Communication Across Vast Distance



At The Well Of A Worlds End


“I am a scientist I will leave the guessing games to you” (1)


1695: Towards A “Useful and Experimental Philosophy”

“The Isles here described are but little known or considered, not only by strangers, but even by those under the same government and climate. The modern itch after the knowledge of foreign places is so prevalent that the generality of mankind bestow little thought or time upon the place of their nativity. It is become customary in those of quality to travel young into foreign countries, whilst they are absolute strangers at home; and many of them are only loaded with superficial knowledge, as the bare names of famous libraries, stately edifices, fine statues, curious paintings, late fashions, new dishes, new tunes, new dances, painted beauties, and the like.” (2)


Ethnology has traditionally, (though by no means in its history exclusively) confined itself to recording the traditions of one particular class in Scotland, the peasant population. The subject can begin to be studied properly from the late 17th century when scientific methods of recording and observation were first tentatively deployed by a fluid group of antiquarians, naturalists, medical doctors, scientists and other interested members of the literate classes (some of the earliest records may be military in origin) . In terms of folk tales the archive springs into life in the 19th century when J.F. Campbell funded by his relative the duke of Argyle undertook a systematic study of the story-tellers of the Western Isles, using a network of collectors to accurately record the spoken word performers of this community. Before this period and particularly before the introduction of the printing press the written material at our disposal is almost certainly the very small tip of a a very large spoken iceberg. But with out accurate observation and recording this information borne and sustained by the breath is dead to us.

The subject cannot exist without this method of working. Information has to be carefully recorded, analysis is rooted in this archive and record keeping system built up from its beginnings in the late 17th century. Analysis is crafted on careful detailed observation, comparison and measurement. This form of evidence is of high value within institutions and a distinct terminology and language is built around these working methods. A subject grows. I do not however see this as the end of the subject.

Of Tailed Men

As a historian I am not just interested in looking at a subject from within itself, deal in a world of a text and its reception. To me these are not mutually exclusive subjects they are one. I take a particular interest in late 17th century Scottish Philosopher Lord Monboddo although that is perhaps not an accurate description, as what is particularly interesting is the often explosive and hostile reaction to his work from his contemporary audience and how perceptions of him build through time. In the 19th century dreamworld of giant sized men of science, one derogatory remark deployed was to dismiss a ‘Darwinist’ as historical parrot following the foolish beliefs of ‘Monboddoism’. The attempt to pin a giant sized monkey tale of ancient origin on a cultural image of science as a giant sized donkey of error was a popular pastime the media engaged in with glee (3). But the image also developed out of the understanding that questions surrounding the subject had developed before Darwin and perhaps out of sentimental pride on the part of a few romantic Scots who wanted to place one more stone on the cairn of Scottish knowledge. Science is a wider part of  a bigger culture picture. It is not simply a method. It is a tangled cultural phenomena surrounded by a diverse collection of foundation legends that seek to demonstrate the imagined origins of the subject and weave and whisper across the cultural spectrum within the various social groups that define themselves within a culture through such narratives.

I find exploring and acknowledging a world beyond the methods deployed, particularly so with regard to Ethnology as a subject. Part of the processes of recording and collection involves building a relationship of trust with informants. My particular area of interest is with beliefs in the supernatural realm particularly the evil eye. People are mistrustful of opening up about such things,” I don’t know anything about that but if you want to know anything about tattie digging I’ll be pleased to tell you.” To gain information on the target subject you have to wait to be invited in and the real evidence comes when the tape machine is switched off when you are invited in and treated as a guest in these discussions, which are often conducted at an intimate family level. A tape recording of a question and answer session, is nothing in comparison to watching narrative unfolded in it’s context. Here is the art of the subject. What the archive cannot in all cases capture in this moment in time. To be allowed in to peoples lives in this way is dependent on trust and respect. These beliefs and the social events in which they are deployed, debated and discussed form an intimate and very personal part of peoples lives.

Self preservation is natural to every living creature; and thus we see the several animals of the sea and the land so careful of themselves as to observe nicely what is agreeable and what is hurtful to them; and accordingly they choose the one and reject the other. The husbandman and the fisher could expect but little success without observation in their several enjoyments (4)

What Happens When A Method Is Deployed On You’re Doorstep?

I think I can say without any dispute that the notion that the evil eye the belief that a person has foreknowledge of who will die soon amongst the member’s of a particular community is not one that holds up to scientific inquiry. My terminology is poor and perhaps this is not the best way to put it, but I think at times that with subjects such as this that the relationship between what we see as the origin, as the significant explanation for ongoing repetition is not what it seems. Its a linear, static and pleasing  explanation that is subject to significant repetition when folk discuss the beliefs of others. Close observation of how these stories are told, the interaction and interjection of family members, the way inflection and voice is deployed to convince sections of the audience who may be moving away, the deployment of legendary proof as the tipping factor from skepticism to believer or very active agnostic, all build up and point to a picture of its uses within a culture that have nothing to do with the supernatural origin of the claim. In terms of belief a small number of people deploying these narratives in rural Scotland identify themselves with regard to religion as atheists. Identity is not always coherent and regular in how it manifests itself in cultural groups and can contain significant internal contradictions. This belief maintains group hierarchy and social position, in excluding members from the group (those believed to posses the evil eye) and limiting scope for social interaction it is useful in giving a community a strong sense of its own identity and is strong enough on occasion to sit somewhat uneasily with other forms of cultural identification.

