A little hint of herbal storytelling on film blog...
'Seasons' part of A Kist in Thyme
The National Museum of Rural Life October 2018
An impromptu glimpse into the legends of Valerian on a herbal storytelling wander along a Scottish riverbank
Blogs and Stories as Told by Amanda Edmiston
At Botanica Fabula Storytelling, it’s always a great pleasure to connect with people of all ages in Scotland and across the world who appreciate a magical story or two. I regularly guest host #FolkloreThursday on twitter as @Herbalstorytell and contribute written re-tellings of folktales to their website. I also add to my own blog and share extra resources, stories and interactive elements with the very lovely members of my special facebook group which you still have the chance to join here: https://www.facebook.com/groups/botanicafabulousness/
I really look forward to sharing more stories with you soon,
Very Warm Wishes
The Very Curious Herbal
I first became entranced with the work of Elizabeth Blackwell when I discovered a copy of her book A Curious Herbal in the stunning gothic environs of the library of The Royal College of Physicians and Surgeons in Glasgow, the pictures were particularly elegant and lightly captured the true image of the plants, her story captivated me, I felt drawn into a conversation with this woman despite the 270 years separating our lives.
Elizabeth Blackwell was born in Aberdeen around 270 years before my birth in the Forester Hill hospital in the late 20th century. Aberdeen had prospered towards the end of the 17th century so Elizabeth was born into a city which had grown in wealth and obtained many modern improvements despite the war and plague of the century. Street sweeping had been introduced and oil lamps started to light up the twilight city when Elizabeth would have been around 20 years of age.
Sources are skewed I have read she herself had studied medicine and this may have been the case in some capacity, but certainly not in the way we currently understand it…the first female medical graduate from a University didn’t happen until 1879. That said Elizabeth clearly had medical knowledge as her book illustrates although she is said to have had help with that from her husband, although he is believed by many to have falsified his own medical credentials and forced their flee from the silver city.
So under a cloud of the family travel South, a year or two down the line finding herself and her child in London, her husband in a debtors prison for yet another bad decision Elizabeth took to studying the plants of Chelsea Physic Garden, under the watchful eye of Sir Hans Sloane.
The Garden at the time was the leased by Sir Hans, noted plant collector and naturalist to Worshipful Society of Apothecaries of London. Sir Hans’ travels to the Americas and his plant collecting inspired Elizabeth, the garden offered her the chance to use her skills as a botanical illustrator to depict these plants which were so new to the British eye.
Her herbal was initially released in weekly instalments, providing an income for her to look after her family and ultimately providing the finance to release her husband from the debtor’s jail and was granted the seal of approval from Royal College of Physicians in London.
Meanwhile, Mr Elizabeth Blackwell went off again apparently this time to build up diplomatic relations with Denmark and Sweden, but once again became entrenched in some kind of desperate mire. He was implicated as having connections to the Jacobite rebellion of 1745 and did not return…Elizabeth was about to embark on a journey to join him when she received news of his death.
The years then become lost…we know she died alone in 1758 and is buried at Old Chelsea All Saints church so she did not return to Scotland permanently, if at all…but I like to imagine what happened to those lost years…
How did the book go on to have so many adventures of its own?
How did it become quite so well respected for many years…but is now overlooked when we refer to the herbals of times past?
We hear of Culpeper, Gerard, even of her near contemporary: controversial creator of the 1754 Family Herbal Sir John Hill, but Elizabeth is entirely overshadowed.
I started to seek out copies of the beautiful book and trace her journey and the travels of the book after its creation. It found its way into the hands of respected and incredible botanists who must have appreciated it’s elegant lines and careful notes.
I started to find stories told by the plants themselves, words uttered from within time-worn pages, about cures and uses, stories of spices and succulent sweet fruits, alongside the thistles whose words she would have heard almost daily from childhood.
The stories started to sway from the pages, growing closer together into a walled garden, with pathways leading from dandelion graced, granite gateways of Aberdeen to the mesmerising enchantment of Jamaican Cocoa, seeds sheltering in exotic pods, travelling from islands she might never see.
I opened the book and the plants twined round my ankles and drew me in…
If you fancy following me on a magical journey, take a sip and join me as we open the covers and allow the garden to tell its story.
The Very Curious Herbal, Amanda’s journey following the path taken by Elizabeth Blackwell and telling the stories revealed by the plants illustrated within her book is being delivered online here: https://www.facebook.com/groups/121634061947015/ from late Spring 2019 with special live experiential performances at magical venues which we will share with you as the project starts to blossom.
If you'd like to find out how I can create a bespoke storytelling experience for your project then email me at [email protected] and we can chat over how my work could make your venue just a little bit more magical...
Herbal Magic and Potent Potions
Frankincense and Myrrh~a Phoenix Story
I have always loved a book full of magic.
For National Storytelling Week last year, I was traveling to schools and venues across the UK sharing my ‘Herbal Magic and Potent Potions’ sessions...a mixture of stories, history, facts and concoctions that explore the legends in some of our favourite magical books.
We all love stories that draw you through papery doors into enchanted worlds, worlds a little like our own but where spells can be cast. Where not everything is as it seems, where a twinkle, a sparkle, a charm or a herbal potion could lead to the start of a magical adventure.
Even grown-ups enjoy an adventure full of fantastical animals and hidden pathways.
I confess I’m happiest when the lines between reality and stories are blurred.
I love it when life is like a storybook, full of exciting challenges and amazing magic, so I guess it maybe isn't so very strange that I became a storyteller! Putting to good use the hours I spent vanishing into books, learning legends and imagining unusual parallel worlds.
One of the first stories I told as a professional storyteller, that I still tell today, is the Egyptian legend of the Phoenix (also known as the Bennu), the fiery bird who lived forever.
A golden bird capable of building itself a nest using aromatic bark from spice trees, then forming an egg made from precious drops of resin collected from the bitter Myrrh and scented Frankincense, in order to renew itself.
The legend goes that the sun created the Phoenix to sing its praises, which the splendid bird did.
In return for all its hard work, the sun rewards the Phoenix with the promise of eternal life.
The Phoenix flew from the deserts in the south to the icy mountains of the north, singing it’s glorious song to the sun.
It flew for 500 years and it’s stories flew with it.
If you listen to tales of the Firebird from Russia of the Chinese Fenghuang or the Hindu Garuda you cannot fail to spot the legend of the Phoenix carrying its story around the world.
However after 500 years the Phoenix, understandably grew tired, its feathers have lost their lustre, it’s voice sounded croaky and it felt let down by the sun, ‘Surely...’ it cried ‘...immortality should be more than this?’
The beautiful bird rustles the last bit of energy from its wings and lifts up it’s head to sing one more time, weaving words into it’s tune: begging the sun to return its strength and vigour.
The sun hears its song and tells the Phoenix to gather it’s favourite barks and spices, sweet, balancing cinnamon and cheering cassia then bids it to build a nest. Then it commands the Phoenix to collect myrrh and frankincense and roll itself a resinous egg and sit atop the scented stack.
As the bird does so the clouds disperse across the sky and the sun blazes down and in a puff of smoke, the nest becomes a pyre: alight and fiery, burning the Phoenix to a powdery ash. As the ash blows across the egg, the resin cracks open and a new Phoenix, a tiny miniature version of its old self, fresh and renewed full of energy, quickly growing into adulthood, ready to sing for another 500 years.
And so the story goes on, every 500 years Phoenix is restored, ready to sing the praises of the sun.
I’ve always loved figuring out a mystery woven in amongst magical stories and enchanted worlds and one of the things I also love doing is spotting the origins of stories.
