Books reviewed on this page:
Scottish Customs from the Cradle to the Grave
For once, I'm not sure I have much to say about a book. In a good way. Because I really can't think of much to say other than: I like it.
As far as finding information on various life passages, this about the only book you need to start you off. Like British Calendar Customs, it's more like a source book, with excerpts from various different authors from around the seventeenth century onwards. Bennett gives a bit more commentary than Banks did, but it's still quite light and lets the excerpts speak for themself.
The book covers customs associated with childbirth, baptism, courtship, marriage, through to death. It's all laid out in a logical order and the various different subjects that come under each chapter are well-grouped together, so finding things is easy.
One of the most charming bits about the book is that Bennett herself contributes some of the material from her own diaries and memories, as well as those of her family and students. You get the impression that not only is she passionate about the subject, she's the sort of person you could talk to for hours on end about it all, and she'd always come up with something you've never heard before.
The source material also includes bits from newspaper articles and interviews that Bennett herself (or her students) have recorded, so you get a good mix - more than most books offer. It's very dense and thorough. I can see that might be offputting for anyone wanting to read it from start to finish (and to be honest, I didn't - this is the sort of book I've had for years and have picked at various chapters as needed until I'm done), but as a resource it's excellent. It doesn't give everything you need to know, but it gives a good solid start so you can go on to hunt up more information if you want to. Does it have its limits? Yes. (For one I'd like to have seen more discussion of handfastings). But the solidness of this book far outweighs the slight niggles you might have.
Saints and Sea-kings: The First Kingdom of the Scots
I mentioned this one in a review of another book from the same The Making of Scotland series by Historic Scotland a while ago, but it deserves it's own review I think. The other book took a look at Iron Age Scotland, whereas this one looks at the eary medieval period and the coming (and going) of the Dalriadans who settled in the Argyll area of the west coast from around 400AD (although the dates depend on who you ask).
The series aims to provide "lively, accessible and up-to-date introductions to key themse and periods in Scottish history and pre-history", and while I'm not sure history can ever be lively for some people, I'd say the book delivers on its promise of being accessible. Nearly ten years on, it also still stands up as being relatively up to date - since this was one of the key texts for a module I studied (Early Medieval Gaeldom) and some of the things in there were fairly revolutionary at the time there's sometimes an excitement and defensiveness at some of the things that are said that are generally accepted as fact, which might date it a little. But maybe I'm thinking more about the tone of my lectures than picking up anything from the book.
There are plenty of pictures and illustrations with nice soundbites in helpful little boxes to help emphasise some of the more important facts that are presented, and the tone and language that's used is clear and there's not too much jargon. The lack of references, unless a text is specifically mentioned or quoted, is a problem, but not surprising for a book like this which is aimed at a younger audience rather than a specifically academic one, but overall the book is short and sweet and gives good pointers to further reading and sites to see. And at least with this book, you can look up the sites on CANMORE and check for the site reports yourself, unlike Cunliffe's book that also had the same problem.
On the plus side, the author presents the information clearly and in a straightforward and sensible manner. It's not an in-depth analysis of the subject, by necessity, but Dr Campbell does cover some of the more important quibbles over some of the details here and there. He covers the origins of the Dál Riata, what their everyday life would have been like, their social and political structure, religion (mainly in terms of the coming of Christianity, rather than anything useful about any pre-Christian beliefs) and the importance of Iona in the early medieval period, the sources that relate to or refer to Dál Riata, and their artistic accomplishments.
It's an easy read that doesn't repeat itself too much and doesn't rely on teh big wurdz to make the author sound intelligent. The only real negative in terms of the information that's presented is that there's an unfortunate mistake that mixes up Brythonic and Goidelic as Q- and P-Celtic languages, rather than P- and Q-Celtic. I'm not sure if there are later editions that have corrected it, but it's worth watching out for and noting.
It's a good series of books to get if you want a beginner's guide to Scottish history and archaeology and while it's not directly beneficial in terms of informing CR practice - although the mention of conical glass 'drinking horns' are interesting from a feasting perspective, I think - I'd recommend it for getting a good idea of historical background for someone looking to get a good introduction to the subject, as well as a good perspective surrounding the issues in studying it.
This is not so much a book in its own right as a collection of booklets that were produced by the Glencoe and North Lorn Folk Museum in the 1970s, many of which are available to buy on their own. If you can find a copy of Highland Heritage going cheap then it's probably a good idea to invest in this, rather than buy them individually, but it seems Highland Heritage is hard to come by and I lucked out.
Subjects covered include the social calendar and customs, plantlore, farming, livestock, the Ballachulish slate quarry, the folklore of Glencoe, and a brief history of the area, along with selected excerpts from a wide variety of sources on Highland life and travels. Some chapters are more interesting than others, and more relevant to a CR context than others - these are:
The folklore of Glencoe and North Lorn
The Highland calendar and social life
Highland livestock and its uses
Highland plant lore
Which are both the chapter titles and the titles of the booklets if you want to look them up separately.
Of these, the chapters on folklore and the calendar don't offer anything you won't find anywhere else, but they do give a good idea of the lore that's specific to the area (which is often presented in a more general way in other books) so it's good if you want to concentrate on that because of ancestral heritage or something. The chapters on wildlife and plant lore offer a good overview of the subjects, and not being particularly au fait with herbalism, there was a lot that I hadn't seen before and was genuinely interesting to me. I can't say they offer anything very different from other books on plant lore, really, but it was different to me, at any rate.
The chapters towards the end of the book are almost entirely made up of excerpts which are mostly from the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, but some are even older. On the plus side, there are some obscure and useful sources used - the sort of anecdotal evidence that help to lend some support to some of those folklore books written in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries that aren't so well referenced. I found a few references to bannocks that I thought were interesting, for one thing. For the student of Scottish history - particularly interested in everyday, domestic life - these chapters make a great resource. But to be fair, I couldn't say they make for the most thrilling of reads...
On the whole though, since each chapter was originally written as a booklet, they're all very general and lacking in any real depth, and as a book it feels a bit piecemeal and not very coherent. This makes it the sort of book you can pick through, rather than go through in one sitting - it's more suited to mine little tidbits from, when you want to get into the details details details, not so much when you want to look at the bigger picture. It's unfortunate, in that respect, that there's no indexing to help find those little gems more easily. Have some post-its or a pen and paper handy.
Taken on their own, as booklets, the more relevant chapters offer a good introduction to the subjects they cover (but not in a very analytical way, to be fair - it's all about the facts, not how to interpret those facts). In that sense they might appeal to a beginner lookng for a quick and easy read, but to be fair you're better off working through McNeill's The Silver Bough or Black's The Gaelic Otherworld in the long run. As a collection in Highland Heritage, though, it's probably going to appeal more to someone who wants to get beyond the usual suspects that tend to be high on the reading list. I wouldn't say it's a must have, but it's a good compliment.
Scottish Fairy Belief
Lizanne Henderson and Edward J Cowan
If I had to summarise this one, I'd just have to say: Meaty goodness.
This is a book that does pretty much what it says on the cover. If there's just one book you're after for all your introductory needs to the subject, then this is the one for you. If I have to convince you further, then by all means, read on...
This is an academic text, and (from what the blurb tells me) it's a groundbreaking one too, since it's the first modern study of the subject. First and foremost, it aims to give an outline of the main themes of fairy belief, its history and motifs and so on. As an academic text, it starts by introducing some of the general theory of the study of fairy belief, which is useful for studies in general, not just putting the book into a wider context. It helps you become aware of the problems in the material used - especially, for example, in the reliability of the witch trials, which can provide a huge amount of information on fairy belief and folk customs, as well as confessions of dubious veracity, the evidence being skewed to conform to the latest theories on witchcraft, and so on.
Getting into the meat of it, each chapter covers a different area - the nature of fairy belief and the lore, how they were (and are) perceived, the influence of the Reformation and the witchcraft trials, and in particular, one chapter is dedicated to Robert Kirk and The Secret Commonwealth. To be honest, I'm hard pressed to find much negative to say about it - it's well-referenced and well laid out, well-written, and doesn't veer into dense paragraphs full of jargon and Teh Big Wurdz. And for the most part, it's an engaging read. And it will certainly do a good job of disabusing anyone with the notion that fairies a really just terribly terribly misunderstood, and actually quite nice.
I suppose the biggest negative of the book is that it assumed a more in-depth knowledge of history than the casual reader might have. For me it was the Reformation, and so forth - that's not my period of interest, really, so I'm a little hazy on it these days, and found it distracting at times.
It's a thorough work, although I'm sure it only touches the surface, really, but it's a very satisfying read and definitely worth it. It would probably be best appreciated if you already have a bit of an idea of the subject, with something like Evans-Wentz's The Fairy-Faith in Celtic Countries at the least. And I've yet to read Narváez's The Good People (I've only managed a flick through), but I think these would complement each other well. And speaking of complements:
Fantastical Imaginations: The Supernatural in Scottish History and Culture
Lizanne Henderson (Ed.)