“It’s I’ been” (It has always been done this way)

The traditional social structures of all of the latter cultural areas have been eclipsed in part or whole by contact with modern state systems, and the cultures themselves were dramatically transformed through relations with economic and social institutions (of modern state systems). (5)

Beliefs like the evil eye are a vital part of the way communities discuss, describe and negotiate a range of vital social and cultural activities. The range is fluid from the political or economic to the means by which groups negotiate an agreed sense of themselves. Communities express these concerns using a very specific form of language and ethnologists also discus these things in a very specific form of language. One thing that is often the case is that when small scale conservative rural communities hear an ethnological presentation using scientific observation and means of inquiry, it often provokes a less than pleasing response. It is viewed as non-sense and at times highly offensive nonsense.

“The angry consternation of their elders will not stop the youth of each culture from assuming characteristics from the others and then changing their cultures from within as they themselves assume leadership roles and act to make the external world consonant with their hybrid selves.

What then will happen when information flows over the geographic obstacles and cultural barriers that have divided human beings into thousands of isolated groups for most of history as a species?” (6)

Attempting to square this circle is somewhat vexing and difficult. Ethnology has since its inception struggled with the issue, as can be seen in the writing of both Martin Martin and J.F. Campbell as they attempt to find sense in their own Hybrid identity and the concern they show in regard to the increased interaction between the state, the different knowledge systems of the educated and the uneducated peasant classes, the majority class of the communities in which they came from. Some of the solutions or lines of inquiry they used are dead and may to modern scientists appear with a lack of historical context, nonsensical (Martin Martin’s faith in the second sight, J.F Campbell’s interest in the origin of tales, religion and race). But they deployed a method and the questions they struggled to answer are the same today as they were then.

I don’t think I can use the answer ‘ I would refer the irate speaker jumping up and down and going red in the face to the section in my paper labeled ‘method’ and try to walk away whistling, without acknowledging that my methods and the processes used are not unlike archeology and use a means of evidence gathering that are in themselves destructive. I don’t feel I can drive into a community using heavy machinery to dig a great big hole, grab the evidence and then walk away leaving a community to deal with a big empty void (which it will immediately fill). I am doing much more than simply deploying a method. I don”t see these questions as the responsibility of other people to clean up.

Certainly it seems to me a bit of a hallmark of a society that has proven itself inadequate in terms of giving people a sense of belonging and identification. (7)

Ethnology All Thought Dissolving

An ethnology cannot be viewed as simply a method of inquiry any more that it can be thought of as a branch of heritage preservation and nothing more or it has too much potential to become a somewhat contested, dysfunctional and divisive subject. It is also not just a question for academics it is one for a whole community. Not dealing with a method that is above question as it seeks to impose a sense of identity. When the state or its institutions has sought to use these methods in the past the results have been less than pleasant. This subject has a distinct history in Scotland and out of this environment and history has grown a distinctive subject and area of study and thought.

I deploy a very specific method, which I identify strongly with but I am still a contradiction, a repetition that learns but slowly and plots escape with difficulty and uncertainty. A creature and product of a particular environment and it’s cultures. A momentary inflection of it’s dreaming.


(1) Popular depiction of science, naturally exuberant Forensic Scientist responds to a detectives question in I.T.V Drama Series, Trial and Retribution, Aired Tuesday 26. Feb 2013.

(2) This new inward looking philosophy and method of scientifically observing the observers native environment is presented as a cure for the ills of a culture that the author views with the typical devolutionary social pessimism of his time. Martin Martin was a native of the Isles who trained as a Medical Doctor in Edinburgh and the Continent, the text also looks beyond the world of the isles to the relationship between a traditional culture and its relationship with the institutions of the early modern state. The book is an ambitious undertaking not just in its scope but in it’s discussion of second sight, the author hoped that a full scientific and philosophical investigation of the subject would reveal its workings to be measurable using scientific observation and would yield measurable data with regard to how such operations of mind and vision functioned. Martin Martin, A Description of the Western Isles of Scotland, Circa 1695, Edinburgh, 1994

(3)An uncharacteristic break from silence on the subject and a terse response to one example of much wider media phenomena written by Francis Darwin expressing his fathers opinion of the subject, Pleasing Appendages

(4) Introduction, Martin Martin, A Description of the Western Isles of Scotland, Circa 1695, Edinburgh, 1994

(5) Bettina Arnold & D Gibson Blair, Introduction: Beyond the Mists: Forging An Ethnological Approach to Celtic Studies, in, Celtic Chiefdom, Celtic State; The Evolution of Complex Social Systems in Prehistoric Europe, Cambridge, 1996

(6) Bruce E. Wexler, Brain and Culture, see also, The Damage Is Done

(7) Jimmy Reid, see To Reality And Beyond A Being Out Of Time


I read post below after constructing this one, but it is rather nice, terse and to the point observation on the importance of space and time and position in performance. Rails, roads, radio, television have all been suggested as the way in which older forms of traditional narrative die. In the social disruption and fracture of modern life, as family groups move from hearth and home. Changes in rhythm from the small to the large. Movement from Island time to the tick tock of the urban clock.

The patterns shift but we still find and seek out spaces in which we can be ourselves or become other things.

When the spoken word no longer has a context, a space in which it can be told, it either forgets itself and ceases to be or alters form, the longer traditional tales of the story-teller required a continual context in which they could be told as this act of performance also keeps it in memory. They live on the breath in a state of perpetual motion. These places in time inspire movement from breath to breath, they make it possible for things to spring to mind, transform and blossom out in the fragile breeze blown world in which such things come to life for a brief moment and are seen and sensed by other beings. In this space anything is possible.

