Northwords Now Issue 39

The FREE literary magazine of the North

A Telling of Stones

Neil Rackham (illustrated Alisdair Wiseman) Acair, 2019

A Review by Ian Stephen

Faclan has evolved into an annual event of great variety. It has been a combined film and book festival, as Wordplay was in Shetland. Faclan 2019 seemed not so much a book festival as a cocktail of events, some related to actual books, some not really so. Why not? An Lanntair is a venue for all the arts and the loosely themed Faclan provides an opportunity for events outside the solid, regular events programming. In that context, annual book launches from Stornoway based publisher Acair have been a steadying factor, where a new publication is revealed by author interview, discussion or performance.

'A Telling of Stones' was launched with a performance that was close to virtuoso. Its author, Neil Rackham, is best known in the business world for books on the strategy of selling. He made it clear from the start that this is not another compilation of the 'prophecies' and lore related to Coinneach Odhair or The Brahan Seer.  It is an audacious weaving-in of legends with a storyteller's disregard for the normal passage of time. The author takes the Celtic knot as a central motif. So an end can as easily be a beginning. The casting of the seer's stone into a deep loch can thus be the action that prompts a varying version of the central story of the curse that comes from focusing through the aperture of the seer's stone.

There's as many kinds of story as there are ways of telling one. Neil Rackam likes complex asides which become yarns in themselves and the audience is invited to gasp when somehow the teller does pull it off and catches the main thread again. No matter how well you know the tales there is great entertainment in observing them re-made in this context. It seemed to me natural to gather in the selkie story as there is a strong Hebridean tradition of the seal wife as a daughter of a King of ‘Lochlin’ which is also a strand in the Uig telling of the finding of the stone. The Corrievreckan legend seemed more strained. To me, its function as a naming tale for the Sounds north of Jura and Scarba is an essential element. This is lost as the action happens on ‘Lochlin’. In this fable, that name (often written as Lochlann or the Welsh version, Llychlyn )  is applied to an imagined island, mapped between the Butt of Lewis and Faroes, rather than  Scandanavian territories generally and most usually Norway.

This recalls Malachy Talach's summary of ‘Imagined Islands’ – a previous Faclan event. Like Birlinn's production of that book, Acair have spared nothing on the production values. These do justice to Alisdair Wiseman's clear and bold drawings, in pen and ink, adding much to the pleasure. The designer has thoughtfully placed short sections on lore linked to such topics as 'second sight' or 'the nature of selkies' in a pale Scandinavian blue, as inserts. For me, the spare nature of these summaries is one of the strongest strands of this daring book.