We do not shout at the hawthorn tree,
That which stands alone in the middle of the path.
The path came after the tree, they say; wise men made sure none cut it down,
Rather, they built the path around it, and left it due recompense for the imposition.
The hawthorn tree is the peace-keeper, the steady presence,
To lose it would be a bitter blow, for hot-heads need little reason and less excuse.
Do not stand long, by the hawthorn tree, do not bring notice upon yourself.
Do not sit beneath it, no matter how the rain pours, or the wind blows,
It is not for your shelter that it stands.
The warring clans of Fae meet there,
A sacred place where none may fight.
It is there where peace is brokered at last,
Paid for by the broken bodies of fallen fairies,
Shattered bodies of creatures from an Other World,
Bought with the wretched tears of the grieving,
For how much worse is loss to those who do not age?
At long last, a debt paid in blood, a lasting agreement which says,
But if the hawthorn were to no longer stand,
Where then shall peace be made at last?
Where shall the queens entreat their lords to call a halt,
And say that the times comes for something new?
Peace is not spoken of at wells,
Where echoes steal the words away and drown them.
Peace is not whispered upon the heath,
Where the wind may freeze the tongue,
And snatch the chance for change away from reach.
They say an oath sworn beneath to bows of the hawthorn tree
Cannot be broken, nor taken back.
They say to approach it upon the Death Day
Is to hear it groan with remembered pain.
When all fruit fails, welcome the haws,
The hope and healing springs forth for the faithful,
The careful keepers, the respectful bearers.
Do not fear the thorns, if your heart is pure,
Only grave-wights and wicked things are destroyed by its prick.
So the hawthorn tree must stand,
Stand for peace from forces greater than our own,
Stand and grow strong, strong as our own hopes for peace.
A lone body, with no voice,
But an ever-ready ear, waiting just to listen.
Ready to hear that first and final word,
Do not disturb the peace of the hawthorn,
Do not raise your voice.
Never tried free-form poetry before, but I got a flash of inspiration and I wanted to share! Always good to try out new things, no?
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It’s been fashionable for several decades now (and goodness, do I feel old remembering how long I’ve been engaging with the trend…) for us all to rewrite ‘classic’ stories, fairytales, folktales, well-known stories which are now helpfully just out of copyright limitations…
The list goes on.
And exploring these stories from different perspectives is always worth doing, but I can’t help thinking that we often miss the point of these old stories, just a little. The older stories are, the more the characters themselves don’t matter, so much as the theme and message of the plot. So maybe ‘The Prince’ doesn’t have much personality, maybe ‘The Evil Wizard’ doesn’t have a monologue exploring his in-depth motivations. But that wasn’t ever the point, was it? The point was what the story itself was trying to say. What we took away from it all, and kept with us for years and remembered in the backs of our minds, quietly shaping the people we would grow to become…
We talk a lot about ‘modernizing’ old stories, without ever stopping to think about how any story which has survived – which has made its way down throughout centuries and centuries, travelling miles and across kingdoms and continents – that story has resonated through so much time and space for a reason.
Because we will never, really, as people change very much. We still need warmth, and food, and shelter. We make friendships and fall in love – and out of it again – and argue and upset people and seek forgiveness, and demand justice. We deal with kind strangers still, when we are lucky, and have awful people try to take advantage of our weaknesses when they can. We put our trust in each other, and lend each other a hand, and try to defend each other when they need help.
The invention of cars and wireless technology and stainless steel and sliced bread didn’t change who we all were as people, not in our essentials. Oh, we may have shed light into the shadows and shown that the monsters we believed lived out in the swamps and marshes are less easy to find than we might have thought, but we never had to look all that far to find cruel monsters wearing our own faces, did we? And we forget this at our peril.
The lessons our foremothers thought were important enough to teach us, wise as they were to teach those lessons in a form which would stick with us longer than books hold their ink, or stones hold their scratches, or film holds its celluloid memories… Those lessons are still important to us all. And if we think we are too good for them, too modern, too clever, too far removed from the lives we had lived for centuries… well, it only ever seems to become more clear why those lessons had to be taught, as we learn them all over again, the hard way.
We didn’t stop living in communities, we just stopped caring for them. We didn’t defeat the tyrants, we just assumed they’d learned their lessons. We didn’t defeat hunger, and sickness, and loneliness, and grief, we just stopped talking about them and helping each other through them.
And are we any happier for that?