Bill Benzon, Long Distance By Train

One other retrospective note and reminder, if not in the foreground of this construction a background note, A farewell post from John Wilkins who’s blog I have read for years, this particular post is a bit like dining on a dish of ‘Chinese frog’ at my local Chinese restaurant, takes some translation for me and my slow moving brain. The Well of A Worlds end was chosen before Johns announcement to not engage in blogging but his thoughts and observations in this form of electronic media will be missed. I will be forced to buy his new book to get a fix! I found Evolving Thoughts rather unusual and attractive when I first read it for a specific reason. How did a philosopher get such a subtle grasp of ethnology and ethnography? It is a thread to his thought that bubbles and flows in the background and it is unusually observant and sophisticated. Magic or extensive years worth of reading through a range of subjects? Ethnological pathways and the manner in which it examines the transmission of ideas the movement within and around ideological systems is not confined to the purely text based approach of history. It is a means to deal with gaps and ruptures in such records and also adds a wider inflection to a history.  The relationship between the two subjects is entangled.

John Wilkins,Knowing Things In Semantic Space. 

Its A Miricle! Deserving Poor Identified From Within The Teaming Horde Of the Feckless and The Damned

Today’s News: Rejoice For He Shall Walk Amongst The Righteous

Feelgood pew filler, on charity, inequality, morality and its consequences.

Women drops expensive wedding ring in homeless mans cup by mistake. She returns next day to find it and Homeless man hands it back. He receives $150,000 in donations after online page broadcasting the ‘miracle’ is set up by the ‘lucky’ couple.

Homeless man retrospectively claimed he felt as if he had the devil whispering on his shoulder but resisted such temptation and is keen to stress that his grandfather was a preacher, giving further foundations to make sense out of the event. It’s also flagged in the story that it has helped to restore peoples faith; wither that new found renewal is to be found in Jesus, the dollar or the reason to feel comfortable with inequality I will leave an open question depending on preference. They would all appear to potentially lurk somewhere in the mix. The potential to inflect the narrative in any one of number of directions is impressive.

Simple, fluid in form and highly effective in both written and I presume particularly this coming Sunday, in spoken form. Having a potentially wide and varied inflection range is essential with spoken word performance and a highly attractive attribute. It makes such things tempting, ensnaring and repetitive.

Running Out of Time

A life becomes entangled in a wider web and the escape from it’s repetition becomes increasingly difficult the more the story is told and moves further from the moment in which it was constructed.


Yahoo News

Reading And Eating Fried Frog In A Chinese Restaurant

 Reading, Laughter, Learning But Slowly

I should have been typing this on a new set of very expensive keyboards. Shop did not have them so went to the book store next door, it’s history/ social science section is seriously bad so thought I should expand my terrible knowledge of philosophy, went to that section but it had disappeared. Vast area of picture books about nature, huge section on popular history of science cultural type things mixed with dayglo titles on Physics Made Easy For The Dumb etc. where the philosophy section used to be (this old tiny part of the store now largely seemed to have been replaced by picture books of seagulls, but I never read these things).

Was rather stuck for choice, picked up a copy of Chris Firths, Making Up the Mind How the Brain Created Our Mental World, skimmed it,  instantly hated it, annoying weird cultural speak. Difference often boils down here not to what is said but how it is said, I find. Fragmented research cultures.

The books phantom (or whatever) English Professor, who keeps on popping up giving a counter perspective did not do it for me, picking it up cold in the store and deciding wither to part with hard cash or not (no pleasing keyboard for a while ) it’s choice of language nearly made me put it down on the spot. Anyway, bought it, got it home, it started to annoy me less in places. got to the section headed Prior  knowledge and prejudice and relaxed. I can read it now.

I wish that section had been placed nearer the start of the book it would have been helpful. I would not have bought it if I had not by chance hit the footnote in which he explained his interests which are almost identical to my own.

In regard to science and evidence a metaphor Journalist and Historian Andrew Marr once used in relation to an utterly different subject and I am paraphrasing from memory ‘you identify a spade as a spade and then seek to hit someone over the head with it.’  I think both science and even Swiss cheese type subjects like my own use observable measurable evidence at times. Sometimes I wonder what the differences actual are although I am sure a Physicist would be able to point them out in great detail with animated eyes that glitter like starlight whilst deploying a range of grand sweeping hand gestures.  I prefer to remain anxious, uncertain, not to become too attached to what I think as I am perfectly capable of taking good evidence and utterly misapplying it. Identifying such cultural howlers can take a lot of time to spot.

Reading history and examining particular cultures and individuals and how they choose to present themselves in black and white lines on a page, you also wonder how much you are not spotting with regard to you’re own cultural affiliations? Or that is the effect history and ethnology have on my tiny slow moving mind at least, but it is culturally disposed to and fond of thinking in this way.

‘Of Worlds As If In Miniature’

I want to be able to exit the building quickly if it all suddenly goes up in flames (or so I like to tell myself). But I have a horrible tendency to become seriously bored when I have worked through a subject and hit a small patch of solid ground. Its what I don’t know, the immense unmeasurable uncharted abyss of my own ignorance, the areas where I seriously struggle to make any sense. I find this is where I want to be.

I will read anything and the shock of cultural difference is useful. This book is, if not for me a comfortable introduction, it is certainly an interesting one to an aspect of mind and a particular way of presenting it. I prefer to look at these subjects in the entertainments and amusements drawn from all classes within  a culture. How they agree or disagree, negotiate similarity and differences when it comes to the madness and sadness of this world. The terrifying beauty that glitters within moments of uncertainty and doubt, in the metaphors and experiments conducted on such things throughout the history of culture by all classes.

““mine eyes are stauls and my hands lime twigs (else were I not worthy of the name a she conny catcher)”

When Chris Firth came to the discussion of how we learn about the world I felt I was entering into a more comfortable zone and on very familiar territory. These are raw first impressions, return to it in future once it is fully read and digested.


