Continuing the journey

16 May 2012 in Ian Stephen Blog

A strong theme is becoming defined in this Western Isles Libraries Residency.
At our first meeting in Stornoway, the logs of voyages, historical or imagined, led to a range of references to different quests. The near-contemporary “Waterlog” by Roger Deakin linked back to John Bunyan’s “The Pilgrim’s Progress” where an inner journey becomes a sustained parable – a metaphor extended into a lyrical novel.

On Wednesday 15th February this Residency ranged a fair distance from the Western Isles. From a waypoint at the School of Scottish Studies, George Square, Edinburgh, I rode shotgun on a road movie to the outskirts of Swansea. We were on the edge of a Celtic sea-route where stories were traded along with produce. This was a family visit and we arrived to news of a sudden death. The sad news led in turn, a few days later, to an inland setting.

Storytellers at Calanais

The Thomas Helwys Baptist Church in Lenton, Nottingham is a strong example of 1960s architecture – exposed brickwork is set with great curving laminated timber beams. There is a feeling of space and calm inside. Across the road are contrasting icons of centuries. There is cluster of high-rise flats, of the same period as the church but now due for demolition. A much older fine brick warehouse with arching windows has been converted to student flats and looks set to be fit for a further century.

The death we had come to mark occurred in one of the bleak towers. The minister knew the man who died and had been a main link to tight circles of a limited world outside. We dealt with the necessary business together and, in the course of our exchange Jenny (the Baptist minister) asked me about my own work. I told her I was now a Reader in Residence in the Hebrides. She told me the church had its own reading group and it met the next day. Could I come and tell a story?

So that is how the stories gleaned from Western Isles Libraries and the School of Scottish Studies archives were told in a district of Nottingham.

Two research students began the discussion. They are writing a joint dissertation, comparing different reading groups. One read a descriptive poem but omitted the title. So it was a riddle. This suggested the story of the wise grieve at Calanais farm (collected and transcribed by Donald Morrison, cooper, Stornoway) . As readers of this blog, listeners to Isles FM and members of a reading group in Stornoway and another in Lenton know, this is one of many stories with a pattern of three. Each element is really a sort of riddle. Now those who have heard it can share that story further.

But I’m going to continue the journey with one more story suggested by the last. Angus Cameron, recorded in Skye in 1958, provided a fine version of another witty tale included in the Morrison manuscript but he also offered another group of three riddles.

George Buchanan was a historical figure but his name has become a timeless byname for the one who wins by wit. But he outstretched himself at least once. He was in the jail, in England and things were not looking great. His reputation was to be tested by the king who made him an offer. Answer three questions correctly and be granted freedom.

But Buchanan did a bit of fancy footwork first. His own brother, known to be a simple fellow, was smuggled in to take the learned man’s place.
So the brother heard the questions and provided his own answers.

How many ladders do you need, to reach the moon?

One – if it’s long enough.

How long will it take a man to go round the world?

Twenty-four hours, if he goes in step with the sun.

The King’s examiner must have been getting anxious then but his last card would have been the ace.
What am I thinking?

I know what you’re thinking all right. You’re thinking I’m George Buchanan. But you’re wrong – I’m his brother, the fool.

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© Ian Stephen, 2012