Singing Stones by Winifred Finlay


Writing about Finlay’s 1973 YA novel Beadbonny Ash, I quoted Jessica Kemball-Cook on how that book, and Finlay’s previous novel Singing Stones (1970), were a departure for the veteran children’s writer into “fantasy of the Alan Garner kind”, and that Beadbonny Ash was her masterpiece. Despite the only copy costing about £30 secondhand, I was intrigued enough to want to read the earlier of these two novels as well, so I gave in and bought it.

Singing Stones is the story of Christie, an “imaginative and highly strung” teen holidaying with her brother and his schoolfriend in Scotland, mostly staying with her Gran. (Christie is noted as being English, at least in accent, but her mother is Scottish, and works in Aberdeen, lecturing on Scottish history. Why she’s called English, then, is a mystery, unless, like her brother, she has been sent to a boarding school in England.) Her high-strungness is, initially, presented as her being strongly affected by the histories of places she visits, particularly if there are violent stories attached. Shortly before the novel begins, she finds a small stone, “cold and smooth and green, with claw marks round the edges where it had been set as the centre piece of a brooch or pin, and engraved in the middle a queer little creature with long snout and curled feet and tail” — this queer little creature being, Christie says, what scholars call “a Pictish Beast”. Wandering around Edinburgh in the first chapter, she enters the antique shop of one Hildebrand Dalton Cunningham and finds the stone’s twin. She asks how much it is and the shop assistant goes to ask the owner, then comes back and says it’s worthless, but she can have it for “three and six”. She buys it. Holding both stones together, she hears a strange and beautiful music and feels a deep longing to see a certain loch… Spooked, she leaves the shop without her change, then is pursed through Edinburgh by the shop owner, who may just be seeking to give her her money, or who might be after her, she can’t help feeling, for some more sinister purpose.

Bodley Head PB, 1987. Cover art by Victor Ambrus.

Christie recognises the two “Pictich Beast” carvings on the twin stones from the Dunfallandy Stone, a carved Pictish cross-slab within walking distance of her Gran’s house, and visits it the next day. The presence of the Singing Stones brings the Pictish Beasts — here identified as water-horses, faerie beasts who’ve been known to coax a man into riding them before taking him down to the bottom of a loch — out of the stone. They assure her they’re not going to drag her into the nearest loch. Since the coming of Christianity, they were given the option of either leaving the land or only doing good, so they opted to do good. Instead, they’ve come to tell Christie that she is to be part of a desperate struggle to save Scotland — and, presumably, the rest of the world — from the machinations of Loki, who wants to bring about a second Ragnarok and end the power of “the One and Only God”. Christie’s task is to recover the lost Tale behind the Pictish sculptor Talorcan’s greatest creation. It was Talorcan who carved the Dunfallandy Stone, but his greatest work is now lost. The story of how it came to be lost — and, hence, the clue to its present location — needs to be recovered to prevent Loki from using its power, and the way to recover the Tale is for Christie to relive its key moments, using the Singing Stones.

Just as in Beadbonny Ash, Christie experiences these trips to the past by becoming someone back then, but here these are only brief dips, episodes rather than that novel’s feeling of being completely transported to former years. Christie is also much more cognisant that, as well as being (for instance, in one such episode) an old woman recently made homeless by English soldiers and wandering the Scottish countryside when she sees two monks hiding a large carved stone, she’s also the modern teen Christie. Her experiences are much more like vivid dreams.

Each chapter, she dips into the past, but there’s also a lot about her life in the present, holidaying with her Gran, visiting Edinburgh or the site of the Battle of Culloden, squabbling with her younger brother Iain or taking her Gran’s dog MacDougall for a walk. Unlike Beadbonny Ash (whose central character was dealing with the death of her father and a break in her relations with her mother), there’s no real plot to these present-times sequences, they’re more there to provide a bit of light comedy, and to give Christie time to wonder what’s going on.

Until, that is, she meets the antiques dealer Hildebrand Dalton Cunningham again, and this time knows he’s really Loki, “the evil one, the shape-changer”, who’s after her because she can get him access to the sculptor Talorcan’s greatest creation. But even then, the real supernatural action — which brings on Jormungandr the Midgard Serpent and the Fenris-Wolf, along with a host of faerie beasties — takes place in the dreamlike world of Christie’s dips into the folkloristic past.

Winifred Finlay

Finlay is obviously fascinated by the point at which the ancient culture of Scotland gave way to Christianity. In Beadbonny Ash it was presented more realistically, in terms of gods as cultural rather than supernatural powers, while here she brings on faerie creatures and a pagan god in a magical battle for the world that now belongs to “the One and Only God”. The feeling is, perhaps, less like Alan Garner and more like some of the episodes in The Box of Delights, with their actual trips into the mythic past, though in this case building to an overall supernatural confrontation that mixes the powers of gods with the more mundane but equally potent power-sources of friendship and family.

I have to agree that Beadbonny Ash is the better of the two books, largely because of the way it mixes a difficult modern storyline with a weird dip into the pagan past, but Singing Stones is interesting, too, for the way it slips Christie into inhabiting people from the past — including, at one point, a faerie woman, or a “Woman of Peace”, as they were known — and how, just as in dreams, she sees the other major characters in those past events being played by people she knows in the present. It would have been good to read more from Finlay in the same vein, but she stopped writing fiction after Beadbonny Ash (largely, it seems, due to health reasons). If nothing else, she added a Scottish element to the 1970s British folk-fantasy genre, which otherwise tended towards Wales as the locus of mythic power and supernatural shenanigans. Like Garner, she based her fantasies on very real landscapes already haunted by the past — here, Christie visits a series of carved stones, battlefields and so on, real places a reader might actually visit, bringing their folkloristic past a little more to life.


