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.

What’s New and What’s Ahead for Feral Strumpet

New versions of old favourites in the most recent shop update.

Have a peek at this week’s shop update. You’ll find new versions of old favourites as well as an exciting assortment of new designs.


New in– an exciting variety of ear hangers and ear weights for stretched ears as well as a new witch ball especially designed for the Summer Solstice or Litha!

New Stitch Marker Necklaces of flash knitters!

Lately the knitters of Instagram have been inspiring me, and I’ve designed these new stitch marker necklaces for my fellow knitters! I’ve been knitting for over 20 years and have knitting everything from tiny doll house knitting on toothpicks to massive canopies using recycled plastic bags.  I find knitters to be some of the most fascinating, generous and aesthetically exacting folk around.  They are, you could say, my people.

I also wanted to update you with some exciting plans ahead for Feral Strumpet.  We are relocating from York to the North Coast of Scotland, to a remote village by the sea.  This will all happen early in early June and I will keep you posted.  The shop will remain open during our relocation, but in a week or two any made to order designs will take a couple of weeks longer than usually to make.  So if you had your eye on a custom colour design or any of my made to order pieces, now is the time to order them if you’d like it quickly!

 

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.

On Your Knees, Pilgrim

Years ago I walked the labyrinth of Chartes. I didn’t go on my knees, which would have been the authentic way, but I wasn’t alone walking it. There was a woman on crutches behind me and I just thought that doing it on my knees would have been in bad taste. But before I belabor this too self-consciously, let me make my point– sometimes crawling is the only way to go.

The narrow passage of Wideford Hill.

Such is the case at the many portal “tombs” across the Orkneys, the most famous of which is the spectacular Maes Howe. Though archaeologists call these structures tombs, very few remains have been excavated from them– in some, none at all. The word “tomb” as been a reductive name for these structures that were more most probably sacred– perhaps calendar machines, astronomical observatories, or sites of shamanic seclusion. This argument has been put forth in the compelling and fantastical Uriel’s Machine. Like Robert Graves’ The White Goddess, it is more wish than fact, but with so much prehistory, this is what we have to go on, and it is enough.

Now that Skara Brae (a stone-age, subterranean village) and Maes Howe are World Heritage Sites, tourists are herded in and jokes are made about The Flintstones and Vikings, who used the tombs as hide-outs, having a “lads night in”. These distinctly spiritual places are reduced to fun-facts and family entertainment. The official line is that these were, basically, stone age mausoleums. To the predominantly Christian world-view that currently describes these sites, the lives of these people who built these places resemble our own lives in the most narrow way, and their ideas of the cosmos are reduced to naive superstition.

carved_stone_objects_skara_brae.jpg

For instance, these are “stone things” found at Skara Brae. These are in a display case at the site. The viewer is not reminded of essential ideas here– that these were made by people who we have considered to be cavemen. And they were made without stone tools. These powerful objects and indeed verything about these sites argues that they are more mysterious and alien than what the official Scottish Heritage line will let on.

The chambered cairns were designed to be entered via a “creep” or narrow passageway in the earth. The womb analogy is inevitable here, though in all the writings on the subject I have read, only Julian Cope seems to notice this. And, with all due respect for his tireless work on increasing awareness of Neolithic pagan heritage, he sees Mama in everything.

This is the moody and charming Wideford Hill cairn. Unlike the other cairns we visited, this creep was too narrow to crawl through. One must climb in from the top, where the cairn was busted open durning (Victorian era?) excavation.

But for those visitors who are not content to be merely bussed to the major sites and herded around the perimeter, there are myriad cairns that can be explored on their own terms. Using an OS map, M and I were able to locate several, each with its own kind of darkness. Outside each cairn there is a wooden box containing a torch whose batteries are either dead or dying.

But it’s the ritual of crawling that gives the place meaning– knowing that everyone who entered (save the brutal Victorian archaeologists or Viking raiders who came in through the top) had to do it on all fours.

Here I am in the Fairy Knowe, or “tomb of a dog cult”– 24 dog skulls were found inside, but only 7 human skulls. This cairn was on Cuween Hill, just up the road from our cottage. The stone-age masonry– like at Maes Howe– is amazing. You can see it behind me. The creep of Fairy Knowe is 18 feet long– I scampered in and found the darkness warm– the shadows ocher colored. Inside was a feeling of safety, and wild information there for the taking, if one were to crawl further into one of the rooms. But I didn’t. You really have to be ready to do that, and I wasn’t.

But tomorrow…what happens when a farmer excavates a tomb himself? And what does this have to do with pensioners on skateboards?

All I ask is a tall stone and a star to steer her by…

M and I have returned from the Orkneys, and now that I have internet access, I can write about it.

We spent 10 days traveling around Aberdeenshire, visiting standing stones and traveling around the Orkney Islands. There, we ate the local bread called bere bannock with mild Orcadian cheese and lots of amazing local beer. We also crawled around a lot of neolithic tombs.

Once you get the hang of finding neolithic sites on OS maps, there is a danger of being a sort of trainspotter about it. Traveling by car, one can easily forget these ancient places are part of the local imagination– living, distinct and fantastical sites.

But on occasion there will be a stone circle that will remind you of this– one such circle was outside an abandoned farmhouse in Aberdeenshire. There were the usual territorial bulls about, but what bothered me was something else. Once, while I was climbing a hill fort in the South of England, I had the strangest sensation of something riding on my shoulders– an odd little gleeful being, only slightly malevolent. It was a disturbing feeling, and I didn’t shake it until I’d reached the roadside.

This circle had a similarly sinister, fey aspect. In the long wet grass surrounding the circles– which were now in wild disarray– no flowers grew, but inside the ring flowers bloomed in nodding white and yellow bunches. Charming, if there weren’t such a forlorn feeling pervading the place. I think often when Neopagans visit sites they infuse them with something, new folklore, new stories and hopes. And I think these things linger. But some circles are hardly visited at all, except by the things we can’t see or know. This circle belonged to such things. Approaching it I felt a cold pull inside, and a dizzy feeling. I decided to hurry back to the car, my skin all gooseflesh, but M went on without me to the recumbent stone circle, climbing over barbed wire to get to the next circle beside it, and I watched him go, uneasy.

Of course nothing happened. Except that while I waited cows called pathetically into the wind. This is beef country and I find it difficult to reconcile the sufferings of these animals, even if they are not being factory farmed.

Some stones are visited by too many people– overly husbanded by the National Trust. Stonehenge is the worst example of this. Other stones are visited mostly by creatures, and still others are kept company by the alien and “conquering” faithful. Christians. This recumbent stone circle, pictured above, had a churchyard built around it, despite or perhaps because of its horned stones flanking the altar. In Julian Cope’s book The Modern Antiquarian, he describes this circle as looking like the horned good surfacing from the earth, and that’s no lie. It makes the the brittle headstones around it look like chessmen lost on the board of a forgotten game.

I’m sure this is why I keep coming to these places and why they haunt me– that sly feeling of triumph. Everyone wants to be affirmed by an iconographic landscape, something that codes your beliefs into the land and makes them bigger than the notion of the self or even of time.

All around this country, lichen covered blood-red stones count the stars, and they have marked our travels.

And, tomorrow, it’s on your knees, pilgrim