A Pair of Stories

(the uploaded PDF is perhaps an easier to read version of the details, plus my sources)

Our society typically separates bards into storytellers, singers, and performers, when in fact every piece is a story in itself. What follows are Towton’s Creek and Drink For a Scot’s Land, two songs that speak for those ignored or forgotten. I felt the need to include them together as one entry to get a full range of historical and contemporary research, originality, and forethought. Inevitably, they also demonstrate emotional variance, as there were plenty of Scots who would’ve relished in a couple more English soldiers perishing, alongside enjoying the beauty of their homeland.

Towton’s Creek is a contrafactum of The Green Fields of France (or sometimes Willie McBride) by Eric Bogle, which was written to highlight the mountain of deaths in No Man’s Land during World War I. I’ve loved the blend of its melody and message for years now, and after last Pennsic, vowed to make it about a period battle to sing in SCAdian circles. Contrafacta (modernly known as filks) were songs that used the tune of another piece with original or mostly original lyrics. Generally used to apply a religious song to a secular atmosphere, the practice became much more common as of the 13th century. The 1380s saw a huge uptick in writers who criticized the purpose of war, becoming some of the first pacifists the medieval era would know. So while Towton’s Creek isn’t itself a period piece in lyric or melody, the two main ideas behind it certainly are.

The War of the Roses pitted Henry VI and the Duke of York against one another for England’s throne. The Battle of Towton is seen as bloodiest battle on English soil in terms of deaths, but the figure varies anywhere from 3,000 to 36,000. There’s good reason to believe the quote in some sources of twenty-eight thousand might in fact be twenty-eight hundred (2,800), akin to how we write our years today with the last two digits (‘20) instead of two thousand and twenty (2020). A kill count as high as 36k puts Towton on par with the first day of the Battle of the Somme. To think humans were as efficient at dispatching soldiers with 450 years of weapons and mentality between them is hard to justify. Regardless of fact, the battle was devastating and fits the bill of a conflict to be avoided.

To cater to 1461 England, I needed to take out all modern and Irish references from the original. William was of course a famous English given name, as per her kings, and was one whose syllables I could stretch for the meter. I wanted a surname close to McBride for rhyming purposes. Ironically, I discovered Blythe on a list of 15th century English names from an SCA heraldry webpage. Bows and swords were easy enough substitutes for gas, barbed wire, and guns. Instead of a picture in frame, I wrote the singer’s reference to William’s story, and only being ten years in the future would be easily recorded in tales from his friends, family, or town. The line “no blood in the meadow” refers to the Bloody Meadow as one of the gruesome landmarks of the battlefield. The cross referenced several times is the monument Dacres Cross, sometimes seen as in respect for the dead and not solely the Lord Dacres who perished there. On the National Biodiversity Network, I scanned reports of flora in the Towton area, and found bluebells could replace the red poppies that represented No Man’s Land.

One potentially modern piece I put in was a personal choice: to use “them” instead of “her” as the nongender specific noun for William’s sweetheart. Gender is a period concept, evidenced in societal roles and clothing, but if 7th century Christian texts cite the existence of nonheterosexuality, there’s a large chance that attraction continued into the 15th, whether or not it was made public or condoned by law. Art is meant to be as much of an expression of the artist as it is the idea behind the medium and representation. This expression was from me.

Addressing customs related to death became tricky. The stereotypical “Keep calm and carry on” attitude of the British wasn’t far off of the medieval attitude of hiding public displays of emotion after a great loss. Some Italian towns in the 13th and 14th centuries outlawed these, under threat of civil punishment. William Blythe would’ve been a commoner, and after the massive amount of death at Towton, there’s a high likelihood of him being in an unmarked, mass grave. The fact that there may not have even been a graveside ceremony is reflected in the doubt of the chorus line “Did a priest say The Lord’s Prayer above you?” where the priest would’ve physically stood above the mass grave. One such grave containing 37 skeletons, aged as young as 16 years old and dating back to approximately the time of the battle, was uncovered in 1996 when excavating for new construction on Towton Hall.

