Story Tellers and Black Dogs

Artwork, copyright Andrew Price
  ‘The sun sank and vanished and darkness gathered quickly… seemed to rise from among the gravestones, to come ducking out from beneath the low-hanging branches of the yew.  Mr Grimsby looked down his road home and saw it dwindling, fading in darkness…From the north side of the churchyard came trotting a dog, a big dog, and it fell in at his side. It was a black and shaggy dog, large of head and large of paw, and its back stood as high as Mr. Grimsby’s wide waist.  It looked up at him in the dusk and its eyes…gleamed red.“Hello boy… What a fine fellow you are, aren’t you?"
          "I’ll see you home,” said the dog… ”A story to shorten the way, since you’re a man for stories… What story shall it be?”

          This comes from my collection of traditional stories, The Story Collector, which is now published with Smashwords - so you can download it to a number of devices, including Kindle.
          Mr Grimsby is an elderly, retired man who amuses himself by collecting old stories from his servants and neighbours.  Here, as he pauses for a moment to rest, he meets a Churchyard Grim. The dog (or Grim) walks with Mr. Grimsby, telling a long and complicated tale to pass the journey.  (The story the Grim tells, if you’re curious, is ‘The Land Where All The Animals Say “Good Day!’)
Ancient churchyard yew: Eirian Evans,
          At the story’s end, the Grim says, 
“And now we must say, ‘good day’…I can go with you no further.”With something of a start…Mr. Grimsby looked about him.  They stood before a tall door… “Where is this?... I don’t know this place.”

      "No,” said the dog. “But you’ll come to know it.”
          I must go home,” Mr.Grimsby said, and turned to leave the strange door - but behind him was nothing but the utmost darkness… “Where are we?” 
          “At the end of the world,” said the dog.  “That is Heaven’s Door.  Knock, and they’ll let you in.”And the… the Churchyard Grim, trotted back along the road… back to Earth, back to his church where, in the last darkness of the night, he slipped again into his own grave in the north side of the churchyard.To meet the…Churchyard Grim means that your own death will follow soon.
          The Grim is a legend found all over Scandinavia and the British Isles.  It used to be believed, it’s said, that the first man buried in a new churchyard had to remain on Earth, to guard the church and its dead against the devil.  To spare a Christian this fate, and free them to salvation, a black dog was buried in the graveyard before any human dead.  The dog then became the Grim, or guardian spirit of the church.  (Behind this may lie the even older practice of burying a sacrifice or ancestor under a building.  Stone Age earthworks have been found with burials in their ditches, and Stone Age houses with graves under their floors.)
          The Grim was usually buried on the churchyard’s north side – which was associated with things a little spiritually dubious.  The Devil’s power was strongest in the north.  Suicides were buried outside the churchyard wall, on the north side; and, in Scandinavia, if not elsewhere, women traditionally stood on the north side during services, to form a protective layer between men and the Devil.  (Women being more sinful anyway, were already closer to the Devil, and might as well be offered to him as a tidbit.)
          Was the Grim buried on the north side because that was where a guard dog was most needed?  Or – as with women – was there felt to be some connection between the Grim and the Devil, or to older, pagan gods?
          It’s been pointed out that the areas of England where the Black Dog walks are the areas where the Scandinavian influence is strongest, and the Black Dog may be Garmr, the watchdog who guards the gates of Hel, the underworld’s queen.  In Eddic poetry Garmr is also associated with Odin, and Odin was the lord of the dead.  The Romans referred to him as the Germanic Mercury – thus firmly identifying Him as a soul-leader, one who guides the dead to the next world.
          Later, post-Christianity, Odin became the leader of the Wild Hunt, riding to hounds after lost souls.  But this was after Christianity had re-cast him as a devil.  If the Romans took a quick glance and readily identified him with their Mercury, who kindly guided the dead on their road, then Odin, originally, must have had a similar role.
          And while the Black Dog is often thought of as sinister and death-dealing, there are kindly Black Dogs.  In Somerset the ghostly ‘Gurt Dog’ is said to protect children and also travellers, walking beside them through dangerous places and frightening away the ill-intentioned.  The Black Dogs of Lincolnshire are also gentle and protective.  In fact, the Black Dog is most malevolent and is called ‘Shuck’ (Devil) in those parts of Essex and Norfolk which were most puritan in the 17th Century, and most prone to label as ‘devilish’ anything that smacked of old, pre-Christian traditions.
          Why does the Black Dog appeal to me?  Well, anything connected with Odin, that most fascinating and complicated of gods, appeals to me – but there’s also the fact that the Black Dog, in the form of Padfoot, walked the lanes of my childhood – those sooty little country-lanes trapped within the sprawl of the industrial Black Country.  And my Dad once met him!  He used to tell us the tale of how, walking home from a late night at work, he met the ghost dog – a story which I tell in my collection, Nightcomers
          My Dad took Padfoot walkies and lived to tell us the tale – but I think that when we have to take the road out of this life, there are worse ways to do it than in the company of a gurt, kindly black dog.  Especially if it tells a story to pass the time!

          This post originally appeared on Lucy Coat's interesting site.


