Saturday, 21 January 2017

Singalong With The Sterkarms

A Sterkarm Tryst by Susan Price

Tryst: (Old French) an appointed station in hunting. An appointed meeting place, often of lovers. To engage to meet a person or persons. A cattle market, e.g. 'The Falkirk Tryst.'


A Sterkarm Tryst: an appointed meeting place of which only one side is aware: an ambush. 

 On January 24th, the third Sterkarm book, A Sterkarm Tryst, will be published.

It's the third in the series. The first two, after being out of print for some years, have been republished by Open Road. They are The Sterkarm Handshake and A Sterkarm Kiss.

The Sterkarm Handshake by Susan Price
A Sterkarm Kiss by Susan Price

(I've just been messaged on Facebook by a reader, who tells me she can now at last read Kiss, which she's been trying to find for ten years, and has pre-ordered Tryst.  I can only say thank you for your stamina and thank you again.)

The books were inspired by the reivers of the Scottish Borders though Handshake only came to life for me when I thought of sending workers for a 21st Century company through a time machine to the 16th Century Border Country, where they hope to mine the coal, oil and gas. The 16th Century 'natives,' the Sterkarms, suppose them to be Elves. After all, the strange clothes of the 21st Century people give them an eldritch appearance and their carts which move without horses demonstrate their supernatural powers.

The Sterkarms, the local Riding or Raiding* Family, welcome the Elves at first, for their magical wee white pills which take away pain (aspirin). The welcome doesn't last. The Border men were notoriously 'ill to tame,' as a contemporary put it, and the Sterkarms don't relish being told what they can and cannot do, even by Elves.
*The word 'raid' is from the Scandinavian or Scottish form of the Old English 'rade', which meant 'road.' Our word 'road' is from the same Old English word, which also gave us 'ridan' or 'ride'. A road was where  you rode. A track over a moor or through a wood is still called 'a ride.'
     Raiding was often what you were doing when you rode down a road or ride. So a 'Riding Family' and a 'Raiding Family' were the same thing. Ride, road and raid all stem from the same word.
     And 'reivers', as in Scottish Border reivers, comes from the same root as 'bereave,' which survives to the present almost exclusively in the sense of bereavement by death. 'To reave' originally meant to rob, to take, to forcibly deprive.
     I just thought you might like to know that.
Looking back over the books, I realise that the words and music of old ballads run through all of them. (I hear the music, anyway.) The 21st-Century heroine, Andrea, is 'embedded' (in more ways than one) with the 16th-Century Sterkarms and learns many songs from them. She finds that the songs often give her the words to understand the Sterkarms and her own situation.

The higher on the wing it climbs
The sweeter sings the lark,
And the sweeter that a young man speaks
The falser is his heart.
He'll kiss thee and embrace thee
Until he has thee won,
Then he'll turn him round and leave thee
All for some other one.

Then there's the ballad which gives the Sterkarms their rallying cry and boast:

The 'Sterkarm Handshake': their badge
My hob is swift-footed and sure,
My sword hangs down at my knee, 
I never held back from a fight:
Come who dares and meddle with me! 

A 'hob' was the breed of small, strong, intelligent horse which the reivers rode (down roads on raids). This ballad was historically associated with the Elliot family rather than the Armstrongs on whom the Sterkarms are very, very loosely based. ('Sterkarm' means 'strong arm.) 

These old songs fitted themselves naturally into the story as I wrote. I'd known many of them by heart for decades before I had any idea of writing the Sterkarm books. I never had to hunt for a quote. The scene I was working on would set a particular song playing in my head.

I knew the songs because, while still a young teenager, my love of folklore led me to Child's Ballads. I was already familiar with the lyrics before I discovered recordings of them by various folk-groups and singers.

I was a deep-dyed folkie, me. I was having none of your long-haired sensitive types strumming acoustic guitars while they intoned modern protest songs. If it wasn't at least 200 years old, I didn't want to hear it. I wanted elbow-pipes, Shetland fiddles and bodhrans. I wanted people with closed eyes singing unaccompanied with one hand over an ear. "As I walked out one midsummer morning..."

It was the stories, of course, that attracted me. I wanted to hear about the Billy Blind starting up at the bed's foot  and the loathly worm toddling about the tree. And the Broomfield Hill. And Twa Corbies.

I often listen to music while writing and, for me, the music has to be fitted to the book I'm working on. It creates the atmosphere. For the Sterkarms, it had to be traditional folk, especially the Border Ballads. The music and words of the ballads were as much a part of setting the Sterkarm scene as details of their food, clothing, furniture and buildings.