So much as we remembered that bread is easy to make in theory, but takes practice to make well; as we remembered that our loved ones might be loud, but we miss them when they fall silent; as we remembered that we actually really do like to sing and dance (even if we aren’t very good at it), that stories make the long days and nights go a heck of a lot faster, that making things with our own hands can be relaxing and helpful to us, as well as fun…
Let us go through some of the common themes and lessons from the stories we were once told, handed down to us from our ancestors, which not even pain and death and distance could take from us, and which are still patiently waiting for us to remember once more…
Don’t be rude to people as your default.
We’ve all seen it, even if we’re sure that we’ve never done it ourselves, never opened our mouths and said something cruel to some stranger we were never going to see again. It doesn’t matter. It’s not a reflection of who we really are, is it? It doesn’t mean anything.
Maybe it’s a bad day. Maybe you didn’t mean it how it came out. Maybe you say that to someone else all the time and they don’t make a stink about it.
And so it’s easy to sympathize with the character who opens their mouth and ends up on the wrong end of a curse, or has an endless quest ahead of them, or some impossible task which they must now defeat. After all, it’s not like they did anything wrong is it?
But let’s be honest here, in this scenario, in this moment, you made the decision to be rude to that stranger because you thought you could do so and get away with it. If you’d known there would be consequences afterwards, well… then you wouldn’t have done it, would you? But there’s the thing about consequences, isn’t it? Maybe try to make a little kindness be your default and see if that works out better for you next time.
Don’t put yourself forward for skills you don’t have, and don’t let other people do that for you either. Sooner or later, you’re gonna be taken seriously, and then how are you going to do it?
Remember the stories which begin with someone telling a few tall tales? ‘My daughter can spin wheat into gold.’ ‘I can run faster than even the wind.’
There’s a lot of career advice out there about making up a skillset for a job. Stretching the truth a little. No one has to know, do they? It’s easy to think that you’ll get away with these things in an age of Google, sure, but there are still expectations to manage, so don’t just think you can bluff your way through everything, or attempt the impossible without it falling through on you. No, you can’t take this project from first draft to ‘ready to publish’ in a few hours, no matter how much coffee you drink. No, you can’t make nine elaborate theatre costumes in one weekend all by yourself, especially without all the measurements. You are human, and you are allowed to acknowledge that, and if The Plan rests entirely on you suddenly being Superhuman, then it was a bad plan all along.
And you will be the one to pay the price, if you allow someone to think otherwise. There’s no shame in not being able to perform the Labours of Hercules, and you will not achieve god-hood if you try. You just end up tired and frustrated and outfaced by the scale of the problem before you.
The Selfish Die, Cold and Alone. And No One Mourned Them.
I know we like to say that the victory write history, and that’s often true. But people have longer memories than they are sometimes given credit for and they will remember. The dead do not bury themselves, after all, and the people who only know how to take will find themselves short on options when their own hour of need comes knocking.
You cannot eat gold, nor burn it, and no matter how heavily gilded your palace, it will be awfully echoing and empty without friends to share it with. You can buy sycophants, but you will tire of their empty smiles soon enough, and no matter how you plead that is all you will get from them.
‘Be Careful What You Wish For’ Doesn’t Mean ‘Don’t You Dare Wish For Better.’ It Means ‘Everything Has A Cost, Choose Your Wishes Wisely’
There’s been a bit of a vogue to misinterpret this one, but I think we’re in the ideal time to recognize what our forebears had already learned the hard way. Everything comes with a cost, and if you don’t know about it up-front then you sure will have to grapple with it after the fact.
Maybe you wished for the huge, varied wardrobes of clothes you saw on tv and instagram, but now you know about the environmental and human cost of fast fashion and you have a bad taste in your mouth. Maybe you wanted a dog or cat for cuddles, but it turns out that living beings which you are responsible for take a lot of time and energy and care and cash, and a cat can live for fifteen years or more. Maybe you wanted that promotion, but you’ve just realized that you were working so many Saturdays and evenings that you’ve not seen your friends in nine months and some of them have stopped calling. Maybe you really like those restaurants that your SO can’t eat in, but you didn’t want to research alternatives and now you just don’t seem to go out together so much.
Making a decision isn’t about having no cons to weigh against the pros, but rather about thinking carefully about whether the pros outweigh the cons after all, and by how much. And you can’t avoid the cons by not reading the small print or doing a bit of research; they always find their way to you, sooner or later. There are no vacuums outside of labs, you are not an island, and sometimes getting what you want means thinking about how it affects other people before you do it.
And who knows? There might be a better way forward if you only look for it.
You are never going to beat Death forever, and trying makes you miserable.
