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
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.
A Kist in Thyme: Seasons
It’s early Autumn and our hedges are covered in plump ruby red berries...
But a huge number of people are uncertain which is which....
They pause in front of the May, the faerie tree: Hawthorn and hesitate before asking 'Rowan?'
On a day to day basis identifying berries seldom comes up in many peoples conversations,
A lot of people correctly identify the big beauties of the British wild berry scene, the brambles and the rosehips.
But even then a surprisingly high number aren't confident enough with their I.D. to actually pick and eat them
I have veg box buying, kale munching, friends, who say:
" I would if I was with someone who knew what they were doing”
I know gardeners who assert that you can't eat domestic unsprayed rosehips…
Whilst I was delivering the first stage of the Kist in Thyme project in rural Stirlingshire, I found that the elders in the village at least, still mostly knew their stuff, but that younger generations were often uncertain and children particularly were unsure, having been cautioned against ‘poisonous berries’ they were wary and lacked the confidence I felt growing up in a rural area where having edible and inedible fruits and leaves pointed out to me by my mum and my gran was an everyday occurrence.
But what was a valuable reminder for me and I did notice with some of the older folk who grew up just before or during the second world war was the vague residue of the association with wild food and poverty, we forget this in our age of trendy foraging, very quickly during my planning and research for Kist in Thyme I realised how our current perception of rural life, wild food, storytelling, herbal medicine is rose tinted, we are now far enough away from the famine, disease and clearances that stretched into the 19th century for it not to mar our romantic view of recent rural history.
A class of 10 year old's grandparents grew up with the national health service and the benefit system....
…the National Health Service was only introduced by Bevin in 1948 and I am very much a different generation, (this was after my mother was born) when I say this to a grown up group I can see the moment of reflection as they pause and consider for a moment how recent this change in British lifestyle is.
Rickets due to vitamin D deficiency, lack of sunlight, poor nutrition is not a Victorian disease, it was still commonplace in the UK until the 1940’s.
To omit these facts in an intergenerational sharing would be obtuse.
We are very lucky.
We may now covet a lifestyle filled with homemade hedgerow jelly, wild mushrooms and herbal tea.
But we have the luxury of choice.
We now know through societies omissions that previous generations hard work and shortages lead to wise ways and creative solutions.
But it’s about the flow and sharing of knowledge, it's about a respectful and aware acknowledgement of change...we should not seek 're-wilding' without being aware of the huge deprivation our ancestors faced that lead to them stepping away from natures harsh handed bounty.
Awareness is key, understanding, flexibility, respect and listening, equality must pervade intergenerational work, no one group is right or wrong, each has equal value and we must accept that there is value in our difference.
The class of 10 and 11 year olds were studying farming, the class, their teacher and I were joined by a retired primary teacher whom I'd talked to at the local Heritage Society session.
The differences in how teachers approach talking to a class of children was immediately very evident for me!
I also realised how much I love a sense of dynamic energetic equal interaction between everyone in the room during my sessions and how although I see this as the way to learn, bouncing ideas off each other, creating, there is no wrong in creativity...there are morals and ethics and integrity, authenticity, hopes and dreams but there is no completely wrong, just elastic space to discover and experiment.
But this session was interesting because the tight control a different generation of teachers had seen as the desirable norm, worked brilliantly with one or two members of the group who don't flourish as much as others when given an afternoon workshop with me.
Suddenly the different working ways were interesting and not as black and white as I'd expected.
It was also very interesting because my original community elders group were mostly local born and bred, with the one incomer having moved from less than ten miles away over 50 years ago but now we were working with our retired teacher who had grown up in a very different part of the country, locality of plant growth became a major consideration.
She shared great memories of how rare a treat strawberries and other fresh berries had been in her childhood, we were looking at how the diverse selection of fruit and veg from around the world which now grace our supermarket shelves, very recent addition, but of course there is a huge local variation in the UK and Stirlingshire is pretty much part of Scottish berry country, close enough to 'The Berryfields of Blair' for locals to have once travelled the 40 miles for the harvest season. We listen to the song sung by Belle Stewart which chronicles the berry picking time.
We were drawn towards looking at sustainability again.
Handing round fat juicy strawberries from a nearby farm, now grown in polytunnels on raised shelves for easier picking and longer seasons we discussed the tactile sensory experience of picking strawbs whilst kneeling on straw with warm sunshine and friendly field mice....but considered that recently introduced methods are environmentally friendly, sustainable ways of increasing the crop size and lengthening the season.
I wove my new version of the classic story of The Twelve Months, shared so beautifully by Stanley Robertson on the oral archive I'm working with.
I told the group about Stanley's upbringing, how his grandfather had really, truly, run away to join the circus, about how the travelling people moved around the area to follow the seasonal work.
I embellished my version with subtle suggestions of ethics and points designed to draw the groups minds further into creative solutions to environmental sustainability and supply and demand.
