My current ‘Finding Inspiration Through Folklore’ course is drawing to a close. Among other things, we’ve been looking at stones. From beach pebbles to standing monoliths, stone is significant, symbolic and often sacred to us. Think of henges, cathedrals and statues.
You’ll have to allow me a little digression here, because although my blog posts are usually fairly frivolous, how can I write about statues and not mention the seismic changes that we’re now experiencing?
The year 2020 has really shaken us to the core, hasn’t it?When the pandemic first hit, we were fairly resigned to the inevitable lockdown. It made us stop and think, we said. This is a chance to slow down, to reconnect with what’s really important. Family, friends, baking our own bread and playing board games and family quizzes. It made us switch off our screens, go out and meet the neighbours, even if it was only from our doorsteps, and at a safe distance.
As the weeks wore on, despite the heartbreak of lost lives and lost livelihoods, we made peace with the ‘new normal.’ Many of us decided we didn’t actually want to go back to the way we were before.
Since we had so much thinking time, 2020 decided to give us something to really think about. The senseless death of George Floyd at the hands of Minneapolis police officers was beamed into our living rooms. There was no escape. We saw it all unfolding, in real time – one of the most horrific and brutal things I think I’ve ever witnessed. A rising, powerful tide of anger rose up and engulfed many nations, and as I write, the figure of Edward Colston, a man I’d never heard of until last week, has just been fished from the bottom of Bristol Harbour. Quite what happens to him now, who can tell, but it’s clear we must find a way to acknowledge the death, suffering and disempowerment he and his ilk were responsible for.
We were right – we cannot go back to the way we were. I feel shaken, by all the things I didn’t know, and all the voices I’m hearing. The words of historian Kate Williams really resonated with me.
I’m going to paraphrase, but she said it’s always been the powerful elite who
‘choose who we should venerate.’ The ‘city fathers’ of Bristol (and every other city) could have chosen to honour an abolitionist, Williams suggests, such as Olaudah Equiano, a freed slave who dedicated his life to the abolition movement and in 1789 published his autobiography, The Interesting Narrative of the Life of or Gustavus Vassa, the African.
I read this book when I was a second-time-around student, and it was my first real glimpse into the horror of the slave trade and Britain’s part in it. Strangely, we’d barely touched on this subject at school, which is really part of the problem, isn’t it?
But let me get back to my starting point. Stone. This time last year- 2019 seems like a different planet- I was conducting research into witch trials for my forthcoming book, Sight Unseen. As we know, thousands of women and some men – we don’t know the full extent- were summarily executed for witchcraft on these shores. They suffered terrible torture and deprivation before being forced to confess. What has this got to do with stone and statues? In my research, I came across this encouraging article about a proposed national memorial to those accused of witchcraft.
We have many wrongs to right, but perhaps the democratising of our nation’s statues might be a good starting point.
Who would you choose to commemorate?
Below is one of my favourite stone memorials.
Maggie Wall’s Monument at Dunning, Perthshire. The graffiti says
‘Maggie Wall burnt here 1657 as a witch’.
Although the name Maggie Wall does not appear in the parish records, and there is no reference to her execution, writer and researcher Geoff Holder discovered that a field named Maggies or Muggies Walls was known in the 18th c and in later maps, a Maggie Walls Wood appears.
The monument to the unknown Maggie is in effect a monument to all of those souls caught up in the hysteria and horror of the witch trials.