This book is more of a mixed bag, for me, and maybe it's because of what it is: a collection of essays on various supernatural subjects in Scottish history. In reading this kind of thing - collections - sometimes it's difficult to fully appreciate the book as a whole because each author will naturally have a different voice, and as far as reading the book from cover to cover is concerned, I sometimes find it difficult to get into the book's flow. I guess my feelings about this book were inevitably going to be a bit more muted than most books I read.
So yes, there were some chapters I struggled to wade through at times, and maybe it's not just the different voices to contend with, chopping and changing from almost conversational, to more formal, or the subject moving from something that's engaging to something that's really not (I'm not sure I'll ever manage some enthusiasm for the Scottish Enlightenment)...I think a big part of the problem for me is that because there's such a limited amount of space (I presume) that each author has, sometimes the points they try to make just don't seem to be fully developed, or explored thoroughly enough, to feel well made.
There were some good articles - I really enjoyed Valentina Bold's article on "The Wicker Man: Virgin Sacrifice in Dumfries and Galloway," for one, which brought together all the elements of Scottish folk practice that were incorporated into the film, mixed in with a brief analysis of the film itself; Margaret Bennett's "Stories from the Supernatural: From Local Memorate to Scottish Legend" had some nice bits and pieces on modern survivals that caught my eye (with regards to the planting of rowan trees in Scotland, even today); and Juliette Wood's "Lewis Spence: Remembering the Celts" was a good read, too.
But then there was John MacInnes' "The Church Traditional Belief in Gaelic Society" which I didn't feel quite lived up to my expectations (largely, I think, to a general lack of references to some things I'd've been interested in following up). And Hugh Cheape's "The Material Culture of Charms and Amulets" disappointed me in the sense that there wasn't much in the way of anything new (references-wise) for me to go hunting for, but it was otherwise a good article and probably one of the best ones in the book.
I bought this with Scottish Fairy Belief because I figured they'd go well together, and given the dates of their publication (2001 and 2009) I decided to read this one second, because I figured reading the earlier book would give me a better grounding in the subject so I could appreciate the articles in this later work more. Even though the articles in Fantastical Imaginations cover more than just fairy belief, I certainly think I did benefit from keeping that order, but maybe my slight disappointment with this book was coloured by how much I enjoyed the first one.
Ultimately, there are lots of good essays here, but really I think it's the sort of thing that's of most interest to the more advanced reader who wants to get more in-depth information on this particular subject.
Scottish Customs and Scottish Festivals
These are two separate books by the same author, but seeing as they basically go hand in hand, I might as well lump them together.
I saw them recommended on a college book list somewhere so thought I'd give them a go. I wasn't really expecting much in the way of new information, so when they arrived any high hopes I might have had weren't exactly dashed. Livingstone draws heavily on McNeill's The Silver Bough as a source, so for the most part it's a rehashing of that work. This is good and bad in a way, because they're shorter volumes and there's only two of them. In that sense, it will cost a lot less to buy them than all four volumes of McNeill's work and being shorter, there's less detail to overwhelm someone who's new to the subject, if they're looking for a basic nuts and bolts sort of introduction. They're much easier to get hold of than McNeill's work, and therefore much cheaper as well.
That said, I did find some elements to be problematical, mainly Livingstone's emphasis on the customs and festivals relating back to the Druids. It was alllllll about the druids, when really there's nothing concrete to prove such a link; McNeill does this too, to be fair, and it's clear that this is where Livingstone's drawing her information from. Being a relatively recent book, though, I would have expected it to reflect a more modern attitude to the issue so I'm less forgiving with Livingstone. It's easy to read around, but I found it very (and probably unreasonably) grating.
The Scottish Customs book is perhaps a little more useful than the Scottish Festivals book because it offers a little more in the way of detail, and is less reliant on McNeill. It splits the customs into different headings like Birth, Death, Marriage and so on, and then details the customs under separate sub-headings, making it good for flicking through and quick reference. It covers pretty much the same stuff as Margaret Bennett's Scottish Customs from Cradle to the Grave (which is the one I'd recommend for quality and quantity of information), but Livingstone's book is less academic and therefore a little more readable, in some respects, because it takes a more conversational, less analytical tone.
My first port of call would still be The Silver Bough, but as I said, the advantage of Livingstone's books are that they're more accessible and easily available. I'd recommend them with the caveat to be a little more circumspect about the druid issue than Livingstone is, for starters.
Folklore of Scottish Lochs and Springs
James M MacInlay
I'd had my eye on this one for a while, and seeing as it isn't available from the library, I eventually managed to convince myself that that was justification enough to buy it. Because, y'know...I might be missing out on something...It wasn't too expensive, either, so if it ended up being a pile of crap then I wouldn't have wasted too much money. (But of course, now you can just read it online...).
Thankfully, it didn't disappoint. Too much. The copy I got was a facsimile reprint of the original version from 1893 and considering its age, it's no surprise that it has all the usual problems of a book from this time period - the often somewhat self-conscious comments about how it's all a pile of silly superstition anyway, to point out that the author in no way believes in this sort of thing; the noble savage/primitives view of the Celts when referring to pre-Christian beliefs; an occasional smattering of Aryan ideology creeping in and frequent comparison with Egyptian, Syrian and Persian cultures, and so on. Unlike some books of this time, none of these elements are emphasised too heavily and MacInlay tends to use them to support his arguments of the Scottish evidence he presents, rather than the other way round.
I was hoping to find some good information about folklore and practices at wells in particular, especially the types of offerings that were left, and their associations with trees as well. I know. The things my brain ponders are just fascinating...But there are lengthy chapters on both of these, as well as chapters on charm-stones, water spirits, healing and their association with saints. Some chapters were more interesting and more relevant to my interests than others, and one minor annoyance I found as I got stuck into it was that times, much of the evidence provided wasn't about Scotland at all and came from England, Ireland or Wales, and refreshingly, occasionally, the Isle of Man, too. On the one hand this was interesting and helped to provide a wider context for the evidence of practices from Scotland, but on the other hand sometimes it was apparent that such evidence was being given because MacInlay didn't have anything to say about Scottish practices on the subject. One of the worst chapters for this was the chapter on Weather and Wells, which aside from the practice of sailors 'buying' a favourable wind was almost completely focused on lore from England. It was interesting to read, but not exactly relevant to the title of the book and I couldn't help but feel that it was being used to pad out the chapter, rather than inform.
In spite of this, there were some genuinely interesting bits and pieces to be found in the book, and MacInlay gave a lot of information about wells from urban centres as well as the more rural ones that modern books on folklore tend to focus on, as well as more general lore on lochs and other bodies of water. MacInlay also offers references to much older historical sources, as far back as the fourteenth century, which is invaluable considering the more modern books on subjects like this tend to refer to books like MacInlays, rather than the older sources, so he offers something different from a variety of angles.
I was particularly intrigued by the mention of a well in the city centre of Glasgow, where it's recorded that up until around the end of the eighteenth century it was common for small offerings made of tin-iron, shaped to look like various limbs or parts of the body, to be nailed to the tree that overshadowed the well (dedicated to St Thenew), presumably in thanks for its curative powers relating to those parts of the body. It struck me as being very reminiscent of the finds from the Gaulish shrine to Sequana. The chapter on charm-stones also offered some good stuff on serpent stones (which he describes as being usually made of brightly-coloured glass) and their use in curing cattle of disease and so forth, and he also offered a few bits on festival practices that I hadn't seen before (especially the practice of building gigantic towers at Lammas).
No references are given in the book, except when direct quotes are given (which isn't unusual for books this old), so sometimes there were certain things that MacInlay wrote that would have been good to follow up (like the description of the Lammas towers, for one). Unusually, however, he does provide a fairly comprehensive bibliography of the works he's referred to in the course of writing the book, which is invaluable, and he also offers some personal observations from his own fieldwork.
This is a very comprehensive work on the subject, and in spite of its problems it's certainly one I'm glad to have bought for future reference. Given its fairly narrow scope it's probably of most interest for someone who's got a good grasp of the basics and wants to get stuck into more of the specifics of certain areas of lore.
Scottish Folk-Lore and Folk-Life
Donald A MacKenzie
I picked this book up from the library on a whim, and I'm really glad I did. I liked it so much I ended up buying it because I think I'll probably end up referring to it quite a bit.
As much as I liked it there are problems with the book, and it's mainly due to the fact that it's now incredibly dated - it was originally published in 1935, so while it (sometimes self-consciously) lacks the 'noble savage' view of Scottish/Gaelic society that often cropped up in Victorian works, it's quite keen on comparing anything and everything with India or Egypt (Egyptology presumably being quite fashionable at the time), as well as fitting deities into a Classical view. The Cailleach, for example, is 'A Scottish Artemis' (which just seems plain odd to me, but I think it's meant in terms of them both being 'mistresses of the beasts').
