Tunes for a Monday Morning

Gannets over St Kilda by Jill Harden (BBC)

Today, an extraordinary musical project: The Lost Songs of St. Kilda.

The islands of St. Kilda, at the westernmost edge of Scotland's Outer Hebrides, had been continuously inhabited for over two millenia until its last residents were officially evacuated in 1930.

Inhabitants of St. Kilda

Women & girls of St Kilda

The Lost Songs of St Kilda is a collection of traditional tunes from those islands -- all of which would have been lost forever were it not for Trevor Morrison, who had learned them from his piano teacher, a St. Kilda evacuee. Morrison made a home-recording of the songs, and after his death in 2012, the recording eventually found its way to the offices of Decca Records. Decca then asked Sir James Macmillan and other Scottish composers to develop the St. Kildan tunes, aided by the Scottish Festival Orchestral and additional musicians (including Julie Fowlis). The result is this very beautiful album: a tribute to a lost musical tradition and a vanished way of life.

Above, a short video about the project.

Below, the returning of the Lost Songs, after all these years, to the place where they were born.

Above, "Soay," a tune named after one of the smaller islands of St. Kilda. The name is derived from Seyðoy, meaning the Island of the Sheep in Old Norse. The piece is performed by composer Sir James Macmillan on Hirta, the largest of the islands.

Below, "Hirta," named for the larger island, with film footage from the 1920s, and contemporary photographs. There are several theories about the orgins of the island's name, including its possible derivation from Hirt, the Norse word for shepherd, or from h-Iar-Tìr, a Scots Gaelic word meaning "westland."

To learn more about the project, visit the Lost Songs of St. Kilda website or Facebook page.

I also recommend Hirta Songs (2014), a fine album of music by Aladsair Roberts and poetry by Robin Robertson. The piece below is from Hirta Songs: "The Leaving of St. Kilda" (audio only). 

And one more recommendation: Night Waking (2011), a novel by Sarah Moss that was partially inspired by St. Kilda's history. The story takes place on a fictional Scottish island, split between contemporary and Victorian narratives: darkly comic and mysterious by turns. It's the first in a sequence of interconnected novels, followed by Bodies of Light (set in Victorian Manchester and London) and Signs for Lost Children (set in Cornwall and Japan). I personally think Moss is one of the best writers working in Britain today.

Children of St Kilda

St Kilda islanders


"Into the Woods" series, 55: Troll Maidens and the magic of bridges

Troll Maiden by Brian Froud

"Troll women are the wise and wonderful beings of this world," writes Wendy Froud, a neighbor and good friend of mine who is something of an authority on trolls, for she and her husband Brian (whose paintings & drawings you see here) have spent many years exploring the folk- and faery-lore of Dartmoor.

"Troll women are the wise and wonderful beings of this world," Wendy continues. "They are strong and intelligent, steadfast and canny. They can be extremely kind or terribly cruel -- and sometimes they can be both. Troll women are born knowing the pathways over and beneath the hills, the ways in and out of the Otherworld. They can be guides and wise women, witches and warrior women. They are the holders of dreams and keepers of hearth and home. Usually.

"Every once in a while, every once in a great while, a troll woman is born in the shape of a human or almost a human with only a small tail or small branches growing from her back to mark her The Troll Bride by Brian Froudtrollness. When humans see these lovely human-shaped troll women, they wonder at their beauty, delight in their strangeness, and sometimes fall in love with them. When trolls look at these human-shaped troll maidens, they see sorrow and a passing and a life lived flitting on the borders between the worlds. These lovely human troll women do not live long troll lives. They live to what humans may think to be an extremely old age, but for a troll it is but the blink of an eye.

"The trolls rejoice and grieve for these fleeting creatures, who are neither one thing or the other. As they delight in watching a butterfly flutter in the air or a bee dance above a flower, the trolls delight in caring for and watching over these delicate, humanlike creatures. Trolls guard them and guide them and nurture them as much as possible, knowing as they do that troll maidens will soon fade away, perhaps taken to live as human wives in the border regions of the world or perhaps to spend short lives dancing on the hills or haunting the bridges and stepping-stones of streams and rivers that flow between the two worlds.

Clapper Bridge near Stiniel

Photograph of Terri Windling by Ellen Kushner"The humanlike troll maidens are drawn to bridges and spend much time sitting or standing on a bridge if there is one close to where they dwell. Bridges are places of transition. They span a stream or a river but also the air itself. When a troll maiden sits on a bridge, she is in a place particularly suited to her own state of being -- a link between the worlds. Water rushes under a bridge, flowing away to unknown places, speeding by even faster than a troll maiden's time in the world, and when she sits still with her feet above the flowing water, she can feel still and safe, serene and eternal.

"Bridges have always been associated with trolls," Wendy adds, "such as the story of the three billy goats and the troll under the bridge -- a very bad troll indeed. But not all trolls associated with bridges are bad. Trolls, with their empathy toward stone, are naturally drawn to stone bridges, where they, for the most part, become a part of the bridge itself, supporting the structure and making it safe for those who cross it. A bridge will often have a resident troll tucked away under its arch, lending strength to the structure. Of course there are exceptions, and those are the ones who have given trolls such a bad name.

Old stone bridge near Chagford

Bridge Troll by Brian Froud"Lurkers -- there is no other word for them -- trolls who lurk, like lurking under bridges more than anywhere else. A lurking troll is usually a dimwitted troll, a greedy troll, a troll with nothing better to do. Some trolls are so enthusiastic about bridges that they make a hat in the shape of their favorite bridge and wear it to troll gatherings. These are quite warm and snug and a very popular in winter.

"Other trolls will carry large, flat stones that can be used as 'clapper bridges' -- placed across a stream or river -- wherever they are needed. The trolls tend to leave them behind when they move on, and that is why there are so many examples of clapper bridges on the moor today.

"Sometimes those trolls who are perceived as bad are merely guarding troll maidens while they linger on a bridge," Wendy concludes, "for protecting these delicate creatures is the duty of all trolls."

Troll Maiden with protectors by Brian Froud

The Truth About Bridges by Brian & Wendy Froud

There are three basic types of historic bridges on Dartmoor: stone bridges, wooden bridges (called clams) and clapper bridges (made of large granite slabs). The word "clapper" is believed to have dervived from an old Anglo Saxon word cleac, mean a stepping stone.

There are roughly two-hundred clapper bridges on the moor, of which Postbridge Clapper is one of the largest and best known. "Postbridge Clapper, in one form or another, has stood here for centuries," writes Tim Sandles. "The term ‘clapper bridge’ is a term used on Dartmoor for a bridge which has one or more flat slabs of stones which rest on stone piers and thus spans a river or stream. The Dartmoor term for the slabs are ‘posts’ which is how [the hamlet of] Postbridge acquired its name. It is possible that the bridge dates back as early as the 1300s, as by this time many of the nearby moorland farms had been established. The earliest documented record of the bridge is from a newtake lease of 1655 where it states: 'scituate lyinge and beinge between postbridge and a nutake of on Richard Leeres.'"

Clapper bridge at Postbridge

Clapper bridge at Postbridge

Postbridge, Dartmoor

A little farther up the road is the hamlet of Two Bridges, where a medieval bridge sits just a stone's throw from the Prince Edward Bridge, built in 1931. It is commonly believed that the hamlet takes its name from these two bridges sitting so close together, but as Tim Sandles explains: "The first documented record of the place-name Two Bridges was in 1573 when it appeared in a court roll as Tobrygge. This has been taken to mean ‘at the bridge,’ as the word ‘to’ is a Devonshire term for 'at,' as in 'Where’s ee to?'"