One thing that we keep coming back to as a society time and time again is that it is the quality not the quantity of our years that matters most. Laughter might not be easy to find, but it’s one of the last things on Earth that’s free, so help yourself and share it around. Ditto hugs, when we can and when they are welcomed. You’re not immortal, and neither is anyone else, so don’t put off loving them until later, ok?
No one is too big, too powerful, too rich, too scary that they cannot be brought down in the end.
Maybe not today, maybe not tomorrow, maybe not next year.
But one day.
If you fear that, then you know which role you are playing in this tale, and maybe it’s time to rethink a few things.
The ‘lone hero’ who succeeded actually had a whole team behind him. The elder brother who went off on his own didn’t make it.
I know the standard Hollywood film script likes to focus on one person for a story, and framing is important, but remember how the younger brother takes the time to talk to the people around him? To ask them questions, to listen when they give him advice, to rely upon the kindness of others, and repay them that kindness back in full or fuller in his own turn? And he succeeded in his quest, won the day, and rode home victorious with a bonus prize of cool new friends he gets to proudly introduce to everyone.
Well, the older brother didn’t, did he? He just strode off, confident in his own strength, his own wisdom and his own weapons. And sometimes his little brother rescues him, but others he does not.
One man cannot slay the dragon; he needs the blacksmith who lent him a sword after he fixed the roof; he needs the sleeping herbs offered by the old lady he helped gather firewood for; he needs the words of wisdom from the little boy he pulled out of the mud, handed along from his grandfather. Nothing is accomplished by one man alone. Acknowledge the community effort for what it is. Nothing is achieved except when it is attempted together.
If the task is impossible, you’ve not got enough hands to help you.
Can you sort through the lentils and rice grains all alone? No you cannot. You need your army of ant-friends. Can you fill up the storeroom with nuts in an hour? No, you need your squirrel-helpers. Can you stuff a thousand pillows with feathers in a night? Nope, it’s the mice’s time to shine and come to the rescue, isn’t it?
We’re a communal species, no matter what some twit with a neck-beard might say. We survive by working together. We instinctively seek each other out. We are miserable when we’re alone. Ask for help honestly, and be willing to give it in return. No one remembers when the job which was attempted alone failed, they celebrate when it was successfully completed by a team. Just remember to have plenty of tea and cake on hand while you work!
Lying is a risky way to get what you want. Some people might be fooled, but others will not.
“Tell me which of these is your lost axe? The one of gold, the one of silver, or the one of iron.” Hmmm…
Sometimes people are asking you a question they already know the answer to, and are letting you dig that grave for yourself. Oh, bluffing and cleverness are valuable skills, and they are important skills to learn, but use them carefully. If you’re asked a straight question, a straight answer is a lot easier to remember and live with, and being caught out in a lie is never going to go well.
Do what you can, even if it doesn’t seem like much.
In a world filled with news articles full of people sitting on mountains of resources handing out scraps, it’s easy to think that there is nothing you – who has so much less already – can do, nothing that really matters anyway. But sometimes the small gestures matter most.
Sometimes your simple kindness can make the big difference someone needed. Maybe bringing the lady at work you know is just really struggling right now a drink and a biscuit isn’t going to solve her problems, but she’ll be delighted to know someone noticed. Maybe you can’t help with someone’s over-filled desk, but telling them that they’re doing an awesome job even if no one else acknowledges it will give them a boost. Maybe telling that jerk on the bus harassing that man where precisely he can get off isn’t going to help his victim with all the times he’s going to have to deal with it this week. But he’ll know that at least one time he wasn’t alone and someone was prepared to stand up with him.
Have faith that you are vital and worthwhile, and that your genuine kindness and willingness to listen and reach out will be important to the person who needed it. Don’t hold back. Share what you can and remember that we all need that shoulder to lean on, and your shoulders are just as good as anyone else’s.
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Author’s Note: This post was started months and months ago, and then ended up getting left on the wayside as I got tied up in other things. Now it has become more topical in the daftest, worst possible way, I thought I’d come back and finish it…
Ages ago I did a post on real-life experiences with magic, otherwise known as That One Time the city of Carlisle accidentally cursed itself and everyone just had to dealwith it.
At the time of writing, I wasn’t really planning on turning it into a series at all, but then I stumbled upon a couple of comments on an internet thread, and did a bit more digging and low and behold I have another case study for us all to enjoy!
As writers, especially fantasy or science-fiction writers, we like to imagine that the discovery of a real-life example of magic would throw our whole world into turmoil. It would be a sensation! It would revolutionise everything!