Ignoring and reading around those bits is easy enough, and what you're left with is a book that complements F Marian McNeill's The Silver Bough and Campbell's The Gaelic Otherworld quite nicely. While the section on festivals doesn't go into much detail and doesn't contain anything that you couldn't find elsewhere, the chapters on sacred wells and trees, and sacred rocks and stones give some good references and some examples of folklore connected with them that I haven't seen elsewhere. The chapters on fairies tend to draw a lot from sources that most people will probably already have read (Campbell and Gregor, for instance), but the analysis of 'Fairies as Deities' gives a nice overview of the more divine elements found in the fairy faith, even if it's slightly rambling and unfocused.
There's also a chapter on 'The Scottish Pork Taboo', which I'd seen referred to elsewhere (the Scots didn't generally like to keep pigs or eat the meat etc) without much explanation. MacKenzie tries to connect it to a hangover from pagan belief, comparing ancient Egyptian attitudes to swine in support of this theory and pointing out that evidence shows early Christian's ate pork without any qualm and so it's unlikely to be influenced by the Old Testament. He fails to examine later movements within Christianity that might have introduced the idea at a later time in history, though, so I've yet to be convinced...
The chapters that focus on the Cailleach provide a good overview of the tales that she appears in, and a lot of information that I haven't seen about her before, especially relating to local lore and legends that connect her with specific places around Scotland, that maybe aren't so well known (to me, at least). These chapters alone were enough for me to find the book worth buying (and it wasn't expensive, either), and have given me some further reading that I want to look up next time I'm at the library.
All in all, the book is very readable and engaging, but because it's so dated I don't think it's necessarily a good place for anyone who's not so familiar with the subject to start reading (The Gaelic Otherworld is probably better because Ronald Black does some good notes that point out bits that are wrong or outdated etc, even if the book is a lot to take in).
Scots Gaelic: An Introduction to the Basics
Since I've started my lessons I'm all enthused about learning, so I've had the books out to help get the words stuck in my head (does that make me a bit of a swot? Very likely...). My main concern about learning a new language is that I have very little understanding of how it all works in a technical sense - vocative, genitive, nominative, irregular verbs...Just the thought of all that brings back nightmares of Latin language lessons and me just not getting it. So I thought I'd get a good head start in the hope that I don't get completely lost when the time comes to get all technical. This book fits the bill nicely.
It's not the sort of book that will help you start having simple conversations in Gaelic - rather it aims to give an idea of the basics of all the technical aspects, so instead of learning how to introduce yourself and ask where the nearest toilet might be, McLennan covers lenition and aspiration, the basics of pronunciation, spelling, dialects, inflection, and so on (you will learn some vocabulary as you go, but that's not the primary focus). Each subject has a short chapter devoted to it, and everything is written in a clear and simple manner and the tone is engaging, which is always a help in my book.
The book itself is quite short and some might criticise it for being too simplistic in certain areas, but for me, less was definitely more. Anymore detail would have been overwhelming, I think, and now I'm a little more confident of facing the prospect of tackling different tenses, irregular verbs and so on, even if I know I don't have all of the basics down just yet.
The great advantage of this book is the way McLennan gives comparisons in the English language, which really helped me understand the points he was making - they allow the reader to put the Gaelic into a more familiar context, as it were. He gives examples of English cognates and sticks to words that will likely to be learned early on, rather than giving more obscure examples of vocabulary, which makes things simpler and more familiar. He also does a good job of showing some similarities between English and Gaelic grammar, which helps make the Gaelic seem less alien.
My only bugbear with the book is that while the basic rules of pronunciation are covered, phonetic pronunciations are rarely given along with the Gaelic. The last chapter gives a list of common words that can be used to get the general point across in pidgin Gaelic if you happen to find yourself stranded in the wilds of the Gàidhealtachd where nobody speaks a word of English (well not really...), but without phonetic prompts I don't imagine anyone would feel confident enough to try actually saying most of the words to a Gaelic speaker without the expectation of being laughed at. But really, the lack of phonetics is a distraction, more than anything else - it does kind of spoil the flow the first time round.
On the plus side, then - it's short and sweet, and very straightforward. Some things might need reading more than once to absorb it properly, but you probably won't get completely lost. McLennan also does a good job to accommodate all kinds of readers - not just Scots wanting to learn Gaelic, but readers from further afield as well. There's something for everyone in here, and the fact that dialects are mentioned is a big plus. That might be why phonetic pronunciations aren't usually given, though, because McLennan is presumably trying to accommodate people who might actually live in Gaelic speaking areas, who might learn different pronunciations. It is a bit distracting, though, and limits the usefulness of the final chapter.
British Calendar Customs: Scotland Vol III - June to December, Christmas, the Yules
Mrs M MacLeod Banks
This is one of those books that have been like trying to get hold of the holy grail: So impossible to find, you end up wondering if they actually exist...
Well this one does, apparently, although I can't vouch for volumes one and two because it seems they've gone missing from the library where I spotted this volume purely by chance. I've seen the books referenced a lot in some of the reading I've been doing over the years, so obviously I had to have a look, even if I'm missing out on the other two.
I suppose given my quest and my happiness at getting hold of a copy, it was invevitably going to be a bit of a let down - it didn't blow my socks off, let's put it that way - but it did offer some good bits and pieces here and there that I found useful. Really, my lack of excitement about it is more to do with the fact that I'm already familiar with most of it by now, and that's not the fault of the book or the author.
The book is a collection of excerpts from other works, so it's only natural that it draws from all of the usual suspects - Alexander Carmichael, Revd. Napier, Campbell, Pennant, Martin, Gregor, and so on. In that respect it's very useful if you don't have access to all of the works themselves because it's all handily compiled in one place (or, three volumes) because it excerpts all of the relevant bits under the relevant day. In this day and age it's not so much of a plus, really, if you have internet access and can look them all up on archive.org. I probably would have been a lot more excited about the book if I couldn't do that.
The book is ordered by month, with excerpts listed for relevant days that have particular customs associated with them, and Banks makes her own contributions and a little commentary here and there as well. For the most part, though, she lets the material speak for itself, unless it's necessary to add context (June starts off with a lot of Bealltainn customs that have been shifted from the start of May, for example, so she adds commentary here - this was all especially useful, or would've been when I was doing research on that).
The larger entries are also subdivided by subject matter, though the layout there is a bit confusing and repetitive. You still have to sift through the chapter, because sometimes a subject is listed again with more information later on, so it could have been a real plus but it ends up a bit of a headache if you want to make a quick reference to something. That's a minor inconvenience, really, though.
One really useful aspect of the book is that it makes a good compliment to F. Marian McNeill's work in The Silver Bough. McNeill doesn't always reference things in as much detail as would be helfpul to do more research on something she touches on, I find, but here you get the sense of a lot of bits and pieces that McNeill's drawn from but hasn't necessarily mentioned. This alone makes me want to get hold of the other volumes by Banks, but alas, it seems it's not meant to be just yet.
Ultimately, I can't say I love this book, but if Scottish folklore is your bag, I'd definitely recommend adding this one to your list. If anything, it's an excellent resource for the lazy researcher...
The Silver Bough: Volume I-IV
F. Marian McNeill
Coming in at four volumes, the full set for the series may set you back a pretty penny if you indulge yourself in one go, but I can tell you straight away that these books are well worth it. I'd originally intended to review them all separately, on their own merits, but in the end I decided that was pointless seeing as I'm not sure they can be fully appreciated without reading each book, and many of their strengths and weakness are the same or very similar. I figured I'd probably just end up repeating myself.
First of all, I'll give an idea of what each volume covers:
The Silver Bough Volume I: Scottish Folk-Lore and Folk-Belief
Here we have an introduction to various aspects of folklore, from witchcraft and fairies, to different types of charms and folk practices. Of all the introductory tomes to the subject, I think this is the most accessible and strikes the right balance between hitting all the right bases without overloading the reader.
The Silver Bough Volume II: A Calendar of Scottish National Festivals Candlemas to Harvest Home
Covering Candlemas, Easter, Bealltainn, Lúnastal and the harvest festivals including Michaelmas, this is probably the best place to start if you want to find out anything about these festivals. Again, it's accessible and detailed, but won't overload. For some subjects - like Bealltainn - various different aspects of it are covered in several chapters, but for the most part this is the sort of book you can dip into as and when you get to each particular time of year to get an understanding of what the festivals are about, and for ideas of what you can do.
The Silver Bough Volume III: A Calendar of Scottish National Festivals Hallowe'en to Yule
Covering a slightly shorter period of the year, but with good reason because there's a lot to pack in. Chapters include covering Samhainn, Christmas, Yule, Hogmanay, and Handsel Monday. Much of what you'll find for Samhainn/Hallowe'en is also covered - with more additional details - in McNeill's standalone book, Hallowe'en: Its Origin Rites and Ceremonies in the Scottish Tradition.