Two Bridges, Dartmoor

Legends surround most of the bridges on the moor, which are focal points not only for the local trolls but also witch hares, whist hounds, will-o-the-wisps and piskies up to their usual mischief. At Two Bridges (above), two disembodied Hairy Hands are said to force travellers off the road: grabbing at the reins of horses in centuries past, and at car steering wheels today. Fingle Bridge near Drewsteignton (below) is also an uncanny spot, for on certain nights when the moon is full it is the site of wild Faerie revels. Humans who stumble unwittingly on these rites vanish forever.

Fingle Bridge, Drewsteignton

The bridge over the River Dart at Holne is also best avoided by night, for undines dwell in the water underneath. These creatures steal mortal men who take their fancy, and drown those who earn their displeasure. South Down Bridge near Tavistock, by contrast, is a place of good fortune, white magic, and luck. This bridge belongs to the Queen of Faerie, who fashioned it out of waterdrops from a rainbow arched over a stream. The clapper bridge at the Wallabrook (below) is haunted by the ghost of a Dartmoor tin miner -- a sad rather than frightening apparition who merely wants to go home to Chagford. He's been haunting the spot since medieval times, for he cannot cross running water.

Clapper Bridge near Scorhill

With or without a supernatural attendent, bridges themselves carry a magic of their own.

"When we stand on a bridge," says Brian Froud, "we stand neither on land nor water; we stand in a symbolic space. Faerieland is always approached in places or moments where opposites are in balance. Edges, borders, boundaries of all kinds are where we encounter the faery realm, where land and water meet, where forests begin, and in twlight when the dark meets the light."

Earth and Water by Brian Froud

The clapper bridge near Scorhill

Trolls by Brian & Wendy FroudThe text by Wendy Froud, and the art by Brian Froud, is from their delightful book Trolls (Abrams, 2012), which I highly recommend. The two quotes by Tim Staples are from the Legendary Dartmoor site. The photographs of Dartmoor bridges are mine -- except for the one of me sitting on a clapper bridge near Stiniel, taken by Ellen Kushner. That's Howard & Tilly in the last two photos, on the Wallabrook Clapper near Scorhill Stone Circle last spring.


Tunes for a Monday Morning

The Isle of Eigg

Today, music from the Songs of Separation project: the brainchild of folk musician Jenny Hill, conceived during the contentious run-up to the referendum for Scottish independence. Hill's idea was to bring ten English and Scottish women folk musicians to a fairy tale island off Scotland's west coast to create an album reflecting on "separation" in its many forms.

"Celebrating the similarities and differences in our musical, linguistic and cultural heritage," she writes, "and set in the context of a post-referendum world, the work aims to evoke emotional responses and prompt new thinking about the issue of separation as it occurs in all our lives. The collected songs aim to get to the heart of what we feel when we are faced with a separation, both good and bad."

The musicians (along with Jen Hill) are: Hazel AskewJenn Butterworth, Eliza CarthyHannah James, Mary Macmaster, Karine PolwartHannah Read, Rowan Rheingans, and Kate Young. They spent an intensive week planning, rehearsing, and recording the album on Isle of Eigg in June 2015 -- including recordings made at the two sites central to the ‘Big Women of Eigg’ legend.

Above: A short video on the making of Songs of Separation, which includes fascinating discussion on the project's theme, on the creative process, and on the role of folk arts in society -- a perfect combination for Myth & Moor.

Below: An even shorter video from project's video diary, documenting a group sing, in Gaelic, with the Isle of Eigg community, along with a glimpse of that beautiful landscape. (You can view the other "Daily Reflection" videos on the project's YouTube channel.)

Next, two songs from the album itself.

Above: "Echo Mocks the Corncrake," featuring Karine Polwart. As Helen Gregory notes in her insightful review of the album, this traditional song "contains subtle political content and references to at least two forms of separation, even though it’s often thought of as a simple love song. The lyric tells of a young man whose partner leaves him for the bright lights of Ayr (located on 'the banks o’ Doune'), an act of separation which is one manifestation of the rural depopulation occurring as a result of the impact of the spread of industrialisation during the 18th and 19th centuries, further exacerbated in Scotland by the greed-fuelled brutality of the Highland Clearances. And the corncrake? The subject of the separation of humankind from the natural environment is key: habitat loss has meant that the numbers of this migratory bird have declined across the British Isles since the mid-19th century. Consequently, corncrakes are now restricted to Ireland and the northern and western islands of Scotland including, of course, the Isle of Eigg. So it’s fitting that 'Echo Mocks The Corncrake’ opens with a field recording of the bird’s distinctive krek krek call which sets the rhythm of the piece, picked up by percussive beats on a variety of instruments ahead of Karine’s vocals."

Below: "It was A' for our Rightfu' King," written by Robert Burns in the 18th century, arranged here by Hannah Read. "The song is inspired by the failed Jacobite uprising of 1745, lead by Prince Charles Edward Stuart (1720 - 1788)," explains Pauline MacKay. "The Jacobites sought to restore the deposed Stuart dynasty to the Scottish and English throne. The Jacobites were defeated at the battle of Culloden in 1746, forcing Bonnie Prince Charlie to flee to the highlands. He eventually reached Europe where he died in exile (in Rome). In this song a young woman laments the failure of the uprising and her Jacobite lover's absence from Scotland."

For those of us who have been following the project since it was first announced, the good news is that the album has now been released, and has proven well worth the wait. For those new to the project, you'll find more information on the Songs of Separation website, and updates on their Facebook page.

There's also a concert tour in the works -- but if you can't make it to any of the tour locations, perhaps you'd like to help someone else attend through a random act of musical kindness. (I'm assuming they'll continue to run the "Save Our Seats" program for other venues on the tour, though it's not listed on the website yet.)

The musicians of the Songs of Separation project


Time-traveling on the Devon coast

Dead Man's Folly, at Greenway

Greenway House

I'd never read much of Agatha Christie's work until our daughter, a big Christie fan, sharpened my interest a few year ago. Then I finally sat down and read all the Poirot and Miss Marple mysteries one after another, marveling (as readers have done since the 1920s) at Christie's extraordinary skill in piecing plots together like intricate jigsaw puzzles. Christie grew up in Torquay, on the south coast of Devon, and later owned a country estate called Greenway in Glampton, on the River Dart. The estate is now owned by the National Trust, and we've long talked about visiting it one day. Last month, on the weekend before our daughter's birthday, we finally did.

Agatha Christie's Miss Marple (Geraldine McEwan)The countryside around Greenway is still quite rural, approached by Devon's famously narrow lanes, and in Agatha's day, when motorcars were few, it was a remote country haven indeed. The best way to get there would have been by the steam trains routes that once ran all across the West Country -- and in fact one of those trains remains, running down the coast from Paignton to Kingswear. Since these trains are such a feature of  Agatha's fiction, that's how we decided to go.

In addition to Victoria, we took along two of her friends: a trio of women now in their 20s who have known each other since childhood. I think of them as the Three Graces, for in intelligence, talent, and beauty (inner and outer) they could teach even those Greek goddesses a thing or two -- but they will appear today only in this acknowledgement of their lovely presence on our journey, as I don't want to infringe on their privacy by posting their pictures without permission.

