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