The Silver Bough Volume IV: The Local Festivals of Scotland
Covering the different local festivals, grouped loosely by the time of year (although there's some need for a bit of backwards and forwards here). Of the four volumes, this one is probably of least immediate value and relevance to the beginner, but it gives good additional details for when you want to get stuck in a bit further, or are looking for customs that might relate to somewhere you have heritage from.
The value of these books - and the love I have for this author - cannot be overstated. Although I'd unreservedly recommend the whole set to anyone, however, that doesn't mean that they're not without their problems...
The first volume was published in 1957, with subsequent volumes coming out every couple of years thereafter. This means that not everything is necessarily as up to date as you might hope, and some of the interpretations given by McNeill aren't necessarily solid. I tend to be more forgiving of things like that in older books such as these, but they need commenting on all the same - McNeill's frequent mention of druids, and linking customs with 'ancient druid practices' need to be ignored, for example, because there's simply no evidence to support what she's saying there.
Likewise, because much of McNeill's research is based upon older books, it helps to know what you're dealing with there. She goes along with Fraser and his The Golden Bough sometimes, and for the Cailleach, for example, she draws upon MacKenzie's work. It has to be said that he's not necessarily the most reliable source for that kind of thing even if he is interesting. It helps to be a little circumspect there.
References are given throughout the volumes but in trying to follow up on some things, McNeill hasn't been as thorough as I would have liked. Having familiarised myself with a lot of the stuff she's drawn her research from I can see where bits have come from now, but it does cause a headache or two if you don't know to start with. What she does reference, however, is sound - she doesn't try to fudge anything with giving references that don't really follow what she's saying, so over all you'll find she's quite reliable.
Because of the cost involved in getting hold of all four volumes - not outrageous, but not necessarily within everyone's means - I've tried to find alternatives. The Scottish volumes of British Calendar Customs are a good substitute, but unless you can find them from the library you probably won't have much luck buying them and I would say they're probably not as readable as McNeill anyway. Sheila Livingstone's Scottish Customs, and Scottish Festivals, both draw heavily from McNeill, are cheaper and less detailed, and might do well for someone who's a little daunted by the prospect of getting stuck into four volumes right away. I reviewed those as well, and found them to be a little problemmatic, though, so my recommendation there comes with a bit of a qualifier.
The Silver Bough is by no means the only thing you'll ever need to read, but it does give a fantastic start, I think. Along with Ronald Black's The Gaelic Otherworld, I would recommend the first three volumes (at the least) as must-haves for the beginner.
Hallowe'en: Its Origin Rites and Ceremonies in the Scottish Tradition
F Marian McNeill
I received a comment on one of the reviews I did that it's good to go straight to the sources that record customs closer to the time that they were actually practised, before they developed or degenerated into something different (and I agree). This book was kind of the other side of the coin, because it relates much more to the surviving Hallowe'en practices of the time that McNeill was writing, and within living memory, and that in itself is interesting too because in some ways it's easier to relate to the traditions that were recorded because they're by and large practised in a more urban setting that's relevant to most people these days, rather than an agricultural or pastoral setting that's pretty much the preserve of big business, barring a few brave souls that homestead and aim for self-sufficiency.
McNeill covered Samhainn and Hallowe'en traditions in volume three of The Silver Bough, so to a certain extent most of this little book covers much of the same material, with a few added anecdotes that you won't find elsewhere. It's very short, so it's less in depth than The Silver Bough but it still manages to give a good overview of the main elements associated with the festival.
The main aim of the book is to provide practical ideas to put on a good Hallowe'en party according to Scottish traditions, so it makes for a good read for anyone looking for ideas this coming Samhainn if you're going to be in a group. McNeill gives instructions for carving turnips, recipes for traditional Hallowe'en foods, pranks, divination rites and games to play, and covers other customs like guising and 'thigging' for apples, nuts and pennies around the neighbourhood (from which trick-or-treating evolved, I'd guess). For the divination chapter, McNeill omits the outdoor divination rites, saying that they've now fallen out of use for the most part, but these can be found in The Silver Bough.
All in all, the book's very straightforward and not too heavy on the detail. There's not really much on offer that you can't find in the relevant volume and chapter of The Silver Bough or (for the recipes) using the power of Google, but it does make for a handy quick reference because of its short length and simplicity. The directions for the games and rites are clearly stated and more practical considerations are accounted for as well, whereas these things have to be figured out yourself if you're referring to The Silver Bough. It's not difficult, but some people might appreciate the overall structure and flow to the proceedings that McNeill gives here.
Ultimately, not an essential tome for the bookshelf, but it's one I like having because of the much more modern focus on the customs as a comparison to other books that deal with the older ones.
The Scottish Cellar
F Marian McNeill
This is a sister companion to another book, The Scots Kitchen. Whereas The Scots Kitchen deals with recipes and customs associated with food and cooking, this book focuses on drink.
It's less heavy on the recipes than the other book, focusing more on the culture and customs associated with drinks, drinking and hospitality. The focus is mainly relatively modern customs and culture from around the eighteenth century onwards, and the emphasis on the provision of hospitality, and the different types of hospitality (in the home, in the taverns and so on) was illuminating for me. McNeill also includes drinking songs (with music provided) and blessings from a variety of sources that I haven't seen before, so that was useful and interesting.
There are still plenty of recipes to brew your own wines and ales, or make caudle, sowens (a type of gruel/drink), whisky nog and things like that. I was hoping to find some pointers about the Bealltuinn caudle that was made as a drink (rather than the batter), but was disappointed on that score, and was expecting a little more folklore than there turned out to be. Over all there's plenty to be getting on with if I ever wanted to make my own brews for libations or whatever (hawthorn or rowanberry liquer would seem apt), though, and McNeill goes into particular detail about her efforts to find, or reconstruct, an authentic 'Pictish' heather ale.
McNeill writes in a style that I'd call 'jolly hockey sticks' - what ho! - and that might be hard for some readers to get used to because it's very dated and can be hard to read at times. The recipes also use a lot of ingredients that probably aren't widely available any more, and use measurements that are outdated (and would have to be converted into cups and so forth for anyone across the Pond) so some of them are of limited use. It shouldn't be too difficult to modernise them, once you've looked up what some of the terms mean as well (I've no idea what 'sack' is, as an ingredient).
Overall, the book was interesting, but not overwhelmingly so. It was cheap at least, and I'm tempted to go looking for a more up to date book that covers similar recipes in a more straightforward manner, using modern terms and measurements that perhaps offer substitutes for ingredients that aren't necessarily available anymore. It's a useful addition to the bookshelf if your looking for some more practical ideas for authentic dishes and drinks.
Seanchas Ile/Islay's Folklore Project
Foreword by Donald Meek
This book is part of a culture and heritage project run by the Columba Centre on the island, which started in 2005, and the majority of it is comprised of transcripts from Gaelic speaking islanders who talk about their experiences of growing up on the island, the tales they were brought up with, and a good portion of proverbs in the final chapter. Some of the transcripts of the tales and the interviews are available at the accompanying website, along with a few others that aren't in the book.
The book's aim is not just to present some of the lore that was collected, but to serve as a record of Islay Gaelic as well. Since I'm not a Gaelic speaker I can't fully appreciate the nuances in the colloquialisms peculiar to the island, but there's a glossary of some of the words in general that are used, as well as the names of particular birds and animals that are used on the island as well. It's refreshing to see a book on the subject giving such prominence to the language, with the Gaelic on the left-hand pages, and the English translation on the right-hand pages throughout, until the final chapter on proverbs and then the glossaries, where the Gaelic's given first and then the translation directly underneath or side-by-side.
In terms of the folklore, I was hoping for some good stuff on calendar customs in particular, but was a little disappointed on that front, aside from some interesting account of the Caileach Bhuain, the last sheaf of the harvest, and what they did with it (including a description of how it was made). More interesting, for me, was the chapter on Traditional Medicine and Food Ways. It wasn't as in-depth as I was hoping for - a criticism that could be aimed at the rest of the book, really - but it covered a lot of the basics like using dandelion milk to cure a wart, and how sphagnum moss was collected for the war effort, for use as a very porous sort of bandage. And cormorant, dulse, and limpet soup as tasty treats. You can download a few traditional recipes, if you want to have a go. So while it wasn't in depth, it gave a good general idea of how the islanders subsisted, before modern comforts changed a lot of that.
What really stood out was the personalities and humour of the people who were interviewed - most of whom seemed to be well into their eighties. One thing that made me laugh was:
"A crofter without much English is trying to explain to the Lowland vet what happened to his cow. In Gaelic he wanted to say:
'Chaidh i faotainn ann an sùil-chrith agus cha do chnàmh i a cìr fad trì làithean às a dhèidh' [She was in a deep bog and she never chewed the cud for three days]
The crofter translated the Gaelic literally which in English came out as:
'She was in the eye of the earth and she never boned her comb for three whole days.' "
There's no commentary, interpretation or in-depth analysis on the tales, anecdotes and interviews that are given, aside from a few notes explaining certain terms here and there, and a brief note on how the Gaelic has been transcribed at times to try and convey the slight differences in pronunciation for some words, so the transcripts are left to speak for themselves, a collection of firsthand accounts.
