Tuesday, 28 February 2012

The Castle of Easter Greenock

A more detailed history of one of the last castles to fall in Greenock can be found in Williamson's "Views and Reminiscences of Old Greenock", from where the image above is taken.

In our illuminated manuscript Clann Abhainn Cluaidh, we used a pencil sketch of the same piece, which had appeared in an 1809 edition of  "Scots Magazine" along with the following text

"The view here annexed represents the ruins of the Castle as they appeared about five years ago. The Tower has since fallen, and in the course of a few years the plough will probably pass over the remains. And thus the ancient glory of Greenock is now crowned with a colony of piggeries."
We so loved that final phrase that in a nod to the situationist movement, we got some teeshirts printed for when we were out doing research / collection 'and thus the ancient glory of Greenock is now crowned with a colony of piggeries'...surprisingly these never caught on. Our Captain Kidd 'there is nothing in this world that can make it appear I was guilty of piracy' teeshirts were marginally more popular. I'd still buy one.

This ruined barony played host to a traditional castle spirit, a grey figure (gender not identified, but generally speaking, you would expect it to be a Lady) still randomly spotted wandering around the well ploughed piggeries for a period after the collpase of the castle itself, in a similar vein to the two doomed lovers who wandered down at Cresswell long after their home had crumbled.

Tuesday, 21 February 2012

Clann Abhainn Cluaidh

the hand carved wooden cover to the manuscript

"Clann Abhainn Cluaidh" was our first project, put together in 1999, a modern illuminated manuscript printing some brief pieces of lesser known Inverclyde history, alongside the first of the stories we had been researching and collecting; the wooden cover was carved by Eddie O'Donnell at Neil Street Community Workshops, the illuminated borders were designed by pupils at two local Primary schools, the leather binding came from the tannery up by Bridge of Weir, and it was typed and printed by a local printing project working with adults with learning disabilities; none of it was planned out like that to "tick boxes", it's just how it naturally progressed. The book was then displayed at our local library for a month, before transferring for awhile to Cornalees Visitors Centre. It's been wrapped up safely in our archive since. It's a bit frayed around the edges, some of the binding is starting to give, but it still looks great. I'm hoping we can find it a new permanent home very soon. In the meantime, we'll run some of the wee snippets and poems that were included in this book, but never reprinted elsewhere.

Looking through the manuscript, and remembering the process got me to thinking, so please forgive me a wee indulgent moment here; heritage is a wonderful thing, but it is too often confused with history, it still amuses me to think of the stick we got from so many people locally for being in our early twenties and talking about stories and legends which had no basis in fact - as if only history mattered, as if we were too young to properly understand "The History of The Town". My all time favourite remains the time we were compared to holocaust deniers for defending the possibility that Captain Kidd may have come from Greenock- a comparison as abhorrent to us as it was ridiculous.

I love history, but it can be an academic pursuit, a game of interpretation or (as we frequently found) one-upmanship about who knows most about something; heritage...that belongs to everyone...and there's plenty folk still who don't like that. It's been years since we started collecting and reprinting / retelling stories, in that time, a lot has changed, but those same stories have been retold locally and at international storytelling festivals, recorded by schoolchildren for the BBC, animated online, Inverclyde now even has a Myths and Legends Festival each year...all good things and we are glad to have played a part in that. So, if you have a story to tell, we're still listening...

