My Fitcher’s Bird Sestina is up at the beautifully edited Sycorax Journal. It’s one of a collection of 13 poems, all new versions of traditional bird-lore fairy tales. Fitcher’s Bird is a Grimm’s Bluebeard tale, and I have set it to the music of the sestina form. I have long been obsessed with the fractal like structure of sestinas, with their intricate feeling of spiralling return.
NOTE–These workshops have sold out. Please contact Taibhsear Collective to be added to a waiting list.
Very excited to be teaching a series of writing workshops for Winters last.
Dr. Alice Tarbuck will be teaching the first three workshops in the series, and I’ll be teaching the last three workshops, the Secrets of Our Craft:
- Calling Corners: a crash course in first lines, new habits and starting out. In this workshop we will discuss ways to face the blank page, modes of creating a writing ritual for yourself and as well as warding your practice in the face of upheaval and uncertain times.
- Temporal Shifts: a guide to writing as the ultimate time travel. In this workshop we will look at the element of time in storytelling, using non-linear narrative and foreshadowing to build excitement and movement into our work.
- Second Sight: a hands-on workshop to help you see old work in new ways. Revision is a mode of perceiving possibilities and it is the secret to powerful writing. In this workshop we will look at techniques for re-visioning– getting a second look at your first drafts and developing all your raw wildlings into powerful writing that embodies your intentions.
For more information, see the Eventbrite page.
I spoke to Karen McCrindle Warren about her Piobaireachd, composed for the Highland Bagpipes.
You can hear Karen play her Piobaireachd here.
The tune is one of memorial and witness for women executed in Dumfries in 1659, but also stands in as a memorial for all those executed for whom there is no physical memorial. The tune was commissioned by Steve Rooklidge of the Shasta Piping Society of California. Asked for a remembrance piece for the “devastating witch trials that took place during the 16th and 17th centurires. A “Lament for the Accused”, if you will.” He included a link to the Interactive Witchcraft Map published by the University of Edinburgh.
Questions in bold are mine. Here is what she told me:
“This tune commemorates the events of 13th April 1659, when nine Galloway women were executed on Dumfries Whitesands. Agnes Commes, Janet McGowane, Jean Tomson, Margaret Clerk, Janet McKendrig, Agnes Clerk, Janet Corsane, Helen Moorhead and Janet Callon, were “stranglit at stakes till they be dead, and thereafter their bodies to be burnt to ashes”. This began a third peak in Galloway – more and more witch finders came forward, demanding their fees for rounding up suspects and torturing confessions from them.
“The tune is written in pentatonic G – the key that gives the most dissonance against the drones, symbolising the pain, fear and anxiety of these times, and the high G’s symbolising the screams of the ‘witches’ who were tortured for confession and put to such horrific public execution. Not enough to kill them by strangling them at the stake, they had to be sure they were dead by also burning their bodies to ashes.”
Can you tell me more about how the Piobaireachd was commissioned?
…I started looking through the map and searching for more information about witchcraft in Scotland, and particularly relating to Ayrshire, Dumfries and Galloway which is my area of interest. I wrote music that was dark and desperate, but it took a while to find the story behind the title, and find the right title that suited the tune. In the end, I felt the tune, title and story were a perfect fit.
Piobaireachd has a way of pulling at the heart strings, as the variations grow in intensity, it is like waves of grief coursing through the body and soul, returning to the calm of the ground as you try to compose yourself and move forward in life.Karen McCrindle Warren
Your Piobaireachd is moving and intense, demanding time and space for witness. Traditionally, how has this style of composition been used in memorials?
Piobaireachds have been used in memorials for centuries. It is the traditional, ancient music of the bagpipe, and is often used to lament or salute those we have lost. For example “Lament for Mary MacLeod”, “Lament for the Duke of Hamilton”, or “Lament for the Children” – this last one was written by Patrick Mor MacCrimmon who lost seven of his eight sons to small pox within a year. This year the piping world lost a talented and lovely young man Alex Duncan at the age of 26. A close family friend wrote a piobaireachd to commemorate him “Lament for Alex Duncan” and it was performed at the Glenfiddich Championship at Blair Castle where Alex used to spend a lot of time piping. For one tune, our whole world came together and remembered this wonderful young man and mourned such a great loss to our community. Piobaireachd has a way of pulling at the heart strings, as the variations grow in intensity, it is like waves of grief coursing through the body and soul, returning to the calm of the ground as you try to compose yourself and move forward in life.
What aspects of the history of the witch hunts informed your composition?