In my retelling the first sister goes to find small quantities of unseasonal fruits to mend her sister's ailments and the second sister, maladies mended, goes to get huge amounts to sell in the market and gain wealth and riches.
The class quickly spotted the ideas I was weaving into the story.
We went outside...
There is a beautiful wild herb garden in the school grounds
We collaborated, made choices and designated tasks, three children volunteered themselves as 'good at maths', I gave them a ball of string and asked them to think about how they might divide the roughly circular pace into twelve months, when the string ran out the class problem solved finding them fallen sticks to mark the spaces.
We thought about what grew when, what foodstuffs people might have used before modern farming and transport expanded our choices.
I used Betsy White's brilliant recollections of foraged food and herbal cures from the archive to prepare for this stage of the project.
I wove Betsy's memories into stories as we worked, exploring the hedges within the school grounds, the children were interested in there potential to provide food stuff. They talked eagerly about the opportunity to know what they could eat in the natural environment and how it might add a layer of possibility to games and adventures.
For the teachers they saw how it brought reality to modern classics of children's literature like Michelle Paver's 'Wolf Brother', or indeed Harry Potter, the potential herbal storytelling had for making literacy projects leap into life.
The class found armfuls of dry leaves for October
Bare branches for November.
The bleak months bear so little I tell a short story of winter and ‘the stone months’, we end up with pebbles representing the cold, seeds symbolising snow...I tell them about the old activity of children being sent to harvest thistledown to fill bedding...the seeds now also represent winter warmth, one girl remarks they would also be germinating under the soil during January and February.
We look at the berries in the school grounds, they can all now happily identify hawthorn and rowan and many try the hawthorn berries, they become September.
We had flowers...representing the summer months, three of the group chose their favourite colours for their birthdays, but we also thought they were rather appropriate as summer was so bountiful that it gave us time to appreciate flowers.
Nettles are grasped and their properties discussed, they are going through a phase at this point in September where they are re-growing in the Autumnal warmth as if we are experiencing a second Spring, the new tips become March.
Fennel seeds are guzzled...the Romans who once lived on this site were known to appreciate the seeds for their restorative powers, we imagine legionnaires eating them where we stand now.
Holly and Pine cones for December.
The teacher has clearly enjoyed herself hugely and remarked on how great it's been to sit within the class and watch them work and create things and process ideas and information....she says how 'great it is to have had an afternoon not teaching from the front’ and we've created a bit of environmental art, temporary but beautiful.
We go back indoors, the bell was about to ring, an afternoon has rarely passed so quickly.
I left them some books, a bit of a display, a few had been asking questions they could research for themselves tomorrow…
The follow up sessions lead to the beautiful seasonal wheel you can see on the Kist in Thyme slideshow on the gallery page, one of the pieces that feature in there second phase of the Kist in Thyme a interactive story-led touring exhibition with accompanying workshops for families and schools groups and experiential performance pieces for adults.
The exhibition has been to The Scottish Storytelling Centre in Edinburgh, The Macrobert Art Centre in Stirling and The National Museum of Rural Life near Glasgow with fabulous feedback from audiences and the workshops and mini-accompanying installations have travelled even further afield with sessions for students and teachers at Shanghai United International School in China and The Ashmolean Museum in Oxford amongst others.
If you would like to discuss A Kist in Thyme featuring at your venue please do get in touch: [email protected]
If you'd like a free download of resources for this workshop please join my facebook group here: https://www.facebook.com/groups/botanicafabulousness/
For a further glimpse into The Kist in Thyme see the short film at the top of my gallery page here: https://www.botanicafabula.co.uk/gallerytestimonials
A Kist in Thyme: The Tattie Bogle's Dance
Tattie bogles #KistinThyme
The first school session for #KistinThyme was created for a class who were studying Scottish Food this term, I like to create links between my sessions and the children's topics, that way the multi-faceted nature of storytelling becomes more tangible, children can see the connections...sometimes with even greater ease than the grown ups!
When I arrive at the school, we start off with a chat about the sort of vegetables we like to eat, where we get them, what time of year...
Broccolli, cucumber, butternut squash, sweetcorn and red peppers are all faves
This great bit of archive material recorded just up the road from the school was one of the inspirations for me to look at how dramatically the way we eat has changed in just 100 years.
I've brought my Gran's copy of 'The Scot's Kitchen' by F. Marian McNeill with me
The vegetable chapter is a real eye opener to modern readers...
I open the page and start listing recipes:
Banffshire Potato pie,
There are only a few pages...every recipe features potatoes, carrots make one appearance, cabbage and turnips two.
We end with an exotic one,
No potatoes included...
We hold our
Turnip Purry...ingredients: turnip.
In 2016 the list sounds like a comedy creation.
The children are genuinely surprised as they realise, cucumbers, broccolli, peppers and even the humble brussels sprout don't even make it onto the page of a 100 year old cookery book!
So tatties, we ponder...clearly a staple, where did they come from...
"Who's got plans already for the October holidays" I ask the class of 7 and 8 year olds.
