The Church of The Sculls

St. John’s Kirkyard, Gamrie, Banffshire.
The view from the cliffs of the kirkyard, overlooking Gardenstown.

High on the cliffs above the small fishing town of Gardenstoun, or Gamrie as the locals still call it, sits the ruins of a kirkyard that was built on the site of The Battle of the Bloody Pits of 1004 where Norse raiders were slaughtered by the Scots. Like most parts of this coast, it is a place of sweeping beauty. We happened upon it out of curiousity– seeing the walls of the ruins from the town below.  Climbing up the lumpy path from the single track gravel road, I felt an eeire disquiet in this remote place, even before I learned more of it.

We know so little of these “raiders”. Christian historians have often distorted their history, reducing the Norse folk during the Viking age to cartoonish berserkers. We know that they are part of us– through recent DNA testing and before that, the fragments of language that have adhered to places– the the churchyard itself or “kirkyard”. Kirk, meaning church, is borrowed from Old Norse. That we have so little left of that time when the Norse people ruled an age of world-changing seafaring expertise, artistic and spiritual vision, will remain one of our great mysteries.

St. John’s Kirkyard commemorates the annihilation of a Viking party– built and rebuilt over centuries after the battle. Legend has it the Scottish general promised to build a church on the site if the Christian God could just prove that he was on their side. The church was built at the foot of the “Bloody Pits” where the Norsemen’s bodies where piled after the battle. This area earned its name from the carnage, and the scavengers who fed on the bodies. History records them as cattle raiders who were surrounded as they waited for a fair wind to aid them away. Skulls of the vanquished were displayed in the walls of the church behind the pulpit even into the 19th century, hence the its other name: The Church of the Sculls.

Angel or departing spirit on a grave in St. John’s Kirkyard.

One wonders what happened to the skulls of the Norsemen that were once on display. The surrounding area could be said to be one very large, unquiet grave, but the graves inside the walled yard are something else– some of the most fascinating examples of 18th century momento mori that I have seen are here, often coupled with the crossed femur bones, an hourglass and bell. The path I walked to get to the yard may have been an ancient corpse road, and was no doubt used by parishioners for 800 years who trekked over miles to worship there through all weather from the surrounding villages.

What a hard life is a fisherman’s. Standing in the ruins I thought of the sermon on Jonah from Moby Dick, where the pastor seems to be “praying at the bottom of the sea” and his voice was “like the continual tolling of a bell in a ship that is foundering at sea in a fog–”

“In black distress, I called my God/When I could scarce believe him mine/He bowed his ear to my complaints-/No more the whale did me confine.
“With speed he flew to my relief,/As on a radiant dolphin borne;/Awful, yet bright, as lightning shone/The face of my Deliverer God.”

The congregation sings, drowning out the howling storm outside the church.

And, here now, I feel a bristling in the wind from the hillock above. Without a familiar song to guide them, the other bones in their shallow pits turn.

Momento Mori in St. John’s Kirkyard.

Walking with Giants

Hableton Street, the ancient moorland road.
Hambleton Street, the ancient moorland road.

Yesterday Mike and I went hiking on the Arden Great Moor, down the ancient road which once joined Scotland to York, called Hambleton Street. Now just a stony track, it was once the main thoroughfare for cattle traders coming drown from Scotland to the markets in York. But it is certainly much older than the 17th century rovers who used it historically. It is one of the oldest roads in Britain and was once used by the Roman Legions and before them, the Brigantes– though we have no evidence of this, nor of the Norse settlers using this road during the Viking Age–no evidence save a claim made by ancestral memory from the folklore that has grown up around it.

Pile of stones marker on Hableton Street.
Pile of stones marker on Hambleton Street
Land wight. Anthropomorphic face in stone on a marker on Hambleton Street.
Land wight. Anthropomorphic face in stone on a marker on Hambleton Street.


Norse belief in land wights, or genius locii, starts to make perfect sense on these ancient roads. Here in the photo on the right, a stone watchman takes shape in the topmost stone.

Piles of stones along the way mark resting points.  Along with lonely moorland crosses and standing stones, these place markers are full of mystery.  Piles like the one pictured above were said to have fallen from the apron of the giantess Bell, wife of Wade– the namesake of another ancient moorland road, Wade’s Causeway. The giant Wade has Norse origins– in Old Norse his name is Vadi.  He is the son of a Norse King and a mermaid, according to the Vilkina Saga. He is the father of the mythic Smith Wayland whose name is synonymous with other sacred sites in England.

Wade could wade through the ocean, and he and his wife Bell had only one hammer between them, so they had throw it through the air to each other, over the moors.  Much of Wade is lost to us– save a bawdy mention of his boat in Chaucer’s Merchant’s Tale and a Latin fragment of his story mentioning elves and adders and nickers (water spirits), yet the land of the moors is marked by the giant (even his legendary grave is here at ruins of Mulgrave Castle near Whitby).

The landscape of the moors is still marked by ancient migrations– mythic and literal– the Romans may have left many structures and written documents of the Northern land they struggled to conquer, but it’s the unwritten legends of the Norse and Anglo Saxon people that linger in the land, waiting for the new inhabitants to know them.

Hand-forged Anglo-Saxon Pennanular Brooch in Bronze by Feral Strumpet.
Hand-forged Anglo-Saxon Pennanular Brooch in Bronze by Feral Strumpet.


Ancient Warrior Hearts

Etruscan Votive Head, 500 BC.
Etruscan Votive Head, 500 BC.
Victorian Etruscan Revival Set, found on Pinterest.
Victorian Etruscan Revival Set, found on Pinterest.