I wasn't too purist, though. In A Sterkarm Handshake, Per Sterkarm is hurrying through the alleys of the tower, on his way to Andrea's 'bower' (which just means 'bedroom' or 'sleeping place.) He thinks he's on a promise.

Oh, pleasant thoughts come to my mind
As I turn back smooth sheets so fine,
And her two white breasts are standing so
Like sweet pink roses that bloom in snow.

The second book, A Sterkarm Kiss ends with the lines:

For there's sweeter rest
On a true-love's breast
Than any other where.

 Neither of these quotes come from the Border ballads, although folk-song is, by its very nature, hard to date or pin down to a specific place. The first verse, as far as I know, comes from 'The Factory Maid.'

I'm a hand-loom weaver by my trade,
But I'm in love with a factory-maid,
And could I but her favour win,
I'd break my looms and weave with steam.

This dates it, roughly, to the late 18th or 19th century and means that this version is
Mayhew's broadside ballad seller
likely to have been a 'broadside ballad.' These were lyrics, printed on the long sheets of paper which gave them their name. Often written about hot topics of the day, such as industrialisation, they were sold in market-places. There was no music but the name of some well-known tune would be given. 'To be sung to the tune of...'

The lines about the true-love's breast come from a song with a beautiful tune, which I know as 'Searching for Lambs.' (This being what 'the loveliest maid that e'er I saw' was doing when her lover walked out one midsummer morning.) It's very hard to guess at a date for the lovely maid and her ewes, but the song doesn't have that robust mix of extreme vengeful violence and the supernatural that typifies the Border ballads, so it's probably later.

The date for my Sterkarms is about 1520 (though there were reivers long before and after this date.) Some of the songs I quote are certainly later and can be roughly dated to the late 1700s, but this doesn't mean that the Sterkarms wouldn't know something close to these lyrics and tunes. I justify my inclusion of them by the way that elements of folk-tales and ballads 'migrate,' from song to song and tale to tale over long periods of time.

The songs and stories were spread by word of mouth. If a singer or story-teller couldn't remember a detail, they invented their own. Or inserted a verse they could remember from another song. They might also take a verse from one song and put it into another simply because they liked it. They might change an ending to make it happier (see Johnny of Briedesley below) or change the relationships within a song, for example, having the hero murdered by his mother instead of his lover.

The same applies to the music. If they couldn't remember a tune, then they set the words to another or made up a variation. Other lyrics and tunes were updated. These tried-and-tested old tales can go on for centuries. Some researchers think some folk-tales go back to the Bronze Age.

Some old songs almost seem to be compilations of verses:

Oh had I wist, when first I kissed
That Love had been so ill to win,
I'd have shut my heart in a silver cage
And pinned it with a silver pin.

The men of the forest, they asked it of me,
How many sweet strawberries grow in the salt sea?
I answered them well, with a tear in my e'e;
'As many fish swim in the forest.'

When cockle-shells turn silver bells
When fishes swim from tree to tree
When ice and snow turn fire to burn
It's then, my love, that I'll love thee.

The writers of broadside ballads certainly drew on these old songs too, re-using verses to save time as they tried to make a living. So because a verse about a factory maid was published in a broadsheet ballad in, say 1810, it doesn't mean that something very like it wouldn't have been known very much earlier.

And just because a gentle love song doesn't mention treachery, incest, fratricide, infanticide or any of the other -cides so popular in the Border ballads, it doesn't mean it wasn't known on the Borders. Even there, they had their quieter moments.

I thought it a pity that my readers couldn't hear the songs that are quoted so frequently throughout the Sterkarm books - and then realised that there was a way for me to share them. If you have a Facebook or Spotify account, here's a link to my playlist for the Sterkarm books.

The songs here are the best versions I could find on Spotify of the ballads I quote, but they aren't definitive. For instance, in the linked Johnny of Breadiesley, sung by Ewan McColl, Johnny kills seven enemies and rides away triumphant. In other versions, he is killed: His good grey hounds are sleeping,/ his good grey hawk has flown,/ a grass green turf is at his head,/ and his hunting all is done. The verse quoted above, from January, [The higher on the wing it climbs...] also has slightly different words in the recording by June Tabor.

If you like songs about murder, revenge killings and executions - plus the occasional love-song - and if you like deep-dyed folk - this is for you.