For the most part the bits where the interviewers have butted in during the course of the conversation have been left in, which sometimes helps give a sense of the rapport between interviewer and interviewee, and a sense of how the chat flowed, but other times it can be a little distracting as well. Overall, though, the sense it all gives is that it's the people that need to be remembered too, seeing as it's the people who make the island as much as the language and the culture. They speak with a warmth and a sadness of their childhoods, almost a frustration for all that's being lost as Gaelic diminishes and outsiders move in to live their dream of the Good Life - often at the expense of the islanders who can no longer afford to buy homes there. The tales and the fondness (or sometimes wryness) for the things that are talked about are quite evocative at times, and I found it hard not to empathise with their sense of plight. It's easy to get drawn in and start romantising the past.
There are some fantastic pictures throughout the book, and along with the rest of it, it makes a wonderful start at presenting what's been recorded - but really, that's what it is (as is made clear from the outset, to be fair) and that's what it feels like. It's a start. Hopefully at some point something more in-depth will be made available (or widely available, that is).
Short and sweet though it is, it comes with a reasonable price tag and a few gems that makes it a worthwhile read for anyone interested in this sort of thing. Maybe it's not essential reading, but I can't help but feel that this is the sort of thing I'd like to support, because funding is so hard to come by. It's all well and good looking at the Highlands and Islands as a whole, but it's books like this that help to serve as a reminder of the differences, as well as the similarities, that can be found across such varying geography, and it would be nice to see more being done, and more of the work that's already been done become available to a wider audience.
This is one of those books that seems to promise so much to start with and then it all ends up falling a little flat. It started off so well and then...what the hell happened there?
As the title suggest, the book covers the history and pre-history of what eventually became Scotland. For the earliest pre-history I wasn't expecting too much because there's not really much that can be said that's particularly concrete about it, is there? But I was impressed with the way Moffat weaved a story of the pre-historic peoples and made them seem almost tangible - not dim and distant, living in a murky past of generalisations, but real: ancestors of the land. Understandably, given the nature of the evidence, Moffat has to draw from a much wider area than just Scotland for much of this section - not just to put the evidence from Scotland into context, but also to help flesh things out. His mentions of Doggerland were really interesting - not something I've really come across before and it really made me chew things over in a way I've never done before. In a way, though, it kind of distracted from the Scotland-specific information, and with a distinct lack of maps and specifying which country he was talking about sometimes, it wasn't always clear where he was referring to. Or which part of Scotland, even.
The biggest strength with these chapters was the way Moffat managed to paint such a vivid picture of the people and bring it into a modern context as well - pointing out the way in which many of the islanders still hunt the birds today, for example (although more for tradition than subsistence these days). It's strange to think that things like this have been literally going on for thousands of years and it's easy to romanticise and view it through rose-tinted glasses but I think Moffat manages to stay just on the right side of that.
But then I began having problems. First of all, Moffat seemed to jump from the Bronze Age right to the end of the Iron Age in the blink of an eye, which was disappointing. The emphasis on how people lived, from what the archaeology can tell us, changed to looking at the historical sources and the effects of the Romans - for the most part it's nothing you can't find elsewhere (although it is more up to date) with a few interesting tidbits here and there that piqued my interest. As soon as he got past the Bronze Age, gone was the way in which Moffat painted such a colourful picture of the Stone and Bronze Age people (terms that he eschews, for the most part, as many academics do these days...). Instead of drawing all the strands together into weaving a story like he did before, he seemed to stay a little aloof and detached. The tone changes from almost warm affection for the subject to verging on dry - which is not to say it gets dull or boring, it's just a big let down given the previous chapters.
And if I ever end up meeting the author? I somehow doubt that I'd ever have the balls to mention the Romans in front of him. The chapter on 'Caledonia' starts with more of a rant on the Romans and modern historians attitudes towards them, than dealing with the actual meat of the book...It's probably safe to say he's not a fan...I have to admit that when he started on about how the Romans did nothing for Scotland, in the longterm, my concentration wandered off into the land of Monty Python...WHAT'VE THE ROMANS EVER DONE FOR US?!
I don't want to be overly critical of the book - I wouldn't want anyone to be put off by my disappointment with some aspects of it because what you find here is solid - even with a distinct lack of any referencing (which is not good, but it's not meant to be an academic book so it's almost forgiveable, I s'pose). As an introduction to all of the different elements that contributed towards the making of Scotland, this is a great resource and in many ways it's refreshing. While it does seem that as soon Moffat starts getting into the meat of my favourite subject - the Celts - he loses some of his enthusiasm. I wonder if it's because he's covered it already in another book and he's trying to offer something different from that? Maybe he's just not keen on the labels, especially loaded ones (to some archaeologists) like 'Celts'? He certainly doesn't seem to be keen on the Romans, but at least he's upfront about that bias.
In spite of the slight disappointment, there's nothing terrible or bad here, it has to be said. There were still plenty of bits that caught my eye - the suggestion that many of the Pictish carvings were meant as offerings to the gods which were supposed to endure, for all to see, is worth exploring a bit more I think; Moffat suggests the 'tuning fork' on Pictish stones, for example, is a carved version of a broken sword. Instead of the sword being ritually broken and then being ceremoniously thrown into a bog or river, the carving lets the offering remain in sight, making it more permanent. To make the treaty that it commemorates more permanent?
There's good stuff to ponder and it's definitely worth a read (even if the change in tone half-way through makes it a little harder to stick with). For the absolute beginner it's maybe a bit broader in scope than you might be looking for to start off with, and in that respect, for something short and sweet I'd suggest something like Richard Hingley's Settlement and Sacrifice, and then something like Sally Foster's Picts, Gaels and Scots. What Before Scotland offers is something a little more up to date than authors like Foster does now, and it also helps puts the specifically Celtic stuff into a broader context that will help give a better idea of how Scotland came to be. Read it for the context, or as a good compliment to other books if you want something more up to date. Or just because it's a fun read (barring the last couple of chapters, that is....).
Folk Lore Or Superstitious Beliefs in the West of Scotland Within This Century
This was first published in 1879 so it's no surprise that a lot of this book is out of date for one reason or another, but like MacKenzie's Scottish Folk-Lore and Folk-Life I really enjoyed it.
It's useful for a number of reasons: first, there are a few tidbits that I haven't seen anywhere else, so it's not just a rehashing of the same old stuff that tends to be trotted out elsewhere. The author draws from a lot of sources that I haven't seen used in more modern books, and adds in plenty of his own anecdotes and examples of folk-practice that he's seen himself, or even been involved in. Secondly, he's one of the sources that F Marian McNeill used in her Silver Bough series, so it's always good to go direct to the source and see for yourself.
Some of the more interesting things that caught my eye was the mention of the sunwise turn being performed before the start of anything important, like weddings, funerals and festive occasions. McNeill makes a vague mention of this in The Silver Bough (Volume 1) but doesn't give a source, so I assume this is where she got it from. There wasn't much in the way of festivals being covered (that you wouldn't find elsewhere), and there was no mention of Lùnastal at all, but there were a few interesting things about how Hogmanay was celebrated when Napier was a child, for instance, that helped to offer something different.
Overall, Napier covers the usual areas like birth, death, marriage and childhood, but he also has a good look at types of charms and counter-charms, divination and witchcraft, and that was the stuff that interested me most. While The Gaelic Otherworld does a good job of covering pretty much anything and everything in that area, Napier comes up with plenty of extra stuff to supplement Campbell's works, but one thing to be said is that the details Napier provides aren't as useful in terms of practical application for a reconstructionist as Campbell is (or Ronald Black's editorial notes). Essentially, I suppose Napier's book help flesh things out a bit more, and the anecdotes help to give a better insight into the minds and culture of the people who observed the traditions than Campbell alone does.
The downside is that the book is very much a product of the time it was written in. The disapproval towards 'Romish' Christianity is amusing in some respects, as is his hasty attempt to assure the reader that superstitions are silly and evidence of a backward, primitive (and predominantly Catholic...) people, and that he views such things with a skeptical and professional eye, not a gullible one. This detachment is contradicted at times by his attitude towards some practices that make such things seem perfectly reasonable and not at all heathenish or 'superstitious', like when he talks about how a 'skilly' removed the evil eye from him as a child. It makes for an odd mix, and it's hard to tell whether the disclaimer is perfunctory and considered necessary by the publisher rather than author, or whether he really meant it and perhaps the things he experienced himself were familiar and therefore acceptable, whereas other things weren't so much...
