Book Review: The Forager’s Calendar

Wright, John. The Forager’s Calendar: A Seasonal Guide to Nature’s Wild Harvest. (London: profile Books, 2020)

I first saw the book in the gift shop at Dawick Gardens. However, the weight deterred me, since over-weight charges on the airlines have become considerable. Once I got home, I tracked the book down again and ordered a gently used copy. It is a month-by-month guide to things in England and Scotland that you can safely forage and eat, as well as a quick reference for major rules about where and when to forage, laws that pertain to gathering edibles, and what will kill or at least greatly sicken you. (Mushrooms have a LOT of ways to do you in, or at least make you lose weight quickly. Ahem. And so do wild carrots.)

The book is small enough to carry around in a bag, but it is heavy because of the illustrations. I would make color copies (especially if you are looking at fungi) and take those instead, if weight and bulk were a consideration.

Wright begins with useful tools for the forager, and an overview of the laws in England, Scotland, and Wales about foraging for wild plants, including mushrooms. The laws vary depending on if the property is on public land, private land, the seashore, or the public right-of-way. As you would expect, if you are on private land without permission, you can get in trouble. Foraging in some parks is also a no-no (just like the US, although some US parks and wildlife refuges allow mushrooming at certain times and in certain parts of the park.) Having separate bags and baskets for each kind of plant or mushroom is also important. One bad fungus in with a bunch of quite edible ones will ruin your day (or the rest of your [brief] life.)

The book starts in January and works around the year. It has lots of illustrations, anecdotes, suggestions for identifying plants, and a few recipes. The first page of each chapter has a list of “things to get now” and “things carrying over from earlier months.” As you would imagine, the lists get longer and longer as winter becomes summer. If a plant or mushroom is better at one point than earlier or later, Wright makes a note of that.

The last chapter has all the poisonous plants in it. They range from “rapid weight-loss will result” to “scary but most people recover. Most . . .” to “is your will up to date? Your estate will want to know.” For readers outside of Britain, this section is more of general interest, although any “wild carrot” or really colorful mushroom is probably best to avoid.

As a writer, this is great for using as a reference for pre-modern or early-modern characters who will be living off the land, or who need to know that certain things should be avoided at certain times. (Or who intend to bump off or scare another character.) Yes, it is Anglo-centric, but it gives a starting place and a way of looking at the world.

I have foraged on right-of-ways and in parks and refuges all over the US, at least for berries. Mulberries and gooseberries are easy to identify and safe to nosh. Wild strawberries have also been nibbled, although not as often (lots of work for not much flavor). I don’t do mushrooms, aside from puffballs, and those I get by asking the land-owner (often home-owner) for permission. Ditto dandelions. I don’t go digging for other things, even when I have identified them, because US and state rules are different and too varied. (I also avoid things that I know have been sprayed for or with something.)

This is a fun book. The author knows what he is doing, and is quite up front about “this tastes great,” “this will keep you from starving,” and “some people like this. I don’t know why.” And “add this to vodka to make a great gin. Here’s a cocktail to try.”

FTC Notice: I purchased this book for my own use and received no remuneration from the author or the publisher.

Fort of the Spear Shafts

Dunpelder was the old name, the Cumbric name. Later people call it Traprain Law, Trefpren or Trefbryn, “hill by the farm of the tree” or “hill by the farm of the hill.” The older name means “fort of the spear shafts,” which tells you exactly what held pride of place atop the isolated, flat-topped hill. The hill, situated on a ridge, dominates the valley and land around it. The instant I saw it from the highway, I knew exactly what it had to be. And I became excited.

The hill, like a few others scattered around the edges of the Firth of Forth, is a laccolith, a bubble of magma that didn’t quite become a volcano. The core of the hill is made of phonolite*, a rather unusual-for-Scotland igneous rock. Part of the hill has been quarried away, and although you can, in theory, hike or climb up and down that side of the hill. it’s not smart unless you have a friend or two, ropes, and rock-climbing gear. The magma intruded during the Carboniferous, 358 MYA to 298 MYA, or the start of the Permian. Come the Ice Ages, the lump eroded to a crag-and-tail formation, similar to Edinburgh Castle’s rock and the lump in Sterling now crowned with the Wallace monument. The Law is about 360 feet tall, 720 feet above sea level, so not enormous but quite respectable, with relatively steep sides. Keep that in mind . . .

Because it was so unusual, and has a truly commanding view of the mouth of the Firth as well as inland, it has been used by people for a very, very long time. The most famous layer is an Iron Age (pre-Roman) fort attributed to the Votadini tribe. Apparently they got along with the Romans, and a hoard of 44 pounds(!) of Roman “hack-silver” was found on the Law in 1919. This is silver that was broken up and given away by the pound in order to reward [bribe] tribes to be friends of the Romans. The hill was abandoned in the 500s or so, and there is some thought that the people moved to Dun Eiden, or the Burgh of Eiden. The local people still sometimes call the hill “Dunpelder.” Dun means fort, pelder is related to the Cyrmic (Welsh) word for “spear shaft.”

The hill today is out in the very rural countryside of East Lothian, east of Edinburgh. The weather was mild with good visibility below a broken overcast and a nice westerly wind. Great weather for climbing up a steep, grassy hill. I bounced out of the car, sorted out the gate’s complicated latch and three-step entry process, and strode west along the base of the hill. Everyone else followed at a more dignified pace. The trail starts pretty flat and gentle, winds back and forth up the west end of the Law, and then doubles back. That’s where it starts to get steep. I’d guess a 10-15% grade. If the grass had been damp, it would have been very entertaining for the people watching me. As it was I probably sounded like a small steam-engine, huffing and puffing.

