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)

Saturday, April 19, 2014

Fire on the Hills & in the Heart: Furze & Travelers

#17 in the April 2014 A to Z Blog Challenge
T: Teine, Furze in the Scottish Gaelic alphabet

Duncan Williamson, Traveler
The Scottish Gaelic word for fire is teine, also the word for this shrub that clothes the hills with gold in early spring and for much of the year.

I plan to write more about it in another blog post, because this one is dedicated to that National Treasure of Scottish folklore and folktales, Duncan Williamson (1928-2007), one of the last of the Travelers, and a storyteller and singer I wish I had met before his death. 

Travelers in a Barrikit Tent,
 Canvas over Withy Frame
What is/was a Scottish Traveler? They were called the Ceàrdannan ("the Craftsmen"), or Luchd Siubhail (“people of travel”) for travelers in general. My grandmother spoke of them as “the Summer Walkers,” and Mother remarked once that that term was only used by Granny after, widowed and old, she lost her own home. My grandfather’s death in the late 1940s had left her destitute. The fairest thing to do with her, blind as she was, her seven children decided, was to divide up her time. For the rest of her life, almost twenty years, she would be moved every two months up and down the Atlantic seaboard among the homes of six of her children; the seventh, my next-to-the-youngest aunt Emma lived in California, deemed too far away and expensive for Granny to travel to, so Em’s contribution was to provide a few dollars for daily incidentals and perhaps a new winter coat. From having enough possessions  to run a rented farm, Gramma’s tangible belongings dwindled down to one suitcase, one train-case, that heavy coat, her purse, and her harp. 

For a woman who'd been proud of being respectable, I think this homelessness gave her a fellow feeling for the Travelers, a minority people who roamed the byways of Scotland and the Borders of England from the 1600s, when many of their forebears were turned off the land in the Highlands. Indigenous to Scotland, they aren't the same as the Romany or Gypsies. The Travelers' language, the Beaurla-regaird, or Cant, was in some ways a kind of secret code.  Some of the words date from the 13th Century; many have been adapted from Gaelic.
Gypsy Vardo
They traveled, not in Gypsy vardos (which actually didn’t really exist until the improvement of British roads in the 1830s), but often afoot, pushing/pulling /carrying their possessions in handcarts or in wagons and later, cars and trucks, sleeping in tents. Several wandering groups in Britain have been lumped together as “tinkers” or “tinks” in the public eye, although they had distinct differences. All of them have experienced varying amounts of discrimination and derision.

The Travelers made their living by farm labor, the men mending things like tinware (pots and pans, harness), the women hawking or peddling things they made (clothespins, paper flowers, woven baskets, etc.), horsetrading, and whatever odd jobs they could manage to get. Some of them were pearl-fishers, standing knee- or shoulder-deep in chill rivers searching for freshwater mussels in the hope of uncovering a grey, white, green, pink, or black pearl.  One of the earliest jobs Duncan Williamson had after leaving his large family as a teenager was building stone walls in fields. 

Travlers near Pitlochy
As Duncan described in one of his books, a family of Travelers would move on, riding if they were lucky or walking—and this included even small children, who might be carrying something as they walked if old enough. In late afternoon, they would find a place to put up their bowed barrikit half-tents; the women might go hawking to any nearby houses before fixing dinner, while the men did any work they could find to do, and the children did chores like finding fuel or water. The family would sit around the fire, telling and singing until bedtime.

Duncan’s parents were illiterate, but his father was determined his sixteen bairns wouldn’t be, so every autumn they’d settle on a bit of waste ground outside the village of Furnace in Argyle in order for the bairns to attend school for a few months. Duncan was often so hungry he’d skip class to catch and cook shellfish. He left home at 15 to go out on his own so there’d be more for the nine  younger children.

Traveler Piper
The Travelers were famed for their traditional storytelling and songs, teaching through them ways to deal with the world. As Duncan said, “My father's knowledge told us how to live in this world as natural human beings -- not to be greedy, not to be foolish, not to be daft or selfish -- by stories.” As Duncan Williamson’s family were all very poor, they not only relished hearing stories but relied on them for framing an understanding of the world. Duncan Williamson said that “by listening, by learning and listening to the old people, you had a better knowledge of the world you had to live in.” That's still true today, as any storyteller will tell you! 