34

The Paignton & Dartmouth Steam Railway at Paignton Station

Terri Windling photographed by Carol AmosWhen we left the house, it was autumn on Dartmoor, but the season shifted back to late summer as we drove south to Paignton...and then time itself shifted as we boarded the train, taking us back to the 1930s. One of my dresses happens to be from that era (bought years ago at a vintage shop), so I wore it that day in Agatha's honor and imagined our party as characters in her books...preferably without the murderer or murder victim in our midst.

The train runs along the edges of the southern coastline, winding between the fields and beaches of Torbay. The views are rather spectacular, and the steam trailing past and the hooting of the whistle seem familiar from so many old films...

south Devon coast

Torbay

Torbay

Torbay

Howard on the train journey

The train makes a stop at Greenway Halt in the valley below the Greenway estate. Howard and the Graces exited there, then continued on foot through the Greenway woods -- but, alas, I was walking with a cane that day, so I caught the decidedly less romantic shuttle-bus instead. I'd read Janet Morgan's biography of Agatha just the week before, so I thought about her remarkable life as I made my own up to the house. I imagined her beside me, with her much-loved dogs, walking and talking with the formidable energy she sustained into old age...and since this was my daydream, I was hale and hearty, walking just as energetically too.

The view of the Dart from the entrance to Greenways

Dame Agatha Mary Clarissa Christie, née Miller, came from a privileged background (her father had inherited a fortune) and was raised in a large house in Torquay, a seaside town more elegant and exclusive in her day than it is in ours. Although a large portion of the money was gone by the time her father died when Agatha was 12, she was nonetheless used to a world of large houses, servants, and friends with titles before their names...a world she would later portray (and dissect) so well in her various books. She was a shy, quiet girl who loved animals, music, and the Devon countryside; she loved to swim (and did so all her life) and to tramp across the wilds of Dartmoor. She never had a formal education (and barely any schooling at all), a fact that somewhat embarrassed her. Instead, she educated herself by reading her way through her father's library, and then trained as a pharmacist as part of the war effort during the years of World War I. (This gave her a useful understanding of toxic substances!)

Agatha Christie in childhood and youth

Agatha left her beloved Devon for London during her first marriage to Archie Christie, a pilot and war hero -- but the marriage ended abruptly and traumatically when their only child, Rosalind, was seven. Agatha's mother had contracted an illness and died, and while Agatha reeled from this sudden loss, Archie announced he was in love with someone else and wanted a divorce. Divorce was still uncommon then, so this involved public scandal as well as heart-break. In a state of shock from both of these blows, Agatha disappeared for ten dramatic days following a mental breakdown in which she'd lost all memory of who she was. Since she was already a popular novelist at this point, the newspapers went wild over her disappearance -- even going so far as to speculate that the whole thing was a publicity stunt, although this intrusively personal publicity was precisely the kind she loathed.

Agatha with her first husband, Archie Christie, and newspaper coverage of her disappearance

Agatha's second marriage, to archaeologist Max Mallowan, was a much happier one. She'd been very young when she married Archie Christie on the eve of World War I (a time of many over-hasty marriages), and in Max, she'd found a partner who was considerably more compatible: intellectual, adventurous, and interested in everything, just like Agatha. (Archie, by contrast, was a stockbroker whose only real passion was playing golf. He left Agatha for a fellow golfer.)

Agatha and Max met on an archaeological dig in southern Iraq: she was there by invitation (a friend was running the dig); he was a member of the working team. She was 39 years old and already famous; he was 26 and at the start of his career. This unlikely couple fell in love while sharing a harrowing train-and-boat journey back to England, married later that year, then forged a long and successful life together -- divided between periods in Oxford (where he taught), London (where she wrote for the theatre), summers with Rosalind and her family at Greenway, and winters at Max's archaeological digs in the deserts of Syria and Iraq. (Agatha could work anywhere, and simply took her typewriter along.) He went on to become as well regarded in his field as she was in hers, and received a knighthood for it.

Agatha and her lovely second husband, Max Mallowan

Agatha Christie, Max Mallowan, and their dogs

Greenway House (photograph by Derek Harper)

Max and Agatha bought Greenway in 1938. "‘One day we saw that a house was up for sale that I had known when I was young," Agatha wrote in her autobiography. "So we went over to Greenway, and very beautiful the house and grounds were. A white Georgian house of about 1780 or 90, with woods sweeping down to the Dart below, and a lot of fine shrubs and trees -- the ideal house, a dream house...."

In the gardens at Greenway

Greenway

Autumn flowers at Greenway

Although they didn't live there year-round, Greenway was always bustling with life: Rosalind and her family spent a great deal of time there, family friends were urged to go and stay (Agatha had always been generous this way), and the staff was encouraged to make use of the whole house whenever the family wasn't around. Agatha often said that Greenway was her true home.

The family room at Greenway

Agatha writing in the corner of her bedroom, and her bedroom today

Agatha died at the age of 86, world famous, much loved, and with her family around her. Max died two years later, and the Greenway estate was passed down to Rosalind and her son. They, in turn, passed the house and all its contents to the National Trust, under strict conditions: It was not to be turned into a commercial "Agatha Christie theme park," but left to look just as it did when Agatha lived and worked there -- the same books on the shelves, the same art on the walls, the same dishes in the cupboards of its large country kitchen, the same black typewriting poised on the desk, ready for her next story

Although grand from the outside, when you step through Greenway's door it doesn't feel like a show piece; it still feels like a warm, cluttered, book-filled family home...albeit the home of an unusually well-traveled family, stuffed with curios and artifacts gathered from all around the word.

A corner of Agatha Christie's library

Agatha's clothes, and family pictures on the piano

Agatha Christie's books

Despite Greenway's spaciousness, Agatha's office is squeezed into an endearingly small room...although in fact she wrote all over house: in the library, in the corner of the bedroom, in the living room amid the tumult of family life.

One of the things I admire about her is that she wasn't precious about her writing. She took it seriously (and expected others to do so too), yet she was always a consummate professional: she simply sat down and worked -- in trains, on boats, in hotel rooms, in tents under the Middle Eastern stars. Wherever she was, she observed life around her, took it all in, and then sat down and turned it into stories.

"There was a moment when I changed from an amateur to a professional," she wrote in her autobiography. "I assumed the burden of a profession, which is to write even when you don't want to, don't much like what you're writing, and aren't writing particularly well."

But she always wrote well, at least until the final years when her powers began to fail -- and even then, she concocted characters and plots so vivid that even her lesser works are engaging, suspenseful, and well worth reading.

Books above Agatha's desk

Agatha Christie's desk

Agatha's typewrite

Agatha Christie's typewriter

Agatha Christie's office window at Greenway

After wandering through the house, Howard and I found a bench outside and sat in the warmth of the lowering sun, while from the house we could hear the faint notes of someone playing Agatha's piano. We wondered aloud what it would be like to live and work in place so peaceful, so beautiful....

And then we remembered that we do. Okay, ours is a plain little house, a simple, sturdy workman's dwelling from the Edwardian era, so small that the entire thing could probably fit into Agatha's living room. But we, too, are surrounded by the green beauty of Devon; and we, too, step through the door into a warm, cluttered, book-filled family home...albeit a much more humble one.

And suddenly we were eager to head back there. We gathered the Graces, and made for the train.

Leaving Greenway

Terri Winding & Howard Gayton on the Paignton Dartmouth Steam RailwayPhotographs are identified in the picture captions. (Run your cursor over the images to see them.) The majority of the photographs are mine, but when they're not, credits are listed. A related previous post: "On Poirot and the Pup" (2012).