Long before there was Rome and the Romans, there was Etruria and the Etruscans, though the name they called themselves was the Rasenna, from the region which is now, roughly, Tuscany. They were famed for their jewellery making skills, employing innovative techniques with gold wire filigree and granulation, or making motifs with tiny granules of gold. The people adorned themselves with layers of necklaces, earrings and headpieces.

Advances in Victorian archeology brought the works of these ancient smiths into the popular imagination.

Here is my humble take on the Etruscan revival.  I made it in honour of the recently discovered Warrior Princess, buried holding a spear. She was initially mistaken to be a prince, until bone analysis revealed her to be a middle-aged woman. The body buried with her, almost entirely cremated, was that of a man. Archeologists now conjecture that the jewellery found with the cremated body belonged to the man. But the tiny bronze box with five needles and thread, also found in the tomb, keeps its secrets.

Ancient Hearts. Etruscan inspired design by Feral Strumpet
Ancient Hearts. Etruscan inspired design by Feral Strumpet

They are wearable for every day, simple and lightweight but filled with ancient mystery!

Very Pink Knitting Tutorial Feature

It’s Thanksgiving and this year I’m really thankful to the rush of new customers who have found me through Staci Perry’s lovely knitting tutorial which features my Anglo Saxon Pennanular Brooch. I’m also thankful to Staci herself– who has been professional and inspiring to work with. She’s using her talents and skills not only to make us all better knitters but also to support small makers and independent businesses like myself.

This cardigan pattern pairs well with the brooch, and it’s exactly the kind of design I had in mind when I forged these brooches.  I love to wear cardigans but don’t like the fuss of buttons or belts so I’m always wearing my hand-knitted cardigans with these pins.  Staci’s pattern is the perfect weight for the Yorkshire winter, too!

The Anglo-Saxon Pennanular Brooch
The Anglo-Saxon Pennanular Brooch

A simple, endless circle inspired by the moon, ouroboros and archeological finds. This penannular brooch is based on an Anglo Saxon design discovered in North Yorkshire. My version is cold-forged in copper. Cold-forging means no heat is used to form the metal– just hammering and sheer force of will! The bottom edge of the ring has been hammer-finished, the small facets giving the piece an ancient, earthy feel. The pin comes in two sizes– the larger one for bulkier knitted garments and the other for finer, lace-weight shawls and scarves. – See more at:

Throws, A Survivor’s Love Token

Hand-wrapped choker of Czech glass beads, inspired by vintage Mardi Gras “throws”.

It’s Fat Tuesday today and you know, I went and made a necklace inspired by my by-gone collection of vintage Mardi Gras beads.  You see, the first things I sold on Etsy were collections of my vintage pieces– I couldn’t find decent work to save my life and I needed money, so I sold my things.  When I had sold most of the vintage beads and Bohemian necklaces, the old pawn silver and vintage rosaries, I started to make jewellery designs based on these beloved things, like the necklace pictured above.  The mardi gras beads were some of the last things I sold. I held onto them and wore them during the Katrina nightmare– if these beads could survive and make it to England with me, that City could survive and rebuild.

Sometimes I think of my old collection with a tinge of sadness and longing.  Maybe it’s homesickness, maybe I’m jonesing for colour in the long, grey Yorkshire winter.  When I visited New Orleans, I always combed the second hand stores, junk and antique shops hoping to find a stash of them, some still with the paper tags on them.  The ones that survived so that they could be collected in the present day must be lucky indeed.

“Thows” or beads thrown from floats to the parade audience, weren’t always made of plastic like they are now.  From the 1920s until WWII, Pressed Czech glass was used.  These beads came in a dazzling array of shapes and colours, like bon-bons. My inner  child really loved these joyfully random toy necklaces destined for the gutter. They could survive a street party of such magnitude an still be worn decades later– they were survivor beads. I loved restringing them (as they were often in dire need of it!) but I kept the randomness and would wear them in layers. Maybe someday I will return to New Orleans and rebuild my collection.  Until then, I’m using new, pressed Czech glass beads, which I would like to think are being made with the old moulds, and making these luxe versions of the old fashioned glass “throw”.

An old photo of me waring some of my vintage Mardi Gras beads.

Blessed Terminalia, Dear Reader

The drystone walls of the Yorkshire Dales

When I think of Yorkshire, the first image in my mind is of wide open space marked by the patchwork of drystone walls.  And there are invisible boundaries, tracks: public foot paths often are the very same Death Roads, or ancient rights-of-way through private land, which allowed people their funerary rites. And there are fragments of Roman roads, as well as dream-paths or ley lines.

This island is a sacred palimpsest, scored and re-scored, and yet all the marks remain as either archeological evidence or fairy paths.

Today is the Roman Festival of Terminus, the god of borders and endings. Ovid, in his usual warm, vivid and simple verse, describes the ritual:

Terminus, whether a stone or a stump buried in the earth,

You have been a god since ancient times.

You are crowned from either side by two landowners,

Who bring two garlands and two cakes in offering.

An altar’s made: here the farmer’s wife herself

Brings coals from the warm hearth on a broken pot.

The old man cuts wood and piles the logs with skill,

And works at setting branches in the solid earth.

Then he nurses the first flames with dry bark,

While a boy stands by and holds the wide basket.

When he’s thrown grain three times into the fire

The little daughter offers the sliced honeycombs.

Others carry wine: part of each is offered to the flames:

The crowd, dressed in white, watch silently.

Terminus, at the boundary, is sprinkled with lamb’s blood,

And doesn’t grumble when a sucking pig is granted him.

I love the affectionate irony in the last line, which speaks to an intimacy Ovid (and it might be said Romans in general) had with the gods.  What a hard blessing are boundaries and wise endings, and how necessary.

Glowing coals from a broken pot. Ember Berry Earrings by Feral Strumpet on Etsy