Many of the worlds favourite books weave together ancient legends, younger listeners love spotting the facts behind Fawkes, J.K. Rowlings Phoenix emerging in an ancient myth, in this one.
I love how these stories when retold in Harry Potter or brought to life by a storyteller can interest and inspire new audiences.
I also love how the grains of truth about the plants and herbs I find so fascinating creep into legends and myths. As many a fan of restorative face creams will tell you: Frankincense has incredible powers to restore and renew aging skin. Traditional Ayurvedic medicine practitioners in India will tell you that cinnamon is very good for many of the diseases of the body associated with aging and Myrrh? well, research is currently being done into myrrhs potential to encourage damaged cell renewal.
Just a story or a bit of real magic?
A bit of both, a way of passing on the knowledge we now associate with scientific research through stories and folklore. A magical way of exploring the effects and use of plants we have used for thousands of years.
Amanda Edmiston 2018
Queen Annes Lace and Wild Carrots
A little taste of a bespoke Botanica Fabula workshop for a 16th century Scottish garden...
A beautiful lace-like nest adorns a plant which could potentially be one of our most legendary poisons.
Double, double toil and trouble;
Fire burn and cauldron bubble.
Scale of dragon, tooth of wolf,
Witches' mummy, maw and gulf
Of the ravin'd salt-sea shark,
Root of hemlock digg'd i' the dark,
But fortunately for today’s story this is not Hemlock...
Wild carrot is prettier somehow if not one that should be foraged with a cavalier attitude.
Its twisted root does smell like carrot… but is maybe still not one I encourage people to casually eat in a Botanica Fabula workshop…after all you know what happened to Socrates!
What? You don’t!
Ah well, you'll have to come along to a workshop and I’ll tell you the story!
Wild Carrot Flower is also often called Queen Anne’s Lace, it fills several of the parterre areas of the 17th century garden I created this workshop specifically for.
In the years which followed the creation of the garden, this would have still been a familiar vegetable, a vital component of the kitchen garden and self-seeding hero like all this family of plants.
There are several versions to the tale of how wild carrots came to be given the name Queen Annes Lace, some say it is so called because one tiny purplish floret in the centre is the queen. The white florets are her lace collar.
Another version describes Queen Anne of England (1655-1714), as pricking her finger while making lace, staining it with blood. The magical element in a wish for a baby daughter maybe?
If you look closely, you’ll notice that each large “flower” has many small white florets with a reddish/purple dot in the middle.
But English botanist Geoffrey Grigson suggests that the name of the plant comes not from a Queen of England but from Saint Anne, the mother of the Virgin Mary and the patron saint of lacemakers...
A final story about the origin of the name claims when the future Queen Anne arrived from Denmark to become the queen of King James VI of Scotland, wild carrot was still a novelty in the royal gardens. The legend states that Queen Anne challenged the ladies in waiting to a contest to see who could produce a pattern of lace as fine and lovely as the flower of the wild carrot. The ladies knew that no one could rival the queen’s handiwork so it became a triumph for Anne!
Alongside the Wild Carrots found growing in this garden, research records show that yellow carrots were also available in Scotland in 1691. I weave some advice into the session, interesting words from one of the first English herbal writers Richard Bankes who in 1525 wrote:
This herbe is called Carut, this herbe hath leaves somewhat like to fenel wyth a longe stalke and a round seede more than parsnep seede.
The vertue of this herbe is to destroy evel windes and the coughe, and it is good for the tretie and for bytinge of venemous bestes.“
Now I do like to have some fun during a workshop and I don’t mind a legend about venomous beasts at any time, but I didn’t fancy getting bitten by one to try out the efficacy of a carrot cure…
…but one or two of the folk in the group had a cough.
So we concocted one of my favourites: a late 17th century recipe for carrot cough syrup!
Carrot and sugar…it wouldn’t have been within the budget of many in those days but sugar was held up by many to have health benefits in those days
“what would preserve apples and plums will also preserve liver and lungs”.
Taken from A Vindication of Sugar a page of which can be seen above with more available for folks hoping to find a outlet for their sweet tooth here: http://www.bl.uk/learning/timeline/item126682.html
I’d also found reference to garlic syrup being used against cholera in the garden’s medical records, from the days when the building adjacent to it was a cholera hospital... Garlic with its great antibiotic properties may well be useful in the face of a cold too…so we made that one as well!
One of the great bits of modern folklore is still widely believed…one of the young women in the group told us how her Granny had insisted she eat carrots regularly as ‘carrots help you see in the dark’.
I briefly tell the story of the WWII Dr. Carrot campaign but added that despite recent cynicism carrots are a good source of vitamin A which is indeed useful for sight…the rather splendid Carrot Museum website has a great detailed page on that here: http://www.carrotmuseum.co.uk/ww2seeinthedark.html
Whilst our carrot syrup potentised, ready to sip before the workshop finished, we moved on to the graceful blue beds of lavender, scented pillows, tales of love, dreams and bawdy 17th century songs beckoned!
If you’d like to join Amanda for her next journey into a magical herbal garden then step over the flower bed and join her facebook group:
where her project revealing the verdant 18th century world of Elizabeth Blackwell, creator of A Curious Herbal will be played out. #CuriousHerbal
The Elder Witch: a story inspired by Scottish history, revealing the uses and lore of Violets, Fennel and Elder, reflecting back on one of my first story commissions
Today is Valentine's Day and my inbox is full of lovely floral references and conversations about roses. Last week I was in Edinburgh, delivering one of my Kist in Thyme workshops in the beautiful surrounds of The National Library of Scotland and I chose to focus on the Rose elements of the project to tie in with this week's loved up motifs. The Kist in Thyme is one of my current projects, much of it though was written and developed in the first manifestation of the project nearly two years ago and so when I spend some time developing it to fit and enhance a new venue I often find myself editing and adding, my writing, ideas and knowledge have developed: (hopefully) improved and expanded even in this short period of time.
With that in mind as I worked on roses last week I thought I'd move on to violets this week...Roses are red and Violet's are blue after all and it is Valentine's...and Violets are very much a February flower.
I've found and unearthed all kinds of new Violet themed stories, folklore and remedies this week but I thought I'd share this story. I wrote it over six years ago for the large first project I was commissioned to create: for a garden I was asked to create a story trail for.
This is only a working version...a short story, written to be coloured in as I tell it...but I already feel I can add, embellish and improve so much in it, although I do still love many aspects of it, but what I found really interesting looking back on it, was that it was very much the first step towards what I create now: bespoke work that weaves a particular place, it's plants and the people who live and have lived there into its narrative, layers of history and folklore added, traditional remedies recreated and shared for an experiential quality.
I still love this little story...I might not use it again, but it does offer a little insight into where my work started and how I develop stories from history, facts and legends, so make a cup of fennel, elder and violet tea, sit back sip and enjoy:
The Battlefield Marathon or The Elder Witch
This is the story of two brothers living near Glasgow in Mary Queen of Scots' days. Phillip they said was fleet of foot, as fast as a horse, he could outrun any man and he boasted he could get to any place faster than anyone.
Heris the younger brother was slower and liked to take his time, slow as a hedgehog the other boys mocked, but his mother would say he took his time because he was careful and paid attention to everything going on around him.
As the sun rose another day the mother asked the two brothers to take food to the Royal encampment at the meadow below their home, where a battle was brewing and Queen Mary was staying as she tried to flee her enemies. Once there the brothers paid the Queen their respects and offered to help in any way they could as their mother had bid them.
Now Mary was 26 miles from her home and her young son in Stirling castle, and here she was trapped by pursuers and battles, she missed her small son.