"The legends represent the imagination of the country, they are the kind of history which a nation desires to possess. They betray the ambitions and ideals of the people, and in this respect,  have a value far beyond the tale of actual events and duly recorded deeds  which are no more history, than a skeleton is a man."
Standish o'Grady 1832-1915

the manuscript frontispiece to our first folk tale

From Clann Abhainn Cluaidh - The Great Fire of Dock Lane

30 October 1863
About two in the morning, fire was discovered to have broken out in a second floor apartment, near the south west corner and above Mr Douglas's, Mr McAllister's and Mr Griffith's shops. The alarm spread rapidly, and Mr Calderwood with the fire brigade was soon on the spot with apparatus, but in spite of all their efforts, the fire continued to spread on both side with alarming rapidity. Immediately, at the centre of the block of buildings were stone gables, and it was hoped these would arrest the progress of the fire; and the firemen set to work from these extremities in order to secure that result. In two hours after the fire was discovered, the whole half of the square was enveloped in flames, rising to a great height, illuminating the town to a great distance, and alarming the inhabitants, who turned out of bed in great numbers to witness the imposing spectacle. From some of the shops and offices a little property was rescue, including the safes with their valuable contents in books and documents. By five o'clock the fire had nearly exhausted itself; it gradually got lower, and when day broke the half of the square was a mass of smouldering ruins, the twisted walls only remaining with a heap of smoking debris inside.

Friday, 17 February 2012

Get Folked

A wee experiment now. A potential new irregular feature of folktales and breaking folklore news from the world Outside Inverclyde.

The big ridiculous news this week (timed to coincide with the new TV series Grimm) was that apparently parents are reluctant to read their children fairytales as child abandonment, dead grandmothers and delicious gingerbread men are too frightening for todays children..or perhaps more accurately...todays parents. I've read and been read all the stories on the scary list...and yes, fairytales really only came to prominence in the Victorian era as something to share with children...but you really have to wonder about how ridiculous our "waiting to be offended" society has become when the Victorians start to look progressive. Here's the wonderful Maria Tatar talking about her book "Enchanted Hunters", which explores what inspires children to listen to and enjoy stories...even the scary ones.

Happy Saint Gobnaits Day! Who? A new study by prominent Irish folklorist Celeste finds that Irelands (many) Holy Wells are frequently associated with miraculous dragon slaying Holy Women rather than men.

Want to drink as the ancients drank? Why not try this handy recipe for delicious metheglin, a flavoured mead which predates even wine. Mmm. Fennel.

Tired of boring old Arthurian legends? Want to see them reborn in an alternative universe? Then you should help fund 13 Legends on kickstarter. Read more about this series of graphic novels here.

Where myth and archaeology collide...have British archaeologists discovered the secret of the Queen of Sheba's legendary wealth?

How has storytelling and folktale tradition changed in Iran? Explore one perspective on the history of Persian folktales.

And, on Valentines week, remember that Russian folklore tells us that a couple will only ever be truly happy if they are able to cook porridge together. (note - not a folklore euphimism, this actually means cook porridge) I hope you and your true love enjoyed yours.

Here's Lotte Reiniger's version of  Hansel and Gretel...if you can handle it...

Monday, 13 February 2012

The Young Emigrant's Farewell

We've been cleaning out the old Magic Torch archive over the last few weeks (actually, archive sounds quite grand, its a battered old filing cabinet and some plastic boxes packed away in a disused boiler room) In doing so, we've discovered a few wee gems and pieces we had forgotten about ourselves which we'll be sharing with you over the month.

Last year, we made tracks from our Downriver CD available online; original copies of the CD had fourteen tracks, but we could not locate master copies for the two missing tracks...and we'd given all the original CDs away. However, we have now located the two missing tracks, and here is the first of them, "The Young Emigrant's Farewell"; rather appropriately, the only one of the tracks to be recorded "overseas" in Brisbane, Australia. You can read a transcription on the always wonderful broadside ballad site The Word On The Street.

If you are in the mood for tales of migration and are in Greenock this week, why not pop along to the Oak Mall from Friday 17 February - Tuesday 21 February to see some of the work that has been done so far by the Heritage Lottery Scotland funded Identity project. And if you are a local group with an idea for a heritage project yourself, then Grants Officers from Heritage Lottery Scotland will be in attendance to offer advice and support.