Two final notes are 1) that I used locally sourced oak and horsehair to construct the brush tipper I used to keep tempo. This would’ve been the most efficient way for a bard to obtain their tools. And 2) cats had a historical infamy for ruining (or “creatively enhancing”) works of art, especially in the scribal realm; our cat Mohinder’s refusal to leave my recording vicinity during these songs is completely appropriate, and realized later on as training to notice interruptions, but take them in stride.

Drink For a Scot’s Land is a wholly original song that trades the historicity of Towton’s Creek for poetry and symbolism in its verses; read here as “you just got done reading the science part of the entry, so here’s the art part.” It combines bringing the public eye to environmental conservation and the running commentary on Scottish (and my) songs. Listeners usually stereotype Scottish music into a few categories, but this highlights the land itself instead, which hardly ever gets recognition in the company of battle epics or love stories. After several appearances at local open mics, one of the patrons asked if I had any songs not dealing with death or tragedy, which further spurred me on to create this piece. All my life, I have helped maintain the natural flow of local ecosystems, and pushed others to find importance in it as well. I cannot attest that this was a conscious effort for the medieval era; however, it came about subconsciously as they watched how the land was affected by crop rotation and fertilizer, where they should graze with their livestock, balancing their seafood sources, foraging, and other techniques.

Most of my data sources came from a talk by Alan Watson-Featherstone of Trees for Life in 2016. Their organization has been working to restore the Caledonian forests, both flora and fauna, since the 80s. In the 1950s, conservationist Sir Frank Fraser Darling was paid to investigate Scotland from a sustainability point of view, which he described as a “wet desert” in how much of it was dying or stagnant. By simple tasks such as fencing areas off to prevent deer grazing, and planting native trees, they started an ecological recovery that snowballed into every level of restoration. This rebirth of plant life comes out in “ardent green valleys” of the song, and mentions of breath, in how trees increase the air quality for us oxygen breathers. The shoulders made of rock formations bring together accurate metaphor and reference to the difficult landscape on which some ecosystems thrive—in accordance with stubbornness of the Scottish people and the musculature of its agricultural lifestyle.

Red deer, much like its American white tail cousin, run rampant through Scotland, yet are still a necessary part of their food chain. And in the same depressing course of events, wolves were hunted to near extinction and set this relationship off balance. Boar is what Watson Featherstone calls a keystone species: their presence is a good indicator of a healthy community, and the amount of benefit they gift it in relation to their population size is positively disproportionate. Boar hunts of the medieval era were highly fatal and damaging, requiring knowledge of the landscape’s pitfalls and a keen mind confident in its ability to think on one’s feet. As plants thrive, omnivore species return as their food sources do, like the birds of “woodland lullabies” to eat the berries of the mentioned cedar trees.

Scotland’s loch or mountain lakes are in every quintessential mention of the country. Thankfully many are largely untouched, their clear water due the treacherous terrain through their “guardian mountains” stopping most modern services that would affect their health. The allusions to mirrors as the lake’s surface are references to their pristineness, to the introspection common while traveling alone through silent landscapes, and the ancient cultures of Scotland to which their descendants feel a strong tie. This preservation of the past comes across in “trails that teach ancient step,” as well. I chose “chills that I’ve met” for the chorus for the lower temperatures of the highlands and at the same time, the “haunting wonder” of the soundless pine forests, where their eeriness feels like a palpable substance one could touch or come to know.

Despite how important they are economically and ecologically, outsiders often overlook Scottish shores. Adding to their colorful ecosystems is a grassy plain called machair in the north country, often attractive to a range of wildlife because of its plentiful flowers. Most of the rest is personal imagery, including geography that becomes enticing when it blocks line of sight to new discoveries. Fall is my favorite season for (among other things) its vibrant red maples, and storms that can vary between awesome, mile-high thunderheads and peaceful days-long rains that support books and warm drinks. The Lion Rampant is the flag specifically denoting Scottish royalty; to say it “flies free above” means the country belongs to its own monarchs, not to England as in times past. The thistle is a hardy species, capable of growing in the harshest of environments (probably why it’s the country’s national symbol), so if their homeland is poor enough that it can’t even grow, that implies Scotland is hopeless. I also bring conservancy back around through the good works and love needed to preserve Her beauty, while paying homage to Scottish bards and freedom fighters, too.