Chris Firth, Making Up The Mind: How The Brain Creates Our Mental World

Robert Greene, A Dispvtation Betweene A Hee Conny-Catcher, and a Shee Conny-Catcher, whether or a Whoore, is most hurtfull in Cousonage, to the Common-wealth. Discovering The Secret Villanies of Alluring Strumpts. With a Conuersion of an English Courtizen reformed this present yeare, 1592, Reade, Laugh, and Learne

Warning! Slippery When Wet

Byssus has been written (perhaps not the correct term) so far utterly for my own benefit and as a study aid for the subjects that interest me. Background here is that it has kept me amused as I have dealt with some rather typical Scottish and somewhat sobering health issues. Seen some serious improvement time at least to attempt to write properly or fail utterly in the attempt (it matters little and the attempt to push and produce eventually something original always carries such risk).

Writing takes a significant amount of effort for dyslexic folk like myself. On the blog I have done something I would never have attempted while at university. Allowed a first draft to be seen by anyone. The Latin monster, witchcraft thing below is an example of me starting the processes to produce a finished essay. Its written as a stream of thought. The first half was done some time ago and is relatively finished, although it may change depending on how the other half shapes.First section is also devoid of any original thought, second is not much better at the moment, crude but my own. Not particularly bothered at the moment if the different subjects fit. The romantic type ending makes me want to reach for the sick bag at the moment ‘weeping stones’ uuuuuugh. But it seemed correct last night and may tomorrow. I walk past it and Arthur’s seat most days always brings with it thoughts on the geology, history, myth legend and Castle Rock drips with blood from its start in history in the 6th century onwards. But with writing particularly in draft you suddenly stray across a word line or sentence that seems to have be written by someone you don’t know.  The illusion that we are one consistent thing shatters and some small part of me has a taste for a slight smattering of purple type prose that clearly I do not wish to acknowledge or recognize in the cold light of day.

Next stage is to chew through the sources again, identify bias (it is not as biased as it may seem if you are prone to read things out of context) add more primary material if needed. I can see my origins in sixth century history playing out at the moment, here you only have a tiny fragments of texts to work from so you run rather far with them particularly in early stage.

Next one more stream. This will add loads more noise but may produce if I am lucky something new into the pattern.

Last is worst of all. Have to spend about a month printing it 5 to 6 times a day, reading it out, correcting spelling and grammar slowly, wording properly and generally writing the real thing. At this point I often find that I have been thinking about something different all along  under the surface and it just utterly goes somewhere else. Sometimes it remains on course with a recognizable original structure other times it stays on topic but little else will remain.

The utter creative uncertainty is pleasing little else is about the whole processes.

Not written anything that has gone through this processes here. Hopefully it will start to make a difference. One thing I notice is that blogging is a bitch with the type of subjects I like, not linear things and not sure if that works well in restricted short posts. But all that means is that the blog will remain a useful personal resource if little else. Witchcraft is not a major interest and I am about 5 years out of date with regard to the subject academically. First step into writing more fully rather than a wish to engage fully with the subject but that may change if anything interesting pops up.

One thing i have never done is recorded completely the processes of how I write. I am well aware of how I do it (or think I am) took years of trail and error to work out how. But using the blog seems to altering that processes. Not in the habit of leaving early fist drafts lying around as they are an embarrassing reminder. Middle stages get lost, crumpled, covered in coffee rings and stains only the final product is every kept as that is marginally more pleasing but also serves as a reminder of weakness and areas that need work. Common dyslexic issues with confidence are strangely helpful here. I find the way academics speak about their work and the confidence they have very strange (alongside its tribal groupings). I learn by repeatedly making error, slowly and painfully identifying it and building on that basis. I would hope I have more expertise in the subject than someone who has never studied or read on it but that is about as much as I would be comfortable to claim.

Subjects I like are not science based they are not a vast oasis of academic certainty. I suppose that is why I like reading Lord Monboddo. Paradox and contradiction. That tension between the dynamic and the static, nonsense and sense. Drawn to it like a moth to a flame. And as I imagine a moth to think I have put about the same amount of thought into what attracts me to such things. Very little other than to run with it. With Lord M. some of his peers did mutter darkly and point to the paradoxical heart of his being and a few others have done, but it has been largely lost in the avalanche of ridicule that surrounded him both in his time and beyond and in the way literal reading and a demonstration of what he is not and can never have been in life (a being out of his time, an example of what is to come or an example of the error that is the past. Depending on individual inclination) has been a strong strand in what little is written about him. Placed out of his body and time he becomes a static object through which other things are to be measured and contrasted. Or perhaps I am thinking to heavily on post about witchcraft and how easy that subject is to tip over from history into a similar being out of time.

The News From Sick Britannia

Deserving What You Get

An Actress recently donated £10 000 to charity this has provoked interest on both twitter and the media. The majority of comments both by public and media are balanced. The charity in question helps the children of families where the parents are currently in prison.

The picture a minority of the comments present is of a Britain as a disturbed, troubled and dysfunctional land, filled to bursting with asylum seekers and terrorists in which the children of convicted felons own numerous cars (narrative here needs to be striped to bare functional essentials, relies on action, moving forward at speed and not reflection or the contradictions become somewhat clear) and have a plasma t.v in every room. Why would they need charity when they are clearly already living off the benefit system? It is important to remember that these people are put in prison for a reason…. etc. etc. etc….Perhaps it is a deeply unfortunate mistake that the legal system does not incarcerate whole families making no distinction between adult and child when one member is guilty of a crime? We are a society that has given up on its culture and lost its values apparently and so on and so forth.

Distinction between child and adult in law is a very old one indeed. Generally the law seeks to identify the perpetrator of a crime and charge according to involvement and guilt. But for some a brave new world clearly awaits.

