God (after the Synod of Whitby in 600 AD Celtic monks headed west to slip the yoke of Rome). These are ‘thin places’, as Ynys Enlli, Bardsey Island, is known as:

the membrane between Heaven and Earth seems to be less dense…nothing comes between: there is total transparency’

Quote from Ty Carreg visitors information, Bardsey Island.

One could say the same for any liminal place: spring, pool, cave, hill, mountain, wood, stream, bridge (e.g. Fairy Bridge, Isle of Mann). To the Celtic peoples all of these would have been places where the ‘veil was thin’ – and at certain times of year, even more so, e.g. Beltane, Samhain – the beginning and end of summer, respectively, when the Good Folk, the Sidhe, where abroad. Yet islands are especially sacred:

According to traditional thinking islands are inherently sacred, being places cut off by water from unwanted physical and psychic influences.’ Pennick (ibid, p105)

They offer a refugium – a place cut-off from the world where it is perhaps possible to survive hazardous times. These ‘arks’ are often more vulnerable than they wish – for no man is an island. Every Shangri-La is destined to be discovered, desecrated, lost.

Pennick continues:

Sacred places come into being when humans recognise and acknowledge them. They are ensouled locations where we can experience elevated consciousness, receive religious inspiration and accept healing.’ ibid, p14

Bob Trubshaw echoes this when he says: ‘the significance of a place has less to do with the physical landscape than with the meanings we give to the location.’ (Sacred Places, p3)

When people perform acts at a place that are in harmony with its inner qualities’, Pennick suggests, ‘then these qualities are enhanced and increased.’ This is what he calls Spiritual Gardening, akin to the work of the geomancer, who enhances the feng shui of a place – the flow of the earth dragon – through placing of objects, running water, etc.

In Iceland these ‘dragons’ are called landvaettir – landwights or earth spirits ‘where certain areas and landholdings were kept sacred’.

Mag Mell, ‘plain of joy’ is another Elysium…It is dealt with extensively in Maculloch’s article in The Druid’s Voice. We will instead venture further North.

Thule

It is easy to see why a dramatic country on the edge of the Arctic Circle is known as the land of ice and fire: Iceland. There is a strong Icelandic storytelling tradition, no doubt born out of the very long dark nights. Its corpus of legends and folktales – imported mainly from Scandinavia when it was settled a thousand years ago – have been enhanced by the dramatic landscape. Iceland is associated with the legendary island of Thule (pronounced Thoolay) and seems to fit later descriptions of it. Ancient European descriptions and maps located it either in the far north, often northern Great Britain, possibly the Orkneys or Shetland Islands, or Scandinavia, but by the Late Middle Ages and Renaissance Thule had drifted further out, into the west and north, often Iceland or Greenland – perhaps as a result of the pushing back of the boundaries of the known world. Ultima Thule, as it was also known in medieval geographies seems to denote any distant place located beyond the “borders of the known world.” Some people use Ultima Thule as the Latin name for Greenland when Thule is used for Iceland. Iceland certainly is on the borders of known world – of both the American and Eurasian plates. It is one of the two places on Earth where it is possible to see this pulling apart of continent, and its ancient parliament, the Alþingi (All-Thing, as in the Manx Tynwald, Thing-Vollr: field of the parliament, with its own equivalent of Tynwald Hill, Law Rock) was held here, dramatically situated in its cleft like something out of Middle Earth. Here democracy was forged, but the justice it meted out was a keen-edged sword. Nearby is the ‘island of duels’, an island of sand formed in a manmade lake, created by a diverted river. Two men in dispute would go to it, only one could return – and the matter was settled. The trial-by-combat was viewed by judges, and not a few spectators one imagines! Holmganga is the Norse word for formalised single combat, meaning literally ‘going on an island’.

Fortunate Isles 
In the Fortunate Isles, also called the Isles (or Islands) of the Blessed (μακαρων νησοι makarôn nêsoi), heroes and other favored mortals in Greek mythology and Celtic mythology were received by the gods into a blissful paradise. These islands were thought to lie in the Western Ocean near the encircling River Oceanus; the Madeira and the Canary Islands have sometimes been cited as possible matches. Flavius Philostratus, in his Life of Apollonius of Tyana (book v.2) discussing these elusive islands, postulates:
the Islands of the Blessed are to be fixed by the limits of Libya where they rise towards the uninhabited promontory.’

