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Issue #8

26 November 2022

This is a photo of Braes o' Yetts, the farm near Kirkintilloch that was leased by my great-grandfather and great-grandmother.


Bone Mother: excerpt page 7-8: the prologue


In Caledonia, in my paternal great-grandmother’s country, winter was once a hag who rode on the back of a wolf, bringing blizzards and ice. They called her the Cailleach. Before Christendom, before the pantheons of the Greeks and Romans, reaching back into and before the time of the iron age Britons, the Cailleach – veiled one, bone mother – showed herself to my ancestors in her many different aspects, with many different names.


During Faeoilleach, the wolf month of 1900, my great-grandmother’s husband of twenty years arose before dawn as bitter winds howled about the stone farmhouse. The newborn slept in a cradle beside the bed. My great-grandfather had felt them stir throughout the night, the mewing baby, the woman’s soft words, the suckled breast. Now he drew on woollen pants and shirt, and went downstairs. My great-grandmother felt him go: stout farmer’s body lost from the bedding, silently. She would remember that moment in which she stirred and knew his absence, his fading warmth. Gone to look for the calf, she thought, he’s worried she’s dropped it in the night. She drifted back to sleep. That was the last time her bed knew the heat of her hardworking, God-fearing, Presbyterian husband, her shy man of the impenetrable silences and the large weathered hands. He lit a kerosene lamp and chewed on a lump of bread in the cold kitchen, then took his greatcoat from the peg by the back door, pulled on his boots and stomped outside, swinging a feeble arc of yellow light through the winds. The ancestral Cailleach raged, Cailleach Bheurr, bone mother, her ice cracking under his boots, beating down vegetation that dared to lift above the ground with her stick. The cattle heard him coming and lowed a warning. He checked on the horses first.


It was in the timber stable that my seven-year-old grandfather found him a few hours later, lying with his skull split open by the Clydesdale’s hoof, his skin yellow and cold as ice, dirt floor stained black with his blood, the other draught horses neighing and shifting anxiously. The young one shook his pa’s shoulder, just a little, then ran as fast as his skinny young thighs would take him over the fresh snow and through the pale morning light towards the farmhouse, hollering for his mother.


The children stayed with her brother’s wife, the baby too, as she sat each day with tight and aching breasts beside his lifeless body in the hospital ward. Her brother signed the death certificate, beneath the word ‘pneumonia.’ Taken by the hooded one, taken back.


She began to dream of the sun after that. With her brothers’ help, she kept the family on that dairy farm, Braes’o’Yetts, hills of gates, for ten years or more, and the boys learned how to work from when they were young. Gates to where, she wondered, to more endless toil and lonely nights? After church on Sundays, once lunch was done, her brothers’ wives pored over pictures in magazines of a land where the sun always shone and where cattle grazed knee-deep in grass that was green all year round. Of a land where on weekends, everyone stood half-naked on a white, white beach or frolicked in great warm glistening ocean waves. A strange dream took shape within her: a longing to leave Caledonia, the land of the Cailleach, home to her people from before the clans, leave the great rocky prominences dropped from the apron of the hag, leave the lochs where the old woman forgot to put the lid on the well and allowed the land to flood. Leave the Sgriob na Caillich, the furrows in rock where once she ploughed, leave her behind, that hunched old man-eating crone, the bitter winter, the bone mother, the ugly old woman with the teeth of a wild bear and tusks of a boar who outworked all young men, outlived all lovers. Who took away good husbands in their prime.

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