Theorising Scottish Children’s and Young Adult Fiction

In this post, Fiona McCulloch argues for the timeliness of critical engagement with children’s and young adult literature  –   and how it can help chart journeys into new ways of thinking…

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You’re reading too much into it’… ‘it’s just a children’s story’ … ‘don’t ruin it for me’… These are just some of the defensive attitudes interjected against critically engaging with literature for the young. Undoubtedly children’s books do ignite a nostalgic element not unlike a comfort blanket to buffer us against the world’s storms, and we remember cosying up with a good book as part of our childhood memory. To invade that sacrosanct space, then, becomes a kind of trespass against a shared cultural nostalgia whose gatekeepers baulk at such sheer insolence.

Jacqueline Rose (1984) argues that this defence of children’s literature is intertwined with discourses of childhood innocence perpetuated since Romanticism, where ‘If the child can still be in touch with that purity, then writing for children is the closest that we, as adults, can get to it’ (p.49). But adulthood’s shared wistful memory is as dependent upon narrative retelling, fictionalising and re-framing as any children’s book. Besides trailblazers like Rose and John Stephens, when I embarked upon my PhD, children’s literature as a serious academic pursuit was virtually unheard of except perhaps in the United States or in Education Departments but certainly not in serious English Departments. My peers’ responses ranged from bemusement to condescension, bolstered in their pursuit of altogether more cerebrally and canonically demanding choices deemed much less “feminised”. Continue reading

The First World War Through the Eyes of a Child

There are many elements of the Museum of Childhood collections that reflect what was happening in the world at the time they were made – fashion can be followed in the costume collection, technology in toy manufacture and popular film stars in dolls and magazines.

The book collection, however, offers a unique insight into not just what adults were communicating with children about the world, but also what the child thought about what was happening and what they were being told. Through inscriptions, drawings and hand-made publications by children we have access to their perspective on the world around them.  The Museum holds a series of magazines called The Pierot made by a group of children across Britain in 1910-1914. 

The authors were spread across the UK, with given addresses for Essex, Edinburgh, near Bristol, Yorkshire, County Down, County Derry, Fife, Suffolk, Kent and Hampshire.  The magazine was circulated by post, the cost of the stamp being the subscription fee, and each child would add their own contributions, remarks and advertisements, before passing it on to the next contributor. Those who held onto the magazine for more than 3 days were charged a fine of one pence for each additional day, which would be passed on to Dr Barnado Homes. There is an awareness of charitable acts represented throughout the magazines. It was common at this time to encourage children to raise money for charitable organisations and be aware of those less fortunate than themselves.

Seen throughout the editions of the magazine is the influence of the popularity of fiction and romantic stories, an interest in fashion with colour illustrations in watercolours, and poetry. The magazines are a creative output for the children, and they are also seeking validation from their peers on their efforts with pages for comments and votes for the best submissions at the back of the magazine – comparable to ‘likes’ on social media today.

The Camp at Lyndhurst written by Miss R Dent of Beacon Corner, Burley, Hampshire, on the edge of the New Forrest near the village of Lyndhurst, is a perfect example of the other subjects in the magazine, that of the children having an awareness of world events and an interest in them. As well as this article, there are several other references to the ongoing conflict in this edition and an advertisement that offers the sale of wooden toys with funds raised going to the Belgian Relief Fund.

The war had started in July of 1914, and by the autumn when this issue was circulated, the true horrors of what was to come had not even been grasped by the adults, let alone filtered down to children’s consciousness.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

The Camp at Lyndhurst is written as a jolly tale of chatting to the soldiers and the men are making jokes about what will happen at the front – was this what the men naively believed war was to be like or were they making the best of it for the benefit of the children? The author describes the landscape: ‘The whole of the moor and links are covered with hundreds and hundreds of tents, soldiers are to be seen everywhere & the road which runs through the camp is blocked by every kind of traffic.  Last week the 7th division was temporarily encamped there previous to starting for the front via Southampton – they were delayed owing to the presence of German submarines in the Channel.’ This shows a good level of knowledge about the activities at the camp and the shipment of troops, gleaned from newspapers or adult conversations.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

