Painting the Tales, the book has landed! (Well…almost) 

I sometimes google my own name to see if I have been up to anything interesting, or more accurately to see just what info about me is floating around out there in the ether… And that is how I discovered yesterday morning that my first book is now available for pre-order. 
After the mild panic of completing the manuscript and submitting it only a little later than the rather short deadline ( when they asked me how I needed, I blithely told them 3 months, having never written a book before, and they took me at my word…) There has been a month or so of wondering whether I had perhaps imagined the whole thing. But then there it was, on two well known bookselling sites. 
I sat and stared at the screen for a few minutes, zooming in on the word ‘author’ a couple of times and tittering nervously to myself before the fear kicked in… People were actually going to read my writerly scribblings….Was anyone going to like my writerly scribblings? I got out the manuscript ( yes, a printed copy, I am never totally trustful of sticks and clouds and other nature related names for tech storage) fingered it briefly, grimaced, put it away again. I can’t bear to look at the moment. 
So I will wait until June 1st, and read it along with everyone else. In the meantime if you would like to pre-order direct from me please email me
I will sign it for you (and dedicate it too if you like) and the first 100 copies I send out will also include some extra little surprises, 

The Burn

My Son is a writer and was invited to write a piece set in the weirdly marvellous world of Hopeless Maine created by Tom and Nimue Brown. This fiercely visceral and oddly tender tale is the result. I love it. Check out the other fabulous writings on this site and Tom’s brilliant illustrations.

The Hopeless Vendetta

A midnight stroll, paddling. The water is strange here, but I am stranger. It hisses from me as I wet my ankles, as it rises past my calves, vapour twisting into odd shapes that silently howl and disappear. I am almost up to my waist, but I am yet alight, flames submerged in elemental paradox. Small wisp-like things pretending to be fish play about down there, darting from the heat.
It is dark, but I don’t fear it. I provide my own light. This little bay all to myself, illuminated. I drag fingers through the shallows, little more than bone already, creepers of muscle. I look up at the moon with sockets almost vacant. My companion. My challenger. Does it seem different, here? Or have I merely spent so long inspecting its surface that I have begun to create the things I see?
And now, that familiar prickling on the…

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Giving back- working with the Vilostrada foundation


Some of you will know that I spend as much time as I can in the Moroccan Sahara, a place I have come to love very much and been inspired by. I have benefited a great deal both personally and creatively from my time there… 

This is a chance for me to benefit the people there in return.

This mixed media portrait of a little girl who is dear to my heart, Najwa, has been printed as a charity card and is available to buy direct from me.

25% of each sale goes direct to the Vilostrada foundation, who work with nomads in the Moroccan Sahara supporting their way of life and helping provide opportunities for sustainable futures  through their ‘education for life! project.

Here is a link to their blog with a little write up about my involvement.

And a link to their site for more info:

Any remaining monies after costs are paid will go directly to Najwa and her family, this card is all about giving back, every penny will count.

The cards are £3 each plus postage, please contact me to buy by emailing me at with ‘Najwa’ as the subject.

I am looking for other ways to use my skills to make a difference for a people and place that I love. So watch this space xxx

Thank you 🙂🙂

Cover stories – She who knits the world’s green cloth

The story behind the cover art for Ruth Marshall’s Limerick Folk tales

‘A great queen, at other times Áine seems to be a young girl or an old woman. She is a lover, a rape survivor, a mermaid, mother of a poet, the woman who knits, the cailleach. She is a true goddess, and her presence can still be felt in the landscape, in the air, in the names given to landscape features’

When I came across this passage in the Limerick folk tales text I knew she had to be the subject of my cover illustration. She is every woman. She is also for me an image of my mother, who I remember knitting in the evenings when i was small, her long dark hair in bunches and her feet folded neatly underneath her in an armchair. That subtle but continuous clicking of the needles as she knitted for my younger sisters. I never became a knitter, my skills lie in weaving my dreams in pencils and paint but I still find the image of a woman knitting an evocative one and the idea of there being so much power in such a gentle process is one I am incredibly drawn to. As I dreamed and doodled, wondering how my knitting goddess should look, I received a message from the books author expressing the hope that I would choose this story for the cover image…

For me words conjure images which in turn conjure words… and so I was also  reminded of this beautiful poem by Tom Leonard

In Hospital

I like seeing nurse Frieda knitting
As I like watching my wife knitting
As I like watching my mother knitting
Though she was more of a dabbler
(Plain and purl, plain and purl)

It’s not

‘Women being in their place’


The future, knitting the future
The present peaceful, quiet
As if
The same woman knitting
For a thousand years

As soon as I mentioned on social media that I was interested in photos of people knitting to use as resource material the response was amazing, I received dozens of pictures of exquisitely busy hands and although none that were quite what I was after, I suddenly became aware of the love and enthusiasm so many felt for this gentle art… I did find some very evocative pictures of ‘knitting Madonnas’ on the net though and knew I was looking for something that had the same sort of feel…

Then I came across this image below on my wanderings. Something about this pose, the shape of the face and the absorbed quality of the whole reminded me of the paintings of the knitting Madonnas I had encountered earlier and made it a perfect starting point


My knitter went through a few different ideas about hair…I have a bit of a thing for hair and what it does in my images matters very much to me…


In this image it needed to float about her somehow as if she were sitting below water and it just grew and grew until it became a very dominant feature, but that worked well when the rest of the painting was done as it was a great foil to the potentially overwhelming greenness of the whole.

The animals emerged from the background as I began to paint, the whale being the only one I had planned in my head before starting and the deer, frog and butterfly emerging last. They grew from the cloth as I painted in almost the same way they grew from her knitting.



 Here is Ruth’s full introduction to the knitter and her story…

Áine is one of the oldest of the gods. She was/is a goddess of the Tuatha Dé Danaan, and the land of Munster was her sacred ground. She oversaw the fertility, prosperity of the land and its inhabitants. Tuatha Dé Danaan means the people of the goddess Danu, and some scholars claim that Áine may be the same as Ana, Anu, or Danu. Perhaps she was the mother of this race of gifted craftspeople, seen as gods, and later to become the Sidhe or Fairies. Hers was the sovereignty of Munster, hers to confer on any man who sought to rule there. It is easy to see Áine as the sun, the light that sparkles on the waters of Lough Gur, the enlivened air. Her name means ‘delight, joy, radiance, harmony, truth, brightness’.
The wild herb, meadowas Áine’s plant. Also known as ‘queen of the meadow,’ meadowsweet has healing powers, containing in its leaves a substance that relieves headaches, inflammation and many other complaints. Its flowers are light and airy, and as the name suggests, they fill the air with their scent in late summer, the time of harvest.

A great queen, at other times Áine seems to be a young girl or an old woman. She is a lover, a rape surviver, a mermaid, mother of a poet, the woman who knits, the cailleach. She is a true goddess, and her presence can still be felt in the landscape, in the air, in the names given to landscape features.



