A beautiful and astonishing example of serendipity

Sometimes, life can hand you a beautiful example of serendipity, a gift of simple grace and joy, which makes you feel connections across time and place that are just spine-tingling…Such a thing happened to me just recently, something which connected my childhood scribbling self with my present scribbling self, in the most unexpected of ways. It’s a whole story in itself, so in order to do it justice, I have to start with some context, with some scene-setting, before I move to what happened in the present day…

So, in an entry in my diary, written as a 12 year old (a diary I still have), there’s a mention of a book I was writing, titled The Twins’ Highlands Holiday. Everything in the entry except for that title is written in French (as indeed it is in the rest of the diary); but the English title clearly showed that I had ambitions for a fiction readership beyond my immediate family 🙂  And it also showed clearly the influence of one of my favourite writers at the time, Enid Blyton. I especially loved her mysteries series, the Famous Five and the Secret Seven, but also her story anthologies which could be consumed in bite size pieces(though being a voracious reader, I never stopped at one bite!) My parents rarely bought new English-language books for us(that was reserved for French-language titles, like Tintin, Asterix, Alexandre Dumas, Jules Verne etc); So most of those books I borrowed from the library or occasionally we might find some in second-hand shops, like the legendary White Elephant in Chatswood which my mother took us to during the holidays(we lived in Sydney’s North Shore area) and where we children might be allowed to select books to take home(she also loved rummaging amongst the shop’s astonishing mass of books, records, old china, curios, records, vintage clothes etc).

I had come across the entry in that old diary earlier this year, in preparation for an essay I was writing; and I thought then, I wish I still had that story! But it had vanished long ago, and all that remained was the title, a title straight out of Blyton, though maybe not the Highlands part, for that very English writer. As a twelve year old I had never been to the Highlands, though I loved stories set there(I’d also read and loved Robert Louis Stevenson’s Kidnapped, a very different kettle of fish to Blyton, of course!) So I’d combined twins and holiday–very Blyton–with a whiff of adventure in the heather, a la Robert Louis Stevenson. I don’t recall anything about the story or what happened in it..but seeing it mentioned there in the diary(mentioned in more than one entry actually, as I diligently reported progress on writing it) made me remember the sheer excitement of writing as a child, copying my favourite authors but doing it all in my own way.  And I thought, I know the Highlands bit came from Stevenson, but I wonder which Blyton it was which inspired the rest?  Oh well, probably a mix of several, I thought.

The Twins’ Holiday Holiday went into the essay. And that was it. Except it wasn’t. The astonishment, the serendipity, was still to come. A few weeks ago, I received a direct Facebook message from a fellow author, Pat Simmons. I hadn’t met Pat in person, but I did know her work: and had recently bought her latest lovely picture book, Ziggy’s Zoo(illustrated by Vicky Pratt) for some dear little people in my life. Anyway, Pat had messaged me about something she’d found, quite by chance. A book. An Enid Blyton anthology, called ‘The Holiday Book’, with a name, address, telephone number and date carefully written on the flyleaf, obviously by the proud owner. And here I’ll pass the story over to Pat herself, to explain:

My local ‘op shop’ sits close to the bus stop in Thirroul. A bus stop I frequently use when travelling home to Scarborough. As the buses almost always run late, I often have time to browse the ‘op shop’ and seek out treasures.

A few weeks ago, I spied a book of Enid Blyton short stories, sitting all by itself on a high shelf. Inside the book I read a name and address. Definitely not a local address and, seemingly, written some years ago. The name was ‘Sophie Masson.’

Could it be THE Sophie Masson I wondered? I took a photo of the inscription and messaged it to Sophie. She confirmed that the book had indeed belonged to her some years ago.

It was great to return the book to its original owner and to ponder on the book’s journey.

I could hardly believe it as I looked at the photos Pat had sent. It was definitely my handwriting as a 12 year old (just the same as in the diary!) and it carefully noted my name, address, phone number(which I still remembered by heart as we’d had it drummed into us by our parents, in case we ever got lost!) as well as the place and date we’d bought it–the W.E., Chatswood, the White Elephant of course, and in May, only a few days after my twelfth birthday. So it was already second-hand when we bought it, but I had clearly loved it and put my mark on it.

I was so excited! And even more so when Pat very kindly sent the book to me, and opening it, I was suddenly plunged back into the world of my childhood, not only because of the stories, the pictures, and my owner’s inscription–I was sure now that this was the book that had inspired the Blytonesque part of that story I’d written as a twelve year old–but also  because of something else written on the page facing the flyleaf. ‘Taken out By’ it read in my writing: and underneath a stamp somewhat shakily reading L M. I knew at once who LM was of course; my younger brother, Louis. And he, along with my other siblings, had been one of the visitors at the ‘library’ I ran with attempted firmness at home, acting the part of the librarian, complete with stamp (I just loved those stamps!). Very likely that my cheeky rebel of a brother broke every library rule I attempted to impose, but he had clearly meekly submitted to being stamped into Enid Blyton’s Holiday Book (I showed it to him next time I saw him of course, much to his amazed amusement!)

