The Lighthouse Memorial

Some of you may follow my Patreon where I post new writing, specifically my field notes around the witches monuments of Scotland.

It is estimated that in Scotland over 3,000 people were accused of witchcraft during the witch hunts of the 16th and 17th centuries and 84% of them were women. Two thirds of those known accused were executed, and these numbers are only from the existing records. Records of the witch trials in Scotland were meticulous, recording the cost of the tar for burning, rope for binding and even on occasion the cost of ale given to the spectators, but they are in no way complete and will never give us the real number of the dead, though they give us a glimpse of their suffering. In Scotland the witch hunts were more virulent than in England or the rest of Europe, yet there is no large-scale public memorial.

Map of Accused Witches at the University of Edinburgh Website

The recently published map representing the data in the Survey of Scottish Witchcraft is a memorial of sorts. It is a sobering visual reminder of the thousands of accused. It literally puts them on the map. Emma Carroll, a Geology and Physical Geography undergraduate student and intern at the project created the map which can be used by anyone in Scotland or the Scottish diaspora to find their neighbours and ancestors by area. Toggling through the Detention, Trial and Death Location maps is sobering viewing. The myriad charts which breakdown the victims by career—the majority were domestic workers, vagrants, midwives and weavers—is humanising.

The Steilneset Memorial in Vardo, Norway. Photo by Bjarne Riesto via wikipedia

But what of a physical memorial in the landscape? What would a national memorial look like? The possibility of a successful site brings to mind the powerful Steilnesest Memorial, in Vardø, Norway. Louise Bourgeois’ last installation, entitled The Damned, The Possessed and The Beloved, was a collaboration with Swiss architect Peter Zumthor. Years ago, I embarked on a pilgrimage to Vardø to see this monument, only to be thwarted by a wild Norwegian sea which was so violent we could not dock, but that is a story for another day. The structure commemorates over 100 women, girls and Sami men executed. The memorial is set in a larger structure on the craggy coastline. It is a burning chair in a dark glass box, surrounded by mirrors that reflect the viewer and the perpetually burning flame.

In Salem Massachusetts, there is a memorial to 20 people executed for witchcraft during the Salem Witch Trials in 1692. It is a series of granite benches set in a low stone wall surrounding the Old Burying Point. Each bench is inscribed with the names of the accused, and their date of execution. Maggie Smith and James Cutler designed the memorial which was inspired by the Vietnam Memorial.

Can a monument shift the discussion of these dead women and men? Often we only hear of the victims in news stories or on commercial ghost tours, dusted off for Halloween, with the attending broomsticks and black cats. Could a monument help frame the victims in a new light? What shape could Scotland give to its memory of atrocity? How can a monument make space for witness and ultimately healing?

For the past year I have been travelling to witches monuments throughout Scotland, visiting stones, fountains and even hedge mazes dedicated to people who were accused witches during the Scottish witch hunts of the 17th century. I’ve mapped them and added field notes with a kind of trainspotter impulse. There are many secreted away outside a village here, beside a suburban lawn there, each with its own story. Some are called “The Witches Stone” or are menhirs marked with a date. Some are nothing but a big rock with stories, told over hundreds of years, attributing them to the women killed during the witch trials of the 17th century. Often these stones mark the “last woman burned” as if the monument would keep history from repeating, like a revenant stone over the grave of the unquiet dead.

Reconstruction of the face of Lilias Adie by Dr. Christopher Rynn of Dundee University.

As I have written up my field notes, the face of Lilias Adie has stared back at my from my laptop’s screen where I keep it as a reminder. An accused witch murdered in 1704, her face has been reconstructed from a photo of her skull by Dr Christopher Rynn of Dundee University. She has been the tutelary spirit of this project, and hers may very well be the face that launches a national memorial. The morning before I posted my notes on Lilias Adie, I received an email reply from Councillor Kate Stewart who represents the area in Fife where Lilias Adie’s grave is located. She was central in making a wreath laying memorial event for Lilias. She told me that since the wreath laying, the story of Lilias has taken off on social media and she has been contacted by artists and writers from all over the world, curious about Lilias’ story. She has asked for the grave of Lilias Adie to be registered as a site of National Importance and there has been a public meeting to discuss a National memorial organised by Fife Witches Remembered. The proposal put forward uses the Beamer Rock Lighthouse which would be re-erected near the site of Lilias’ grave. The beacon was originally a non-illuminated day navigation beacon, but I wonder if, for the memorial, light could be involved in some way, as a flame or reflected light. The minutes of the memorial meeting state “The lighthouse would make an excellent low-maintenance landscape feature or memorial. The structure is built of a high quality whitish coloured sandstone (probably Longannet Quarry stone) and could be easily cleaned back to natural stone.” The lighthouse, like most of the lighthouses in Scotland, was built by Robert Louis Stevenson’s family. Lighthouses are heroic by nature, built as they are under often violent conditions, saving many lives. The poetry of a lighthouse monument for Scotland is unmistakeable: thrashed by storms and beaten by the tides, it still shines its light of hope and redemption, of home.

How would you see our fallen dead— the sisters, daughters, wives, mothers and neighbours—remembered? The shape the monument takes will be important, as important as the momentum we now have to make this happen. We can finally look Lilias Adie in the eyes and say, we are righting this.

