27 December, 2007

December recipe: Leek and turkey pie

I hope you all had a happy Christmas! Plenty of presents, food, drink and good cheer, and not too much of all the family staring at different walls. One thing there always seems to be too much of is the turkey. If ever a bird was designed for feeding a large extended family, it surely must be the turkey – so if you stuck to the traditional Christmas meal for a small family or even a couple, you walked into the kitchen this morning and contemplated the half-untouched bird with a sinking heart, didn’t you? How many turkey sandwiches can anyone reasonably be expected to eat?

Help is at hand. Why not try a turkey pie with the leftovers? Here’s how I make mine:

Leek and turkey pie (serves 4)

Shortcrust pastry
4 oz (approx 100 g) plain flour
1 oz (approx 25 g) lard or whipped cooking fat
1 oz (approx 25 g) butter or margarine

1 lb (approx 450 g) leftover turkey
8 oz (approx 250 g) leeks
1 Tablespoon (1 x 15 ml spoon) flour
Half a pint (approx 250 ml) milk
1 teaspoon (1 x 5 ml spoon) dried tarragon or dried mixed herbs

Rub the lard and butter into the flour until the mixture resembles breadcrumbs.
Add a little cold water and stir until the mixture forms a dough.
(Or just buy ready-made shortcrust pastry).

Wash, trim and slice the leeks.
Chop the turkey into fork-sized pieces, discarding any bones, skin or unidentified stringy bits that you won’t want to eat.
Fry the leeks in cooking oil or butter in a saucepan over a medium heat until soft.
Stir in the tablespoon of flour and mix in well.
Add the milk, and bring to the boil, stirring all the time. The sauce will thicken and won’t contain lumps (This is an absolutely foolproof method of making a white sauce).
When the sauce is bubbling, turn down the heat and stir in the chopped leftover turkey.
Season with salt and pepper, and add herbs of your choice. I like tarragon, but dried mixed herbs or parsley also work well.
Put the filling in a greased pie dish. A dish about 3” (approx 8 cm) deep and about 7” (approx 18 cm) diameter should be about the right size.
Roll out the pastry on a floured worktop until it is about the size of the top of the pie dish. Put it on top of the filling. If it breaks, dab the broken edges with a little water and push the fragments back together as best you can – the sauce will bubble out of the crack as the pie cooks, but so what?
Brush the pastry with milk.
Bake the pie in a hot oven (200 C) for 35 minutes or so until golden brown on top.
Serve with roast or mashed potatoes, and roast parsnips or a green vegetable.

If you can summon the energy to strip all the meat off the turkey carcass, you can freeze the leftover meat and use it to make a pie like this in several weeks’ or even months’ time. You’ll have recovered from turkey fatigue by February. Honest.

Turkey, leek and bacon pie: substitute 4 oz (approx 100 g) chopped bacon or ham for the equivalent amount of turkey
Mushroom and turkey pie: use mushrooms instead of some or all of the leeks
Pork (or chicken) and leek pie: use leftover roast chicken or pork instead of turkey

20 December, 2007

Yuletide and Mothers’ Night

Welcome to Day 21 of the 2007 Advent Blog Tour, and a spot of Christmas history. Most of us recognise “Yule” and “Yuletide” as alternative names for Christmas. But where do they come from?

Yule is the modern spelling of an Old English word “giuli” or "geola", which was the name used by the early English (‘Anglo-Saxons’) for the months corresponding roughly to our December and January. We know the name because it was recorded by Bede, a monk at the monastery of Jarrow in Northumbria (northern England), in a book written in 726 AD. That’s almost 1300 years ago, which probably makes Yule one of the earliest recorded English words.

Bede was a Christian, and his book was devoted to explaining the workings of the Christian calendar, but he very kindly (for us) took the trouble to explain how the English calendar worked before the conversion to Christianity. He tells us that Giuli (Yule) is called after the day when the sun turns back and begins to increase again – in other words, the shortest day of the year or the winter solstice. Even today in our technological society, with food in abundance and light on demand, most of us are pleased to see the days starting to get longer again, with its promise that the sun is going to come back (yes, even in damp and rainy Britain) and spring is going to come round again. It’s easy to imagine how important it must have been to the early English farmers, who depended on growing crops and raising livestock. They made it the start of their year, and celebrated it with a festival called “Modranecht”, Mothers’ Night. Bede says it was the same date as the Christian celebration of Christmas.*

Who were the Mothers of Mothers’ Night? Bede, naturally enough for a devout Christian, doesn’t explain. They were probably related to the goddesses of plenty and good fortune who were honoured in inscriptions in Germany, Holland and Britain in the first century AD.

