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What a Buttload!

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Now, now… if you thought I was going to be rude, you don’t know me very well.  While I am certain that the term “butt” has led to countless jibes and jokes down through the centuries, it is (among other things) in fact an English measuring unit for wine.  A Buttload of wine is a unit for liquids which contains 126 gallons (~276 litres) which is one-half tun (252 gallons), and equivalent to the pipe (the latter also referred to the large container used for storing liquids or foodstuffs; now we rather use the terms cask or vat).  That they needed a term for a unit of wine that massive may seem odd at first; but when you remember that the water they had to drink was the same water that flowed downhill from the landlord’s latrine, the cows in the pasture, and the washer woman upstream, wine, beer and ale (depending on which harvest climate you lived in) was by far the safest thing to drink.  If wine was available in your area, it was stored in barrels and thus was drunk relatively young; also, to counter the effects of drinking it at every meal, wine was often diluted 4 or 5-to-1 with water; that took all of the buzz out of it (and added who knows how many bugs that they were drinking wine to avoid in the first place…).  Now you know.  What a buttload off my mind… I think it’s time for a glass of (undiluted) wine.

A Buttload of Wine

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The Corryvreckan

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The world’s third largest maelstrom, the Corryvreckan, lies in wait between the isles of Jura and Scarba, Scotland.  Being where it is, it is bound to not only have a history worth repeating, but is bound to have stories, myths and tales attached to it.

The Western Isles of Scotland, and location of the Corryvreckan

The Western Isles of Scotland, and location of the Corryvreckan

One mention of the whirlpool comes from Donald Munro in 1549:  “ther runnes ane streame, above the power of all sailing and rowing, with infinit dangers, callit Corybrekan. This stream is aught myle lang, quhilk may not be hantit bot be certain tyds.1 (“There runs one stream, above the power of all sailing and rowing, with infinite dangers, called Corryvreckan.  This stream is eight miles long, which may not be handled but by certain tides.”).  Donald was a Scottish clergyman with the honorary title of “Dean of the Isles”; his father was chief of the clan Munro and 10th Baron of Foulis, and most importantly to history, Donald wrote a description of the Western Isles of Scotland.  Included in that is the Hebrides (Inner and Outer), which have been noteworthy since at least AD 83, when Demetrius or Tarsus wrote about his journey to one such island, the retreat of holy men.

The name itself comes from the Gaelic Coire Bhreacain – “Cauldron of the Plaid”, and is connected with a myth of Cailleach Bheur, an old hag who was said to stir the waters of the strait in order to wash her plaid.  Breacan was also thought to be the name of a Norse king – whether he gave his name to the maelstrom, or the modern name of the strait is a pun on his name, is debatable.  But he is said to have tried to escape from his father (another tale claims he was trying to impress a local princess – but perhaps there’s an element of truth in both the tales) and was swept into the current.

In 1947, George Orwell was nearly drowned in the Corryvreckan along with his three-year-old son and two companions; only because the currents changed were they able to row away from the danger, sans motor that got eaten by the maelstrom, and were then shipwrecked on an uninhabited rock, with no supplies.  They were rescued by a passing fisherman, and three months later the first draft of Nineteen Eighty-Four was complete.2

1(Source:  Wikipedia)

2 (Source: Taylor, D.J. (2003). Orwell: The Life. London: Chatto & Windus. pp. 385–7)

Hobson’s Choice

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Thomas Hobson EngravingThomas Hobson (1544-1631) is still famous through the idiom, “Hobson’s Choice”, which means basically “Take it or leave it”.  An innkeeper in Cambridge, England, he would hire out his horses (according to information at the Cambridge Guildhall, he apparently had an extensive stable of 40 horses, which was a sign of immense wealth in those days!).  To avoid the best horses being favoured and thus worn out more quickly, he devised a rotation system that became known as Hobson’s Choice:  The horse closest to the entrance, or none.  The idiom is sometimes used erroneously to mean a choice between two equally good (or bad) situations or solutions; but Hobson’s choice was really a choice between something or nothing.

I first came across the phrase when reading Frederick Hoffman’s “A Sailor of King George“:

I interrogated the next, who was a short, slight, pale-faced man. “And pray,” said I, “what part of the play have you been performing; were you ever at sea?” “No, sir,” said he; “I am a hairdresser, and was pressed a week ago.” “D——n these fellows!” said my captain; “they are all tailors, barbers, or grass-combers. I want seamen.” “Then,” said Captain N., who was the flag-captain, and had just come on board, “I much fear you will be disappointed. These are the only disposable men, and it’s Hobson’s choice—those or none.” “The admiral promised me some good seamen,” returned my skipper, rather quickly. “Then I fear the admiral must find them,” was the answer, “as I have not more than twenty seamen on board besides the petty officers. The last were drafted a few days ago in the Defiance. Will you take any of these men, Captain W.?” “What do you think,” said my captain to me; “shall we take any of them?” “Suppose,” returned I, “we take twenty of them and the tailor; they will all fit in in time.” I then picked out twenty of the best, who were bad enough, as they were the worst set I ever saw grouped. Their appearance and dress were wretched in the extreme. I reached the ship before the hour of dinner with my live cargo. “What, more hard bargains,” said the first lieutenant, “we have too many clodhoppers on board already. The captain told me we were to have seamen.” “Captain N.,” said I, “assured our noble captain that the Defiance had taken all the A.B.’s.*” “D——n the Defiance!” replied he; “I defy Captain N. or anybody else to match those gentlemanly ragamuffins.” The master’s mates were called, and they were given into their charge.

Captain Frederick Hoffman. A Sailor of King George (Kindle Locations 2063-2077).

