"...stories birling through my mind..."
A literary journey
Irish culture & folklore
"...stories birling through my mind..."
A dirl of rhyme filtered through the scullery as Cassie stacked the last wheaten farl onto the cooling-tray. Granny was singing about urchins, her hands twisting and plaiting a wisp of straw in her lap.
‘‘Hae ye a wisp for the whole o Ballygally forbye Cairncastle?” teased Cassie, eyeing the overflowing basket by Granny’s feet.
Granny gave a smile as taut as the straw she held in her hand. ‘This bonnie wisp is goin naewhere.”
“Da saes ye’ll hae the devil upon us, with your Hogmanay.”
“If your da spent less time thinkin aboot the deil,” said Granny, “he’d hae less work on his hands.”
Cassie began clearing up the kitchen. All work had to be done before the first-footers crossed the threshold on New Year’s Day, one of the superstitions Granny held onto despite her son-in-law’s censure.
“It’s brave an early to redd up the trimmings,” said Cassie as she lifted the prickly holly from the chimney-brace.
“A clean hoose keeps bad omens oot!” said Granny.
“There’ll be nae talk of bad omens in this hoose!” trumpeted Cassie, mimicking her father’s unyielding voice.
Granny replied with a smile that doubled around her lips like a plaited wisp of barley. It was a fearless expression, ready to deflect any man’s chiding.
Cassie looked across the silver line of hawthorn outside the window. The moon shone white on a navy sky and the lights of the Maidens’ lighthouses blinked yellow. She pictured her mother by the window, her paintbrush pointing to the horizon, her expression fearless.
Cassie clanged the brass bells to mark midnight and sipped back her whiskey. Granny leaned in close on the settle. “I met your granda at Hogmanay, ye ken?”
Cassie dropped her empty mug. Granda Scott’s name was never mentioned.
“Och aye,” said Granny. “The good Lord blow’d him through thon door. Hair as black as coal. I was leukin oot for weans beggin for bread and coal. But here, dear. The first-footer was Hamilton Scott frae Donaghadee. Loast in the fog efter a danner up Sallagh.”
Granny held up the short wisp of straw to reveal a heart shape where the loops of her creation intertwined. “I’d a wisp like this yin in my hand for the weans.”
“Och, Granny,” said Cassie, laughing. Hammy Scott was said to have died at sea, but Cassie had overheard a different tale the night of her mother’s wake.
As the sound of the fiddle echoed in the scullery, Granny Armstrong had whispered the truth to her sister, that Hamilton Scott had been a figment of Letitia Lynch’s imagination. The pair of them had leaned over the open coffin and prayed for the soul of the dearly departed — Charlotte Scott, the bastard daughter.
“It’s a cryin shame the weans dinnae come first-footing roon here,” said Cassie.
“Your da wudnae stand for it. Beggars, he’d call them.”
“Ma wud hae said the same.”
“Och, och anee,” rhymed Granny. “Yer ma liked the oul ways when she was a wean. She aye gien your da his place as the heid o the hoose. And rightly so.”
Cassie thought about her mother and her illness, the fatigue that died in the dim light. She would stay up half the night painting and then she would lie for days, not fit for lifting a hand. The Armstrongs said that Charlotte Scott was too much the lady, with her painting and resting.
Cassie missed her ma, but she’d never been drawn to the landscapes painted by her hand. She’d never been drawn to their colours, as dark as Haleve nicht.
“Granny,” said Cassie. “Ye know there’s mare a chance o’ a draft blowin through thon door than a first-footer. Come on tae bed.”
“Young yins! Where’s the magic? I believed in magic. And leuk at me.”
“Aye, leuk at ye, Granny,” said Cassie, as she rattled the last of the slack from the bucket. “An oul widow wi naethin but a sixteen year-oul tae warm them cowl feet. Let’s get ye til yer bed.”
Cassie’s mind birled from the whisky. She tossed and turned half the night. At the stroke of five, a cold wind skimmed across her cheeks.
