Mary Barbour’s rattle sounded out to me long before I ever saw it. I was delighted to be paired with such a fascinating object, especially one so much outside my ken; I knew nothing about Scotland during the First World War. But I should have done. Going to see it meant I could pursue another lead, possibly one to draw on, which had rattled away in the cupboard of family tree stories for years. I made the journey north, travelling from the end-most corner of south-east England. But not immediately to the fifth floor gallery at the National Museum, but heading west, past Glasgow, to the tip of Kintyre. Around the time, 1915, that Mary Barbour was leading her army of women on the streets of Govan, my Scottish grandfather was most likely also in Glasgow, where he was working in the Clyde shipyard. A few years later, Charles Finn travelled where I had come from, Deal in Kent, to work as a sinker for the new coalfield in the 1920s. He stayed a miner all his life. My father, and his six siblings, were born in Deal but, as far as I knew, none had visited Campeltown where Grandpa Finn came from. He was a child of a fishing family, and his parents, the story was told, had a fishing fleet which plied between Ardglass, in County Down, and Campeltown. Children were born in Ireland or Scotland, depending on where the herring were at the time. Last year I went to Northern Ireland determined to flesh out the story from very bare bones, but more than 30 years of journalism did not prepare me for the slipperiness of memory, and holes in hand-down family yarns. I could find nothing but conjecture about my great-grandparents, although dredged up plenty on the breeding patterns of herring.
But back to Campeltown, in my heart for years, and especially with grandparents and parents long gone. The tale told me by an aunt was that Grandpa Finn was related to Cecil Finn, a Scottish fishing luminary and decorated for his work over decades. Through him, I thought, I’d get the full story. Except, when I met him, nothing was resolved. Obliging as he was with family history, Cecil hadn’t heard of any relative called Charles Finn, and we couldn’t find any other names of likely overlap. If my Finn line came across the sea from Ardglass, where it went after that I simply couldn’t fathom. But this unexpectedly dead end didn’t diminish the rattle pilgrimage. If anything, the thrum of the poem was rattling about in my mind from the first train north, through the several sea journeys, and numerous buses. I took a random route to Edinburgh after Kintyre … via Islay and Jura, trying to gather words. By the time I reached the Museum, I had quite a clear idea about how I wanted to write the poem. Mute in its case, and ambered with age, the object did not disappoint. Even with a film loop playing next to it, I swear I could hear the rattety sound rolling out. If his Clyde shipyard tales are not another red herring, I am left wondering: did Grandpa Finn hear it too?
My object is the Lewisian Gneiss [rhymes with ‘nice’]. It isn’t a personal object - didn’t belong to someone famous or infamous. What can be said about a lump of grey rock? What can you even think about a rock? I’m a researcher at heart, so, being paired with an object and subject-matter completely outside my field, I scurried in search of the undiscovered country: geology.
Both in the NMS bookshop and online I delved into scientific information which was often illustrated with stunning photographs of rugged Scottish landscape and scenery – the structure below and the towering mountain peaks. And of course, I read about James Hutton, the important Scottish Enlightenment thinker, friend to Robert Burns and founder of modern geology.
I traipsed off with teenager to meet my gneiss. He’s grey but not dull [the gneiss, not the teenager]. He shimmers under the exhibition lights in the ‘Beginnings’ Gallery. We read about the long process that formed metamorphic rock and watched the video which opens with the evocative words translated from Derik Thomson’s Gaelic poem called ‘Strong Foundations’. But most of all we looked at [and touched and stroked] the Lewisian gneiss.
Gneiss is ancient rock. Over millions of years, or ‘super-eons’ it stretched and split from the Earth’s crust and found its way across the globe to Norway and North America as well as places like Loch Finbay in the Outer Hebrides. Sometimes called ‘the old boy’ and ‘the haunted wing of geology’, it’s Scotland’s basement. ‘Haunted’? Criss-crossed with stripes of white and pink, sparkling within the folds are ghostly shades of granite and ancient rock deposits.
I dug a word bank from out of the dry statistics– chipped away the facts to discover a story [forgive the geology puns].
undulate, meld, shimmer, spark, steam, fold, cleave, building blocks,
South Pole, Cape Wrath, volcanic, ice-laden
Thinking of the rock as a person, ‘the old boy’, combined with these deliciously descriptive words, an image emerged, not of ‘the old boy’, but of his younger self. And a story began to emerge of how his movements across the globe created the dramatic Scottish landscape we now have. It’s a story about a journey – a young man’s quest northwards from the ‘ice-laden seas’ at the South Pole.