The Driftway by Penelope Lively

Piccolo Books, cover by Yvonne Gilbert

The Driftway was Lively’s fourth YA novel, published in 1972 between The Wild Hunt of Hagworthy (1971) and The Ghost of Thomas Kempe (1973), but it has a very different feel to either of them — or, I suspect, any of the YA novels of the time.

The story is simple, with the drama almost exclusively limited to the first and last chapters. It opens with Paul (who I think is around 9 or 10) leading his younger sister Sandra into a department shop in Banbury. He’s determined to buy a milk jug to complete a tea set that will enable him and his sister to have tea in his bedroom, and therefore away from Christine, the woman their Dad married earlier in the year. Paul also considers buying a padlock and chain to add to his door to prevent Christine from ever going into his room, but it turns out he doesn’t have enough money for either. In the crush, though, he finds he’s walked out of the shop with the chain in his pocket — and was spotted. The police are called, and though the policewoman who turns up is evidently kind, Paul is too suspicious of her (and everyone else) to explain anything. At the first opportunity, he leads Sandra on an escape.

He plans to go to their Gran’s in Cold Higham, twenty miles away. But not by bus or train — he’s convinced the police will be looking for them. So they start to walk. They eventually get a lift with Old Bill, who drives a horse and cart along what he calls the Driftway:

“This road. The Driftway. This is an old road, son. Older than you or me, or the houses in this village, or the fields round about, or anything we can see now, or even think about.”

Old Bill explains that such roads retain “messages” from the people who’ve used them in the past:

“There’s been men passing by here, and women and children, over thousands of years, travellers. And every now and then there’s someone does an extra hard bit of living, as you might call it. That’ll leave a shadow on the road, won’t it?… Messages that cut through time like it wasn’t there…”

UK hardback, 1972

For the rest of the novel, Paul and Sandra (who spends most of the journey asleep) are driven along this ancient roadway, sometimes on the tarmac with the cars, at other times on the “green road” of grass and mud. It’s a slow journey, with the occasional stop for Old Bill to get a drink at a pub, or brew up some tea, or fix his cart’s axle, or for them to bypass an accident on the road. But Paul starts to pick up these “messages”, and in each chapter he gets to hear a story told by one of the Driftway’s former travellers. They tell their tales as though standing in front of him, but when he comes to, it’s taken no time. In this way, he gets to hear the experiences of a stable-lad from the 18th century who indulged in a little highwaymanship, a Civil War soldier returning from a battle that’s shaken all his ideas of honour and glory, a boy from the area’s tribal days venturing to the edge of his people’s lands, a pauper widow being turned out of a poor house, and others. Lively paints a picture, through these Driftway “messages”, of:

“Islands of people in a harsh world, pushing back the ferocity of the wilderness just enough to use what there was to be used, to begin to put down roots, to explore the whole complex business of living with one another. And for that, the road would be the very lifeline, the artery along which everything must come, war and peace, hope and fear, trade and change.”

This combination of the slow, easy journey, and glimpses into others’ lives begins to affect Paul’s view of his own troubles. His Dad’s new wife Christine isn’t the monster he thinks of her as — she’s evidently making every effort to connect with her new step-children — it’s just that Paul resents her sudden presence in his life too much to let himself see it. But as Old Bill says, one of the messages of the Driftway is:

“We’ve all got to listen to other people, haven’t we? Find out what it’s like for them.”

Lively has a real feel for landscape, and the way it’s been shaped by history. As Old Bill says:

“There’s hardly such a thing as a natural landscape. It’s something that’s always on the move, changing every few years. And if you get to know a bit about it you can see all the layers of changes, going right back into old times…”

But it’s the sort of thing that Paul, obsessed with his own troubles, has to be forced to slow down to see. Old Bill again:

“Real travelling’s crawling your way over country like a fly on a wall, hedge by hedge and hill by hill and village by village. From river to river and town to town. That way, you feel the bones of the place, see?”

Although The Driftway could be described as an uneventful novel, that is also, really, the point: it’s about slowing down enough to start to see the world in all its richness, and so to break out of self-obsessive worries. And for Lively, it’s evident that seeing the world in all its richness includes a deep connection to times past, and the many individual lives that have been lived in every square mile of the land.

Like so many other 1970s YA novels, The Drifway combines the supernatural with the very real and ordinary troubles facing children and adolescents. It’s not as intense as Garner’s Red Shift, but The Driftway’s Paul has a hint of that book’s stubborn, self-destructive male adolescent pride, though Lively combines it with the sort of healing process that never made it into Garner’s novel (but which I felt could be found in his follow-up, the four novellas that make up The Stone Book Quartet).

It’s a subtle book, easy-paced but deliberately so, as its message is all about slowing down and seeing beyond the concerns of the moment. An unusual YA book both for its time and (I suspect) now, but a gently calming one, using its fantastical elements not so much to provide an adventure for its young protagonists, as to put the difficult elements of their mundane lives in a wider context. And it feels like a deepening of Lively’s own writing, compared to the YA adventure novels she’d written before. Obviously, she went back to comic supernatural shenanigans for her next book, The Ghost of Thomas Kempe, but this is a deeper glimpse, I think, into some of her feelings about history, and human life, that can be found informing all her work up to this point and beyond (and which would come out in its purest form in her first non-fiction book, The Presence of the Past: An introduction to Landscape History in 1976).