I think I can, I think I can . . .

This is where the story gets odd. As you would expect on a week-day with school still in session, the place was not busy. A family with a 4-5 year old was coming down after a lunch picnic, and I met a very fit lady hiker once I reached the top. Otherwise? Just me, the ravens and other birds, and the wind. The rest of the group looked at the first really steep slope and decided that staying on more level terrain was the better part of valor. Two and a half weeks before, I would have agreed with them, because I was so out of shape it’s embarrassing. On that day? No. I charged up the slope.

Why the rush? Because something was calling me. For lack of a better word, I felt like something wonderful waited for me and wanted me to come up and look around. There was a sort of euphoria that got stronger and stronger as I trotted up the slope and passed the remains of the prehistoric turf wall that formed one of the defenses of the hill-fort proper. Everything was right – the wind, the birds, the land around me. I didn’t get the mild to strong negative sensations I encountered at the Varus battlefield in Germany, or at the neolithic sites in the Kilmartin Glen. No, the Law liked me. Which sounds terribly strange, and doesn’t really get the feelings across, but it’s as close as I can come.

Half-way up or so, looking north. Did I mention that the Law dominates the landscape?

I’m sure some of it was the sheer pleasure of actually being physically able to climb the Law. I didn’t gasp or ache like I had back at Hadrian’s Wall, even though the slope was almost as steep. I literally trotted up the 360 feet or so of vertical elevation. I’d plodded, with multiple stops, up the Sill. The adrenaline was running, and had been since I launched from the car. Which, again, had not happened before.

The wind gusted around the hill, stirring the pony-cropped grasses and making the wild-flowers dance. Ravens glided below me, catching the wind as they launched from nests in the quarry face at the east end of the Law. Unseen songbirds chirped and warbled as well. To the west, I could see the blue-distant hills beyond Edinburgh, a dark, rumpled line separating the lush, grassy landscape around me from the blue and white sky. To the north, another Law stood between Traprain and the Firth, with more uplands lumping in an indigo line just beyond the shimmering, pale blue line of the Firth of Forth. The sky blended into the water as I looked east, the North Sea swallowing the horizon, quiet and mild for the moment. I smelled grass, and “clean,” no dust or smoke or other things. Bird song, raven caws, and the rush of the wind alone filled my ears. I walked above traffic noise, and soon above the ravens as well. My breathing, the birds, and the wind were the only sounds in the world.

Just outside the ghost of the old turf wall.

And so I reached the crest.

For someone expecting to find a reconstruction of a fort or something like that, the top would be a disappointment. I was thrilled. The foundations of the Iron Age fort are just visible through the grass, not far from a “wind cairn.” If you don’t know what you are looking at, it would be easy to mistake the ring of dry-stone wall**, not quite waist high on me, for the ruins. Instead, the lower, grass and woody-shrub covered oval of dirt and white rocks marks the ancient fort. Here, people feasted and planned for war, here chieftains received embassies and raised families, here people fled to for protection in times of danger, perhaps. The semi-wild ponies that crop the grasses and mug visitors for treats remained elsewhere that day, so I roamed unpestered. The wind made the plants and grasses dance, bowing to the east. It felt good, happy, welcoming. As if I belonged there.

The Iron Age fort, looking west toward Edinburgh.
The wind cairn and the North Sea.
The fort, and the Firth of Forth.

When I got ready to hike down, nothing urged me to linger. Whatever I sensed, it didn’t try to lure me or bother me, it didn’t whisper to me to stay. I stayed very happy, content, full of delight and joy . . . And wary of turning an ankle, because I wasn’t wearing proper hiking boots, and did NOT want to misstep on the way down. Down is always more of a challenge than up, at least for me. Gravity has never been my friend.

Of all the places I went, monuments I visited, ancient ruins and remnants I circled, Traprain Law . . . It moved me, touched me in a way I feel a bit sheepish trying to explain. That afternoon . . . was the happiest, most joy-full I felt on the entire trip. I’ve not had that sensation in a very long time. Wonder, excitement, mild awe, all the feelings that blend together into joy, a deep joy that lingered well into the evening. It almost felt . . . Almost as if that hike, and staring around from the top of the hill, was the whole point of the trip. Which makes absolutely no sense at all, but that’s the closest I can come to explaining what went through me as I stood atop that wind-washed hill, staring out at the North Sea as ravens and hooded crows glided below me.

*The name comes from the fact that some forms of it making a ringing sound when tapped with a rock hammer. It’s rare because you need a mantle plume or other hard-core hotspot to create. It has no crystals in it per se because of the lack of silica.

** Wind-cairns are to protect hikers caught in storms and so on. I can well believe that being atop the Law in any sort of rough weather could become dangerous very quickly.

Matrilineal, Patriarchal, Matrilocal, and Messy

So, how does succession, inheritance, and other stuff work out in a society? There are almost as many answers as there are societies, and some people like to imagine a time, way back when, that society was matrilineal, matriarchal, and so on. Anthropologists are still looking for that one. However, the British Isles had groups that were matrilineal and matrilocal, but patriarchal. Or at least, their leadership was.

