Saturday, June 14, 2014

Hammers & Drill Bits: Life Lessons from My Daddy

C. Richard Jacob, my Daddy

Yesterday, our cousin Mary Elizabeth Yankosek-Gamble asked on Facebook, “What one thing did your father teach you?” At first I thought, “Impossible to say just one!” But the more I remembered about my dad, C. Richard Jacob, one memory especially came to mind that in many ways sums him up:
Prehistoric tools.

No, really!

One rainy Saturday in 1958 or 1959, when I was 9 or 10, I went down to the cellar of our half-a-double-house on Washington Street in Hackettstown, NJ in answer to his call. “What is it, Daddy?”

“How'd you like to help me with a project?” he asked.

I loved helping! “Are we cleaning out the gutters?” I asked hopefully. That was the only thing, besides mowing the lawn, in the way of household chores that he would not allow his daughter to do.  I thought it’d be fun to climb up a long ladder and hand him things. He worried that I might fall and get hurt; besides, in his opinion, it wasn't a woman's chore. “I mean, when it stops raining?” I added hastily before he could chide me for being silly.

“No, this'll be more fun,” he said. “Climb up there and I’ll tell you.”

Dad's was handmade, with a slat-back,
& paint-splattered light green
Fun was even better! I perched on the old paint-spattered green step-stool that usually sat at the end of his metal workbench, and he picked up a copy of National Geographic magazine. “There’s an article in here about some primitive men who vanished from the Hudson Bay area in Canada thousands of years ago,” he told me.

“Are we going to solve a mystery?” I asked eagerly. “But how could they write about men who disappeared if they aren’t there anymore?”

“Archeologists,” he began, patiently spelling it out for me, “dig where they think old settlements were, because over the centuries, sometimes they’re covered up by dirt or rocks that fall down or some other natural occurrence, like the jungle choking Manchu Picchu in the book your mother has—“

“Or Pompei and the volcano?”

“Right. Or the Pueblo houses out West, where the people left and their old homes were forgotten because they were so remote.”

“Are arch-e-olo-gists related to arch-i-tects?” I asked, because my mother loved reading books on different architectural styles, and the similar first syllable of the two words interested me.

“Well, architects design houses, and archeologists study very old ones,” he said. “Anyway, this article was about how they’re studying the things they found at that site, including tools. And you know what? It occurred to me that there was probably a father who needed to use tools to make things.”

“Did he have a little girl who helped him?” I asked.

“Probably. But he wouldn’t be able to go up to Western Auto to get tools; he’d have to make them. So I thought it might be fun to try making some tools like his. What do you think he would’ve had?”

I turned to look at the pegboard over the workbench, where he had his tools hung up, each one in its place, too high for me to reach easily, above empty glass peanut butter jars, the lids nailed to a board on the bottom so that he could screw the jars on or off to get just the right sized nail or screw for whatever he was making.

 “A hammer?” I suggested.

“What could you use for a hammer?”

“A big rock,” I said.

“Put on my shop apron,” he directed, tying the canvas one around me; it came down to my ankles, even when he knotted up the bib tie that went around the neck. He had a big piece of canvas tied around himself, and we were both wearing our glasses. “Let’s go outside,” he said, and I followed him past the furnace and the oil tank, to the narrow tunnel-like part that led to the steps up to the slanted doors he heaved open into the drizzle. In the garage, Daddy had a box of rocks and pieces of wood for us to go through. I knelt down as he squatted. “Now, see, there’s this kind of stone. It’s called slate,” as he held up a thin, flattish dark grey piece.

“Like the sidewalks up the street,” I said. At the time, our hometown still had many sidewalks paved with slate slabs instead of concrete, and I loved hopping from one piece to another on some of the oldest ones. Gramma had taught me counting on the abacus fastened to her old school slate in its wooden frame; for the first time, I realized it got its name from that kind of stone in its wooden frame. Blackboards were slate; why weren’t they called that, I wondered?

