Angus Folk Tales
ANGUS FOLK TALES Erin Farley, The History Press, £12.00.
If you want to sample the distinctive character and culture of Scotland’s County – more anciently Earldom – of Angus, then this is the book for you. Erin Farley has given an excellent account of Angus through its folklore and folktales.
The County Folk Tale books are a fine series produced by The History Press across Britain and Ireland. It is a successor and complement to the older, traditional County Folklore volumes; and Scotland is well represented, but not until now by Angus. So Erin Farley has done the County proud, and also strengthened the series and its widening range.
Patrick Geddes claimed that you could reveal all aspects of human life by following a river from its source to the sea – what he named the ‘Valley Section’. Farley adopts this approach for Angus, by following its rivers from the Glens of Angus, through the great sweep of Strathmore to the coastal towns, including Dundee in her scope.
There is something inherently dramatic in that landscape setting, as if Angus had to assert itself between mountains and ocean. At the same time, there is something unshowy, almost understated, about the scenery of Angus which is reflected in a practical, phlegmatic cast to the local outlook on life. But as the stories show, there are many deeper layers, not unlike the rocky wooded dens cut into the mighty strath by those rivers.
The glens, in Erin Farley’s telling, harbour some broody, violent and superstitious tales. Nature is at its wildest here, at the mercy of sometimes harsh seasons, and human life in turn can be unrelenting. There is a ballad quality to those stories, and Farley opens the collection with ‘The Twins of Edzell’ an epic example which merges the animal and human, the wild and the settled. From the off, Fraley establishes herself as an effective storyteller, as well as our collector and editor.
Strathmore next provides in its own right a rich palette of castle, town, village, estate, wood and rivers. The tempo is no more laid back here than in the glens, but there are different tonal colours. The supernatural remains in play, but in the highly entertaining ‘Ghost of Fernieden’ our Angus storyteller catches a humorous, phlegmatic tolerance of this unscary ghost, who helps folk out rather like a folkloric brownie. Farley has a nice touch in deprecating ironic asides, such as when the only surviving child of a cannibalistic clan is sent to school – ‘she was definitely a biter…’, comments the narrator.
Throughout the Strathmore section we never lose contact with the landscape. Then, after a diversion to Glamis Castle, we focus on the all-important rivers and the extensive Angus coastline. You realise in this section that there is probably more scope for stories and traditions about the coastal towns than Farley can accommodate in her format, but the selection is good. There is an excellent two-part tale ‘The Inchcape Rock’, which captures the human struggle with the sea, in the same way that our storyteller evoked the struggle with wild nature in her tales of the Angus Glens.
Farley proceeds to Dundee next, where she successfully unearths some of the older stories of the town that grew to become a city. She provides an excellent basis for a potentially fuller book about Dundee, where she is a research librarian, but in this collection Farley successfully shows how Dundee meets and merges with Angus through its history and culture.
The most striking story in this section is ‘The Coffin Mill’ which captures the vulnerability and also the resilience of Dundee’s early industrial women workers. At the same time it demonstrates the power of urban myth to heighten and dramatise the urban struggle in ways comparable to the earlier and older Angus folk tales. The impact of public or community perception remains to the fore in shaping collective narratives and behaviour.
In conclusion, Erin Farley sweeps up some general categories of tales such as Wells and Saints, Pictish Stones and Souterrains, and Hidden Treasures. There is a strong reminder here that a continuous interaction between environment and history provides a cultural underlay that goes on shaping people’s understanding of locality and their place in it. Angus is an outstanding Scottish example of an area with its own strong geographical, cultural and linguistic identity, enduring through many huge changes into a global media dominated period.
In an interesting Foreword, James Robertson reflects on this in the light of his own most recent novel News From The Dead, which is set in Angus, where the author now lives. There is something, he remarks, that seems familiar and expected to him about the tales in Erin Farley’s collection. Having now lived longer in Angus than any other place, Robertson has become in some way part of the area, even at a sub-conscious level.
Which leads on to wondering, if the overall contribution of Angus to shaping Scotland has received sufficient recognition. Though their individual literary names resonate, the common factor in J.M. Barrie, Violet Jacob, Fionn MacColla, Willa Muir, George Davie, Helen Cruickshank, and now to some degree, James Robertson is Angus. Hugh MacDiarmid and Edwin Muir both lived at one juncture in Montrose, while on the county boundary marches the Kincardineshire Mearns where Leslie Mitchell, aka Lewis Grassic Gibbon, forged and earthed a powerful related literary identity.
Without presuming on any of that cultural capital, Erin Farley sets out in Angus Folk Tales to colour in a pervasive background, and to offer everyone with any angle of interest an accessible route into the Angus experience. Along the way she shows herself to have good editorial judgement, and to be no mean storyteller in her own right. In a nice touch she draws in her mother Rowena Smith to provide line drawings through the text. With this volume, Erin pays tribute to her own background influences, while ensuring that Angus has its deserved place in the Scottish synergy.