"Into the Woods" series, 53: The Wild Hunt

Week Down Cross, Dartmoor, photograph by Nilfanion

The approach to Halloween is a time for telling stories of ghosts, ghouls, and the Unseelie Court (the underside of the Faerie Realm), and for paying wary respect to the Dark Gods of the land as we move into the dark months of the year.

Beardown Man, a prehistoric menhir on Dartmoor, photograph by Jon ConstantOne of the more frightening tales of Dartmoor is the legend of the Wild Hunt, which thunders across the moors by night in pursuit of any man or beast foolish enough to cross its path. 

"Stay indoors, attend your hearths," warn Ari Berk & William Spytma in an excellent article on the Hunt. "Try to keep the night at bay by the telling of your tongue. Remember your kin, honor your ancestors. For at this time the dead begin to stir, riding upon hallowed and familiar roads, galloping through villages and wastes, flying through the forests of the mind. Such raids are reminders that the past is not a dead thing, but may return, like a hunter, to follow us for a time."

The Wild Hunt, they explain, "is ancient in origin, an embodiment of the memories of war, agricultural myth, ancestral worship, and royal pastime. Its most complete and well-documented traditions lie with the peoples of Northern Europe; however, there are reflections of the Hunt anywhere in literature or folk tradition where the dead travel together over the land, or heroes rise up to rout a foreign foe, or where representatives of the sovereignty of the land are pursued and hunted. We even find versions of the Hunt in Ovid and the classical tradition. Indeed, wherever there are tales of invasions, we will likely find stories of a ghostly hunt following close on the heels of myth or history....

'Regardless of their regional names, all Hunts seem to share several common features wherever they appear: a spectral leader, a following train, announcement by a great baying of hounds, crashes of lightning, and loud hoof beats along with the Huntsman's shouts of  'Halloo!' Death and war often follow in their wake."

Tilly on Dartmoor near Belstone

The Hunt is led by a variety of figures, depending on where the tale is told: Odin, Woden, Herla, Herne the Hunter, Dewer, the Devil, Gwynn Ap Nudd (the king of the Welsh Otherworld), and even King Arthur under a curse. Whatever his guise, the Huntsman rides with hunting hounds that are just as fearsome as he: usually black as night, with eyes like glowing coals and breath of flame.

In The Folklore of Dartmoor, Ralph Whitlock reports on the Hunt that runs on the open moor near Chagford: "Sabine Baring-Gould says that in old times the Wild Hunt was known locally as the Wist Hounds. J.R.W. Coxhead has heard them called Yeth Hounds or Heath Hounds. He writes: 'The sound of the Dark Huntsman's horn and the fierce cries of the Yeth Hounds are supposed to have been heard many times in the lonely parts of the moor by belated travelers, and by resident inhabitants of the Dartmoor area. It is said that two of the favorite haunts of the spectral huntsman and his pack of demon hounds are Wistman's Wood and the Dewerstone Rock.' He adds that when, on a stormy night in 1677, Sir Richard Cabell, lord of the manor of Brook in Buckfastleigh parish, died, the Demon Hunt raged around the house all night, waiting for the soul of the wicked knight."

Stone row and circle near Down Tor, Dartmoor"These black, spectral hounds bear almost as many names as the Hunt," note Berk & Spytma. "In the North they are called Gabriel's Hounds. In Lancashire they are described as monstrous dogs with human heads who foretell of coming death or misfortune. In Devon they are known as Yeth, Heath, or Wisht hounds. These hounds issue from inside Wistman's Wood on the eve of St. John (Midsummer), a night when by tradition the careful eye can see the spirits of the dead fly from their graves. Here, among the ancient dwarf oaks and greening stones, Dewer (the Devil), kennels his hounds, and it is still said that no real dog will enter these woods at any time of the year. The Yeth hounds are also associated with the souls of unbaptized children, which they chase across the moor as their prey. But related traditions hold that the dogs are themselves the souls of the unbaptized babes, and they instead chase the Devil across the moor in repayment for his hand in their fate.

Stall moor row, southern Dartmoor, photograph by Herby Thyme

Hut circle at Grimspound, a Bronze Age settlement, Dartmoor, photograph by Herby Thyme

"In Wales the dogs are the Cwn Annwn (Hounds of the Otherworld) often white with red ears and bellies. The corrupt priest Dando had his own beasts, called the Devil's Dandy Dogs. Great black hounds were known as the Norfolk Shuck and Suffolk Shuck. The Hounds of the Hunt all bear a striking resemblance to the 'Black Shuck,' a solitary creature that has stalked East Anglia for centuries with fiery eyes as big as saucers. In England such solitary dogs are often the ghosts of deceased people, changed as punishment, and will sometimes help people if treated kindly.

"In several Norse versions of the Hunt, the Huntsman would leave a small black dog behind. The dog had to be kept and carefully tended for a year unless it could be driven away. The only known way to get frighten it away was to boil beer in eggshells, a curious ritual act seemingly related to the traditional method of getting rid of a Faerie changeling."

The Unseelie Host snatching up mortals, a drawing by Alan Lee (from ''Faeries'')

Faeries, too, have their form of Hunt: the Host, a group from the Unseelie Court, swarms through the skies on cold, moonless nights, snatching up mortals who cross their path and whisking them into the dark. If their victims live to limp back home, they report being forced to making mischief on other mortals and to raid faery cattle from the Seelie Realm. Shaken and battered, those hunted by the Host are said to age years in a single night.

Saddle Tor, Dartmoor, photograph by Herby Thme

If you'd like to learn more about the Wild Hunt -- and it would be wise to do so at this chancy time of year -- I recommend reading Berk & Spytma's fascinating article in full. You'll find it here.

"The Wild Hunt Rides Over Paris," a post by Katherine Langrish (on Seven Miles of Steel Thistles), is also a treat, as is Carolyne Larrington's new book: In the Land of the Green Men, Penelope Lively's YA novel based on the theme, The Wild Hunt of Hagworthy, and Jane Yolen's middle-grade novel, The Wild Hunt, illustrated by Mora Francisco.

Wistman's Wood, Dartmoor

Dewerstone RocksPictures: The drawing above is by my friend & Dartmoor neighbor Alan Lee, who knows a thing or two about Wild Hunt legends. It's from his book Faeries, a collaboration with Brian Froud. Descriptions and photographer credits for the Dartmoor photographs can be found in the picture captions. (Run your cursor over the images to see them.) Words: The passages quoted above are from "Power, Penance, & Pursuite: On the Train of the Wild Hunt by Ari Berk & William Spytma (The Journal of Mythic Arts & Realms of Fantasy magazine, 2002) and Devon Folklore by Ralph Whitlock (BT Batsford, 1977). All rights reserved by the authors or their estates.


"Into the Woods" series, 51: Tales of a Half-Tamed Land

The Apple Tree Man by Alan Lee

"Devon, even till the present century, was a county of isolated communities," wrote Ralph Whitlock in The Folklore of Devon in 1977. "Partly this was due to its geology and topography, partly to its history. The county,  the third largest in England, has as its nucleus the huge, austere, and almost uninhabited massif of Dartmoor, around which the more fertile countryside is arranged as a frame. On the north it is fenced by The county of Devon in south-west Englandanother bleak plateau of almost equal altitude,  although Exmoor itself is two-thirds in Somerset. Another maze of steep-sided hills serves as a barrier between Devon and south Somerset and west Dorset. Nor are the intervening vales flat plains but rather a tangle of lesser hills, many of them buried in woods. It is a secretive, half-tamed countryside. "

The folklore of this county, Whitlock explains, is "a rich mixture of Celtic, Saxon, Danish and goodness knows what other elements, including quite possibly some that are pre-Celtic. The Devon moors are still the alleged haunt of pixies. We are not surprised to hear much about giants, bogeymen and witches, and the Devil has here a richer heritage than in most English counties. Customs such as the wassailing of apple-trees has lingered long on Devonshire farms, and tales of smugglers, fairs, and tin-miners abound."

