‘Grimoire brings everyday horrors closer’: the myths and magic behind Robin Robertson’s poetry collection inspired by Scottish mythology
Madness, disease and murder are just some of the real-world terrors cloaked in the stories of Celtic mythology which inspired Robin Robertson’s Grimoire, writes David Adger.
In Grimoire a witch and a boy engage in battle, a poet becomes half-goat and spells of protection and revenge are spun. A grimoire is a manual for invoking spirits, and Robin Robertson’s book of poetry is certainly a powerful one, with witches, changelings and selkies all also conjured up within its pages. Here, David Adger, Professor of Linguistics at Queen Mary University of London, delves into the Gaelic myths and legends that inspired this enthralling poetry collection from the author of The Long Take.
Gaelic legend tells a tale of a young lad, approached by the Devil. The Devil promises the lad power and riches if he’ll meet him by the Cama-Linn (Crooked Pool) in the Monadh Meadhonach (Middle Hill) by night. The lad is canny, however, and protects himself by drawing a circle around him with a slat draoidheachd (a magical wand). When the Devil arrives, he gives the lad a great book of magic, a grimoire, and asks the boy to inscribe his name there. The boy, who wants all the power for himself, refuses to give back the book, whereupon the Devil becomes a huge brindled dog, then a roaring bull and finally a murder of screeching crows, all trying to terrifythe lad from his protective circle. But it is no use. The cock crows and the Devil vanishes, leaving the boy holding the Red Book of Appin, the most powerful book of magic in the Scottish Highlands, the pages of which, when opened, glow red hot like metal plates in fire.
The poems of Robin Robertson’s Grimoire, like the tale I just told, live in the landscape of the Scottish Highlands, by crooked pools, hellish lochs, eely woods and dead wells. They are suffused with magical transformation. Their language is the language of borderlines, hovering between one form and another, between the Celtic Highlands and the Scots Lowlands, between the real world and the other world.
This other world was part of Highland life. Witches would use a corp-chriadh (a clay body) to control or destroy their enemies, sticking it with thorns, or letting it waste away in water. Changeling children, always crying, always hungry, would be left in place of healthy babies by the Sìthichean, who dwell in the fairy mounds that dot the Scottish landscape. There were those afflicted with the dà-shealladh, the Two Sights, who could see not just the spirits of the dead, but also the fetches of those about to die. Lonely fords and lochs were haunted by the each-uisge, who would take on the shape of a beautiful horse, tempting those they came across to ridethem, then dragging their victims to watery deaths.
The collection of charms and spells in daily use across the Highlands, collected by Alexander Carmichael in the nineteenth century, runs to six volumes, and gives spells against the evil eye, charms to cure cattle diseases, and incantations that must be said when plucking certain herbs. One of these herbs is the mòthan, whose virtuous roots can protect against evil, or bind lovers together, and whose leaves can be used to treat wounds. The mòthan is probably the bog-violet, a carnivorous plant whose leaves entrap insects and secrete an anti-bacterial chemical, slowing the rotting of its victims so they can be digested at leisure. The other world and the real world.
The great Scottish Gaelic scholar Ronald Black has argued that the function of Gaelic myth is that it provided people with a way of talking about the terrors of everyday life while keeping them psychologically distant: they were a way of dealing with the real world of ageing, disease and mental illness, of sickly children and infanticide, of abandonment, kidnapping and murder. Don’t you know, it was that old witch that killed Murdo! Morag’s not right in the head, she’s away with the fairies. A changeling, that’s what Bridgit’s baby was, so it’s no surprise it vanished; Hugh is gone, never to return; I hear he was taken by an each-uisge up by the Green Loch.
Grimoire, in contrast, brings everyday horrors closer. True, there are poems of change and revelation, as befits a grimoire. It opens with the tale of a lad who gains knowledge from the cauldron of a witch and they battle each other, changing forms, he to hare, she to hound, then each to mackerel and otter, then to starling and hawk, until he hides as a grain of corn in a field. The wily witch becomes a rat and eats him up, only to give birth to him once again, nine months later, as a poet. But even here there lurks darkness. The poet becomes half-goat, like the ancient Celtic horned god Cernunnos, ushering the wild into our civilised lives. The poems that follow are a whirl of savagery, their mythic settings revealing rather than concealing the monsters. Reading from a twenty-first century perspective, we can see the serial killer lurking in the legend of the sacred wood, the abused girl in the tale of the young witch, the family tragedy of murder and revenge in the story of the lover from the sea who dons his sealskin and slips away into the waves.
Grimoire begins and ends with spells of protection. The power of the poems makes this reader, at least, feel they are needed.
Watch Robin read 'At Roane Head' from Grimoire: