One of the benefits of being married to someone studying folklore is the beautiful volumes of folktales which tend to appear around the house from time to time. A few months ago, peering into the yellowed pages of the teal and gold one in the photo there, marked "Sgeulachdan Gaidhealach" (Gaelic Stories), I came across a story called "The Girl and the Dead Man". (I should perhaps mention that the actual title of the book is not Gaelic Stories, but Popular Tales of the West Highlands, collected, written down and translated by J.F. Campbell, dual-language Gaelic-English). The story was collected from Ann Darroch of Islay, who said she'd heard it as a girl from an old storytelling woman who used to earn her living telling stories beside the kiln fires where people used to come to dry their corn (wheat). It is a short story and is very worth reading online here if you can't find an old paper copy to curl up with.
The story is about three sisters who go off into the world, one by one, to find their fortunes. Before leaving, their mother bakes each of them a bannock and then cuts it into two pieces. In turn, she offers them "a' bhlaidh bheag 's mo bheannachd na 'bhlaid mhòr 's mo mhollachd" (the smaller piece and my blessing or the big piece and my curse). As it often is in stories, the eldest two sisters are greedy and choose the big piece, the first of many selfish choices that will ultimately ruin them. The youngest daughter takes the small piece and is blessed.
My favourite part of the story comes when the youngest daughter finds herself alone with the night "wreathing" around her. I love that particular description of the night. The whole story is so vivid that it seems to wreathe around in the mind. But anyway, she is out in the darkness, and she sits down to eat her bannock, and then, all around her, she finds a host of creatures looking for a share of it. In particular there is "an t-sreath chuileanach 's a da chuilean deug", which Campbell left untranslated, saying that 'the narrator, the translator, the transcriber, the dictionary, and the "old men"' had failed to make sense of it. He said it was a sort of bird which had twelve puppies. Another theory is that it was a mistake in transcription, which would make it a "sow (triath) of the whelps with a litter of twelve". Of course, triath also means leader, so it could be read as " the leader of the whelps" according to that theory. Basically, it is still quite ambiguous, the way the best things often are. What is clear is that this creature, whatever it may be, is also accompanied by all the birds of the air, and they are all hungry.
So they ask the girl for some of her bannock, and while her sisters had refused to share, saying they didn't even have enough for themselves, the youngest daughter says she'll gladly give it if they will keep her company. They eat and everyone has enough, and then the birds and sreath chuileanach and its puppies all put their wings around the girl and they huddle together to keep each other warm.
I liked the idea of a sort of bird-like dog or dog-like bird for the sreath chuileanach and so I went along with that. It has been said, around this house, that the sreath chuileanach and her puppies do not look very ferocious. It seems normal to me that it should be this way, in the way a family dog is beautiful or cute when she is relaxing at home, but when any perceived threat arises, she turns into a grotesque and furious creature, with bared teeth, angry eyes, a wrinkled snout, and hairs standing on end. In the story, the first two sisters perceive the sreath chuileanach and puppies as terrible monsters, while the third sister calls them pretty. In this peaceful scene, they can't have their feathers and furs all on end, or ferocious expressions.
The photo of my etching above is the best I could manage with my camera. I couldn't capture the range of tones of the actual print, and the photograph of it is somewhat washed out. As for the story, it continues on past this moment with the girl and the birds, and has a scene of dancing in the woods with a dead man, and other wonders (read it!), but this was the moment I wanted to capture.
So many stories have the same moral messages at their cores, about the importance of good living, generosity of spirit, co-operation. I am impressed by the fine imagery this message is dressed in for this particular story, and I also appreciate that the story has this scene as a moment of bliss at its centre. The repetitive formulaic passages that many oral Gaelic-language stories have (though, I would imagine this is probably found in other traditions as well) are also interesting to me.
An example of these sorts of passages, from later on in this story, would be: "The wages she had were a peck of gold and a peck of silver; of nuts as she broke, of needles as she lost, of thimbles as she pierced, of thread as she used, of candles as she burned, a bed of the green silk over her, and a bed of the green silk under her." Or in other tales, people might fight one another to such an extreme that they affect the landscape, making "the hard places soft and the soft places hard..." and such descriptions tend to stretch on and have a special sort of rhythm in their original languages.
They can be found over and over again embroidering different tales. My visual nod to this oral tradition was to try to construct the image by filling up the copper plate with patterning. This gave a sort of meditative quality to the work as well, which seemed perfect to me, considering the ideas behind it.
This meant that I spent a lot of time making tiny little lines and dots. For an etching, the same image will be drawn over and over, line by line many many times. In the local art museum there is, if I remember correctly, a painting of the sea by Joan Eardley with a caption that says it was painted quickly and roughly because she was such a passionate painter and so on and so forth. And I really like Joan Eardley's work, but I do get very tired of hearing about how slapping up paint on a canvas is real, passionate art... the faster you do it the more passionate and artistic you are... a good artist can see a person falling and have them represented on the page before they hit the ground and such like. Passion is also in perseverance. There could be no other way to explain so much effort, so much time.
Etching is necessarily about doing, the redoing, then undoing, and doing again. It starts with the first study for the copper plate:
And then this must be transferred, line by line and dot by dot, on to the plate itself:
Then, if all has gone well up until this point and all the chemicals have behaved as they should (which they really did not the first few times with this plate!) the plate is placed in acid, and the lines where the hard ground has been scraped away are bitten into the copper plate. The plate will probably make a few trips back and forth to the acid bath, with adjustments being made in between. Next, to have tones, not just lines, in the plate, one might start down the slippery slope of aquatint which can also be a very long process... though instead of copying over lines many times, it tends to involve tracing over brush strokes many times. And usually it also involves scraping away, layer by layer, the surface of the copper in the places where things should be lighter. The back and forth between darkening in acid and lightening by scraping and burnishing can go on for weeks sometimes until the desired tones are found through test prints. Each test print seems to involve a feeling of hope, and then, for every print until the last one, the realization that the end is not so near as it had seemed, and then back to work. But I think I am slowly growing more patient, and I do hope that I will one day manage to live the good example of folkloric heroines.