Wistman's Wood, Dartmoor

"Piskies" or "pixies" are the fairy folk of Devon, though the name tends to make them sound rather daintier than they are. In most accounts, they are small but earthy creatures, usually dressed in natural elements or rags, although sometimes appearing in lordly splendor to those with Fairy Sight. Pixies, reports Whitlock, "are timid and shy, live in remote places, often in caves or holes in rocks, venturing out only at night. They are, in general, well disposed towards the human race and have been known to lend a friendly hand with farm and domestic work. Nevertheless, the creatures are not to be trifled with, for they understand magic and can make life unpleasant for anyone who offends them....

Dartmoor Pixies by Brian Froud

A swarm of fairies by Alan Lee

"Many remote and secluded places, especially on the moors, have particular associations with pixies. A colony is said to live on Pixie Rocks, in a combe near Challacombe. On Gidleigh Commons, high on Dartmoor, a large hut circle, ninety feet across, is supposedly haunted by pixies. No horse will cross it. The villagers of Chagford claim to have heard pixies on the moors on quiet nights." (And indeed, we have.)

Dartmoor ponies, photograph by Tom Morgan

Scorhill Stone Circle, Gidleigh (Creative Commons photograph)

"The queen of the fairies is said to have created South Down Bridge, near Tavistock, by crystallizing the drops of water in a rainbow over the stream. First becoming tiny pebbles, then great stones. At Chudleigh Rock, a cave, waterfall and creeper-hung glen are alleged to be the favorite haunt of pixies. King Castle, an ancient earthwork near Simonsbath, is reputed to have been built by pixies, as a defense against hostile spirits from neighboring mines.

The Fairy Who Was Kissed by the Piskies by Brian Froud

"Pixies are said to dance in a number of the stone circles on Dartmoor, including the one on Huccaby Moor. A story is told of Tom White, a young man of Postbridge, who went courting a girl at Huccaby, which involved frequent five mile walks each way over the wild moors. One summer night he saw a crowd of pixies dancing near Bellever Tor. He watched them for awhile and then tried to steal away but the pixies saw him. They formed a ring and danced around him till dawn, making him twirl like a top all the time. When eventually he was released, at sunrise, exhausted and frightened, he declared he would never risk such an experience again. He died a bachelor."

The Fairy Ring by Alan Lee

Sheraberton Stone Circle near Huccaby, photograph by Robert Gladstone

"The pixies in general, though sometimes mischievous, are simple, kindly folk," Whitlock continues, "ready to do a good turn for small rewards. And some of the pixie legends are quite lovely. We have, for example, the story of the old woman and the tulip garden. She lived in a cottage near Tavistock and took great pride in her garden, Fairy gardeners by Alan Leeespecially her tulips. Before her cottage had been built, the site was a haunt of pixies, and they continued to come and enjoy the flowers in the garden. At night they could be heard singing to their babies and caressing them. Thanks to the pixies, the tulips not only grew unusually tall and fine but as delicately fragrant as roses.

"When she died her heir destroyed the flowers and grew vegetables instead; the tulip bed was planted with parsley. The pixies were so upset that for years afterwards they saw to it that the garden grew nothing worthwhile. Instead, they transferred their attentions to the old woman's grave (which her relations had neglected), planting with lovely little flowers and neat grass lawns."

In another tale from Tavistock, "an old woman, confused and mistaking the time, got up at midnight and set out for market. Somewhere on the moors, in the small hours, she heard the cries of the Wild Hunt and saw a frightened hare, which was evidently the quarry. Being kind-hearted, she gathered up the creature and hid it in one of her panniers. Presently the devil himself appeared, in the form of a black-clothed horseman, Fairy hare by Brian Froudcloven-hoofed, horns sprouting from his head, and riding a headless horse. He asked her if she had seen the hare, but she replied, 'No.'

"After he had passed, she released the hare from the pannier. It turned into a beautiful young lady in white, who told the startled old woman that she was not an inhabitant of this world, but was suffering punishment for a crime committed during her earthly life. She said she was doomed to be constantly pursued either above or below ground by evil spirits, 'until I could get behind their tails, whilst they passed on in search of me.'

"In return for the old woman's help in fulfilling this condition, she promised her, as a reward, 'that your hens shall lay two eggs instead of one, that your cows shall yield the most plentiful store of milk all the year round, and that you shall talk twice as much as before, and your husband stand no chance at all in any matter between you to be settled by the tongue!' It is said that from then on the affairs of the old woman prospered."

Whist hounds and a mounted goose by Alan

There numerous legends of spectral black hounds (take note, Tilly); also of ghosts and haunts of various sorts, and of witches who roam the moor by night in the shape of hares:

Triple Hares by Brian Froud"J.R.W. Coxhead tells the story of Moll Stancombe, of Chagford, who, in the form of a hare, was often coursed by hounds but could never be caught. One of her former lovers, whom she had rejected, loaded a gun with silver bullets and attempted to shoot her, but the gun exploded and blew off his hand. A rival witch at length revealed that Moll could be caught by  a spayed bitch. Hare and bitch seemed evenly matched for a long time, but at last the dog managed to bite her flank as she scrambled through a hedge. The owner of the dog then went to Moll's cottage, looked through the window, and saw her putting plaster on a wound. It corresponded exactly with the spot which the dog had bitten." Coxhead reports that no further harm came to Moll, who never again appeared as a hare...at least where ex-lovers could see her.

Fairy fiddler by Alan LeeFolk musician Seth Lakeman, who lives over Tavistock way, has drawn on the legends and history of Dartmoor for some of his best work-- including "Kitty Jay," "The Bold Knight," and "The Courier" (which you'll find in this previous post), and "The White Hare," performed with Lisbee Stainton in the video below.

If you go hunting, Lakeman warns,
Or go calling out your prey,
Or if you see a fair maid
With hair an ashen grey,
Careful you don't catch her,
Or give her right of way,
For she will look upon you
Steal your soul away
...

A Dartmoor river by Alan Lee
The art above is by my Chagford neighbors (and experts on Devon folklore) Brian Froud and Alan Lee., who published the classic book Faeries together many years ago, and numerous other books individually since. Titles and credits are in the picture captions, as well as photography credits. Devon Folklore by Ralph Whitlock was published by BT Batsford, Ltd., London, 1977. All rights to the text and images in this post reserved by the authors and artists. If you'd like to read more on the folklore of Devon, there's an old article of mine on the subject on the World of Froud website.


"Into the Woods" series, 50: Old stones, old gods, and silence

Tintern Abbey, eastern columns

 From Keeping the Faith Without a Religion by Roger Housden:

"It seems to me that a materialist view of the universe is reductionist. It makes every kind of experience subservient to the laws of matter. It applies the tenets of the known to the mystery of why we are here at all.  It chases away not only the old gods and spirits and half heard whispers in the night; it chases away the mystery of life and being itself. For a materialist, there can be no mystery that will not eventually be made clear in the light of reason and critical intelligence.