And, apropos of nothing other than just pleasantly sharing info, this Wednesday (15 February), Broomhill residents will have another opportunity to look at the historical images which will shortly be transferred to a wall on Ann Street, using a process known as "wall wrapping". From 12.30 – 2.30; the images chosen by the community will be on display at Prospecthill Church. The images are all part of the Eugene Mehat collection, used by permission of Inverclyde Council. The project has been undertaken in partnership with River Clyde Homes, Broomhill Tenants and Residents Association and The Trust.

The Mehat collection captures sixties Inverclyde, at a critical period of regeneration prior to major industrial decline...tenement closes sit alongside bombsite gaps, the stone walls caked with decades of smoke, roads are not yet clogged with cars and roundabouts, shops are still family run...a wonderful window onto our recent past.
So there ye go, now, here's the original broadside for "Young Emigrant's Farewell".

Wednesday, 8 February 2012

Old Greenock Characters

It is very likely that anyone interested in the history of the area will have come across the work of the wonderful John Donald, in particular, his two volumes of gently humourous "sketches" of the waifs, strays and ne-er-do-wells that populated the backstreets and docksides of Greenock at the turn of the 19th Century. The "Old Greenock Characters" books can be found in the Watt Library locally, and occasionally come up for sale online, you can see a video of some of the images here.

Taken alongside Williamson's "Views and Reminiscences of Old Greenock", they vividly bring to life a period in our local past, the ghosts of old characters wander down streets we now barely recognise. Donald does not seek to mock or malign the people he writes about, far from it, but reading from a modern perspective, it's hard to imagine how a book of the "characters" who have lived and died in Greenock over the last fifty years would be viewed so positively. And yet we must all have "characters" that we remember from our own period of growing up...for me, growing up in the seventies and eighties that means "Mandy" Millar, Billy the Bagman and the near mythical Catman...

We bought our copies of "Old Greenock Characters" a few years ago from a second-hand book shop down in London, and were delighted to find "bonus material" inside, a clipping from an issue of the Greenock Telegraph, containing a chapter which Donald had left out of his second collection for reasons of space. We reprinted it in a slightly different format in our book "Downriver"; enjoy the now rather curious sounding tale of "Cockin' Kirsty's Monkey" concerning the unfortunate passing of a local lady's pet monkey named (no kidding) Jacko...

Cockin' Kirsty's Monkey
“Hey, Jamie see yon. Whit’s that wife daein’ ower there?”
Jamie looked.
 “Oh crickey! That’s Cockin’ Kirsty. I think she’s diggin’ a hole; but I canna see richt for thae gracestanes.”
The boy’s, with a few companions, had been playing in the street outside o’ the Old West Kirkyard, when wee Jock, peering through the bars of the iron gate, called Jamie’s attention to the mysterious movements of the lady so rudely alluded to.

Miss Christina McKellar was the more than middle-aged daughter of a deceased shipmaster. She was financially independent and well known in the community by reason of those eccentricities of dress and demeanour which, especially the mincing gait, gave rise to her nickname of “Cockin’ Kirsty.”

The oddness of her attitude, her smirks and smiles of affected cheerfulness, the superficiality of her short primly spoken sentences, led friends and acquaintances to think that she was, as they expressed it, “happy in her own way.” Further thought of her they dismissed with a tolerant smile. No picture occupied their minds of an old maid sitting pensive in a room of her house (furnished comfortably enough) in a poor part of the town- the home of her earliest years, to which she clung for old association’s sake her thoughts drifting back to the mother of whom she could recall only as in a misty dream, to the father who had tenderly cared for and educated her and who had made provision for the material comforts of her later years. She thought of her childhood’s playmates, her schoolfellows, most of whom now enjoy the society of prosperous husbands and devoted children while she-nay, she was not unhappy, for she had her pets and she loved her pets, her canary, her  “wee broon curly dog,” and chiefest joy of all, her monkey. Life without love would rend the heart: she loved her pets and perhaps, after all, she was “happy in her own way.”

