Why it is so important to question everything (even the small stuff).


One of the reasons I love history, research, music, and various other arts and crafts is because they fuel my natural sense of curiosity. I am definitely the type of person that walks away from a documentary, movie, book, or even a conversation and instantly jumps on the internet because I want to learn more about some obscure person, place, or event. I even process my knitting and crochet this way. For example, I am currently working on the “Bohemian Oasis” blanket pattern for my daughter as a gift. I actually memorized the pattern by first processing the reason why certain crochet stitches came in the order they did–for example, a slip stitch coming right after a double chain, or two single chains between five double chains. (If you’re curious as well, the slip stitch seems to form an anchor from which to begin three single chains. And, the two single chains form the corners!)


My current project,’Bohemian Oasis’ blanket by Drops Design. Only about 90 more squares to go!

This natural curiosity also ties in well with my job, where I am often called upon to research, comment, and provide recommendations on highly technical issues or policy documents.

And, as much as I love digging my teeth into some obscure fact or point of policy…it drives my family nuts. Because, this means that when something of importance doesn’t feel right, I challenge and question it, even if it involves them and escalating the issue to the executive level.

The last two days in particular have been challenging when it comes to questioning things that other folks seemingly accept as the status quo. First, I am dealing with an aging parent who resides in a nursing home for a variety of reasons, including a severe degenerative disease and mental illness. The combination of these two issues makes dealing with both my parent and the nursing home trying sometimes. Not, that the nursing home is bad. They’re really not. But, I don’t take it well when they call me on the phone and tell me things that I know to be blatantly incorrect. And, then there is the public education system. My son started school and I received some papers that contained language that demanded that I discuss certain curriculum-related things with my child, sign the document proving that I had these discussions, and then have him return the document to the school. And, if I didn’t do these things the document claimed they could prevent my child from participating in the state-mandated curriculum. HOGWASH!

I immediately fired off an email to the school informing them that (a) they could not dictate what conversations I have with my child; (b) I did not need to prove to them what I do with my family in my home and on my time; and most importantly (c) they absolutely had no grounds to restrict my child the ability to participate in state-mandated education simply because I refused to sign their silly “parent/student” contract. (I used much more professional language, of course, in my email.) The upshot of all of this was I was right – and the school backed down with barely a whimper. But, I know my son was annoyed with me, because he had the teacher asking him for the document and the principal pulled him out of class to clarify something with him. (It wasn’t a big deal – and the principal was kind, but 13 year olds are easily embarrassed.)


Train yourself and your children to question and challenge EVERYTHING!

This brings me to the point of this blog entry. People get away with a lot today. They lie. They spew twisted facts to serve their own bigoted and racist schemes. They take the lazy and easy way out by making unsubstantiated bold allegations (I like to call those UBAs-oobahs¬†ūüėä) in the hopes that no one will challenge them. And, the sad part is, most people don’t challenge it. At least not the small stuff. If someone in authority–a nurse, doctor, teacher, executive, politician, columnist or news anchor, or bureaucrat–makes a statement, everyone tends to assume that this person is correct. And, often, even when something doesn’t feel correct or accurate, nothing is done about it, because the person on the receiving end of the statement doesn’t want to “make waves” or thinks it is just a small matter, and they have ‘bigger things to worry about.’ Or, sometimes they’re afraid that that person that issued the statement wields tremendous authority and can retaliate, making things difficult.

Guess what. Those small things quickly snowball into big things because no one does anything about it. A school district gets away with issuing non-binding so-called “contracts”, threatening to pull a child from a curriculum because no one challenges it. A nursing home starts billing the family for services the family is not financially obligated for. One has to ask–what else are they getting away with because no one is standing up to them?

Worse yet, we sometimes fuel this seemingly innocent behavior because it makes for a good show. People watch endless hours of ‘reality’ TV with people doing outrageous things and making outrageous statements and see no issues with it. This is how the abnormal suddenly becomes normal. The next time someone does or says something outrageous, it doesn’t quite feel as bad as the first time they did it.

If decency, fairness, and fact are important to you, practice questioning and challenging everything. And, teach your children the same. Do not accept any part of any statement as “ok”. Don’t tell yourself, “This is a small matter and I have bigger things to worry about.” If we all did a better job of challenging authority with the small stuff, we may not have as many people getting away with the big stuff.



Bourbon, Cabins, Caves, and Coal.