“In some places, they make tiles from them to use on roofs,” he told me. “Your great-grandpa Jones’ family on your mother’s side  may have mined slate in Wales, long ago. It fractures in layers, so it wouldn’t be a very good hammer, but we can try it. And this is a piece of granite, and here’s a piece of quartz, and….” In the end, he chose several, and a big thick piece of wood. Over the next hour we experimented with using each one to hammer big nails into the wood; he used the claw end of his hammer to get them out and reuse them later. Daddy was thrifty. 

Dad was right; the slate didn't work well at all. The granite was the hardest stone, but so jagged and (for me) heavy, it was hard to hold. There was a sedimentary stone rounded from a river, but it was hard to hold too, without hitting your fingers on the wood as you pounded; I could see why men had devised a handle for it although I didn’t understand Daddy’s explanation of increased impact. In the end, he chose a large round one and I chose a smaller, more oval one. They would be the heads of the hammers we’d make. Then Mother called us to lunch, so we set them aside.

The next week, we put on our aprons and glasses again down at the workbench. Daddy had a box filled with branches that a friend had given him, and we chose one that was about three feet long, and one that was about two feet. 

Using his penknife, Dad carefully split the longer stick at one end for several inches, and spread the two halves apart so I could slip his stone in between them. He had measured off several feet of the hairy yellow twine he used on packages, and told me to make a slipknot around the stick right under the stone. I did, and he showed me how to lash the stone to the stick, above and below, until the rope was tightly holding the stone inside the cleft stick. But instead of fastening the end of it, he unwound it!
Naturally, I asked him why.

Dad's hammer had a bigger head
& the wooden ends were higher
“Because we’re making prehistoric tools,” he reminded me. “They wouldn’t have had this kind of twine. They would’ve used strips of rawhide, or cord they made themselves.” Unable to find a source for enough bark right then to make his own for this project, he’d bought some rawhide from Lackawanna Leather out on Grand Avenue, and had it soaking in a metal pail of water. We used that instead of the twine, lashing it the same way. “Do you know why I made it wet?” he asked.

“Oh, sure,” I said. “Jeff let me read his new book about Maverick. The bad guys had Bret tied up with a rawhide noose around his neck, and the rawhide was wet; he knew he had to escape before it dried in the sun ‘cause it’d shrink and strangle him. He managed to, just in time!”

“I’ll have to see if I can borrow that,” Daddy said. He and Jeff both adored TV Westerns, which is why I have almost sixty of their theme songs in my music memory…and Maverick was my brother’s favorite.

For my hammer, Daddy pointed out that the stone had a sort of hollow on one side, just right for the top of the stick that would become the handle to fit into, and we lashed them together with the rawhide too. I hadn’t learned “If I Had a Hammer” yet, but I did sing “The Ballad of John Henry,” as we worked, and Daddy told me about different kinds of hammers. He said that John Henry had had a sort of sledge hammer, like what roustabouts used to put up the bigtops in Dumbo and Circus Boy.  Dad had a ball-peen hammer and a claw hammer, plus the two we had just made ourselves.

Later we’d move on to devising a saw (he experimented with various kinds of teeth and methods of setting them); one, made from antler and chips of igneus stone, was unbelievably sharp. Other tools included several awls; handmade twine (both plaited and twisted); a fire-starter set; knives; and drills. I vividly recall our experiments to find what substance made the best or worst drill bits: best was quartz; worst was deer antler. After reading about Herodotus’ list of six simple machines, Dad also painstakingly made a pulley and a winch, and created scale models of inclined planes.

It’s a family joke that my father was a lousy teacher, because he was so impatient and not very clear in his instructions. As Jeff wryly remarked, if you were slow to catch on to riding a two-wheel bike or mastering a stick shift, Dad would quickly lose his patience and temper, convinced that you were deliberately pretending to be dense.  