I’ve been doing a lot of reading about the Picts, the Celtic* people of the eastern half of what is now Scotland, north of roughly the Edinburgh-Glasgow line. Roughly. Borders were fluid, especially after Rome abandoned Hadrian’s wall. The Picts had no writing (or so people thought), and until the creation of the Pictish King List in around AD 724 CE or so, we don’t have any records that are not written by outsiders. According to Bede of Jarrow, writing in the early 700s, and Gildas (mid 500s), the Picts and the Gaels of Dal Riata swept down across Hadrian’s Wall as soon as the Roman Army departed, looting, burning, and generally terrorizing the other Britons**. Gildas says that this was because the Britons had gotten immoral and a few had backslid into paganism. Bede says that missionaries, notably St. Ninian, had been at work up in the area in the 200s, but obviously “their dippin’ didn’t take” as my maternal grandmother would have said. The Irish annals talk about the Picts when they discuss Dal Riata and the other Hiberno-Scottish groups.

One of the questions that came up about the Picts was their system of government. There are few contrarians who argue that the Picts had a diffuse, family-based, semi-egalitarian matrilineal government that worked very well until the Christians, especially the Roman Christians after 640, introduced a much more centralized and unequal political system. Most historians that I’ve read argue for a series of lords, low kings, and a high king who was chosen for partly competence rather than strictly by inheritance. However, the king had to come from a certain family line, or from one of a small group of families—again, the sources are unclear. The system was matrilineal and matrilocal.

The Pictish king lists don’t show a son consistently succeeding his father until the later 800s. Before that, it was the son of the previous high king’s sister. And she might marry a Saxon, or Briton, or Gael. The outsider lived with his wife, and his sons and daughters were raised as Picts. This also led a few people to argue that the Picts had been matriarchal at some point in the distant past, until [Indo-Europeans/Christianity] ruined everything. Actually, that system was common in the British Isles, and you find it in the Welsh Mabinogi, the Irish Annals, and other places. The Picts emphasized the female line of descent because it made sense. In times of trouble, the odds of knowing who the mother was were very high. Knowing the father might be a bit more difficult. And women pass culture and religion to their children from a very young age.

However, the Picts, like the Britons and Gaels of the west, were patriarchal. At least by the time of the Roman observers and later, males governed. Only a very few women are named in the king lists, and those are women who are married to a king.

*The Gaels of Dal Riata spoke a dialect related to Irish. The Picts spoke a dialect related to Brythonic (original “English Celtic” so to speak), Welsh, Cornish, and Breton. All are Celtic, but the two are not really mutually intelligible.

**Whether the people of Dal Riata were 100% Irish, or were Irish nobles with a larger Briton or Pictish subservient population, or if they happened to have come over from Ireland at some point in the distant past and kept their dialect of Celtic, seems to be a topic of endless debate among historians and archaeologists.

Family Trees and Successions

Lelia and André joke (well out of ear-shot) that Arthur’s family tree is more like a thorn-bush. He’d probably give Lelia A Look over his reading glasses, and then chuckle once she’d left for the day. He wouldn’t argue too much, though, because there’s some truth to it. It’s a very good thing that adoptions and out-marriages are permitted in the Hunter clans. And probably good that succession as clan leader is not automatic father to son, or brother to brother.

Arthur is the third-from-youngest sibling, and his older sister is the oldest. She’s the only living child by their father’s first marriage, and is at least sixty years older than Skender. At least. There was a baby boy who died, and his mother died of complications of the delivery. The siblings’ father re-married, and had a boy, a girl, another boy, a girl, Skender, a girl who died as an infant, Arthur, Dumitra’s mother, and then another girl. The oldest sister was already married and living in North America by the time Arthur was born. The rest of the family moved to Argentina when Skender was a child, and Arthur and the others arrived in South America. It was that older sister’s presence, a blood-link, that made the escape from disaster possible when everything went to H-ll. In Arthur’s case, near literal H-ll.

Of the ten children, six lived to adulthood. The brother closest in age to Skender died as a young man when he got kicked in the head by a horse and never regained consciousness. Skender and Boianti (later Arthur) was as close a brothers in the clans ever get, gave each other grief as brothers do, and took care of their siblings. Arthur was fourteen or so when the youngest girl was born. She latched onto him as a toddler, and he came to love her dearly. She didn’t mind his introspection and need for occasional near-solitude.

A decade or so later, when everything fell apart for the southerners, Skender, Arthur, and their two younger sisters managed to get away using two gates. The youngest sister died from the backlash when the second gate collapsed just as they reached North America. She’d been a strong sorceress, and was controlling the spell. The magic workers in Pennsylvania couldn’t grab the surge of wild magic in time, and she died in Arthur’s arms. What little sanity and capacity for love he had left almost died then, too. Almost. The clan had a very good mind-Healer who was able to help him and the others recover from what they’d seen and endured. A handful of other survivors from the Southern branch of the clan also eventually found their way to safer places, but chose not to join the Pennsylvania group.

Given all that had happened, Arthur should be the paranoid one. He is, just not as overtly as Skender. Dumitra’s mother quickly married into the clan and had Dumitra and a few other children before her husband died in a farm accident. She has not remarried. Skender didn’t find anyone who suited, or who was not related too closely through his older sister, until Corava arrived. Arthur . . . He did his duty to the family in ways other than marriage, and such isn’t unheard of in the clans. Then his relationship with Lelia and her son was confirmed. He now had descendants so the point became moot.

