Tuesday, 26 January 2016

Legacy of the Catman

From our 'Claws of the Catman' comic, art by Andy Lee

The Catman continues to be one of our more popular local legends, it is probably the story we get the most emails and questions about. In fact, even when while working in a primary school last week on a totally unrelated comic project, one of the young people was only too happy to share his own Catman story with us. And every time we hear the story retold, there's a new detail.

Late last year, following some reported new sightings of the Catman, a group of students from Edinburgh Uni came down to Greenock to create a short documentary to try and uncover the truth. Myself and some other interesting Greenock characters were interviewed for the film.

We've always been really clear at Magic Torch, that part of what is so interesting about the Catman is that his story still gets told - indeed, we've been part of that retelling. Is he an urban legend? Folklore? Fakelore? As ever, it's down to you to make your own mind up about how real the Catman is, or was...

You can purchase our Tales of the Oak comic which features the 'Claws of the Catman' strip from our Magic Torch Comics shop.

A much friendlier version of the Catman legend appears in my children's book The Superpower Project, which will be published by Floris Books Kelpies on February 18th.

Tuesday, 19 January 2016

Watt's This?

artwork by Andy Lee
19 January is the birthday of James Watt, Greenock's most famous son - and certainly someone whose life and work had a transformative impact on the world as we know it. And he came from our town.

We were delighted this week to stumble across the James Watt 2015-19 Celebration Project, which is celebrating Watt's life and the invention of the separate condenser in the lead up to 2019, which is the 250th Anniversary of the patent and the bicentenary of Watt's death. It was especially pleasing, because the project was making the direct connection with Greenock and Watt, a part of the story which is often forgotten or lightly airbrushed out. You can follow the project on twitter #Watt250

Watt has always been an inspiration to us, though we have also had a bit of fun with how we remember him. The fake steampunky comic cover above was designed for our Tales of the Oak comic of 2012, and imagines what might have happened if Watt had gone off the rails and started working for the military...I like how you can see Victoria tower in the background.

James Watt also features in my new children's book, The Superpower Project, along with one of his more unusual inventions. The Superpower Project is published by Floris Books (Kelpies) and will be out on February 18th.

Wednesday, 13 January 2016


Rowan Tree Legion artwork by Mhairi M Robertson

We have a busy 2016 ahead of us, so time for a quick update on what we are up to...

For the next few months, we are continuing to focus on using comics and graphic novels to create new audiences for heritage and to promote visual literacy in schools.

We'll be working with Whinhill Primary School to create TWO new comics, one in Gaelic and one in French! The project is part of the 1+2 Language Learning model supported by Inverclyde Council Literacies, and we're looking forward to sharing the results...

After that, we move on to a graphic novel adaptation of John Donald's The Stowaways which should be out for summer, then later this year we will launch our all ages 64 page graphic novel Rowan Tree Legion. And there's one other rather splendid comic project we're involved in which we'll keep under wraps for now...

You can find out more about our comics projects past and future, on our dedicated website Magic Torch Comics. We are always happy to discuss how we can work with your community group or school.

Throughout the Spring, we're delighted to be teaming up with Greenock Writers Club on a project supported by Scotland's Urban Past, a five year nationwide community engagement project exploring Scotland's towns and cities. Plus we get to guest judge on GWCs FanFic competition in March...looking forward to that one.

Oh...and outside of Magic Torch work, but perhaps of interest...have I mentioned I've got a book coming out? My first children's book, The Superpower Project will be published by Kelpies next month. It is set in Greenock and features superheroes, old buildings, a few local myths and legends, and gigantic Art Robots. More on that soon. You can keep up to date with info on my new facebook page.

Superpower Project cover illustration by Luke Newell

Tuesday, 17 November 2015

The Port Glasgow Mermaid

artwork by Katie Stevenson
In September 2015, Mhairi spent the week working with Katie Stevenson, a pupil from Clydeview Academy who joined us on work experience. We gave Katie a couple of tasks to choose from, and she rose to the challenge of providing us with some specially created illustrations for the story of the Port Glasgow Mermaid...

There was a merchant from Dumbarton. It happened that the merchant and his crew left the rock, and had been at sea for a long long time when they sailed straight into a storm. The boat was wrecked, and the crew all drowned, except for the good merchant, who found himself washed ashore on an island. He wandered around for a time, looking for food and somewhere he could shelter, and he came across a little hollow by the shore. Being altogether shaken and tired from his ordeal, he lay down on the rock and fell instantly asleep. When he woke, there was a mermaid beside him, and thereafter she came to the cave everyday to sing to the merchant, and to bring him provisions. Not only food, but gold, silver and jewels."