But with the prehistoric tools, it was different. This was an interest he managed to share with me that embodied a curiosity about the past, a respect for craftsmen (even if they hadn't had modern materials—cultural snobbery had no part in his worldview), a willingness to experiment with various combinations of materials, and attention to accuracy. He greatly admired inventors like Edison and Thomas Jefferson; as an amateur chemist for Cleveland Laboratories and Acme Chemicals, Daddy had refined problem-solving skills he’d begun to master as a Boy Scout learning to camp and become self-sufficient in the outdoors. So I learned to see possibilities in natural materials, as well as persevering and that it was okay to make mistakes, and to explore my own questions and interests, even if nobody else was curious about the same things I was.
Not bad lessons to learn, applicable to other situations as well. Thank you, Daddy! I miss you every day, not just on Father's Day!


  1. I think the article that sparked this project was Vanished Mystery Men of Hudson Bay: An Expedition Co-sponsored by the National Geographic Society Unearths Moldering Bones & Tools That Link Stone Age Eskimos to a European Culture of 8,000 Years Ago, by Henry B. Collins, photographed by Eugene Ostroff, book abstract in National Geographic Magazine, November, 1956.
  2. I don't recall the title of that Maverick novel, aimed at kids, but think it may have been published by a company specializing in similar ones about TV show characters. I remember ones about the Lennon Sisters and Annette, and I think one about Cheyenne Bodie. 

Wednesday, April 30, 2014

How Do You Spell Z Words with No Z(ed)?

#26 in the April 2014 A to Z Blog Challenge.

I’ve been dreading today. I've enjoyed and learned a lot from this blog challenge, my first. It's been an interesting journey. Thanks for talking me into trying it, Csenge!

OTOH, it will be something of a relief to have this blog challenge over—but I was determined to finish, even though I’ve missed three days along the way (but never more than one at a time, although a few were posted kind of late in the evening!). This past Saturday I got derailed by a virus/back muscle spasms, again, which carried over into Sunday and  Monday, and yesterday's was late because of a plumbing problem in my bathroom.

The good news is that Steve from Stahl’s sorted out the plumbing in half an hour after he got here, bless him, giving me lots of good information for when we remodel the bathrooms in a few years. It helps to have a born teacher working on pipes…. and I’m feeling better, with practically no pain!

But what was I going to do for Z when there is no z (or zed) in the Scottish Gaelic alphabet?

Answer: See what gets used in its place for a few words! 

Can you guess what “z” words I’ve used in this paragraph?:

In my dealachan to embrace the spring, I crossed a fiaragan to get to the gàradh bheathaichean. I was glad I’d worn my jacket with the siop, because the breeze was cool. One of the ainmh-eòlaichean directed me to the African ranntair. When I claon-ruathar in on a siobra, I feel as if I really am “in the ranntair!”

Scroll down:

A bit more:

Almost there:

In my zeal to embrace the spring, I crossed a zebra [US—pedestrian] crossing to get to the zoo.
I was glad I’d worn my jacket with the zip, because the breeze was cool. One of the zookeepers directed me to the African zone. When I zoom in on a zebra, I feel as if I really am “in the zone!”

How many Zs did you get?

Medieval Z Is for Zebra

Tapaidh sibh—thank you—for reading!

Monday, April 28, 2014

Canny Inventions

The other day, flipping channels, I saw part of an episode of Star Trek, the original series, with Scottie the chief engineer. It reminded me that I once saw an interview with James Doonan, in which I found out that he was renowned in Hollywood as a dialect coach. The interviewer asked, “So the engineer could’ve had a different accent?”

The actor replied, “Well, if he’d been asked by Kirk when the engines would be fixed, it wouldn’t be quite the same if he’d said, Si, Capitan, maňana, for example, would it?” and went on to remark that after all the Scots were famous for their engineers.

Bingo, one blog subject: Scottish inventions! 

You probably already know that Alexander Fleming discovered penicillin, but do you know who invented British flush toilets, and when? Sir James Harington in 1596, built one for his godmother, Queen Elizabeth I in her Richmond palace, after publishing a treatise Discourse of a Stale Subject, Called the Metamorphosis of Ajax, his name for his “wash-down closet.” She didn’t like it because it was too noisy. Under the name Angrez, it was more popular in France.