What a journey indeed that book must have gone on over the decades since I had first held it in my hands and officiously stamped it! It had not followed me from childhood into adolescence; my mother must have got rid of it, along with other books we had outgrown, when we left home, or when she and my father left Australia to go back to France. She would have given it to another secondhand shop, no doubt, but in northern Sydney somewhere–but how it had ended up on the South Coast, in Pat’s neighbourhood op shop in Thirroul, a little battered but still in remarkably good shape, considering, is a mystery. I presume other children along the way, maybe several other children, had enjoyed and loved it, or it would not have stayed intact. As to me, I had forgotten it, until that moment when I read Pat’s message. Yet I had written my name and contact in it so carefully, obviously fearing that I might lose it, and trying to ensure that it would find its way back to me.

Which of course, eventually, it did….

And I’m still feeling that rush of pure, simple pleasure about the lovely serendipity of it all.

 

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In Jane Sullivan’s column in SMH today, talking about historical fiction

I’m briefly interviewed in Jane Sullivan’s Turning Pages column in the Sydney Morning Herald today, in my capacity as a writer of historical fiction and Conference Patron of the 2019 Conference of the Historical Novel Society of Australasia. You can read the whole column here.

Conferences, exhibitions, launches: a very busy few weeks coming up!

Later this month and into next month, I am going to be having a very busy and very interesting literary time!

First up is the wonderful Historical Novel Society of Australasia Conference, which this year is being held at the University of Western Sydney in Parramatta, Sydney, from October 25 to 27. The biennial HNSA conference is one of my favourite literary events: there’s always really interesting speakers, a fabulous program, and a warm, collegial atmosphere. This year’s certainly no exception, and I’m privileged to be involved with the Conference in several ways: as a speaker, a workshop presenter, judge of the HNSA short story contest, and, a great honour, being the Conference Patron as well. Looking forward so much to it! Tickets are still available for this fantastic event, so check out the program here.

Next up is the Artstate Festival, to be held in Tamworth, October 31 to November 3. I’m involved in this in several ways, as an author, a small-press publisher, and a contributor to an anthology and an exhibition, both of which will be launched in Tamworth during that time. On October 31, wearing my Christmas Press hat, I’ll be participating, with my Christmas Press partners as well as  fellow local publishing house Little Pink Dog Books, in the Creative Hot Spot Publisher Pitch Day, which will give children’s writers and illustrators an opportunity to pitch work to one or both publishing houses.

That evening, I’ll don my author hat again, as a contributor to the fabulous anthology Dark Sky Dreamings: An Inland Skywriters Anthology, which is themed around people’s relationship with the sky in all its aspects, and which will be launched at a great astronomy-themed event, in conjunction with the Tamworth Regional Astronomy Club, at Bicentennial Park in Tamworth at 8.30 pm: telescopes and stars will be a feature of this unusual launch!

Then on November 1, I’m speaking at an Artstate/Arts North West event called Authors’ Cafe, where authors chat with readers and other interested people about their work. That the evening, I’ll be attending the opening of an exhibition called Art Word Place, which is an Arts North West project, where New England-based writers were paired with New England-based visual artists to create joint works. I’m one of the writers, and I had the good fortune to be paired with the fantastic painter Angus Nivison. His visual response to my poem is just extraordinary! If you’re in the region, come check it and all the other works out, the opening is on at the Tamworth Regional Art Gallery at 5.15 pm on November 1, but the exhibition itself is on till December 8.

There will be other events later in November that I’m a part of, in Armidale, Sydney and Melbourne, but I will write about them later, in a separate blog post. It is certainly a very busy time!

 

Announcing some exciting news!

It’s now official as there’s been a news item in Books+Publishing yesterday so I’m delighted to be able to share this exciting news about the acquisition of my YA speculative fiction novel, novel, The Ghost Squad, by the fantastic publisher, MidnightSun Publishing. This is the novel that I wrote during the three years of my PhD, and it’s a novel very close to my heart–so it’s just so exciting to know it has found its perfect home in MidnightSun!

Below is the article from Books+Publishing, with due acknowledgement to B+P.

Masson joins MidnightSun with spec-fic YA novel

MidnightSun Publishing has acquired world rights to Sophie Masson’s YA speculative fiction novel The Ghost Squad.

Set in ‘an alternative yet jarringly familiar reality’, The Ghost Squad follows 16-year-old Polly after her mother, a respected homicide detective, goes missing and she is subsequently catapulted into a very different world.

MidnightSun director Anna Solding called The Ghost Squad ‘an exciting hybrid narrative that blends realism with the disorienting atmosphere of speculative fiction, mixing elements of detective fiction and ghost stories’, adding that she is ‘very excited to have Sophie Masson join the MidnightSun family with this gem of a novel’.

‘With a highly original plot premise, vivid characters, intriguing world-building, and twists and turns, The Ghost Squad is a novel that will keep readers guessing—and keep them awake at night!’ said Solding.

