Some Polished Gems
In my twenty-seven years on the Scots Magazine, ten as assistant and the rest as editor, I wrote many articles and features. At the same time I was coaxing and cajoling work out of writers new and established, and shaping up one monthly issue after another.
I enjoyed it all, but throughout those years I felt a gnawing hunger to write something for myself, something that would not be forgotten by the end of the month. It’s a common condition among journalists trapped by deadlines. Like all the others, I carried books in my head. Now and again an idea got me so fired up that I did a draft. I discussed projects with publishers and had more than one offer of a contract. But when it came to it, the treadmill won; I could not give these projects the concentration they required. And, on a personal note, my wife Nanette thought I was already married to the Scots Magazine. I dared not take on a mistress as well.
I satisfied the hunger to some extent by writing plays, which I found relaxing because I could pick up the dialogue and leave it without worrying about what came next. The characters simply ‘froze’ and waited for me to start them talking again. ‘When I retire I’ll have time to write books,’ I told myself.
Came the great day, and I swung out of Dundee’s Bank Street with my bicycle, my bookcase and my whisky glasses. Freedom! There followed a rather aimless few weeks. No pattern. No plan. Nanette looked worried. Then one morning I sat down to begin a collection of folktales and fragments of history from round about my home town of Blairgowrie. The nucleus of the material was already to hand, stowed away in my filing cabinet. Back in the 1950s, at the urging of Hamish Henderson, I became a ’scout’ for the School of Scottish Studies. With a tape recorder and a bicycle I tracked down singers and storytellers. I recorded some of the travelling people who came to the Perthshire berryfields every July, and others who had settled in the district. I was really inspired by the magical power of their traditional lore, but reluctantly I filed away all my notes; when I was researching my first book on folklore I opened the filing cabinet and immersed myself in these wonderful tales all over again.
I soon extended the book’s range to take in Strathardle and Glenshee. Certain out-of-print local histories proved indispensable, including John MacDonald’s History of Blairgowrie (1899), Henry Dryerre’s Blairgowrie, Stormont and Strathmore Worthies (1903) and the lovely Tales of a Highland Parish by T.D. Miller (1925). Whenever I alighted on a bit of lore that was related in a bald and perfunctory manner I took great joy in the retelling, though always without addition or embellishment.
One of my plays had been based on ‘The Ghost o’ Mause’, a tale about a strange dog which haunted a farmer near Bridge of Cally in the early eighteenth century. The play was produced by Perth Theatre Company, reviving local interest in an episode which had once been common knowledge and much argued over in east Perthshire. Now I made it the central chapter of the book. The Mercat Press published The Ghost of Mause and other tales and traditions of east Perthshire in 1995.
‘What are you going to do for us next?’ asked Mercat’s Tom Johnstone after the launch.
‘Stories from Scottish history for younger readers,’ I told him. ‘Great yarns such as ‘Archibald Bell-the-Cat’, ‘Kate Bar-the-Door’ and ‘The Gudeman o’ Ballengeich’.’ I also included some modern exploits, such as the rescuing of the Stone of Scone from Westminster Abbey in 1950. The result was The Real Macbeth, which appeared in 1997.
My next book focused on the Sidlaws. Lying east of Blairgowrie, these are some of Scotland’s unknown hills and there is little literature on them, with no dedicated guidebooks or maps. Yet this beautiful range, bordering the Carse of Gowrie and Strathmore, has a very special character. It gives me great satisfaction that through The Sidlaws:Tales, Traditions and Ballads (2000) I was able to communicate my enthusiasm for their lore to many other people.
Oral tradition again provided much of my material. I turned to recorders such as William Marshall, author of Historic Scenes in Forfarshire (1875) and Historic Scenes in Perthshire (1881); James Cargill Guthrie’s Scenes and Legends of the Vale of Strathmore (1875) was also very useful, as were the less ambitious efforts of Adam Philip, W. Mason Inglis and Alexander Lowson; and Stuart McHardy kindly gave me permission to use stories about excise-dodgers in the Sidlaws from his Tales of Whisky and Smuggling (1991). Mostly, however, I turned to parish histories and records. Although these tended to be a dry read, they yielded some very striking incidents. I drew from ballads such as ‘Sir James the Rose’, ‘Leezie Lindsay’ and ‘Meg o’ Liff’.
It was surely the result of immersing myself so deeply in the activities of the fairies, brownies, kelpies, witches and ghosts of the Sidlaw area that I went seamlessly, on to my next book, Not of This World:Creatures of the Supernatural in Scotland (2002). Again my primary motivation was to restore to the collective consciousness something of the flavour of daily life in pre-industrial rural Scotland, when ‘there were wee folk under the ground, witches in the sky, a glaistig or a gruagach amongst the cattle, a kelpie in the burn, a water bull in the lochan, and that hare or black cat might well be Satan himself.’ I also set out to correct some misconceptions as to the nature and physical appearance of fairies, kelpies, water horses, mermaids, brownies and witches.
I turned frequently to the giants of Scottish folklore studies, three of whom were Campbells. What they did as collectors and recorders more than atones for that dark deed in Glencoe. J.F. Campbell’s four-volume Popular Tales of the West Highlands is a tour de force. Beside the 1984 paperback edition on my shelf is the 1900 edition of John Gregorson Campbell’s Superstitions of the Highlands and Islands of Scotland and, beside that, Waifs and Strays of Celtic Tradition (1891) edited by Lord Archibald Campbell. Another wonderful source was Carmina Gadelica, Alexander Carmichael’s amazing collection of Gaelic prayers, invocations and Highland lore, as was Hugh Miller’s Scenes and Legends of the North of Scotland. Miller was a pioneer geologist and a pioneer of folklore. I often wish he had pursued the latter interest instead of getting bogged down in religious journalism.
My research into Scotland’s supernatural life has taken me into writing by Sir Walter Scott, James Hogg, Donald A. Mackenzie, R. MacDonald Robertson, Ernest Marwick, Alan Temperley and Affleck Gray. Calum Maclean, Alan Bruford, Hamish Henderson and others built up the archives of the School of Celtic and Scottish Studies; I add my modest contribution to theirs, in the hope that our national folklore will cease to be the Great Unknown for so many people. We have such a rich and lively heritage, and I feel privileged to play my part in restoring it to popular currency.
The Ghost o’ Mause and Other Tales and Traditions of East Perthshire, Mercat Press, 1995; The Real Macbeth and Other Stories from Scottish History, Mercat Press, 1997; The Sidlaws:Tales, Traditions and Ballads, Mercat Press, 2000; Not of this World:Creatures of the Supernatural in Scotland, Mercat Press, 2002; Old Blairgowrie and Rattray, Stenlake Publishing (vol 1 1997, vol 2 2003).
Copyright Maurice Fleming 2005.