Scots have made contributions in so many fields that I couldn’t possibly list them all! But I thought I’d look at some inventions from Scotland that have influenced everyday life near or around  the modern household :

For example, after the terrible winter we’ve had, the streets of my city are filled with even more potholes than usual, and our new mayor, Bill Peduto, has been urging road crews to fix many of them as soon as possible. If not for John Loudon McAdam’s invention of the road substance named for him around 1816, our roads would be much worse!
Dr. William Cullin

Want a cold drink? A key figure in the 18th Century Scottish Enlightenment was William Cullin, physician, influential teacher, agriculturalist and chemist, who performed the first known demonstration of artificial refrigeration in 1748.

Sickles are back-breaking!
Whether or not you use a gas mower or a riding mower to mow your lawn, you can thank Alexander Spanks for his first patent for one in 1842, instead of bending over using a sickle or scythe (or importing a flock of geese or sheep to do it and fertilize your lawn at the same time….

If you want to watch television, you can thank John Logie Baird for inventing the first television, the first color television, and the first color television tube. 

A.G. Bell & Early Telephone 
Use your phone for a lot more than just calling someone? It was Scottish inventor and teacher of the deaf, Alexander Graham Bell, who invented the basic phone—and if you enjoy taking pictures with it, think of James Clerk Maxwell, a physicist whose work in electromagnetic and optics in the 19th Century led to the first color photograph .

As a writer and storyteller, I must point out some famous Scottish authors have contributed their imagined secondary worlds to enrich our own interior landscapes with characters like Peter Pan (Sir Jame M. Barrie); Sherlock Holmes (Sir Arthur Conan Doyle); and others like Long John Silver, and Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, just a few of the fictional characters of Robert Louis Stevenson.  RLS is one of the three greatest Scottish authors, the others being Sir Walter Scott and Robert Burns. But that’s at least three other blog posts!

Long John Silver

It’s fascinating to learn about inventive contributions from any cultural background!

Saturday, April 26, 2014

Celtic Interlace

#23 in the April 2014 A to Z Blog Challenge

Um, in case you were looking for it, no blog for yesterday—writer’s block reared its ugly head. Sorry!

This morning we received a package from Earth Song Tiles containing the very last tile for our kitchen, and I can hardly wait for the Tuesday after Memorial Day when Mike Roznowski of MJR Tile & Marble starts installing them. 

The claddagh is the one we got today. That’s an Irish design, but still Celtic. It was on the engagement/wedding ring John gave me on Palm Sunday, almost 26 years ago, and naturally has significance for us. It is named for the village of Claddagh in Galway, and although the rings have been made continuously in that province since 1700, they were only known by that name since about 1840. The hands represent friendship, the heart love, and the crown loyalty.

Step Detail from
Lindisfarne Gospels

The question occurred to me: what is Celtic knot or interlace design?  These were used in other parts of Europe, but have come to have cultural associations with Scotland, Ireland and Wales. Spiral, step and key patterns were dominant in pre-Christian Celtic Britain, but after 450 CE, they were often combined with plant and animal motifs.
For the next 200 years, they’d be used in what were called plaits, like intricate woven cords. Folklore says that different patterns had different symbolic meaning—but there’s no hard evidence to back that up.
Almost any interlace can be said to represent spiritual and physical patterns crossing and recrossing in our lives. Any knot can be an eternity or lover’s knot.

Celtic crosses with their distinctive “halo” may have links to pagan sun symbols. Some say the spiral is the next most frequently used pattern, drawn from nature (snail shells, whirlpools, etc.). 

On the one hand, art historians are interested in the ancient traditional applications; present-day Celtic artists want to apply them in new, creative ways. 

Whether in jewelry, stone, book design, hairdos,or any other medium, may your creativity find intricate and new pathways!

Thursday, April 24, 2014

Queen Margaret & the Patron Saint of Scotland

#20 in the April 2014 A to Z Blog Challenge

I know, I know, there’s no q in the Scottish Gaelic alphabet I’ve been using (which I finished, since it has 18 letters, not 26), but I’m filling in with a few other things for the rest of this month.

