[This issue, we sit down with Scottish author, Fiona Tinker. Here, she discusses her personal spiritual path; her writing, including her two Pagan Portals titles; her work on Pooka Pages; and her forthcoming projects.]
ev0ke: How do you define your spiritual tradition? Does it have a name, or is it more intuitive and eclectic?
Fiona Tinker: My spiritual tradition comes from the land around me and from the stories carried through generations in an oral tradition from both my own family and families I have met. When I was a child, there were many Scottish Travellers still on the road and a couple of families would regularly use some of the wild land around where I lived as their winter quarters. They were lovely people and very welcoming to a nosey wee kid who just wanted to play with their kids and to listen to their stories, too. I learned a lot from everyone, including how to guddle for fish, make an outside fire and make tea on it. They taught me a great appreciation for nature and the stories in everything we are surrounded with. It was animism — but animism without that name.
A few years on and I basically spent some summers travelling, working from one place to another. I got to see a lot of Scotland that way. This close contact with the land was added to by fruit picking and tattie howking jobs, all of it building an intuitive Paganism tied to the land and to the spirit of place. During this time, I met my first teacher, Lizzie, who took a shine to me for some reason. She taught me to develop what is in me, those parts of the craft that I work with. The Gods she worked with were those of life and death, edges, borders and boundaries. She taught me so much. I’ve heard her Paganism called ‘blood and spit’ magic, but there is a lot more to it than that. Lizzie was my first and much-loved mentor. She taught me so much and I didn’t even know I was learning. Lizzie instilled an animistic Paganism. Neither of us would have called it that though.
My second mentor, Frank, was both Wiccan and a member of various esoteric groups. Frank was in his 80s when we met and he taught me a lot, too. He’d had the most amazing life, had spent WWll as a member of ENSA, had lived in so many places in the world and had all this knowledge that he wanted to pass it on in the time he had left. He was a hard teacher but again, I learned much from him as he had been involved in so many groups and with so many interesting people in his life.
Where Lizzie was gentle, Frank was tough. Both brought me to a place of peace where my Paganism is built around observing, sensing, seeing, tuning in to nature, listening to birds and animals, using what psychic abilities I have in ritual, to pathwork and journey. None of this will be unfamiliar, no matter what we choose to call it. I am part of a close-knit Pagan group – a pretty eclectic bunch – but we all celebrate the cycle of the seasons and festivals as they occur in Scotland.
ev0ke: What Deities, spirits, or other powers do you honour in your tradition?
FT: Angus Óg. He is a very concrete presence in my life. I know when I honour him on working he returns that honour by his attendance and attention to what I am doing. But I also know that, in the mundane part of my life, he is there in the background watching, protecting.
In Scotland, Angus is also the seller of dreams; it is he who brings sweet sleep – or nightmares. Dream Angus is sung as a lullaby to children and the softness in the song promises these will be pleasant dreams. It has such a gentle rhythm and a simple, haunting melody; it is perfect for the purpose of singing a baby to sleep. However, like many a fragmentary piece of folklore and half-remembered customs, there are deeper truths and insights to be gained by closely looking at the lyrics.
Angus is the Guardian of the Dream Realm and it is he who will keep people safe from the night terrors – or those ill-formed elementals that inhabit the liminal spaces, looking for a way into our world, whether through dreams or madness. Such creatures are the inhabitants of nightmares and it behooves those who would walk between the worlds to remember such dangers exist. Anyone who claims the realms are completely safe has not been there. The song promises the child that Angus will bring them a dream, but this is much more than just a Scottish version of the Sandman legend, where sleep dust is sprinkled on the eyes of children. Angus is a major God and this old song, with its refrain of ‘dreams to sell’ masks the beauty – and the simplicity – of honouring Angus. The ‘price’ we pay is acknowledging the old ways and the old Gods.
In addition, I honour Bride / Bridget, The Cailleach, and the three Ancient Druids of Scotland, whose names show them as Gods of Land, Sea and Sky.
This is a personal reflection on things I learned from people who didn’t seem to feel the need to write things down. The best place to hide something is in plain view. So it was with a Paganism tied into the land and its stories in the 1960s and 70s. A veneer of Roman Catholicism and lip service to the rites and rituals of that church seemingly enabled a reverence to the older ways to be kept, whilst these ways were regarded as ‘superstitions’ or ‘cultural beliefs’ from the outside.
For example, one of the common Irish-Scottish Catholic practices from my childhood was the giving of the Christening Piece on the walk to chapel with the baby. This piece was the first slice of the Christening cake; with shined-up silver coins in it, usually half-crowns or crowns, later 50p coins. It was given to the first child of the opposite sex to the baby that the child’s godmother saw as she left the house and – importantly – given before the child was christened or the Christening Party even entered the chapel. It was a lovely custom, probably imported to the west of Scotland with mass Irish immigration – but what lay behind it?