She asked the two brothers to take him a message of love from his mother and bring back news of his welfare promising to pay a purse of gold for the messages safe delivery.
Phillip the first boy boasted of his speed and made haste northwards
Heris the second decided to follow, to watch for his brother's safety and ensure the message found its way to its destination.
It took less than an hour for Phillip to be a good two miles ahead.
He ran across fields, leaping hedges and ditches, paying no mind to his surroundings.
He ran through a field of aniseed scented fennel, its soft feathery fronds bedraggled and drooping from lack of water, but he paid no mind and ran on and on,
He ran past the woods where the purple violets withered as the weeds overtook them, but he paid them no mind and ran on and on.
Knowing by now he was miles ahead, and drooping himself, from the day's exertions he found the shelter of an Elder tree. Now folklore told that Elder trees were as often as not, the home to a witch, a pernickety witch who could decide to dislike you on the whim.
Phillip with his careless attitude had broken off branches as he slumped beneath the tree and the witch who inhabited it had taken offence.
She waited for Phillip to be nicely relaxed and starting to snooze then she left her tree house and set about imprisoning him in a trance.
Meanwhile Heris the slower brother had found his way through the drooping field of fennel, and paying attention to its drooping state had stopped to water it, popping a few pieces of the aniseed-flavored leaves in his backpack ‘just in case’; he’d walked past weed swamped violets and decide to weed a bit and make them some space and then popped a few flowers in his back pack ‘just in case’...and finally, slowly, he’d caught up with his brother, held in a trance by the witch beneath the Elder tree.
Now all those times Heris had paid attention rewarded him, he knew at once from the tales he’d heard from his mother that fennel can repel a witch and can revive a tired body, so waving the stalks at the scary figure, he placed them in his brother’s hand for him to eat and broke the spell.
Then heeding the Queen’s instructions he kept slowly and steadily on until he finally reached Stirling castle, whereupon he was ushered into the nursery to see the child and his nursemaid.
A sorry sight met his eyes, the child was ill, coughing and spluttering in the grasp of a nasty cold, the nursemaid was at a loss as to how to ease his sore chest and tickly cough.
Again Heris’ observations paid off, he knew his mother’s cure for coughs and promptly handed her the violets, which she made into a soft b;u syrup and soon started to brighten the infant up and clear his chest.
The nursemaid in her gratitude parceled him up some food for his return journey wrapping it in a soft silk scarf embroidered with the young prince’s initials and Heris satisfied his job was done made his way back to Langside.
Now with his brother saved from the witch, the Queen's message delivered, the ill child helped, you’d think our tale was done, but unfortunately on returning home what should Heris find but Phillip...
Phillip had made his way back to the queen and boastful as ever was telling how he’d taken the message to Stirling castle and claiming the Queen's bounty for the successful messenger for himself! But his boasting didn’t last long, his face soon fell when Heris arrived with the monogrammed silk scarf waving in one hand and his tale of rescuing Phillip from the witch to tell everyone around the campfire that evening! (c)Amanda Edmiston 2012
Margaret of Atholl, the real ‘witch’ that this story is based on was said to have taken Mary Queen of Scots labour pains away with witchcraft, she was the sister of one of the ‘Four Mary’s’ a song taught to many children in schools until fairly recently, so this would be nice to sing. http://www.educationscotland.gov.uk/scotlandssongs/primary/genericcontent_tcm4555596.asp
Marathon the Greek word means fennel or ‘field of fennel’, the Greek legend of Phiddipides who ran from the battlefield of Marathon: literally a fennel field (before it became the town of Marathon) to Sparta to ask for battle reinforcements.
I wrote the story as a take on the tortoise and the hare, tying in herbal folklore, as Langside in Glasgow: site of the Battle of Langside, is 26 miles from Stirling castle where Lord Darnley and Mary Queen of Scots’ child would have been during the battle, the community garden I originally developed the story for was absolutely full of fennel!
Violets in the Victorian language of flowers meant ‘modesty’ because they hid their faces behind heart-shaped petals. They have a long history of traditional use in cough syrups, their delicate flavour is enhanced by the rather beautiful shade of blue that the flowers can turn the syrup if you make it carefully and using a slightly more refined sugar!
For fans of nomenclature: Phillip means horse and Heris means hedgehog, chosen to add layers to their personalities, a useful trick I find when I’m first composing a short abbreviated story overview like this before I go ahead and expand on it and add in detail later.
I also like the fact that Hans Christian Anderson story The Elder Mother ties the elder dryad or elder witch in with a lovely story of growing up, elder witches are often in legends concerned with the transitions into old age: http://hca.gilead.org.il/li_elder.html
If you'd like to find out how I can create a bespoke storytelling experience for your project then email me at [email protected] and we can chat over how my work could make your venue just a little bit more magical...
Why We Need to Keep Telling Stories
I love it when people see that stories connect us like threads, interweaving between people, places and time.
I watch them as I'm revealing a story, becoming acutely aware of how valuable it is to gather up these threads and re-weave them.
I'm passionate about mending stories, dispersing them again through the fabric of peoples lives, sharing stories, listening to stories, retelling them, watching as they connect us to beautiful things, plants, the places we live and visit and the people we share these places with.
We need to allow stories to grow and be kept alive, we need to use them to help explain our land, its history and our connection to it. Stories give us words that create safe places to look at complex and changing things, they gift us resolutions and outcomes packaged in a mesmerising dream-like way, teaching us by anecdote, metaphor, and rhythm.
Even as society moves, adapts and changes it is important for people to keep discovering and learning the stories of the new places they visit, learn about the people who lived there before, feel the patterns of the land offered in the rituals, folklore, and legends that places hold.
Stories used in this way gift us greater understanding, encourage empathy, respect, and consideration, they nourish us and we learn to understand how to value places, each other the land we live in.
Alternatively, a lost story can become like a frayed end, leaving things to unravel around the place it once sat, easily disconnecting its place in the pattern, disconnecting it from the fabric of our lives.
Holes then occur. People are left feeling slightly torn, less robust. The fabric and our lives become more fragile, easier to rend.
When we forget a story or displace people: essentially shifting their stories without valuing them, sharing them and threading them back into the weft - we can cause a schism. Valuing these stories and the people who tell them makes us all stronger.
Many things cause disconnection and a sense of loss, but one thing that’s often forgotten when this is analysed is the loss of stories.
As a storyteller I often work in places where stories have been lost, sometimes I can catch their threads before they disappear completely, places where castles have been demolished and replaced by factories, people have been displaced and a diaspora created…stories altering to become romantic ideals sometimes with truth and lessons lost, or they can change history into something near myth, stories evolve.
New folk may move in to work in the factories.
At the touch of a dial manufacturing changes, life is altered again, the factories close, homes demolished, replaced by new housing: the society created by the housing is demolished and separated, the stories are dispersed once again.
Grandparents living elsewhere can't offer daily reminiscences about childhood games and parks, the myths and stories stop evolving.
Working lives change once more, the old becomes forgotten, devalued. If people forget to swap stories, they can forget to connect and forget to value one another.
If stories are told and shared we create new bonds, if we develop a modern mythology together we can create new friends, people understand and value the old and common ground is shared.
The stories of the place , it’s lore and rituals are shared, adapting organically to new growth, offering nourishment and connection between people, times and places, a commonality is developed, allowing growth, connection and harmony, without forgetting lessons learnt before.
So how do we put this into practice?
We talk, we share stories, anecdotes and memories. We share them through art, conversation, recipes and creative storytelling. We take into consideration different people, different forms: incorporating art and experience to create a multidimensional storytelling practice becomes a valuable way of creating connections.
