Tag Archives: The Secret Commonwealth

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/

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The Curious Journal of Robert Kirk

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

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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.

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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…

 

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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