‘The first time we went over to see them we took about 100 appleswhich we threw to any soldiers we saw along the road.   One apple was badly thrown & it knocked off one of the men’s caps and hit him on the head A passing soldier said I hope the bullets won’t do that!  Everyman we asked if they were looking forward to going to the front answered with faces lighting up “I should think so” or “The sooner the better”’.  The author goes on to describe what batallions were in the camp, that they were marching in full kit for hours, what they wore, how there were big guns covered up and they were practising fixing bayonets: ‘It made one realize how very near the war was.’

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

There is a fascinating postscript saying that since writing the article the Scottish troops had left for the front and have been replaced in the camp by Indian troops, reflecting the fact that soldiers from all over the British Empire were brought into the conflict. The author describes in detail what they are wearing, how they ride bareback, and that their shoes were heelless. It is possible they hadn’t been given their uniforms for the front yet and were still wearing clothes more suited to the warmer climate of India: ‘They nearly all have bare legs and heelless slippers and they look rather cold.’ They are described as wearing turbans and were probably part of the 130,000 Sikhs who saw active service in the conflict.  Although accounting for just 2% of the population of British India at the time, the Sikhs made up more than 20% of the British Indian Army at the outbreak of hostilities.

On page 29 of the magazine, Elegy of a Dying War-Horse by C. Turton  shows a more realistic idea of what war must be like – ‘All around us lie bodies of dead men and dying, Some passive, and others contorted with pain, And one Highland laddie – a mere boy of twenty, Is groaning, and moans for his “mither and hame”‘. The poem speaks of the hot sun in the Indian valley. The Charge of the Light Brigade by Tennyson and tales of Clive of India would have been familiar to children at this time and would inspire heroic ideas about British soldiers and battles in faraway lands.

This September to October 1914 edition of The Pierot is the last one in the Museum’s collection. It isn’t clear if this was the last one made or not, but certainly as the authors got older their interests would have moved on. The magazines offer a wonderful insight into the lives of the children who contributed – their interests, concerns and creative talents – as well as a window into the world around them.

This post was written by Lyn

Simon Sommerville Laurie: Edinburgh Educationist

One of the more interesting recent finds from the Edinburgh Museum of Childhood’s book store is, perhaps surprisingly, a school book – The Sixth English Reading Book (fig. 1).

Figure 1

The book, which used to belong to Euphemia M. Millar, contains a timetable of various classes attended by the girl at school (fig. 2), as well as some cut out characters, objects and animals (fig. 3), possibly used as educational aids. All of this most wonderfully shows the owner’s use of the school book and suggests her interactive approach to learning.

Figure 2

Figure 3

Euphemia’s ownership, however, is not the only interesting story hidden within The Sixth English Reading Book. The book’s author, Simon S. Laurie, A.M., F.R.S.E., Professor of Theory, History, and Art of Education in the University of Edinburgh (fig. 4), may seem like one of many similar educational writers of the time, currently all but forgotten, if not entirely forgotten, but in his day he was an vigorous campaigner for various educational reforms.

Figure 4: Simon Somerville Laurie (1829–1909), by George Fiddes Watt, 1904
© reserved / courtesy of the University of Edinburgh’s Collections. See https://goo.gl/7tNH6B.

Edinburgh born and raised, Laurie eventually became secretary of the Church of Scotland’s education committee in 1855, and a year later a visitor and inspector in rural parish schools in the counties of Banff, Moray and Aberdeen. At the same time he began his writing career, which, along with his work as an inspector, made him Scotland’s leading expert on education by 1870, and in 1876 he was appointed to the university chair of education in Edinburgh.

Figure 5: 22 George Square – the house that used to belong to Simon S. Laurie. Currently University of Edinburgh School of Social and Political Science.