Like MacKenzie (a good fifty years or so later), Napier attributes Celtic and especially druidical origins to the Phoenicians and Egyptians (presumably to give them a Biblical link, or something?). While it's easily read around, it might prove confusing for someone who's relatively new to the subject and hasn't yet got their head around a more up to date history of the Celts and knows for sure that Baal has nothing to do with Bealltainn.
And one final thing: I laughed out loud, and then so did Mr Seren, when I read, "In Paisley, considered to be the most intelligent town in Scotland..." Oh, how times change. But for me this one is definitely a keeper.
Scottish Place-Names by W.F.H. Nicolaisen
Celtic Placenames of Scotland by W.J. Watson
My wandering brain's been wondering about evidence for deities in Scotland recently, so I decided to pick this one up. I've seen a few authors confidently asserting that Banff takes its name from the Irish deity Banbha, along with Slamannan taking its name from Manannán and wanted to get to the bottom of it, because these were just casual mentions without anything of substance to back it up. Since I studied onomastics at uni (it's a fancy word for the study of proper names, which probably makes it sound more interesting than it actually is), I had an idea of the books to look at, and I eventually managed to get hold of them.
Watson's book was the first comprehensive look at the subject, way back in the 1930s, and it wasn't until the 70s when Nicolaisen published his book that the subject had anything of substance added to it. It's a very neglected area of study, then, and I have to admit, my enthusiasm for it will never match that of the authors or my lecturer, who's hard at work trying to bring the field into the twenty-first century with some 'exciting' new discoveries. Perhaps if academics were more willing to look into the pre-Christian evidence I'd be a bit more interested, but because it's such an uncertain area of study with very little in the way of hard facts, I suppose it's understandable that most academics won't put their neck on the line, so to speak.
Anyway...Looking at Watson's book first, I'd say of the two this was the most readable, although considering the fact that both books deal with a very specialised area, I think it's safe to say it will only appeal to people who really want to know about this stuff. Watson confines himself to examining Celtic placename evidence only, so on the one hand I found it more relevant to me, because obviously that's where my interest lies, but on the other hand this means it lacks much in the way of context. Nicolaisen's book examines all the languages that have affected the evolution of placenames in Scotland and to ignore the non-Celtic influences does mean you're only getting half the picture, so to speak, if that.
There's plenty of useful stuff here (which I'll go into later, comparing with Nicolaisen), and the style of writing is a little more accessible. The style of language is perhaps a little antiquated and dated these days, but it's not like having to plough through Shakespeare or Chaucer. Watson also has a tendency to ramble and go off on tangents somewhat, so at times it feels like there are some conclusions and adequate analysis missing from what's being discussed before a different subject is introduced. Being focused on Celtic placenames means it's more comprehensive than Nicolaisen's work, but Nicolaisen does a good job of picking up on the most important points in Watson's work (particularly the example of pit- placenames as evidence of the spread of the Picts) and updating them or even refuting them. This means that it's very difficult to consider either book in isolation, because while I prefer Watson, Nicolaisen provides some important additions.
Nicolaisen' book is still the main text for study in this field, and it's understandable. Unlike Watson's book, Nicolaisen takes a much more critical view of the subject and takes care to introduce the key issues affecting the subject, like language change and how it's affected the changes in placenames which might not be so apparent to those studying it - after all, we only see what gets recorded. It's not just that it's more up to date that makes it a 'better' book in this respect, it's been consciously written for a more modern academic audience, and addresses the needs of that audience. Nicolaisen also goes beyond just listing what the placenames mean like Watson tends to, and explores what implications name elements in particular might have in terms of their spread - such as evidence for the spread of Christianity, cults of saints within the church, and cultural groups, for example. While Watson does this too, it gets lost at time in his tangents.
It's perhaps because of this critical, academic (and dry) approach that I just don't like Nicolaisen's book (that and the fact that the majority of it formed the basis of some of the most boring lectures of my life, so I admit I'm not without bias here) because generally it isn't all that readable. At times Nicolaisen labours the point somewhat, and in the introduction goes into excruciating detail in examining the evolution of the names that Falkirk has had - from the earliest evidence of Egglesbreth to Varia Capella and then Fawkirk to Falkirk, all of which overlap slightly and seemed to have co-existed with later names for a time, and all of which translate as "the speckled church", thus proving that in some places at least, languages didn't just immediately replace old ones but existed side by side with them for some time and people had at least some understanding of both. He then essentially dismisses the importance of the point by saying that Falkirk is a rare example of this, leaving one to wonder why the hell he's just spent a whole chapter banging on about it...
What follows is an overview of the different languages that have shaped the placenames of Scotland, from English, to Scandinavian, to Gaelic, P Celtic (which he defines as Cumbric and Pictish), and the elusive 'pre-Celtic'. It's this last chapter on 'pre-Celtic' names that's the most interesting in terms of what I was looking for, for pre-Christian evidence, but on the whole it's unsatisfactory because Nicolaisen is fairly dismissive of the subject and seems loath to go into any detail about it.
It's Watson who points to the Banff/Banbha connection, and hints at a connection between Slamannan and Manannan (but seems to conclude, inconclusively, that it is in fact related to the Manau tribe and has something to do with a rock), and also mentions examines the meaning of the river Clyde and relates *Clota to a river goddess. Nicolaisen makes no mention of Banff or Slamannan in this context (though he does translate Slamannan as 'hill or moor of the Manau'), but does refute the Clota/river goddess connection: "Clyde is much more likely to have been a primary river-name. We are not denying that there was Celtic river-worship, but it should not be assumed for rivers whose names permit a straightforward 'profane' explanation." Although he has a point - assumptions shouldn't be made, and this is what Watson essentially does in equating the name as a goddess - this is hardly a thorough examination or refutation of the name, and it would be nice to see something that looks at the subject in more depth. Likewise, Watson's examination of other names associated with bodies of water could do with expanding on.
As much as you might notice how much I don't like the book in terms of style, it can't be denied that Nicolaisen's book is an important piece of work and in a sense my bias against it is probably doing it a disservice to some degree. If you're at all interested in linguistics and placenames in general, then both books are an important addition to the shelf. Just don't expect to be entertained while you're learning.
Our Highland Folklore Heritage
A while ago I read and reviewed another of Polson's books, Scottish Witchcraft Lore, which - over all - I liked. It's one of those books I wish I could afford, so I could add it to my hoard. It was mainly for that reason that I picked this one up - to see if it was as good as the one I've already read, and to see if this book has anything to add to the subject.
For the most part, the answer to the latter point is: not really. In many respects, this book is like a precursor to Scottish Witchcraft Lore - Our Highland Folklore Heritage was published slightly earlier, and is slightly shorter in length, too, and in general there's quite an overlap in subject matter and content between them when dealing with witchcraft and related matter. This book has a broader scope at least, so it's not all the same sort of stuff by any means. For me, a downside is that what's missing here are most of the things that I enjoyed so much about Scottish Witchcraft Lore - mainly the interviews with witches and groundwork that Polson himself did for that book - so for me it's not really a cheaper substitute (this book is at least within my means if I want to buy it) in that respect. Then again, it would be pretty pointless writing two books that are basically identical, so looking at the book on its own merits, that's a big plus.
What this book does offer is a simple introduction to various aspects of Highland folklore - lore at sea, witches and witchcraft, fairy lore, second sight, ghosts, various kinds of spirits, and so on. Each chapter is quite short, but they hit all the right notes for giving a basic overview and there are plenty of stories, many of which Polson collected from his students during his time teaching in various places in the far north of Scotland. They probably aren't ones that you'll find published in too many different places, so that's a major plus too.
For the most part, each chapter covers things that you might already know if you've read other introductions to the subject, but Polson presents everything in a brisk but engaging style, at least (sometimes, it's more like he's just putting some notes down than attempting to write anything more flowery), and a lot of it is from the horse's mouth. Polson doesn't offer too much in the way of detailed analysis, rather he lets the material speak for itself and you can draw your own conclusions.
As a quick and straightforward read, and for anyone looking for a good introduction to the topic, or just something that adds a little more to the subject, I'd definitely recommend this one.
Scottish Witchcraft Lore
I was actually looking for Thomas Davidson's Rowan Tree and Red Thread when I was at the library, but it's another one of those books that's gone missing from the shelves. Hmph. This one was lurking in the sad and forlorn space where Davidson's book should have been, and after a quick flick and noticing a chapter on charms and counter-charms, I decided it was worth a more in-depth look.
It seems I have something of a taste for these old books, because like Napier's book, I actually quite enjoyed this one. It didn't start off too well, with an overview of witchcraft and its history that put it firmly in the Deal with the Devil camp, but then Polson managed to rationlise the complete mismatch of the reports from the medieval witch trials with the example of more modern practices, by simply saying something along the lines of, "They don't do all the dancing on the heath and pacts with the devil anymore, and these days they're not all old and ugly. Some of them still believe they're calling on the devil for their power, but that's just superstition and delusion..." This in itself was quite impressive fuzzy logic at work!