Antique car along the route of the Big South Fork Scenic Railway

Our summer vacation this year was fairly low key. No long trips to the Pacific Northwest to view mountains and the Great American Solar Eclipse (last year). No soaking in Icelandic geothermal hot springs for hours on end.

Instead, we went to Kentucky. And it was beautiful – and equally as lovely as the vistas we observed in more ‘exotic’ locales.

I will admit, I was a little apprehensive about going to Kentucky (I came close to officially canceling the trip multiple times), mostly because of the current political climate. I just didn’t want to face a week of driving through the countryside with certain political signage glaring me in the face–or having to deal with political or religious extremism. Fortunately, we saw very little of this. (Although there was one point when a clerk at a large hotel chain actually encouraged us to visit a crazy religious site. It was weird and uncomfortable. Needless to say, we didn’t go.)

We visited Bourbon country, Lincoln homesteads, Mammoth Cave National Park, and the coal mining country of southeastern Kentucky. All incredible and each left a lasting impression on us.


Willett bourbon. Our favorite tour.


Deep in the bowels of Mammoth Cave NP. Look at the humans and the height of the cave! NOTE: the light is not daylight, it is electric lighting.

The final phase of trip included a visit to Cumberland Falls State Park and a ride on the Big South Fork Scenic Railway.  Cumberland Falls was lovely, albeit it was a bit hot that day. However, it was the railway and the visit to the Blue Heron Mining Camp that really left me with a major impression of our country and the vast diversity of people that built it.


Cumberland Falls

First, the Big South Fork Scenic Railway is a fantastic little voyage. Relaxing and pretty views of the Big South Fork of the Cumberland River great you as you traverse at about 10-15 miles per hour along its banks. The conductor provides information along the route, referencing historic sites, farms, and interesting facts about the land and the region.


Traveling on the Big South Fork Scenic Railway.

The trip begins in the town of Stearns, Kentucky and concludes at the Blue Heron Mining Camp, managed and run by the National Park Service. Stearns, Kentucky today is a remnant of the town it once was, as the hub of coal and lumber activity for the region. It offers an interesting museum that talks about the town’s founding by lumber industrialist, Justus S. Stearns. A true “company town,” the Stearns Coal and Lumber Company¬†employed more than 2,200 people that lived and worked in 18 different coal and lumber camps. ¬†One of those camps is the Blue Heron (#18) which¬†operated from 1937 until 1962.

The word “camp” is a bit of misnomer. Blue Heron really was a town, complete with a school, store, church, homes, and a mine. As camp #18 – it really was the end of the line. While the surrounding landscape is lovely, the location is remote and felt isolating for many of the families living there. Like most mining towns, residents suffered from poverty and health concerns–asthma and breathing problems were common. One recollection from a resident tells of how women sometimes had to do the wash multiple times a day—because if the wind changed, your bedding and clothes that had been hung out to dry could quickly become covered in black soot.


The coal ‘tipple’ at the Blue Heron Mining Camp #18.

The coal tipple and bridge are really all that remains of the structures in the town. When the National Park Service (NPS) took the town over, most of the buildings were still there, but barely standing. Rather than restoring the buildings, NPS erected covered steel-frame structures (called ‘ghost structures’) on the locations of various buildings. Each structure includes an enclosed glass museum display of memorabilia from whatever the building was associated with (for example, school books or things sold at the store). An interactive audio display allows you to listen to the actual voices of the town’s residents describing life. (You can listen to the various audio files on the NPS site at the links provided in these paragraphs.)


One of the “ghost” structures on the site of a building at the Blue Heron Mining Camp.

While, I wouldn’t exactly say that the residents of the town faced horrible, grinding poverty, life in a coal camp wasn’t easy and there weren’t many luxuries. I was struck by a story at at the school display¬†of a young man that was accepted to Berea College. He was unable to go simply because he didn’t have enough or appropriate clothing. Attending school beyond elementary wasn’t easy. Since there were no roads, children wishing to go on to high school had to leave home at 5 am and walk quite a distance to catch a bus, often returning home past 5 pm in the evening.

Prior to boarding the train to head back to Stearns, I visited the little gift shop run by NPS and found a gem of a book that I would highly recommend to anyone interested in Appalachia. The Tall Woman by Wilma Dykeman is a fictional account of a woman and her family during and after the American Civil War and their lives in the mountains of western North Carolina.

The trip to Blue Heron left a lasting impression on me–in particular, the culture that these mining camps created. There were intelligent talented people that lived in these towns and camps who were never able to escape simply because they couldn’t attain the ¬†education they needed to do so. ¬†Fortunately, our educational system is more advanced than it was then, but remnants of this oppression still live on in some ways. Lack of jobs, access to quality health care (physical and mental), addictions, poverty–all of these things are still very much alive and well in huge swaths of our country.


Why Reenact?


My son dressing up as a colonial citizen at Colonial Williamsburg in VA

In a blog I like to read (you can find it here), the author recently asked her readers if reenacting a wartime environment makes sense from a moral and ethical perspective (in this case it is WWII and a “1940s” theme weekend in her local English village).

I posted a rather lengthy comment in the comment section of this blog, that I thought I’d republish here.


I often wonder what re-enactors are hoping to achieve. (I say that as someone who was a long time re-enactor in a medieval re-enactment group.) For 1940s re-enactors, I wonder, are they nostalgic for the camaraderie of a time when people weren’t obsessed with consumerism, when you had to ‘make do’, and when “reuse, repair, recycle” wasn’t just a trendy thing but a way of life. For some perhaps it is the fascination with mechanical things – like spitfires and army jeeps. I do think that for many re-enactors (although not all), that re-enactment is purely about escape–that is, escape to a time when you didn’t have the pressures of modern life bombarding you.

Speaking from personal experience, I can say that most re-enactors are very good at ‘forgetting’ about the bad things associated with the era they’re attempting to recreate. Medieval re-enactors are great about forgetting about the grinding poverty, the high mortality rate of children, plague and pestilence, the vast wealth gap between peasants and nobility, and the grip that the church held over daily life. They conveniently focus on the ‘fun’ things – like researching how costumes were made, or the type of foods people ate, or what it feels like to dress in armor and pretend to do battle. I suspect that U.S. Civil War re-enactors are great about ignoring the horrors of slavery, marches of hundreds of miles, watching your friends and brothers die in agony next to you, not having shoes or decent clothes to wear, etc – instead choosing to focus on research, camaraderie, and telling stories around a campfire.

In the end, I suspect it is no different for people that like to ‘re-create’ 1940s Britain. They conveniently ignore the concentration camps, the blitz, the death marches and POW camps, the lack of every day necessities, etc. and instead focus on the fun costumes, the cool planes, and the camaraderie associated with these fun things.

I am reminded of the number of ‘experimental archeology’ programs that have become popular over the years, like Victorian Farm, Tudor Monastery Farm, etc – where historians and archeologists pretty much do for an extended period of time, exactly what is going on during the 1940s event in this town. For me (and for many other I suspect), re-enacting a certain time period is in part about learning and experiment.

But, I am also torn when I think about how horrible it must have been for a peasant family during the middle ages, for example, to keep warm, fed, and healthy. I can’t imagine watching my own children suffer as many a medieval peasant probably did. Nor can I imagine knowing that my family was at risk because bombs were dropping over our head or a horrible regime was about to march us to our death in gas chambers, simply for our religion or ethnicity.

I think perhaps so many of us are sensitized to the “1940s” because it is still very close to us – either we or our parents or grandparents lived through the time and the stories are still very real. But, does that make the yearning for the ‘better things’ from the 1940s bad? I don’t know. It is definitely something to think about.

The Child Ballads and Scotland

My husband recently purchased a CD by Anais Mitchell and Jefferson Hamer appropriately called, The Child Ballads. (As a side note, he first heard this group on NPR’s Tiny Desk Concerts.


As we listened to the CD (in particular, the tune Riddles Wisely Expounded), we got into a discussion about the various renditions of the Child Ballads that we’ve heard over the years. Recording artists include Joan Baez, Bob Dylan, Art Garfunkel, and even Fleet Foxes. My personal favorite is Jean Redpath.

If you’re not familiar with this tune, it is a fascinating one. Wikipedia dates the origins of the poem to the 15th century, with the earliest surviving version about the devil kidnapping a maiden. Later versions involve slightly different characters, such as knights or the devil disguised as a knight or handsome traveler.

I think what has always attracted me to this song (particularly the Redpath version) is the fact that, in spite of the devil-traveler-knight’s best efforts, the young woman sees right through the efforts of the fiend and successfully (and easily) answers the riddles, exposing the traveler for who he is.


The Iceland Experience

The road that follows Eyjafjord, the longest fjord in Iceland.

The road that follows Eyjafjord, the longest fjord in Iceland.

We just came back from another trip to Iceland. And, we can’t wait to go back again. What an amazing county. Full of landscapes that take your breath away, awesome history, and wonderful people.