Bannocks or oatcakes
          Otherwise known as oatcakes, but I prefer the name bannocks because of Great Uncle Gordon.
          Great Uncle Gordon, I've always been told, was put into the Army Catering Corps for his National Service, and learned to cook. He came home on leave, full of tales of army life and eager to show off his new skills.
          His mother, Great Gran Price, went off to bed early, leaving the young folk - Gordon's younger sister and his cousins, gathered in the kitchen. Gordon declared he was going to make them all some "Scottish Bannocks, like we make in the army."
          Great Gran, upstairs in her bed, heard a lot of clattering and banging coming from downstairs, which instantly made her suspicious (she'd raised a large and unruly family.) She yelled out, "What are you doing down there?"
Great Uncle Gordon, poised to make bannocks
          Going to the foot of the stairs, Gordon said, "I'm making some Scottish Bannocks like they showed me in the army!
          Great Gran could hear things like pots and pans being rattled, but she always had a problem hearing what people said. "Eh?"
          "I'm showing 'em what they taught me in the army - I'm making some Scottish Bannocks!"
          "I'm making some Scottish Bannocks!" Gordon yelled.
          "You what?"
          "I'm making some bannocks, Scottish bannocks, like they - oh, what's the - !"
          "I'm making! Scottish! Bannocks!"
          "You what?"
          "I'm making bannocks!"
          "You'm making what?"
          "Bannocks! Scottish Bannocks!
          "Bannocks! Bannocks, bannocks, bannocks!"
          And then Great Gran rushed down the stairs in her nightie, her long grey plait swinging, and thumped him from the bottom of the stairs back into the kitchen, shouting, "I'll teach you to use that language to me!"
          I've been keeping up the family tradition in past weeks - making oatcakes, that is, not rushing downstairs and thumping people. I have been known to do that, but not for many years.
          What I have done a lot in recent years is buy packs of oatcakes rather than bread. I could never eat the bread before it went stale, and it always made me bloated anyway. I prefer oatcakes, and I find the description on the packet, 'Rough Scottish Oatcakes,' strangely alluring. But a couple of weeks ago I found I'd run out, and I didn't want to make another trip to the shops because I was trying to get some work done. So I looked up a recipe and made some. I had everything I needed in my cupboards, and it was quick and dead easy.
           This is what you need: 225g of oats, 60g wholewheat flour, half a teaspoon bicarbonate of soda, 60g butter, 1 teaspoon of salt,  half a teaspoon of sugar and 60-80ml of hot water.
          Heat your oven 190c or Gas Mark 6.
          Put all the dry ingredients in a bowl and mix together. Rub in the butter - or whizz it all up in a blender until it's like breadcrumbs.
          Then add the hot water, from a kettle, and mix together into a thick dough.
          Roll out - or press out with your hands - until it's half a centimetre thick. Then cut into rounds with an upturned glass or cutter - or just cut into triangles, or 'farls' (as Davy tells me they're called.)
          Put on a baking tray and bake for 20-30 minutes. Let them cool before storing in a tin.
          I think they're better than the shop-bought ones.
          I've been experimenting. Make them with the coarse porridge oats that I make my breakfast porridge with and you get a spongy sort of bannock, which is still tasty. Whiz the porridge oats in a blender for a few seconds, and you get a fine oat flour, which makes a smoother, crisper, crunchier bannock.
          Since I've cut out sugar and cut down on salt, I missed these out altogether, and still got a good bannock - though I think a little salt does add a savour. The teaspoon given in the recipe seems far too much to me, though, and I would half or even quarter it.
          Instead of rubbing in the butter, or whizzing in the blender, you can melt the butter in the 80ml hot water, and stir it in. If the oat-flour is very fine, you'll probably need to add more water.
          I've been adding flavourings too. Fennel worked very well. Hazelnuts too. Someone suggested that I soak some raisins in the hot water, and add them, and I'll try that soon.
          I'm not sure that I'll ever bother to buy bannocks again.
          Bannocks! I said, I don't think I'll ever - oh, bannocks.

          I had to look it up. The OED says it's 'Scottish and Nrth Eng. OE bannuc, prhps fr Celtic.' If only Great-Gran had known that.
          And 'farl' is 'Scottish 'thin cake, originally quadrant shaped, of oatmeal or flour, from obsolete fardel, quarter or fourth.' More of that 'slang' that Davy was tawsed for using. And I think it's a bit of a cheek to call a word that's still commonly used 'obsolete.'


Stories and Memories

Artist: credited to Dulac, but looks like Rackham to me (wikipedia)
          A short blog this week.
          Not long ago I posted a blog which talked about how vital stories are: how children need to be told stories in order to learn language.
          Stories enlarge a child's vocabulary and teach them the different ways in which language can be used: plain narrative, or heightened rhythmic, poetic speech, or the formal unemotive language of academia or law courts.
         Telling stories also rehearses the listeners in various situations, leading them through emotions, helping them to identify with beings other than themselves. An argument could be made for our humanity being built of story.
          My cousin, Alan Hess - who often shows up in the comments as 'Anonymous' signing himself as 'Manxli' - sent me this link. I watched it and felt like cheering.

          So there you are. Stories are memory-boxes, which protect and keep save those delicate, unstable memories, fragile as soap-bubbles.
          Now I know why my parents told me so many stories about their childhood, and about their parents and grandparents - and why I loved to hear them so much.
          I have been handed down a box of stories containing scraps of laughter and bits of feeling from as much as a hundred years ago; and when I consider it, they have certainly played a part in shaping the person I am.
          And those other stories - the folktales, the myths and legends. They are boxes storing the memories, observations, laughter and wisdom of thousands of people, from millenia ago.
          Telling stories is important.