The last phrase is a telling one – almost any ‘uninhabited promontory’ becomes susceptible to such speculative geography. Nature is not the only thing that abhors a vacuum. Mankind as populated the edges of the known with his imagination since the dawn of time.

Hyperborea

In ancient times Great Britain was famed as the island of the druid colleges, where trainee druids would come for instruction. Blake said:

All things begin and end on Albion’s ancient druid rocky shore.

Hyperborea, the Land Beyond the North Wind, is thought to refer to Britain: this is how it seemed to the Greeks – the back of beyond, dark, damp and primitive, the Antipodes of their zenith civilisation (from their perspective – that’s not to say there wasn’t civilisation below their radar in backwater Britain).

The earliest reference to the British Isles is as the ‘Tin Islands’ (Cassiterides, or Oestrymnides):

But from here it is two days journey by ship to the sacred island, as the ancients called it. This spreads its broad fields amongst the waves and far and wide the race of the Hierni inhabit it. Near it again lies the island of the Albiones

Massilote Periplus, c500 BCE

The ‘Hierni’ could well be the Hibernians, another name for the Irish, and the ‘island of the Albiones’ must surely be mainland Britain: Albion, inhabited by ‘the white ones’ – Caucasians. In my novel Windsmith, (awen 2006). I call these topographical ancestors The Chalk Folk. It is perhaps not surprising that ancient seafarers, presented with the white cliffs of Dover, called Britain the White Isle, however colourful its inhabitants – a home of migrant populations.

The classical myth is that Albion was a land formerly occupied by giants – cousins of the Tuatha de Danaan, the Irish aboriginal aristocracy diminised to ‘Little People’. These had conveniently vanished, justifying colonisation, although they had left their legacy in enigmatic stone temples.

Geoffrey of Monmouth compounded this creation myth in his History of the Kings of Britain, claiming Brutus, grandson of Aeneas, reached Britain, landing at Totnes in Devon, and dividing the land between his sons, Locrine, Camber and Alba (Logres; Cambria and Albion). This is a dindsenchas, a place-story, on a national scale.

It was thought by the Ancient Greeks that the god Apollo visited Hyperborea once in a course of nineteen years, a cycle known as the Great Year (‘in which period the stars complete their revolutions’ Hecateus). The ‘Temple of Apollo’ often alluded to could have been a reference to that great stone calendar Stonehenge. Britain was clearly a place was time itself was trapped in stone – as the myth that Cronus himself was chained beneath Hyperborea’s soil. Plutarch, in ‘The Decline of the Oracles’ recounts ‘the travels of Demetrius of Tarsus, an explorer sent out from Rome to survey the islands to the West of Britain. Demetrius describes a number of islands scattered in the sea. He met a few holy men who told him of a nearby isle where Cronus lay eternally imprisoned, watched over as he slept by the hundred-handed Briareus. Around about him were many daemons who acted as his servants.’

In Pindar’s Odes, we hear of such a place, guarded by fierce elementals:

Go by God’s road to the Tower of Cronus

Where the Airs, daughters of Ocean

Blow round the Island of the Blest

Pythean Odes, X, II

Long have wild seas and high winds kept all but the intrepid away from Britain’s coast, perhaps adding to its mystique. There is a Breton tradition that fishermen would ‘drop off’ the deceased on these haunted shores and it said they hear their names being called out. Author Robert Holdstock’s Merlin Codex depicts Britain as the Ghost Isle:

We were content on our island, the Island at the Edge of Dawn. Good plains for the wild hunt; good forests for the tangled hunt. Good valleys and hills. Good water. Groves where the vision of magic was comforting and sometimes enthralling.