So, in time, Skender became the leader of the clan in River County. By the start of Preternaturally Familiar, he and Corava have four children. They are fostered among other families in the clan, as is traditional. It helps build alliances, and reduces favoritism. Also, since leadership is by a combination of proven skill, experience, and general agreement among the clan members as a whole, it lets everyone get a sense of how young people might fit in. Skender knows that one of his sons might not follow in his footsteps. He also knows, intellectually, that Arthur does not want to be clan head. Arthur has said that on multiple occasions. Even so, Skender doesn’t exactly trust his brother’s words. After all, things change, and his younger brother did a very good job guiding the clan while Skender partially withdrew for reasons Not Discussed. And Arthur has grandchildren, had them before Skender even married. That also chafes. It shouldn’t, but Skender’s Skender.

His younger brother? Well, as Lelia has observed, “Arthur’s Arthur. And strange.”

Hearth Right and Pot Right

Where do young Hunters stay, if they are not working or Hunting? The Hunter now called Jude Tainuit (“the lone Hunter/ Hunter in Shadow”) mused that he had hearth right in Martha’s house, but not pot right. Arthur Saldovado will eat meals in the main house at the clan’s home farm, but he doesn’t stay there. The senior Hunter, prior to and after his marriage, stays at the home farm most of the time. Marius “Matt” Bauer has a house and farm even before he marries, and his twin, Florian, comes and goes at will. What’s the reason?

It goes back a long way, and has to do with survival inside and outside the Hunter clans. Obviously, a Hunter can stay with his (or more rarely her) family unless there’s good or bad reason not to. Often, Hunting partners (say, Florian and Nikolai) will have hearth right to each other’s homes, so if one is closer, they can both crash there after a hard Hunt. Hearth right means that if someone shows up unannounced, he will be let in and provided with shelter, usually just overnight unless he and the householder make other agreements. The idea was that the Hunters would be safe from the weather long enough to rest, then move on. While under the roof, the householder will protect the Hunter, and the Hunter will defend the household, or do chores if he can, to pay back the hospitality. In the Old Land, individual Hunters might make agreements with people who are aware of the clan but are not part of it, so that if the Hunter can’t get back to his own home or to a neutral place of refuge, he can shelter in a barn, or a hunting house (cabin in US terms), or other place when needed.

Jude sees himself as having key right (hearth right) but not pot right. He only stays one or two nights out of seven at most, and brings food, does chores, and helps around the house and farm. He won’t eat anything unless Martha gives him permission. Or more often, unless she orders him to sit down and eat, or else. She would say that he has pot right as well as hearth right (full right to come and eat, stay, or go as he chooses/needs). He disagrees. In his mind, owes her so much that there is no, zero, nada, kein way that he’d claim that privilege.

Pot right means that “mi casa es su casa.” The Hunter can come in, help himself to food within reason, and shelter as long as he needs. Hunting partners usually have this with each other’s families, although it is understood that “guests, like fish, smell after three days.” One exception being if the Hunter is providing needed farm labor or other work. He’s paying for his room and board, so to speak.

All active Hunters have the right to get food at the main house on the home farm, and to get medical care there if they need it. It is neutral ground, and even two guys who are at each other’s throats will chill if they have to turn to the main clan for support. They will get what they need and then depart, ignoring each other. Or else. Both the semi-retired Hunters and the ladies are more than happy to demonstrate the “else.” For example, no one wants to get on the wrong side of Arthur’s older sister’s tongue, or her fist. She’s boxed ears on occasion, and left the young pups with bruises on more than just their egos.

Arthur eats at the home farm, but he only stays there if he’s in such bad physical shape that the Healers won’t let him leave. He doesn’t feel safe or comfortable there. Treading on Skender’s toes is only part of it. Arthur supports his brother completely, and knows all too well just how short fused Skender can be. It’s the better part of valor to be elsewhere, so Arthur has a few places where he can take shelter. None of them are with other Hunters, either active or former. Rendor and Dumitra have offered him hearth right, but he declined. He doesn’t want them pulled into a conflict, either with his brother or with the younger Hunters. Arthur also needs space away from others to think and rest.

Arthur’s behavior worries the other Elders, but they’re not going to say anything unless an obvious problem develops. He’s always been a loner, by clan standards.

Borders Abbeys II: The Scottish Side Part 1

You will note that there are no “inside the walls” photos here. In 2020 and 2021, Historic Environment Scotland closed everything down and stopped maintenance out of what I will call an excess of caution*. As a result, only major tourist attractions like Sterling Castle and Edinburgh Castle are fully open. This was and is a sore topic with some Scots, as you might imagine. The people I met and spoke with at the properties were very good, and tried very hard, so any blame for the results of neglect is on the management, not the folks on the ground.

So, once we crossed the border (where a piper in full regalia waited in the parking lot to serenade anyone who pulled in for photos), we went to Jedburgh, then Melrose, Kelso, and Dryburgh. Melrose was Cistercian, while Dryburgh was Premonstratian (Norbertine is another name,) Jedburgh belonged to the Augustinians, and Kelso was Tironensian.

Jedburgh is closest to the border, then and now. Founded in 1138 by King David I, it nestles in a valley, and was probably built on top of an older, “Columban” or Irish-inspired church and monastery that perhaps dated to the 600s, but is confirmed to have been present starting in the 700s. Trying to find that, under all the centuries of additions and enlargements, is fraught, to put it mildly. “Let’s dig until we find something that might not even be there!” doesn’t go over well with preservation agencies or grant giving groups.