I really didn’t know anything about witches in Scotland before Steve brought it up – we all learnt about Anne Boleyn having her head chopped off for being a witch, but I had never really considered witchcraft in Scotland. What an eye opener that map was! As I read into some of the cases, the things these poor people were being accused of was just crazy. Anyone could fall out with you and accuse you of being a witch and your life would be over. Suspicion was enough to accuse, repute was enough to convict. It must have been a terrifying time, and it was this state of distress I tried to bring out in the music.
There is growing momentum for a national memorial to those killed during the witch hunts in Scotland. How do you see your composition playing a role in this work for a national monument?
This isn’t something I’m familiar with but my music is freely available to anyone who wishes to listen, use it in memorials or learn to play it, and I hope it helps to evoke the desperation of the times and the memory of all these poor people who had their lives taken in such a cruel and violent way for nothing.
Karen can be found online at:
As part of the Winter’s Last program, I will presenting poetry as well as teaching an online writing workshop on January 29th.
Ghost Missives: A Writing Workshop Exploring Ancestors and Place
The nights are long and the veil is thin. We tell tales of the dead in verse and song and they tell of us in the wind, rain, ice, and stone.
In this collaborative workshop, I will facilitate the writing of letters in prose poetry to and from the ancestors. The writing will be rooted the Scottish landscape. To set the tone, the session will begin with readings specific to the liminal landscape, and move on to collaborative work. I will guide the group as they work with prompts or “Wilding Cards” I will have made up. These will be exchanged by the group. After some dealing and discussion we will get down to write using the prompts we all have. Writers will be invited to play with voice, speaking from the point of view of our ancestors, ourselves or the land itself. In the final section of the workshop there will be opportunity for further collaboration between writers as well as time to read and share with the group.
For more information on tickets and other presenters and workshops, go to the Tiabhsear Collective website.
Hello friends– this month’s new moon tale is inspired by a visit to Hoy I made many years ago to visit the 5,000 year old stone house/portal tomb called the Dwarvie Stane. On that visit, I happened upon the grave of Betty Corrigall. This was back before everything could be found on the internet, back before her grave had a brown tourist sign. The grave held a fascination to me–who was she? Now you can find online the answers to everything but this question. It was only recently I found that this grave has held an entirely different, ghoulish fascination for others. This tale is also inspired by an old fairy tale called the “Dwarvie Stane.” Become a subscriber to my Patreon to listen and read this tale now.
I’m honoured to be presenting my work at Winter’s Last: A Celebration of Scottish Folklore, Traditions and Community Practices hosted by The Taibhsear Collective, the last in their trilogy of explorations into Winter customs. The weekend will be held on the 23rd and 24th January 2021 at the Scottish Storytelling Centre Edinburgh. In the event of a possible lockdown, the readings, performances and workshops will be held online over the course of several weeks.
Every month I write a new fairy tale based on an old Scottish tale, and I share it with my Patrons on Patreon. This month’s New Moon tale is “The Bell that Never Rang” It is a fairytale laid over the psychogeography at the centre of Glasgow. I have always loved Glasgow. Tourists may visit Edinburgh—and it is a lovely place—but if I had to choose a city that is the heart and soul of Scotland, it would be Glasgow. “St. Enoch” is a name you see in the city, and I always assumed it was the name of some random, male Christian saint who converted the Picts. But Enoch is a woman—the first recorded rape victim in Scotland. In this tale, I’ve shifted the “facts” of the prism of her life to let the light through another facet.
Her sacred places were many in the city and they are all now lost, renamed and buried under shopping malls and roundabouts. She was the mother of the founder of Glasgow, Saint Mungo. His name is perhaps more famous now because of the Hospital for Magical Maladies in the Harry Potter books, which is named after him.
School children used this mnemonic device to remember his miracles, and I have used one of them to name this story:
Here is the bird that never flew
Here is the tree that never grew
Here is the bell that never rang
Here is the fish that never swam
The image of Saint Tenu in the collage above is taken from an icon in the Mull Monastery by Friar Serafim.
I’m delighted that my essay “Dreaming of a Scottish Witches Memorial” will appear in A Beautiful Resistance in the Beyond Empire issue from Gods & Radicals Press in October. The issue can be preordered here: https://abeautifulresistance.org/a-beautiful-resistance-5-after-empire
“On that cold night, the trows watched and waited. Everyone knows the veil is thin when a new soul comes into the world…”
This month’s New Moon Tale, “The Changelings,” is a version of a Shetlandic story called “Mind the Crooked Finger,” up at my Patreon. For the Seelie Court and Golden Fold subscription tiers, There is a PDF file to download and read at your leisure, and an mp3 sound file of me reading the story.
At each New Moon since the pandemic lockdown’s began, I’ve published a bedtime story based on a traditional Scottish folktale. This is the sixth in what I plan to be a series of 13.
Other good news–you can now subscribe to my Patreon in your own currency. Current subscribers can also change to their own currency, but the amount you pay will stay the same.