A drawing or incredible sculpture may help to reveal a story, a life, a place, for one person; a chat over tea and home-made cake will work better for others.
Stories can be told to start a conversation or can be carried between people, collecting from one group-sharing with another.
Stories can be shared and carried between ages, between social demographics, between cultures and countries, stories allow people to see the connections, making the threads visible, the pathways light up, we understand each other and start to know and respect the land we inhabit, feel it’s pulse and rhythms through stories.
By allowing them to grow, change, be told orally, rather than encapsulating them in the static written word where they are preserved but risk losing their vitality and relevance, we can ensure they continue to meet our changing needs and expectations.
Stories, like the land and the people, need to live, adapt and change, be shared and cared for, rewoven and re-told.
Stories of all kinds myths, legends, anecdotes, fact and fiction, fairy tale or oral tradition are in our cells and the microcosms that make up our environment, they make us who we are and they make the fabric of the place we live.
Click here a closer look at The Ruglen Ropewalk a multidimensional bespoke project for community gardening charity Grow 73, with sculptor Rob Mullholland
Amanda Edmiston 2018
Orchard Princess for Apple Wassailing Day
“Apple tree, apple tree we all come to wassail thee,
Bear this year and next year to bloom and blow,
Hat fulls, cap fulls, three-cornered sacks fills…"
Traditional Apple wassailing song
Britain has a wealth of folkloric customs, regional stories and traditional songs to accompany them. Apple Wassailing a form of paying respect to the orchard and bringing good fortune to the following year's harvest is a tradition which started in the South-west of England the counties with a long history of apple growing and cider making; Somerset, Gloucester and Herefordshire. But this rather jolly festival noisily celebrating one of this island's best-loved crops has now spread with the growth of community orchards across the UK and beyond.
To celebrate one school's recent tree planting and research into their local community in December 2017, building up to Apple Wassailing Day often held on 'Old Twelvey' or Old twelfth night: the 17th of January, I shared the story of The Orchard Princess, which you can watch me tell to one group in the film.
The story is my own version of Jane Ray's beautiful picture book 'The Apple Tree Princess', which itself is a familiar one drawing on traditional tales such as 'Better than Salt', a recognisable element of Shakespeare's King Lear.
It tells of a community brought together by an orchard and even in this short sweet version of the workshop with a younger audience is accompanied by the real scent of meadow rain, a gust of spice scented wind from the four corners of the world, a sparkle of citrine hued sunlight and a seed for every child to take away and plant ~definitely a needed bit of magic to bring forth the start of the Spring on a chill January afternoon. I've told the story to groups in museums and botanic gardens and the little hint of enchantment seems to appeal to groups of all ages.
The Pechs of Ruglen, how herbs help solve mysteries!
History books state that Glasgow was once the smaller, less significant neighbour of the more important royal burgh of Rutherglen, once the site of not one but two castles.
‘Ruglen’ folk were said to be hardworking, ingenious and highly skilled builders.
So when a group of architects were commissioned to build a new magnificent cathedral dedicated to St Kentigern in Glasgow, they chose to stay in Rutherglen whilst the work was taking place.
Every night they would lay the plans out on the table of their tavern room.
Every day they watched the work take place, far too slowly for the forthcoming weather, far too slowly for the team to receive their commission.
The whole project was at the point of failing, existing walls destroyed by the weather before they could grow to protect themselves.
If the building stopped, then the beautiful cathedral would not be built, but worse still, the hard working men would not be paid, the builders families would not be fed, hundreds of people from Rutherglen were looking to this project for a livelihood the homes, work, security and care that the cathedral would bring and the architects would fall from favour.
Then something strange started to happen.
Every morning as the architects arrived on site they were met by new walls. Astonishingly well crafted, robust walls, built in such a way that they could withstand any weather.
The craftsmen on site: builders, masons and carpenters alike were baffled, this work was not theirs but complimented it perfectly. Rumours started to travel around Glasgow and Rutherglen: it was claimed there was magic at work.
A young lad just ten years old was paid to keep watch, night after night he sat with a bowl of porridge, grew sleepy, snoozed a bit, but did his best to keep watch, but every morning he had nothing to report.
Then one evening his mother replaced his evening bowl of oats with a cup of nettle soup, flavoured with homegrown kale, leeks and a sprig of Rosemary, there to remember, the next morning after a night-time spent alert and observant, the boy gave an incredible account of small blue men, trooping out of tunnels, carrying stones bigger than could be dragged by a team of horses.
Small blue men who built quickly he said, with an uncommon skill, who as the first sliver of sunrise appeared, vanished back into the tunnels they’d come from.
When the young lad told what he’d seen everyone laughed, until he told his tale to the oldest of the architects, an elderly gentleman who now sat alongside his colleagues just listening and advising, his experience highly valued.
Turning to the laughing group he told them to wait and watch for themselves, the lad he said had described the pechs perfectly. The pechs were he claimed an ancient race, part people of ancient times, part fairy folk, but they were said to have the strength of twenty men and be skilled craftsmen.
Later that day the minister of the church in Rutherglen, added credibility to the story, saying that the pechs were fond of god as well as green spaces and even had one of their many tunnels leading from his own church going deep below the Clyde to the sight of the burgeoning cathedral in order to help build it.
Stories grew as stories do, giving folks something different to talk about, a chance to speculate and add details of their own.
Eventually the cathedral was built and the stories settled, resting, as stories do.
Tunnel mouths were found in Rutherglen, mostly in quiet green spaces and some of the older folk said they might be the homes of the pechs, but these were dismissed as grandparent’s stories to amuse the children, the tunnel mouths were mine workings, reasoned the lovers of logic.
But then a small tunnel no more then 5 feet high was found not far from the site of Glasgow cathedral and some people started to wonder if the old stories may have a grain of truth, maybe the mysterious builders of the cathedral could be found.
A piper volunteered to go down and play the pipes as he went.
Soon he couldn’t be heard from the Glasgow end, a burst of the pipes was said to be heard in Dalmarnock, a moan of ‘I’m no gonna get oot a this place’ from below the river, a plaintiff wail drifted from below the ground but no-one could say for certain where the man had gone.
Some say he was never seen again, some say his dog reappeared a few days later, shaking and hungry, but the story I like best says he was already sat in the tavern in Rutherglen by the time the party who’d sent him down in Glasgow got back home...conclusive proof of the ancient tale of pechs or maybe picts of Rutherglen building Glasgow’s very own cathedral!
Now I’ve been told there were tunnel mouths near Overtoun park, mine workings they say, (never go down one, either way they’re just not safe...) but mine workings or pechs or maybe mining folk have a bit of the hard working pech or Pictish blood in their veins and as such aren’t scared of a tunnel, who knows...
What I do know is that in every story there's always a little bit of truth...and it’s up to you to decide which bit is which.
this version Amanda Edmiston 2017
Adapted from ‘Rambles Round Glasgow: Descriptive, Historical, and Traditional’
By Hugh MacDonald
Since I wrote this story for The Ruglen Ropewalk which can be found here: http://grow73.org/2018/05/29/the-ruglen-ropewalk/ I had a chance conversation with Donald Smith at The Scottish Storytelling Centre about research I was doing for another major project and mentioned the pechs of Rutherglen. He told me about a mission he'd undertaken years back to find an image of St Elegius for a museum...and discovered the carved rock he was looking for had lain hidden for decades in a forgotten tunnel beneath Rutherglen Parish Church...but he'd never heard the tale of the Pechs before...it turns out we could be slowly unearthing layers of a new mystery. As more reveals itself I'll keep you posted!
