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Memory Musings

By Bernie Bell

I had an email from someone I  know, where he was bemoaning the fact that people seem to be losing their sense of wonder, as there is just so much thrown at them, from the Media.  I answered him with some memories……………………………..


“Oh, and it makes me wonder…..”

That’s a quote from the end of ‘Stairway to Heaven’ by Led Zeppelin, and it’s something I say, a lot!

I completely agree with you about how folk are becoming numbed by too easy access to…..everything!

I won’t go on and on at you….but a bit of background, which I may have mentioned before, will let you know why I so very much agree with what you say…………..

I was born in 1955, to parents who had come over from Ireland, to England, to find work. A common enough story.  Both my parents grew up on what would be called crofts, here – very small, subsistence level farms.  When I was young, we used to go back to Ireland every year to visit. My Dad’s parents were both dead by then, but my Mum’s parents, and my Aunt and Uncle, still lived the two roomed thatched cottage in which Granny and Grandpa had brought up 7 children! No running water, no electricity. The nearest water was from a well just across from the house, but that was only fit for washing etc. The drinking water had to be brought by bucket from a spring well, which was in a field a couple of miles down the road. When visiting, I thought it was great fun to go and get the water, and to churn the butter, too.  Work to them – play to me! It was a hard life, but a good one, in many ways.  Two sisters, had married two brothers, so my Auntie Bridie was my Mum’s sister, and her husband, my Uncle Anthony, was my Dad’s brother  ( incidentally, they each had 5 children, 4 girls and a boy!).

When we’d go over on holiday, there would be ceilidh’s, proper, old fashioned ceilidh’s, where either we’d all go to the house of family friends, or they’d come to Auntie Bridie and Uncle Anthony’s house.  There would be singing, dancing, and tale telling.

And there was also a way of just stopping to have a talk, when you met someone – leaning on a gate, or on a wall – just, talking, chewing the fat, having a bit of a joke etc.

One time, my Mum and Dad’s friend, Jim Walsh, showed me a little wooden cask of butter he’d found in the bog when he was digging turf. It was only small, all made of wood, with some kind of rope round the top, and a little wooden lid. I said he should contact the museum in Dublin about it, but it was put on a shelf in the shed, and then….summer came, and the butter melted.  I don’t know what became of the little tub, eventually. As an archaeologist, that tale will fill you with horror! But, the point is….Jim found this, wondered about it, was showing it to people and telling them about how he’d found it.  He was…interested!  Today, even if a person was interested, they might put it on Facebook – Faceless Facebook – where’s the real inter-action? Where’s the look on someone’s face when you show them something strange or marvellous?  Where are all the questions and answers and discussion?  The real human contact?

Another time, Jim flagged down our car as we were passing, and showed us a bird he’d just found injured. He hadn’t seen one like it, and wondered was it a parrot – I think it was maybe some kind of falcon. He took it home and nursed it back to health and released it. The point is…. with both those things, they would have become stories which Jim would have told many times in the winter, when there wasn’t a lot to do outside. Now, folk think they don’t have the time to stop and yarn – they’re mistaken, as they do have the time, if they take the time. But, they let the clock be their master, and let themselves be fooled into thinking that they don’t have time for people, when people, are what matters most.

And this is where what you say rings a lot of bells with me – there was still a great sense of wonder about the world around us. Even though Granny had been to America when she was a girl, that was a different America – Edwardian America!  Even though Mum and Dad lived in England, that was a different England – the England of the 1930’s, initially – back to Ireland for a time – then back to England.  They eventually went ‘home’ in the early 1970’s – still a different world, to today.

It’s a bit of a gripe I have,  that story tellers aren’t valued now. And I don’t mean the story tellers where you buy a ticket to sit and have someone tell a tale!  I mean, just folk sitting round, telling tales, of wonder about far-off places and also the wonders closer to home, such as  the odd lights seen in the bóithrín  leading up to the old house, at Killure. Killure is the name of my Mum’s family home. The old house is now a cow -shed, as they had a house built in the top field, in the 1970’s – still had to pump the water up from a tank, but that’s easier that trekking down the road, with two buckets!

That was a way of life, and a way of being and being with others, which still existed, not long ago.

This leads on to all sorts – old ways of soothing ailments, good ‘cures’ for things, and, in Ireland, a real mixture of the old, pagan ways, and the Catholic religion. Each year, I was taken to Knock, to the shrine of ‘The Blessed Virgin’ ( I’m using the terms that were used – I have no religion, now), as I had Asthma.  I was also taken to St. Attracta’s Well, which was a spring well, in a field, where St. Attracta ( a Catholic saint, ‘nicked from the old religion) was said to have fought a monster – I think her head was chopped off and where it landed, the spring, sprang up. So, the two ways of believing, working together, quite happily.