A year passed and then one day, when the mermaid was away, a ship passed by the island. The Merchant hailed the ship, and the vessel spied him, and sent a boat ashore. And the merchant told them all about his shipwreck and the mermaid and his gold and silver and jewels. The crew of the boat explained that they were outward bound, but suggested that if the Merchant gathered together a sizeable booty, then they would come again in a year and a day to take him home.

So a year and a day passed, and everyday the lovesick mermaid brought more food and wine and treasure to the Merchant. And at the appointed time, the ship again dropped anchor by the island. Again the mermaid was away, and again a boat came ashore. The merchant and the crew made quick despatch to get all the stores on board before the mermaid returned.

The ship set sail, but the mermaid returned to her cave, found it herried, and angrily she swam after the ship, overtook it, and demanded that her husband and her stores be returned. Now the skipper, was a canny man, so he cast off a bundle of hoops and he agreed to hand over her man and her stores only if the mermaid could count the hoops. This she did and she then repeated her demands. But the skipper cast off another set of hoops again and again and again until they reached Gourock. The Captain had a lot of hoops.

The Dumbarton merchant, set foot again on dry land at Gourock, and refused to go with the mermaid. And she pleaded with him to return to their cave where they had spent so many happy days. But he refused again, so the Mermaid gave to him the baby she had borne him, demanding that he give it a good home with all the gold and silver he had stolen from her. She then gave the merchant a book which he was instructed not to let the child see til he was full grown.

The child grew and took up residence in the old castle of Ardrossan, taking the name Michael Scott, later more commonly known as The Devil of Ardrossan. It was by the means of his mother's book that he commanded the foul thief, that imp who carried out his every dark request. And the very first command given to this devil was to rid Michael of his own father, the merchant. You could hear his screaming all the way to Ireland.

The mermaid meantime, befriended the great serpent Clutha of the Clyde, and she lives in the waters to this day. She pops her head out of the water now and then for to sing a wee song. She might even tell your fortune, depending on your luck.

Artwork by Katie Stevenson
This is just one of the stories associated with the Port's own mermaid. Earlier in September, a version of this story was shared with pupils from Newark Primary School Port Glasgow, as they explored the new coastal trail as part of the Heritage Inverclyde - A Quest For Learning project.
Another mermaid story goes that over a hundred years ago, the funeral procession of a young girl, taken long before her time, passed along the riverside on its way past the Newark castle on route to the old church. The Mermaid appeared out of the water and sang

"If she drank nettles in March
And mugwort in May
Sae many braw maidens
Wadna gang to the clay."

The Mermaid also makes an appearance in our book Wee Nasties, which you can read for free online on scribd or ibooks. She will also be appearing in our forthcoming title Rowan Tree Legion.
We'd like to thank Katie again for spending some time with us, a reminder that there is lots of talent in the town. In fact, an excellent new facebook page, Inverclyde Young Artists, is showcasing just that.

Saturday, 31 October 2015

The Black Soul Gang

For Halloween, our resident archivist Neil Bristow, delves into the dark notebooks and diaries of Sir Glen Douglas Rhodes...

A night such as tonight - when the wind rattles the slates and whistles through the keyhole - brings to my mind tales best told among friends around a warm fireplace.

But this All Hallows Eve finds me alone; a pipe in one hand and a generous dram in the other, my eyes running over the shelves, looking for a particular well-thumbed tome.

And then I hear it - the chatter of voices, and the familiar clip clop of two legged hooves, charging down the lane. An almost frantic knock on my door wakes me from my library wanderings, and draws my eye to the clock. The hour is late. But still they have come. The gang is here.

I open the door, greeted by a sight of 6 young boys, not one of them over 12 years old. And in a tradition as ancient as the oaks blowing in the wind, they announce themselves with a song.

"Soul! Soul! for an apple or two;

If you’ve got no apple, pears will do,

Soul! Soul! for your soul’s sake,

Pray good mistress, a Soul Cake!

An apple, or pear, a plum or a cherry, 

Or any good thing to make us all merry. 

St. Peter was a good old man, 

And so for his sake, give us one.

None of your worst, but one of your best, 

So God may send your souls to rest. 

Up with your kettles, and down with your pans, 

Give us a Soul Cake and we’ll be gone!”

Their masks are crude, their guises tatty and ragged - just as it should be. I meet their ritual with my end of the bargain, distributing to them each an autumn apple from my barrel, and send them on their way into the gloomy night.

As they rattle down the lane, they give me pause for thought. They know the ritual. They know their part. But meaning has given way to indulgence, and we are perhaps all poorer for it.