We are certainly a Nation facing like many others a range of deep seated problems and issues that seek debate, discussion and hopefully consensus and long term solutions.

It is interesting to see how these issues will play out in Scotland in light of the ongoing debate on independence. Scotland has been since the 80’s virtually a Conservative free zone. The self styled ‘Unionist party, One Nation’ Conservative party have distinct track record in creating a vibrant diverse democracy and inclusive identity that is somewhat windswept and barren. The legacy of its shift from traditional One Nation position and values in the 80’s to a more hardline stance. Other major change this shift and new found taste for blood and human flesh has brought about is that it now seems more intent on self destruction and indulges regularly in very particular form of political cannibalism, watching the Tories these days is like watching Hannibal Lector attempting to eat himself.  As one Comic rather neatly observed we have more Panda’s than we have Conservative M.P’s. The S.N.P certainly seems to be trying to flag up the political gulf, a constitution in which each member of society has the right to a home looks like a possible example. But the hardline rhetoric is also noticeable on the streets here despite the differences in voting patterns and cultural differences with regard to class.

We should really be in a moment where we can take a long hard look at how this island functions and where exactly we want it to head. Debate is almost utterly absent in the red in both tooth and claw, business as usual politics. When the parties all present variations of more or less the same policies (consensus would not be an issue if they were not such short term populist fixes), disguises and difference must be maintained somehow. This is not a political landscape in which politicians work for the people or as a public duty, it is the politics of holding power, sliver and land. I am not suggesting this is the only motivating factor but it seems too often an overriding concern of the political system and its players.

Remember watching the negotiations underway in that extraordinary moment in Northern Ireland when violence became more settled and the sides began to talk. The possibility of grants, official expense accounts, being whisked to meetings in large black cars, it did look like a deliberate strategy used by New Labour to attract the politically divided political classes of N.I. to the high table. The place where very important people meet, with all the trappings that very important people require to demonstrate why they are very important. Such things are worth fighting for it would seem above all else.


Daily Mail “There Are More Deserving Charities


Top of the Pops with an as wished for clean, cut and cleansed audience.

Political Weasels and The Very Difficult Decision To Blame Someone -else We Are Reluctantly Forced To Make

Let Them Eat Horse

“Eating prohibitions and obligations thus seem to be theoretically equivalent means of ‘denoting significance’ in a logical system some or all whose elements are edible species” (1)

I watched question time from St Paul’s with an increasing sense of dismay last night. Clearly a white flight or fear of black planet debate is underway in the south in light of data of recent demographic shifts in London’s population. The other notable wearily familiar narrative was on the issue of the women with 11 children who is apparently living in an “eco mansion” built at tax payers expense.

Vince Cable spoke of the hard decisions and tough choices with regard to benefit the government was making. Building affordable homes is clearly a very easy, soft choice as the government has gone down the very difficult road of slashing housing benefit instead. Micheal Heseltine was keen to resolve the notion of any blame on bankers for any of the economic woes by pointing out that the collapse was indeed caused by the urban poor being allowed to buy homes and the middle classes over borrowing money, bankers were simply caught in the middle and the people who we vote in to ensure that our economic system is monitored and regulated were entirely absent from Mr Heseltine’s vision of blame and guilt. But clearly Bankers and politicians were simply caught like startled rabbits unable to act in anyway in the face of the all consuming leaderless horde.

Clearly when the issues first started they were preoccupied with other important tasks like filling in an expense account, heaping blame on political rivals or calling for more red tape cutting and complete deregulation of financial markets in order to create more wealth.

In fairness to Micheal Heseltine he did go on to say that blame should be balanced across the cultural spectrum. His words did unfortunately echo the “we are all in it together” sound bite that no longer springs from the lips of Conservative administrators as it did at the start of their term in office. Micheal like a disproportionately large number of M.P’s is a millionaire and like a significant number of the administrative classes is a beneficiary of recent tax cuts aimed at the most wealthy section of society. I have no issue with Micheal’s personal good financial fortune, but I do feel that members of parliament do not represent the socially and culturally diverse country that we live in. It does give the highly unfortunate impression that in parliament the turkey is able to plan out the Christmas menu in line with its own interests and personal well-being. He unfortunately would later indulge in repeating the skiver/ striver  distinction, which is certainly used increasingly across the political spectrum by all parties in one form or another.

Heseltine was of course a member of the administration who took the very difficult decision to sell off council houses letting those on the lowest incomes rent homes from the private sector instead (pushing up demand and rent). But the long term consequences of that one were not thought through as the political classes were more intent on working out what populist moves they could make it stay in office and in the sale of council homes they hit a winner.

We do face some tough calls, rhetoric and pious whistling in the dark are not the solutions yet it is what we would appear to get from the political and administrative classes across the board.

Some of the worst solutions I have heard in regard to Britain’s social issues of late are.

Juries should be composed of only people who have English as a first language or they will not be able to understand the nuances of speech in court.

Health issues amongst the urban poor are the result of the choice not to buy organic produce but to spend income on cigarettes and alcohol. The income of the poor should be administrated and regulated  so they cannot engage in making such poor lifestyle choices.

Poor people have flat screen T.V’s! Kelvin Mackenzie former editor of the Sun famously expressed how he felt physical sick when he saw sky satellite receivers on council house homes (working on the assumption that these are ghettos of unemployed people).

The children of poor people should not be allowed to have mobile phones (certainly help to identify them and clearly mark them out).

The poor should be fed the unwanted horse-meat which has been left unsold due to the recent food scare involving horse-meat.