What ceremonies were held in their honour on Mothers’ Night? Again, Bede doesn’t tell us, so it’s largely open to the imagination. Since they were goddesses of plenty, it’s a fair guess that a great feast was a central part of the celebrations.

What would a Yuletide feast on Mothers’ Night have consisted of? Well, not turkey, that’s for sure! A fragment of a will from Bury St Edmunds sets out a list of items required for a feast, and these include ale, bread, a pig, a bullock, three bucks [I presume this refers to deer, so venison was on the menu], cheese, milk and fish. So we can imagine an Anglo-Saxon pagan household settling down to something like roast pork, roast beef, venison, cheese and fish, all accompanied by plenty of bread and washed down with large amounts of beer. There might have been apples from the store, probably nuts, and perhaps sweetmeats made from honey. See The Blue Lady Tavern for a fictional 8th-century innkeeper’s Yuletide feast.

So when you sit down to the groaning table on Christmas Day, you’re continuing a tradition that stretches back a very long way indeed. Eat, drink and be merry, and best wishes for good fortune in the coming year!

* In the Julian calendar used in Bede’s day, 25 December was the date of the solstice. Since then the calendar has been modified, so Christmas Day no longer falls on the solstice.

Here are the other stops on the 2007 Advent Blog Tour:

1 December - Becky
2 December - Lisabea
3 December - Lady Tink and Marg
4 December - Valentina’s Room
5 December - Melissa
6 December - Laura
7 December - Wendy
8 December - Nymeth
9 December - Raidergirl, Chris
10 December - Dewey
11 December - Suey
12 December - Chris
13 December - Jill, Stephanie (Written Word)
14 December - Robyn
15 December - Alyssa,
16 December - Rachel
17 December - Literary Feline
18 December - Dev, Stephanie (Confessions of a Book-a-holic)
19 December - Callista
20 December - Tiny Little Librarian
21 December - Carla, Susan Higginbotham
22 December - Carolyn Jean
23 December - Booklogged
24 December - Kailana, Carl

19 December, 2007

A Roar for Powerful Words

Julie of Virtual Journey kindly awarded me 'A Roar for Powerful Words', a blog award which began life on the Shameless Words Writing Circle.

Julie described my blog thus:

"My fifth award goes to CARLA NAYLAND, another historical writer, in recognition of her careful analysis and depth of understanding in her chosen genre"

Thank you, Julie. I'm honoured.

The recipient of the award has to set out three things that they believe are important to powerful writing, and nominate five more recipients of the award.

Here are my suggestions for three features that contribute to powerful writing:

  • Clarity. This is a prerequisite. It's very difficult for writing to be powerful if no-one can understand what it says.

  • Economy. Using the minimum of words to convey the idea clearly. This doesn't mean reducing everything to three-word soundbites, it means compact writing without waffle.

  • Vivacity. Powerful writing is vivid and lively. It shows that the writer is interested in what they are writing about; which is a good first step to getting the reader interested too.

And my five suggested recipients:

  • Rick of Rocketpunk Manifesto. Science fiction, with occasional forays into fantasy fiction, alternate history and invented history.

  • Wordcarving, John Ahearn's poetry blog.

  • Nan Hawthorne of the Blue Lady Tavern. Gossip, anecdote and tales from the daily life of a (fictional) tavern keeper in 8th-century England.

  • Martin Rundqvist of Aardvarchaeology. Mostly Scandinavian archaeology, with occasional diversions (e.g. scroll down to Dec 16 for some eye-popping pics from a Swedish cabaret club).

  • Shared between: Alianore of the Edward II blog, rehabilitating the reputation of an unfairly maligned king one blog post at a time, and Susan Higginbotham's Unromantic Richard III, devoted to an unfairly maligned king whose rehabilitation has perhaps gone just a little too far.

So, off you all go to Shameless Words (link above) to claim your psychedelic lion, and I shall look forward to seeing your choices!

18 December, 2007

Scots vs Irish

If you thought the Picts were confusing (see earlier post), their nomenclature is a model of clarity compared with the Scots and the Irish. Example:

There's a Scottish monastery (Schottenkloster) in Vienna, founded in the 12th century. Why is it so-called? Because it was founded by Irish monks.

(Does this sort of apparent illogic explain the popularity of the "Irish joke"? Discuss.)

This delightful fact was mentioned in passing on Radio 4's Food Programme on Sunday 16 Dec. They were doing a feature on Vienna's Christmas markets, if you want to listen again.

10 December, 2007

The Picts (or Cruithne, or Albans): What's in a name?