She Who Knits the World’s Green Cloth

Beneath the enchanted waters of Lough Gur, there grows an ancient and enormous tree, concealed beneath a green cloth. Beneath the green cloth (brat ‘uÁine) a woman sits at the base of the tree. She is knitting with a green yarn, the fabric of the world, and will continue to do this until the end of the world, or until the enchantment on the lake is broken. Once every seven years, when the waters of the lake recede, the tree and its covering are revealed.
One day when the waters of the lake were low, there came a horseman riding by. Seeing the green cloth, so fine and beautiful, he snatched it up, revealing the knitting woman beneath it. She cried out to the waters of the lake:

Awake, awake, thou silent tide!
From the Dead Woman’s land a horseman does ride,
From my head the green cloth snatching.

As she spoke, the waters of Lough Gur began to rise. The rider kicked his horse into action and raced off, but the waters came leaping and foaming behind him. Horse and rider were swept into the lake and were lost beneath its waves. The green cloth slowly drifted down through the water until it came to rest once more over the tree and the knitting woman.
Some say that had the cloth been stolen, the fertility of the land would have been destroyed.
In our own time, where soil and crop fertility is sorely threatened, not by horsemen riding by, but by man-made causes ranging from artificial fertilisers, the death of bees, genetic manipulation, and climate change, perhaps we should all be taking up our knitting needles and green yarn to help ‘knit the world better!’ Áine urges us to join her, to do what we can to re-create the green fabric of life.
Today there is a large stone called the Cloch a bhile, which means the ‘stone of the tree’, not far from the great stone circle at Lough Gur.

and finally…

This is cover story was one where the collaboration in spirit between author and artist was instant, Ruth and I have never met and until I started to write this blog had only had a few small exchanges with each other, but she has sent me this contribution which I am pleased to share with you here:

Knitting the world better – a brief personal history in wool and words

I have been a sporadic knitter all my life, my most recent return to knitting inspired partly by my Son’s requests for useful items and love tokens for his girlfriend.

Then on a visit to family in Scotland I saw an exhibition of Donna Wilson’s quirky knitted work in Glasgow’s Lighthouse gallery. Odd creatures and landscapes included the squirrel-fox and trees. I wrote in the visitor’s book, “Knit the World Better!” When I got home, this became a slogan I signed my emails with.

I waxed lyrical about wool as metaphor for the creative process. I got smelly Shetland fleeces from an artist on the Burren, carded and spun them into yarn, in the same way that I draw ideas down from the clouds and spin them into stories to tell. I knitted sheelagh-na-gigs and gnomes. I gave workshops on ‘how to knit the world better for ourselves and others’. I found traditional stories that featured balls of yarn, seamless garments, knitting women. On the isle of Colonsay, I heard about the Witch of Jura, who could draw any man into her arms by winding up her magical ball of wool.
Some of these woolly tales turn up in my books for The History Press’s Folk Tales series.
In Clare Folk Tales, I included the story of an old woman, angry to be disturbed at her knitting, who pierced the ground with her knitting needle, causing a spring to burst forth, that became Inchiquin lake. A warning: you should never disturb a woman at her knitting!
Researching for Limerick Folk Tales, I found reference to a knitting woman who sits at the base of a tree submerged beneath Lough Gur, at the heart of a magical sacred landscape. I thought of her as “She who knits the earth’s green cloth” and I identified strongly with her at this time when we must be so conscious to reweave the threatened web of life, the torn fabric of society. When the text of the book was finished, I drew so many version of this image. I knew what story I wanted to see featured on the cover, and requested that Katherine portray “She Who Knits”. I knew she would do this beautifully, and I was not disappointed, she had already found the passage and become enchanted with it.

My own knitting story continues: there is an endless thread, a red thread I like to think, that connects us, and leads the way forward.
I will always welcome more stories, from anywhere around the world, that feature knitters, wool, yarn, etc.

Ruth Marshall 2017

Ruth also sent me several lovely poems, one of which I would like to share with you, enjoy.


At sixteen
I wore a purple wool jumper
The way Pablo Neruda wore his hand knit socks
With a reverence
for the unknown hands that clicked the needles
And a love for the rich deep colour of the wool
From the purple sheep that dwelt in the fairyland dusk
I witnessed only through the haze of smoke.

And there was no risk of saving it for best
For it was all I could bear to wear
for months
while the sleeves wore thin
and my mother sewed leather patches
on the elbows for me
just as she sewed the hems
I had no patience to take up
on skirts I made from curtains snatched at jumble sales.

I knitted socks and gloves,
colourful and Fair-Isled, on four needles
at the interminable meetings of my twenties
in wholefood shops, back rooms and basements
through talk of poetry, brown rice and disarmament;
and sweaters for my lover,
full of spells and symbols,
through northern winters warmed by blackcurrant wine,
that his next girlfriend wore
with love.

By the time my son arrived
The auntie who knitted shawls
Fine enough to pull through a wedding ring
Had knobbly twigs for hands and clouded eyes.
Gifted a lambskin for his bed,
I made vests, jumpers, hats, shoes, blankets
And wrapped him in the warmest woolly love.

Though moths and time unravel the finest work
I have learned the magic that transforms
the dung-caked fleece to pure cream yarn.
Now, when I have carded, spun and washed,
I knit my own tiny woollen sheep.

Ruth Marshall, October 2003 : “Ruth Marshall Writes” on Facebook
Email: ruth.a.marshall at

Cover stories – The making and unmaking of the woman of flowers



The illustration above is part of the repeating owl pattern on the famous owl service dinner set, examples of which are rather rare…

When I started to read the manuscript for Snowdonia Folk Tales I did something I often do if the author is someone I am in contact with and sent Eric a message asking if he had any preferences as to what the cover story might be. He was busy and didn’t reply for some time.

In the meantime I read through the book and found the story of Blodeuwedd, one that I already had a familiarity and fascination with as I had read The Owl service by Alan Garner when I was young. I also watched the excellent TV adaptation, scripted by Garner himself, when it was repeated in 1978, I would have been 15 then and at an age when it was to make a lasting impression on me.

Her story is of course part of the wonderful epic tale of the Mabingion, but I am not going to go into that here. This is her story.

I wanted to work with this story very much, I felt a connection with not only the woman of flowers but also my own teenage self that could be expressed through this image.

I started to make sketches, trying to work out how to depict the flower and owl aspects of a character I felt was more sinned against than sinning. This was a grown woman released upon the world fully formed and filled with desires and feelings she had no experience of coping with as she had not been through the process of growing from a child to an adult. A woman created for a purpose she had no choice about. She was made from wild things and then expected to be tame.

While I was trying to find the face of my woman of flowers Eric replied to my message, suggesting her story would be a good one to choose. I love it when this happens, and it has happened several times with this series.

I didn’t want to make an image melding the woman and owl aspects together into one character. I had seen many of these and somehow they seemed a little brutal to me, I almost felt that although her transformation is a punishment it is also the moment she is set free, back into the wild and able to express herself without regret.

The fact that she becomes an owl particularly, a creature throughout history and across many cultures regarded with fascination and awe seemed important to me.

Few other creatures have so many different and contradictory beliefs held about them. Owls have been both feared and venerated, despised and admired, considered wise and foolish, and associated with witchcraft and medicine, the weather, birth and death. Speculation about Owls began in earliest folklore, too long ago to date, but passed down by word of mouth over many generations.

Interestingly the Inuit believed that the Short-eared Owl was once a young girl who was magically transformed into an Owl with a long beak. But the Owl became frightened and flew into the side of a house, flattening its face and beak. So Blodeuwedd was not the only transformation of woman to owl in folklore.