Hands erupt into the air....
'We're going to France',
'...to my Granny and Grandpa's'
'I'm going to rugby camp'
'I'm going to complete lego star wars on my PS4'
'I'm playing with my wii' (older people's groups love the hidden hilarity clearly inherent in this one)
You get the gist...it all sounded pretty good.
"I've got a leaflet here about: the perfect activity to keep young children amused during the holidays, how does that sound, shall I send one home in your school bags?"
A cheer of positivity; hands held out for a look at this promising sounding source of holiday fun.
"AND instead of your family needing to pay for you to go, YOU'LL get paid"
My mum storyteller Jean Edmiston, who is herself 69, is joining me for this session, I turn to ask her:
"How much did you need to live on in 1969?"
'Well, she replies your dad earned 15 shillings a week, we were both students and you were new-born, we were incredibly hard up but we just about managed on that'
"Ok, I say to the children, you can earn 2 shillings a week for doing this holiday activity, how much could you earn in a week"
They quickly work out that they can earn nigh on an adult wage in a week....
'I'll do it',
'What is it"
I tell them they'll need to work hard and wear wellies, one boy figures out it's farm work, they're a rural school...
But they're still keen,
"5am" I warn...
They nod eagerly
This brilliant cartoon helps
https [:/] /scotlandonscreen.org.uk/browse-films/007-000-002-155-c
Then I go and spoil it all by showing the the reality...
Even to a seven year old this immediately looks like back ache...
There are some brilliant memories about tattie howking in nearby Callander in the 1970's on this BBC forum:
http [:/] /www.bbc.co.uk/scotland/history/scotlandonfilm/forum/rural/thread5.shtml
I produce a neep...that's a turnip, sorry a Scottish (or Swedish...) turnip, a Swede in England, a snep in Gaelic, tumchie is my favourite name for them...the old Scots word.
But what's our tumchie got to do with tatties?
I ask who's heard of a 'tattie bogle’…
…only one or two....a tattie bogle is literally a potato ghost...a scarecrow...a bogle is something that scare things and in this case the tattie bogle is there to scare the crows aways from the potato crops and Tattie bogles, always have a neep for a heid.
I've adapted a great story by the legendary Duncan Williamson for the session, the original from his book 'The Flight of the Golden Bird' can be found here: The Hare and the Scarecrow
In my adaptation I add some of the fantastic bits of folklore and plant use I've found in Tobar an Dualchais, so the tattie bogle sees turnips being used as a poultice, as a cold cure, in purry.... this is one fantastic example of an unexpected but perfect use for a neep: http://www.tobarandualchais.co.uk/en/fullrecord/102006/1
This is my working synopsis, this is the way I learn a story when I'm working....I can add description and detail as I go.
The farmers children build a tattie bogle (one of my community elders is a really lovely local farmer, her comment that farmers children never went tattie howking as there was too much -unpaid- work for them to do on the farm is added to this bit)
It sits in the tattie field
October holidays come round
School breaks up folk come from far and wide to dig up the tatties.
Scarecrow watches them eating stovies and soup, gald thats not him, using neeps from the nearby field to cure a cold, glad thats not him, as a poultice on a chafed hand (I expand with memories and archive)...so glad thats not him...but glad that neeps are so useful
Halloween comes around and the scarecrows left in a field all on his own, thinks he’s of no use and remembers all the useful things the other neeps did
Local children running around guising, carrying turnip lanterns flickering eyes look like neeps have come to life...wishes that was him alive and making children laugh...(I add memories of local customs http://www.tobarandualchais.co.uk/en/fullrecord/17998/60)
Halloween and the walls are thin ...a hare asks him whats upsetting him he wishes he can come to life...and he says ok but only if you remember you cant speak... or otherwise the spell will be broken....
Farmer has party...find scarecrow on doorstep, takes him inside at childrens request. But he joins in with party games (here I add in the games from last weeks blog)...and spell is broken, but because he has made the children so happy...every halloween the tattie bogles were brought back to the farm and that was the start of scarecrow festivals.)
The class loves the story
They ask as children always do 'is it real'
I like my mum's answer best
"I always say all stories are real whilst they're being told".
We gather up our neep and head outside with a bag of old clothes and make Tumchie Snep, the most fantastic tattie bogle, stuffed with leaves from the school grounds...
Then we round the session off with a gorgeous song in Gaelic....here's one we looked at: a lullaby or dandling song about a child being allowed to go and lift potatoes....but not go to the well!
http [:/] /www.tobarandualchais.co.uk/en/fullrecord/83274/42
So there you have it, the magical tattie bogle one of the favourite sessions for families and younger schools groups from A Kist in Thyme in it’s first session.
This workshop has now been loved by schools and audiences at The National Museum of Rural Life in Scotland and The Ashmolean Museum in Oxford and is available to book now as part of The Kist in Thyme package, who knew turnips could be so much fun!
Amanda Edmiston 2018
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