The Bodach/The Walking Stones by Mollie Hunter

1976 Target Books PB

Some more Scottish YA folk-fantasy… First published in the UK in 1970 as The Bodach, and in the US in the same year as The Walking Stones, this was then re-released in paperback in the UK under the more Earth-mysteries-friendly US title in 1976.

“Bodach” is Gaelic for “old man”, and the Bodach of the title lives in a Scottish glen, a storyteller and possessor of the Second Sight. Living close by are the Campbell family — shepherd Ian, his wife Kitty, and their ten-year-old son Donald — and one evening when the Bodach is visiting, the old man foretells that, the next day, three men will come to the valley, one with a forest on his back, one with lightning in his hand, and the third bringing death. Sure enough, the next day, three men — all called Rory — turn up. One has a sack of seeds for planting a forest, the other has the plans for a new hydro-electric dam to be built in the glen, and the third has the responsibility of turning on the dam and flooding the glen (thus bringing death to it). They offer the Campbells and the Bodach modern, new houses in the nearby town (with “electric light, hot and cold running water, an electric stove, a refrigerator and washing-machine — everything, in fact, that a modern house should have”), and while the Campbells accept (Ian is to get a new job, too, working as a forester under the first Rory), the Bodach says, politely but firmly: “you will never flood this glen until I give you leave to do so.”

1970 Blackie HB

Work progresses for two years. The day the dam is due to be turned on (by Royalty, no less), the Bodach stands as one of the crowd — but suddenly, he’s there in the glen. Knowing they can’t turn on the dam till he’s safe, men are sent to get him, but every time he’s about to be caught, he reappears somewhere else. Things continue like this till the end of the day, and the dam hasn’t been turned on. That evening, the Bodach tells the now twelve-year-old Donald why he’s using this skill of creating a “Co-Walker”, a double, in this way. There’s a circle of thirteen standing stones in the glen, and:

“Once every hundred years, they say, these stones move from their places. They walk to the river and dip their heads in it, then they go back to their places and stand fast there for another hundred years.”

The Bodach wants to see this wonderful event. But before he can, the two of them encounter a creature from the Otherworld, the Bean nighe, the Washer at the Ford, whose appearance foretells death. The old man saves the boy from becoming its victim, but only at his own expense. Now knowing he’s going to die, and so maybe not to get to see the stones walk, he asks Donald to see them, and passes on his gift of the Second Sight to the boy (which he’d always meant to do anyway). The Bodach falls ill and is taken to hospital, so Donald must use his new abilities (creating his own “Co-Walker”) to keep the dam from opening, then gets to see (I hope this isn’t a plot spoiler, as it’s in the title of the book) the stones move.

1986 Magnet Books PB

There are already connections between this book and two other Scottish YA novels I’ve covered on this blog. The Washer at the Ford appeared in Winifred Finlay’s Beadbonny Ash — though there she didn’t portend death — and The Grey Dancer was also about a glen being flooded due to the creation of a hydro-electric dam (and there was also a cyclical supernatural occurrence, too). The Walking Stones is a lighter book than either, aimed at a slightly younger audience. The threat level is low, and none of the characters is really villainous (one of the Rories is clearly tempted to flood the valley even with the Bodach in it, but is persuaded otherwise). Usually I find books aimed at pre-teens to be too light for my tastes, but The Walking Stones has a bit of an edge (with the death of the old man), plus a genuine scene of wonder and weirdness when Donald gets to see the walking of the stones. It’s an evocative and mystical moment, very nicely written, with strands of wreathing mists gathering about the stones, then becoming the long white hair and flowing beards of old men.

1998 PB from Magic Carpet Books

For Donald, the protagonist, it’s basically a tale of initiation, as he’s granted the power of Second Sight. Any modern book of this type (or even The Dark is Rising, from a few years later) would use the idea to be the first in a long series, with Donald going on to fight all sorts of Otherworld perils, but here, there’s no sense that’s going to happen. Donald, we can be sure, is going to live just as quiet a life as the Bodach did, telling tales of wonder and mystery, and providing a little Second Sight and Otherworldly wisdom to his local community. (Will it be a strange and lonely life? We’re not told, though Donald does rather sensibly express some doubts as to whether he wants the gift of the Second Sight.)