Feral Strumpet at North East Open Studios


This year I will be taking part in the North East Open Studios arts festival in its 15th year. Artists across Aberdeenshire have opened their studios to the public for nine days in September, to celebrate the wealth of artists, craftspeople and makers in this area of Northern Scotland.

Photo of Fiona Duckett at Potfest by Christine Cox

This will be my first year at NEOS and I’m honoured to be showing my work with potter Fiona Duckett at her beautiful studio and gallery in a converted chapel, Watergaw Ceramics.

The gallery will be open September 8th-10th, and the 13th-16th from 10am to 5pm.  You can also join us on the opening Saturday the 8th for special libations and some music in the late afternoon from Gerald Duncan on guitar and Neil Hankin on banjo.

To find out about the myriad artists and makers taking part in NEOS this year, you can download the PDF of the book here. Find below the local Banffshire Coast map. 

 

On this Harvest Moon

Whitehills beach at low tide.
Harvesting seaweed at Whitehills.

Today is the Harvest Full Moon. What has come to fruition for you that was perhaps planted in the spring?  For me, I began preparations to relocate to Scotland and now, here I am.

In a very physical sense, my harvest is seaweed, something I have begun to learn about, forage and cook.  It’s everywhere, tasty, nutritious and free. But one can’t glean for seaweeds and not take in the other bounty of the sea: the acceptance of constant change, awesome beauty, power and peace.

To eat what grows where you are has many benefits, but perhaps the most profound is the bonding power of this activity.  Just as I used to cook with the nettle and blackberries that grew in the wasteland behind my house in York, here I have started to eat weeds from the sea.

Unlike berries and other wild plants, almost all UK seaweed, when harvested in non-polluted waters, is harmless to humans and many are highly nutritious. Initially I was using the Sea Vegetables Cookbook by Evelyn McConnaughey. Though I’ve now found other more current books that are actually by UK foragers, I started with this Oregon-based cookbook from the 80s with its old school fusion of 1950s comfort food, hippie health eats and mermaid chow. Most of all, the author shared my awed passion and glee at finding these strange plants could be eaten in delicious ways.

I have done most of my foraging at Whitehills– a sheltered beach in the wild Banffshire coastline. Perched on a hill above the beach is an ancient red well– its water has a high iron content and was once revered for its healing properties.  The stretch of beach is named Muggie Machlin, after after a suicide: a young pregnant girl who died of exposure “a long time ago” by sitting on a rock on the beach one night in the middle of winter.  This beach has captured my imagination and deserves a post of its own.

Washed weeds, ready to be fried/dried.

On to cooking– so far I have made pasta with alaria and tomato sauce, gutweed stir fry, vegan dashi from scratch and an all-purpose seasoning sprinkle that ads umami and colour to just about anything savoury.  Mike jokingly said that it added natural MSG– but that isn’t far from the truth.  Seaweeds contain natural glutamines– chemicals that tell your brain the thing you are eating is delicious. One dish I tried with laver (basically the same seaweed as nori) was laverbread, which isn’t bread at all but a kind of black gloop or sauce.  To make laverbread, you have to boil the seaweed for 10 hours to “bring out the flavour.”  I tried to stay true to the “recipe” but it was, as anything boiled for 10 hours is bound to be, inedible.

I began to struggle with McConnaughey’s book–  basically the line drawings could only take me so far, endearing as they were, and we were looking at a totally different part of the world, with a different ecosystem. I then found Galloway Wild Foods, a great website full of information for the Scottish forager.

My journey of discovery with seaweed continues as I check the tide tables and wander the beaches, I start to understand my new home with the rhythms and flavours all its own.

 

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.

An antiquarian for the people

On the island of South Ronaldsay, Orkney, there is a passage mound called the Tomb of the Eagles. It’s called this because several sea eagle talons were found inside along with the remains of over 300 people.

What makes this site distinct is the fact that it was excavated by a farmer who had waited 18 years for the officials to do it, and, after finding a passage in the law that allowed him to legally do it himself, he took matters into his own hands, seeking the advice of archaeologists who were excavating a nearby site.

What this means is that the visitors center is staffed with people who are personally involved with education, actively reading the newest research on Mesolithic people and sites. It is a labor of love for the farmer, Ronnie Simison and the guides in the center. They have done their best to make the cairn accessible– even providing wellies and waterproof coats and trousers if the weather is proving to be dismal, which it was when we visited. Also at the site of the tomb itself a skateboard and rope are provided for those who can’t or won’t crawl in.

tomb of the eagles

What I liked most about this place wasn’t just the ‘tomb’ itself, which was as breathtaking in its construction as the others we’d seen, but the trust put into the visitors to value and respect the site.

Me in the ‘tomb’ in rain gear provided (free) by the visitor centre.

While we were at the tomb there were a handful of other visitors, but no official tour guides. You get to experience the place without any official narrative, and you must make your way inside on your own terms. There were a few people who refused to go in (women who were dressed in high-heeled boots and expensive coats). When I crawled in I heard others behind me say, “She’s just crawling in there!” and not long after, others followed. There was something humbling and empowering about the site– situated on the wild, windy cliffs of the island– I felt a little of the eagle-character of those ancients rub off on me.

Most of the people crawling into the tomb that day were grey-haired women, and a few men they’d brought with them. How alien these women would have seemed to the people that built this place, most of whom would have been teenagers. I had this warm feeling for these hardy women who were willing to go into the darkness, and also for this archeological center, the vision of one generous farmer, where everyone is treated as a potential antiquarian.