In the end I decided to have the owl blending with the background behind Blodeuwedd, a fate that awaits her in the future as she wakes in her bower and looks out directly at us with eyes that although they have only just opened on the world, are full of self awareness. One day she will return to her woodlands as owl, but now she is about to enter our world, one whose rules she does not know and will never really understand.

The making and unmaking of the woman of flowers.

Retold by Eric Maddern for Folk tales of Snowdonia

At first it seemed there would be no thwarting Arianrhod’s third curse. But Gwydion knew Lleu would never be a fully initiated man unless he had a wife. So he brought Math into the plan and together they spiralled deep into their most powerful magic. They gathered the flowers of oak, broom and meadowsweet, never usually found together, and arranged them just so. For three days and nights they chanted powerful spells and incantations. On the last morning, beneath the heap of flowers, lit by rays from the rising sun, there she was… the naked body of a young woman, her eyes opening for the first time. Lleu was overjoyed with his bride and that night, after the wedding feast, they slept together. Because she was made of flowers she was called Blodeuedd, the Woman of Flowers.

It could have been so simple. Lleu, the son of the Sun, married Blodeuedd, daughter of the Earth. He with eyes shining like the sun on pools of water, his back straight as a sunbeam; she as beautiful as the flowers of the Earth, singing songs to the sky. But life rarely is that simple. In time a cloud crossed their skies and their lives twisted into tragedy.

Math gave Lleu the cantref of Ardudwy (stretching from Maentwrog toward Dolgellau) to be his lands. There he and Blodeuedd set up court in Mur Castell (known now as Tomen y Mur) and all seemed well. But Blodeuedd wasn’t like other women. She’d heard about the laws of the land but she’d not grown into them. And though Lleu was kind to her and she liked him well enough, he never excited her. What she loved most was to go into the wildwood, to dance and sing. For at heart she was a tree spirit, a flower maiden. She left running court affairs to her senior women. Like a wild child she was more interested in mischief and play.

One day, when Lleu was away visiting Math and Gwydion, she heard the sounds of barking dogs, whinnying horses and shouting men as a hunt rode by her hall. The energy of the hunt excited her. Something about the raw, wild animality of it all set her pulse racing. After the hunters had felled the stag and baited the dogs she sent a messenger to invite them to dine with her. ‘After all,’ she said to her maidservants, ‘It would be bad manners not to.’

The leader of the hunt – Gronw Pebyr, Gronw the Radiant – was Lord of Penllyn, a cantref which stretched from the mighty mountain Cadair Idris in the south, to the head of Llyn Tegid in the east and right up to the sharp-peaked Cnicht in the north. To the west Gronw’s land adjoined Ardudwy, Lleu’s province. Perhaps Gronw had not noticed when he crossed the border; perhaps there was something fated in the way the stag led them to Mur Castell.

Inside the hall Gronw took off his boots and riding jacket, loosened his shirt ties and sat by the rough-hewntable with a leather mug of mead. Blodeuedd admired his powerful build, his thick beard, his laughing brown eyes. As the fire crackled and the candles flickered all the others disappeared in a buzz of merry chatter. Gronw’s eyes widened at the wonder before him. The woman of flowers. He’d heard of her beauty but in the flesh she was utterly entrancing. Her eyes, green as acorns, bewitched him. Her broom-yellow hair, loose over her shoulders, longed to be stroked. Her skin, creamy as meadowsweet, ached to be kissed. He was on fire. With no thought of consequences he reached out, drawn towards her delicate nectar like an intoxicated bee. Suddenly he was on his knees like a priest before his goddess. And she… said yes. She chose him, this half-wild man of beast and forest, and invited him into her bed.

They gave in to their passions all night long. He taught her so much of lovemaking. She showed him so much exquisite beauty. The next day in a daze he said he should leave but she said no, stay. His men long gone he stayed for a second divine night. But on the third day at last they talked of consequences. How can we live without this passion? We must be together. But what of Lleu? Come away with me. But he will seek us out. So he must be killed. That cannot be easily done. He is under a powerful protection. Find out the secret of his death. I will do it. Whatever it takes. For you…

Soon after Lleu returned to Mur Castell. But that night Blodeuedd was quiet and withdrawn. ‘What’s the matter, beloved?’ asked Lleu. ‘I’ve been worrying about you,’ said Blodeuedd softly, ‘and what would happen if you died.’ Lleu laughed. ‘Don’t worry about that. Unless God takes me I cannot be easily killed.’ ‘That’s a relief,’ said Blodeuedd. ‘But, there is a way, is there? Perhaps you should tell me so I can be sure it doesn’t happen. After all, a wife should guard her husband’s safety.’ Lleu smiled, touched by his wife’s care. ‘Well it’s all extremely unlikely,’ he said. ‘I can be killed neither inside nor outside, neither on foot nor on horseback.’ ‘I see what you mean,’ said Blodeuedd. ‘Sounds impossible.’ ‘Not only that,’ added Lleu, starting to enjoy the impossibility of it all, ‘I could only be killed by a spear that has been one year in the making, and then only on holy days.’ ‘So… is there a way someone could overcome all this?’ asked Blodeuedd, reaching out and stroking Lleu’s arm. Lleu paused, looked at his sweetheart, took a deep breath and confided to her his deepest secret. ‘If there was a thatched bathtub by the river, and if I was to stand with one foot on the side of the tub and the other on the back of a billy-goat, and if someone were to strike me with that year-in-the-making spear, then and only then would I die.’ ‘Good,’ said Blodeuedd. ‘That’s not going to happen is it!’

But the next day she sent a message to Gronw to start work on the spear. For his part he felt as if he had drunk a witch’s brew. He had only once choice. He’d never spent a year making a spear before. It would be the spear of spears. Taken from an ancient, bleeding yew, from a branch that was straight and true, Gronw whittled it down to the heart, hardened it in the fire, fletched it and tipped it with poison. After a year he sent the message: ‘I’m ready.’ Blodeuedd, for her part, had arranged for a thatched bathhouse to be built and had alerted the nearby goatherd.

Lleu was riding home from Caer Dathyl along the northern bank of the Glaslyn River. His horse knew the path and the reins lay slack in his hands. He came to a ford and the horse plunged in, the swirling river up to his boot heels. On the other bank Lleu glimpsed a smooth, rounded standing stone he knew well. Pryderi’s tombstone. He’d heard the story of Gwydion’s single combat with the Lord of the South, though not from Gwydion himself. Occasionally he caught twisted mutterings about Gwydion, oaths carelessly uttered by those who’d lost loved ones in the battle. ‘All for that stupid brother of his,’ he once heard. ‘Poor Goewin,’ some of the women had said. Gwydion might be a clever wizard and a good storyteller but he was not liked by everybody. He’d been a good uncle to Lleu, though, helpful and loving. He’d taught him secrets he’d revealed to no other man. Maybe Gwydion was making up for his dark past in his love for Lleu.

Blodeuedd greeted Lleu with a smile and a gentle kiss. Soon he was busy giving orders to his men and later telling Blodeuedd the news from Math’s court. He didn’t notice anything different about her. That wasn’t unusual. But inside Blodeuedd was different. For the first time in her fragile existence she was about to act. She was going to do something mighty. A chill breeze made the soft petals round her heart flutter and tremble. All the pieces of her plan were in place. Gronw had been told. Tomorrow was the day.