Masson said: ‘The Ghost Squad is a novel which isn’t easily categorised. It takes risks with an unsettling theme and genre-bending narrative yet is also immediately immersive: a book close to my heart … I’m so thrilled that is has been acquired by MidnightSun Publishing because I know that here, in a publishing house which is open to the bold and the unusual story but which also never forgets the reader, my novel has found the perfect home.’

Masson is founder and publisher at NSW-based children’s publisher Christmas Press, and the author of more than 60 novels, mostly for young adults and children. Earlier this year she was made a Member of the Order of Australia for her ‘significant service to literature’ as an author and publisher, and through her roles with industry organisations including the New England Writers Centre and the Small Press Network.

The Ghost Squad is scheduled for release in February 2021.

 

Category: Junior Local news Rights and acquisitions

 

 

 

Letter to my unpublished self…

Fellow author Monique Mulligan asked me to contribute to her blog series, ‘A letter to my unpublished self’. It was an unusual, and most enjoyable and thought-provoking thing to do. Here’s a short extract:

Dear Sophie

Hey, there. You’ve always wanted to be an author. A published author. And most days, you think, yes, I’ll get there. You love writing. You know it’s what you were born to do. You believe in your heart that one day, there will be a beautiful book in the shops with your name on it. And you work hard at it. So hard!

And you’re resilient. You pick yourself up after rejections, you bounce back up, you find another option, another possibility, another reason to hope it’ll happen. But occasionally, when yet another manuscript gets rejected, when yet another story fails to get into a competition shortlist, when you are working at yet another crappy menial job to earn a derisory bit of money in between frantically typing up yet another query letter, you think, maybe that nagging little voice in the glum depths of writer limbo is right. It’s too hard….

Read the whole thing here.

My chapter on crowdfunding and small publishers in forthcoming book

Very pleased to receive an advance copy in the mail of Book Publishing in Australia: A Living Legacy, edited by Millicent Weber and Aaron Mannion, which will be published by Monash University Publishing next month, but officially launched at the Small Press Network Conference in Melbourne in November. I have a chapter in this book, entitled ‘Crowdfunding and Small Publishers’, which after a general overview of how crowdfunding has operated in the past and now, looks at the particular recent experiences of three small publishers: Dirt Lane Press, Gumbootspearlz Press, and our own Christmas Press, all of whom used crowdfunding for individual projects.

The book also has many other chapters, on topics ranging from literary prizes to contracts to regional book clubs, to gender effects on speculative fiction and publishing as apprenticeship, and more, written by scholars and practitioners alike. It should appeal to anyone interested in publishing and the professional aspects of literature in Australia. Look out for it in November!

 

Captive in Fairyland–the Strange Case of Robert Kirk of Aberfoyle

 

Today I’m republishing a piece of mine which has aroused quite a bit of interest over the years–it’s about the fascinating story of an extraordinary man called Robert Kirk who wrote an even more extraordinary book called The Secret Commonwealth of Elves, Fauns and Fairies (first published in 1691). It starts off with a visit we made years ago to the site of Kirk’s life–and mysterious end.

Enjoy!

CAPTIVE IN FAIRYLAND: THE STRANGE CASE OF ROBERT KIRK OF ABERFOYLE

by Sophie Masson

Aberfoyle, Perthshire, March 2001

Fairy tree with wishes, Dun Shee, Aberfoyle(all photos of Aberfoyle sites by Sophie Masson)

It is a pretty track from the manse to the hill. It is spring, and the trees are beginning to put out new young leaves. Subtle colour permeates the landscape; the pale purple of growing tips, the russet of lingering winter, the film of green beginning to thicken, the darkness of the evergreens. It is a brilliant sunny day, bluely, sharply cold, after massive snowfalls which almost stopped us coming north at all. The path up the hill is through quiet oak woodland, over mossy rocks, through carpets of dead leaves, over little runnels of water where late snow has melted, through dark patches of mud. It doesn’t look like much of a hill from a distance, nothing like the high frowning Trossachs all around, gaunt in their velvet-brown winter austerity, and Ben Lomond in the distance, capped by snow. This hill is round, soft, gentle. But the walk is a bit steeper than it had seemed from the bottom; and there is an ambiguous atmosphere in this quiet, beautiful, light-filled place which makes me remember the expression on the face of the woman down in the village who had shown us where to go. ‘You’ll see what you’ll see when you get there,’ she’d said, with a little smile that could be interpreted in any number of ways.

Minister’s Pine(on left of pic), Dun Shee, Aberfoyle

We get to the top, to a clearing on the summit. In the middle of the clearing, there is a tall, lone Scots pine. The Minister’s Pine, it is called, around here. And all around it are leafless oak trees, of varying sizes. And on the oaks, long, fluttering ribbons: some bright, some faded and bedraggled. On the ribbons, words. ‘To the fairies of the place: a wish’. ‘I ask for the help of the fairies in..’ ‘Fairies, will you give me..’ There are one or two ribbons tied to the pine, but the words are too faded to read, as are indeed many of the ones tied on the oaks. You can’t tie much to the pine; its branches are mostly too far off the ground, its long slender shape not like the open-armed embrace of the oaks.