1973 PB from Harper Trophy

Like so many similar books of the era, there’s a sense of old ways — along with both their faerie dangers, and their supernatural sense of wonder — being erased by the encroachment of modern technology — with its greater ease of life, but paucity of wonders. Compared to the Bodach, we’re told, “there was no one on the television who knew stories as strange as the ones he told, or who could tell them half so well”. But Donald is handed the baton, and becomes just such a storyteller for the next generation, ensuring the old ways, wisdom, and stories aren’t quite going to die out just yet.


The Grey Dancer by Alison Fell

Lions PB, with art by Jennifer Eachus

I found this book while looking for more 70s/80s YA folk fantasy, and it’s one I hadn’t heard of before. Published in 1981, The Grey Dancer is the first novel from poet and novelist Alison Fell, and doesn’t seem to have been reprinted after its initial hardback and paperback. This may be down to its length — at 90 pages, it’s a very slim paperback, even for YA books of the time.

The story is set around the village of Dal, near Laggan in the Highlands. Change is coming to this remote community, in the shape of a new contraption: a television, acquired by the small, two-teacher school, to let its pupils watch the Coronation of Queen Elizabeth II, thus placing the start of the novel in June 1953. The protagonist is eleven-year-old Annie Latto, who sees the young queen in the TV’s “flickering grey square” as something out of a fairytale (“her Cinderella carriage”) and feels enough of a link with this far-off woman to worry “what would happen if the queen needed to go to the bathroom in the middle of it all.” It seems to be a symbol of progress — all those lords and ladies bowing to a young woman — as does the building of a new hydroelectric dam in a nearby valley. Annie’s father, who used to drive the school bus, is now employed in the building work there. The new bus-driver, said to be a gypsy, is Lal McLennan, a man with eyes “the yellow of a burn in full sun, or the feathers at the throat of an eagle”, soon makes friends with Annie by curing a wasp sting with a wad of sphagnum moss.

But not everything in Annie’s life is so positive. Her father is not pleased with lax standards in the dam’s construction, but no one will listen to his warnings about what might happen when the water starts flowing. Meanwhile, Annie’s headmaster and main teacher (or “Dominie”) is a sadist, far too fond of corporal punishment for the slightest reason. Annie’s favourite place to be by herself is under a tree she’s named the Grey Dancer, “for the way it swayed and rippled its branches higher than any other tree of Dal, and wilder” — a symbol, perhaps of her own spiritedness. When a local bully, sixteen-year-old Fergie, finds her there and starts to chase her, she’s saved by the sudden appearance of a golden eagle, swooping down on the lad and scaring him off. This awakes a defiance, and a sense of power, in Annie for the first time: “she knew that the eagle had left something to her. Like some kind of territory which was in her own keeping.”

Full PB cover, art by Jennifer Eachus

Bus-driver Lal begins to tell her his story, and it’s here the book’s folkish fantasy element comes in. For, although it’s his story, it’s one that happened “a fearsome long time ago. A hundred years or more.” Back then, it was also a time of changes. A new laird had come to Dal, with his English woman and his wealth acquired from British India. Another new woman comes to the valley, too: lame Isobel, who can cure the sick with her knowledge of plants. Lal, a farmworker, falls for Isobel, and the two declare before the village that they are to be married. The new laird, meanwhile, says he has to make more efficient use of the land, and that thirty-five of the residents are going to have to move on. Isobel, who has come from a similarly depleted community, warns that this will be just the first step in them all losing their homes. But when Lal speaks out against the laird, Isobel is summoned before a court, accused of “Unlawful practices and irreligious conduct” — basically, witchcraft — though the couple know this is just the laird getting his own back. And, as the only consequence is that they won’t be able to be married in church, Isobel conducts her own marriage ceremony, in front of the tree that Annie will later call her Grey Dancer, invoking the name of “Bride, goddess of the old religion”. (So perhaps she is a little bit witchy after all.)