The Scottish trade unionist, philosopher and master of the dark arts of political rhetoric Jimmy Reid once made the observation on Scottish football and it’s problematic relationship with Scottish culture (football has reflected and served as a focal point for some deep cultural differences) , that I think is worth repeating here.

I don’t think that’s enough for a fully satisfying human life. It’s more an indictment of society, that their is this reliance on football to give people a sense of identity. …. Certainly it seems to me a bit of a hallmark of a society that has proven itself inadequate in terms of giving people a sense of belonging and identification.

In terms of what it offers British Identity current widespread rhetoric is not part of a solution but seems to point towards a more fragmented and increasingly unsatisfying existence for all of us, no matter what part of the political divide we may cheer for or whatever part of the every widening social gulf  we may belong to. It is not in anyone’s interest to live in a dysfunctional, fragmented poverty stricken thought ghetto built on a severely limited imagination.


Edit. After thinking out loud somewhere else I think this may have been me attempting to work out a form of disclaimer for previous witchcraft post with regard to big men, tradition and consensus. These emotions are not helped by the rhetoric of the political classes but they are the result of wide consensus rather than leadership from the top down. The context they are drawn in is a 21st century one, this is not a repetition of a 16th century witch-hunt. May have shared patterns and a relationship with the way in which identities are drawn and formed but each is dependent on its context.

Anyway back to the 16th century next look at two big political beasts in the small scale pond of Scottish politics, Good king Jamie and one of his most significant and powerful political rivals. Examine briefly the elite political strand to this phenomena of the hunt. One of the linking themes among some significant differences between elite and popular culture is the role of such beliefs in dispute.  Also look at how James the Sixth used his anxiety and beliefs to shape a distinct political image of himself as the very model of a modern prince. I think I will run with Knights in White Satin for the title. Although wrapped in sweaty sheets and up all night whistling in the dark my be a more apt title for Jamie in this moment of his life, although he liked to imagine things differently.


(1) Claude Levi Struass, The Savage Mind

Related Poorly Written Notes and Half Thought Ideas From Byssus

Eat This

To Reality and Beyond: A Being Out of Time

Let Them Eat Frog

Sayings of the Just

Towards An Ethnology of Tails

The Importance of Being Brazil

By Example: I Indicate, I Advise, I Teach

”The seconde [finger] hyght Index and Salutaris, as it hyght demonstratiuus, the shewer, For with hym we grete, and shewe, and teche all thynges.”

 Bartholomaeus Anglicus, De Proprietatibus Rerum.

Monstro, I indicate/ advise/ teach, gives the root of words like demonstrate, remonstrate and the Latin monstrum, a divine marvel, omen, prodigy or wonder; a reminder,warning or portent. Both stem from the Latin root moneo, I serve as a reminder, I bring to the notice of,  from which the words, premonition and admonish are also derived. The reminder/warning of monstrum often gives the appearance of effortlessly blending with the notion of punishment. Narrative often goes to a significant amount of effort to maintain such an identification and relationship.


In Praise Of Folly

A Belemmyae being pointedly demonstrable, “Voiage and Travaile of Sir John Maundeville”, 1775 (1)

The Monument Keeper

In the early modern period, monument was used in Scotland in a specific legal sense, derived from Latin usage, referring to a token/indication/ evidence/ serving to identify/ a mark (Maxwell-Stuart: 2001, 51). As demonstrated in an open letter from the General Assembly of the Church of Scotland to the Protestant Nobility of Scotland, which displays a  keen interest in stamping out ‘Catholic’ superstition and ‘abuse’. The term abuse is used repeatedly in reference to witchcraft in early modern Scotland.  It’s not viewed simply as an abuse of supernatural powers but of scientia (science in early modern usage refers to knowledge) . The manner in which knowledge is marked and divided here is subject to a very different cultural outlook and value system than our own modern one.

The letter asks.

“that all superstitions and idolatry and the monuments therof, might be utterly removit and banishit out of this realme“

It must be said that this ambitious, year zero, Protestant agenda was not met with full success and the administrators of this godly enterprise were not above finding the monuments of past superstition an attractive weapon to deploy themselves, as it sought to impose its radical perspective and vision on the population of early modern Scotland. But in these words we see its dreaming and the full extent of its cultural ambitions. P.G Maxwell-Stuart believes the sentence may have influenced the decision to include a new act  in Parliament that slipped its way quietly into the day’s business on the 4th of June 1563.

Sleeping Now The Wide Eyed Host

“Item forsamekeill as (in as much as) the Quenis Maiestie and the thre Estatis in this present Parliament being informit that the havy abominabill superrstitioun usit be divers of the liegis of this Realme be using of Witchcraftis, Sorsarie and Necromancie, and credence gevin thairto in tymes bygane aganis the law of God; and for avoyding and away putting of all sic vane superstitioun in tymes tocum……….“

And in this moment these mundane administrators and regulators of the diabolical begin to stir and agitate. The past is not uniform in its belief systems or in its interpretation of cultural symbols. Such things are highly context sensitive and fluid. Tradition is constantly re-ordered in the moment, its context is present rather than past. It has a relationship with history but it is a very different creature.

The perspective of the General Assembly in regard to certain forms of tradition is somewhat different. Here traditional errors are rooted firmly in the past. An object that passively repeats past mistakes and that the protestant church, by it’s nature and distinct place in the historical record is without question immune from.

It is by inclination and desire, historically semi-detached. An object imagined to have no history, no past historical form and as such cannot be associated with the retrospectively drawn error strewn landscape that passes here for history. If I had a fondness and taste for devolutionary arguments I could slip in at this point mutum et turpe pecus, dumb and brute like, as it carries within it a secondary sense of that which is shapeless and unsightly.

