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.
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.
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.