In the morning she squeezed Lleu’s hand and said: ’It’s midsummer’s day. Let’s go down to the river. I have a treat for you! Let me bathe you in my new bath house.’ It sounded good. Lleu was tempted. Besides, he liked to humour his wife. As they walked down the earthen path birds sang, the summer flowers bloomed. A thatched roof perched over a new wooden tub full of steaming water. Her maidens had done as she’d asked. ‘Come,’ she said, helping him to slip off his clothes. With a deep sigh he sank into the fragrant water. She soaped his muscled back and shoulders, washed his hair. Lleu dissolved in the pleasure of it, never for a moment suspecting a thing.

Blodeuedd didn’t fully comprehend what she was doing. She only knew that a strange memory of overwhelming desire was driving her on. She turned and nodded to the old goatherd who tethered a shaggy, long-horned billy by the side of the bathhouse. When Lleu was finished he stepped dripping out of the water and wrapped a cloth around his waist. ‘Look, a goat!’ she said. ‘What did you say about standing on a bath and a goat? How funny! You could do it now. If it happened once it would never happen again. But how? You’d slip wouldn’t you?’ ‘No,’ said Lleu, entranced by the water, sun, flowers, her laughing voice, not hearing the bees buzzing around her heart… ‘Like this.’

He rose up, one foot on the edge of the tub, the other, unsteady at first, on the back of the goat. She reached out her hand to steady him. Slowly he straightened to his full height. He took a deep breath. Through the oaks a shaft of sunlight fell upon him. Fresh, clean and invigorated he stood tall, let go of her hand and spread his arms. ‘There, you see!’

A wren hopping in a hawthorn was chirping fiercely. A shadow fell across the sunbeam. Too late he saw the spear speeding towards him, sneering, heart-hungry and shaggy with barbs. Too late, too late. It pierced skin, flesh, bone, heart… He crumpled and for a moment was suspended in the air. Then a dark shape fell upon him with wings spread wide. Claws sank into his shoulders, his body was ebbing away, shrinking, failing, falling apart. The great bird flapped its wings once, twice, three times – as if lifting the Earth – then flew off through the trees and was gone.

She stood. Where was he? Was this what Death means? Not even a warm hand gone cold. Just emptiness, a space. What was this in the corner of her eye? She wiped away a tear and looked up. A dark, raging passion was running towards her. Ah yes, this was why. This was what it was for. He swept her up in his arms.

Gronw the Radiant and Blodeuedd, Woman of Flowers, went to Lleu’s Hall and that night they slept together. The next day Gronw took possession of Lleu’s land so that Ardudwy and Penllyn were under his control. For many weeks Gronw and Blodeuedd enjoyed being together. But as the weeks stretched into months a gnawing feeling grew in Gronw. He knew this couldn’t last. He had murdered a man, a lord no less and one beloved by two powerful men. Sooner or later they would be on his trail to exact revenge.

When Gwydion heard what had happened he set out to find his nephew. He wandered wide until he came to a house in Arfon where he heard from a swineherd about a sow that left her pen every morning and ran swiftly off. ‘No one can catch her,’ he said, ‘No one knows where she goes.’ ‘Wait for me in the morning,’ said Gwydion. At daybreak he was there and followed the sow briskly up the Nantlle valley. She stopped under an oak tree and began to eat. When Gwydion got closer he realised to his dismay that she was devouring rotting flesh and maggots. He looked up into the tree and in the topmost branches spied an eagle. It did not look well. When it ruffled its feathers rotting flesh and maggots fell to the ground, so sustaining the sow. He sensed this bird was none other than Lleu, transformed and barely alive. So he sang an englyn, a powerful magical spell, and the eagle dropped half way down the tree. He sang a second and it came into the lower branches. Finally a third englyn brought the bird before his feet. And there, with his magic wand, he turned it back into Lleu. But Lleu on death’s door. He knelt down, scooped him up and carried him home. It took Gwydion a whole year, using all his healing powers, to bring Lleu back to health again. And when he did they knew the first thing they must do was to punish Gronw and Blodeuedd. Lleu wanted to take on Gronw. Gwydion said he’d deal with the Flower Maiden.

When Blodeuedd and her maidens saw Gwydion approaching Mur Castell they took off for the mountain. But the maidens were so fixed on looking back at their pursuers that they didn’t see where they were going and fell into a lake. All were drowned and the lake is still known as Llyn y Morynion, ‘The Lake of the Virgins’. Blodeuedd herself, however, did not meet this fate. To her pleading for mercy Gwydion said: ‘I will not kill you. You came from Nature and to Nature you shall return. I shall transform you into a bird. But a bird that dares not show its face in daylight for fear of being mobbed by other birds. All for the shame you brought upon Lleu’. With a sweep of his wand Gwydion turned Blodeuedd into Blodeuwedd, the flower-faced owl. And so is the owl still called today.

Gronw Pebr was shocked to hear that the man he thought he’d killed was after him. He fled to Penllyn. When Lleu caught up with him Gronw offered land and gold in recompense, but Lleu was not interested. ‘You must stand in the same place I stood,’ he said, ‘and allow me to throw a spear at you.’ Gronw tried to persuade one of his retinue to take the blow for him, but not one of them would. As a result they became ‘One of the Three Disloyal Warbands of Britain.’ So the two men went to the banks of the Cynfael River and Gronw stood where Lleu had been. At the last minute Gronw said: ‘Since I acted through the deceit of a woman, please, in God’s name, let me put that stone between me and the blow.’ And Lleu said he could. So Gronw lifted a huge stone and crouched behind it. Then Lleu, the Fair One with the Deft Hand, took aim and threw the spear, straight as a beam of light. It seared through stone and flesh, bone and heart. Gronw Pebr, Gronw the Radiant, Lord of the Beasts and Wildman of the Woods, lay dead, killed by the Lord of Light. The stone with the hole lies there to this day and is known as Llech Gronw, Gronw’s Stone.

As for Lleu he took back his lands and, according to the tale, after Math’s death became Lord of Gwynedd and ruled over the country well. And so ends this branch of the Mabinogi.

My thanks to Eric for allowing me to reproduce this story

You can find more info about the work of Eric Maddern here and here

And more about the history press folktales series here:


Cover Stories – John the Painter


There have been a few occasions that on my first read through of a text, something will jump out at me immediately and with such force that I know it will be the cover even though I have yet to read the rest and I have not even started to make notes. Ceredigion was one of these… When I came across this paragraph in the tale of John the Painter I was transfixed.
“And then he saw her. A dignified lady with ivy and rowan berries twined in her hair, cheeks pinched as pink as campion, a flowing gown of red. The Queen of the Fair Folk. “Who are you, Mortal?” she asked. “My name is John. I’m a painter,” he replied with a big grin. The Queen laughed. “We have no need of painters. We are art itself. We are nature. We do not grow old or decay like you. Do you have anything to offer us, Mortal?”
She seemed to be looking at me out of the page already… But how she should be framed eluded me for a while… I didn’t want John in the picture because in this context we are John, under her appraising eye. I found some mention in the text of the Mari Lwyd, and although the natural home of the grey mare is not really Ceredigion, I felt that she too could go wherever she pleased and was perfect company for a Welsh queen of fairy folk.