If you'd like to join in with more story led adventures come over to my facebook group where I share some of the secrets I unveil on my travels: https://www.facebook.com/groups/121634061947015/
Verbal Herbal Magic, a little of how it works!
As a storyteller one of my roles is to act as a catalyst, to provide the listener with the tools to create images and undertake journeys, explore new ground or maybe offer an opportunity for them to revisit gorgeous moments they connect with.
For me and my practice plants are an integral pathway for part of this magic, the scent, constituents, their form and patterns: represent places, smells, experiences we relate to and connect with culturally.
Once heard the story can grow magical mental illustrations, or the words can become like the essence of a Bach remedy used to start an emotional and creative journey. The clever use of plants and an exploration of their folklore and place in stories can enhance this experience.
In recent years steps in neurological research and our heightened understanding of techniques such as therapeutic cognitive imagery, could be used to explain this scientifically. Some of the time I feel I ought to do this and justify how my particular type of herb infused storytelling works, explain what can happen with stories, use terms like creative visualisation or guided imagery when explaining my work. Maybe use comparisons with psychologist’s eclecticism or talk about using parallels with visualisation techniques to improve muscle recovery from injury when discussing herbal storytelling; and I do feel that there are comparisons with these...links, tenuous tendrils like passiflora, spirals of all these aspects creeping through my plant stories.
The vivid description of the effects of the plant is integral to many of my stories, this is often how the stories were were written originally, a feature of the folklore a hint of oral enchantment left over from a pre technical age and how this magic manifests when they are retold can be evocative and I love it when people enthuse about how much the stories resonate with them, quite often the process of contemplating the actions of a plant on the body can trigger a mental awareness that may help our mind engage consciously with our physical wellbeing and lead us to improve some aspect of our physical state.
Bear in mind I'm not necessarily on about an ethereal experience but for example a subtle story which has elements of dandelions action on the liver may make you think of summer meadows and then later fancy a salad, the bitter leaves will give your liver a little boost, you may then fancy another tomorrow or want to walk in a meadow and blow dandelion clocks...see a dandelion story is helping your liver...
My words often become like a Chinese whisper, the starting point for listeners to create into a story of their own. Each person’s story or take on a story is unique to them.
In stopping to listen to a story, listeners are agreeing to embark on this creative exploration, a neurological journey if you will.
Listeners take on board the energy delivered by the words of a story, they are opened up to possibilities and potential in the step they are about to take, the experience they are about to have. This is why stories are told as a way of marking rituals and times of change, or indeed to mark space (why they can be so important to our health)~like the traditional stories culturally developed to mark holidays and seasons told again and again as they become part of the fabric in that moment in time or like a new story at bedtime, marking a space, becoming a journey to sleep!
As a storyteller you act in part as a guide or signifier. For me this is integrated with plant based energetic healing systems and has the potential to act as an essence of the memory held by a place, if water has memory and stories are shared memories, is part of what stories do similar to homeopathy at an energetic level
Stories offer a way into an enchanted world a temporary suspension of reality...this could be a doorway in ...I really want to give each magical place and venue I visit and each audience their own story...with spaces and plants they recognise and will discover more about, allowing understanding and interest to grow and to create a world where even more story journeys to be taken.
A Sylvan Yule: as the sun stands still
Holly it was tinted green he was the hero.
The oak, quickly moving,
Before him, tremble heaven and earth.
A valiant door-keeper against an enemy,
from The Battle of the Trees which you can read in full here
The Book of Taliesin VIII.
The old King, in his icy, fur-trimmed frost coat sat down and yawned, straightening the wreath of Holly on his head and laying the Holly branch he’d been using as a walking stick down by his side before nodding to his brother.
The storm rattling, the sky overhead finished with a flourish of fork lightening, holly wreathes leaves acting as a conduit for electricity as it coursed through them to the leaf clad floor.
The noise rumbled round the thunder tree: the Oak king, booming like the heart he was known for.
Every few months since they’d been boys the two had tussled and play fought, arguing over whose turn it was to rule the ancient kingdom. They’d long since agreed to split the time in two and most years the jostling was amicable brotherly banter and high jinks, but some years one would be intent on finishing a course of action or just enjoying himself to much with his own brand of weather and then a sliver of reality would appear in their battles. Then icy mornings might extend into April or baking Summer afternoons would continue as the leaves gently browned. But despite this element of uncertainty as far as they could remember the ultimate outcome was the same:
Solstice would come and for a moment the sun stood still, rule would shift, a liminal space would open when the gyroscope would turn on its access and the world would readjust after just a brief moment where she appeared to court the brink.
Yule had come, the moment when the light awoke and began to make her return.
The holly kings winter cape settled and his brother’s verdant sleeves trimmed with curving oak leaves draping across his shoulders rustled unbidden by any breeze as the two stood forming a magical gateway into the forest.
The brothers watched, their ancient faces wizening, becoming bark like, feet rooted as day broke, the sun come up on a new morning and the frost twinkled on the finger-like branches of the trees along the edge of the forest path.
Amanda Edmiston, Botanica Fabula 2016
In an archive in Edinburgh lie leaves of books full of land lore. Legends of place: The Dinnsenchas, they hold stories of Ireland and some pathways through Scotland’s interconnected mythology, the two are not different, merely stories shared across a silver pathway of water. No boat building nation should ever argue about what is ours and what is theirs, we share our words across the tidal roads.
One of these ancient tales, shared around fires for centuries before, but written it’s believed 500 years ago, tells of a magical being who arrived at Tara with a branch.
The branch bore acorns, apples, hazelnuts to feed fish that would hold all the worlds knowledge, hawthorn berries to heal hearts and Ash keys to open enchanted doorways.
As this curious figure shook the magical branch, these five trees took root across five lands, sentient arboreal guardians of place.
So as our two tree brothers the Holly and the Oak watched over the winter and the spring and the doorway to the forest, they knew that the trees each had their own tale to tell.
It is said when the walls grow thin that the trees can whisper and sing...across Northern countries many stories tell that trees whisper: ‘if you care for us we’ll care for you’ and as far as I know this is true. Each tree has a fairy tale that you can hear if you follow that advice and have a listening ear, if you care for a tree I’ll share it with you, then many trees wishes will still come true…
Amanda Edmiston 2018
A Sylvan Yule: the Heart of the Wild Wood
A look at the enchanted origins of our sumptuous festive feasting and our beautifully decorated tree.
How did the pine become covered in sparkling wonder and gifts of delight?
What do the woods say?
We’ll have to go further this afore Yule night, deeper into the woods. Traversing old forgotten pathways.
Stepping round Ivy clad trunks: harboring trembling birds from the cold north wind and past the green lichen furred Oak, minding the red thorny twinings of brambles and listening to the owls hoot and call, one cries twit the other answers twoo and we find ourselves in a clearing deep in the heart of the ancient forest.
In the centre of the clearing is a small neat cottage.
And in the small cottage live a family, poor in gold but rich in love, a cottage in the heart of the wild wood. A large pot of stew simmered on a warm fire, the scent of pine resin filling the air, it’s a sparse meal: a few carefully stored vegetables and a hunk each of black rye bread.
The food might be poor but it’s a neat, well-loved home and the family are happy.
We watch through the veil of trees and time
The night closes in, a rich velvet starlit night and the snow is falling.
Not a sound...
Only the feather-like drifting of snow.
Softly the sense of presence, footsteps walking through the snow, a gentle tap at the larch wood door.
An old, old woman stood outside, the flakes fell around her and the cold wind blew...the family could not believe this ancient figure had travelled in this dark ominous night.
They ushered her in, apologising for the meagre meal they had share: a bowl of thin stew enriched by a warm welcome and a spot by the fire.