It is not a place where you want to stay. After the first two or three reading-aloud of wishes, you somehow don’t want to look at any more. A hand placed on the pine’s scaly bark is quickly withdrawn; the leafless oaks with their cargo of strange blossom look stranger and stranger. The evergreen,. alone of its kind amongst the circling oaks, takes on more and more of of a mute appeal. Yet that is surely just because you know the story. Because you know what that pine is supposed to mean, so that it takes on more and more the aspect of an enchanted prisoner standing helpless and speechless, as in a dream, within the ambiguous circle of his captors. You’d thought you’d want to stay there, soak in atmosphere, think, imagine; but no. Not really. Nobody says a word as we walk down, back into the wood, and come out at the entrance to the path just as a forestry worker in a van draws up and after a brief nod at us, prepares to tie a plastic ribbon across the entrance: foot and mouth precautions, you see. Nobody will be able to get up there now for days, weeks, months maybe. We only just made it in time.

Ruined church, Aberfoyle

Down the track, past the manse, across the bridge, and there is a ruined church. There is a graveyard at its back, which faces the hill. We wander amongst the stones, noting the names: McGregor–for this is McGregor country; Macintyre; Mac Donald; MacLaren, MacFarlane, Menzies, Primrose, Swan, Keir..And Kirk. Robert Kirk. Here he is, commemorated in a slab of red sandstone, and these Latin words, written, according to local hisorians, in what appears to be 18th century script:

Hic Pultis Ill Evangeli Promulgator Accuratus et Linguae Hiberniae Lumen M.Robertus Kirk Aberfoile Pastor Obiit 14 Maii 1692 Aetat 48.

Here lies the accurate promulgator of the Gospels and luminary of the Hibernian tongue, Mr Robert Kirk, pastor of Aberfoyle, who died 14 May 1692, aged 48.

Robert Kirk grave with epitaph and etchings

There are also three designs on the stone: an etched thistle, to represent his proud Highlands background; a shepherd’s crook, to represent his calling; and a dagger, to represent–well, we shall see. No mention on this slab of stone of the Minister’s Pine, or the other life of Robert Kirk of Aberfoyle.

No mention of the strange story surrounding his death. No mention of the strange book he wrote a year before his death, which ensured his immortality in more ways than one. Nothing ambiguous about this stone, pinning Kirk firmly to the earth, to time, to death, to sensible pursuits. Only in recent times has a small plaque been erected on the wall of the graveyard, noting discreetly that the gravestone of Robert Kirk, the ‘Fairy Minister’, was to be found within. The modern tourist authority knows that it is not Kirk’s prowess in evangelism or translating the Bible into Gaelic that attracts modern pilgrims from far away. But it doesn’t want to be too closely connected with the strangeness of the other thing, the ambiguous, elusive nature of just what it was Kirk did, and how he came to be both beneath that firm slab of stone, and in the lone pine on the hill.

Everything about Kirk in Aberfoyle is like that–glancing, elusive, quickly passed over, ambiguous. To get information on him seems like trying to hold quicksilver in your hand. There is no biography of him, though there is any amount on characters like Rob Roy MacGregor, a contemporary of, and related to Kirk himself. There is little information in any of the tourist literature; nobody seems to have thought him worthy of extended examination. He merits only a tiny paragraph in the Scottish Dictionary of National Biography, though the local Aberfoyle paper, Strathard News, featured an article on him, written to commemorate the 300th anniversary of his death in 1992. Perhaps it has to do with the lingering distaste of the traditional supernatural in Presbyterian Scotland, which has never seemed to come to grips with the complexity of belief as has, say, Catholic Ireland. Or perhaps it is something even stranger, undercurrents that cannot be named, cannot be pinned down, despite the best efforts of sensible epitaph-writers. For in Kirk’s life, death and legend, lies an extraordinary story, a story not of irreconciliable dualisms, but of things which mesh together in strange and illuminating ways.

The Dun Shee seen from Robert Kirk’s grave

The exact date of Robert Kirk’s birth is not known–some sources say he was born in 1641, others in 1644. He was a native Gaelic speaker, the seventh son of the Reverend James Kirk, Minister of Aberfoyle. In traditional Highlands belief, being a seventh son confers upon one the power of second sight–perhaps one of the reasons why Robert Kirk chose later to delve into beliefs surrounding second sight and the contact that second-sighters, or seers, have with the fairy world. Aberfoyle, of course, is at what local tourist literature calls ‘the gateway to the Highlands’–it in fact represents the transition point between the Lowlands and Highlands, and shares bits of both cultures.