Jedburgh from the north side.

The Augustinians were not separated from the world the way the Cistercians and certain other orders were, so the monastery is in the city of Jedburgh, on the Jed Water. Thus were was always communication and ministry by the Augustinians to the town, as well as cloistered prayer and works. However, it was not a center of teaching, unlike some monestaries. Jedburgh, like the other border abbeys on both sides of the border, had been sacked, looted, burned, and otherwise pestered several times between the founding and 1560. Edward I [boo, hiss] stripped the roof of lead, and both the Scots and English attacked in the 1300s and 1400s. Alexander III was married here in 1285, and various stories claim that ghostly figures appeared to warn of his death. He died a year or so later, setting off the chain of events that led to the Scottish War of Independence. The population of the monastery faded with the 1500s until, but the Reformation, only a handful of monks remained. After the last ones were pensioned off, the church became a parish church, then fell into decay and ruin.

Jedburgh in 1510. The cemetery in the first shot is on the “empty” side of the complex in the model.

The stream under the photographer’s feet provided water and power and sewage disposal for the abbey. And powered a mill, among other things.

Romanesque start, Gothic finish. Under all this is probably an even older Celtic monastery, but no one wants to try to dig to find it.

Then we went north to Melrose. Melrose too started from older roots, although it is not on top of them. St. Aiden’s original house, founded in the 630s or 640s (sources vary), was on a bend in the river, literally on the bend, inside of it, for both safety and privacy. The monks wanted to get away from it all. St. Cuthbert, now in Durham Cathedral, is probably the most famous saint associated with Melrose, and the abbey is the official start point for St. Cuthbert’s Way (more about that on Wednesday). When David I gave the Cistercians land in 1136, he wanted access, and so the new monastery was built away from the river. If you go past the abbey complex a little ways, away from town, you reach the river.

Monks from Riveaulx formed the first brothers at Melrose. The church was dedicated to the Virgin Mary, as were most Cisterian houses. The abbey prospered from wool and other industries, until the border wars came. Edward I was here, too, in 1300 and 1307, Edward II paid a visit, and Richard II and Henry VIII were also a bit rough on the neighborhood. This is before the Reformation brought an end to the Catholic institutions in Scotland. The remains of the great church you see today are from the rebuilding following another English visit in 1385. Wool and pilgrimages were the sources of Melrose’s wealth, along with patronage by the kings and nobility. The Black Death, wars with the English, and other things slowly sapped the vitality of the house, until the last monk died in 1590. The church became a parish church, and slowly crumbled. The outbuildings and cloisters were dismantled for materials, or kept as private (or crown) estates.

Melrose. Note tourist for scale.

Among the notables buried at Merose are Robert the Bruce (his head), and Alexander II. Unlike Fountains and Riveaulx, nothing remains of the cloister aside from fragments and archaeological finds, all of which are kept in a nice small museum across the road from the main abbey. St. Waltheof, the second abbot, is remembered in the museum with some artifacts and discussions about the role of the abbots and Scottish politics. If you see a lot of roses carved in the stones of the abbey and the fragments of the cloister, that’s the Cistercian rose, a symbol of the order, and of the Virgin.

More Melrose on a slightly damp day.
Gothic (in both senses) ruin, anyone? There’s a reason Sir Walter Scott set a novel here.

Walter Scott also gets credit for this structure and all the other border abbeys still being with us. He set part of a novel here, and in Dryburgh, and popularized them. Poets rhapsodized about the crumbling places of faith. The Victorian passion for Romantic ruins helped, and eventually the abbeys were preserved. However, and I will refrain from leaping on my soapbox, they are also all surrounded by fences, as are many Historic Environment Scotland properties, because all repairs and grounds-keeping stopped in 2020 and 2021. Everything was left untouched, and unfortunately, this led to damage and structural problems in some locations. All of the properties are being surveyed and restoration/repairs are being planned. Only at Dryburgh did we see work in progress, but that could be a quirk of timing rather than people being stretched too thin.

Memento Mori
Melrose in context. The drain was part of the medieval water system, with older Roman things scattered about. The Eildon Hills in the background were sacred to the Britons and has a huge hill fort on it. The Romans built Trimonteum (three mountains) there as well.

Two mornings later, I hiked a third of the St. Cuthbert Way up the slope of the Eildon Hills. The trail is . . . steep.

Come by the Hills to the Land Where Legends Remain . . . (Actually, I kept thinking about the line “On Cadfen’s way where the kestrels call . . .” from The Grey King by Susan Cooper. And panting. And about how much my legs hurt. And how out of shape I am . . .)
0600, ninety minutes after sunrise. Ah, midsummer at the northern latitudes!

*What others call it I will not quote on a family blog, but some very colorful dialect terms have been added to my vocabulary.

Glen Coe and the Laws of Hospitality

What duty has a host to a guest? And a guest to his host? Some cultures, including the Saxons and Angles of pre-Norman England, codified it into law. The Tanakh/Old Testament have stories and rules about hospitality and what if any protection a host provides to visitors, and their duties in turn. In a world where strangers were both suspect and needed (information, trade goods, short-term alliances), hospitality mattered. If certain archaeological clues are true, the guest/host rules go back thousands and thousands of years in some places. Like west-central Scotland.