When you read the history of another country, very often there isn’t much detail about other members of royal families.
The sainted Queen Margaret, “Pearl of Scotland,” was in fact a member of the Anglo-Saxon House of Essex, one of Edgar Ætheling’s two sisters; after King Harold Godwinson was killed at the Battle of Hastings by the forces of William of Normandy in October, 1066, Edgar was proclaimed king but never crowned. A few months later, the family fled north and they took refuge at the court of the widowed King Malcolm Canmore III of Scotland. By 1070, she had married him, and they would have eight children besides the two sons from his first marriage. Her brother would spend the rest of his life in revolts, battles and mediations between the Scots and the Normans; her sister Cristina would become a nun at Romsey, England.

Dunfermline Abbey's Medieval Nave
Margaret was learned and pious, renowned for the two ferries she established for pilgrims, the abbey she founded at Dunfermline, her personal acts of piety, and her efforts to reform the Church of Scotland in accordance with Rome, the reasons why she was canonized by the Pope in 1250; her feast day is celebrated on either June 10th or November 16th.

Why am I writing about her? Because I can’t think of her without feeling irritated! She was a proponent of St. Andrew the Apostle being made the patron saint of Scotland, instead of St. Colmcille [pronounced kolm-kihl] or Columba—and I firmly believe that Colmcille should have that title.

Martyrdom of
Andrew the Apostle
Granted, both saints were holy men, and neither was born in Scotland. Andrew won because he “outranked” Columba. But really, as patron saint of several countries, surely he had enough to do without worrying about Scotland! Some of his relics (a kneecap, an upper arm bone, three fingers and a tooth) were taken from the East by St. Rule, who’d had a dream that he should take these hidden relics to the ends of the earth for protection; wherever he was shipwrecked was where they were meant to be. That turned out to be St. Andrew’s in Scotland, now much better known for the famous golf course.

St. Colmcille
Colmcille, born an Irish prince, a bard-turned-monk, left Ireland vowing not return until he had won as many souls as had died or been maimed during the “battle of the book” in 561. He traveled to Scotland, and after several adventures, was given the isle of Iona, where he built a monastery still famous as the site of a spiritual community today.

At least he actually set foot in Scotland and lived there before he died!

Wednesday, April 23, 2014

Kelp & Clearances

#19 in the April 2014 Blog Challenge.

Kelp Diagram
There are 18 letters in the Scottish Gaelic alphabet I’ve been using….so clearly, I came to the end of it yesterday!

So now what?

We-ell, I decided at the outset that I’d spend the remaining eight blogs writing about a) the accented vowels; b) English letters that I have subjects for that aren’t part of the Scottish Gaelic alphabet, and/or c) something else. After all, I’ve never done this  before, so wasn’t sure how it’d work out.

About 3 am this morning, I woke up and thought, “Kelp!” and I can’t think of Kelp without thinking of the Clearances, so….that’s today’s topic.

Undersea Kelp Forest
Kelp is a seaweed that can grow up to 150 ft. high in “kelp forests.” Medicinal uses of kelp include treating  thyroid, hair and skin diseases, and arthritis.  From the 15th to the 19th Centuries, a process of extracting soda ash from it by burning the harvested fronds with heather was a major source of income throughout the Highlands and Islands of Scotland. Soda ash, or sodium carbonite, defined the world chemistry industry with applications in glass- and soapmaking, bleaching fabric and paper and in making fertilizer. This extractive process was invented by Andrew Leblanc, and it was later superseded by a cheaper process invented by Ernest Solway in 1861.

Everyone Helped with the Kelp
Highland and Island crofters, unable to completely sustain their families on the small tenant farms or crofts, were also fishermen, gathering and burning tons of kept to yield the valuable ash, which was marketed by the landlord/lairds’ factors or business agents.

There are many aspects in what caused the Clearances. One was political; unsuccessful rebellions in 1715 and 1745 against the English resulted in laws to dismantle the clan system—no large gatherings, no wearing of tartans, no wearing the great kilt, no speaking Scots Gaelic, no playing the clarsach or harp, among others. The clan chiefs, those who did not escape to France or were executed, had to pay heavy fines and/or had lands confiscated, were forced to swear allegiance to the English Crown, and spend more time at Court. They found themselves converting to the State’s Anglican church, while their Highland clansmen remained Catholic; speaking English, and sending their sons to English schools. Spending less time in the Highlands, they were less close to and cared less about their people, some becoming absentee landlords.