Despite having little to give, they welcomed her and asked her to stay out of the blizzard until she could safely continue her journey.
It was just past the longest night and the snow clouds had smothered the stars, the moon was enveloped in a diaphinous chiffon of ice and the flakes fell fast, she must stay with them.
She was given a chair by the fire, soup and bread and a role in the story they wove before bedtime and as the family made her a bed up of blankets and made their way up to the loft for the night they heard the old woman’s breath deepen into sleep, followed soon by their own.
Morning was icy, bitter and chill, but the crystal tinted sun made an effort and the family rose with the bright winter light, ready to build up the fire once more.
Expecting to share their meagre breakfast with their strange visitor the children made their way down stairs to find her gone, the father rushed to the door~ surely no-one could travel in such weather?
But she wasn’t in sight, not even a footprint showed where she had been, But there outside the door the pine tree at the heart of the forest now stood covered in stars, twinkling and magical like the night sky.
On the hearth sat a hearty meal and a warm loaf of bread and from that day on so the trees tell me on longest night the family received a meal and a tree covered in stars as a gift for helping a poor old woman with the last they had to share...and that so the trees say was the very first Christmas tree.
It was 1977, I held tightly to my mothers hand, the trace of perfume, white gardenia, slipped into the air every time our hands caught the edges of her coat as she hastened me up the Royal Mile.
The cobbles of Edinburgh’s old town were already dusted with the first breath from the snow storm, waiting in the blanket of cloud over our heads.
I remember the old woman’s face, lined, smiling as she tried to press tin foil wrapped bundles into passing peoples hands. I held out my hand as we passed, intrigued, wanting to know what they were, wanting to know why people shook their heads at her and refused the gift.
I remember the tiny white bell like flowers poking from the foil wrapped posy and my mother turning to look askingly at the woman who just smiled shook her head and said:
‘be lucky little girl’,
Our pathway continued across the road.
Steps tracing the edge of the pattern of cobbles my mum told me was called the heart of Mid-Lothian and marked the site of a former prison.
I shuddered and carefully avoided treading on the heart, my 8 year old imagination ran riot with visions of prisoners hearts buried beneath and I clutched my lucky heather and imagined myself protected.
I don’t remember now where we were going or what happened to my lucky heather, but I do remember the legend my mother told me when I asked how come this heather wasn’t purple like the flowers gracing the mountain near my Grandparents home.
And I’d love to share it with you.
Once upon a time before the mountains were carved through for roads and messages had to travel for days held in the heart of a song. There lived a kind hearted, thoughtful girl her mother had named Malvina.
She lived and breathed the messages held in a song or a story, for her father was Ossian the bard, a man whose fame as relater of legend and song travelled further then the birds in the air.
By the time Malvina was 20 she had started to write her own song from the heart and was betrothed to a heroic and just warrior named Oscar.
But times were hard, the weather harsh and survival meant fighting, fighting for food, fighting for land and battles were long and fraught with danger.
Each time she watched her beloved ride out she ached, not knowing if he would return.
Then the day came when he did not.
A messenger arrived at her fathers door, his ice cold fingers held out a brittle sprig of purple heather.
Oscar had died in battle, the flowers the messenger brought had been given to him as her man had lain broken on the battle field.
A last token of his undying love for her.
It's said that when Malvinas' tears fell onto the flowers in her hand, the Ling or Heather turned white as the snow, a final moment of love’s magic and she gifted the heather this wish: 'although it is the symbol of my sorrow, may the white heather bring good fortune to all who find it’.
Now many years later I still walk up Edinburgh’s Royal Mile on occasion, now clutching my own daughters hand.
The combination of stories and luck that I was given that evening many years ago seems to have left it’s touch because I shall be walking that way next week, with the bundles of plants that I carry as props, on my way to share my own stories: stories of love, danger, heart-strong women and magical plants.
If you’re walking that way I’d love you to join me. (c) Amanda Edmiston 2017
Yarrow, the Hero's Herb
THE YARROW-A Hero’s Herb
SPOKEN WORDS “TALES OF THE TAIBHSEAR”
BUAINIDH mi an earr reidh, Gum bu cheinide mo chruth, Gum bu bhlathaide mo bheuil, Gum bu gheinide mo ghuth. Biodh mo ghuth mar ghath na grein, Biodh mo bheuil mar ein nan subh.
Gum bu h-eilean mi air muir, Gum bu tulach mi air tir, Gum bu reuil mi ri ra dorcha, Gum bu lorg mi dhuine cli, Leonaidh mi a h-uile duine, Cha leoin duine mi.
I WILL pluck the yarrow fair, That more benign shall be my face, That more warm shall be my lips, That more chaste shall be my speech, Be my speech the beams of the sun, Be my lips the sap of the strawberry.
May I be an isle in the sea, May I be a hill on the shore, May I be a star in waning of the moon, May I be a staff to the weak, Wound can I every man, Wound can no man me.
BUAINIDH mi an earr reidh, Gum bu treuinide mo bhas, Gum bu bhlathaide mo bheuil, Gum bu ceumaide mo chas; Gum bu h-eilean mi air muir, Gum bu carraig mi air tir, Leonar liom gach duine, Cha leon duine mi.
I WILL pluck the yarrow fair, That more brave shall be my hand, That more warm shall be my lips, That more swift shall be my foot; May I an island be at sea, May I a rock be on land, That I can afflict any man, No man can afflict me.
Yarrow is a truly fascinating plant, named in Latin for Achilles, said to be a gift to him from the skilled healer: Centaur, Chiron, The charms collected, translated from Gaelic and written about by Alexander Carmichael in the Carmina Gadelica http://www.sacred-texts.com/neu/celt/cg2/cg2046.htm where my first touch with a thing formally described as spoken word charms in traditional Scottish folk medicine and lore. I knew sayings and the ‘funny little words and gestures‘ that families share and develop themselves and plenty of brilliant proverbs and little word games but here was a collection I could reference in essays as I studied herbal medicine…
Then I discovered Mary Beith’s brilliant book ’Healing Threads’…my interest was piqued…I suddenly saw the words written about from a more contemporary perspective, with less religious focus and more emphasis on the healing traditions.
The unwritten folklore traditions seemed somehow separate for many people, as did the rhymes and spells used in fairy stories which repeat and fall through patterns altering only in rhythm like water coursing past familiar rocks and stones changing in volume and make up but nearly always following the bed of the burn.
Then I started to work as professional storyteller, focusing much of my work on stories and folklore that shared the wisdom of plants and I started to see how all these things joined up.
They connect us through familiar patterns and rhythms to our environment, they follow seasons and geography, the wishes held within stories echo our desires and challenge obstacles, saying aloud the things that pose challenges…offering us paths through, following red threads and white pebbles back to points in history that may hold answers to recurring questions.
Yarrow is a fascinating plant, it crops up in several of the charms told in the Gadelica, but it’s also the name of a river in the Scottish borders, a p[lace where wild Yarrow grows aplenty…a place with a significant part in folkloric heritage, a town in the borders ballad ‘The Dowie Dens of Yarrow’ which can be heard on the Tobar an Dualchais archive here: http://www.tobarandualchais.co.uk/en/play/15022;jsessionid=BF5B488D95C6EDCEDE86E4AF1F615354
Carterhaugh at the conflux of the river Yarrow with the Ettrick in Selkirkshire is also claimed to be where Tam Lin meets the Queen of the Faeries, for more on this take a look at this website: http://tam-lin.org/scotland/carterhaugh.html .