"Ultimately, what is in danger of being excluded from the cultural conversation is not the old gods, but the quality of imagination that gave birth to them; an imagination that sees and feels humanity to be part of a living, breathing world with an intelligence that we will never fathom; full of Tintern Abbey by Chriss Gunnspresences and qualities that our ancestors gave names to, but that live on as always even as their names have fallen away. William Wordsworth gives voice to this imaginative faculty in this excerpt from his poem, 'Lines Composed a Few Miles Above Tintern Abbey':

And I have felt
A presence that disturbs me with the joy
Of elevated thoughts; a sense sublime
Of something far more deeply interfused,
Whose dwelling is the light of the setting suns,
And the round ocean and the living air,
And the blue sky, and in the mind of man:
A motion and a spirit, that impels
All thinking things, all objects of thought,
And rolls through all things."

 

Tintern Abbey by Marion Haworth

Tintern Abbey by Wici Rhuthun

The beautiful bones of Tintern Abbey (pictured here) rise from the banks of the River Wye on Welsh side of the English-Welsh border. The abbey was founded in 1131 for the White Monks of the Cistercian Order, followers of the Rule of St. Benedict, whose silent and austere way of life was devoted to prayer, scholarship, agricultural labor and self-sufficiency.

"Why does the soul love silence?" asks Parker J. Palmer in A Hidden Wholeness. Palmer is a Quaker, a group for whom silence is also an important part of communal prayer. "The deepest answer I know invokes the mystery of where we came from and where we are headed. At birth, we emerged from the Great Silence into a world that constrains the soul; at death we return to the Great Silence where the soul is once again free.

Inside Tintern Abbey by Pam Brophy

"Our culture is so fearful of the silence of death," writes Parker, "that it worships noise nonstop. In the midst of all that noise, small silences can help us become more comfortable with the Great Silence toward which we are all headed. Small silences bring us 'little deaths,' which, to our surprise, turn out to be deeply fulfilling. For example, as we settle into silence, where our posturing and pushing must cease, we may experience a temporary death of the ego, of that separate sense of self we spend so much time cultivating. But this 'little death,' instead of frightening us, makes us feel more at peace and more at home.

Tintern Abbey by Saffron Blaze2

"The Rule of St. Benedict, that ancient guide to the monastic life, includes the admonition to 'keep death before one's eyes daily.' As a young man I found this advice a bit morbid. But the older I get, the more I understand how life-giving this practice can be. As I settle into silence, I draw closer to my own soul, touching a place within me that knows no fear of dying. And the little deaths I experience in silence deepen my appreciation for life -- for the light suffusing the room as I write, for the breeze coming in through the window.

Tintern Abbey by Pam Brophy

"So silence brings not only little deaths but also little births -- small awakenings to beauty, to vitality, to hope, to life. In silence we may start to intuit that birth and death have much in common. We came from the Great Silence without fear into this world of noise. Perhaps we can return without fear as well, crossing back over knowing that the Great Silence is our first and final home."


"Into the Woods" series, 49: Wanderers & Wilderness

Soay, St Kilda, Outer Hebrides, Scotland

Seal

Like Robert Macfarlane (in Monday's post), Sara Maitland is fascinated by the peregrini: the early Celtic Christian monks and mystics who set out alone in small, flimsy boats, seeking solitude, nature, and God on the most remote islands of Britain.

"On island after island," she writes in A Book of Silence, "the more isolated and far-flung the better -- on St. Kilda, on the Farnes, on the Shiants, throughout the Hebrides and the northern islands, off the coast of Ireland, around Iceland and possibly even North America -- the traces of hermits can be found. This history is confused and uncertain, but originating in Ireland in the fifth century, there was a well-developed form of Christian spirituality which valued the silent eremitical vocation extremely highly.

A ''cleit'' (stone hut) on St Kilda

"In Britain, the most famous such voluntary exile was Columba, who left Ireland in the mid sixth century and crossed the Irish Sea to become first a hermit and later a missionary and founding father based on the tiny island of Iona, which is just to the west of Mull. His community later spread across Scotland and converted north-east England as well, but he was by no means unique: over the next several centuries hermits settled alone or in tiny communities all over western Scotland and further afield too....These adventures were known in Ireland as 'green martydoms' -- to distinguish them from the 'red martyrdom' of being slain, shedding blood for the faith. To leave home and travel out beyond civilization was a martyrdom (the word means 'witness'), death of the ego, a self-giving that seems absolute."

Iona by Torsten Henning

Shetland ponies on the Isle of Foula

"We do not know very much about the spiritual theology of these early hermits," Maitland continues. "Their lives are lost in legend and story, their physical markers faded or wiped out by the wildness of the places where they dwelt."

One of these hermits was St. Cuthbert, bishop of the monastery on Lindisfarne, a center of Celtic Christianity in the Farne Islands off the Northumbrian coast. A great lover of nature, he issued regulations to his monks for the special protection of Eider Ducks, which are called Cuddy Ducks ("Cuthbert's Ducks") to this day. He retired to live an austere and solitary life on Inner Farne Island in 676, and died there in 687.

Lindisfarne Abbey and St Marys by Russ Hamer

Cuddy Ducks

Sara Maitland explains that we know more about St. Cuthbert than most other Christian hermits because he was personally known and loved by Bede, author of The Ecclesiastical History of the English People. "But what interested Bede is somewhat different than what interests me," writes Maitland. "So, for example, Bede records that Cuthbert would pray all night standing up to his neck in the frigid waters of the North Sea and, indeed, when he emerged otters would come and warm him with their tongues and fur. This combination of the ferociously ascetic and the miraculous engages Bede, for what he is writing about is the ultimate form of something so obvious to him that he never says anything about what Cuthbert thought he was trying to achieve, nor about the content of those prayers.

Otter, Farne Islands

Grey seal & newborn calf, The Farne Islands, Northumberland

"It is not until rather later, from the tenth to twelfth centuries, that we begin to get accounts that attempt to explain what the island hermits were seeking, in the beguiling poetry of the Irish monks:

"Delightful I think it to be in the bosom of an isle, on the peak of a rock, that I might often see there the calm of the sea. That I might see its heavy waves over the glittering ocean, as they chant a melody to their Father on their eternal course. That I might see its smooth strand of clear headlands, no gloomy thing; that I might hear the voice of its wondrous birds, a joyful tune. That I might hear the sound of the shallow waves against the rocks; that I might hear the cry by the graveyard, the noise of the sea. That I might see its splendid flocks of birds over the full-watered ocean; that I might see its mighty wales, greatest of wonders. That I might see its ebb and its flood-tide in their flow; that this might be my name, a secret I tell, "He who turned his back on Ireland." That contrition of heart should come upon me as I watch it; that I might bewail my many sins, difficult to declare. That I might bless the Lord who has power over all, heaven with its pure host of angels, earth, ebb, flood-tide."

Birds on the Farne Islands by Bob Jones

Puffins on The Farne Islands by Joe Cornish

Unlike Maitland and the hermit monks she admires, I am not a Christian, and I certainly don't live an isolated life, yet my morning prayers on Nattadon Hill aren't so different from those of the nature-loving peregrini:

Delightful I think it to be in the green hills of Devon, climbing through bracken and blackberries to the granite peaks above, that I might often see the sheep-dotted fields, and the grey tors of Dartmoor beyond. That I might hear the wind singing in the trees, a choir of oak, ash, rowan, and beech; and the bells of the village church; and the bleating lambs; and the hooting of owls in the woods. That I might see this hillside covered in bluebells, stitchwort, and foxgloves, no gloomy thing; and that I might hear the voice of its rooks and its robins, a joyful tune. That I might see the badgers live undisturbed; and the small red deer, shyest of wonders; and watch wild ponies graze in the tall grass as they flow between valley and moor. That I come nameless to this hill, no more, no less than others creatures here, living quietly, gently upon its slopes. That I walk these paths with respect, attentiveness, open eyes, open ears, open heart. That I might bless Mystery within all of us; and my good neighbors, human and nonhuman alike; and the air, the water, the fire, the earth, ebb and flood-tide. Mitakuye oyasin.