For example, imagine some nice ordinary angler was fishing away, minding their own business, on the banks of the Loch Ness, in Scotland? And after a long day of not much happening – which I understand can happen a lot in fishing? – at last! There is a nibble on their line! And then there is an enormous tug! And another one! And finally with a great heave, up comes …
The Loch Ness Monster!
Now, after what I assume must have been a … somewhat fraught few minutes, in which the angler in question apparently develops the kind of Herculean muscles necessary to haul up something of the estimated size and weight of ol’ Nessie, well… What happens next?
I mean, after he rings his wife up and panics to her, and she asks him if he’s been drinking again, and he finally assures her, presumably through a lot of camera phone photos that he really does have Nessie on the shore with him and she panics and all that.
Actually, it turns out, what comes next is that some lovely people from the Scottish Natural Heritage (SNH) Department will be wanting to have a Conversation with our unlucky angler immediately. It would also mean that this heroic, lone office that actually has it’s paperwork in order would swoop in to finally make use of those forms they’ve been sitting on for a while.
Because of course the first thing on the agenda is ‘Do we have the forms correctly filled out yet?’
Real life, it seems, has no time for our sense of dramatic tension. Go figure.
However, it does mean that we must now take a moment to sit down and truly appreciate the fact that back in 2001, during a period of very heightened interest in Nessie and the catching thereof, the heroes over at SNH sat down in a serious office, in their serious grown-up suits and seriously asked the question: “Wait. What if someone actually catches the old girl?”
Yes. That happened.
In fact, this has actually happened a few times over the course of recent history, and friends, I cannot tell you how much every single one of these conversations delights me!
Way back in 1971, Cutty Sark (the whiskey manufacturer, not the boat) offered an award of one million pounds (because of course that’s the figure you’d pluck from the air as a reward) to anyone who could capture the Loch Ness Monster. But, and I can’t imagine why or how this happened, they began to get cold feet. Because I guess in the 1970’s it was starting to look like this might actually happen?
In fairness, back in the 1970’s there had been a lot, and I do mean a lot of interest, and there were a huge number of sightings coming in every year, and a (excuse the pun) boat-load of scientific expeditions trying to find any trace of Nessie they could find. Monster-hunter, the late Robert Rines, took an underwater photo (right) deemed so convincing that scientists at Harvard and the Smithsonian Institution expressed genuine and serious interest. (It was later connected to a strobe light, I think, and thus disqualified.)
So I suppose that at the time, it might have looked like there was a very good chance that the whiskey-men would have to actually stump up some serious cash any day now.
And that clearly hadn’t been the plan.
So the nice people at Cutty Sark asked Lloyds of London, the insurance people, to underwrite the contest. The insurance company actually agreed to this, but only on the condition that it would get to keep Nessie.
Yes, Lloyds of London wanted to keep Nessie.
I have… a few questions, number one being: What on Earth was Lloyds of London going to do with their very own folkloric sea-monster?!
Where would they even put it? Did they want her alive? Was an intern going to have to feed her and take her for walks, no swims? Were they going to feed under-performing managers to her?
Now, in fairness, initially Lloyds had apparently turned the Cutty Sark people down. Not, I feel I should stress here, because someone in the board room said ‘Hey, Mike? This seems a little silly, and all. Maybe we have better things to do around here?’
Nope, apparently they also considered that the risk that they would have to pay out on this thing to be “too great.”
People who were around in the 1970’s? Your world sounds like it was amazing, and I would almost like to move there…
Anyway, in true British fashion, Lloyds got called chickens for not wanting to stump up the cash on the off-chance of finding Nessie, and Lloyds said ‘What the heck? Let’s go for this crazy scheme.’ Again, the 1970’s sound like they were a whole fantasy novel on their own, and I’m mad I didn’t get to write it…
If you’re curious, the contract apparently went as follows:
“As far as this insurance is concerned, the Loch Ness Monster shall be deemed to be:
In excess of 20 feet in length.
Acceptable as the Loch Ness Monster to the curators of the Natural History Museum, London.
In the event of loss hereunder, the monster shall become the property of the underwriters hereon.”
Which also means that another development in this – frankly amazing – story would have been that some unsuspecting researcher in the Natural History Museum could have one day, out of the blue, received the single greatest phone call of their life. Again, just picture the scene!
“Ah, good morning, are you the person to speak to about sea-reptiles?”
“Yes, how can I help?”
“Oh good! We need you to come and identify Nessie for us.”
“It’s Lloyds of London calling.”
“This explains absolutely nothing, but thank you.”