I think it’s a great shame that this sense of wonder is  being blunted, and, in many cases, lost, and instead, some kind of weird replacement is put in its place.  I think it’s a basic human need, but it isn’t being met, now.  Instead, folk seem to like to ‘wonder’ at the news, and all sorts of trash from the Media, which is forever being thrown at us.

It used to be that folk ( especially in country places) loved news. A visitor was a treasure, as news from the outside world, or just new stories, were very valuable commodities!  But today’s obsession with news, is something different, and, I think, less healthy.

I just want to say how very much I agree with you, and how much it saddens me to see how sense-less we’re becoming. I say that we’re losing our senses, in all ways – we’re losing the senses which tell us when the weather is changing, or when there’s something amiss with someone or an animal, and, in doing so, we’re losing our sense, as in, we’re indulging in senseless behaviour.

One thing – Mike and I found a coconut on Scapa beach, a few years ago. When we found it, it was still hairy. We were delighted with it, and talked with a man we met on the beach, about where it might have come from.  He was as taken with it, as we were, and we were talking of, and imagining, how it might have come to be on the beach, at Scapa.  We still have it, but it’s been outside, in the weather, and isn’t so hairy now!

coconut beach find B Bell

 Mike was telling someone about our ‘find’, and this person’s response was to say that it might have just fallen off a ship, and not be from far away at all.  This could be true, but…….. my answer to him was, that he could either let the magic into his life, or not, that’s up to him.

And, Molucca beans, which it’s said were used here in Orkney as ‘soothers’ for infants when teething – the people found a use for them, but what did they make of them?   What they were, and where had they come from? As there is nothing like them, here. Did it make them wonder?


7 replies »

  1. Hi Bernie, didn’t people during and post famine hide small barrels of butter etc in the ‘bog’ to keep it safe from the land-lords rapacious, thieving factors/rent-collectors?

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  2. I hadn’t thought of that, Charles. We all just thought someone must have lost it, or, maybe put it in the bog-water to keep it cool, then forgot it.
    Yes, folk did place things in bogs, for all sorts of reasons – and a good thing they did , as we now find so many interesting things there, including whole stone circles, which have been gradually swallowed as the peat accumulates..
    Have you come across ‘The Bog People’ by P.V Glob? An investigation into the bog people found over the years, and why they might have been buried/placed there.
    It’s a fascinating subject.
    His daughter, Lotte, now has a croft/studio near Loch Eriboll.
    The only thing I ever found in a bog, was spiders – big, long leggedy ones!

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    • Hi Bernie like you I always hoped to find something interesting while working my peat banks here in Shetland but all I ever came across were some very substantial pieces of roots at a depth of about 3.5 metres, so about 3,000 to 3,500 years old, I was reliably informed to reckon on 1 metre per 1,000 years. My uncle once found human bones in his ‘bog’ in Donegal, had the Guards in a panic for days until word came back from Dublin that they dated to 18th century. Oh, and plenty of those long legged spiders, took great care of them, Bruce and all that.

      I have heard of the book but never got round to reading it.

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  3. This reminds me of something I saw in Shetland- bog butter! Apparently back when Shetland was owned by Norway they paid tax in butter and to keep it “fresh” they burried it in the bogs. Also it turns out the butter wasn’t for eating, but was largely used as we would use grease today. Theres a lump in Lerwick’s musuem- absolutely huge and I think it had been wrapped in cloth…..

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  4. Friend Hannah sent me this………

    “Read your piece in TON and reminded me of another thing I saw in Shetland- bog butter! Apparently back when Shetland was owned by Norway they paid tax in butter and to keep it “fresh” they buried it in the bogs. Also it turns out the butter wasn’t for eating, but was largely used as we would use grease today!”

    And I answered……..

    “I’m now picturing the Vikings in Smoo cave, using the butter/grease on their boats.

    https://theorkneynews.scot/2018/05/22/the-western-isles-or-there-and-back-again-i/

    And, I wonder if they used butter/grease to waterproof their clothing, especially for going to sea? Not their woolly clothing, that would get a bit sticky and stinky – rancid butter and wool – yuk. But, maybe rubbed onto their outer, leather clothing, as a protective layer? The original waxed jacket?!”

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