She slipped her hand into the icy air and switched on the lamp. Wind whistled through the chimney flue.
Cassie pulled back the heavy quilt and there was Granny. Nose tipped up. A gladsome smile. White hands gripping the heart-shaped wisp like a prayer.
Hands as cold as linen.
“Och, Granny,” said Cassie.
There would be plenty of doing, once word spread to the Armstrong women that Letitia Scott had died, but even they knew better than to speak ill of the dead. There would be no more whispers about how or why Letitia Scott had bought her own house, or talk of a husband who had never been seen.
The first-footers would be dark, after all. Dark and in mourning. Maybe that’s what Granny had planned. There would be wisps for all the mourners, and a house clean enough to accept their call.
But the first-footer had already been. He had snatched the last breath from Granny, then sped hastily on.
Cassie lifted the floorboard below her bed. There was something she needed to see before her father awoke and took over.
There was no marriage certificate for Letitia, but there was a birth certificate from Donaghadee First Presbyterian Church.
Charlotte Lynch was the name of the child.
Cassie held the paper to her chest. Her mother was a Lynch and not a Scott.
There was also a solicitor's letter about the deeds of the house; it was dated 1881, the year before Charlotte was married. The name on it was Letitia Lynch.
Letitita Lynch had bequeathed the house to Cassie in her will, but no Armstrong would have the satisfaction of knowing the truth about Granny. Cassie would nail the floorboard down.
“There are Scotts on my maternal side.”
Katie typed the words into Messenger after reading Simon Scott’s blog. It was an easy distraction from the painting she could not finish. And after fruitless years of trying to trace the Scott side of her family, she had taken a notion that there might be a connection with Hamilton Scott, a once-celebrated portrait artist from Donaghadee. Perhaps she needed that connection to sustain her ebbing confidence in an artistic calling that had ripped her away from the security of nine to five.
As she waited for a response, she plotted a story for each of Hamilton Scott’s paintings. There was the young woman who looked over her naked shoulder, back towards a mirror. There was an elderly woman with a half-smile and wrinkles so real that the canvas appeared cracked. Could it have been the same woman in her later years?
One more painting caught Katie’s eye. A young boy with fair hair flying in the wind. ‘First-Footer’ was its name.
Katie studied the vigorous movement, then stood up and walked to her own unfinished canvas of a solitary woman.
She had seen the woman walk by the house one morning. Mothers and children were rushing past the window through a diesel fog, but the solitary woman appeared elegant and slow. Her red lips shone under a black umbrella.
Katie had painted the stranger in strokes of navy blue and black. She had painted dark shadows on her face that contrasted with the red lips shining. And she had tried to conjure up a story for the pain in the woman’s smile.
She lifted a brush and dipped it in ochre. Sweeping it across the canvas, she felt movement through the bristles. A fair boy leaping. A boy who hadn’t heeded his mother’s cries.
And a mother. A mother who drew a line of composure on her lips each morning in red.
A mother whose presence was a stone memorial walking.
Katie painted until, exhausted and empty, she stood back, frightened by her own imagination. She had raised her daughter alone and, through her own night terrors, had many times lived out the darkness of losing a child.
It was after midnight when the Messenger alert sounded. Simon Scott had replied.
“Fascinating that your family is from Cairncastle. There is a landscape in the family collection called ‘Cairncastle Sky Falling.’ The name on it is C Scott. I’ve attached a photograph of it.”
Katie studied the painting, the dark, gnarled hawthorn branches, the glints of light on the navy sea. She understood how to add light to her painting.
She drove to the derelict homestead in Cairncastle in the morning. Weeds strangled the remaining stones of the house. She thought about her ancestor, Letitia Scott. No one knew how she had acquired money to purchase a house. Granny Cassie had left no will, so the children of the Armstrong brothers had all made their own futile claim to the land. The matter had never been settled.
