The A-Z Challenge 2015: Reflections

April was an absolute whirlwind. This was my first time taking part in the A-Z Challenge and though I had no doubt that I’d make it to the end of the month (I’m tenacious, if nothing else), I didn’t expect to enjoy it quite so much!  I found a heap of new blogs to follow, I made a load of new friends, and I discovered some incredibly interesting topics that I would never have thought to research myself, like life in 1920’s America or the different manifestations of love in the Mahabharata. I also learned a lot about time management and the art of blogging, and I thoroughly enjoyed getting a chance to polish my writing skills – my blog was barely six months old before the A-Z Challenge and I’d only been posting once a week, so this was a bit of a baptism of fire for me. I had written half of my A-Z posts in March but even that left me writing and editing until the wee small hours on two occasions in April. Next time I’ll tackle my month’s worth of posts earlier in the year in the hope of quelling any more midnight writing sessions.

Now that it’s all over and done with, I feel a little lost. I’m thinking long and hard about the direction I’d like my blog to take and how often I need to post, though once a day is probably pushing it! I’m also looking forward to getting comfy with a cuppa and reading through all the blogs from the list that I missed out on. Here are my favourites from the hundreds of blogs that I did manage to visit in April that I’ll be visiting regularly in the future, each of them incredibly talented writers – well done ladies, and thank you all for your support.

A-Z Challenge: HeartSamantha Mozart – http://thescheherazadechronicles.org
Dementia Caregiving for my Mother, at home

A-Z Challenge: HeartSara Snider – http://saracsnider.com
Flash fiction, based on tree names

A-Z Challenge: HeartSarah Zama – http://theoldshelter.com
Roaring Twenties

A-Z Challenge: HeartShubhangi Srikanth – http://titli15081977.blogspot.co.uk
Love

A-Z Challenge: HeartRosie – https://writerose.wordpress.com
Poets who inspire me

A-Z Challenge: HeartZalka Csenge Virág – http://multicoloreddiary.blogspot.co.uk
Epics from A-Z

A-Z Challenge: HeartAnabel Marsh – https://anabelsblog.wordpress.com
Gallus Glasgow

A-Z Challenge: HeartPat Garcia – http://www.patgarciaschaack.com
The Child and the Prophet

My visitor count soared in April with visits from 24 countries (hello, Tanzania! *waves*). The Vestiarium Scoticum post was the most popular with 784 views, closely followed by the post on the Queen of Elfhame and True Thomas with 609 views. Thanks to everyone who stopped by, especially those of you who took the time to leave comments. I’ve had some fantastic feedback and your words of encouragement kept me going when my motivation threatened to abandon me. I also have to give a shout out to my wonderful man for the constant stream of coffee and his endless reassurance and enthusiasm, not to mention his superlative proof reading!

I can’t wait to do this all over again next year, it’s been a blast! :)

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Z-Rods, Combs, and Double Discs: Pictish Stones

Pictish Stones DChe Picts lived in the east of Scotland, north of the Firth of Forth, from around the 4th to the 9th century. Archaeology continues to gradually uncover more information about how the Picts lived, but we do know for certain that they were master craftsmen, and in this day and age they’re probably best known as skilled stone masons. Approximately three hundred and fifty Pictish stones have been found throughout Scotland, mostly in the north east of the country in lowland areas, and they continue to intrigue researchers who are still speculating about their exact purpose. Some scholars suggest that the symbols carved into the stones represent the names of significant people or families, and these stones, like Ogham stones, may have been territorial or memorial markers. 

Around fifty unique Pictish symbols have been identified to date. Abstract geometric shapes can be found on the oldest of the stones and are perhaps the most identifiably Pictish of all the carvings. Some of these symbols have been named after everyday objects and are usually found in pairs, like the mirror and comb, anvil and hammer, and tongs and shears, whilst others have been given descriptive names, such as z-rods, double discs, and crescents. 

Pictish Stones 1

Carvings of both real and mythical creatures were a common occurrence. The shapes of the carved animal figures, with their simple lines and scroll markings, are reminiscent of those found in the Book of Kells, leading to speculation that the Picts were involved in its creation. The most commonly carved animal symbol depicts an odd creature resembling a seahorse. Known as the Pictish Beast, it has been suggested that this is the Each Uisge of Scottish myth. 

Pictish Stones 2

It’s thought that all of these carved symbols pre-date the Pictish stones and were originally designs for body decoration, used by the Picts to impart the symbol’s properties on the bearer. The symbols have also been found on silver objects, like the jewellery found in the Norrie’s Law hoard, and on small stone discs and bones. Examples of the early geometric Pictish symbols can be found carved on the walls of coastal caves in Fife and Moray. 

There have been countless meanings applied to the symbols and you’ll find a different explanation for each one depending on which book you read. For example, with regards to the z-rod:

“It is possible that it represents a sudden loud noise produced by the banging together of two discs: the clashing of cymbals. It is also possible that it represents a flash of lightning between two thunderclouds.”

from The Picts And Their Symbols, by W.A. Cummins

“Perhaps it represents the two worlds: the here-and-now and the otherworld; life and death.”

from A Wee Guide To The Picts, by Duncan Jones 

“Often associated with the Druidic duality of the sun which lights this world by day and the Otherworld by night. The sun’s two faces, benign in summer, malevolent in winter.”

from A Guide To The Pictish Stones, by Elizabeth Sutherland

If the Pictish symbols were ever completely deciphered they would give a unique view into early Scottish history, but Paul Bouissac, one of the world’s leading experts on signs and symbols, has said that to decode them, “….we will have to wait for the discovery of what would be the Pictish equivalent of the Rosetta Stone.” Unlikely though it seems, new stones are still being found, the most recent being the Dandaleith Stone, discovered in a field on Moray in 2013. 

