Website of poet Elizabeth Rimmer

Tappoch broch

  • Those Who Disappeared

    Tappoch Broch - a low wall overgrown with heather, barcken and seedling birch
    Tappoch Broch, near Larbert

    We are haunted by those who went before. One strand of The Well of the Moon deals with this haunting, not only by our ancestors – though mine do seem to hang about a lot – or the people who actually lived in your house or your village before you, but by the myths we create about them. I have no evidence, for instance, that my ‘first Honora’ was the woman whose obituary appeared in The Waterford News in 1938 after her death at the age of 113, and her hedge school is a matter of family myth, but we all believe in the importance of access to education to this day. The village where I have lived for the last 39 years is convinced we are haunted by monks from the ruined abbey, and the comment from my Benedictine friend that they NEVER haunt and anyway they weren’t monks but Canons, does not cut it with anyone.

    The poem Lost Roads is also about this. It was a post about buried roads here


    that started me off, together with a walk through the Avalon Marshes where you can still see a replica of the neolithic Meare Track. There is a tendency to annex these things, to want them to be Roman when they are later, or sometimes even earlier than is generally supposed. Often associated in the past with the late Roman queen Helen (who is said to have been the mother of the emperor Constantine and to have discovered the burial place of the True Cross), there is now a tendency to merge her with the goddess Elen of the Ways. The real Helen has disappeared, like the ancient Britons we have transformed into fairy folk or the people of the Sidh. And yet we crave their presence, and revere their wisdom, as far as we can find it.

    I have been thinking about this as I begin to plan to live somewhere new. I have a lot of books, which will take up space in the house and a lot of plants already to put in the new garden. We tend to think about ‘putting our stamp’ on a new home, and making it our own, but it is fatal to imagine you can create a stage set for a drama in which I will take the lead. What I’ve got is a bit part in a soap that has been running for centuries. I will try to connect with what has gone before, with the soil conditions, the prevailing weather, the plants that thrive and the communities that flourish there, but I wonder what I will be erasing, who will be forgotten, will disappear and return as myth.

    a stone arch overgrown with heather and grass
    arch at Tappoch broch

  • Tappoch Broch

    wall of the broch over grown with bracken, heather and seedling birch

    Brochs are tall stone towers, double walled, with viewing galleries. They are almost always situated in Scotland, mostly in the north and on the islands, and dating from the Iron Age. The most famous one is on Mousa. This one is the southernmost, and the closest to us, the Tappoch Broch at Torwood near Falkirk. It is pre-Roman, and excavations in 2014 showed the existence of an earlier hill-fort, and occupation in Neolithic times.

    There isn’t much left of it now, just overgrown walls, a staircase

    stone steps,almost hidden by vegetation

    a bit of the gallery wall you can walk on to look out over the countryside, the doorway which I featured last week, and a fireplace, which I assumed had been improvised by campers, but which is actually an original structure

    fireplace, with recent charcoal

    It retains its ancient atmosphere, but it is clearly well used by dog walkers and families, and well cared for. The path from the road sets the scene,

    path beneath spruce fir planting, lots of roots and fallen needles.

    up through a forestry planting that has been partially harvested and cleared. Replanting has been carried out with mixed deciduous trees, oak and hazel and hawthorn, and wild trees, baby birch and seedling fir, are already making their presence felt.

    tree stumps in the middle ground, old trees in the background, fallen birches and regenerating seedling trees in the front

    Since lockdown, we have become more conscious of our need for contact with nature, of the impact wilder places can have on our well-being and self-understanding. One of the strands of my reading (which seemed fairly random and disorganised at the time, but which is settling into useful patterns of understanding now) has been the magical, shamanic, witchy kind of thinking that has crept into writing, not just from the romantic lawless outsider writers, but from some heavy-duty, politically engaged academics, which provides a very different perspective on what used to be dismissed as superstition and fantasy. I’m looking at books like Seán Hewitt’s Tongues of Fire, Rebecca Tamás’ Witch, Jacob Polly’s Jackself and Seamus Heaney’s translation of Sweeney Astray, and thinking some more about Kathleen Jamie’s famous ‘lone enraptured male’ article. I think we are looking at the emergence of a new take on nature writing, in which the environment is going to be the ground of all our moral, psychological and political thinking. You wouldn’t think a single walk on a sunny afternoon would do all that!