Jacko’s Death
But, as the old saying is, “There’s aye trouble rapping at somebody’s door.” Master Jacko sickened and died, to the inexpressible grief of his devoted mistress. With stony face she sat gazing at the lifeless form, never again to caper nimbly in his lady’s chamber. Sorrowfully she recalled his antics and found a sad consolation in the fact that even when he had torn to ribbons her best lace cap she had merely chided, she had not been too severe with him.

Gladly would she sacrifice a dozen laced caps could he but tear them now-now, alas! Dear Jacko’s gambols and tricks were over forever, forever: he must pass out her life, but not from her memory. Sighing heavily, she moved to a chest of drawers from which she took a small bag of nuts, and mourned over her dear one’s favourite food. Her bosom swelled as if the over-burdened feminine heart would break until tears, blessed tears, burst forth for her relief.
“Oh, Jacko, my poor Jacko,” she sobbed.

Now, less such grief should seem misplaced and extravagant, let us remember Charles Reade’s injunction and put ourselves in her place. A warm hearted elderly spinster who, having no human being as the object of her affection, had become attached to the only other occupants of her home, her pets might quite naturally have been grievously affected when death suddenly claimed her greatest favourite.

She mourned secretly. No kind of interment other than in consecrated ground could, it seemed to her confused mind, sufficiently honour the memory of her dead monkey: although she realised that the authorities would certainly forbid such a course of action, while her neighbours would deride it. She, therefore told no one of Jacko’s death, but privately prepared the little body for burial by wrapping it tenderly in a white linen cloth and laying it out in her room table.

The Burial

Mrs Waugh was a respectable widow woman who lived at the foot of Nicolson Street, opposite the gate of the Old West Kirkyard, of which she kept the key, visitors to the Kirk ground were apprised of that fact by a small wooden notice board at her close mouth; and as their gratuities eked out her scanty means the decent woman was very pleased to see them. She opened the door to Kirsty with a smiling face.
“It’s a fine day, Mrs Waugh.”
“Aye, it’s a’ that. Oh, its yersel’, Miss McKellar; ye’re keeping weel, I hope ma’am?”
“Quite well, thank you, Mrs Waugh; and I trust you enjoy good health?”
“I’m won’erfu’, thenk ye, ma’am. The rheumatiz brothers me whiles, but it micht be waur, an’ I hae muckle to be thankfu’ for. But will ye no’ come in ower the door-?”
“Thank you Mrs Waugh,” Kirsty interrupted, “but I called merely to borrow the key of the kirkyard.”
“Shairly, shairly, Miss McKellar; an’ gin you wait a meenit. I’ll gang doon an’ open it for ye.”
This was alarming, for Kirsty McKellar had left the dead monkey and a small spade in an obscure corner at the foot of the stair.
“No, no” she said, hurriedly, “I couldn’t think of troubling you to come down- not at all necessary, I assure you. I can open the gate quite well myself, and I may wish to spend some time in the ground.”
“Weel, well,” returned Mrs Waugh, seeing that Kirsty preferred to be unaccompanied, “here’s the key; an’ ye needna hurry, for it’s no’ likely to be wanted sune.”
Kirsty lost no time in getting down the stair and allowing the remains and spade to lie where she had placed them, crossed the street and soon had the gate open, There was no one about. She quickly went back, returned with the carefully covered body and the spade, locked the gate again, and made her way to the spot she had selected as the most fitting resting place for the remains of her pet.

Sorrowfully, yet with grim, tearless face, she applied the spade. The earth proved to be soft and yielding, she was both surprised and gratified to find that in much less time than she had anticipated a hole of the sufficient proportions for her purpose gaped before her. Kirsty then took the shrouded from and, having reverently placed it in the shallow grave, hastily filled in the earth and hurried from the kirkyard.