Perhaps through his work as an inspector, Laurie came to believe that teachers should be able to receive a university education, equal to other professions, such as doctors or lawyers, and he campaigned for it as the president of the Teachers’ Guild of Great Britain and Ireland (since 1891). As a secretary of the royal commission on Scottish endowed schools he worked towards the creation of a chain of secondary schools, and his project partially succeeded in 1878, with the newly-passed legislation. He also proposed a reform of educational ‘hospitals’, where a limited number of children could be enrolled on a charitable basis, which later influenced the foundation of large day schools. Last, but not least, in the 1860s, Laurie advocated the creation of higher education courses for Edinburgh women.

All of the above presents a portrait of a man thoroughly engaged in the betterment of both Scottish and national education system, who understood the importance of providing teachers with the best possible education, and the importance of higher education for all, including women. It seems fitting that one of Simon S. Laurie’s books used to belong to a young woman, whose education might have benefited through the reforms he proposed, and the changes his campaigning influenced.

Simon S. Laurie’s grave at the Grange Cemetery, Edinburgh.

Bibliography 

Anderson, R. (2004-09-23). Laurie, Simon Somerville (1829–1909), educationist. Oxford Dictionary of National Biography. Retrieved Jan. 2018, from https://doi.org/10.1093/ref:odnb/34422.

You can see this copy of The Sixth English Reading Book in our Growing Up With Books exhibition, opening June 1st, 2018!

This post written by Joanna Witkowska

Katie Morag goes to Edinburgh University

The little red-haired girl who lives on the Hebridean island of Struay, always attired in her welly boots and Fair Isle jersey, is an icon of contemporary Scottish children’s literature. This, of course, is Katie Morag, the much loved creation of Mairi Hedderwick.

SELCIE was therefore delighted at the news that Edinburgh University had awarded the writer and illustrator an Honorary Degree at a graduation ceremony held at the University of Edinburgh on Monday 27th November. Every one of Hedderwick’s stories opens up a vivid world world for its young reader; in Katie’s companionship, the distinctive culture and heritage of Scottish island life is also brought to life. And Hedderwick’s illustrations also capture a child’s perspective of landscapes, weather, and environment. This striking combination of the visual and verbal was adapted for television in 2013, and a new generation of children discovered Katie Morag in a new medium.

Interestingly, though, the stories didn’t come directly from Hedderwick’s own childhood. The nearest she came to island life was the view through the window of her Gourock home across the Firth of Clyde to Dunoon and the Cowal peninsula: ‘I knew I wanted to go there, across the water and over the hills and far away’, she has remarked. As a student she studied mural painting and ceramics at the Edinburgh Art School (now ECA), graduating in the early 60s. It was an experience that would give her ‘sudden freedom […] It was totally classless […] You had room to develop your personality’.

During this time, she first visited Coll, the small Hebridean island lying to the west of Mull and the real-life inspiration for Katie’s island. Working as a ‘mother’s help’ to the laird’s family, she lived without electricity or drinking water but it was still ‘joyous’, she recalls. She subsequently returned and stayed for ten years where she raised a young family and began her career as an illustrator of children’s books by writers such as Rumer Godden and Jane Duncan, and of collections of Gaelic stories and Scottish folktales. Though the family left Coll in the early 70s, its inspiration was deeply seeded, and the first of the Katie Morag series appeared in 1984.[i]

It forms one strand of a rich body of work which encompasses other stories for children (as well as her travel writing which often draws on this rich seam of island experience). Thanks to Hedderwick’s captivating blend of word and image, the material presence of Katie Morag’s world is everywhere — not just in bookshops and television but in cups and calendars. The books belong to the classroom too, and Hedderwick herself is a regular and popular visitor (along with Katie’s teddy bear!) to primary schools and local book festivals; as she herself has said, ‘storytelling [is] a shared activity’.