Nowadays, thankfully, the question of what on earth do you do with the Loch Ness Monster once you’ve gone and caught her has been nicely cleared up by those lovely people over at SNH. There is, as is the way with government, a code of practice all drawn up to offer protection to any new species found in the loch, including a monster. It stipulates that a DNA sample should be taken from any new creature, and then it should be promptly and carefully released back into the loch.
Put that thing back where it came from or so help me, indeed.
So … Sorry, Lloyds of London, no pet sea-monster for you…
In the event that you feared that the insurance companies of the world have settled down about Nessie though, I am happy to report that a touch of magic still remains for us all.
Back in 2005, when Scotland’s biggest triathlon was happening in and around Loch Ness, the swimmers were all insured, for again no less than £1 million, per swimmer, against being bitten by the Loch Ness Monster. You know… Just in case?
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Greetings all! I interrupt your week to show you this: Ivan has found himself a teacup to sleep in and it’s adorable!
Behold the Cuteness!
Sorry, I probably should have warned you. Too much sweetness can be fatal, I hear.
Anyway, I was trying to find a tea-related dragon story to share with you all and have yet to be successful, which is a shame.
But all is not lost!
Indeed I do have a drink-related tale to tell, and I hope that you will find it to be a suitable substitute?
We are returning to Ireland, a place we haven’t visited since St Patrick’s day. Back then we remembered the fearsome Lig-na-Baste, but today’s story is a little funnier, despite the dragon being even bigger!
The Ollipeist’s Very Difficult Nap
The Ollipeist was a big dragon – no, not big, the Ollipeist was a huge dragon.
The clue is in his name: in Irish Gaelic ‘Oll’ means ‘great’ and ‘Peist’ means ‘fabulous beast’. I like to imagine him being all decked out in gems and shiny things, like Smaug but there’s no evidence that this was so. It would have been pretty fabulous though.
What we do know is that it took a whole lake for the Ollipeist to sleep in. Now most dragons used to sleep in the bends of rivers and little underground pools deep in the mountains, but that would not have fitted the Ollipeist. He was far too big to have fitted in such a tight spot.
Sidenote: Dragons like to sleep in water to help support their huge forms while they are unable to keep shifting their weight. Failure to solve such a problem can lead to a dragon effectively suffocating under its own body-weight, despite the strength of its ribs. Ivan’s a little too small for this to be a problem, but the tea cup seems to give him a better night’s sleep regardless.
The Ollipeist was a gentle giant, despite his huge size, he spent his time quietly swimming in his lake and talking to people who came to visit him. The Ollipeist liked people, and people liked him. On sunny afternoons he would come out of the lake and bask in the sunshine and the braver people might come close enough to tickle his belly and see if they could make him laugh.
Sadly, Saint Patrick had undertaken to drive all the dragons out of Ireland along with their snake and serpent cousins, and it is entirely understandable that the Ollipeist was upset when he heard this. A generally peaceful and benign dragon, rather than roaring and destroying whole villages, the Ollipeist instead went to go and sulk in his lake.
Dragons are very serious and dignified.
Sadly, just as the Ollipeist was about to fall into a grumpy nap, along the road comes a piper – a local lad called O’Rourke. O’Rourke had been celebrating a friend’s birthday, drinking after playing his pipes for the dancing, and as such was utterly sloshed.
Now, there are doubtless many people who can be completely drunk and still play beautifully, but O’Rourke was not such a man. He played with much enthusiasm, but with a skill completely unworthy of his more sober talents.
The Ollipeist grumbled to himself even more and tried to sink under the surface of the water to block out the noise.
It wasn’t working.
He tried blowing bubbles at the piper, and making the ground shake to show that he was in no mood to be disturbed, but O’Rourke remained cheerfully oblivious.
Finally the Ollipeist had had enough. With a great wave of water, the dragon rose out of his lake, reached out with his long neck and swallowed O’Rourke in one gulp!
Swallowing him down, the Ollipeist sank back into his lake. Maybe he felt a little bit bad about eating the piper, but at least the noise had stopped.
Luckily for O’Rourke, Ollipeist was so big that he made it past the dragon’s teeth, down his throat and into his huge stomach entirely unharmed.
Not that it made much difference to him at the time, for he was still far too drunk to have realised his predicament. With the grace of the truly inebriated, he hadn’t even dropped his pipes in the excitement, and he continued to march up and down the, to him, strange squishy cave, playing away just as he had before.
The Ollipeist groaned to himself. Was there no end to his terrible day? And now the noise was coming from his own body, so there was no escaping the awful racket the piper was putting out.