Meldon Hill viewed from Nattdon Hill

Wildflowers in spring, Nattadon Hill

Young Dartmoor ponyWords: The quotes by Sara Maitland are from A Book of Silence (Granta, 2009), which I highly recommend. All rights reserved by the author. Pictures: The last three photographs above are mine, taken here in Chagford: Meldon Hill viewed from Nattadon Hill, a pathway on lower Nattadon, and a very young Dartmoor pony on the village Commons. The photographs of islands in Scottland and north-east England (and their birds and animals) are Creative Commons images. They are identified in the picture captions. (Run your cursor over the images to see them.)


Tunes for a Monday Morning: Songs for the Peregrini

Ynys Enlli, viewed from Mynydd Mawr - photograph by Alan Fryer (Creative Commons)

In his book The Wild Places, Robert Macfarlane writes about his journey to Yns Enlli (Bardsey Island), off the coast of the Llŷn Peninsula in Wales:

"Yns Enlli was among the many remote places of the west and north-west coasts of Britain and Ireland to be settled between around AD 500 and 1000," he tells us. "During those centuries, an extraordinary migration occurred. Monks, anchorites, solitaries and other devoted itinerants began to travel in their thousands to the bays, forests, promontories, mountain-tops and islands of the Atlantic littoral. In frail craft and with little experience of seamanship, they sailed out across dangerous seas, in search of something we might now call wilderness. Where they stopped, they build monasteries, cells and oratories, dug cemetaries for their dead and raised stone crosses to their God. These travelers were known as peregrini: the name derives from the Latin peregrinus and carries the idea of wandering over a distance, giving us our word 'pilgrim.' "

Enlii, The Blessed Isle - photograph by Eric Jones (Creative Commons)

"We can know very little for certain about the peregrini. We know few of their names. Yet, reading the accounts of their journeys and of their experiences on places like Enlli, I had encountered a dignity of motive and attitude that I found salutary. These men were in search not of material gain, but of a hallowed landscape: one that would sharpen their faith to its utmost point. They were, in the phrasing of their own theology, exiles looking for the Terra Repromissionis Sanctorum -- the Promised Land of Saints.

"A long Christian tradition exists that considers all individuals as peregrini, in that all human life is seen as exile. This idea was perpetuated in the Salve Regina, the chant often recited as a last night prayer. Post hoc exilium, the prayer declares: all will be resolved after this exile. The chant, when sung, sounds ancient and disquieting. It is unmistakably music about wilderness, an ancient vision of wildness, and it still has the capacity to move us.

"Antiphona: Salve Regina," medieval chant

"Much of what we know of the life of the monks of Enlli, and places like it, is inferred from the rich literature they left behind. Their poems speak eloquently of a passionate and precise relationship with nature, and the blend of receptivity and detachment which characterized their interactions with it. Some of the poems read like jotted lists, or field notes: 'Swarms of bees, beetles, soft music of the world, a gentle humming; brent geese, barnacle geese, shortly before All Hallows, music of the wild dark torrent.' Others record single charmed instants: a blackbird calling from a gorse branch near Belfast Loch, foxes at play in a glade. Marban, a ninth-century hermit who lived in a hut in a fir-grove near Druim Rolach, wrote of the 'wind's voice against a branchy wood on a day of grey cloud.' A nameless monk, responsible for drywalling on the island of North Rona in the ninth century, stopped his work to write a poem that spoke of the delight he felt  at standing on a 'clear headland,' looking over the 'smooth strand' to the 'calm sea,' and hearing the calls of 'the wondrous birds.' A tenth-century copyist, working in an island monastery, paused long enough to scribble a note in Gaelic beside his Latin text. 'Pleasant to me is the glittering of the sun today upon these margins.'

"Gleanings such as these give us glimpses of the nature of faith of the peregrini. They are recorded instants which carry purely over the long distances of history, as certain sounds carry with unusual clarity within water or across frozen land. For these writers, attention was a form of devotion and noticing continuous with worship. The art they left behind is among the earliest testimonies to human love of the wild."

"Salve Regina in C Minor" by Giovanni Battista Pergolesi

The music:

In the first video above, "Antiphona: Salve Regina" is performed by the Ensemble Organum at the Abbey of Fontevraud in Anjou, France in 2006. (The video was filmed by David Wilkes at Canterbury Cathedral, Holy Trinity Church in Coventry, Winchester Castle, and Windsor Castle.)

In the second video, "Salve Regina in C Minor," by the 18th century Italian composer Giovanni Battista Pergolesi, is performed by L'Arco Magico Chamber Orchestra at the Cathedral of Orvieto in Umbria, Italy in 2013. The director is Antonio Puccio, and the soprano is Silvia Frigato.

Below, an exquisitely beautiful "Salve Regina," by the great Estonian composer Arvo Pärt, is performed by the Coral Reyes Bartlet, the Coro de Cámara Mateo Guerra, the Coro Juvenil David Goldsmith, and the Orquesta del Encuentro de Música Religiosa de Canarias in Puerto de la Cruz, Tenerife in 2014.

"Salve Regina" by Arvo Pärt

Credits: The quote by Robert Macfarlane above is from The Wild Places (Granta, 2008), which I highly recommend reading in full. All rights reserved by the author. The photographs above are Creative Commons images, identified in the picture captions.


The blessings of the trees

Cloughties

In the comments under Tuesday's post, Stuart asked a question about the oak tree in the first photograph -- and for those who don't always go back to read the comments, I'll repeat the discussion here:

Stuart Hill: Do I spy a piece of red cloth tied to the tree? A wonderfully Pagan practice of course. If it is an example of a Pagan act, it's so nice to know that the original religion of these isles is still being followed in Chagford.

Jane Yolen: Red cloth tied to tree -- pagan? Tell more, Stuart.

Stuart: Cloth (of any colour) tied to trees is an ancient tradition throughout the UK and Ireland. The cloth is a sort of physical representation of a prayer or wish in which the help of Nature Spirits and Deities is asked for. Often the prayer is related to health issues and also fertility, but help for any sort of problem, ambition or need can be sought. Sometimes coin offerings are also made, and the tree in question may stand near a well or spring, though not always. The species of the tree can sometimes be important (particularly hawthorn and oak) though again many species have been associated with the practice. Actually, I think that the West Country where Terri lives, may be one of the places where the tradition continues quite strongly. And I think there may be similar practices throughout the world; perhaps some of the Myth and Moor community could tell us?

Me: The tree in that picture is one of two trees on the hill behind our house known locally as the fairy trees. (An elderly neighbor of mine, back when I lived in Weaver's Cottage, told me the tale. She was both a staunch church goer and a firm believer in fairies.) This is the "female" tree; the "male" tree is not in the photo, although it is close by. The trees stands on two wildflower-covered humped mounds in the interstitial space between the woods and the open hill, and I photograph them only rarely, when I feel I have their "permission."  ... Colored ties (cloughties) appear on these trees from time to time, and little offerings on the mounds below them: flowers, pins, and sometimes beans, which folklore tells us is a food beloved by fairies. At the moment, there's also a green cloughtie tied beside the red one. Well spotted, Stuart!