“Picts” is the name used by late Roman and later writers for the inhabitants of what is now north and east Scotland, with “Pictland” being used for their territory (see map for approximate location). It is identical with the Latin word “picti”, which is from the same root as words like “picture” and “pictorial”, and means something like “the painted ones”. No doubt it has contributed to the enduring image of the Picts as tattooed or woad-painted warriors, revived for Mel Gibson’s late thirteenth century Scottish troops in the 1995 film Braveheart.

Although “Picts” is now the accepted name for the people(s) of north-east Scotland in the late Roman and post-Roman period, with no serious challenge from any alternative label, the name was as far as we know not their own name for themselves but was given to them by outsiders. Where did it come from, what do we know about it, and were there alternative names in use?

Roman sources (Third and fourth centuries AD)

The earliest surviving document to use the name Picts is a Latin panegyric dedicated to Constantius Caesar and dated to 297 AD, which refers to the “Picti” as customary foes of the “Brittani” (Britons) (Aitchison 2003). This may not be the first use of the name, and indeed the fact that the panegyric did not explain it may indicate that it was already an established name that the audience could be expected to understand. It has been suggested that the name Picti may have come into use in the Roman world after the campaigns of Emperor Septimius Severus in the early third century (Laing and Laing 2001); whatever the truth of this, it was evidently in use by the end of the same century.

In 313 the Verona List referred to “Picts and Caledonians” (Laing and Laing 2001), and in 364 the Roman historian Ammianus Marcellinus reported an attack on Roman Britain by “the Picts, divided into two tribes called Dicalydones and Verturiones”. This strongly suggests that Latin writers at this time regarded the Picts as a collective name for at least two distinct groupings. The name Caledonians, to which Ammianus’ Dicalydones must surely be related, appears as far back as Tacitus’ account of Agricola’s Roman campaigns in the north-east of Scotland, written in the first century AD. The Caledoni also appear, along with numerous other tribes, in Ptolemy’s second-century Geography. None of the names in Ptolemy’s Geography appear to resemble the name “Picti”. This suggests to me that Roman writers initially regarded Scotland north of the Forth-Clyde line as inhabited by numerous distinct tribes, and that some time in the third century they began using “Picti” as a general label to refer to several or all of them. Whether this reflects a genuine shift from separate tribes to a stable confederacy, as suggested by Cummins (1995), or merely a change in the way the Romans saw and/or labelled them, is open to question.

Gildas (Sixth century AD)

Gildas was a Brittonic monk writing somewhere in what had been the Roman province of Britain, around the middle of the sixth century. He wrote in Latin, and referred to “Picts” (“pictorum” in the original) in extremely derogatory terms. (But then, Gildas was derogatory about almost everybody).

Bede (Eighth century)

Bede was an English (‘Anglo-Saxon’) monk living in Northumbria in the eighth century. He also wrote in Latin, and referred to the Picts (“Picti”, “Pictorum” in the original) as one of the four peoples inhabiting Britain in his own day (Book I Ch. 1). He says they were divided into a northern and a southern grouping, indicating that “Picts” was a general label that could apply to more than one distinct group.

Anglo-Saxon Chronicle (Ninth century)

The Anglo-Saxon Chronicle was begun in King Alfred’s Wessex in the late ninth century. Written in Old English, the entries that correspond to events recorded by Bede and Gildas refer to “Pihtas” (e.g. the entry for AD 449). The Old English translation of Bede, produced at around the same time, refers to “Peohtas”. These terms could be Anglicised forms of the Latin terms Picti or Pictorum used by Bede and Gildas.

Pictish Chronicle (Fourteenth century manuscript, may be derived from earlier original)

The Pictish Chronicle, written in Latin, uses the same name for the Picts as other Latin sources, Pictorum. It also includes a summarised origin legend, saying (in Latin) “Cruithne, son of Cinge, was the father of the Picts living in this island. He reigned 100 years and had seven sons, Fib, Fidach, Floclaid, Fortrenn, Got, Ce, Circinn”.

Cruithne is an Irish Gaelic word, corresponding to the Brittonic word Pritani, which in turn gives the name of the island, Britain (Laing and Laing 2001). Gaelic and Brittonic each belong to one of the two main groups of Celtic languages. The characteristic difference between the groups is that Q-Celtic (to which Gaelic belongs) uses a K- or Qu- sound where P-Celtic (to which Brittonic belongs) uses a P-sound. For example, the word for ‘head’ is Pen in Brittonic and Kin in Gaelic. If you take ‘Pritani’ and transliterate it into Q-Celtic, you get ‘Cruithne’.

Irish translation of Historia Brittonum

The Irish translation of Historia Brittonum (a ninth-century Latin text) recounts the same origin legend in Irish:

“Moirfeisear do Cruithne claind
Roindsed Albain a seacht raind
Cait, Ce, Cireach cetach cland,
Fib, Fidach, Fotla, Foirtreand.”

These are recognisably the same names for the founding father figure and his seven sons, but here they are said to have “divided Alba into seven parts”. This strongly suggests that the same people and territory could be called “Alba” in Irish and “Picts” in Latin.

Annals of Ulster (Twelfth century manuscript, may be derived from earlier original)

The Annals of Ulster are of particular interest because they are written partly in Irish and partly in Latin. The full text is available online in the original and in modern English translation. In Latin entries, the Picts are referred to as “Pictorum”. For example:

858 (in Latin) “Cinaedh m. Ailpin rex Pictorum” (modern English translation “Kenneth mac Alpin, King of the Picts”)

Some entries switch language in mid-sentence. For example:

871 (in Irish) “Amhlaiph & Ímar do thuidecht afrithisi du Ath Cliath a Albain dibh cetaibh long, (then in Latin) & praeda maxima hominum Anglorum & Britonum & Pictorum deducta est secum ad Hiberniam in captiuitate”

(modern English translation) “(from Irish) Amlaíb and Ímar returned to Áth Cliath from Alba (with two hundred ships, (from Latin) bringing away with them in captivity to Ireland a great prey of Angles and Britons and Picts.

The same entry transcribed in a different version of the Annals, in Irish, lists the three groups of prisoners as Britons, Albans and Saxons (Cummins 1995).

Again, this suggests that the same people could be called “Picts” when writing in Latin, but “Albans” when writing in Irish. Similar situations are commonplace today, but so familiar to us that we don’t find them confusing. For example, the inhabitants of modern Germany are called “Germans” in English, “Deutsch” in their own language, and “allemands” in French.

The Irish annals also seem to have had an alternative name for the Picts, or possibly for one or more of the groups who comprised the Picts.

866 (in Irish) “Amlaiph & Auisle do dul i Fortrenn co n-Gallaib Erenn & Alban cor innriset Cruithentuaith n-uile & co tucsat a n-giallo.”
(modern translation) “Amlaíb and Auisle went with the foreigners of Ireland and Scotland to Fortriu, plundered the entire Pictish country and took away hostages from them”

In this entry, two Viking raiders plus some foreigners from “Alba” – perhaps Norsemen who had settled somewhere in modern Scotland or its islands – are said to have plundered “Cruithentuaith”. “Cruithen” is recognisably the Irish word “Cruithne” and “tuaith” is from the Irish “tuath” meaning a people or tribe and their territory. So “Cruithentuaith” would mean “the people/country of Cruithne”.

The same term appears in the title of one of the royal signatories to Adomnan’s Law of the Innocents, set out at a synod in Ireland in 697 (Aitchison 2003). In Irish his title is “Brude mac Derilei, ri Cruithintuathi”, translated as “Brude son of Derilei, king of Cruithintuathi”. Brude son of Derelei appears in the correct place in the list of the kings of the Picts in the Pictish Chronicle. “Cruithentuaith”, “the people/country of Cruithne”, would appear to have been an alternative Irish name for the Picts.

Perhaps the Irish had two names in their own language for the same country and its people, analogous to the modern use of “Britain” and “UK” as (not quite identical) synonyms. Or perhaps one referred to part of the other, in the same way as modern “England” is part of “UK” but is sometimes used to stand for the whole. The Irish Annals refer to “Alba” in entries for years after about 900, by which time the territory referred to is the combined kingdoms of the Picts and the Scots (roughly corresponding to modern Scotland north of the Forth-Clyde line). Perhaps “Alba” had been in use for some time as an Irish name for this area, and was sometimes also applied to its largest component, Pictland.


Writers in Latin from the third century to at least the fourteenth consistently used the name “Picts”, which was rendered in Old English as “Pihtas” or “Peohtas”.

Writers in Irish used two terms, “Alba” and “Cruithentuaith” (“the people/country of Cruithne”). It is not clear whether these were synonyms, or whether one referred to part of the other. From the fourth to the fourteenth century, the Picts are consistently referred to as being composed of several distinct groups, so regional/tribal names and identities are likely.

As no source in the Pictish language, whatever it was, has survived, we do not know what the Picts called themselves. Since the writers of the Pictish Chronicle, who valued the history of the Picts sufficiently highly to write it down, used the Latin label “Pictorum”, it is perhaps fair to say that the name was at least not considered objectionable.