Once he gets into the meat of the book and gets into his stride, it gets much more interesting. He relates an interview he did with a modern witch, and asks her how she got her reputation and the sorts of charms she did. He takes a brief look at how witches in general tend to get their reputations, which is something that intrigued me because in books this old it's not something that is often analysed - usually the belief in witchcraft is dismissed as silly superstition and nothing more is said. Here, Polson gives examples and stories to illustrate his point, but like most of the book there are no references given at all, and this gets frustrating at times (a limited bibliography is given at the end, with all the usual suspects along with some I hadn't heard of).
Then he goes on to look at some of the more famous witch trials (that generally seemed to involve actual wise women and men, rather than those who were accused out of a personal grudge with little basis in fact), and looks at the types of charms and counter-charms that were performed, often on a daily basis by people and the wise men and women they went to when all else failed, along with ways of averting or curing the evil eye, and then all the sorts of tricks that witches were supposed to be able to get up to like levitation and making themselves invisible. One thing that was revealing in all this is that no real distinction is made between the everyday practices of the people and wise men and and women that helped protect and prevent against those who performed the 'dark arts'. Occasionally the distinction between 'white' and 'black' magic is made, but implicit in all this is Polson's unstated view (overtly, anyway) that really it's all essentially the same.
A few things that caught my eye were descriptions of the counter-charms that were used, which essentially seemed to be the same as the sop seile ('spittle-wisp') but minus the straw, that Campbell describes in The Gaelic Otherworld as being performed around the home or on new cattle, particularly at Bealltainn and Lùnastal. There was also a tale explaining why juniper was no longer used to help break a case of the evil eye over someone - a girl began ailing and wasting away for no apparent reason, and after doctors could do nothing for her it was decided that the only cause could be a case of evil eye. To remove it, certain customs were observed, and branches of juniper were collected, fresh and green. The house was sealed up as well as possible, and certain incantations (which weren't detailed, unfortunately) were said as the juniper was put to the fire and caused great amounts of smoke to fill the house. In spite of the girl's increasingly laboured breathing, more and more was put on the fire until the girl couldn't breathe at all, and died. Distraught, the father went mad and burned the house down with everything in it. Such a cautionary tale meant that the practice gradually died out (even though it's very reminiscent of McNeill's detailing of the water and juniper rite performed at Hogmanay).
It's things like this that I find most useful, and Polson takes care to personalise his examples by illustrating them with tales rather than run through a fairly dry list of 'they did this, this or this to make their cows give milk again..." Better still, it's not just a rehashing of things you'll find elsewhere so for me (from my somewhat admittedly still limited exploration of the subject), it added something new. Polson's addition of his own research, collecting information from the field, so to speak, also adds value to the book because it lends some credibility and experience that other authors, who simply reference other people's work, sometimes lack.
Sadly, at over £80, it won't be joining my bookshelf on a more permanent basis just yet, but for anyone interested in this sort of thing, it's definitely worth reading however you obtain it.
Folksongs And Folklore Of South Uist
Margaret Fay Shaw
This is one of those seminal works by one of the most prolific and passionate folklorists of the day - and what an amazing woman, too!
Comparison with Alexander Carmichael's work is going to be inevitable with this book, and Shaw herself handily points out the places where there is an overlap with the songs of the Carmina Gadelica. Part of the appeal of this book, then, is seeing how Carmichael's work measures up (especially bearing in mind the criticisms laid against him at times), but I would hasten to add that Shaw offers a lot more than just different of songs that you might be already familiar with.
As the title suggests, it's not just songs to be found here - there are stories, recipes, a chapter on traditional dyes, proverbs and riddles, and a bit about Shaw's own experiences during her time on the island. Many of the songs also have musical scores accompanying them, which is great if you want to have a go at singing yourself (alas, I'm about as musical as a guitar with three knackered strings).
The glimpses of folklore - much of it seasonal, detailing Hogmanay celebrations and so on - are described with passion and a charm that bleeds through onto the pages. It's hard not to fall in love with the people and the place that Shaw describes, just like Shaw herself did. Over all the book itself is perhaps not as useful as the Carmina Gadelica - it's certainly not as wide-ranging being only one volume rather than six, but it's a good complement to it, and it contains things that I haven't seen anywhere else. The recipe for a traditional strùthan along with a more modern version, in particular, is something that I found extremely useful.
This isn't the first book I'd necessarily look to as far as research goes, but it does come in handy. It's well-researched and well-referenced so you'll find pointers to other places you can look to, and I think it would be a great addition to the bookshelf for anyone with a particular interest in Scottish folklore and song.
The Life and Legacy of Alexander Carmichael
Ed. by Domhnall Uilleam Stiùbhart
To be fair, it's hardly the most inspiring title for a book, but it delivers far more than the title promises.
The book is a collection of essays from a conference on Benbecula in 2006, with contributions from Ronald Black, Hugh Cheape, Donald Meek, and William Gillies, amongst others (those were the names I recognised - vaguely or otherwise).
I was hoping they'd deal with a few of the problems that have been raised with Carmichael's research and the Carmina itself, and that's pretty much what I got, handily packaged in an article by Ronald Black called 'I Thought He Made It All Up: Context and Controversy' - that is, in terms of the studies that have been made on the Carmina, it was suggested in the 1970s that Carmichael had been more than a little liberal in his recording, 'polishing', and outright reworking and embellishing of the material he collected and then published, which essentially made the Carmina next to useless as a reliable source of genuine folklore and song. Black counters this convincingly, to a certain extent at least, and gives examples of where Carmichael obviously tampered with the material, and where he obviously didn't (Domhnall Uilleam Stìubhart's opening article also gives some good examples).
Overall, Black concludes that Volumes I and II are the most in tact in terms of authentic material, with the Gaelic verses being the least tampered with (i.e. the stuff that provides major inspiration for some of CR liturgy), while the Gaelic prose was hugely 'polished' to confirm to a somewhat romantic propaganda about the Noble Celts, and so on, because Carmichael wanted to show them as having a literature to rival the Classics. Meek follows on with this point in his article on Celtic Christianity and how Carmichael was pivotal to the development of the idea.
I got the sense that Black is a tad more apologetic towards Carmichael, whereas Meek is more forthright in his criticism of Carmichael's work (and also the romanticism that accompanies a lot of the studies of the material), so along with Stìubhart's work, there's a good balance to be found. This isn't the only topic that's covered, though - Cathlin MacAulay's article on 'Uist in the School of Scottish Studies Archives' gives a tantalising account of all the material that's been recorded on the Uists over the years, and just how much material there is that hasn't been published yet.
The same could be said for the original records and manuscripts from Carmichael, which Meek (arguing that there was a definite agenda with the Carmina, to portray the Highlanders as a spiritual people, living in harmony with pagan and Christian elements that were old, but civilised, not primitive) comments, "One has only to look at the amount of material of a 'pagan' nature left out of the Carmina, and still lying unedited in Edinburgh University Library, to realise that neither the Gaels nor the editors of Carmina were, in fact, as accommodating and as eclectic as the paradigm wanted them to be." It's comments like that that make me wonder why there wasn't an article on this unpublished 'pagan' material, and what it contains. I would loved to have seen something on the things we're not familiar with.
There's a lot more I could go on about - the final article in the book is short but sweet, a reminiscence of a childhood on South Uist that describes many of the traditions that the author took part in, that he later found described by Carmichael in the Carmina. This article alone - only a page long - made the book for me.
The book provided a lot of food for thought for me, although in many respects it raised more questions than it answered. It did point me to this site, though, which I've been happily trawling through since. I don't imagine many folks have a burning desire to snap this book up, but I'd definitely recommend a read of it if it's the sort of subject that interests you. It's a good book for understanding the context of the Carmina, certainly.
Highland Smugglers, Second Sight and Superstitions
I saw this listed on one of my late night trawls of the internet and seeing as it was going cheap (and I was bored), I thought what they hey and clicked a few buttons and hey presto. It landed on my doorstep with a delicate thud a few days later.
I have to illustrate this review because the book itself is illustrated - generously throughout and to charming effect. And by 'charming' I don't just mean quaint, I mean to the point where some of them give me the giggles. The example given is one of my favourites, illustrating a story about a priest gifted with the two sights who happens on a bunch of women, somewhat worse for wear in the street after selling their fish at market and investing the proceeds to lubricate their dry throats. Raucous though they are, instead of reproaching them and disapproving of them as the church elders did, the priest brings out his fiddle and plays music for them to dance to. Merriment ensues. When questioned about his conduct, the priest tells the elders why should he not follow suit of the angels who were preparing their harps in heaven for one of the women in the group (and sure enough, she died within a week). Which is a typically cheery tale of seership, it seems.
Another of the pictures worth seeing is one of a witch, topless but cupping her breasts for modesty (and almost succeeding, were it not for her generous proportions) whilst looking decidedly pissed off at the devil-like fairies who'd congregated for the annual review of all the witches, warlocks, fairies and wizards of the area at Bealltainn.