Economics were changing. Most of the arable lands of Scotland were in the largely Protestant Lowlands, and the Highland crofters barely supported their families, so could not contribute much in rents to their lairds, who felt the need for more income. This worsened for over a hundred years. One possible solution was sheep, because a large flock could be sustained on marginal land, tended by a couple of shepherds and their dogs.

However, grazing sheep, unlike cattle, will pull up plants by the roots, so completely divest an area of fodder, so they need a large area. Crofters did not want their crops eaten, and on the Islands, there was a finite amount of room.

Elizabeth, Countess of Sutherland
Among the most brutal were the very wealthy Countess and Duke of Sutherland. One of their original ideas, around the beginning of the 19th Century, was to move the inland crofters to the coast and have them become fishermen. It was said that the women were tethering their livestock and children so they wouldn’t be blown over the cliffs by the wind in that harsh area. But their second wave of Clearances around 1815 was even more infamous. Donald McLeod was a witness: "The consternation and confusion were extreme. Little or no time was given for the removal of persons or property; the people striving to remove the sick and the helpless before the fire should reach them; next, struggling to save the most valuable of their effects. The cries of the women and children, the roaring of the affrighted cattle, hunted at the same time by the yelling dogs of the shepherds amid the smoke and fire, altogether presented a scene that completely baffles description — it required to be seen to be believed.

“A dense cloud of smoke enveloped the whole country by day, and even extended far out to sea. At night an awfully grand but terrific scene presented itself — all the houses in an extensive district in flames at once. I myself ascended a height about eleven o'clock in the evening, and counted two hundred and fifty blazing houses, many of the owners of which I personally knew, but whose present condition — whether in or out of the flames — I could not tell. The conflagration lasted six days, till the whole of the dwellings were reduced to ashes or smoking ruins. During one of these days a boat actually lost her way in the dense smoke as she approached the shore, but at night was enabled to reach a landing-place by the lurid light of the flames.”

Evicted Family atop Ruined Cottage
In the Outer Hebridean islands of Barra, Benbecula and South Uist, it was even worse. Gangs hired from Lowland cities by the factor came with him, armed and with torches, when he'd call the people of a township together and gave them the news: they were being evicted, and had one hour (if they were lucky) to get what personal items they wanted to take with them. To hurry them up, the torches were thrown into the thatched roofs of cottage and barns; protesters  and livestock were shot. It made no difference what the season or weather was, or if any were sick, old, or a woman in her "crying-time" (childbirth); the factor and his crew were unmoved. The dazed victims were herded through the hills to the nearest port. By the mid-19th Century, Canada was exporting huge cargos of lumber; these lumber ships would be hired cheaply, a couple of decks added, and they'd set across the ocean. You were fortunate if you'd managed to bring a sack of meal with you, for neither food nor fuel was provided. If the weather was bad, the hatches would be battened down for the voyage of two-three months, providing perfect breeding grounds for outbreaks of cholera and typhoid, with no medicine. Many never lived to reach that new land, where they'd be dumped on the quayside to fend for themselves, most with no coin and few tools to make a new life. Is it any wonder the Clearances still generate anger?

The 19th Century's Irish potato blight also had its effect on the Scottish potato crop, and many English believed that the Celts were an inferior race that should be banished if not exterminated completely, while Teutonic races such as the Germans should be encouraged to emigrate to Britain.  Canadian officials dealing with Irish and then Scottish refugees said that the Scots were in worse shape than any they’d ever seen, some with little clothing to stand up in.

Ruined Croft
The tales about the Clearances are hard to hear, but are truly folktales, honed by the folk and their descendents; in one, a sick old woman is dragged out into the snow where she dies, cursing the factor with her last breath; later he dies as a result.

I sometimes tell a fairytale, the only one I’ve ever found about this period, and sing a song I wrote about it, in which a young woman laments:

            O, what is wider than the sky?
            And what is deeper than the sea?
            And what is sharper than any stane?       [stone
            And what burns hotter than a fire?