They call it galoshans. But as I return to the fireside, my eyes fall on the tome I was searching for earlier and I recall the darker origins of the phrase.

They have not gone galoshans. They have gone a souling. And I read on with some hesitation; the tale of the Black Soul Gang….

Long ago, not too far from the cobbled streets of Greenock (or perhaps further than the tale recalls), there was a village high up on the moor. Here the old folk might still recall, if asked, the tale of Old Tam Cole, or the Bell That Rings Neath the Knowe. Good tales for telling, but neither as somber as the most well known fable in village - that of the Soul Gang.

In those days, on All Hallows Eve, Soul Gangs would go from farm to farm performing the souling plays of old, begging as they went for ale and the odd morsel of food. A favorite of this particular gang was the death and resurrection play, of which I recount a small excerpt for your amusement.

"We are one, two, three good hearty lads, and we are all in one mind,
we have come a-souling , good nature to find,

And if you will give us one jug of beer,
We will not come a-souling, till this time next year.

Step down in your cellar, and see what you'll find,

There is ale, rum, gin and brandy, and all kind of wine,

And if you will give us one jug of beer,”

We'll not come a-souling, till this time next year.”

Now on one particular occasion, they came to the door of Old Farmer Lindsay.

The gangs chief banged heavy on the door, ringing his bell and announcing himself;

'Open this door and let all our brave and gallant actors in,

I am Beelzebub,

On my shoulder I carry a club,

In my hand a dripping tin,

Ring ting ting.'

Lindsay, a superstitious man was known for his miserly ways, and when met with boys of the Soul Gang, he parted with tradition and parleyed their chorus with a heavy slam of his farmhouse door.

Not content with this response, the Soul Gang took their vengeance - sneaking into Old Lindsays barn, they helped themselves two a barrel of cider. A breach of the ancient rules of Soul Gang - they had taken what was not freely given, and had damned themselves in the process.

A broken bargain on both sides is ill for all parties; and as they made their way across the moor, the wind whipping their ragged guises, they may not have heard old Lindsay whispered a curse upon them; “if they take something of mine, I shall have something of theirs."

And cursed they were. For as the hour waned, one by one the boys of the Soul Gang found themselves lost in the mists of the moor. And with each step they took, they wandered further from the path. Calling out to one another, they tried in vain to find their way; but slowly, and with a somber inevitability, one by one they were lost to the mire.

In years to come, villagers would not venture out along on All Hallows Eve. And all among them would swear that when the mist descended upon the moor, and the air was silent and still, you could hear the ringing bells of the Black Soul Gang; seeking their way back from the hinterland; a warning to keep trust with tradition, lest you loose your soul and perhaps more.

I closed the tome, returning it to its rightful place on the shelf. And as the last em
bers of my fire dimmed, I was sure I could hear the faint sound of a bell, carried on the mist. 

Wednesday, 28 October 2015

Merry Galoshans!

Teeshirt artwork by Andy Lee - he really likes rabbits

We hope to see you out and about going your Galoshans this year - and enjoying the weird wonders of the new Galoshans Festival.

Magic Torch will have some short films and recorded stories playing in The Dutch Gable House, where you will also find exhibitions by Maria McCavana (in the Green Room) and Stephen Hurrell (in the Back House). Stephen's exhibition ‘Beneath and Beyond: Seismic Sounds’ is a live sound installation about the constant movements and tectonic shifts beneath the earth’s surface.

As a special Galoshans treat, all Magic Torch comics, books and graphic novels will be £3 each or 4 for a tenner! Available exclusively from The Dutch Gable House Shop.

And of course you can also get your hands on Andy's very limited edition 'Mary Lamont' artwork.

Framed lasercut print, artwork by Andy Lee

Monday, 26 October 2015

Rowan Tree Legion

Rowan Tree Legion is our new all ages comic, due out next year. Sort of "Dad's Army with witches". It does feature some characters and places from Inverclyde, but also from all across Scotland. We thought we'd share the first few pages as it's the Season of the Witch and all that. The full 64 page epic will be along next year featuring gargoyles, nazis, seamonsters, ghost knights and gigantic scary crows...

Artwork is by the smashing Mhairi Robertson, who you should totally follow on Instagram - she's been doing some sterling work for the Inktober 2015 challenge. Mhairi has also produced some exclusive artwork for the new The Wonderful Worlds of Alice  range which will be available from The Dutch Gable House shop for Christmas....here's a wee sneaky peak of some of that artwork too....

Alice and the Time Pirate
by Mhairi M Robertson