Some days it’s hard to be a dragon.
He tried to see if he could sleep through the noise, in case his mass had muffled the sound or the piper would stop soon?
No such luck. If anything the music was even louder now, and the piper’s marching back and forth was giving him a tummy ache.
Finally the Ollipeist could take it no longer and with a bit of wiggling and heaving all round, he was able to spit O’Rourke out again. He gave the man a bit of a push in the direction of the party he had left, and sank back below the water again.
Maybe the water would soothe the aches in his head and his stomach? Maybe when O’Rourke has staggered far enough away the Ollipeist could get some sleep and it would all be better in the morning?
Happily, in the end the Ollipeist was never killed.
Unfortunately Saint Patrick did eventually come after him, and the Ollipeist had to run away from him, fleeing to the ocean. As he fled, his tail carved the great Shannon Valley.
For more dragon stories, check out Ivan’s many adventures here.
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So some friends and I were having lunch at the weekend and we got talking, as you do, about horror films and such. (Everyone else does this, right?)
We were focusing on our incomprehension about the local communities in stories where there’s a long history of haunted happenings (the vicious murder that resulted in this angry ghost took place in 1647, for example) and why no one in the local communities ever seems to know what’s going on or have dealt with it.
Like, humans are a lot more astute than that and even if they don’t know what may be causing the problem, they will learn to avoid it if necessary. The Romans didn’t know what malaria was, but they knew if they built their cities near swamps then the people who lived there became really sick really quickly… so they just didn’t build their cities next to swamps. If there’s a wood next to your village that people walk into and never walk out of, you can absolutely bet that people are going to pick up on that pretty quickly, especially in a largely intransient population like rural areas. Oh sure, in modern times it’s easy to write a bunch of characters who dismiss such supernatural occurrences as superstitious nonsense, but the plain hard fact is that if there is a problem which directly affects you living right next door, you’re not going to cling to that idea for very long.
From there it just seemed natural to talk about what we thought people’s reaction today really would be to finding out that ghosts were real or stumbling across magical objects.
Would the news report on it, or ignore it as being too weird to publish in a professional newspaper? Obviously if there was something visible that showed up on camera then YouTube would be full of shaky phone-footage of it and the comments’ section would be filled with people trying to work out the trick. But what if it wasn’t? Because we all know that if there aren’t pictures, it never happened right? What would it take for the science community to show up and try to figure out if everything they assumed about the world was wrong?
This got me thinking and then I remembered that in some way I did actually know what would happen! Because I lived through a small instance of this happening and I will always remember what it felt like and how people reacted.
So, in the interests of writers everywhere who struggle with the idea of what people would do in the face of real-life magic, I want to tell you all a story from not so long ago. A story of people realising that something was amiss in their community and refusing to just leave things to continue. Because it seems that when there’s evil magic afoot, the result is that someone, somewhere, will eventually call in a solution.
This is the story of how the people of Carlisle made themselves a magic stone and then wondered if they’d cursed their whole city by accident.
It is also a true story.
The Cursed Stone of Carlisle
The year was 2001 and to celebrate the New Millennium, the local museum of Tullie House and Carlisle City Council commissioned and erected a granite sculpture; a great polished stone engraved with the words of a 16th century curse. For in that time the lands all along the border between England and Scotland were ravaged by clans of reivers who stole all they could and burned what they could not take, were blackmailers and highwaymen. They were daring people, who evaded capture by the law, and to this day many tales are told of their exploits, both good and bad.
But you can well imagine that such people were not looked kindly upon by the Church, who often lost precious bibles, chalices and plate to those thieving hordes. And in the year 1525 the Archbishop of Glasgow, a man by the name of Gavin Dunbar, finally lost his patience. He placed a curse upon the Border Reivers, and commanded that it be read aloud in every parish of the borderlands, so that all would hear and know that the curse had been cast.
Pretty spooky stuff.
Then along come artists Gordon Young and Andy Altman, who turn this terrible curse into a beautiful piece of artwork. It gets installed, with much ceremony in the under-ground entrance to Tully House, and then…
I feel that BBC Cumbria’s article at the time best summarised what came over the next five years:
“Livestock herds around the city on the border with Scotland were wiped out by foot-and-mouth disease, there has been a devastating flood, factories have closed, a boy was murdered in a local bakery and Carlisle United soccer team dropped a league.” [Full article]
Reporter Tanya Gold, from the Guardian, said it was like a “Universal horror film… or a Hammer lesbian-vampire tale” (which incidentally is remarkably specific, Tanya…). Either way, there was a definite sense that something was horribly wrong in the City of Carlisle since the Curse Stone was erected.