Rob Roy, 1820’s engraving

Robert was brought up at Aberfoyle, and it is reasonable to assume that he saw the burning of woods and houses around the area by the forces of General Monk, one of Cromwell’s army commanders in 1654. Aberfoyle was a royalist stronghold, both then and later, and the burnings were both warning and reprisal. In 1661, a year after the Restoration of the monarchy, Robert graduated with an MA from Edinburgh University, after obtaining a bursary for his studies from the Presbytery in Dunblane. He then went on to further studies at St Andrews. After his ordination, he was inducted to the parish of Balquidder, not far from Aberfoyle, in November 1664. This was also Rob Roy’ MacGregor’s country–Kirk was related by marriage to the MacGregors, as he was to the Grahams by birth. It is interesting to speculate on whether the two men knew each other–Rob Roy was about 10 years younger than Kirk–and how Kirk, educated in Lowlands English-language culture, but deeply steeped in Gaelic language, folklore and history, managed to reconcile all these different aspects of himself, much as MacGregor did, in many ways. A bicultural background can be a huge advantage, as well as a drawback; and the man of agile mind who is able to jump between them, using one to inform the other, can be in a fortunate position. But also a difficult one.

Whilst in Balquidder, Kirk married Isobel Campbell in 1678, and the couple had one son, Colin. However, Isobel died two years later, on Christmas Day. Her gravestone, with an epitaph cut on it by her husband himself, is still to be seen in Balquidder. Later, Robert remarried, to his first wife’s cousin Margaret Campbell(note that because of the fact bearing the very name of MacGregor had been banned under pain of death by King James I in 1603 following a rebellion, many MacGregors, including Rob Roy himself at one stage, went by the name of Campbell, a name to which they also had kin-claim). Robert and Margaret Kirk had one son, also named Robert.

Whilst at Balquidder, Kirk began work on translations of the Bible, Psalms and the Catechism in Gaelic, and wrote up a helpful Gaelic vocabulary. He also translated the Psalter into Gaelic metrical versions–and this was published in 1684, and was the first ever complete translation for Gaelic speakers. His work was reckoned to be both important and elegant, displaying a great deal of literary talent as well as skill in translation. However, the Presbyterian Synod in Argyll was not altogether comfortable with the tone of Kirk’s translation, considering it a little too open-minded, almost Episcopalian. Not for ten years was a version of his work published under the approval of Argyll.

Meanwhile, Robert was not worrying himself overmuch about whether Argyll approved or not. He was taking part in a great deal of theological and metaphysical debate, travelling to Lowland Scotland and England on occasion to take part in discussions. A long way from being the stereotypical Presbyterian bigot, he was most interested in combatting what he saw as the dangers arising not from resurgent Catholicism, but fashionable scepticism and materialism–an aim he specifically mentioned when writing his next book. In 1685, he was appointed to his birthplace, and his father’s old parish of Aberfoyle, and it is perhaps this return to his origins and his childhood which stimulated him into starting work on his next project, his most famous and infamous book, and the reason for which he has not been forgotten altogether.

We do not know exactly when Robert started this book, which was published in 1691 under a ponderous title:

The Secret Commonwealth of Elves, Fauns and Fairies; or an Essay on the Nature and Actions of the Subterrenean and(for the most part)Invisible People Heretofoir going under the name of Faunes and Fairies, and the lyke, as described by those who have the second sight.

Naturally, in referring to it from now on, I will shorten this simply to The Secret Commonwealth.

The Secret Commonwealth is a fascinating book. Written in a matter-of-fact and occasionally turgid style, it recounts the habits, appearance and attitudes of the supernatural beings called, variously, elves, fauns or fairies–or rather, as his second-sighted parishioners were more likely to call them, the Sith. The details of Sith lives are very specific, and strangely compelling and suggestive, mysterious whilst being of an odd sort of realism. These beings, he points out, are very close to humans, living close to human dwellings, often underground, wear clothes of the same style and colours as their human counterparts in the region where they lived, so that in the Highlands, they wore ‘plaids and variegated garments’. However, though their appearance was similar to that of humans, their size varied, with some being of human size and others much smaller. ‘They speak but little, and that by way of whistling, clear not rough,’ he went on, and ‘their bodies be so plyable through the Subtility of the spirits that do Agitate them, that they can make them Appear and Disappear at leisure.’ They took the nourishment out of food, sucking the inside of things, leaving the husk behind; they had servants who were ‘Children, like Inchanted puppets‘; they laughed little, and that more like the rictus of a skull than real amusement; they had ‘pleasant Toyish books‘ in their libraries, and tended to be rather rather restless, moving about especially on Quarter Days, when second-sighters would see great crowds of them on the roads. (Kirk points out ruefully that these days were also the times of the year when his church was the most full, as parishioners flocked to take refuge in the sacred building). He also said that their world was the source of the gift of second sight, and that second-sighters could always see them, whereas ‘normal’ people could not. The second-sighters, he wrote, said that each human being, however, had a fairy double, or co-walker, a ‘doubleman’, and that this doubleman walked with a person all their lives, invisible to everyone except the second-sighters, until their human double, or host, died, when the Doubleman would disappear. If a person’s fairy double was seen separate from his or her human host, when the human was still alive, it meant that person would die very soon. Kirk recounts many cases when this happened. (The notion of the Doubleman was also used to great uncanny and powerful effect in Christopher Koch’s extraordinary 1985 Miles Franklin award-winning novel, The Doubleman, which is partly based on some of Kirk’s findings.)

