QUERN SONGS by John Purser
Back in December my colleague Hugh Cheape published a piece about quern songs, as full of nutriment as a nut – or, indeed, a bag of oatmeal.
But nutritious as it was, there is still a little quern dust left over with which I may regale you.
Older readers will remember Ronnie Black’s wonderful column in the Free Press – The Quern-Dust Calendar, so if he could keep that going for years, I can manage for one article.
A very quick re-cap.
A quern is a rotary hand-mill made from a circular split stone. Grain is fed through a hole in the upper stone as it is rotated, using a stick inserted into a socket near the edge of the upper stone. The grain gets ground into meal which gathers on a skin or sheet on which the quern is placed.
Grinding the quern was often accompanied by song.
I first got interested in Quern Songs when I was researching in the late 1980s for Scotland’s Music – a series of BBC Radio Scotland programmes which was broadcast in 1991-92.
Since this article is part of a series on Tobar an Dualchais, it might interest you to know what it was like having to research without the website – without anything digital at all.
The BBC had its own sound archive and that, in those days, was well manned and accessible for programme makers; but the vast majority of material was housed in the School of Scottish Studies archives on reel-to-reel tape and was not easy of access.
Many complained at the difficulties and I experienced them myself; but the truth is that the School was as helpful as it possibly could be.
The staff members were expected to do fieldwork and make field recordings, they had to archive this material, they had to publish about it, they had to do research based on it and much more besides, and they had to teach to post graduate level.
They were defended from being totally overwhelmed by a secretary of decisive character but, I believe, of good heart.
So it was with trepidation that I made efforts to penetrate this Kist O’ Riches – though it was just called an archive in those days.
The School did not let me down.
The actual catalogue was a huge wooden cabinet whose multiple drawers contained the card index.
It lived in Alan Bruford’s office, so one had to find out when he was not teaching and, full of fear and trembling, knock on his door to seek guidance – indeed even access to the catalogue.
“Come”. So in I went and mixed up my excuses with my requests.
Alan, be-spectacled, was, however, on the phone behind a vast desk covered with work in progress – which included editing the School of Scottish Studies’ magazine, Tocher.
He had ushered me in, but his attention was elsewhere for quite a while.
Eventually he was able to look up and ask me how he could help and I muttered about work songs and, in particular, quern songs. “Hmmm”.
There were a good few and I wasn’t writing down the titles fast enough.
Then, suddenly, he brightened: “Try the fifth drawer down in the third rank.
There’s a really curious old quern song sung by Peter Morrison.”
I found it, thanked him profusely, and went down to the archive itself with my formal request for a copy to be made onto reel-to-reel.
I still hadn’t heard it, but Alan’s recommendation was good enough for me.
Anyway, it’s fascinating:
’S i mo bhrà fhìn as fheàrr
gu min a’ thionndadh mach à gràn –
cha bhi ’n t-acras air mo chloinn
’s na leacan seo a-bhos ri m’làimh.
Chaidh a gearradh le fear-ceàird
on charragh ghlas ’n taobh thall a’ chnoic –
shrac e i le òrd is cruaidh
’s tha i dearbhadh sin a-nochd
I remember – this was many years ago – that the young lads, with myself at their head, used to gather in a house in our neighbourhood Clann Chaluim.
Big they used to call it.
They used to go to the mill with dried grain at the time, the others did, but generally they used to grind with a quern, that we ourselves should get to grind and listen to one of the girls there – an unmarried lady, Ann – singing songs – and she couldn’t just sing, she could compose songs as well.
And when the quern went round the table, with two of us involved, this is one of the grinding songs Ann used to sing
My own quern is the best
For turning meal out of grain –
My children will not go hungry
While these flat stones are here by my hand.
It was cut by a craftsman
From the grey rock on the other side of the hill –
He tore it out with hammer and steel
And it proves that tonight.
The song is basically pentatonic and octosyllabic and could come from any century you choose to pick.
For Peter Morrison, the knowledge came into use in Salonika during WWII when he mended a quern to make meal for hungry soldiers!
But for me, the song really came into its own when I was on a visit to eastern Poland in pursuit of knowledge of the ligawskas or long wooden horns that used to be played in that part of Poland.
The farmhouse to which we were taken to meet one of the makers was in flat land, harried by a vicious north-easterly wind, the whole of the area being under frozen snow.
It was December and bitterly cold and, even with the superior warmth of the kilt I was wearing, the cold crept up past my knees.
The farmer kept a variety of animals, including llamas, and he showed us round his workshop and the farm buildings.
In the farmhouse, a spread of food all produced by themselves – bread, sausages, cheeses – was set out upon the table and we were told we must consume it all.
We had added a bottle of vodka, and everything, all delicious, duly vanished.
Presiding over the room from her chair of state was Josefa, the champion bread maker.
I had noticed an old rotary hand mill – a quern – mounted on a wooden frame in the barn and asked if she ground her own meal.
She had no English and I no Polish, so all this was conducted through an interpreter and was laboured and not easily understood.
So I started to sing the quern song ‘S i mo bhrà fhìn while imitating the motion with my hand, and Josefa’s eyes lit up with instant recognition.
For that moment we totally understood each other and not a comprehensible word between us.
Yes, she used the quern, but no longer.
I was told when it was time to leave, that Josefa wanted me to stay.
In my heart I am owing her a red rose.
The website www.tobarandualchais.co.uk contains some 50,000 oral recordings on songs, music, poetry and factual information made in Scotland and further afield.