Katie climbed to the peak of the brae behind the homestead, where hawthorn trees jutted from the ground. In the distance, the sea was grey, but two lights blinked from the Maidens’ lighthouses. She had found the painting by C Scott.
Simon Scott had selected the Ulster Reform club, a Victorian Gentleman’s Club in the centre of Belfast, as the meeting venue.
“Awfully kind of you to come!” he said, as he clasped Katie’s hand.
They sat in a panelled drawing room, below a curved window that looked out upon Belfast city centre, like a discerning eye.
“You’ve been busy,” he said, placing his glasses on the end of his nose. He sifted through the documents Katie had compiled.
“This is from the 1911 census,” she explained. “My great, great grandmother, Letitia Scott, is 72. Her daughter, Charlotte Armstrong, died in 1910. Charlotte’s husband and their four sons are listed here and this is fourteen-year-old Cassie Armstrong, my grandmother.”
“And Charlotte’s maiden name was Scott?”
Simon’s eyes rose to the wooden panelling. “I’ve searched, and there is no Letitia in our family tree. Come and have a look at this painting.”
Katie followed him to the fireplace. She looked up. There she was, the same young woman that Katie had seen in the blog. She was clutching something in her hand, reaching towards the door as the wind lifted her brown hair.
“Hamilton was also an engineer,” said Simon. “Founder member of this club. The painting is called ‘The Wedding Wisp’ and the detail is a feat of engineering in itself. Look at the folds of the wisp.”
“What is it?”
“An old custom,” said Simon. “She’s greeting the first-footer of the year.” He held out some photocopies. “There are five paintings by C Scott in the collection, including the one of Cairncastle.”
“Charlotte,” whispered Katie.
“The paintings are incredibly dark. More impressionistic than Hamilton’s. There are some receipts for them. They went for a good price in 1881. Hamilton sold them.”
Katie looked up at the woman in the painting. Letitia had left something behind that would outlast any painting, straw, or stone – her mark was a fearless expression that thrived like hawthorn on dewy grass.
She read the brass plate.
No urchins came with hair alight
For dark locks shone that windy night:
An untamed brush on linen skin,
Of ochre oils and knotted rings.
The Wedding Wisp is included in the Women Aloud Anthology, North Star. My latest novel, Dusty Bluebells is another family history mystery set in 1940s County Antrim.
The Wedding Wisp is a fictional story. (Any resemblance to real events is coincidental). This topic was inspired by a post Philip Robinson made a few years ago on a Facebook Group, Friends of the Ulster Scots Academy, about the old tradition of handing out wisps at Hogmanay.
Other work by Angeline:
Contemporary novel. "An enjoyable coming-of-age tale with a Belfast twist" (The Irish Times)
Click here to buy
A Belfast Tale
Contemporary novel. “Uniquely, authentically and enjoyably Belfast" (Tony Macaulay, author of Paperboy.)
Click here to buy.
Irish Dancing: The festival story
A history of dancing in Ulster with a focus on the festival tradition of Irish Dancing. Click here to buy.
Children of Latharna
Stories for big weans and wee weans. "Lyrical and nostalgic; wistful and humorous," Ian Andrew, author.
Click here to start reading for free
Scene from Snugville Street
The Wedding Wisp
82 Waterloo Road
The Teacher Voice
The Children of Latharna
The Band Stick
The Bully up the Brae
History & folklore
Language Blog I
Language Blog II
Language Blog III
Language Blog IV
The linguist behind Ulster Scots.
Kailyard & Dusty Bluebells
Jean Park of Ballygally
Fiddles and Melodeons
Martha Taylor's diary
Jean McCullagh at 104
Ballymena & the McConnells
Arms in Irish Dancing
Catholics & Protestants in Irish dancing
Irish Dancing: The Festival Story
The Protestant in Irish Fiction.
The Protestant in Irish fiction II
Ulster-Scots in Irish Fiction
An author in Wonderland
Dancing in Victorian Ulster
Learning the Irish Language.
John Hewitt Summer School
Lesley Allen & Helen Nicholl