Using ‘found’ words I decided that the epic, the oldest written poetic form, was the best structure for my poem about the oldest European rock. It isn’t a story of conquest, although, to be frank, it takes a lot of force and steam and volcanic pressure to create gneiss. Nor did I want to write a ballad romance of a swooning female waiting for the handsome southerner to rescue her. What I hope to represent is a 21st Century retelling of the story before the history of Scotland where the union of equals in passionate embrace shapes the landscape.
So - I’ve got the beginnings of my poem about Scotland’s beginnings
…‘From the South he came.’
All of which goes to show that you can write a lot about a rock, once you get to know him.
It’s a myth to think that writing is a solitary occupation. I’ve found staff at NMS, friends and family only to happy to put me right on science and wonky thinking. So I’d like to thank them for letting me bounce ideas around and for their patience and forbearance as the poem takes shape. Thank you – David Currie; Peter Davidson [Curator, NMS]; Mardi Stewart and Jane Stewart. My poem grows out of a conversation with Nicky Melville after his presentation on conceptual and found poetry at the Write Now Conference, University of Strathclyde, June 2011.
I love the kind of writing commission which delivers a subject without any choice. Anxiety nags at me initially but then I discover there’s something about it I’ve always wanted to write about, even if I didn’t realise it.
When I got matched with the ‘Coigrich’ – the 16th century silver gilt case or ‘shrine’ which represents the handle of Saint Fillan’s Crozier, and became one of his holy relics — I had more of a starting point than I’d expected. I live in Perthshire, just a little east of Strathfillan, where between Tyndrum and Killin, Saint Fillan walked into his missionary territory in the eighth or ninth century, built a chapel and organised a number of miracles, not least the harnessing of a wolf to help oxen pull his plough. Robert the Bruce later established a Priory near to the chapel.
Those early Celtic saints intrigue me. I’m fascinated by their earthy-seeming beliefs, humble ways of life, their journeys on foot, and their miracles, so close in my mind to acts of magic.
I like my writing projects grounded in places, and physical activity – usually walking – helps me make the job visceral, sparking up words and images. So in preparation for my 62 words, and to get familiar with Saint Fillan, it seemed only natural to put on my walking boots for a stroll between Tyndrum and Crianlarich.
In a broad valley between some of Perthshire’s blunt-topped, high hills, the ruins of the Priory dedicated to Saint Fillan shelter in a copse of trees right on the route of the West Highland Way. The nearby graveyard, prominent on the mound next to Kirkton Farm, dates back to the eighth century. More remarkable to me though, is the holy pool about a mile away, associated with Fillan’s early life here and his healing powers. For many centuries a monthly ritual, its date dictated by the phase of the moon, drew gatherings of mentally ill people. The pool, naturally divided in two by topography, maintained a discreet segregation of the sexes. After immersion, the ill were taken to the Priory and clamped into some kind of device overnight, covered in hay, and left with Saint Fillan’s Bell (another holy relic) on their heads. If they weren’t cured by the morning, this ritual might have to be repeated. Despite the shimmering heat on the day of my walk, I shivered a little looking at the pool’s glassy dark surface, and declined a dip myself.
As with the lasting power of the holy pool, belief in the Coigrich seems to have grown over generations, surviving the Reformation and other moves against superstition. So great was its reputation that even when the relic’s keeper of the time, Archibald Dewar, emigrated to Canada in the 19th century and took it with him, Canadian highlanders still sought it out, following the tradition that waters touching it could heal cattle.
Such stories have had me scouting for words like foot rot, lumpy jaw, wooden tongue — the wonderful lyricism of cattle ailments. And for words like chrismatory, affusion, and thirdendeal, archaic words associated with the holding or scattering of liquid.
The Coigrich has further intriguing qualities, not least that the shrine encases the curved shape of, and even includes some bronze plates from the 11th century crozier head discovered inside it when it was recovered from Canada. A crystal incorporated into the design may even date back to the time of Fillan. The shrine itself, through its association with the crozier head, with miracles, with famous people, with success in battles, seems to have amalgamated greater and greater holy power, outshining its simpler and older lodger.
‘Coigrich’ comes from a Gaelic word for stranger or foreigner, attributed to it because as a relic it was so well-travelled. The family assigned to be the relic’s custodians became known by another word with a similar meaning, Deoradh, giving rise through the generations to the Perthshire surname, Dewar. And the word ’crozier’ originally referred to the bearer of the Bishop’s staff, not to the staff itself.
These are curious minglings and transformations taking place over centuries. People merge with things; things become spoken of as people; cases adopt their occupants’ power..! The 62 words I choose will have to work their magic well to embody this thicketed enchantment of stories and language.