One of the interesting things that Kirk mentions is that in the Highlands, it was mainly men who were supposed to have the gift of second sight, and women only rarely–therefore it was mostly men, and not women, who were in contact with the fairy world. From this world, for the second-sighter, would come the gift of healing, of prophecy, of poetry. But the second-sighter was not, as it were, in control–it was very difficult to force the fairy world into anything, and people were very wary of talking about it at all. In fact, here as elsewhere in the world(and fairy belief is found all over the world), there were euphemisms for the fairies–they were the People of Peace, the Good Neighbours, the Friends, the Little People, and so on. And he stresses that many of the second-sighters are terrified by their gift; that when they see the fairy folk gathering on the roads, their hair stands up on their heads; and that they suffer through seeing things they’d rather not see.

Manuscript pages from Robert Kirk’s notebooks(reproduced from Kevin Manwaring blog,https://thebardicacademic.wordpress.com/2017/04/03/the-remarkable-notebooks-of-robert-kirk/)

There are too many stories gathered together in Kirk’s book to recount here, and that is not the purpose of my essay, anyhow. The Secret Commonwealth is fascinating not just as one of the earliest ‘scientific’ sources of Highlands folklore, not just fascinating on account of its depiction of the strange alien lives of strange alien beings, but also because of  how Kirk’s stated aims and his perhaps unspoken underlying beliefs contrasted and meshed, and what bearing the book has on the development of the later legend of the Fairy Minister. As well, to look briefly at some of the social and historical and cultural elements surrounding the book, might be useful.

This was a transitional age: between Stuart and Hanoverian; tradition and modernity; magic and science. It was to become slowly an age in which the uneasy peace between England and Scotland brought about by James VI of Scotland and I of England’s accession to the English throne had brought, was suspended. It was to signal the beginning of the 18th century calvary of the Highlands, the destruction of the clan system, and of many traditional aspects of life. Kirk’s book is a priceless cultural, human and social document, written by a man who wrote both as insider and outsider, a bicultural man fluent in both worlds, a true ‘walker between worlds’. It is believed that Kirk collected many of the stories in his book through talking to his parishioners, but it is also possible that at least some of them could have come from his own experience, and his own thoughts on the matter.

The fairy hill at Aberfoyle, the same one I described at the beginning of this essay, was one of his favourite walking spots. He was often to be seen walking from the manse to the hill–and it is there that he was found stone dead on a sunny May morning in 1692. It is not inconceivable that in writing his book, ostensibly as a quasi-scientific endeavour to convince English readers of his class and calling as to the spiritual validity of the beliefs of the Highland (or ‘Erse’ as he called it) he was in fact describing his own spiritual and imaginative experiences as much as those of his second-sighted friends. English author and academic Dr Diane Purkiss, whose book, Troublesome Things(Allen Lane 2000), is a most interesting and complex study of fairies and fairy stories, notes, in a passage on Kirk and his work, that ‘belief in fairies actually warmed and grew as people began to be afraid that scepticism was a bottomless black vortex into which Christianity itself might be drawn‘(page 185). Kirk was certainly worried about this–he states specifically in his preface that he wants to combat scepticism and materialism. But it is not his only motive. After all, he was a seventh son, of a minister, what’s more, a man bearing the name of ‘Kirk’, possibly a family that had long been associated with spiritual and metaphysical matters.

Kirk, however, was no fool. He knew that to write directly about fairies himself, in an age which was very much a transitional one, but which prided itself on its new scientific and ‘objective’ aspects, would be tantamount to intellectual, not to speak of theological suicide. Keeping a wary eye on fundamentalist misunderstanding was also a concern. In the event, the Presbyterians said nothing about this book–perhaps they were not particularly aware of it–but in presenting his material as a kind of anthropological study avant l’heure, Kirk ran a great deal less risk. This kind of book was having a certain success in literary and intellectual circles in England and Scotland at the time, particularly in England, where it was becoming quite fashionable to collect folklore. Magic and science were still closely linked. Many members of the Royal Society, to which people  such as Isaac Newton belonged, for instance, were great collectors of, and in some cases(including Newton’s)firm believers in, and students of, magic. The antiquarian and wonderfully garrulous and zestful writer John Aubrey, a contemporary of Kirk, had written at some length on English fairy beliefs, recounting many wonderful stories, and had also corresponded with a Scotsman–not Kirk–who had sent him a great deal of information on second sight. The Scottish connection was important, because a great many English people of Aubrey’s day and class considered that, as a ‘savage’ society more in tune with ‘primitive’ beliefs, the Scots, particularly the Highlanders, presented a less ‘untainted’ version of traditional supernatural beliefs of all kinds. (In fact, this was not really the case; fairy beliefs in the Highlands as elsewhere evolved and changed over time, and there were some areas of England every bit as traditional in their descriptions of fairies as the Highlands: but they were different, often not such fierce fairies as in the Highlands, and therefore thought to be ‘tamer’ or less ‘pure’ as folklore). John Bovet, who wrote Pandemonium, or the Devil’s Cloyster, in 1684, also recounted some tales of Scottish fairies, with descriptions of their lives and homes, which were remarkably similar to the descriptions given by Kirk. He also, incidentally, describes an English story of a fairy market, invisible to all but a few, yet tangible entirely, which is also very close to the visions experienced by the Aberfoyle second-sighters: this is not an instance of Kirk copying from a source, however, but of his accounts tallying closely with those of other writers, not only in Britain but in other places, the invisible parallel world being a common feature of fairy lore in many cultures all over the world.