  • Farewell Summer

    ivy flowers

    And just like that, it was gone. Once the ivy is in flower, you know, but the signs were all there. All the flowers in the garden are busy setting seed, and the trees are bright with rowan berries, rose-hips, haws. The last field has been cut and all the small birds have disappeared from the garden after the spilled grain. The skies are cloudier, there’s a brisk westerly wind, and the resident geese are grabbing first dibs on all the good places before the northerners arrive next month.

    This is Sherriffmuir, where we went to see the heather.

    covered hillside

    My big ritual for this time is collecting brambles The haggard is full of them, and I took advantage of the good weather last week. The heavy rain and extended dry periods this year meant that many promising shows of blossom never set fruit at all, the earliest ones had gone over already and birds and wasps have been at the ones they missed. But it has been a generous year and there are lots left, shining with ripeness, making it worth the scratches, the torn jeans, the purple splashes from wrist to elbow. The best berries are always further in, higher up or on the most defiant tangles of thorn, and there seems to be an unholy alliance between bramble and nettle. But I hate to miss it.

    ripe blackberries

    It’s an autumn experience that is common to a lot of people and most poets have a blackberry picking poem somewhere. I have one myself as part of my Eurydice Rising sequence from Wherever We Live Now. In northern versions of the story, Orpheus gets Eurydice back, so I used both versions to talk about creativity, and mental illness and the kinds of relationships artists develop with their community. In the Breton romance, King Orfeo, Orpheus leaves the court, distraught after the loss of Eurydice, living wild in the forest, in a sort of shamanic disintegration. One day, he sees the fairy hunt passing, and follows.

    The next bit is quite significant. He remembers, ‘I used to do that, long ago’. Hunting was a social marker then, restricted to the nobility, and was seen as a useful contribution to the community, culling deer which might have destroyed crops. Orfeo has rediscovered himself, his humanity, and his role in the community. It is only then that he is able to recognise his lost wife Erodys riding among the fairy host, and to follow it back under the grey stone, into the otherworld.

    I decided that the role of hunting, especially as it is is practised nowadays, was not one I wanted to endorse, so I chose blackberry picking as an iconic memory, and a prompt to Orpheus’ recovery of human bonding.

    Moniage 1: Orpheus in the Wilderness
    Orpheus deserts his post. Her flight
    is like a magpie raid on his whole life –
    what isn’t gone is broken, pulled apart.
    Only the harp goes with him, and he plays
    in doorways, under arches, in the space
    between the human places. When he sings,
    the trees bend down to listen. No-one else will.

    He is lost without her, and demented,
    follows strange girls home, asks who’s hiding her,
    shouts obscenities at those who pass him by.
    He hears voices in the dark, and follows them
    out into wilder places, to be alone.

    He comes on children, picking brambles,
    noisy, carefree, quick and neat as birds.
    They do not notice him, and go their way
    unfrightened, and he hears the women call
    them home to breakfast. When they are gone,
    the silence stirs him like a changing wind.
    He says, “I used to do that, long ago.”

    He thinks of berries shining, intact, black,
    the small hairs tickling his outstretched palm,
    the scratches worn like war wounds, and the brag
    of secret places, where there’s loads still left.
    That’s when the door opens, the shadowed way
    beneath the grey rock, to the other place.

    stone archway overgrown with heather and fern

    This is Tappoch Broch near Torwood, as otherworldly as the central belt can get! (This will be next week’s post.) My bramble-picking only led me as far as blackberry and apple crumble, and very nice it was, too!

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