Having always been a bit obsessed with Scottish culture, I never gave much thought to Iceland or the Vikings. Frankly, I wasn’t that interested in Viking reenactment, clothing, or culture. I mean come on – what is there to know about Vikings? Another warrior culture that raped and pillaged. WRONG!!

Far_TravelerPrior to our initial trip to¬†Iceland in the Fall of 2014, I had the chance to read some interesting books about Icelandic history. First, I became intrigued by the book The Far Traveler: Voyages of a Viking Woman by Nancy Marie Brown. Ms. Brown explores the Greenlanders saga, in particular the story of Gudrid, and the archeological evidence that supports the Viking colonization of Greenland and North America (L’anse aux Meadows). I was truly intrigued by this woman’s experience.

Then there is the fiber. Ok, I’ll admit it. I am a bit of a fiber geek. (I’ll never forget my friend Emilysue (aka Mistress Amelie d’Anjou) handing me a drop spindle during a car road trip and saying “Here. You need to learn to spin!” Thank you, Emilysue – I love it and haven’t looked back!)

Woven into the EarthIceland is famous for its spinning and weaving. In fact, you can’t write a book about Iceland and its people, without recognizing that the entire economy (in the middle ages and even today) was built on sheep and wool. Gudrid and the Icelandic women that came before and after her, spent their entire lives weaving cloth for not only their own clothes, but for export to Scandinavia and the rest of Europe. The book Woven Into the Earth by Else Ostergaard examines the textile finds from medieval Norse settlements in Greenland. The wool, while less soft and fine as some of the wool produced in Europe, was exceedingly unique and warm with the outer and inner layer of the fleece processed together to produce fabric that was water repellent, warm, and breathable.

IMG_1953During our most recent trip to Iceland we had the pleasure of visiting The Settlement Museum (also called Reykjavik 871 +2 for the earliest excavated portion of the exhibit) which houses the actual archeological site of the oldest human habitation found in Iceland. Discovered in 2001, the site includes remnants of a longhouse which dates to approximately 930 to 1000 AD, as well as the remains of a wall which dates to 871 AD, roughly the estimated time of the settlement of Iceland. In addition to the buildings, archeologists also discovered various tools and implements, including wool processing implements, axes, and farming equipment. The beauty of this archeological site is that it strongly supports the Icelandic historic documents, the Book of the Icelanders and the Book of Settlements, which maintain that Iceland was settled in the 9th century.

The wool-related relics discovered on-site are exciting and include weights for warp-weighted looms, as well as spindle whorls. One whorl in particular has a runic inscription which states: “Vilborg owns me”. This is one of only a handful of runic inscriptions discovered on archeological finds.

“Vilborg owns me” is inscribed in runic script on this spindle whorl.

Weights for warp-weighted looms in the Settlement Museum in Reykjavik, Iceland.

Weights for warp-weighted looms in the Settlement Museum in Reykjavik, Iceland.

Yet, I can’t help but wonder if there is a Celtic connection to Iceland. In short, the answer is yes. We know, of course that Viking raiders regularly took Scottish and Icelandic captives. (There is the story of Melkorka from the Laxd√¶la saga, as well as the tales of Thorfinn Karlsefni, the husband of Gudrid and father to Snorri Thorfinnsson, the first recorded European child born in North America. Thorfinn Karlsefni was a direct descendant of¬†Cerball mac D√ļnlainge, King of Ireland.) But even stronger evidence for an Irish/Scottish connection exists in the archeological record. The Book of Icelanders claims that the first Norse settlers encountered Celtic monks. And¬†archaeological remains from around 800 AD, from a Celtic¬†monastic settlement have been found at¬†Kverkarhellir¬†cave, on the¬†Seljaland¬†farm in southern Iceland. At the site, crosses consistent with the Hiberno-Scottish style have been¬†carved in the wall of a nearby cave. Finally, we know from genetic testing that the majority of female Icelandic settlers (62%) came from the British Isles.

So perhaps, my Scottish roots do connect somehow to Iceland…

The Clarsach and Tartan Day 2014

The clarsach is unquestionably a 15th century instrument, particular to Scotland and Ireland. And, the best part is that it lives today! I recently caught up with my good friend and outstanding harpist, Cynthia Cathcart at the April 2014 Washington, DC area Tartan Day festivities. For those of you that haven’t had the privilege of listening to the traditional clarsach, check out Cynthia’s CD, Alchemy of a Rose, at¬†http://www.cynthiacathcart.com/alchemy_of_a_rose/.