This whole area of folklore and belief, its collection and examination by proto-scientists, was of interest to more than just enthusiastic antiquarians. It was also studied in more practical circles–Samuel Pepys being one King’s employee who thought that the phenomenon of second-sight might have military applications. Employed as he was by the Navy for so many years, he thought it might be useful if the second-sighters could be employed to ‘see’ at a distance how many enemy ships were coming, or what the outcome of a battle was likely to be. Rather unfortunately, there is no record of whether this was indeed tried–perhaps it was and failed, and everyone decided to keep quiet about it–sceptical critics were an occupational hazard then as later, when psychics were employed by both Pentagon and Kremlin along the lines of ‘Why not? It can’t hurt, anyway!’

Kirk could have told Pepys and others like him, though, that the fairy gift cannot be used in such ways. Unpredictable as the Muse, capricious as talent, it cannot be pressed into service. But the fact that some people possess it was enough for their neighbours to be wary in their dealings with them; to make sure to keep on their right side, to be ‘looked after’ in the same way as healers and priests were looked after. The fairy gifts were not supposed to be used for ill, and there was a strong belief that if they were, the harm would rebound upon the unwise wielder of power; but they were seen as dangerous in the same way that nature can be dangerous. And that is another thing. I’ve been writing about ‘supernatural’ but the kinds of talents referred to by Kirk, though uncanny, were not seen as anything but natural. They were natural because Nature, God’s created world, encompassed the fairy world. And so of course Kirk and his parishioners were matter-of-fact about it all. They did not need to explain, or even to ‘believe’, for that word implies the presence of doubts somewhere in the background. Such things were true, as true as the oaks on the fairy hill.

It is time here to make a few general remarks about fairies and the fairy world. Fairy belief is one of the most elusive aspects of traditional cultures all over the world. In each place, this parallel Otherworld is seen slightly differently, and called by different names, but it still shares some remarkable similarities worldwide: a taboo on speech whilst in the fairy world, for instance; or the fairies’ love of dancing and feasting; or the odd passage of time in the fairy world. As the Irish scholar and writer Dr Angela Bourke points out in her extraordinary evocation of a 19th century ‘changeling’ case in Ireland(which has many related features to the case of Robert Kirk), The Burning of Bridget Cleary, (Pimlico 1999), ‘Fairies belong to the margins, and so can serve as reference points and metaphors for all that is marginal in human life.'(page 28) Stories about them are highly complex, mysterious yet often very realistic; fairies’ love of secrets, of promises, of bindings in word and deed is often evoked; their transitional state between good and evil, their unpredictability, their fateful appearances, are all best understood through story, through dream, through imagination. They cannot be pinned down, analysed, entirely. Other aspects of folk culture, such as witchcraft and its portrayal, are perhaps more suspectible to being ‘explained away’, rationalised, ‘understood’. In the post-medieval past, witchcraft, of course, was demonised as an evil thing.  The tendency prior to the Renaissance was to see it as a necessary, if frightening thing. After that, and especially after the Reformation, witches were seen as evil. But even then witches were never seen as less than or more than human–they had merely, so the old cant had it, sold their souls to the Devil–or devoted them to the Goddess, as the modern cant has it. But fairy belief could not be shoehorned by Renaissance and Enlightenment rationalists and organisers into such useful dualisms. It remained defiantly ambiguous, ungraspable, quicksilver, the very mirror of the nature of the supernatural beings it represented. Though in Presbyterian Scotland there was some attempt to link fairy beliefs to witchcraft, these received short shrift in general in other religious organisations. The Devil was a serious matter, to be believed in by right-minded folks. Fairies–well, who could really believe in them?

And yet, strangely, who couldn’t? Anyone who has ever been in a quiet wood, anyone who has unexpectedly caught, out of the corner of their eye, a glimpse of a shadow dashing past, anyone who has felt some odd quality of glamour, of fateful knowledge, gathering around a person, knows that there are unspoken, almost unspeakable, undercurrents to the human soul that cannot be pinned down, like dreams that cannot be recalled on waking, but that were nevertheless there. The persecutors as much as the persecuted know this. You can ignore it, laugh at it and pretend it doesn’t exist; you can try to analyse, saying fairies are the symbolic expression of nature, or the soul, or imagination, or whatever; you can fall completely under its sway; or you can simply accept it, and get on with your life. Which last is the version most people chose. And continue to choose.