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The Yird Swine

Yird Swine DCne of the more obscure creatures of Scottish folklore is the Yird Swine, a subterranean porcine carnivore that lives in graveyards and burrows through the earth, feeding on corpses. G.W. Anderson noted in his 1891 work, Lays of Strathbogie, that the Yird Swine’s teeth could be heard crunching on coffins by those who were unfortunate enough to pass within earshot of the kirkyard it inhabited. Sightings of the creature seem to be confined to Aberdeenshire, and it’s been suggested that it originates from the old Walla Kirkyard there. 

Yird Swine

A Mr Archibald, in a letter written in 1917 and now held by the archives of the Natural Museums of Scotland, recalled his father finding a Yird Swine when he turned up its nest while ploughing the land beside the river in Deveron fifty years previously. 

“He tried to kill it with his foot, but it bit and cut his boot, and he killed it with a tree branch and brought it home. It was brown in colour, somewhat like a rat. Their nests were from time to time turned up by the plough, but the animals themselves were very rarely seen, reputed to frequent the churchyards. This was in the immediate neighbourhood of a churchyard which was eventually disused owing to the firm belief that it was infested. They invariably lived in the immediate neighbourhood of water, and their nests were in haughs.”

In 1915, a Yird Swine was killed by a ploughman in the parish churchyard in Mastrick, Aberdeenshire. It was said to have mole-like feet, white tusks, and a prominent snout.

Some unimaginative souls have suggested that Yird Swines are badgers, or even just big rats, but those who have had direct contact with the creatures would certainly swear otherwise. 

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eXcalibur: The Tale of Canonbie Dick

Canobie Dick DChe Arthurian legends have long been associated with England and Wales but there is growing evidence that King Arthur was in fact a Scot that lived in the seventh century: Artúr, the son of King Áedán Mac Gabráin of Dalriada, the Scottish region now known as Argyll and Bute. Amongst the many Scottish myths associated with King Arthur is the story of Canonbie Dick, the northernmost version of the king under the mountain folklore motif in Britain.

Once, many moons ago in the Eildon Hills, there lived a horse trader called Canonbie Dick. He was heading home one evening, leading a handful of horses that he hadn’t been able to sell at the market that day, when he met a stranger dressed in robes, the like of which hadn’t been worn for centuries. The old man asked the price of Canonbie Dick’s horses, and offered him a purse full of coin. Now Canonbie Dick would have sold a horse to the deil himself without minding his cloven hoof, and would probably have cheated Old Nick into the bargain, so when he saw a glint of gold in that purse he agreed a price quick smart. The old man thanked Canonbie Dick and set off with the horses, disappearing quickly into the darkness.

When he got home and opened up the heavy purse, Canonbie Dick found unicorns, bonnet pieces, bawbees, groats, bodles, and golden crowns, all manner of mint, hundreds of years old. He marvelled at the glint and gleam of the coins and rubbed his hands together in glee at the thought of what such a treasure might fetch at the market. He resolved then to visit the same spot the following evening, lest the old man be there again. 

Sure enough, the following night, Canonbie Dick was heading home with his straggling horses when he met the old man at the same spot in the Eildon Hills. Once again a bargain was struck and Canonbie Dick went home with a purse heavy with coin. 

On the third night after a third successful deal, Canonbie Dick’s nose got the better of him and he followed the old man and his horses into the darkness. The old man was unperturbed by his presence, and seemed to even enjoy the company. They walked around the hill and up a narrow footpath that lead to the hillock of the Lucken Hare, rumoured to be a meeting place of local witches. There, set in to the hill side was a great wooden door with a ring of iron for a handle. Despite having passed this way many times, Canonbie Dick was sure that he’d never seen it before. As the old man approached, the door swung open to reveal a long passageway that seemed to reach in to the heart of the hill. He turned to Canonbie Dick and said, “You may see my dwelling if you will, but if you lose courage at what you see here you will rue it all your life.” Canonbie Dick smirked at the old man’s warning and suggested they press on, and so they did. 

The corridor stretched out for miles before them, and they walked for a long time before the view began to change. The rough hewn stone walls gave way to rows and rows of stables, each stall holding a coal black horse, and by every horse lay a knight in coal black armour, with a drawn sword in his hand. All were silent, hoof and limb, as if they had been cut out of the rock itself. The old man urged Canonbie Dick on, and at length they arrived at a vast cavern filled with soft light from the torches set in the walls. A great round oak table stood in the centre of the hall, and a sword and a horn lay atop it. 

As his eyes adjusted to the darkness Canonbie Dick got a better look at the stranger he had been following for so long. It only took a moment for him to recognise the old man as True Thomas of Ercildoun

“He that sounds that horn and draws that sword shall, if his heart does not fail him, be king over all broad Britain,” True Thomas said. “But all depends on courage, and much on taking the sword or the horn first.”

Canonbie Dick was inclined to take the sword but he was wary, thinking that to draw such a weapon might offend the powers of the mountain, so with a trembling hand he took up the horn and let out a feeble blast that echoed round the hall. 

Canonbie Dick

At once a great commotion arose in the chamber as with a cry and a clash of armour every one of the knights arose from their slumber. Canonbie Dick, in his terror, dropped the horn and reached out to grasp the sword when a voice boomed,

“Woe to the coward that ever he was born,
who did not draw the sword before he blew the horn.”

Before he could begin to make sense of what was happening, Canonbie Dick was blasted from the cavern on the back of a whirlwind and came to land on the bank outside the entrance to the passageway. The door had gone. He was found the next morning by local shepherds with just enough breath left in him to tell his tale before he died. 

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