These stories have become an intimate, homely presence in children’s lives — a vital contribution to a longstanding tradition of Scottish children’s writing, all the way back to Robert Louis Stevenson and A Child’s Garden of Verses, which so memorably captures a child’s view of the world. And, happily, that tradition is still flourishing across the  diversity of contemporary Scottish children’s literature, and the small, independent publishing houses which so often nourish and sustain it.

                                                               This post written by Sarah

[i] http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/uk-scotland-26483303

Dear Mrs Shillabeer

While working in the book archives of Edinburgh’s Museum of Childhood, we sometimes find books that hold traces of their authors. This usually takes the form of an authorial inscription, as is the case with the charming Mr Barnacles and His Boat book that appeared in a previous blog post. It is also always very exciting when we find traces of illustrators, as was the case recently when we found this 1960 copy of Robert Louis Stevenson’s A Child’s Garden of Verses: 

Child's Garden of Verses Cover

This edition is illustrated by Mary Shillabeer, who was based in Edinburgh. She was known both for her children’s book illustrations and for her beautiful marionette puppets, which you can see here and here, for example. Our own Museum of Childhood here in Edinburgh even holds some of her puppets! She also sketched and painted Edinburgh’s Rehearsal Orchestra for many years; you can see some of those paintings here. The book we found certainly shows how skilled she was:

Shillabeer illustrations

However, the most interesting thing about this book is that it was owned by Mary Shillabeer herself. Tucked into the front cover is a letter from Martin Dent, the publisher. It is addressed to “Mrs Shillabeer” at her address in Edinburgh:

Letter to Mrs Shillabeer

The letter contains the publisher’s opinion about a “question of colour”; he states that he “will happily leave it for you to put it right in whatever way you wish after Christmas”. This is a lovely little glimpse into the life and work of this talented illustrator that we were very happy to find. As the season approaches for us to start wishing each other “a very happy Christmas”, we hope that you find this as interesting as we do!

Shillabeer illustrations

This post written by Danielle

Muriel Spark, The Very Fine Clock (London, 1969)

Only four months away from the centenary of Muriel Spark’s birth, SELCIE celebrates her little-known children’s novel.

Gerard Carruthers guides us through its thoughtful quirkiness, complete with illustrations by Edward Gorey…
Illustration from A Very Fine Clock

Less well-known than Muriel Spark, the writer of novels or the short-story writer, is Spark the poet, Spark the writer of drama. Least well-known of all is Spark the children’s writer: she produced only one short book for children in the late 1960s, The Very Fine Clock. The text has the feel of the 1960s film industry’s take on the Victorian or Edwardian period. Think, for instance, George Pal’s The Time Machine (1960) or Lionel Jeffries’s The Railway Children (1970) for the general vibe. It is a genteel, moral tale written for the clever eight year-old who can get his or her reading-head (and tongue) round names like ‘Professor Sturge Baldwin Parker’ or ‘Professor Maximilian Rosmini’. These are two of four professors who visit the home of the central protagonist, Ticky, every week to confer with the Swiss clock’s owner Professor John on a range of profound matters. Out of goodness and in appreciation of his precise time-keeping, the professors come up with a proposal for elevating Ticky’s status and out of goodness Ticky refuses. Indubitably, he is a very fine clock.

Illustration from A Very Fine Clock

With rather gorgeous black and white illustrations by Edward Gorey (1925-2000), which are sometimes intriguingly arch, The Very Fine Clock is to be savoured by thoughtful kids. The only real places the text is dated is in the stereotypical depiction of the kitchen clock who ‘always lets her tongue run away with her’ and of academic life where ‘Professor John goes off in the morning to sit all day in his professor’s chair at the university.’

Illustration from A Very Fine Clock

This post written by Gerard Carruthers, University of Glasgow

Gerard Carruthers FRSE is Francis Hutcheson Professor of Scottish Literature at the University of Glasgow. He is one of the organisers of the Muriel Spark Centenary Symposium,  1st & 2nd February 2018, a joint venture between the National Library of Scotland and the University of Glasgow. 