It is not known what the general reaction to Kirk’s book at the time was, but perhaps he did not have enough time to judge what its reception would be. A year after the book was published, he was dead, at the age of 48. He had gone for his customary early-morning walk on the fairy hill, and when he did not return, was looked for, and found dead on the hill. At once, the story sprang up in the village–and was recorded by his successor in the parish, a Reverend Graham–that he had been punished by the fairies for revealing their secrets. He, a favoured son, a second-sighter, had been a Judas. And fairies hate traitors above all things. The people, said Dr Graham, were convinced that he was not really dead; that a ‘stock’ or facsimile of his body had been left there on the hill, but that Robert Kirk had, body and soul, been imprisoned in the heart of that great old Scots pine on the hill: a fate recalling that of Merlin, who, as some medieval stories tell, was imprisoned body and soul in a tree in the forest of Broceliande. Another version was that a funeral had been held–but that the coffin was filled with stones. All was not lost for Kirk, however, the Reverend Graham went on to say. Margaret Kirk was expecting a child at the time Kirk ‘disappeared’, and the captive himself appeared to one of his relations, begging him to help him escape from fairyland. It could be done in this way: the cousin was to bring a dirk to the christening of the child at the manse, Kirk would appear, and then the cousin must throw the dirk at the vision, pinning it with cold iron–as everyone knew, a bane against fairies–and bringing the lost minister back to the earth, even in death. However, though the cousin dutifully brought along his dirk, when the vision of Kirk appeared, the cousin was so dumbstruck that he could not move–and the opportunity was lost. His family seemed to have resigned themselves to his fate. Colin Kirk, Robert’s oldest son, who became a lawyer in Edinburgh, reportedly said, in a rather chilling bit of fatalism, that ‘Father has gone to his own kind.’ But Kirk himself did not give up. He could be saved, he told people in dreams, if, when a child was christened at the manse, a dirk was stuck into the great chair that had belonged to him and was still held at the manse(at least till 1943).

But unfortunately no child seems to have been christened at the manse since 1692–so Kirk is still trapped in that tree on top of the hill. The gravestone in the churchyard, it is said, is not 17th but 18th century: and there is no body in the grave. And the dagger I referred to earlier–that is the only coded reference on that sensible marker to the fairy story: for it is said to be the dirk that was never properly used. The great English folklorist Katharine Briggs, writing briefly of the case in her 1978 book, The Vanishing People(BT Batsford), notes that local people in Aberfoyle, at least at the time she was collecting her information, in the 1940’s, said that when you crossed the hump-backed bridge near the fairy hill, you would sometimes find a burden on your back: the soul of Robert Kirk begging to be freed.

And there is the uncanny, powerful and ambiguous fact of the matter. Here is a man, named, born, lived, who lived a fairy story, really lived it: and in the popular imagination, he lives still. There are innumerable stories of fairy contact in countless cultures throughout the world, but Robert Kirk is not anonymous–fairy-taken, he, like Bridget Cleary in 19th century Ireland, real, documented, flesh-and-blood people, have stepped out of the human world, the world of the ordinary, sideways into a strange, parallel universe where nothing is quite as it seems.

Note:

Since 1691, The Secret Commonwealth has been published several times: first in Edinburgh in 1815(this was the version used by Sir Walter Scott for his novel Rob Roy, which mentions Kirk and the Fairy Hill of Aberfoyle); in 1893 with an introduction and editing by Andrew Lang, in 1976 with an introduction and editing by Stewart Sanderson for the Folklore Society; in the early 1990’s by Element Books, with an introduction and notes by R.J.Stewart. More recently, there’s an excellent edition published by the New York Review of Books, with an introduction by Marina Warner; and it’s published within the superb compilation of texts, The Occult Laboratory, edited by Professor Michael Hunter. Manuscripts of The Secret Commonwealth are rare, but  two are held in the National Library of Scotland in Edinburgh, and one in the Advocates’ Library, also in Edinburgh.

 

Books cited:

Bourke, Angela, The Burning of Bridget Cleary, Pimlico, London 1999.

Bovet, John, Pandemonium, or the Devil’s Cloyster, London 1684.

Briggs, KM, The Vanishing People, Batsford, London 1978.

Koch, Christopher, The Doubleman, Chatto and Windus, London, 1985(new edition Minerva, Random House, London and Sydney, 1996)

Purkiss, Diane, Troublesome Things: A History of Fairies and Fairy stories, Allen Lane, The Penguin Press, London 2000.

Also to note:

Briggs, KM The Anatomy of Puck(opinions on fairies in 16th and 17th centuries), Routledge and Kegan Paul, London 1959.

The Good People, by Hannah Kent, Pan Macmillan, 2016. Set in Ireland in the 19th century and based on another real ‘fairy’ case, this is an engrossing and disturbing novel.