It's more of a booklet than a book - very short at around 50 pages - and with all the illustrations it's hard to tell who the book is aimed for. It's short and sweet and very straightforward, so my guess would be for older teens still in school, or as one of these fairly throw-away books that often get sold in touristy shops. Either/or, really. Its simplicity and conversational tone make it an easy read, but at the same time it's a little too simplistic to be useful in some respects; no references are given at all, except a passing mention of a particular author like Martin Martin, nor are there any page numbers or a bibliography. This is a shame because for the most part it seems to be well researched, and there are even bits that I want to follow up about bannocks being made on Lewis at Bealltainn in the twentieth century.
The book is split into three sections - the first looking at the smugglers, the second looking at the second sight (aptly enough), and the third dealing with the superstitions of the title. In this case the superstitions are concerned with the seasonal festivals, and Thompson takes a brief look St Bride's Day, Shrovetide, Yule/Hogmanay, Samhainn and Bealltainn; the lack of any mention of Lùnasdal/Lammas is odd considering it was published in 1980, though. This section and the section on the second sight are the most relevant, but the first section gives some entertaining tales and a sense of the humour that could be found in hard times. For the most part there's nothing new to see in the third section on superstitions, and it suffers a little in that Thompson seems to go with the idea of everything harking back to the druids like McNeill does in The Silver Bough, but otherwise it goes into all the usual stuff you'd expect.
I found the section on the second sight to be very informative for what it was - I'm up to speed with the Brahan Seer in a vague sort of way but this helped give me something more concrete to go on, and Thompson was keen to stress that the Brahan Seer is not the be all and end all of Scottish prophecy (hence the tale illustrated above).
If you're looking for a straightforward overview then this book fits the bill if you're willing to put up with its faults. Although if you're not that au fait with terms involved in distilling whisky, like barm, then you might want a dictionary or google handy on occasion. The lack of references is frustrating though, because otherwise it would have been a really good book to recommend for beginners, for the introductory material and then the pointers to further sources. As it is, I'd only really recommend it if you stumbled across it cheap and thought it might be good to get an idea of some of the basics of second sight and the festivals in Scotland. Really, The Silver Bough or The Gaelic Otherworld is what you want, but at least this is a lot shorter so it could serve as an experiment to see if you're interest was piqued enough to invest in more expensive books, I suppose.
The Secret Commonwealth and the Fairy Belief Complex (by Robert Kirk)
Written in the late 17th century by Robert Kirk, seventh son of the minister of Aberfoyle (and later a minister himself), The Secret Commonwealth is one of those important books that you need to read if you want to know anything about beliefs in fairies and the Second Sight in Scotland...Or you should think about reading, anyway...
There are many different versions of The Secret Commonwealth available to buy, and you need to be careful which one you choose. Trust me on this. I bought a different (cheaper) version of this years ago, with an introduction by Alan Richardson, followed by the reprint of Andrew Lang's work and R B Cunninghame Graham's introduction.
It quickly became apparent why Brian Walsh's book is recommended above any other - partly because he gives a good outline of the history of Kirk and The Secret Commonwealth, and the inherent problems or weaknesses with the earlier major publications of the text (such as Andrew Lang's biography of Kirk, which isn't entirely accurate) and partly because some of the more modern authors, like Richardson, tend to be a little off the wall (for my tastes, anyway). In his introduction, for example, Richardson discusses the commonly held belief that Kirk didn't, in fact die, but was spirited away by the Good Folk for giving too much away, and mentions this with the belief that King Arthur (the King of Britain) didn't really die either. Or Elvis (The King). Or Jim Morrison (The Lizard King). Naturally, like all of these Kings, Kirk lies in wait to return when he's most needed...Except Elvis and Jim do have the nasty habit of turning up in the most unlikely of places (*ahem*), but that's by the by...
Anyway. Lang's version, the earliest publication of the manuscript from 1893, can be found on sacred-texts, so if you're just interested in the text itself, or what Lang himself had to say, there's no need to buy a copy. This version doesn't include A Short Treatise of the Scotish-Irish Charms and Spels, though, as Walsh does (and it's worth a read), and the text is presented in a much more readable manner in Walsh's book, although the language and spelling might still give you a headache...
What Brian Walsh does is provide a historical context to the work, showing that Kirk's ideas and information generally came from three sources: the native folk belief complex, Christianity (Protestant), and neoplatonic or hermetic beliefs, and in picking all these pieces apart, it helps give an understanding of where everything comes from.
As far as Kirk's work itself is concerned, I have to admit that there wasn't a massive amount in there that interested me in terms of learning anything new about folklore, but I can't help but feel that I'm doing it a disservice in some respects, because I approached it with the hope of learning more about folklore and this isn't just what the book is about. I'm not sure I was able to fully appreciate the theological context of Kirk's work as Brian Walsh obviously does, and while the historical context is interesting to me, that's not what I wanted so much.
Added to this, my lack of interest at times was partly to do with the fact that I've read it elsewhere and in more than one place. That's hardly Kirk's fault, seeing as he was writing a good 200 hundred years before most others, and he can hardly be faulted for the beliefs remaining fairly consistent during that time, or other people referencing him later on. I have to admit that Kirk's frequent Biblical references were also offputting for me - not because it's Oh noes, Teh Bible! but simply because it's not something I have much familiarity with or understanding of. Considering the time he was writing (in the late seventeenth century), and the fact that he was a minister, it's not surprising, but since I'm not an expert on the Bible, or the finer points of Christian theology, a lot of it I just had to wade through without really being able to form much of an opinion of it.
Kirk's treatise on charms piqued my interest the most, because (aside from the fact that I'm interested in that sort of thing) some of the examples of charms he gave showed remarkable similarity in terms of the style and formula used with some of the charms and songs that are found in the Carmina Gadelica. Here Kirk offers some things I haven't seen before, and it's interesting to see how things change, or don't, over time; I think this is one of the things that makes the book so important to read.
With Walsh's outline of and commentary on where such ideas might have come from, it helps give an idea of how to examine folk beliefs, and how Christianity may have affected them, in a more critical manner. Kirk's often fairly unorthodox views on the subject - arguing that the Second Sight isn't evil, as was the common perception at the time, because the person afflicted with it was born with it and didn't seek it out - are interesting too from a historical perspective, if you like that sort of thing, but I'm not sure that overall it's something to get too excited about.
Reading through Walsh's work helps give you an idea that Kirk is writing from both a very personal perspective (perhaps influenced by the fact that he was a seventh son, and supposed to have the Sight himself), and trying to write about existing beliefs that he encounters in his community and the people he meets, whilst maintaining a suitably Christian regard for it all.
It would have been nice to see something more critical and indepth in terms of what it all means, but that's not the purpose of this book and Mr Walsh makes that clear from the beginning. Walsh avoids giving too much personal interpretation on Kirk's work, but he does give an interesting chapter on the Body of Air that Kirk mentions a lot in his manuscript, and he goes into some depth here. He also lists the common motifs of the fairy belief complex as outlined by Cross and Slover from their study of Irish beliefs, which helps put it all in a wider context, especially if you're going to read (or have read) something like Evan-Wentz's The Fairy-Faith in Celtic Countries.
The Twelve Winds of the Ancient Gaelic World
Jean L Wright Popescul
Jean L Wright Popescul's The Twelve Winds of the Ancient Gaelic World is a fairly short book that’s basically split into two sections - the first focusing on the sources and what each wind is associated with; the second section focuses on the tales that deals with certain amounts of this lore. I’d read that a lot of what Popescul writes is more UPG than hard fact, and would agree with this. Of all the books I’ve bought recently I was least impressed with this (especially given the price tag for it - not massively expensive, but expensive for a second hand book that wasn’t in new or even nearly new condition, at least).
What I found most useful were the translations of the lore regarding the winds from the Senchus Mór and the Saltair na Rann. Since they aren’t readily available online the book gives a good basis from which you can do your own research if you want to, in terms of its references at least, but overall it’s not as scholarly as I would have liked it to have been. That may sound snobbish, but what it seemed to lack most was the sort of insights and interpretations of the material presented that you would have found in a more scholarly work; the UPG has its place, but I guess I felt too much emphasis was placed on that, without much to back it up. Perhaps that makes it a nice balance for someone looking for something that isn't so dry and academic, but at the time of reading I felt quite frustrated. If I had more familiarity with the works being referenced, perhaps I would have felt differently. It's very easy to fall into the trap of equating UPG with 'talking out of one's arse' and that isn't always the case. Sometimes these unique perspectives can be very refreshing.
Even so, I can’t help but think it would have been the sort of book I’d have been happier to have got out from the library, and spent my money elsewhere. It’s not the sort of book I’d put down as a high priority to read, but I’d still recommend it to anyone interested in that sort of lore – in spite of my reservations there's still a lot of value in it, and perhaps I'd value it more if it was available more cheaply.