Holdstock, The Broken Kings, p44

Islands in the Time-stream

Forbidden islands are common and the unwary traveller breaks the taboos of an otherworldly island at their peril. The immrama of the Celitc saints describe an archipelago of such Edenic places, each with their forbidden fruits – perhaps fantasized by ascetic monks, deprived of such pleasures. Ile de Sein, in the Atlantic off Cap-Sizun, ‘was once reputed to support a retinue of nine priestesses.’ This seems a common trope: the Cauldron of Plenty, held in Annwn, was ‘warmed by the breath of nine muses. This was held on Caer Wydyr (possibly Ynys Witryn) – the water-girdled fortress of crystal where nine maidens dwelt in an otherworldly place of seer-ship, itself echoing Merlin’s tower of seventy-seven windows, built for him by his sister, Ganeida – said to be located on Bardsey, with its square lighthouse, or more likely to be a kind of TARDIS, tucked into unlikely places, while the Arthurian timelord, ageing in reverse, tinkers with time.

My Mythic Reality novel The Well Under the Sea (RJ Stewart, 2009) is set on an island at the crossroads of time called Ashalantë, an amalgamation of the legends of Atlantis, Ys and Cantre’r Gwaelod. It is governed by The Nine, based upon the nine priestesses of Avalon, and contains all the classic elements of a paradisal island – orchards, fair weather, deathlessness, beautiful women, legendary heroes… At its heart is a well (based upon the mythical Well of Segais in terms of imagery, if not function) where its inhabitants, when bored of their life of Elysium can return to Earth – stripped of their ‘bodies’ and returned to their primal essence, to be reborn again.

The End Of All Our Exploring

As Oisín finds, however pleasant paradise – in his case, Tir nan Og – there’s no place like home. And this becomes literally true for him – he returns to find three hundred years have passed and all those he once loved and knew turned to dust. The centuries catch up with him in a flash when he accidentally touches the ground, and he finds himself an old, old man – a man out of his time, a lost hero from another era, a ghost in his own land. His home is ‘no place’ – utopia – and perhaps that is the nature of all such places, a state of mind, always elsewhere, always unattainable. They slip out of our grasp as we reach them, or, if we hold onto them we pay a price, as one of Maeldun’s men found on their immram – each time they tried to leave the Isle of Women, its queen would cast out a sticky thread to haul them back, until finally the man cut off his hand and they passed on.

Setting out for these places is not as difficult as returning – the perilous Road Home on the Hero’s Journey – to return with something tangible is not easy (as the Babylonian king Gilgamesh found – having quested for the flower of life, he falls asleep on the way back, exhausted by his ordeal, and a snake eats it). Perhaps the best we hope for is to accept their temptation, their transience, learn from them and let them go… Blake said ‘he who kisses a joy as it flies, lives in eternity’s sunrise’.

It is part of the pleasure of our immram that we perceive our own lands with a fresh perspective – strangers in an estranged land, the native returning from a long voyage of many years. In Four Quartets, TS Eliot says:

We shall not cease from exploration

And the end of all our exploring

Will be to arrive where we started

And know the place for the first time.

Little Gidding’ (239-242)

***

Expanded extract from Lost Islands: inventing Avalon, destroying Eden by Kevan Manwaring, published by Heart of Ablion Press, 2008 (www.hoap.co.uk)

References:

Anon, Kalevala, Athlone Press, 1985

Eliot, TS, The Four Quartets, Faber & Faber, 1943

Haeberlin, Herman K., ‘Trails to the Ghost Lands’, Sacred Hoop #57, 2007

Holdstock,Robert, The Broken Kings, Gollancz, 2007

Macculloch, JA, ‘The Celtic Elysium’, The Druid’s Voice, #18, 2008

Pemberton, Cintra, Soulfaring: Celtic Pilgrimage, Then and Now, SPCK 1999

Pennick, Nigel, Celtic Sacred Landscapes, Thames & Hudson, 1996

Trubshaw, Bob, Sacred Places: prehistory and popular imagination, Heart of Albion Press, 2005

Kevan Manwaring is a writer and storyteller who lives in Stroud. He is the author of over a dozen titles including Lost Islands, The Bardic Handbook, The Way of Awen, Turning the Wheel and The Windsmith Elegy.

Author website: http://www.kevanmanwaring.co.uk