 

Gerard Carruthers

Dùsgadh agus Mosgladh: Catrìona NicGhille-Bhàin Ghrannd, Dùsgadh na Féinne (1908) & Calum Mac Phàrlain, Am Mosgladh Mòr (1914-15)

This post written by Dr Sìm Innes, Oilthigh Ghlaschu

[English translation follows below]

Is iomadh uair ri linn an Athbheothachaidh Cheiltich a chualas gun robh na Gàidheil, neo na h-Albannaich gu lèir, air dùsgadh, no an impis dùsgadh, air neo gun robh an t-àm aca dùsgadh. Thug Lachlann MacBheathain (1853-1931) òraid do Chomunn Gàidhlig Inbhir Nis ann an 1896 air an robh ‘The Mission of the Celt’. Bha MacBheathain, a thogadh ann an Cill Taraglain, na fhear-deasachaidh air a’ phàipear The Fifeshire Advertister. Bha e ri eadar-theangachadh agus sgrìobhadh na Gàidhlig cuideachd.[1] Na òraid, thòisich e le bhith a’ toirt sùil air eachdraidh an Athbheothachaidh is thuirt e:

The Gael suddenly awoke to the alarming fact that his native tongue, which more than anything else was the distinguishing mark of his tribe, was dying out before the tongue of the Southron. The thought touched his sensitive and melancholy nature as nothing else could…. Having now glanced over this heaving tide of new Celtic life which has overflowed the fields of literature, music, customs, and social progress, it remains for us to ask, What of the future? The Gael are awakening to consciousness, and as a man when he becomes conscious, first asks, What am I? Whence am I? What am I here for? So the Gael must ask, What are we? What are our capabilities? What is our destiny? … Well, now, we have looked at these three curents of our times – the rising tide of Celtic revival among ourselves, the flow of Celtic sentiment and ideas in English life and literature, and the stream of Celtic blood into city life – and we should now be in a position to guess what is the mission and destiny of the Celt. It is surely by infusion of ideas and transfusion of blood to leaven modern civilization with its own awakening spirit.[2]

Continue reading

‘Helps Heavenward’: the story of a boy called David and an Edwardian Edinburgh family

In this post, Lyn Wall and Susan Gardner, curators at the Museum of Childhood, share this poignant and touching story which they pieced together from the discovery of a little book in the archive… 

One of the great benefits and pleasures of working with the Museum of Childhood book collection is sometimes finding a direct link to the person who owned the book originally, and sometimes we have an insight into an event in their lives, or how they lived their lives.

Help Heavenward titlepage Help Heavenward cover

Whilst working with the SELCIE team we came across a small unassuming hardback book with a plain cover called ‘Helps Heavenward  For Young Believers’.  On opening the book there was a pencilled inscription as follows: ‘In Memory of My Dear Brother David Stewart Who Died Feb 25 1904  B.S.’

The name David Stewart is not an uncommon one, but even so, we were able to track down what seems to be the correct Stewart family using the 1901 census return, and then found David’s death certificate.  The certificate states that he died age 12 at the Infirmary in Edinburgh and the cause of death was ‘pseudo-hypertrophic musc. Paralysis’ (today known as Muscular Dystrophy, a disease where muscles waste away over a period of time), which he had suffered from for a period of 5 years and then for the last 2 months of his life he had tuberculous.

The census shows that David had a sister called Elizabeth, who in 1904 when he died would have been aged 21, and that she was a rubber shoe maker.  David was listed as an invalid, and he had two other sisters, Isabella and Margaret.  Presumably ‘B.S.’ at the end of the inscription was Elizabeth known as Beth, Betty or Bess?

The date of the inscription and David’s death falls in the middle of the Edwardian era, which in essence hadn’t changed greatly from the late Victorian era in terms of people’s domestic and work experiences.  Christianity featured large in most people’s lives at this time, and with high infant mortality rates, and short life spans, it was a comforting thought for most people that their loved ones entered an afterlife.  Most people attended church regularly and even if they didn’t they would have been exposed to Christian teachings through their schooling or even work environments.