I have always been fascinated by the Mari Lwyd as an object and a tradition and even contemplated making myself a mini one out of a sheep skull I found (I might do it yet! )

To decorate and parade something so resonant with thoughts of death and decay as a skull seems to speak to many of our most ancient fears and desires and there are also many deities in the pantheon of old gods associated with horses including Epona, the Celtic goddess of horses and fertility and the strong connection between Rhiannon and horses in the Mabinogion.

dark mischief and the turn of the year seem twinned in so many ways too.

In Wales the fair folk, or Tylwth Teg ride out on horses in procession, bestowing gifts on those they favour that will always vanish if spoken of. So here they are together, the grey mare and her queen, as enigmatic as ever, just as we will always want them to be…


The Mari Lwyd

The Mari Lwyd itself consists of a mare’s skull fixed to the end of a wooden pole with coloured ribbons and bells and white sheets fastened to the base of the skull, concealing the pole and the person carrying it. The eye sockets are often filled with bottle-ends and the lower jaw is often spring-loaded, so that the Mari’s operator can snap it at passersby. During the ceremony, the skull is carried through the streets of the village by a party that stands in front of every house to sing traditional songs in a rhyme contest (pwnco) between the Mari party and the inhabitants of the house, who challenge each other with insulting verses. This generally occurred around new year and was sometimes associated with wassailing customs at that time of year.

The song of the Mari Lwyd (translation)

Well, gentle friends
Here we come
To ask may we have leave
To ask may we have leave
To ask may we have leave
To sing.

If we may not have leave,
Then listen to the song
That tells of our leaving
That tells of our leaving
That tells of our leaving

We have cut our shins
Crossing the stiles
To come here
To come here
To come here

If there are people here
Who can compose englynion
Then let us hear them now
Then let us hear them now
Then let us hear them now

If you’ve gone to bed too early
In a vengeful spirit,
Oh, get up again good–naturedly
Oh, get up again good–naturedly
Oh, get up again good–naturedly

The large, sweet cake
With all kinds of spices:
O cut generous slices
O cut generous slices
O cut generous slices
This Christmas–tide.

O, tap the barrel
And let it flow freely;
Don’t share it meanly
Don’t share it meanly
Don’t share it meanly
This Christmas–tide.

if you would like to listen to the song in it’s original form you can find it here

the Mari Lwyd I based my illustration on in glorious action here…

The tradition declined in the early 20th century but has recently been revived in many parts of Wales, including Ceredigion, which incorporated ‘The world’s largest Mari Lwyd’ into it’s millennium celebrations

It has been suggested that it was the the Welsh Methodist revival that contributed to the decline of both the Mari Lwyd and a number of other Welsh folk customs. In 1802, the harpist Edward Jones of Merioneth published a book in which he lamented the destructive impact that Christian preachers were having on Welsh folk customs, which they were criticising as sinful. In his view, “the consequence is, Wales, which was formerly one of the merriest and happiest countries in the World, is now becoming one of the dullest”. Reflecting such a view, in 1852 the Reverend William Roberts, a minister at Blaenau Gwent condemned the Mari Lwyd and other related customs as “a mixture of old Pagan and Popish ceremonies… I wish of this folly, and all similar follies, that they find no place anywhere apart from the museum of the historian and antiquary.”
Long live the Mari Lwyd I say…

and now the Story,

John the painter – shared with the kind permission of Ceredigion author Peter Stevenson

In Aberaeron around the 1860s, there lived a tall gangly young man, a loafer, a dreamer, a bit of a painter, by name John Davies. He had lost his job as a carpenter, but fancied he could paint walls and furniture as easily as canvases. He was cheerful and enthusiastic and had a high opinion of his artistic talent, for confidence is often given as compensation to those with limited ability. But John was touched with genius. He could play the flute, he could play Mozart, Min Mair, and the Witches from MacBeth, he was loved at the local twmpaths. Play music and you’ll always have friends and food, but John was happier chasing squirrels to steal their fur for his brushes.
He was painting the Vicarage at Nantcwnlle near Llangeitho, when he was sent the nine miles to Aberaeron to buy provisions. After filling his rucksack he set off back with dusk approaching, making sure he had some bread in his pocket to appease the fairies should he encounter them. Instead of following the Aeron, he cut over the hill to Cilcennin to save a couple of miles. He thought to stop for a beer at the Commercial but knew the locals would ask him to play his flute, so he wound his weary way till he came to the Rhiwlas Arms, where the locals recognised him and invited him to play airs in exchange for drinks. By the time he’d played Ar Hyd y Nos and Glan Meddwdod Mwyn over and over, it was twilight and he was a little merry and remembering why he preferred painting. He set off, wobbling gently, and as soon as the light of the pub was behind him, the darkness hit him. It was as dark as a cow’s stomach, the darkness you only find in Ceredigion, and he could barely see the road in front of him. A ghost owl flew over his head and his heart skipped a beat. A fox leapt out in front of him and met his gaze with yellow eyes before loping away, more frightened than John. He knew where he was, up on the moor road leading to Nantcwnlle, and he was looking for the light of Peggi Ty-clottas to guide him, old Peggi’s house, the only house on the moor. John made for the light, but found himself in a bog, and the water seeped through the eyeholes in his boots. He waded on and followed the light. It seemed to be moving in a circle and jumping occasionally. When he came close he could see the light was a fairy ring. Every bone in his body told him to turn, but his heart pulled him inside the ring, and there they were, dancing ladies, almost the size of himself, all so beautiful, wearing white dresses, whirling in a circle, and one took him by the hand and he joined the corelw and he couldn’t take his eyes off the girl who had taken his hand, and he danced as never before, forgetting that everyone laughed at his awkward gangly movements, for now he believed he was Nureyev, and he was so besotted with the fair face of his companion that he hadn’t noticed the dancing had stopped.
The air was still. There was a smell of honeysuckle and bindweed. All the ladies were standing, breathing elegantly while John was perspiring and panting. And then he saw her. A dignified lady with ivy and rowan berries twined in her hair, cheeks pinched as pink as campion, a flowing gown of red. The Queen of the Fair Folk. “Who are you, Mortal?” she asked. “My name is John. I’m a painter,” he replied with a big grin. The Queen laughed. “We have no need of painters. We are art itself. We are nature. We do not grow old or decay like you. Do you have anything to offer us, Mortal?” John pulled his flute from his pocket and played airs from every land, from the Bonny Bunch o’ Roses to the Banks o’ the Bann. No one moved, no one smiled, and no one danced. “Have I displeased you, ma’am? Didn’t you like my playing?” The Queen spoke “Those are not our tunes. We are Welsh fairies.” So John broke into Owen Alaw and the ladies began to whirl and caper, and when he finished, he asked for a beer, and the laughter stopped. “Oh not again,” thought John. The Queen spoke icily, “We are teetotal.” Well, John played music all that night and the fair folk danced while the Queen watched. She spoke, “Mortal Man, you have pleased us. Take what you wish from us.” John, quick as a jack-the-lad, took hold of the hand of the fairy lady who had been dancing with him and asked for her hand in marriage. The Queen agreed, providing they return to Trichrug Hill once a year to play. John agreed, and they sealed their love with a kiss and they were about to taste each others lips when
“Is that you, John Davies? You good-for-nothing loafer.” It was old Peggi Ty-clottas from the cottage who’s light he had been looking for. She had heard the music and the dancing and seen the light, and she thought it was a corpse candle come to tell her someone was about to die. So she took a candle, and she found him, John Davies, sitting beneath a tree playing his flute, with soggy feet and a heavy backpack. He looked angry. “You’ve spoiled everything. Everything. I had a bargain. I nearly had a wife.”
Peggi took him by the hand and led him to her home, muttering, “Come on, Johnny, it’ll be alright.” From that day on he played for every dance and gathering, and told everyone who would listen that he was flautist to the fairies and almost took one for his wife. Most people just smiled and said, “Poor John. Poor long legged, gangly John.”