The Exhumation

Poor Jacko was not to remain long undisturbed. No sooner had Kirsty disappeared than the boys clambered over the gate (which she had locked after her) and sped to the scene of the recent operations. There was no mistaking the spot and the earth was speedily removed.
“Hallo! What’s this?” cried Jamie as he pulled up the shroud. “Oh crickey! (his favourite expletive). “It’s a monkey: here’s a lark.”
“Wheech?” from wee Jock, who was a bit of a wag. “A beast or a bird?”
“Shut up,” was in only reply Jamie vouchsafed as he caught the monkey by the tail and pulled it out of the hole.
“Come on, boys, we’ll hae some fun wi’ this,” and he darted off with his gruesome plaything to the gate, followed by the other boys, all shouting delightedly as they ran.
And now Jacko performed unconsciously his last acrobatic feat when, to the eager cries of “Ower wi’ him,” his body described a curve in the air and landed on the pavement outside. The boys surmounted the gate and headed by Jamie dragging the dead monkey behind him, started on a madcap run through the streets, their numbers increasing as they ran. Up Nicolson, along West Blackhall and down Westburn Square capered the merry crew. At this point the much begrimed corpse became the central figure of a series of high jinks which were interrupted by the alarm,
“Here’s the skufter cumin’” when “Skeleton” the policeman was descried at a distance.

Off they went again, past Mr Currie’s tripeshop at the corner of Sugarhouse Lane, which gave Jamie a great idea. Off along Crawford Street, down past the sugar stores in Charles Street, always dragging the now nondescript carcass over the cobbles and through the viscous deposits of that thoroughfare, to the corner of Dalrymple Street, they stopped opposite Mirren Paul’s eating-house. It had been Jamie’s original intention to carry on down the West Quay to the riverside, where a final glorious splash might worthily terminate their escapade; but the sight of Mrs Currie’s shop suggested another plan. The buxom figure of that lady in the doorway, however, was a bar to its accomplishment, so he ran on to Mirren Paul’s, where he and his followers paused.

Let us pause, too, for a moment to reflect that in her home, only a few yards away, sat Cockin’ Kirsty, satisfied that she had the day performed a meritorious act in consigning to hallowed earth the mortal remains of her cherished puggy. There, she thought, will Jacko lie in peace, at rest. With what horror would she have regarded the disorderly proceedings of that afternoon had she but known of them! She was mercifully spared the knowledge-and so we leave her, dejected yet complacent.

Mirren Paul had thriving business, and this was one of her busy days- known as “The Clerks’ Pay Day”-when many quill-drivers repaired to Mirren’s to regale themselves a bowl of tripe. In order to adequate supply their wants, the goodwife’s large cauldron was always “on the boil,” as she frequently declared.
Now Jamie and his keelie gang had been waiting and watching for an opportunity, and when Mirren’s back was turned, Jamie darted into the shop, dropped the dead monkey into the seething boiler and darted out again, without being observed.

Mirren came out of the back shop a few minutes later and, peeping into the boiler, was astonished to see a dark coloured amorphous mass slowly revolving among the bubbles of ebullient soup; yet her business instinct enabled her to stifle the scream which would have attracted attention to her mischance. Suspecting the cause, she hurried to the door and looked about her, but nothing unusual was to be seen. The young scamps, probably realising the wickedness of their conduct and dreading the consequences thereof, had all disappeared.

For the rest of the day, in Mirren Paul’s shop, tripe was “off.”

Author’s Note – The main facts of this story were told to me by an aged Greenockian with an excellent memory who died recently.
Certain details are, of course imaginary.    JD                                                      

We'll be looking at the Old Greenock Characters and John Donald again later in the year, in particular, digging out the legend of "Scutcher Dan's Band".

A number of the Old Greenock Characters feature on a graphic by Andy Lee, recently installed at The Dutch Gable House; it shows a few of them congregating on William Street alongside the enigmatic Sir Glen Douglas Rhodes...