Scraps were discovered amidst the book – perhaps put there for safekeeping by David’s sister, Elizabeth?

Our records show that this book was donated by Mrs Pringle of Edinburgh in 1981, but there is nothing to confirm if she was connected to the Stewart family.   It wouldn’t be unreasonable to assume there was a family connection, as this is a book which obviously meant a good deal to Elizabeth as she had gone to the effort of writing an inscription in memory of her brother.  But sometimes, books and toys of great emotional significance to individuals, end up disconnected in a charity shop or forgotten in an attic or cupboard.

The book instructs the reader in ways they can be better Christians, and how they can use their faith to strengthen their character and hence send them ‘Heavenwards’ through their beliefs and actions in life.  The chapter called ‘Growing in Grace’ speaks of a child who lived in a cradle for 29 years: ‘He could neither talk, walk, nor recognise anyone, and was as helpless when he reached manhood as the day he was born’.  The reader is then encouraged to ‘grow in grace’ rather than physically grow, by learning to ‘love reading your bible’.  The message is — your faith and character make you a strong person, not your physical strength or health.  Other chapters guide you on how to rid yourself of doubts about your faith, and how to live a good Christian life.   

 The Stewart family may have had to draw strength from their faith.  David was obviously a poorly child for many years, and they would have known it was unlikely he would reach adulthood.  They were not a rich family, living in the Fountainbridge area of Edinburgh, known for its breweries and the site of the North British Rubber Company.   The company was established in 1856 alongside the Union Canal and it employed thousands of workers over five generations in manufacturing a variety of products from rubber Wellington boots, pneumatic tyres and hot-water bottles.  This is probably where Elizabeth worked.  Her father was a lorry driver, who also probably worked for the Rubber Company or one of the breweries.  It was a working class and industrial area that by the early twentieth century had declined into slum tenements and generally poor living conditions for the neighbourhood.

Throughout the pages of this book are apparently randomly placed colourful scraps.  They do not mark the beginnings of chapters, but it is possible they mark passages of significance to Elizabeth.  However, there are also some placed at the back of the book amongst advertisements.  It may just have been a way for Elizabeth to keep her scraps safe and flat, or perhaps her brother David had enjoyed playing with or collecting scraps. 

Scraps had been mass produced since the early nineteenth century, usually embossed and colourful and cheaply bought, they were accessible to most people.  Sometimes they were collected and stuck in books, or used to decorate Valentine or Christmas cards, or even screens.  They were extremely popular throughout the Victorian era and well into the twentieth century.  They are still made and collected today.

                                                                   This post written by Lyn and Susan Gardner

Mona Margaret Noel Paton (1860-1928), ‘a gifted teller of tales’

A visit to the Museum of Childhood’s archive one afternoon uncovered a forgotten Scottish Victorian children’s writer. Here, Sarah introduces the fairytale, folkloric worlds of Mona Paton…

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In 1871, Charles Dodgson, or Lewis Carroll, paid a visit to the island of Arran to see the Edinburgh painter, Joseph Noel Paton, bearing a letter of introduction from George MacDonald. Paton had a reputation as a distinguished artist of religious and mythic subjects but it was as a painter of beautiful and bizarre fairyscapes that he had piqued Carroll’s interest. Though John Tenniel’s images for the Alice books are now much loved, it was Paton whom Carroll had initially wanted as an illustrator for Wonderland’s first publication two years prior.