Tale of two countries – the discovered country

I will very soon be making my third trip down to the Moroccan Sahara in pursuit of big skies, shifting sands and inspiration for my first self generated book illustration project…I fell in love with the desert a year and a half ago and wanted to find a way to share this feeling with others through my work. It is such a very special place with breathtaking landscape and wonderful people…

So the two stories I am working with for my book are from this beautiful, eternal, wild place and another much closer to home and about which I will be writing soon, from my own heritage. But…they are essentially the same story.

Separated by thousands of miles and passed down the generations in two widely differing cultures, a shared story, alive in the traditional storytelling of both Scots and Moroccans. It is a story of love, betrayal, murder, transformation, and retribution that also appears in other forms across Europe, most notably as the Juniper tree

The particular version I am working with lives not only in the Scottish regions of Dumfries and Galloway, one of my most recent folktales covers, and Aberdeenshire, where I chose it to be the cover image a couple of years ago, but also in the Moroccan desert. When a Saharaoui friend from M’hamid, on the edge of the Sahara, who knows I am interested in stories sent me their version of it I was so struck with it’s similarity to the Scottish tales I already knew I felt I had to explore the link between them somehow. It has always seemed to me that stories connect us in ways that transcend distance and differences in culture and tap into those feelings that we all share as human beings clinging to this tiny globe. It may also be that there is some direct link between the people of both these places and that is a possibility I am going to explore too.

I work with images, a language that to me also feels universal and can be shared without the need for translation. This is only the start of my journey with these stories, I hope very much that you will share it with me.

As I am an illustrator and artist rather than a storyteller it feels the most appropriate and exciting way for me to explore the stories is through drawing and painting as well as through hands on art workshops with people.

I hope to run workshops in schools in both Morrocco and Scotland in time, with some of the resulting artwork becoming part of the book

I will share the stories themselves with you soon…

If you are interested in visiting the desert with me you can find more information here:

Cover stories – The Green Children


I used to visit London frequently as my father lived there for many years, and one of my favourite ways to pass an afternoon was to go to the British museum alone and spend hours in just one or two of the galleries, sketching or just gazing at the beautiful human things and imagining who made them and how… I remember being incredibly moved when I looked closely at a decorated box from Egypt about 2000 years old and saw how the painter had realised he or she didn’t quite have the space left to do what they had planned, I followed the “how can I make this work? Thought process that then ensued through to it’s elegant conclusion and felt I had a long distance relationship with this artist somehow across so much time and space. The British is a space where on a quiet day you can travel through time and almost feel the breath of the people who created the artefacts against your cheek…

The first time I saw the Sutton hoo helmet I could only stand and gape foolishly…I think it is one of the most stunning objects I have ever seen and I have been back to see it often since. For me it’s beauty lies as much in its decay as in its conception and craftsmanship and I find the bright new reproduction of what it may have originally looked like a little brash and soulless by comparison.

So when I received the manuscript for Suffolk folk tales by Kirsty Hartsiotis and there was mention of the helmet in it my heart leapt. But it didn’t actually feature in any of the tales as such so I searched for a way to blend it with one of the ones in the book in a way that would enhance them both.

The Green children is a curious story which is presented very much as a true account, although explanations of the children’s colour and origin vary. Whatever you choose to believe it is a fascinating tale of the discovery of two otherworldly lost souls taken in by the populace of the settlement at Wool pit.

The idea of having one or both of the children peering through the helmet appealed enormously, making that eye socket a window between worlds, like the museum I love so much. So I began looking for ways of making it work… In the end I used the little girls face only for maximum impact and just a small section of the helmet around the left eye socket in detail. I built this one up very slowly. The child is entirely rendered in inktense and the helmet in watercolour and coloured pencil with considerable deployment of my embossing tool to add texture and depth. It was a labour of love, this one. I almost didn’t want to finish it.

And here is is the story itself, reproduced with the kind permission of Kirsty Hartsiotis

