When I approach a new manuscript I am always hoping for stories that are unique and particular to the area to allow me to produce a cover image that reflects something special about it that is intriguing to the reader.
With the Shetlands folktales book by Lawrence Moar Tulloch, I had a good choice of tales that were peculiar to the islands as often happens with the more isolated parts of the U.K. This is a wonderful but also a tricky thing as being spoilt for choice can sometimes lead me to inertia while I try to decide which direction to take. So I started to google Shetland images to get more of a flavour of the islands and in the hopes that something would lead me in a particular direction and found this.
These children, I discovered, were dressed as ‘Skeklers’ Skekling is an old Shetland folk tradition. in a variant of the ‘guising’ tradition, Skeklers would go round the houses in their distinctive straw costumes at Hallamas, New Year, and turn up at weddings in small groups performing fiddle music in return for food and drink. It is believed that this fascinating custom had all but died out by 1900 and the children I had seen in the old photograph were actually a recreation of the tradition for the Up Helly ‘A festival.
I remembered making notes that said ‘straw costume?? And went back to find the story that it featured in, ‘The Hallamas Mareel’ now I had an arresting image and a good story to attach it to and having also found some images of the landscape In the story I was all set.
There were a few challenges along the way, mostly to do with how the light would work as I needed the figures to have detail when they should have been in sillouette with the moonlight behind them. But that is why I illustrate… So I can play around with these realities… The child’s wistful face came from a book of vintage photos I have called ‘anonymous’ which I often turn to for inspiration.
this is my only cover (as far as I know) to appear on TV, when the book was given as a gift in the detective series ‘Shetland’ l received a flurry of messages after it’s screening for which I was grateful as I had no idea since I don’t have a TV!
Da Hallamas Mareel
reproduced with the kind permission of Lawrence Moar Tulloch
(I realise some of the language here may be difficult for some, but you can still understand the gist of the story and it is too poetic to meddle with even if I wanted to)
At the Burgi Geo in northwest Yell there is the remains of an Iron Age Fort. It is on a headland joined to the rest of the island by a narrow neck of land. There are rows of standing stones that lead, on one side, in to the fort but on the other side the standing stones lead the unwary over the high cliff and to their doom.
Long after the original inhabitants left the fort was taken over by a ruthless and cruel band of Vikings who preyed on the honest and hard working udallers. West-A-Firth, in those days, was a wild and lawless place.
It was late autumn and the children of West A Firth were preparing for the Hallamas. Wearing the traditional straw hats they had been to every house in the area, save one, collecting money for the Hallamas, the party that took place every year.
The house that they never went to was a miserable hovel deep in the hills, the Spaeman, the hermit, Isaac Omand lived there and he welcomed no one and no one knew how he made a living and if he was ever heard speaking it was always in riddles that no one could understand.
All the money collected was given to Mary. She was a spinster who lived alone but she loved children and she was always to the fore at Hallamas time. Along with Martha Rassusson and Jenny Ninian she went to the shop at Glippapund to buy the food for the party.
For the rest of the week they baked fatty bannocks, currney buns, oven sliddericks and dumplings. They made tattie soup they kirned for fresh butter, kirn milk and blaand. A lamb had been butchered and meat and mealy puddings were cooked.
When Mary returned home after visiting a neighbour she was distraught to find that the robbers from the Burgi Geo had raided the house and taken everything. On being told the Oldest Udaller called a meeting and the folk came from Setter, the Neap, Graven and Vigon to discuss what they could do.
There was no question of confronting the Vikings; they were far too powerful and to try and fight them meant the certain loss of life. Sadly there were no suggestions and most were resigned to their fate.
‘Der only da wan thing we kan dü”, declared the oldest Udaller, “we maun geng an ax the Spaeman.”
“Der nae öse o dat,” said Sigurd Ollason, “he’ll never spik tae wis an even if he dus we’ll nivver keen whit he means.”
In the absence of any other ideas Sigurd and Tirval Ertirson was sent to consult the Spaeman. When they arrived at his house they got the impression that Isaac Omand was expecting them.
He was outside, a tiny man dressed in rags, he had a long grey bread and he had not been washed for a very long time. He never gave them a chance to speak but said in a shrill wavering voice.
“Da Burgi Geo men ir fat an greedy
While wis puir fok ir tin an needy
Bit ta mak things rite an weel
Ye maun öse da Hallamas mareel.”
So saying he went inside and shut the door leaving Sigurd and Tirval speechless. Feeling that their journey had been wasted they made their way back and to the house of the Oldest Udaller. They told him the Spaeman’s rhyme and waited for his response, which took some time in coming.
“ Da only plis it we kan get mareel fae is da sea so sum o you il haeta geng ta da kraigs.”
They saw it as being futile but they did as they were told. Took their homemade rods and began fishing from the rocks. When the light began to fade they were astonished at the mareel in the water. They had never seen anything like it, the sea, the fish and the fishing line flashed with ribbons of fire.
On the way home Sigurd suddenly had an idea of how they could use the mareel. He was confident that the robbers would come to steal the fish so he got Tirval and others to skin the piltocks and sillocks. From the womenfolk he got old blankets and pieces of linen and they began to sew the fish skins on to the cloth.
Six men donned the mareel covered cloth and they set off westwards towards the Burgi Geo but hid below the banks of the burn to keep watch for the robbers. The mareel flashed like green fire in the moonlight.
They did not have to wait long and all the men kept low until Sigurd gave the shout and they all leaped up shouting, jumping and waving their arms. The effect on the robbers was amazing, they were terrified and turned tail and ran back towards the Burgi Geo as fast as they could go.
The West-A-Firth men followed screaming and shouting. The robbers, in their panic, followed the wrong set of standing stones and every last one of them disappeared over the cliff to their death.
In the days that followed the West-A-Firth men ventured in to the fort and found it empty of people but they were able to recover many of the things that the robbers had stolen from them over the years. And so the community enjoyed the best ever Hallamas and they were able to live in peace and with plenty ever after.
whilst going over my research for this blog I came across these beautiful images by photographer Gemma Ovens
(www.gemmadagger.co.uk) and she kindly agreed that I could reproduce them here, so you could see them too…the story of how they came about is an interesting one and you might like to check out this video below on Vimeo about them ‘clutching at straws’
Shetland Folk Tales can be purchased from the History Press, http://www.thehistorypress.co.uk/local-history/storytelling or direct from me (signed copy) at firstname.lastname@example.org