Mona’s father, the painter Joseph Noel Paton; the family lived at 33 George Square, Edinburgh

One of Paton’s most famous fairy paintings, The Reconciliation of Oberon and Titania (1847)

Despite it being a ‘rainy and misty’ September day, Carroll records that he had a delightful time with Paton, his wife, Maggie, and their large family who were holidaying, as they frequently did, on Scotland’s west coast. This marked the beginning of a long-standing acquaintance with one of Paton’s daughters, Mona Margaret Noel (1860-1928), who was then eleven years old.[i] In a later memoir, Joseph Noel Paton’s granddaughter gives this lovely description of Mona as having:

 more than her share of artistic temperament (the ‘DAT’ as those of the family who suffered from it most, called it). High-spirited, determined (sometimes pigheaded), a gifted teller of tales, a not unaccomplished pianist, a sweet singer, a clever mimic, Mona also had ‘the sight’. She grabbed life with both hands and  thereby suffered much. Her appearance was striking. She adored her father and, with hair waving crisply back from her forehead, appears in a number of his paintings, sometimes as angel, sometimes as devil’.[ii]

Mona, for instance, is known as ‘the curly headed imp’ who appears as a group of wild yet cherubic fairy children (three of her siblings) in one of Paton’s most popular paintings, ‘The Fairy Raid’.[iii]

Eighteen years later Mona would have a volume of fairy tales published by a small Edinburgh printer  —  retellings of Beauty and the Beast and Jack the Giantkiller.  The former is essentially drawn from the literary fairy tale culture of seventeenth- and eighteenth-century France, particularly associated with women writers, though stories of forbidden, ‘monstrous’, or cross-species desire go deep in terms of cultural and historical lineage (the tale of Cupid and Psyche, for example). The latter, on the other hand, springs out of indigenous folkloric and popular tale traditions of the British Isles.

This is a beautiful book —  sharp, funny, tender, and bizarre —  but scarcely well-known,   forgotten amongst a plethora of Victorian fairytale literature. But amidst the depth of a dusty box in the Museum of Childhood’s archive it surfaced one day. With a pale ivory background, text and image in what might best be termed a ‘rusty’ or garnet-coloured ink, and marginal embellishments at the top and foot of each page in neo-Celtic design, Paton’s book was designed to have an ‘antique’ feel even then. Read in an afternoon, it convinced us that Mona Margaret Noel Paton deserves her own place in the history of Scottish children’s literature.

Here, then, is a little taste of how she reimagines such two ‘very old’ fairy tales…. Continue reading

‘Celtic Tales Told to the Children’

Eighteen months on from our first descent into the Museum of Childhood’s basement vault and every box still tells a story. In one we opened lay two beautifully illustrated volumes from the early twentieth century. Several threads bound them together —  pooled from the same body of legends and stories from the great literary cycles of Irish and Scottish tradition, they show how the development of children’s literature pierces at the heart of questions about culture and identity, tradition and ‘belonging’.   And how the seedstore of myth and legend is an ever-present inspiration for creators of children’s stories…

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‘It was Aibric who remembered the story of the children of Lir, because he loved them. He told the story to the people of Ireland, and they were so fond of the story and had such pity for Lir’s children that they made a law that no one was to hurt a wild swan, and when they saw a swan flying they would say: “My blessing with you, white swan, for the sake of Lir’s children!’ –  fromThe Children of Lir’
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celtic-wonder-tales

Celtic Wonder Tales (1910) was the work of Ella Young (1867-1956), an Irish nationalist, Republican sympathiser, and poet. Born into a Presbyterian, unionist family in the north of Ireland, she learnt Irish Gaelic and became a member of the Dublin Theosophical Society (and a correspondent of W.B. Yeats). Absorbed by traditions of Irish mythology and storytelling, in 1910 she produced this volume of stories — each of them quite short but diverse in their range and scope.

They were accompanied by illustrations made by her friend, Maud Gonne (1866-1953), the English-born Irish revolutionary, campaigner, and suffragette — and famously beloved by Yeats. The volume was a labour of love which stemmed from the shared artistic and political interests of these two women. These in turn had grown out of the movement usually known as the Celtic Revival which had gathered energy from the 1880s onwards, building on earlier folk-collecting impulses and political movements to forge a new distinct sense of Irish vernacular culture, language, and identity (the National Literary Society was founded in 1892, for example; the Gaelic League in 1893). Continue reading