Sunday, 8 January 2017

The Droving Trade

Highland Cattle: Attribution: © Francis C. Franklin / CC-BY-SA-3.0
Can you imagine spending two months of every year walking 150 miles (242 kilometres) over challenging terrain, scrambling up steep, rocky hills, trudging miles across moors, fording rivers, lakes and even stretches of sea?
     For company, you’d have a large herd of long horned cattle: unpredictable, dangerous beasts. Most nights, you would sleep on the ground beside them.
     At journey’s end, having sold the cattle, you’d earn extra money by working at the local harvest before walking all the way home again. You would do this year after year, in hot sunshine, clouds of midges and pouring rain.

To us, with our comfortable, mostly indolent lives, this seems almost unbelievable, but it’s simply a description of the droving trade which went on for centuries. Highland regions, such as the Welsh and Scottish mountains, were best suited to pastoral farming, but to make a decent profit the beasts had to be brought to market in more prosperous regions, where higher prices were paid for meat.

No railways existed until the 1830s. There were no road vehicles capable of transporting large numbers of cattle, and no useable roads for such vehicles in any case. A huge amount of freight transport went by sea and river, but the task of transporting several hundred unhappy steers by small boats was expensive and difficult. And once landed, the cattle were still a long way from the best markets.

The simplest solution was to walk the beasts to market, step by step. Pigs, sheep and geese were also droved, with the geese fitted with sturdy boots for the journey by dipping their feet in tar.

I researched the droving trade for my book, The Drover’s Dogs. My knowledge is slanted towards the Scottish trade, especially the journey from the Hebridean island of Mull in the west, to Lowland Scotland’s great ‘Tryst’ or cattle market in Falkirk in the east. (‘Tryst’ means ‘meeting place’ and, at the cattle trysts, sellers and buyers from all over Scotland met to do business.)
The drover's road from Mull to Falkirk, from The Drover's Dogs

A ‘drover’ could mean a herdsman who walked alongside the cattle with his dog and perhaps owned a couple of the driven beasts to a wealthy man whose main business was droving. Quite often, like Lachlan in my book, they were crofters themselves who would be driving their own beasts to market and earned extra income by adding some of their neighbour’s cattle to their drove.

The drover might buy his neighbours cattle outright, or he might simply promise to sell the cattle at the best price he could, and pass on the money to the crofter, minus an agreed cut.

In about May of each year, a drover would start enquiring among his neighbours: Who wanted to send beasts to market and how many? Roughly around June, the drovers began herding the cattle together in one place. A man might gather together a large herd, and had to remember who the owners of them all were, and what agreement he'd made with them. Later, he'd have to remember how much the beasts sold for. Some drovers could read and write. Many were illiterate and probably used tally-sticks to help them keep account. They also, undoubtedly, developed accurate and sharp memories.

Highlanders didn’t have a good reputation throughout most of the period and drovers were reputed to be lazy, drunken, dirty and stupid. They were called lazy because they often slept late at their ‘stances,’ the overnight camping places chosen for the water, shelter and grazing they provided. Drovers were seen sitting over their fires, eating breakfast and chatting until mid-morning. And even once started, they dawdled along.

This wasn’t laziness. Hurried cattle lost weight and became less valuable. People who called the drovers ‘lazy’ had obviously never considered the hardness and danger of the drover’s life. To come from Mull, the cattle were first driven to Grass Point on Loch Spelve and loaded on to boats which carried them across the strait to the island of Kerrera. The cattle were unwilling.  Drovers could be gored, trampled or crushed.

After disembarking on Kerrera, the cattle were driven the length of the island and then swum across the narrow stretch of sea to the mainland at Oban. Many men stripped off and swam with the cattle: another dangerous enterprise.

Once the mainland was gained, they walked the cattle up into hills and crossed Loch Awe and the sea loch, Loch Fyne. They were still only half-way. They had to skirt Loch Lomond, journey along the shores of Loch Katrine and even then there were miles to walk before they reached Falkirk. This is a lot easier to write down and read than it was to do it in 1800 or earlier!

In earlier centuries, the cattle might have to be defended against robbers, though this was less likely in 1800, when my story is set.  The drovers’ diet for this arduous journey was mostly oats, onions and whisky. I imagine they made what later became known as 'Waterloo porridge' because the soldiers before Waterloo were forbidden a fire to make a hot meal. Dry oats were mixed into cold water. The onions were probably eaten as we would eat an apple.  For a little more protein, they might open one of the bullock’s neck veins and mix the blood into their porridge

So the accusation of laziness doesn’t stand, but drovers were certainly dirty, at least while droving, since they slept rough or in the notoriously unsavoury inns of the Highlands. There was probably also some substance to the accusation of drunkenness. If I had to live like that, I would make the most of the whisky too.