It’s hard to describe the book’s fantasy element without giving the whole story, but it’s established from the start that Lal lost his Isobel — and that Lal is, in some way, also the golden eagle who saved Annie from the bullying Fergie. It’s an old folk-tale element, though: the separated lovers transformed, Lal into a golden eagle, Isobel into a trout, to meet again as humans only once a year, on Midsummer’s Night. But the place they meet is, Annie realises, one of those soon to be flooded when the dam begins operation, and that’s going to be on Midsummer’s Day.

As well as being about times of change — which recalls, to me, Robert Holdstock’s idea in the Mythago books that myths emerge in times of change — The Grey Dancer is about standing up to oppression. Lal and Isobel did so, speaking out against the laird and letting him know they could see what he was up to with his part in the Highland Clearances. Annie’s father does so, too, speaking out in a meeting about how the dam might not be as safe as everyone’s claiming it will be. Annie does her own standing up to the misuse of power, cheekily writing the word “tyrant” on the blackboard when the Dominie asks her to spell one more word than everyone else in a spelling test.

That moment of hope through change the novel opened with — the crowning of a new queen — is, Lal says, not to be accepted without question. Having told Annie about the Clearances he lived through a century ago, he says:

“Never forget that tale, Annie… So when your teachers stuff you with pap about the braw Queen and her Commonwealth and the great Empire, mind some of the crimes that were done in the building of it.”

I can’t help feeling there’s an ambivalence about how the fantasy element is brought into this tale of speaking truth to power. Lal and Isobel’s story of standing up to the new laird can only find its happy ending through a shift to the supernatural, by Lal and Isobel’s transformation into a bird and a fish. Without that, it’s the tale of the laird’s retribution and nothing else. It’s similar to how I felt about Pan’s Labyrinth, where one reading of the film is to see the fantasy elements as a desperate re-shaping of tragic events, in the moment before poor Ofelia’s death at the hand of fascists, because there’s no other place to find that much-needed sense of fulfilment except in her own imagination.

Or is the right way to see it that stories of defiance of misused power, even ones that need to resort to fantasy to find their sense of justice, are at least an inspiration for the powerless to stand up to the powerful, even if they will, in most cases, not win? Because perhaps, every so often, one will win, and there will be a genuine positive change?

The feeling The Grey Dancer ends with is, I think, one of hope, a sense that Annie will in the future be all the more ready to speak out against what she knows to be wrong, even if she has had to witness the tragedy of Lal and Isobel — or perhaps because she’s had to witness that tragedy. Lal certainly says he sees this spirit in her:

“I see you seeking and not finding… and Scotland is aye full of those who forget the seeking and live on, never hearing the speak of the land, never noticing their hearts wither within them.”

Alison Fell bio, from the HB

The 70s and 80s YA I’ve covered on this blog — by the likes of Alan Garner, Penelope Lively, John Gordon and so on — always has something of a political sensibility, or at least an awareness of social wrongs, certainly when it comes to class. But mostly class is presented in these books as a fact about the world, a thing that individual characters have to deal with, rather than a social problem to be solved. Gwyn’s solution in Garner’s The Owl Service is to self-educate himself out of it, to fake his way into the middle classes by losing his accent; in other books of the time, the mark of social progress is for the middle-class main characters to be friends with a working-class character, but not to think much, or do anything about, the political or social injustices that lead to such a divide. But these books, in the main, are about conflict with more fundamental, primal forces, and class differences are there to add realism to their fantasy narratives. Fell’s novel is by no means preachy, but it feels to me that, in it, there’s much more of the sense of needing to challenge social and political wrongs and the misuses of (non-supernatural) power, be it political, local, or personal. To accept those misuses is to let a little bit of yourself die.

It’s a nice, short, and poetically-written tale, infused, through its language, with an awareness of the natural world, and the intense, slightly fantasy-tinged mind of a child protagonist on the verge of adolescence. Its length would have made it perfect for the sort of hour-long TV adaptations some similar books of the time had — Red Shift, The Bells of Astercote, The Ghost in the Water — but that was not to be. Still, a nice addition to my growing collection of 70s/80s YA folk fantasy. (Which needs a better genre-name!)


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.