The Green Children

During the reign of King Stephen, Aylwin and Elstan of Woolpit were on their way through the woods to check their snares. They knew they had to be careful with their footing in this part of the wood, as there were pits in the claggy ground and blocks of old brick to trip over. The place was snarled with brambles and nettles, hardly a proper wood at all. No one came here, as it was said to be infested with wolves. Ideal for poaching.
That day they made their way up the slope about a mile from Woolpit, on the way to Elmswell. One snare had a young hare, which pleased them, but the rest were empty. Then Elstan caught a movement out of the corner of his eye.
‘Get out your sling,’ he whispered. ‘There’s something there.’
The two of them crept forward, further up the hill towards Elmswell, Alywin with his sling at the ready, until the ground suddenly dipped into a large bramble-filled pit. Elstan slipped, skidded and fell, and a scream filled the air.
A child’s scream.
They peered into the pit, and there, huddled among the brambles, were two children. The children were dressed in rough homespun like themselves, but there the similarity ended. These children were green from their thick hair down to their bare toes.
Aylwin and Elstan froze. Green was an unlucky colour, a fairy colour. But these were just children. The older, a girl, looked to be about nine or ten years, the boy several years younger. They were scratched and weeping, and didn’t look like a threat.
‘Who are you?’ asked Elstan. ‘How did you get here? Where are your folks?’
The children stared back at him, and the men realised that they couldn’t understand English. So Aylwin waded down into the pit and picked them up. They didn’t fight; just wept some more.
Back in Woolpit, the whole village turned out to see the wonder. It was soon decided that they couldn’t keep the children in Woolpit. Who would feed them? And would their landlord, the Abbot at Bury, approve of the ungodly things? Better to take them to someone who would find amusement in their novelty.
It was decided they should go to Sir Richard de Calne at Bardwell, eight miles away. He was the Constable of the hundred, and would know what to do. Aylwin and Elstan were volunteered to take them. It was a long trek for the children. They wept as the men chivvied them on, step by step, until they came to the edge of Bardwell.
There were three manors in Bardwell. Unsure where to go, the Woolpit men went first to Wyken Hall. The servants there drove them away with fleas in their ears. Past Bardwell Hall they went until at last they saw the squat tower of the church on a low hill ahead of them, and right beside it the manor house of Wikes.
Sir Richard received the green children with grave thanks and gave Aylwin and Elstansome coins to see them on their way.
‘You’ll see them treated right, my lord?’ asked Aylwin. ‘Them’s just children, when all’s said and done.’
‘No harm will come to them here,’ said Sir Richard.
The children were brought before him, tear and travel stained. They really were very green. But it was only fair to try to communicate with them. He knew that the villagers would only have their own English, so he tried his Norman-French and when that didn’t work he tried a few words of Flemish. Neither had any effect, save to make the children cry even more.
His wife, Sibylla, leaned forward and whispered, ‘Perhaps the poor mites are hungry. You can be sure those villeins wouldn’t have given them anything from their stores.’
So bread and cider and good meat were set before them. But the children just stared at the spread as if it was poison. Even when Lady Sibylla tore off some bread and ate it herself to give them the idea, the children just wept. The lord and lady looked at each other. Unspoken between them was the thought that this newly brought marvel would not last that long.
Just at that moment, a maid came in from the gardens with baskets of broad beans, and as they walked past both the children sat up and pointed.
‘Bring those beans here,’ cried Lady Sibylla, and she handed the basket to the children.
Immediately the children started pulling at the beans, but instead of trying to open the pods, they opened the stems. When they saw that they were empty, the tears started again. Lady Sibylla took the pods and snapped them open to reveal the beans inside. As soon as they saw the beans both the children gave cries of joy and started to stuff the raw beans in their mouths.
After that they settled into the household. Sir Richard saw to it that while they were set simple tasks by the servants, they also received instruction in English and French. He made the priest their tutor, as they seemed to have no knowledge of God.
The girl thrived under this care. Her long green hair and green skin soon glowed with health, and she was soon speaking a few simple words to make her needs known. The boy was different. After the bean harvest was over, the girl began to eat other things – vegetables at first, then bread, although she would never touch meat. But the boy wouldn’t eat. His sister tried to tempt him with all sorts of dainties that the kitchen staff gave her, but he just turned away. She tried taking him out just before sunrise and just after sunset, and that pleased him a little, but he shied away from the bright sunshine. Soon enough he was too sick to go out, and before harvest time was over he was dead.
Lady Sibylla spoke quietly to the priest, and he was buried outside the west end of the church, with the other unbaptised babes, to catch what holiness he could. His sister seemed grateful, but it was hard to tell.
The girl would walk out from the manor whenever she could, wandering over the Black Bourn and through the reedbeds and the stubbly fields. All the field hands knew to watch her, in case she strayed too far, but she never did. She would come back with bunches of the harvest flowers; loosestrife, mallow and deadnettles, take them to the little grave, and sit there quiet and alone.
By Christmas her English and French were good and she happily ate anything that was put in front of her. She went less to the grave and was soon at the heart of the household, laughing with the servants, playing rowdy games with the other children and even flirting a little with Sir Richard’s pages. Sir Richard noticed, too, that the greenness of her skin had faded a little and her hair had gained yellow tints. The marvel might soon be gone, so he gathered his friends together for a great Christmas feast and brought the girl out.
There were gasps of fear from his friends, and Sir Richard realised how used he was to her strangeness. She didn’t seem worried by the crowd. When he drew her forward to speak, she stepped up on the dais without any fear.
‘Tell us, child, how you came here,’ he asked. ‘Tell us of your own home.’
The girl lifted her gaze to the assembled nobles.
‘My brother and I were herding our father’s sheep that day. Our land isn’t like yours, but we do herd and farm like you do. I did this every day, but he was new to it, being young. One of our lambs got lost, and we set out after it. We could hear him bleating, so we just kept on going until we were far from our home. It was coming on for night when we found him, and when we turned to go back we realised we didn’t know the way. So we just walked and walked, and then, in the darkness, we both fell, and we plummeted down a long way until we landed on dry earth and saw a tunnel stretching out. And there were strange sounds all around us, sweet sounds, the like of which we’d never heard before, and those sounds drew us. We walked towards them. It seemed me that we walked all night. At last, we saw that there was light ahead, and we ran, hoping we’d be near our home, but as we came out the light was so bright that we both fell down in a faint. When we woke up those men were there, and they dragged us out and it was so bright, and so strange, and we couldn’t understand them at all.
‘Our land isn’t like yours. Yours is so bright! I find it lovely now, the sunshine on the flowers, but at home the sun is always beyond – just a distant glow to the west. Like twilight, it is gentle, quiet light. We’re all green. To see you pink people was a shock, but now it makes me laugh! And we would never eat the flesh of animals. It goes against all that is right. Our sheep were our friends; they gave us their wool so that we might be warm. But here everything is different. You have God to guide you – and the beautiful sound of the church bells that drew us here. Maybe it was God’s plan to bring us here … but’ – she glanced guiltily at Sir Richard – ‘sometimes I wonder if I went back to Woolpit I might find my way home.’
Her words were a sensation. No one talked of anything else for a season. But soon new stories came to take the place of the marvel. The girl began to change as well. She was baptised, and given a name: Agnes. Slowly, as the season passed from winter into spring and from spring into summer, her greenness dwindled away, until her skin was simply pale and her hair simply fair. Those who came seeking the green child went away disappointed.
But Sir Richard remembered what she had said. So he had his men take her to Woolpit. The two farmers, Aylwin and Elstan, were fetched, and they showed the girl where they had found her. But though the brambles were cleared, there was nothing to be seen there but heavy clay. After that, Agnes never mentioned her first home again. She threw herself into the life of Wikes Manor and seemed to want to forget her origins.
Sir Richard saw that, though she was baptised, there were some things that made her different. She still liked to wander alone by the stream at sunset. More worryingly, she was drawn to the young men and seemed to see nothing wrong in exchanging kisses with his squires. It was disruptive, and he worried that there would soon be a shame she couldn’t hide. With one of the lads, from Lynn in Norfolk, Sir Richard thought there was something more serious with him than just the flirting, so he gave Agnes a fine dowry, and she was married.
Agnes lived the rest of her life in Lynn and gave birth to several children. None of them was green, but it was said that her descendants were all fun-loving and didn’t fear God as much as they should.
© Kirsty Hartsiotis, 2012


Cover Stories – The Rathcoffey Pooka

The Pooka or púca (Irish for spirit/ghost), phouka, phooka, phooca, puca or púka is a much feared creature in Irish Folklore.

A solitary spirit, often malevolent, sometimes generous, always capricious.

It assumes many shapes and although most often a horse, can appear as a goat, a bull, an ass, a dog or even an eagle. Or occasionally a melding of one of these with a human form… Like all spirits, it is only half in the world

I was drawn to this story because it was a different take on the Pooka tale and because I have always been fascinated by the idea of shapeshifting and here was an opportunity to imagine it… I chose the transformation scene as I wanted to explore what the inbetween stage from boy to horse might look like and also to show the surprise at becoming a horse on a horses face…

Shapeshifting is a recurring theme in story in every culture of the world and has been written about, spoken about and depicted since the dawn of time. The idea that we could become the animals we shared our space with, not only to run, fly or swim with the ease that they do but to have the shape of those stronger and swifter than ourselves must have been a powerful one for our early ancestors and shapeshifting has always been connected with the actions of deities, the denizens of the otherworld or the excercise of Magic.

Shapeshifting also plays with our ideas of what it is to be human and whether our sense of superiority over and separation from the natural world is as thin as gossamer and can be taken from us so easily, plunging us into potentially darker and more sensual places and making us aware of our animal selves. So shapeshifting as a punishment could be a terrifying concept to so very many of us.

