A party of modern teenage girls and boys find themselves magically transported into the Celtic world of the sixth century — that’s how I was sold on this 1973 book from Winifred Finlay. But the actual story is slightly different. I’d imagined those modern teens viewing the Celtic past through (1970s) modern eyes, but that’s not what happens.
The novel centres on Bridie, a teenage girl sent to stay in Oban, Argyll with the MacDonalds, the family of a schoolfriend of her mother. Her mother is a stage actress, Jennifer Nicholson, who always insisted on her daughter calling her “Jenny” rather than Mummy, so they would be “more like sisters”. But Bridie is very much in need of a mother at this moment: on her last birthday, her father (“the handsome and popular radio and television personality” Simon Nicholson) came home drunk following an argument with his wife, and took Bridie on a too-fast drive that ended in a crash and his death. At that point the already flawed mother-daughter relationship fractured, as Bridie says:
“I have no mother. That is Jenny Nicholson, the actress. My mother was someone else — old and ugly and screaming at me because I survived the accident when my father was killed.”
Having recovered from her own injuries, Bridie comes to stay with the MacDonalds, who patiently put up with her “moodiness, her constant demands for attention and reassurance”, as well as her frequent fabulations about her glamorous father, which all too often slip into outright lies. Bridie is an imaginative girl, but has been relying a little too much on that facility since her father’s death:
“For over a year now she had moved in and out of an imaginary world, peopled with men and women of her own creation…”
The sensibly down-to-earth MacDonalds have three children, two (Sheena and Kenneth) of around Bridie’s age, while the eldest, John, is studying medicine, and learning to accept that he’s never going to be the world-famous surgeon he once dreamed of being, but will, if he applies himself, manage to make it as a solid local GP.
Bridie starts to have glimpses of three figures in ancient Celtic clothing, one of whom is playing a harp. She can see and hear them as though they are real. Whoever she’s with can’t — until they touch her, when they, too, can see and hear them. But this is subtly done, and nobody suspects they’re seeing actual figures from the past.
Then one night — just after Bridie has begun to feel that her developing relationship with John means she’s perhaps growing up at last — Bridie is drawn into the countryside by the harp music she’s already heard twice before. Kenneth, Sheena and John follow her, independently at first, but all of them come together at a river, where they’re confronted by the Washer at the Ford, a folkloristic figure who offers to give each of them their heart’s desire. But when, to do this, she takes from each of them an item of clothing to wash in the water, it emerges bloody and torn.
Then suddenly we’re in the past. Bridie isn’t modern (1970s) Bridie, but a priestess of the goddess known as the High One. She was sent into the “Unborn Years” (our time) to fetch a healer because, in a recent battle with the Northern Picts, the king was killed and his heir injured beyond the healing skills of local priest Broichan. In this sixth-century world, Kenneth is an Irish Prince, and Sheena is there, too, and none of these three thinks of themselves as modern teens. Only John retains his knowledge of the modern world, and only he and Bridie speak English; but John soon disappears from the narrative, and Bridie never looks at the sixth century world with anything but sixth century eyes (nor does she think at all about the 1970s she visited).
John’s powers as a healer are needed because according to custom the heir to the kingdom, Aidan, can only become king if he is physically perfect, but he has lost several fingers in battle. Broichan, the high priest of the Great White One (the main god of these Celts, currently incarnated as a truculent one-eyed boar in a nearby sacred forest), needs John to heal Aiden, and make him fit to assume the kingship. These are difficult times, because the new God of the Christians is winning over the surrounding tribes, threatening to remove Broichan’s power.
The harsh contrast between the two religions comes out in this description of some carved statues in the forest shrine of the Great White One:
“On either side of the wooden shrine was a semi-circle of massive tree trunks shorn of their leaves and branches and crudely carved to represent some terrible nightmare aspect of the god. One was headless, its glass eyes and leering mouth set in its chest; the head of another was all gaping mouth set with three rows of pointed teeth; a third had monstrous hands which tore apart the limbs of its human victim. Each wooden statue was adorned with human skulls and stained with the blood of victims sacrificed throughout countless years.”