Cloughties

The practice of tying cloughties to sacred trees or fairy trees was once common across the British Isles and Brittany, and continues to this day in certain sacred spots, often close by wells or springs known for their healing properties. (You can read more about healing wells in a previous post:"Water, wild and sacred.") Called cloughties or clouties here in Devon and Cornwall, clooties in Scotland and the north of England, and clotties in Ireland, the term derives from local words for rags or strips of cloth.

Fairy Oak during bluebell season, Devon

Cloughties are sometimes left as gestures of acknowledgement and respect for the spirits of the land, and sometimes as prayers requesting general blessings or specific aid from those same spirits. At healing wells, cloughties may be left as prayers for recovery from afflictions of the body or mind: the cloth is first dipped in the water, pressed against the troubled part of the body (if the sufferer is present), and tied to the tree. The cloth then "takes up" the illness and carries it harmlessly back to wind and earth as the cloughtie slowly weathers over time and disintegrates. Other offerings common to such places are bent pins, flowers, coins, food (usually beans, honeycomb, apples, berries, or freshly baked bread), wine (in a wooden bowl or poured onto the earth), and bread soaked in ale or cider (a custom related to British and Germanic wassailing traditions).

Cloughties by Madron Well, Cornwall

Although at its root the tying of cloughties is a quiet, private act of communion between human beings and the local spirits of the land, in some spots the practice is so well known that it has almost become a tourist attraction -- causing friction between some of the locals who tend such sites (which have often been Christianized) and the tourists, pilgrims, and pagans who fill sacred sites with objects that others see as "litter." Aside from these well known places, however, the holy or magical trees of the West Country are honored in ways so quiet and unobtrusive (and respectful of nonbelievers) that you need sharp eyes to even notice that the cloughtie practice has been carried unbroken right up to modern times.

Sanscreed Well, Cornwall

Clotties by St. Brigid's Well, Kildare, Ireland

This is not a practice unique to Europe's pagan and Celtic Christian traditions, of course. Trees are considered sacred in many ancient cultures around the world, and offerings left in or below specials trees (called Holy Trees, Prayer Trees, Wishing Trees, Peace Trees, etc.) can be found in many lands, representing many different beliefs and religions. Here are just a few them (identified in the picture captions; run your cursor over the images to see them):

A hopea odorata tree wih offerings to a Nany Ta-khian (a female tree spirit) in Thailand

The Wishing Tree shrine near the Tin Hau Temple

Kagyu Samyé Ling Monastery

In a number of Native American traditions, "prayer ties" are created in a ritual manner and left in particular sacred spots, or else in places made sacred by a personal or community ceremony. These are generally made of strips of colored cloth, either red (representing the Red Road of indigenous spirituality) or the four colors of the four directions (the exact colors varying from tribe to tribe), with a pinch of tobacco or sacred herbs knotted in the cloth. 

The cottonwood trees at the center of Sundance ceremonies are often wrapped and hung with prayer ties -- sometimes many hundreds of them, each one knotted with individual prayers and blessings. I've attended many Sundances in my time, which are profoundly beautiful and powerful,  but I won't include a photograph of a prayer-wrapped Sundance tree in this post, for taking pictures at such ceremonies is generally considered disrespectful. Instead, here's a simple photograph of a string of prayers left anonymously in the wild:

Native American Prayer Ties on Hat Mountain, South Dakota

A custom related to the tying of cloughties is the driving of coins into the bark of a tree for luck or increased fertility -- usually a fallen oak, ash, or sycamore, rather than a living tree. Such trees are found not only in the British Isles but also in parts of Africa, the Middle East, and East Asia. In South America, tiny silver milagros (in the shape of afflicted body parts) can be found pinned or tied to special trees, along with offerings of coins, paper money, and cigarettes beneath. Coins are also commonly thrown into holy wells and springs beside cloughtie trees -- a practice that comes down to us in the form of wishing wells and throwing pennies into a fountain for luck.

The Wish Tree by St. Fintan's Well

A Wish Tree in the English Lake District

A Wish Tree in Teesdale, England

Trees have been revered since the dawn of time -- both in green, wet lands like the British Isles and in dry, hot lands where their presence is rare and precious. The folkloric customs expressing this reverence were practiced for centuries before being discouraged, even demonized, by the Abrahamic religions -- or else quietly adopted when those practices could not be entirely suppressed. Here in England's West Country, pagan sacred sites were re-dedicated to Christian saints, "well dressing" and other such rites were folded into A Green Man carving in a church at King's Nympton, Devonseasonal church celebrations, and the wild Green Men of Celtic lore were turned into church carvings representing the resurrection of Christ instead of the seasonal rebirth of nature. Today, when a love of trees is considered ecological or Romantic rather than Satanic, Christians and pagans alike can enjoy the old woodland customs of Britain's folk heritage.

"For me," wrote the German poet and novelist Herman Hesse, "trees have always been the most penetrating preachers. I revere them when they live in tribes and families, in forests and groves. And even more I revere them when they stand alone....In their highest boughs the world rustles, their roots rest in infinity; but they do not lose themselves there, they struggle with all the force of their lives for one thing only: to fulfill themselves according to their own laws, to build up their own form, to represent themselves. Nothing is holier, nothing is more exemplary than a beautiful, strong tree. When a tree is cut down and reveals its naked death-wound to the sun, one can read its whole history in the luminous, inscribed disk of its trunk: in the rings of its years, its scars, all the struggle, all the suffering, all the sickness, all the happiness and prosperity stand truly written, the narrow years and the luxurious years, the attacks withstood, the storms endured. And every young farmboy knows that the hardest and noblest wood has the narrowest rings, that high on the mountains and in continuing danger the most indestructible, the strongest, the ideal trees grow. "

Newcrosswishtree2

"A longing to wander tears my heart when I hear trees rustling in the wind at evening," Hesse continues. "If one listens to them silently for a long time, this longing reveals its kernel, its meaning. It is not so much a matter of escaping from one's suffering, though it may seem to be so. It is a longing for home, for a memory of the mother, for new metaphors for life. It leads home. Every path leads homeward, every step is birth, every step is death, every grave is mother. So the tree rustles in the evening, when we stand uneasy before our own childish thoughts: Trees have long thoughts, long-breathing and restful, just as they have longer lives than ours. They are wiser than we are, as long as we do not listen to them. But when we have learned how to listen to trees, then the brevity and the quickness and the childlike hastiness of our thoughts achieve an incomparable joy. Whoever has learned how to listen to trees no longer wants to be a tree. He wants to be nothing except what he is. That is home. That is happiness.”

That is happiness indeed.

The Spiers Wish Tree in Beith, Scotland

Tree spirit, sapling child, and bunny girl

Images: The pictures are identified in the captions. (Run your cursor over the images to see them.)
Credits: The local "fairy tree" was photographed by me, and the others are Wiki Commons photographs except the following: the North American prayer ties are from Tangible View, St. Brigid's Well from A Trip to Ireland, and the Green Man carving from The Company of Green Men. The painting (one of mine) is of a tree spirit, sapling child, and story-loving bunny girl. The Herman Hesse quote comes from Trees: Reflections and Poems by Hesse.
Related posts: "Water, sacred and wild," "Wild folklore," "The Folklore of Food," "Stories are Medicine: healing tales in myth, folklore and mythic arts,"  "Homemade ceremonies," and "The Language of the Earth."