Certain aspects of the Highland Clan culture mirrored cultures of the past as described by the Romans and earlier writers. Leadership centered on descent from a common male ancestor, who might or might not have been documented in surviving materials. Pedigree was more important than paperwork. At best, the chieftain and his brothers, uncles, and nephews had duties to the rest of the kindred, ensuring that no one starved and the the clan itself survived. By the 1600s, this had gotten pushed aside in many cases, especially as people not of the blood rented land from the clan. Trying to fit a cattle-raiding semi-tribal society into a modernizing feudal organization was going to be . . . awkward. Just ask the English and lowland Scots trying to make a living when the reivers came to call, and to collect any “stray” cattle and sheep.

House imitates landscape. The wall is made of turfs. This is the kind of home found in Glen Coe in the 1600s.

However, one of the iron-clad laws that appears early on in English documents and in Scottish tradition (predated the kingdoms of Scotland and the written law) was hospitality. A stranger arriving at a house or hall had the right to ask for shelter and food for the night. The Anglo-Saxon laws eventually codified it to three days. After that, the guest had to become a vassel of his host, unless other arrangements were made. The host protected the guest. The guest in turn defended his host, or at the very least stayed well clear of both sides if his host was attacked. Strangers had to announce themselves and to show that they came without ill intention. People living along a road could not attack a stranger simply because he was a traveling stranger. Strangers brought information, entertainment, and possibly trade goods and useful skills. They could also be a danger, a spy, or a thief or murderer. But hospitality was required.

So, Glencoe. It started with politics, and King William III not trusting the Scots chiefs and clans to stay loyal to the Protestant, Parliament-allied branch of the Stuart family. So in 1691 he demanded that all the clan chiefs swear and sign an oath of allegiance. Maclain MacDonald of the MacDonalds of Glencoe was late signing the documents. They had been moved from Fort William, not far from Glencoe as the raven flies, all the way to Inverary. In miles, this is not far. In Scotland, given the lack of roads, the winter weather, and the need to find the proper legal observers to witness the signing, it meant that Maclain signed after the deadline. King William decided to make an example of the MacDonalds of Gelencoe.

A unit of soldiers, some Campbells, part of the Earl of Argyle’s Regiment and commanded by Robert Campbell of Glenlyon, as well as other Scottish troops, visited the people of Glencoe starting on January 31, 1692. Per tradition, and because feeding and housing soldiers counted as paying your taxes, the Macdonalds fed and housed the 128 men and officers. It is thought, and generally agreed on by historians* that the troopers were not told why they were in the Glen of the Coe river. Late on February 12, the orders went out: kill everyone under age 70, men, women, children and burn their dwellings. Some troopers balked, others agreed, a few warned their hosts to flee into the heavy snow and bitter cold. The clan chief died, along with 37 others. More succumbed to the cold as they waded through snow to reach aid. Word spread.

The Campbells drew the ire of a lot of other people for their participation. Thus signs saying “No dogs and no Campbells allowed,” and the fact that to this day, there are some Scots who will not eat under the same roof as a Campbell. Not many, but memories last a very, very long time, especially when an ancient rule is broken so dramatically. The reaction to the Massacre at Glencoe was far more visceral than to things like battles, even Culloden. It still evokes a visceral reaction. The exhibit and video in the visitors’ center pounded that over and over: it wasn’t the number of deaths so much as the violation of hospitality that made the Glencoe Massacre so infamous.

A battle is a battle. People die in battle. That’s just how it goes, and everyone is aware of it, especially those who bitterly regret the need for a fight to determine a political result. But staying with people for almost two weeks, then killing women and children along with fighting-age men and burning their dwellings? That violated laws of conduct that echoed down thousands of years. King William III made a point, that was true. His troopers also gained the opprobrium of taboo breakers and murderers, an opprobrium that remains to this day, like a black blot on the record of Clan Campbell and of the Argyle Regiment (to a lesser extent).

Glencoe was eerie. Part of it is that because of its topography, the caldera catches weather. It will be sunny and calm to the north and south, while rain or show drench the glen. Part of it was probably my sensitivity to places soaked in strong emotion. I would not want to be there on my own on a February night, especially if there was a storm.

*Popular memory and history don’t always agree, although the distrust verging on hatred of Campbells in some parts of Scotland has faded. Mostly faded. But not entirely.

Scots and the Rocks: Geology and Scotland

England [and the rest of the island of Britain, including Scotland and Wales] has a lot of geology. Happily, many of the exciting bits (aside from the “maybe giant ice dam broke and carved the English Channel all at once”) can be seen or visited in Scotland.

James Hutton’s grave is on the right, down toward the end. He’s the Father of Scottish Geology.
Geologic Map used under Creative Commons. Original Source:

Western Scotland is made of a bunch of terranes, all pushed together. Bits and pieces of islands and micro-continents got mushed into a lumpy jumble. Sorting all that out kept geologists busy. However, the highlights of Scotland’s geology are the volcanoes and the huge rift, the Great Glen fault.

Inside a squished caldera: Glen Coe.

Most of the Precambrian rocks are only visible on the western islands, unless you want to dig. The area was under water, above water, underwater, and so on. Volcanoes also gushed lava over the layers of limestone and sandstone. Some of the Highland peaks tell that story, if you know what to look for. However, things don’t get really exciting, for geological versions of exciting, until around 450,000,000 years ago.