At this moment in Scotland’s past, history and tradition blend with prophecy (The distinctly non-magical secret to the successes of the most ‘accurate’ forms of prophecy is that it is in all cases, retrospectively drawn according to well laid patterns, which it then projects vaguely into the near future). Gods plan is unfolding, the past is toast and its living residue and reminders will be placed on a large bonfire of vanity situated on Castle rock in Edinburgh. A bright future will in time and by Gods will, waft its way through the air of the dirty old town, mingling with the distinct smell of burning fat. Or so one particular section of the administrative classes surrounding the Royal body of James may have dreamed.

Dealt with one particular moment and two very small fragments of the past from one very particular perspective. Hopefully in future post will be able to demonstrate the element of negotiation involved in the construction of these narratives between the various social groups that formed them.

When you first confront these texts they appear distinctly comical (an element of social satyr and entertainment is certainly part of what gave them power) and decidedly strange, this is a world turned upside down and one in which Satan moves from interfering in great affairs of state to souring the good-wifes buttermilk.Removed from its context and position in time the texts look crazy.

In our realms of knowledge, Science, philosophy and the occult are separate spheres of thought and activity. In this time no such certainty exists. The relationship between a curse, a prophecy or an act of witchcraft, at times is somewhat difficult to determine depending in part on chance outcome and the social reception of you’re peers. Everyday emotional encounters had a range of potential outcomes and potential consequences. Losing ones temper and telling you’re neighbor to drop dead  could be policed in any one one of a number of ways. The subject moves from daily life at its most intimate and its most mundane to take in the moon and the stars. The natural world is a place of deep uncertainty and the magical realm is not a distinct separate zone but a potential philosophical and observable possibility.

      “mine eyes are stauls, and my hands lime twigs” (2)

Knowledge in this space can move across vast distances but it is an anxious and troubling thing filled with the potential for error, which in the worst case will ensnare and lime the soul in Satan’s deceptive bait. Perhaps the biggest slight of hand in regard to this form of material is the manner in which it disguises its fear and uncertainty, it paints a world that is black and white, were the correct path is very clearly laid and any error is simply caused by not rigidly adhering to the prescribed route. The deception at the beating heart of this fantasy is its seeming confidence; that its eye is not blind and its vision not internal and of its own making.

These narratives bear a resemblance to oral material but they are in regard to style of delivery and inflection very different. They have no life and the dead eyes of a scribe. Traditional narrative is done face to face, it is intimate, by the fireside, (into which you look and are encouraged to watch the story unfold) the heart of home and comfort, it is hospitality, engagement, a gift, an invitation, in which you are invited in. “here my story ends and no word of it is a lie.” This is the traditional standard form in which a tale ends, but when you gaze up from the firelight you distinctly see that the tellers eyes glitter like stars and you get the distinct impression that the hand may be engaged in a range of slight, fast deceptive movements. The relation between so and not so is intentional not drawn. If you are brave enough to question the truth you will often be met with a rich laugh that seems to give the impression that someone has drawn deep pleasure in suspending time and capturing in that moment a live soul. It is a satisfying answer and no further inquiry is generally required.

The narratives that surround witchcraft use similar familiar beliefs, the same desire to tell a tale that depends on action and movement and allows no pause for reflection as the tale unfolds; but the intention is to consume whole and allow no room to play or question. Anxious and tense in delivery. It imagined a world of single stories, one voice, no thought, no laughter. When it sought to entertain traditional culture choose to instruct this form seeks only to correct error. Traditional culture used both forms (this is not a romance) but allowed some room for maneuver and escape when it was relaxed. Tension constricts the body, movement becomes rigid, the voice will not project with any power and becomes hoarse and weak, the range of options open in performance become seriously limited, arms become rooted to the side with stress, the speaker stands rooted to the spot, arms flapping up and down like a penguin as they can’t be moved past the elbow, shouting in a hoarse voice, which is unable to resonate through bone and muscle and rips raw through the neck and throat, its only place of escape. Such is the effect of fear on the body, its ability to move and to inflect.

And as I finish this journey, the town of Edinburgh lies hushed and dark and at the start of it’s dreaming. Tonight it seems unsettling writing such a local history, a feeling that I have not experienced before. Castle rock hangs in my thought and vision, it is very close by. I drink my coffee some-day’s in the place where many of the charred remains lie deep in the ground. Walk past the places where the victims were held, questioned, stood in court, or were strangled before being burnt. Yet it is a distance place and most often as you hurry around performing the usual daily tasks it is a space that does not exist. I think tomorrow I will drink coffee and perhaps raise my cup to Dr Fian or any one of a large number of people from all genders and classes of society who met their end in such a way. These beliefs are often associated in particular with women or peasant society, this is not a historical statement but a common repetition which I suspect may prop up contemporary belief with regard to gender and class expectations.

Living in the space where many of these events unfolded brings with it no magical insight or ownership, it does not make the past spring magically back to life, but being in such a space does at times provoke the ghost of a memory and the thought of just exactly what we are capable of doing or what exactly we have the potential to become in moments of conflict and deep seated anxiety about the world in which we live. And in that moment as you walk through such shadows at the end of the day, the dark stones of Edinburgh, rain- slicked and glistening in the street light, look for a split second as if they may be weeping ice cold sweat and stirring uneasily in the unrelenting cold. The Glittering terrible beauty that is Castle Rock at Night. Or so in doing such time it seemed tonight, at least in that moment.

Such ensnaring things motivate both the telling of tales and the writing of history. Doing such a messy tangled sticky business as this is a struggle. First draft in large part, written on the hoof, I suspect it will look very different in the end.



(1) In Praise of Folly is my own addition to the image. An 18th century joke and one that bares traces of a distinctly Renaissance sense of humour, I think. It also hints perhaps that we should not expect the past to be uniform in its use of symbols ideas or perspective.