Belle Stewart, Traveler Singer
As Duncan lived his life, marrying twice and having ten children of his own, he continued to collect and share songs and stories. In the late 1960s, he began to be known on the Scottish folksong scene, both as a teller and singer, and this led in turn to his books and appearances worldwide. Reluctantly, in his 60s, he came off the road to live in a house, saddened to know that the way of life he had known was ending—but was recognized, along with other Travelers such as Jeannie Robertson, and Belle Stewart and her family, renowned singers, as a cultural treasure to be respected and listened to. 

My family thought that Granny was the tail-end in our family of a bardic tradition from the Highlands and Islands, so I think she would’ve enjoyed talking with Duncan. I am thankful that she passed on so many tales and tunes to me, and grateful to him for doing that through the collections of his stories that I’ve been able to find.

“Stories are something you carry with you, something to last for your entire life to be passed on to your children, and their children for ever more. Telling a child a story implants a seed in their mind, and you know when you are gone from this world that that child is going to tell the tale you told them, and remember you.”
--Duncan Williamson

Duncan Williamson, passing along the tales

I hope that you have a fire in the heart to share your stories and songs!

Friday, April 18, 2014

Silkies, Moonlight, & WIllows

Grey Willow
#16 in the April 2014 A to Z Blog Challenge
S: Suil, Willow in the Scottish Gaelic alphabet.

When I think about willows, I immediately picture weeping willows—but they weren’t brought to Scotland from China until the 18th Century, so the tree linked to this letter is the Grey, Crack (so called because of the cracking noise its falling branches make), White, Goat  (because they were an excellent browse for goats) or any number of hybrid varieties of sallow and osier trees. Linked to water and moonlight, symbolic of rebirth and vitality, the allusions to grief and death stem from 19th Century beliefs and the weeping willows. The willows native to Scotland were fairy trees, of course, famed for their usefulness: the saplings are pliable enough for weaving into baskets and other containers; their sap makes a drink good for rheumatism; the twigs as well as the bark yield a lessening of pain (aspirin was first isolated from
Yellow (Mature) Pussy Willows
salicylic acid in them). The wood was used for the Celts’ wagon wheels, as well as for coracle/currach frameworks and today, for cricket bats. And if you’ve ever regarded pussy willows as a harbinger of Spring, they bud out on the Goat variety, turning from silver to gold as they mature, hence the name of “Sunshine fire.”

Silkie-woman Transforming
When I was very small and Granny was teaching me manners, she always reminded me that you never know who you may meet. Since so many of the folk of Faery can be shape-shifters, you’d better be courteous to everyone! As she would say, “If you dae them a favor, they will reward you, but if you mak’ them angry, they will hae their revenge sevenfold!”

I was a very polite little girl….

Silkies are one of the shapeshifting sea-folk; when they’re in the ocean, they look like seals, but when they come out on land, they can take off their pelts and look like beautiful humans as they dance in the moonlight. 

For the last 23 years at the Ligonier Highland Games, I’ve traditionally begun my set of Scottish tales with a new silkie tale, because I love them so much. My granny told me several, and I’ve collected others over the years; I have about 38 in my repertoire. Besides, it’s fun to use my harp seal puppy puppet, Saltie! People always want to pet her afterwards.

It was said that the MacCodrums had webbed fingers and toes because of their silkie blood. Two of the most famous are about the crofter who stole a seal-maid’s skin and made her wed him, and the one about the man who wounded a silkie and was brought to justice for it. One of my favorites is about a young silkie who helps a woman attain the life she wants (“Saltie the Silkie”), but I do not tell “The Silkie’s Revenge” to young audiences, although adults seem to find it a thought-provoking tale. JRR Tolkien wrote of the need we seem to have to communicate with other species, and so there are tales about help given unexpectedly by silkie or human, haunting tales of loss and grief, as well as heart-lifting ones of joy and love. 

I love silkie songs too, from the old ballads like “The Great Selkie of Sule Skerry,” “The Fisherman’s Song for Attracting the Seals,” and “The Seal-Woman’s Croon,” a Hebridean lullaby that’s among my very early memories.  Absolutely, one of my favorite albums is Christina Tourin’s The Harp Seal Lullaby CD, which has several seal songs on it. 

It’s said that if you put a willow twig under your pillow, you may have magical dreams—perhaps of the silkies!