The Caledonian Orogony is the period of mountain building that took place during the Ordovician (age of fishes.) The core of what would become Scotland was growing, tacking on England as spreading and plate collisions drove Scotland into England and closed the Iepetius Sea. Eventually, the mountains ranged from what is today Norway, Scotland, and formed the ancestral Appalachians. They were part of the continent of Baltica. Oh, and the southern hemisphere got coated in ice and there was a mass extinction event. This period was a large puzzle for early geologists, because older rocks in the area along the western coast were shoved inland in an overthurst fault, riding up and covering younger rocks. (Thus the Geopark for the Moine Thrust feature).

Glen Coe Caldera when it was forming:

(The above site has a great description of the geology, very well written and clear.)

Ben Nevis, on the north side of Glen Coe. Another volcano, and cloudy 370 days out of the year. (OK, only 355, on average.)
Wave at Nessie! Loch Ness, on the Great Glen Fault. It is a strike-slip, like the San Andreas, and is currently dormant.

The Silurian Period (more fishes) saw the final cementing of Scotland to England, and the start of the Great Glen fault series, along with the formation of the famous Old Red Sandstone. This formation is one of the key geologic time-markers in Britain, sort of like Navajo Sandstone in the American Southwest. It has useful index fossils, as well as being easy to identify. Volcanic activity continued, adding more to the Highlands and building the southern uplands, the Cheviot Hills, Pentland Hills, and others.

The Carboniferous (359-299 Million Years Ago) is probably one of the most important eras for the economy and politics of later Scotland. This was the age of coal formation, when swamps and tropical forests throve in the area, leaving miles and miles of dead plant and animal material that became the Coal Measures. The volcanic activity produced the crags at Sterling and Edinburgh, including Arthur’s Seat.

The Wallace Monument on a classic Crag-and-Tail left by volcanic activity and later ice. Sterling. The hills behind are igneous, the remains of harder volcanic intrusions.

Things got dry and dull during the Age of Dinosaurs, at least if you are a geologist. The rocks deposited from the Permian to the Cretacious pretty much eroded away. Scotland is lacking in dinosaurs, at least in terms of the fossil record. It was a desert, which didn’t do much for encouraging a species-rich environment. Chalk layers were deposited in the latter part of the age, down in the Lowlands, and the enormous glops of algae and sea-plants in the shallow coastal waters eventually became the North Sea gas and oil fields.

Between 63-52 Million Years Ago, the last volcanism in Scotland took place as Ireland and North America went their separate way. St. Kilda and a few other islands are testimony of this. Things rocked along, plants and animals moved in, erosion happened, and then WHAP! The Pleistocene struck. Ice covered all of Scotland at least twice, and kept things chilly until 12,000 years ago. Humans only appear relatively late compared to mainland Europe, during the Mesolithic and Neolithic.

What makes Scotland so rich for geologists is that 1) things are low. You don’t need hard-core climbing gear to see the rocks, unlike the Rockies, Alps, and Himalaya, for example. Scotland is compact, so it is easy to go from site to site. And it is not overgrown, so the rocks are visible. James Hutton first realized what “unconformaties” meant while studying one at Arthur’s Seat in Edinburgh, and a pilgrimage to see the unconformity there is for Scots and English geologists sort of like going to see the K-T line at the park in [Raton. Sorry], NM for US geologists. Not exactly a pilgrimage, but something one tries to do if you are in the area.

East and West and Strong Men

Rudyard Kipling’s “The Ballad of East and West” is one of my favorites, and I can declaim large chunks from memory. The Australian poet A.B. “Banjo” Patterson observed that Kipling had a gift for describing horses, and that shines through in the mid-section of the poem. But I want to focus on Kamal and the Colonel’s son.

“Oh, East is East, and West is West, and never the twain shall meet,
Till Earth and Sky stand presently at God’s great Judgment Seat;
But there is neither East nor West, Border, nor Breed, nor Birth,
When two strong men stand face to face,
tho’ they come from the ends of the earth!”

For two, or three, strong men, a chase after a stolen horse becomes an occasion for a feat of daring, a display of honor, and a moment of brotherhood.

Kamal has gripped him by the hand and set him upon his feet.
“No talk shall be of dogs,” said he, “when wolf and gray wolf meet.
May I eat dirt if thou hast hurt of me in deed or breath;
What dam of lances brought thee forth to jest at the dawn with Death?”
Lightly answered the Colonel’s son: “I hold by the blood of my clan:
Take up the mare for my father’s gift — by God, she has carried a man!”
The red mare ran to the Colonel’s son, and nuzzled against his breast;
“We be two strong men,” said Kamal then, “but she loveth the younger best.
So she shall go with a lifter’s dower, my turquoise-studded rein,
My broidered saddle and saddle-cloth, and silver stirrups twain.”
The Colonel’s son a pistol drew and held it muzzle-end,
“Ye have taken the one from a foe,” said he; “will ye take the mate from a friend?”
“A gift for a gift,” said Kamal straight; “a limb for the risk of a limb.
Thy father has sent his son to me, I’ll send my son to him!”
With that he whistled his only son, that dropped from a mountain-crest —
He trod the ling like a buck in spring, and he looked like a lance in rest. . .

They have looked each other between the eyes, and there they found no fault,
They have taken the Oath of the Brother-in-Blood on leavened bread and salt:
They have taken the Oath of the Brother-in-Blood on fire and fresh-cut sod,
On the hilt and the haft of the Khyber knife, and the Wondrous Names of God.”

The Ballad of East and West.” Rudyard Kipling

Two strong men, one older, one younger, both brave, both determined, and both seeing honor and respect in the other, even though they are sworn enemies (more or less). And it doesn’t matter, not in that moment.