Small wonder, for many of the people living in the city of Carlisle are descended from strong reiver families; the Armstrongs, the Gordons, the Elliots and Bells, the Grahams, the Littles and the Ridleys. In the light of this fact, you kind definitely see the logic of these concerns. If the curse was placed on reivers and their families, then a whole city full of their descendants is one hell of a Risk Assessment fail!
Leslie Irving, a local man and editor of a Christian publication Bound Together gives a chilling idea of what the city was facing: “There is absolutely no doubt,” he said, “that when Dunbar laid the curse he did it in absolute sincerity. He wanted harm to come to the Reivers. The stone was created to attract tourists but what has it attracted? A baby held by his mother had his throat slashed in the town centre a few years ago. The man who created the project died. The man who opposed the project died. The only high-ranking Christian to speak out – the Bishop of Lancaster – died. The Archbishop of Glasgow died.”
Finally, it seems, enough was enough. In 2005, the amazingly-named local councillor Jim Tootle demanded that the 14-ton stone be removed and destroyed. As Councillor Tootle (never not calling him that) declared; “[s]ince the millennium project, there have been several disasters reaching biblical proportions. Many groups and individuals warned the council that the placing of a non-Christian artefact, based on an old curse on local families, would bring ill luck to the city.” [Full Article]
Local religious leaders were equally sure that something needed to be done. The Rev Kevin Davies, the vicar of Scotby and Cotehill with Cumwhinton, was adamant that the stone be destroyed;
“Clearly, the council holds matters spiritual in such trivial regard that it can cheerfully commission the equivalent of a loaded gun and regard it as a tourist attraction,” he wrote in his parish magazine. “Its spiritual violence will act like a cancer underneath the fabric of society. I don’t think anyone in their right mind could argue that this is what Cumbria needs just now.” [Full Article]
Now, Carlisle City Council were not thrilled by the idea, not least because removing the stone would, as the leader of the City Council, Mike Mitchelson explained, have “cost several thousands of pounds,” at a time when the city was already repairing the damage from the flooding.
Gordon Young’s response to the suggestion that his work had brought doom upon his home city was rather more passionate: “If I thought my sculpture would have affected one Carlisle United result, I would have smashed it myself years ago.”
For a while, it seemed that things were at a stalemate. There really were no good answers – do you spend time and money removing and destroying a piece of public art you spent a good deal of grant money erecting in the first place not four years before or do you take the chance that magic is real and you are in its evil presence? The people of Carlisle are a practical lot; if there’s a problem in front of you then don’t sit around pretending it’s not there. You get on with things and fix it. But how?
Thankfully all was not lost! For a compromise was proposed; the Bishop of Carlisle, the Rt Rev Graham Dow, rode in to the rescue, and broke the deadlock. A Man of God had placed this curse upon his people, and a Man of God could just come in and fix it!
“I understand that it is a piece of history and it is reasonable for it to be known about, but words have power and in as much as the curse wishes evil on people it should be revoked,” the Bishop said. “If it has to stay I would prefer a blessing to offset it. We can’t treat it as just a joke. People have differing views about spiritual power and its capacity to do evil, but I am sure that it is a real force.”
(Incidentally, does anyone else think that, in times of crisis, it is encouraging to know that the Church has apparently carefully hung onto all the old protocols for ‘We May Have An Evil Curse, Where’s The Undo Code?’)
With the backing of many denominations of Christian churches, Bishop Dow wrote to the Archbishop of Glasgow and requested that he come down to Carlisle to perform an exorcism on the stone. And indeed an exorcism was eventually performed, after which things did seem to settle down, and the stone has been allowed to stay.
But what was that curse which Gavin Dunbar placed upon the Border Reivers?
The brave and bold among you may read it here, but take heed, for who knows what dangers may await you…
The Bishop’s Curse
“I curse their head and all the hairs of their head; I curse their face, their brain (innermost thoughts), their mouth, their nose, their tongue, their teeth, their forehead, their shoulders, their breast, their heart, their stomach, their back, their womb, their arms, their leggs, their hands, their feet, and every part of their body, from the top of their head to the soles of their feet, before and behind, within and without.