But perhaps if we could reconnect more with these wild aspects of ourselves and be less afraid of the beast within us all we would be more respectful of the beasts out there too and able to appreciate wildness more and domestication less.

So is the pooka out there? Lurking in the hills and forests, or should we seek to find it in the nearest mirror…


Possibly the earliest depiction of a shapeshifter? Or a Shaman? Or maybe both…cave painting at Trois Freres, 13,000 BC

Here is part of the story of the Rathcoffey Pooka from Kildare Folk tales, reproduced with the kind permission of Steve Lally.
“When Archibald returned they never told him about the strange goings on at night after all the merriment was over and the all the crockery and cooking ware was left in the kitchen to be washed. Oh! No! they never dared mention how none of them had dared enter the kitchen after midnight as they were all scared out of their wits by the sound of banging and clattering coming from the kitchen all this cacophony accompanied by the sound of hysterical laughter and whistling. And every morning to their amazement the kitchen was always found spotless and everything clean and in its place. You could have eaten your dinner off the floor it was so well scrubbed.
Now there was a young scullery boy that lived and worked at the castle and he was a very lazy boy… he was so lazy the only time he would lift his hand to do something was when he wished to scratch his head or pick his nose. He was so lazy that he made his Mammy cry.

Now Rathcoffey Castle was a great place for a boy like this to work in as he never had to do a stroke. Shur’ it was heaven altogether, and why should he do anything when what ever it was coming to the kitchen at night was doing such a fine job, far better than he could ever do himself.
Well one night out of curiosity and boredom he decided to see who or what was making all the noise and doing all the cleaning. He waited till all the ware was brought into the kitchen and left piled high to the ceiling with the mice atein’ away at them. He decided to build himself a nice big fire in the fireplace and he knew that no one would bother him as they were all too frightened to go into the kitchen after dark. He lay down on some cushions before the hearth. Ah! It was a grand fire indeed. He could feel the warmth of the flames against his face, smell the aromatic smoke as it curled up the chimney. The flames threw shadows on the walls like dancing demons and he was eased into a deep sleep by the gentle sound of the wood crackling.
Then all of a sudden he was woken by the most terrible howling and shrieking, he could hear the words ‘I’ve got ya now ya boy ya! I’ve got ya now!’ bellowed into his face. The boy looked up in terror and standing above him was a great black horse with red eyes like burning coals and steam hissing out of its curled nostrils.
‘Whooo are you?’ stammered the boy, his heart pounding with fear. The horse grinned at him revealing two rows of ivory white teeth and there was a glint of menace in the creatures eye that sent a shiver down the boy’s spine.
The horse pulled over a chair and sat down in it and crossed his legs, he then reached in to his big black mane and produced a large clay pipe. He lit the pipe, took a deep drag out of it and exhaled the thick smoke out his nostrils. Then he cleared his throat and spat onto the fire causing it to hiss like an angry serpent. And then the horse began…
‘I am the Pooka Horse, I dwell amongst the ruins and the hilltops, I have been driven monstrous by much solitude and they say I am of the race of the Nightmare! But I was once boy like you, a lazy boy just like you!’ The Pooka Horse looked ever so pleased with himself as he went on to tell the poor boy his story. ‘I was so lazy, I made my Mammy cry and the fairies were so angry with me they sent a big black Pooka Horse, who threw me on his back and ran the full length and breadth of Ireland with me holding on for dear life. He ran to the south, where he took me to the top of Mount Carrantuohill in the County Kerry and he howled like a wolf, then he took me to the West where my teeth chattered as his hooves clattered across the mighty Burren in the County Clare, then he took me to the North where he jumped across ‘Maggie’s Leap’ in the County Down and finally he brought me to the East Where my heart pounded as he bounded across the plains of the Curragh of Kildare. He came to a sudden halt and I was sent flying into the furze bushes and when I came to I was no longer a boy but the great black Pooka Horse that you see before you now’.
The creature went on to explain that there was a curse upon him. ‘I would remain a Pooka horse and travel the land seeking out lazy people and when I found them, I would have to carry out all their chores and labour. The only way I could break the spell was to find a boy or a girl lazier than I was, and catch them sleeping when they should be working. The Pooka grinned menacingly at the boy and took a deep drag from his pipe. He went on ‘I found you a long time ago boy, dozing about, skiving off your duties and playing truant. All I had to do was to catch you sleeping, I waited and worked here doing all your chores and now I got Ya!’ Ha!’roared the Pooka Horse. ‘Please!’ begged the boy, ‘Please give me one last chance, I promise I will never be lazy again and do all that is asked of me and more’. The Pooka Horse leered down at the boy and curled back his lips in a snarl, revealing those terrible teeth, hissing at the boy he said ‘We’ll see, we’ll see…’ With that the Pooka put out his pipe, pushed it back into his mane, stood up, turned and opened the door. The boy heard him galloping across the plain outside, crying ‘We’ll see!, We’ll see!’
The poor lad jumped up and began to scrub, mop and wash everything in the kitchen. He did this every day and night for a brave long while. And there was no sign of the Pooka Horse.The people of Rathcoffey Castle were very pleased with and proud of their scullery boy, and they rewarded him well and he had a day off every week to do as he pleased. And they were no longer full of fear at night with all that strange commotion going on in the kitchen.
So as time went on the boy began to think that the Pooka Horse was a thing of the past, in fact he started to believe that he imagined the whole experience. And he had been working so hard, far harder than anyone else in the castle and he deserved a night off. He was due a holiday the following week, but he could not wait.
So one night after the festivities were over and all the dirty dishes were brought into the kitchen, he went inside as before and built himself a large fire. Ah! How lovely it was, he needed a rest and this was well deserved.
It was not long before he drifted off to sleep, snoring away contentedly…
‘Ahhhhhhh! Ha! Ha! I got you now for sure ya boy ya!’ The boy jumped out of his sleep absolutely terrified, his heart beating in his breast.
Standing above him was the Pooka Horse, he grabbed the boy in his arms and roared with laughter in his face then dropped the boy to the floor. The boy gawked in disbelief as the monster turned back into human form and he watched as his own body began to cover with hair and his hands turn to hooves. Standing before him was a young man looking ever so pleased with himself, then he turned and ran from the house singing out ‘I’m free!, I’m free!’.
The scullery boy had become a Pooka Horse and was doomed to search the land for a boy or girl lazier than him to lift the terrible curse. But he could not bring himself to punish a child in such a dreadful way. So instead he went about the helping the poor, weak and the sick. He helped wherever he could and never slacked on any job he started. He did all this without anyone knowing who did it or receiving any thanks. Then one day many years later the curse was lifted and he was no longer a boy but a young man. And he then travelled from house to house, school to school telling young people his story warning them of what might happen if they were lazy. And somewhere out there roams another Pooka Horse who is keen to pass the curse on to someone else, so be wary and diligent in your work, for he might come looking for you”


All the folk tales books can be purchased from the History Press, or direct from me (signed copy) at

Cover Stories – Da Hallamas Mareel

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.

And finally

whilst going over my research for this blog I came across these beautiful images by  photographer Gemma Ovens

( 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, or direct from me (signed copy) at