But stupid? Many reasons probably underlay this insult. The drovers were usually considered illiterate, uneducated farm-hands. They were also Highlanders too, and Highlanders, in 1715 and 1745 had risen in rebellion against the English state. The last Jacobite uprising had taken place a mere 55 years before my story is set: within living memory.

The Highlanders first language was Gaelic and they were mostly Catholic, so they were divided by language, culture and religion from the English and from Lowland Scots who, at best, considered Highlanders to be ‘noble savages.’ At worst, they thought them
a lower form of life: stupid, dishonest and dangerous.

But a successful drover needed a sharp intelligence. Success depended on bringing the cattle to market in good condition and perhaps even better fed on grazing along the way than they had started. To manage this, a drover needed not only expert knowledge of cattle but a weather eye and close acquaintance with every stance along the way. Would the tracks ahead be muddy and impassable: was it worth taking another way? Was it worth hurrying the cattle a little to reach the next stance before another drove who might leave nothing to graze?

He had to be able to manage men, and have a phenomenal memory for places, people and the deals he’d made. Even if illiterate, he likely had great quickness with numbers. I'm reminded of an Italian
woman I once knew who was illiterate in both English and Italian, but to assume from this that she was stupid would have been a big mistake. She understood numbers, prices and weights very well, adding up, subtracting and dividing long lists of numbers with a speed and accuracy that made me dizzy. Lord help anyone who tried to short-change her. I imagine that, from long practice, the drovers had the same facility. In short, to be sure of finding a fool at a drovers' stance, you had to take one with you.

Drovers were also honest, or as honest as any trader can be. Most business at the time was conducted on a handshake and a dishonest man would soon have had no business at all. Again, I offer a modern parallel. I have family connections with a small island where a great deal of business is still conducted on trust because nearly all families are interconnected and everyone knows, or knows of, everyone else.
     Any incoming clever-clogs who try to take advantage of this trusting ‘naivety’ soon find that no locals will do any business with them at all. No credit is to be had. If they need an electrician, decorator, plumber etc, it's impossible to find one who isn't solidly booked up. Word has gone round. I imagine that any drover who tried to cheat the crofters would soon have found himself with no trade and no friends.

Although probably as old as agriculture, the droving trade prospered with the rise of urban living. Demand for meat grew with the population and wealth of towns. Prices rose in those markets that supplied urban areas and it was more profitable to undertake the arduous droves to those markets than sell or barter your cattle more locally.
     The real hey-day came in the 18th and early 19th Centuries. Towns continued to grow and wars in Europe meant a steep rise in demand for beef from the Army and Navy.

A Welsh bank note
The increase in droving stimulated the development of banking. Returning drovers often carried large, heavy sums of cash across lonely moors and mountains. So banks set up near the Trysts. The drover could place his cash in their strongboxes and receive in return a paper ‘note’ which was lighter to carry and less temptation to robbers. On reaching the end of his journey, he took this note to another branch of the bank and ‘cashed it.’ Payment was sometimes accepted in these signed and co-signed notes, fore-runners of paper money.

Many of these banks, such as Llandovery’s Black Ox Bank, took an ox or bull as their symbol, in honour of their connection with the droving trade. The Welsh one, above, has a drawing of sheep.

The end of the droving trade was brought about mainly by two things: peace and steam.

The Drover's Dogs by Susan Price
The end of the Napoleonic Wars in 1815, meant a great fall in the demand for beef. At the same time, agricultural improvements meant that greater numbers of cattle were kept alive over winter and larger, fatter cattle were bred, in greater numbers, close to towns where demand was greatest.

And then came steam which ‘carried away the droving trade.’ By the 1840s, railways had spread throughout west Scotland (and the rest of Britain.) Tracks could extend to depots almost at the dock-sides. Cattle could be shipped in the large holds of sturdy, iron steam-ships and then loaded into cattle trucks which were dragged away by steam-train. Drovers arrived at market to find that all demand had been satisfied by cattle who’d arrived more speedily by train.
The Sterkarm Handshake

The ancient droving trade had been a hard one, but it had been one way a highland crofter could earn hard cash to pay his rent. Its end pushed many crofters into hardship and emigration.

Susan Price is the Carnegie medal winning author of The Ghost Drum and The Sterkarm Handshake.
    The Drover’s Dogs is her first entirely original self-published book.