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 Laxdæla 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 Dúnlainge, 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


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


Where to Begin?

I’ve always been interested in Scotland. Both of my father’s parents were born there, and the culture and food of Ackroyd's Scottish BakeryScotland was very much a part of my childhood. (Yes, I do actually like Haggis – although my family does not and Akroyd’s Bakery in the Detroit area is still a go-to for meat pies and bridies!)

In the mid-90s, I discovered the Clarsach (the traditional wire-string harp of Scotland) and have been exceedingly privileged to now own three of them (an Ardival Kilcoy, a Triplet high-headed Irish, and a Musicmaker’s kit harp) I was also extremely fortunate to study early harp music with some leading harpists around the world including Alison Kinnaird, Ann Heymann, Cynthia Cathcart, and Alison Attar (former teacher).

As an active participant in SCA reenactment during the 1990s, my passion for the clarsach was a good fit. As I immersed myself in the early clarsach music of Scotland, I found that pre-16th century extant clarsach music was not easily found. If it existed at all, its remnants could possibly be found in the lute manuscripts or piping or fiddling traditions. The reasons for this are many, including the Clarsach was taught by ear and many Scottish manuscripts disappeared or were destroyed during the protestant reformation.

Fast forward 25 years. I have been out of the reenacting world for about 12 years and no longer live in the Mid-realm. I miss it. I loved being able to ‘get my nerd on’ so to speak discussing early music with my “laurel” Mistress Amelie d’Anjou of the Midrealm, talking about a newly found tidbit of medieval research with some of my many friends, or learning new things, like sprang and naalbinding. While I’ve periodically toyed with the idea of getting involved in the SCA again, nothing ever really fell into place. Until recently.

My son is 8 years old now and the idea of knights and the middle ages thrills him. I have recently met some great people in the local SCA group that share many of the same interests as me. And, as a result I have stared re-exploring Renaissance Scotland. Ironically, with as much information is available on the internet, there is a noticeable gap in any series Scottish re-enactment research, for many of the same reasons as those I faced when doing Scottish music research. Which is why I started this blog.

Now, with a little research under my belt, a dress underway, the Clarsach in my hands, and ideas flowing through my head, I want to share my research, discoveries, and questions for anyone interested. And, get your comments and ideas back!