Cynthia Cathcart performs on the clarsach at the Washington, DC area Tartan Day.

Europe & Medieval Teenagers

While this entry is not specifically about Scotland, I had to share this, as I suspect the contents of this BBC article are entirely applicable. As a mother of a teenage daughter, as much as I love her, there have been times when I’ve contemplated some of the solutions in this story (well, maybe not really, but there is a part of me that perhaps understands the motivation!)

What medieval Europe did with its teenagers

by William Kremer, BBC World Service


Scottish Queens

ImageI recently discovered The Freelance History Writer blog by Susan Abernathy. Fun blog. Especially if you like Scottish history. The other day on Medievalist.net (another really great blog if you like medieval things), I read an article Ms. Abernathy wrote about the wardrobe of Margaret of Denmark, Queen to King James III of Scotland. In the article she references a book called Scottish Queens: 1034 Р1714 by Rosalind K. Marshall. An entire book devoted to the other half of the Scottish throne! Yeah. How did I miss this book over the years? While I try to get books out of the library these days, this was one that I decided I just had to add to my personal collection. It just arrived and I plan to begin reading it very shortly (particularly the chapters about Margaret of Denmark and Margaret Tudor!) Undoubtedly there will be interesting nuggets that I will post forthwith! Stay tuned.

Crann Nan Teud: The Tree of Strings

ImageTree of Strings: Crann Nan Teud by Keith Sanger & Alison Kinnaird is one of those history books that I love. Although I’ve read and reread it several times, it still contains nuggets of information that I find riveting. Published in 1992, it still remains one of the definitive early works on the history of the harp in Scotland.

Harp vs. Clarsach

Historically, both the harp and the clarsach are triangular framed, plucked string instruments. However, the clarsach was strung with wire (usually bronze or brass) and played with the fingernails. The harp, on the other hand, was strung with gut or possibly horse hair and played using the finger pads. The earliest known reference to the word clarsach may come from the composition of a Scottish poet – Giolla Brighde Albanach. (Although Albanach’s 13th century work is considered Irish, both his name and content within his poetry suggest he was Scottish.) According to Tree of Strings, Albanach “uses the phrase “char shoileach” to describe how “fair hand never played on willow board, strings as musical as his speech.” In the next couple of centuries, the word seems to have spread from Gaelic into Scots as a term to differentiate the harp with wire strings. By the 15th century, the term “clarsach” with all its glorious 15th century spelling versions: “Kerscharch“, “Clarescheouch“, “clarsaghours“, and “Clairseach” (to list a few), is frequently found in records throughout Scotland, Ireland, and even once in England. (Although the one English reference appears to be a record of Henry VI banning the Irish musicians and poets as subversives! Darn English!)

The Earliest Harps were Scottish!

ImageOne of the things that Tree of Strings did was codify the harp (the triangular-framed harp, with three distinct components, the neck, pillar, and soundbox) as an instrument that existed in Scotland possibly 200 to 300 years before it appeared in Ireland. Located at the entrance to the grounds of the parish church in Nigg, Easter Ross, Scotland, the Nigg Stone (dated to approximately the 8th century) is not only one of the finest surviving Pictish carved stones, but also the earliest image in Europe of the triangular harp.

Other stones throughout Scotland, including those at Dupplin, Aldbar, and Monifeith, all dated to pre-10th century, also contain images of triangular-framed harps. (The first known example of a triangular-framed harp in Ireland is found on the Shrine of St. Mogue, which probably dates from the 11th century).

Clearly, the harp is a Scottish instrument. And it stayed a Scottish instrument well into the 16th century.

Coming Soon: The Harp in the Court of James IV

Scottish/Flemish Connection

It seems there was a deep Scottish/Flemish connection with Flemish immigrants one of the largest groups settling in Scotland over a 600 year period between the 11th and 17th centuries. The University of St. Andrews has an entire program devoted to it. (You can find more information here.) The really interesting thing is that the university researchers estimate that up to 1/3 of Scotland’s people are descended from a Flemish ancestor.

This project is just underway at St. Andrews, but there are some exciting things afoot, including:

  • Flemish influence and settlements in Fife and the Glenshee area of Perthshire including the possibility of the ruins of a settlement.
  • Immigration of Flemish people to Scotland due to religious persecution between 1550 and 1635
  • YDNA tests, linked to Scottish surnames to determine Flemish ancestry