I grew up understanding what Kipling meant, and what veterans and others meant, when they showed respect (if at times grudging) for opponents and foes. The loss of that sense is something I feel keenly. “The honorable opponent” seems to be fading from popular culture. I try to explain it to younger people, that you can respect people you disagree with, and even feel sorrow at their passing even as you know that they’d have killed you first if given the chance. “For true comrades and true foemen, Madonna, intercede!” Kipling wrote in a different place.

There’s an academic I vehemently disagree with. She sets my teeth on edge. Her work broke major ground in our field, and has opened up useful new lines of questioning and uses of archaeological and archival material. So when I had the chance, I told her how much I admired her work and how valuable it has been to me. She was glad that a younger generation still read and engaged with her ideas. I still don’t care for her, and she probably would not care for me, were we to meet in other than an academic setting. It didn’t—and doesn’t—matter.

“But there is neither east nor west, border, nor breed, nor birth

When two strong men stand face to face, though they come from the ends of the earth!”

Keeping the Peace

One of the two main plots in P— Familiar centers on a growing conflict between Arthur and Skender. These things happen, and we’ve seen hints (OK, in one case a flashing neon sign) that the brothers do not always abide in brotherly love. Marius and Florian also had their moments. When you have a group of young men not yet ready to marry, who are trained and somewhat genetically selected to be hair-trigger, and are prone to settling philosophical disputes with more than pillow fights, society has to have an outlet. Venting on abyssal creatures or bad magic users is an acceptable outlet. But that’s not always available.

Sometimes, a guy just needs to get away for a while. The clans are not large enough to have something like “going a viking,” where a group of overly-energetic young males can be sent out to go earn/trade for/steal resources and burn off that energy on someone else. As an interesting historical aside, the Scythians and a few other nomadic horse-riders in the Chalcolithic and Neolithic seem to have had similar practices, which is part of what led to the Greek stories of Amazons. The young men went away to go inflict themselves on enemies or just on people in the way. That left the women and older, mature men (with a lot of skills and survival sense) to defend the herds. Alas, perhaps, the clans don’t have that outlet today.*

In the case of a building interpersonal difficulty, most of the time older, calmer heads will take both parties aside and see what is going on. It might be that a carefully refereed fight or two between the hot-heads will clear the air and fix the situation. It might be that a third party [*coughcough*girl*coughcough*] will be encouraged to stop playing the two off of each other. Or it might be that someone needs to step away from the group, without doing so in a way that leads to more suspicion.

The River County clan has a chapel to the Great God, the Son, and the Lady and Her Defender. It isn’t obvious to outsiders, and it is not large enough to hold everyone at the same time. Many of the clan’s devotions are private, or family-centered, and so can be done at home or in smaller groups. The priestess and some of the other Elders oversee the chapel.

Should one approach the altar and the images of the Lady of Night and Her Defender, one will observe a sort of shelf under St. Michael’s statue. Perhaps “box in the wall” might be a better definition, because it has sides and a back, and is of the same golden oak as the kneeling rails and other furnishings. Most of the time, the niche remains empty, and gets dusted** so it stays that way.

When a Hunter decides that he (rarely she) needs to get away for a while without raising suspicions that he’s actually waiting in ambush for someone, he leaves his Hunting knife in the niche. The pommels are all slightly different, and a quick glance will tell those who need to know that a Hunter has departed in peace and will come back in peace. He’s not lurking in the shadows, biding his time. He’s off on his own, seeking discernment or just getting away from everyone in order to cool off. His family probably knows where he is, but that’s their business. The Elders won’t ask. To leave one’s Hunting blade with the Defender is a clear signal to all, and is respected. The other half of the conflict will also stand down. No one touches the blade (aside from dusting around it) until the owner returns, or is confirmed dead.

The last time a Hunter abused this tradition, he lived long enough to regret his action. To regret it intensely. And to serve as a multi-generational horrible warning. No one wants to be That Guy. Among other things, the malefactor lost all recourse to blood price, and his family turned their backs on him. What happened after that? Well, suffice it to say it was lingering and eventually lethal. The point was made.

So, for example, if Ladislu and Florian have a falling out, and it seems to be growing to the point of danger, Florian might leave his blade in the niche. Ladislu will stay away from Florian’s workplace and his family’s home. For his part, Florian will avoid clan gatherings and events. Should a Hunt arise, Ladislu won’t call in Florian. If Florian appears of his own volition, the moment the Hunt concludes, he will depart without saying anything to the others. In turn, if Florian discovers something that requires Hunting, and Marius (his twin) can’t help, Florian will call for back-up. The others will disperse after the Hunt as if they’d never been called. That lasts until Florian reclaims his knife. A true emergency, like a forest fire, major flood, or tornado strike, would probably also lead to the absent Hunter returning to help, but the same rules would apply.

*Yes, a very, very few of the young men and women do join the military. Deborah picked up on one of those veterans, and how much he “felt” like a cross between her father and her bunicot.

**We will not mention the exclamations of feminine horror uttered by the church ladies when we were cleaning up a sanctuary in preparation for decorating for Advent and found, among other things, a fossilized fern left from a funeral, and layers of dust in places that were supposed to be dust free. A two-hour task took four-and-a-quarter hours, a lot of rags and elbow grease, and the Board of Deacons got an ear-full. Coincidentally, people stopped sneezing during the service. Truly an Advent miracle.