“I curse them going and I curse them riding; I curse them standing and I curse them sitting; I curse them eating and I curse them drinking; I curse them rising, and I curse them lying; I curse them at home, I curse them away from home; I curse them within the house, I curse them outside of the house; I curse their wives, their children, and their servants who participate in their deeds. I (bring ill wishes upon) their crops, their cattle, their wool, their sheep, their horses, their swine, their geese, their hens, and all their livestock. I (bring ill wishes upon) their halls, their chambers, their kitchens, their stanchions, their barns, their cowsheds, their barnyards, their cabbage patches, their plows, their harrows, and the goods and houses that are necessary for their sustenance and welfare.
“May all the malevolent wishes and curses ever known, since the beginning of the world, to this hour, light on them. May the malediction of God, that fell upon Lucifer and all his fellows, that cast them from the high Heaven to the deep hell, light upon them.
“May the fire and the sword that stopped Adam from the gates of Paradise, stop them from the glory of Heaven, until they forebear, and make amends.
“May the evil that fell upon cursed Cain, when he slew his brother Abel, needlessly, fall on them for the needless slaughter that they commit daily.
“May the malediction that fell upon all the world, man and beast, and all that ever took life, when all were drowned by the flood of Noah, except Noah and his ark, fall upon them and drown them, man and beast, and make this realm free of them, for their wicked sins.
“May the thunder and lightning which rained down upon Sodom and Gomorra and all the lands surrounding them, and burned them for their vile sins, rain down upon them and burn them for their open sins. May the evil and confusion that fell on the Gigantis for their opression and pride in building the Tower of Babylon, confound them and all their works, for their open callous disregard and opression.
“May all the plagues that fell upon Pharoah and his people of Egypt, their lands, crops and cattle, fall upon them, their equipment, their places, their lands, their crops and livestock.
“May the waters of the Tweed and other waters which they use, drown them, as the Red Sea drowned King Pharoah and the people of Egypt, preserving God’s people of Israel.
“May the earth open, split and cleave, and swallow them straight to hell, as it swallowed cursed Dathan and Abiron, who disobeyed Moses and the command of God.
“May the wild fire that reduced Thore and his followers to two-hundred-fifty in number, and others from 14,000 to 7,000 at anys, usurping against Moses and Aaron, servants of God, suddenly burn and consume them daily, for opposing the commands of God and Holy Church.
“May the malediction that suddenly fell upon fair Absolom, riding through the wood against his father, King David, when the branches of a tree knocked him from his horse and hanged him by the hair, fall upon these untrue Scotsmen and hang them the same way, that all the world may see.
“May the malediction that fell upon Nebuchadnezzar’s lieutenant, Olifernus, making war and savagery upon true christian men; the malediction that fell upon Judas, Pilate, Herod, and the Jews that crucified Our Lord; and all the plagues and troubles that fell on the city of Jerusalem therefore, and upon Simon Magus for his treachery, bloody Nero, Ditius Magcensius, Olibrius, Julianus Apostita and the rest of the cruel tyrants who slew and murdered Christ’s holy servants, fall upon them for their cruel tyranny and murder of Christian people.
“And may all the vengeance that ever was taken since the world began, for open sins, and all the plagues and pestilence that ever fell on man or beast, fall on them for their openly evil ways, senseless slaughter and shedding of innocent blood.
“I sever and part them from the church of God, and deliver them immediately to the devil of hell, as the Apostle Paul delivered Corinth. I bar the entrance of all places they come to, for divine service and ministration of the sacraments of holy church, except the sacrament of infant baptism, only; and I forbid all churchmen to hear their confession or to absolve them of their sins, until they are first humbled / subjugated by this curse.
“I forbid all christian men or women to have any company with them, eating, drinking, speaking, praying, lying, going, standing, or in any other deed-doing, under the pain of deadly sin.
“I discharge all bonds, acts, contracts, oaths, made to them by any persons, out of loyalty, kindness, or personal duty, so long as they sustain this cursing, by which no man will be bound to them, and this will be binding on all men.
“I take from them, and cast down all the good deeds that ever they did, or shall do, until they rise from this cursing.
“I declare them excluded from all matins, masses, evening prayers, funerals or other prayers, on book or bead (rosary); of all pigrimages and alms deeds done, or to be done in holy church or be christian people, while this curse is in effect.
“And, finally, I condemn them perpetually to the deep pit of hell, there to remain with Lucifer and all his fellows, and their bodies to the gallows of Burrow moor, first to be hanged, then ripped and torn by dogs, swine, and other wild beasts, abominable to all the world. And their candle (light of their life) goes from your sight, as may their souls go from the face of God, and their good reputation from the world, until they forebear their open sins, aforesaid, and rise from this terrible cursing and make satisfaction and penance.”