(2) Robert Greene, “mine eyes are stauls and my hands lime twigs (else were I not worthy of the name a she conny catcher). A conny catcher is a confidence trickster, staul = decoy, the eyes deceive and distract the victims attention away from what is actually taking place, while the hands coated in a viscous sticky substance (birdlime a glue also used in bird catching, had the advantage of catching pray alive without causing notable damage or physical injury i.e used to catch song birds) allows stolen goods to be extracted with ease by a person with ‘sticky fingers’ who may end up doing bird (birdlime= doing time/ jail-time).


P.G Maxwell-Stuart, “Satan’s Conspiracy: Magic and Witchcraft in Sixteenth Century Scotland“, East, Linton, 2001

C. Larner, “Enemies of God: the Witch- Hunt in Scotland”, Oxford, 1981


The Damnable Dr Fian

Dr Fian Takes A Trip

(11) Item, filed for being coming forth of Patrick Humphery’s son’s house in the mill undernight from his supper, and passing to Tranent on horseback and a man with him: by his devilish craft raised up four candles upon the horses two lugs (ears) and another candle upon the staff which the man had in his hand, and gave such light as if it had been daylight. Like as the said candles returned with the said man while his homecoming, and caused him fall dead at his entress (entrance) within the house. (1)

At A Roads End It’s Walking Spanish Down the Hall

At all which torments notwithstanding the doctor never shrunk any whit, neither would he confess it the sooner for all the tortures inflicted upon him. Then he with all convenient speed, by commandment, conveyed again to the torment of the boots, wherein he continued a long time and did abide so many blows in them that his legs were crushed and beaten together as small as might be, and the bones and flesh so bruised that the blood and marrow spouted forth in great abundance, whereby they were made unserviceable forever. And notwithstanding all these grievous pains and cruel torments he would not confess anything; so deeply had the devil entered into his heart, that he utterly denied all that he had before avouched, and would say nothing thereunto but this: that what he had done and said before was only done and said for fear of pains which he had endured (2)


(1) Dittay (Trail record) of Doctor John Fian.

(2) News From Scotland, Declaring the Damnable Life and Death of Doctor Fian, A Notable Sorcerer, Who Was Burned at Edinburgh in January Last, 1591

L Normand & G. Roberts (ed.), Witchcraft in Early Modern Scotland: James V.I’s Demonology and the North Berwick Witches


‘The News From Scotland’, a contemporary account that dramatized select events depicted in the legal records of the accused in the North Berwick Witchcraft trails, was issued when the witch hunt was still ongoing and contains an image of this event but does not include the narrative. Few posts down the line will examine some of the interests of natural historians of the period and imagine how Doctor Fian’s lawyer could have refuted  the tale as perfectly natural. Was interesting to see Karl’s post pop up at the same time (see post below this) as I was chewing though this one (for other reasons) his example has a text without an image (or so far at least) this an image with no text.

Dr Fians torture  with the boots and final days of confinement are not mentioned in any other sources other than The News From Scotland.

Compacted Exhalation’s

Nor A Lock of You’re Hair For To Tell

Karl Steele has a nice post on legendary proof, The Werewolf painting of Poligny. This is a painting allegedly depicting three knife using werewolves and is believed to have hung for many years in the Jacobin Church in Poligny.

Legendary proof is a common device used in folktales to demonstrate truth. It is always scrupulously honest, the stone knife of  the wild girl is always lost, the toad in a gold chain buried, the letter which explains everything, destroyed. The example Karl cites differs from the normal pattern in not citing the lose or destruction of the object although later scholarship on the subject is of course scrupulously honest in this regard and fits the standard pattern.

A Body of Proof

Next post (if I don’t do corpse’s and candles first) look at a Scottish example. The traveling people of Scotland lived in fear of being burked (to be murdered by a body snatcher/burker) by Noddies (a body snatcher’s assistant). Noddies and Burkers hunted the Scottish country side at night in a black coach searching for traveler victims, which they often placed in a strange machine.

The tales are certainly grounded in a social reality, representing the lack of status traveling folk have in society; but they may also represent a truth with regard to the way the bodies of the poor were used after death. Dissection was viewed in the past with fear by all social classes but the dissection of the poor was routine. Sick maintenance provided by the Workhouse and burials had to be paid for after all.

Poor bodies could be put to work and made to pay in death as well as in life (Hopefully Ian Duncan Smith from the Department of Work and Pensions has managed to miss this post).

As the travelers came into contact with the academic community through the work of Hamish Henderson and others they were keen to demonstrate these tales to be true. They also express the deep anxiety they often felt in first coming to the University Campus in Edinburgh to record tales for the archive and being surrounded by ‘Doctors’. You can catch this distinct performance dynamic in the stories from the archive. These are not passively recorded neutral empirical records, they have a distinct and particular context.

Within this dynamic, this relationship between the collector and the collected, inflection alters and a difference is made within repetition. Life.

I would say more but unfortunately a dog has eaten my original research paper on this one.

After The Storm

Q. What is the cause of the ignis fatuus, that either goes before
or follows a man in the night ?

A. It is caused of a great and well-compacted exhalation, and, being kindled, it stands in the aire, and by the ayre, and so goes before or follows a man; and these kind of fires or meteors are bred near execution places, or churchyards, or great kitchens, where viscous and slimy matters and vapors abound in great quantity.


Robert Basset, Curiosities or The Cabinet of Nature: Contayning Phylosophicall, Natural and Morall Questions Answered, 1637

BBC News, RSPB Ham Wall ‘slime’ Baffles Experts, 18th Feb, 2013