*A.B.s – Able-bodied seamen

The Shilling

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2 Shilling "Florin" Obverse

2 Shilling “Florin” Obverse

Numismatics is an interesting field, and in doing research for an upcoming novel, I wanted to know just what currencies would have been used at the time (1750s, England), and what the value of the currencies were:  How much could be purchased or earned?  Would a Stirling pound have made a pauper a land owner or not?  That brought me to the current book I’m reading, called “The Splendid Shilling” by James O’Donald Mays.  Here are a few bits and bobs:

The Shilling was a form of currency used in Britain up until the 1970s; even after that, the coins continued in circulation as smaller denominations (1 shilling was 5 p, and 2 shilling was 10p) until 1990, when it was demonetized.  I remember using them until they were phased out and replaced by the smaller coins of 5p and 10p values, and kept a few for my coin collection.  One shilling coins were called “bobs”, and that led to programs such as “bob-a-job” fund raisers by the boyscouts, starting in 1914.  Two shillings were known as

2 Shilling "Florin" Reverse

2 Shilling “Florin” Reverse

Florins, or “two-bob bits”.

The word shilling most likely comes from a Teutonic word, skel, to resound or ring, or from skel (also skil), meaning to divide.  The Anglo-Saxon poem “Widsith” tells us …”þær me Gotena cyning gode dohte; se me beag forgeaf, burgwarena fruma, on þam siex hund wæs smætes goldes, gescyred sceatta scillingrime...”  “There the king of the Goths granted me treasure: the king of the city gave me a torc made from pure gold coins, worth six hundred pence.”  Another translation says that the gold was an armlet, “scored” and reckoned in shilling.  The “scoring” may refer to an ancient payment method also known as “hack” – they would literally hack off a chunk of silver or gold jewellery to purchase goods, services and land, and the scoring may have been pre-scored gold to make it easier to break in even increments, or “divisions”.  From at least the times of the Saxons, shilling was an accounting term, a “benchmark” value to calculate the values of goods, livestock and property, but did not actually become a coin until the reign of Henry VII in the 1500s, then known as a testoon.  The testoon’s name and design were most likely inspired by the Duke of Milan’s testone.

Duke of Milan's Testone

The Duke of Milan’s 16th century Testone

Henry VII Testoon

King Henry VII’s 16th century Testoon

 

 

 

The Varangian Guards

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Source:  Wikipedia

Source: Wikipedia

An elite unit of the Byzantine army from the 10th to 14th centuries, the Varangian guard was mostly comprised of Viking and Anglo-Saxon mercenaries whose job was to protect the Byzantine emperors as their personal bodyguards, and they were renowned for their loyalty, ferocity and honour; one of the greatest offences one could give a Viking or Varangian was to either question their honour or their courage – it usually ended in bloodshed.  So many Swedish left for this elite position that there was a law passed that no one could inherit land in Sweden while “in Greece” (the Swedish term for the Byzantine region).  These guards were prized, and hired not only in Byzantine, but also in London and in east Slavic tribes referred to as the Kievan Rus [Russia got its name from the Arabic term for the Vikings, perhaps related to the Old Norse word of Roþrslandi, “the land of rowing,” in turn related to Old Norse roðr “steering oar,” from which we get such words as “rudder” and “row”.]

My personal connection with this information is a story from the Skylitzes Chronicle:  In 1038 the Varangian were wintering in the Thracesian theme when one of them tried to rape a countrywoman; in the struggle she managed to take his sword, and killed him.  But instead of taking revenge, his comrades praised her and rewarded her with his possessions; they then exposed his body without burial as if he had committed suicide (an act of cowardice, and the highest of insults).  This story fit perfectly within a novel that I’m just finishing, and preparing for publication this month, called “The Cardinal“, an epic fantasy set in around A.D. 800 Scotland and Norway, and modern Scotland.  More news of that will be following!  In this particular case, the woman in the chronicle becomes the woman in my own tale, and she tells this very account as she tells of her life.  It’s these kinds of tales that I come across in research that add rich details of history to my characters!

Ye Olde Spelling

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runesymbolsHave you ever wondered about the old-fashioned “ye” in shop signs?  It was a lazy printer’s solution to saving space for “th”, and should be pronounced as “the”, not “yee”!  The Old English character “y” was a graphic alteration of the Germanic rune “Þ” (which came over with the Viking raiders and the Danish King Canute and his rabble, but that’s another story).  When English printing typefaces couldn’t supply the right kind of “P” they substituted the “Y” (close enough, right?).  That practice continued into the 18th century, when it dropped out of use.  By the 19th century it was revived as a deliberate antiquarianism – to give a shop a pedigree, so to speak (read “marketing scam”), and soon came to be mocked because of it.  And now we think of it as the quaint way they used to write…

For a short, fun video on the topic, click on Ye Olde Web Link, below.

ye-olde-web-link

The Lambton Worm

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Myths and legends are often based in some distant, past reality; sometimes they are blown out proportion by the telling over time; what started out as a guppy eventually becomes a whale.  In the case of the Lambton Worm legend however, the dragon became a worm:  “Worm” to our modern minds doesn’t sound threatening at all; but the Old English wurm, a variant of wyrm, actually meant “serpent, snake, dragon, or reptile“.  I find it fascinating to read between the lines of such a story, to recognize the actual historical elements buried over time within the fantastical renditions; there may be elements of local geography, superstitions, explanations that arise over time, moral lessons to train children in a particular behaviour, and many other tidbits of history along the dusty road to modern versions of ancient tales.  To read more about this interesting legend, click on the image below.

Illustration from the Book, ‘The Curse of the Lambton Worm’

Illustration from the Book, ‘The Curse of the Lambton Worm’

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