            O, loss is wider than the sky,
            And pain is deeper than the sea;
            Regret is sharper than any stane,
            And grief’s cauld fire i’ ma banes.        [my bones

            Here at the end of the world,
            I lie and wonder:
            Shall I live—or shall I dee?                   [die
            Ma hame's dsestroyed,
            Ma love lies deid,
            Oor child was stolen,                     [by fairies
           I lost masel’.                                   [mother crazed 
                                                                     with grief
            Life’s a lang road, 
            and a hard road;
            Shall I tread it tae the end?

"The Lass Wha Bargained wi' the Fairy King" is one of the most tragic tales I know, one that needs careful telling, although it ends with a note of hope and finding a new life. It’s the only one I tell in which I give the audience a choice of endings.

In 1979, when I taught high school English, one of my students was very angry with me because the end of The Diary of Anne Frank upset some of her friends. “Why are you making us read this?” she demanded. “It’s not as if it’ll ever happen again!”

What are you thinking right now? About Pol Pot? About the smallpox-infested blankets given by the US Cavalry to some Plains tribes? About the Jews being told to register in the Ukraine, which I recently saw on Facebook?

I hope you share my stubborn belief in a future when we are compassionate  and caring, valuing all humans despite differences, instead of fearing and despising them! 

Clearances Emigrants' Statue


Monday, April 21, 2014

Useful: Urisks & Heather

#18 in the April 2014 A to Z Blog Challenge
U: Ur, Heather in the Scottish Gaelic alphabet.

White Heather
 Heather is one of the most beloved, fabled and useful shrubs in Scotland! Also called fraoch, ling, Scottish heather, and heath, it’s a low evergreen shrub with three varieties growing in poor soil, with white or purple/red flowers in late summer/early autumn. Along with the thistle, it’s the national flower of Scotland, and has been used in many ways for centuries. Grazing deer, sheep, and cattle browse the grey stems; many butterflies, moths and bees love the flowers. Symbolizing new beginnings, it’s good luck to have in a bride’s bouquet and around the house. The branches can be woven into wreaths, mats, or cubby baskets, or carved into musical pipes. 
Old Scotswoman & Heather Besom
Twigs were often fashioned into besom brooms, or in smaller bunches, used to clean dirty pots. The finest honey is made from heather, and one of the most ancient Pictish stories about it is “The Secret to Heather Ale.” In herblore, heather’s used for ailments of the genitourinary systems, including stones, kidney and bladder infections, menstrual, and menopausal symptoms. It stimulates the flow of bile and urine, making it useful in cleansing and purifying teas. As a soothing herb, it’s good for spasmodic complaints in any system, including cramping and spasmodic coughs. Its soothing nature also makes it good for nervousness and insomnia. Many crofter and fishermen’s homes were thatched with heather, fastened with heather ropes. Some of it, with the blossoms uppermost, was used as bedding, soft as down—with the added benefit of a sweet aroma! Presented as a gift, it brings good luck to both the giver and the receiver.

Urisks were related to the broonies, except that they tended to live in remote locations. They were not a shape-shifter, although they probably wished they were; supposedly, they were solitary and shy because humans were repelled by their gnarled, hairy (although in one story the urisk was bald) appearance. Some had horns.
At times they were willing to help guard the herds 
and flocks, for the usual payment of a daily bowl of milk and perhaps some clothing, but if offended, they were loud in denunciations before flouncing off. "Cha toigh leam thu!" (I do not like you!) In some lore, they would follow travelers, but when they summoned up the courage to appear and speak, would terrify the strangers. Urisks weren’t considered to be very bright—for example, the urisk of Ben Loy often sat on a stone called Clach na h-Uruisg (“the stone of the urisk”) beside the Moraig waterfall, constantly trying to prevent the water from falling too fast over the rock.

Iain Campbell--not a urisk--
plaiting heather rope on South Uist.
I'm sure that urisks sometimes made heather ropes while watching for a traveler to speak to!

Heather on the Muir (moor)