Kenneth, as a sixth-century prince from Ireland, points out the contrast between these savage images and the new God of the Christians:
“The God I worship asks for love, not blood sacrifices, and Columba, our priest, does not expect our king to be perfect.”
At the heart of this book is modern-day Bridie’s need to deal with the trauma of her beloved father’s death and her mother’s coldness. Her dislocation to the past doesn’t play out as a pure psychodrama of this inner turmoil, but contains elements of it, in the presence of a fading Celtic god, and a Celtic goddess who is ugly or beautiful depending on whether she is loved/loving or not. But the savagery and darkness of this past world, its being ruled entirely by fear and irrationality, is too powerful for it to be simply a moral lesson for Bridie’s sake. It’s more like a heightened experience of how harsh and unforgiving the world — then or now — can be, and so of the importance of seeing beyond one’s own mere needs (that “heart’s desire” the Washer at the Ford promises).
There’s also something of a critique, here, of the act of retreating into imagination as a way of not taking responsibility for the difficult aspects of life. As Kenneth muses early on, thinking about the superstitions of the past:
“Now he came to think about it, it was very convenient being able to shuffle off your own mistakes on a natural phenomenon which couldn’t answer back. Perhaps education wasn’t such a good thing after all. Or did he mean civilisation? Well, whichever it was, today you were left with no one to blame but yourself.”
Through understanding the nature of the Celtic goddess she serves — the High One, who can be beautiful to those who love her, but a hag to those who fear or hate her — Bridie does come to understand her mother somewhat (just as Donald Jackson comes to understand his ill father by facing a dragon in William Mayne’s A Game of Dark), it’s a mature rather than a childish understanding of an imperfect woman in an imperfect world:
“…what Jenny really loves is the idea of herself in the role of the loving mother. And that’s exactly what it is, a role, and she just can’t keep it up, month after month, year after year… People think that all women want children, and when they’ve got them, love them. I’ve learned that this isn’t true. Jenny wants fame, money and an adoring husband.”
Beadbonny Ash (a local name for the Mountain Ash, which is said to ward off fairies, witches, and evil influences) fits in with 1970s’ YA melding of rural locations, folkloristic fantasy and real-world teenage problems. But unlike other authors I’ve written about in Mewsings, such as Alan Garner, Penelope Lively, and Louise Lawrence, Winifred Finlay had long been an established author of what were at the time known as adventure novels “for older children” by the time she wrote her entry in the 1970s YA rural fantasy genre. She began writing, in fact, with Children’s Hour radio plays for the BBC in the late 1940s, of the sort where a group of kids solve a mystery whilst on holiday. Jessica Kemball-Cook, writing on Finlay in Twentieth-Century Children’s Writers (1978), says that these usually ended with the mystery being revealed as “not as spectacular as [the children] had thought… the hordes of international crooks and caves stuffed with treasure remain firmly in the children’s imagination”. In the 1970s, though, Finlay broke away from this well-worn template. Kemball-Cook writes:
“In 1970 Winifred Finlay deserted the typical adventure-story for full-blooded fantasy of the Alan Garner kind, where supernatural creatures from the past come alive now. Singing Stones and Beadbonny Ash are magical adventures in Scotland’s Celtic past. They resemble the earlier books in their well-drawn family relationships and historical detail, but they abandon the cynical attitude to mystery for a genuine commitment to the power of the supernatural and the war between Good and Evil…”
(She goes on to note that “Beadbonny Ash is her masterpiece”, which is good to know, as it’s a lot cheaper to acquire than the earlier Singing Stones.)
After this novel, Finlay, who worked under health difficulties in the latter part of her life, moved away from fiction and produced collections of folktales, some in collaboration with her daughter, Gillian Hancock.
Knowing this background in the more escapist adventure stories of the pre-1960s makes Beadbonny Ash’s uncompromising take on a difficult mother-daughter relationship all the more striking, as Finlay was obviously branching away from a type of fiction that seems (though I haven’t read it) to have been of a more comforting kind. It’s also notable how well this older author’s work fits into the mood of early 1970s British YA, which I’d always assumed took the form it did because of a younger generation’s experiences in the socially revolutionary 60s.