The name “Picti” could have been a Latinised form of the Picts’ own name for themselves, as seems to have been common Roman practice for naming other Britsh tribes. Place names such as Pitlochry and Pittenweem preserve a conjectural Pictish element “Pit-”, meaning a piece of land. It must be at least a possibility that the Picts’ own name for themselves related to this element (Room 1993), perhaps referring to a particular system of landholding. Its association with the Latin word for painting could have been merely a colourful (!) coincidence.

Original sources available online are linked in the text.

Aitchison N. The Picts and the Scots at War. Sutton, 2003, ISBN 0-7509-2556-6.
Cummins WA. The Age of the Picts. Sutton, 1995, ISBN 0-7509-0924-2.
Laing L, Laing J. The Picts and the Scots. Sutton, 2001, ISBN 0-7509-2873-5.
Room A. Dictionary of Place Names. Bloomsbury, 1993. ISBN 0-7475-1511-5.

04 December, 2007

The Beckoning Silence. TV/DVD review

Even seen from a safe distance on a benign summer day, the North Face of the Eiger (the great dark rock face on the left of the photo) has a sinister look. In Switzerland’s Berner Oberland, this was last of the great North Faces of the Alps to be climbed, and the attempts on it gave the mountain a legendary status. Officially named the Eigerwand (Eiger Wall) or Nordwand (North Wall), newspapers of the 1930s took to calling it by the ghoulish pun of Mordwand (Murder Wall). Even now, in these days of high-tech gear and helicopter rescue, the North Face retains its brooding aura of peril. Here be, if not dragons, 6000 feet of near-vertical rock and ice, subject to rockfall, avalanche and sudden fierce storms, sufficient to test the skill, nerve and luck of any climber.

In this 90-minute documentary film, climber Joe Simpson tells the moving story of the four young Austrian and German climbers who attempted the Eigerwand in July 1936. Joe Simpson is best known for his astonishing feat of self-rescue in the Peruvian Andes in 1985, when he survived a 100-foot fall into a crevasse and crawled for three days across a glacier with a badly shattered leg to reach safety. The episode is recounted in his book Touching the Void. Aspects of his Peruvian experience have some eerie parallels with the 1936 Eigerwand expedition, making Joe Simpson uniquely well-placed to tell the story.

The documentary has three main strands:

  • Re-enacting the 1936 climb, with four young Swiss mountain guides playing the four climbers;

  • Joe Simpson demonstrating key parts of the climb at the exact locations on the Eigerwand;

  • Joe Simpson’s personal reflections on climbing and why people do it.

The photography is superb. Even if you’re not interested in mountaineering, you could watch the film for the breathtaking scenery alone. But it’s the insights into mountaineers and mountaineering that lift the film above spectacular travelogue.

The whole tone of the documentary is refreshingly understated, with none of the breathless high-adrenaline commentary that can be so irritating. This seems to me to suit the subject matter admirably – the straight facts of the 1936 expedition are dramatic enough to require no embellishment whatsoever.

Joe Simpson’s technical demonstrations of the crucial sections, using modern equipment, are an excellent way of bringing home the extraordinary technical skill required for the climb. I had read about the Hinterstoisser Traverse, a 100-foot section of ice-polished rock wall above a 2000-foot drop, but understood it far better after seeing it for real with an expert explaining the difficulties. Simpson’s personal reflections on his own experiences give some insights into the lure of the high mountains and probably come as close as you’re ever likely to get to explaining why people – usually, but not always, young men – risk their lives for such an ephemeral and irrational goal.

All this is seriously worth watching, but the real star of the show is the reconstruction of the 1936 climb. I defy even a non-mountaineer not to get drawn in to the gripping story of Andreas Hinterstoisser, Toni Kurz, Willi Angerer and Edi Rainer battling rock, ice, frostbite, rockfall, avalanche and storm first for glory and then for their lives on five fateful days in July 1936. I’m not going to tell you what happens – you could Google for it easily enough anyway – though in truth I think the story is so moving and so well-told that it would have you on the edge of your seat even if you did know the end. I knew the outcome and I was still hooked from start to finish.

Heinrich Harrer said of his successful 1938 ascent of the Eigerwand, “We had entered another world, and we had come back.” This powerful documentary brings a glimpse of that other world into your living room. If you have even the slightest curiosity about high mountains and the strange breed of people who climb them, don’t miss it.

Has anyone else seen the film? Or read the book?

01 December, 2007


Michelle Moran has an interview with me over on her History Buff blog.