Then there’s the village of Yarrowfoot, which it’s claimed in an ancient tale was once home to a ‘Witch-nag’ http://www.sacred-texts.com/neu/celt/sfft/sfft67.htm one of an ilk of tale explaining the reason why one might feel hag-ridden!
This all ties in with the thoughts and connections I’ve been creating over the past year for re-establishing our stories of place, re-storying our everyday paths…
And more on witches… elaborate rituals with Yarrow is noted by Lizanne Henderson in her book as one of the ritual counter-magic skills claimed to have been used by Bell McGhie ‘the last of the Ayrshire witches’ in 1836 along with spoken charms and healing both people and animals. (1)
Collecting Yarrow in a ritualised manner is also one of the accusations made of Elspeth Roach convicted of witchcraft on Orkney over 200 years before in 1616.
Mrs Grieves quotes a yarrow charm linked to divination in A Modern Herbal
'Yarroway, Yarroway, bear a white blow,
If my love love me, my nose will bleed now.'
Not that I’d recommend the associated action of sticking a serrated Yarrow leaf up the nose to see if it caused a nosebleed as a means of spotting potential partners…
Flora Celtica notes that Yarrow stalks were used in Scotland as a divination tool and has a wonderful description of predicting with Yarrow, which expands on Mrs Grieves two lines(3)
So all these and other factors make the herb now more commonly associated these days with cold and fever remedies and wound healing a fascinating one to follow the paths of as I look more at spoken word charms and their use in traditional folk practices and stories.
A path which has already got off to a magical start…
A couple of months ago I got chatting to the lovely Scott Richardson-Read of the wonderful blog The Cailleach’s Herbarium, he had a bit of a dream and wondered whether I’d like to collaborate…my old friend musician Debbie Armour was the obvious person to get to join the project and then this happened: https://www.kickstarter.com/projects/808898479/tales-of-the-taibhsear-spoken-word-album-of-scotti
Now we are just waiting for the CD’s to be delivered and for the official launch party which is part of the Celebration of Scottish Folk Magic and Community Traditions: Dreaming Bread and Skyrie Stanes, that we’re hosting at the Scottish Storytelling centre on the 11th of November 2018…if you fancy pre-ordering a copy if the album the link is here and Scott has also written a brilliant chap book with more about the folk charms we used and other Scottish folk magic traditions: https://cailleachs-herbarium.com/product-category/cd/
1. Witchcraft and Folk Belief in the Age of Enlightenment: Scotland, 1670-1740
By Lizanne Henderson
Can be found here: https://books.google.co.uk/books?id=EK3tCwAAQBAJ&pg=PA291&lpg=PA291&dq=scottish+witch+convicted+for+yarrow+stalk&source=bl&ots=6or5NgFubS&sig=qPp9Uwj8HnwwEpss-hE4hWdWlrQ&hl=en&sa=X&ved=0ahUKEwjG-ob5rqXZAhUMAsAKHTNyDKgQ6AEITzAE#v=onepage&q=scottish%20witch%20convicted%20for%20yarrow%20stalk&f=false
2. "A Modern Herbal" by Maud Grieve, originally published in 1931.
Available online here: https://www.botanical.com/botanical/mgmh/y/yarrow02.html
3. Flora Celtica, plants and people in Scotland. By William Milliken and Sam Bridgewater Birlinn Books 2013
Gin Maker, Spell Breaker.
My mother, she killed me,
My father, he ate me,
My sister Marlene,
Gathered all my bones,
Tied them in a silken scarf,
Laid them beneath the juniper tree,
Tweet, tweet, what a beautiful bird am I.
The Grimm brother’s classic ‘The Juniper Tree’ http://www.pitt.edu/~dash/grimm047.html is a story that makes even the least sentimental of souls shudder and look as if they have a nasty taste in their mouth. It centres around a gruesome dark tale of infanticide, cannibalism and jealousy…but I have told it, I’ve shared it albeit to a very carefully chosen, adult group, with added conversation about the role the more horrific stories have in giving us a safe place to look at our most hidden fears and the magnified maybe skewed symbolism which bloats the piece.
I ask people to remember the time induced change in the way we value our children and appreciate other people’s and reflect on the fact that this story predates modern contraception.
It comes from a time of short lives and an entirely different approach to the turmoil and shivering nightmares of post-natal depression.
It comes from a time when Juniper: diuretic, gin berry, demon chaser, spell breaker was also prized the world over as an effective abortificant.
I’ve been told tales of it’s use by women from India and Turkey, the Highlands of Scotland and the Navajo nation, it’s something women got told even 40 years ago, quietly by their Aunties their mothers, their sisters.
It’s the lurking truth behind the simmering horror in that story.
The reality of mother’s ruin.
The factual seed that grew to the urban myth of gin in the bath.
But this medicine turned mythology, is merely the popular edge of the Spell breaker.
Juniper, now becoming rarer maybe due in a small part to our reduced need for physical spell dispersers, now we can explain the mechanics of so much magic, now we’ve tamed the demons, the moorlands and the woods, now we have no need to plant Juniper at our doors to give miscreant ill intentioned witches something to count before they can invade our homes…
Having spent so long quietly saving us in so many ways, this shrub needs us to save it.
After all Juniper’s actual role in our stories and our folklore (despite it’s association with some of the more controversial aspects of human nature: our fascination with intoxication, our desires, our needs to control our body and our environment, whether due to real or perceived threats to our survival) is one of protection and that works best as a reciprocal arrangement!
The protection Juniper offers is not always hard to stomach either.
One of my favourite stories for really tiny children is a traditional one where a Juniper tree and a Pine tree offer to protect a young bird incapable of following it’s family on the essential winter migratory path. It’s beautiful full of gentle facts, and morsels of morality, but delivered in a charming little gem of a tale.
In Scottish folklore it’s role was one of a demon chaser it’s smoke was said to purify the air, chase real and imagined fronds of evil and that’s the story that led me to write this, a little peek into a historical world tangled with literature, feeding on folklore, that’s slowly growing:
On Rosemary and Juniper
Mara had only the barest memory of the sea, she remembered her mother’s lullabies lilting softly in time to the echo of the waves, the intermittent shriek of the gulls, the percussive shingle unsettled by the tides moon struck nuances, but she wanted to remember, wanted to remember now as she held her own child, her shawl wrapped round them both, its blue woollen fibres buffeted by the cold wind as she fled from that which would harm her.
She had tried the ancient traditional purification rituals her mother had taught her, to rid her world of these demons, burnt Rosemary as the Roman’s had done when they came to this shore and Juniper as the highlanders always had, to cleanse the air, but the witches had battled through, they had counted all the leaves on the Juniper bush planted on her threshold and had only been distracted from their mischief for long enough to allow her to gather Violets for her child’s cough and Rosemary to help her remember the shore she sought and to ward off the plague (like a Queen carrying a Maundy bouquet as she tended the poor) and then she hastily left through the back of the bothy.
‘Look at my flowers’. The words kept whirling round her head, the words of a young girl lapsing into madness ‘There’s Rosemary, that’s for remembering. Please remember, love. And there are Pansies, they’re for thoughts’, Ophelia’s bouquet so sorrowful, a floral manifestation of a young girls hopes to meet her lover shown on St Magdalen’s day, or maybe as Herick said
‘Grow for two ends – it matters not at all Be’t for my bridall, or my buriall.”
Mara clutched her bundle, her herbs and her child and ran…the wisps of shawl turning the flowers of the bushes blue as she fled from the sickness that sent those around her mad and dreaming of demons and fled to the shore where the sea foam she just remembered would take her away, like a mermaid returning, to safety and distant dreams(c) Amanda Edmiston 2015
So as you sip gin and contemplate the cloud strewn Autumn sky, give Juniper a thought, add a handful of twigs to a fire and watch as they sparkle and glow, smoke chasing demons, just in case there are any lurking, let the berries chase the internal fluid that leads to paranoia and more demons will disperse. Then plant one outside your door, witches will be busy counting, birds will have somewhere to hide and a beautiful native shrub will survive a little longer.
CHASE THE DEVIL
An original folktale 'mended' from fragments of stories, legends and herbal folklore, about the most fitting of flowers for February's last lick of winter's kiss...
Once upon a time, before medical notes; before research papers were funded; before mood swings were medicated; when plants grew unhindered by commerce. When every village had a woman who knew, who lived outside, apart, but essential, an anchor, a go to for problems chronic or transient alike. There lived a young man strong of heart, brave and steadfast, with foresight in his eyes and love in his breast.
A young man who awoke from a swirling dream of darkness and sorrow. An awakening like no other; an awakening full of dread and fear, his body was weighted, leaden; his skin ashen: timeworn and desolate. He raised his head but could not open his eyes for slow meaningless weeping, his throat wished to retch, his mind a blank. His mother at first concerned could find no physical ill, by turn fearful then infuriated, she wracked her mind for the source of his melancholy, but none could she find. Indeed every time she entered and left his presence she swore she heard not her sons derelict moans but a low growly chortle. Was he laughing despite his pallor of misery? She searched and sought for another explanation for the eerie noise. But only the young man himself could see the host of that tonal sound so resonant with despair bound in a gutterel laugh, and his embracing misery did not give him the chance to articulate what he saw:.....A huge black dog, fed daily by its master...
...Satan himself, fed daily on a meal of the young man's joy and happiness.
Weeks passed, as midsummer arrived his mother still finding no answer, sought the wise woman who lived by the water high on the heath near the villages edge. The woman came at the mothers beckoning, bringing her basket of freshly picked herbs with her. On finding the poor youth still bound to his bed by an unseen force, pale, shaking, and mournful, she rubbed her eyes with the dew from the plants in her basket and using her wits to look deeper into the space around him, she slowly came to see the glowering shape of the devil’s dog, pinning the young mans feet to the iron of his bedstead, growling its ominous gloom laden chuckle.
The woman acted swiftly sensing the arrival of greater evil, grasping the yellow flower of the 'witches herb' and stuffing it into the slack
open mouth of the youth just as the dog's master appeared. On seeing the woman's work the devil was possessed with a fury, a tumultuous rage. Throwing the dog to one side, and brandishing his pitchfork, the devil proceeded to stab and mutilate the leaves of the plant, and each perforation he made oozed with the blood of St John, the blood drawn when Herod separated the baptists head from his body and blamed the behest of Salome (a lass I'd like to suggest who didn't really need her suggestions taking to seriously but probably just needed some counselling.....I digress...). The blood healed the plant allowing no harm to be done but sent a shiver like a shock right down the shaft of Satan's pitchfork and shaking the very will of the devil, who followed by his dog disappeared back to his fiery domain.
In no time at all, after drinking an infusion of his herbal saviour the young man's sunny disposition returned and forever after 'the witches herb' was known as St Johns Wort ...or...Chase the devil...
(c) Amanda Edmiston 2012
The Wolf Peach...a little taste of lycanthropy
So a revisiting of my tale of werewolves and solanaceae; the lost legend I recreated for Atropa Nights, the missing link that explained the flesh crawling, skin walking, shape shifting, Atropine aggravated descent into inflammation...
A story mended from the European folklore surrounding Solanum Lycopersicum, the tomato..once believed to be a fruit used by witches to turn unsuspecting victims to werewolves. A fruit, which it was claimed, had the ability to draw money into the house if placed on the mantelpiece...maybe leading to the variety grown successfully by many a gardener...the Moneymaker.
Here is my story linking werewolves, wild women and of course ...
...THE WOLF PEACH
There was once a girl, a girl who lived alone with her mother in a dark wild wood; a wood on the edge of a dark wild town, a town torn from the bed of the river and ripped from the heart of the meadow; a town with towers taller than the trees, towers with more inhabitants than the trees that came before it; more inhabitants than the ash or the mighty oak itself. Inhabitants dwelling like the folkloric spiders in a gall wasps oak apple, spiders foretelling of shortages and tainted crops. Inhabitants restricted by invisible chains, chains of service, chains of fear and mistrust, chains wrought when their knowledge had been wrenched from them....... left afraid, afraid of the wild wood and the tidal waters beyond.
Day by day the girl watched as her mother tended the plants in her garden, a garden half tame half wild wood; she watched and learnt as her mother brewed tisanes, steamed soups, baked cakes, infused teas, chopped stews, cut herbs and harvested plants. She watched and tasted, learnt and listened. Every day she listed to her mother every fruit and vegetable, every flower and leaf, very herb and spice, every tree and root; all the ones she loved and all the ones she didn't, all the ones that healed and all the ones that harmed, all she liked and only one she loathed; red and night shade scented, juicy and spongelike, textured like cut tongue; the slippery hint of antagonistic green guarding the seeds within, criss crossed with membrane, too visceral, too sweet; its sharp acidic punch bringing bile to her throat, making her mouth water and her stomach gag; simultaneously, confusing and repellant: the wolf peach.
Her mother had known, as the child had swollen inside her; known as her own body had reviled the shades: the potato, the aubergine.....tomatoes had brought heartburn, heartache, nausea and dreams, dreams of skin walkers prowling and inflammatory. Now as the girl grew, sought womanhood and wider knowledge, she beseeched her to try, to discover for herself its inflammatory cascade, as she knew eventually she must.
But alone in the house the girl carefully kept the fruit to its place, on the mantelpiece... ripening, designed that way to repel bile and attract money, a more positive cause and effect she felt.
Eventually the day came when full grown, the men started to come to her door and beg and promise, cajole and insist, beguile and charm, promises in hand but bags empty, and she took to handing out the loathed fruit to suitors and watched as one by one, they bit and swallowed and howled at the moon, as they grew viscous, demanding and calous, malicious and malodorous; til exhausted and fearful she slammed the door and reached for her mothers hand, held tight and did not understand her mothers eyes of sorrow or her disconcerting mirthless laugh. " You'll get it right in the end" she said, "you just need to trust yourself and keep watching for it".
So she watched and she looked, hunting amongst the dust purple pollen of the nightshade, tomatoes beautiful disdainful aunt with a venomous nature; crawling wide eyed amongst the evil peanut stench of the Datura, through Hemlock and Henbane. 'Til she realised, the answer lay not there, but amongst the basil and the melissa, the thyme and the sage, herbs of knowledge and strength, along the celery's conduit for paranoia, the parsleys trigger for tidal flow; and with the wolf peach itself. The more she knew the less the suitors chapped at her door, 'til one alone stood forward, shaking his head, refusing the tomato she offered, till the girl stepped from inside her mothers house and as the moon rose and her body swelled and the tides across the dark town drew her near, she took the wolf peach and its lycanthropic call and consumed it, and as the ill minded lurking in the shadows of the nearby woods cursed her and withdrew, the one was left, standing, watching, arm outstretched, ready to catch her if she fell. He did not roar back as she screamed, transformed, lycanthropy complete, but knew in his heart that this wolf woman had a beauty and strength to resist the darkness, to know it, engage with it, and with him by her side, and take her place alongside her mother as a woman in the wild wild wood.
(c) Amanda Edmiston 2012
For a more in-depth look at the history of tomato-fear see this great article on Atlas Obscura: https://www.atlasobscura.com/articles/when-tomatoes-were-blamed-for-witchcraft-and-werewolves