One explanation I heard from Lizzie was that this was asking for the blessing of the Sidhe and for their understanding of the need to have the child christened. Think of all the fairy stories where one fairy is overlooked on an invitation to a naming / christening and the consequences for doing the same. Fairy belief is ingrained in both Scotland and Ireland, even to the point where an acknowledgement and offering to the Sidhe through the offices of children was seen as a necessity before entering a chapel, even if the reason for it was forgotten and diminished to ‘bringing luck to the baby’.
Receiving a Christening piece was also thought of as an amazing bit of luck, not only did the receiver have some unexpected cake and a bonus windfall; they were also the envy of their friends who knew that something special, something more than what was physically held in the hands, had been given to them.
Thinking and working in threes is important to me. It ties in with the concepts of triples and threes that occur over and over. There are three physical realms: Land, Sea and Sky and the point where they meet is a place out of place – a realm of its own, the unseen space, hidden in plain view, where all three realms meet. It is a place in the Otherworld; its importance can be symbolised by the triple spiral: Land, Sea, Sky / Birth, Death, Rebirth. People are also made in threes: mind, body, and soul. There are three ages of man: childhood, maturity, and old age. Three is a sacred number in many religions and paths. It is there in the Trinity of Roman Catholic belief and in the Druidic Awen, which also leads to the place out of place.
When I work ritual, I call the three realms, not the quarters. In doing this, I am acknowledging the Gods of the Land, Sea and Sky, whose stories form the backdrop of consciousness in the making of who we are as a people. I know others call these realms as well as quarters – the Land, Sea and Sky shape us all and our practices as Pagans. For me, working in threes feels right. Scotland’s deep Fairy Faith divides the year into two halves: the dark half and the light half, each ruled by a Court of the Sidhe. The other festivals mark times around these two points of change from light to dark and back again.
This is not to say that other festivals or Scotland’s Bride are not acknowledged, they are. Bride is honoured in all the roles she has as Bride / Bridget. She is the protector of pregnancies and small children. She oversees the lambing. She is as major a Goddess as she is in Ireland. In addition, she is the consort of Angus and their sacred marriage marks the dance of the year. The Cailleach Bheur is their opponent – and that makes three Gods arguing over the seasons in this land. On one level, the folktale of their bi-annual battle is a lovely extended metaphor to explain the seasons. On another, it is worth thinking about other meanings on other metaphorical levels.
Working in threes is important to me. Major ritual work is done on the edges where three places meet. This is where I feel magic is most powerful.
ev0ke: What are your favourite holy days/holidays? And can you give us an example of how it would be celebrated?
FT: Without a doubt, Samhain is the big one. This is the end and the beginning, the time of the pregnant pause. This is the Celtic New Year and a time when the veils between the world of the living and the dead are thin. It is a time for honouring ancestors and recalling the friends and family who have died. It is the time of the final harvest before winter sets in. We move into the dark phase, the time of quiet contemplation before regeneration.
Many traditions hold Dead Suppers at this time in honour of their ancestors. Friends gather to celebrate the festival and to share a meal. An extra place is set at the table and all food for the unseen guests is offered in a rite of remembrance. This is not a sad occasion, it is a party, although there is likely to be a few tears as those we have loved and who have gone to the Otherworld are remembered. Hopes and dreams for the year to come are given voice. We hold a ritual, usually on the beach in the darkness of the night. This is a gathering of friends and Gods. Time becomes no time in ritual. It is an amazing experience.
Our group has been together for almost twenty years now. People have come and gone but the core group is constant and Samhain is our large gathering. We come from all over Scotland and Ireland to celebrate Samhain. It was really hard this year having to stay apart because of the Covid restrictions, hard not to see people at this important time. We’re looking forward to making up for that next year.
ev0ke: You have released two Pagan Portals titles through Moon Books. First, congratulations! Second, how did you come to write for Moon Books? Did you approach them with your ideas, or did they come to you?
FT: Thank you.
I approached them with the pitches for the books. Trevor Greenfield is the editor for the Moon Books impression and he’s lovely to work with. Nimue Brown was, until recently, an assistant editor / marketing bod and between them, they have also edited a collection of anthologies in which I’ve been one of the contributing authors. Pagan Portals is a series published by John Hunt Publishing, through their Moon Books imprint, which aims to share snapshots of contemporary Pagan practices. The subjects covered are varied and the Moon Books catalogue will just about have something for everyone to dip in to.
I’ve also written a chapter for an academic tome about Interfaith matters, on Paganism in Scotland, for an international publisher. That was an experience diametrically opposite from working with Trevor. Interesting, to say the least.
ev0ke: Pathworking Through Poetry explores the spiritual insights and Pathworking which can be undertaken via the works of W.B. Yeats, Fiona MacLeod, and Seumas O’Sullivan. How did you come to focus on these particular poets? Were there other poets you considered including, but had to set aside?
FT: I was introduced to Yeats and MacLeod when I was a child by Freddie Anderson, a writer from County Monaghan, who was my neighbour when I was growing up. Freddie was a fabulous storyteller, one of the three I was very, very privileged to have in my childhood. Freddie lent me some Yeats poetry books because he thought I’d like them. He was right. I have been fond of Yeats’ poetry and other writing since then; although a lot of it I had to grow into, being a bit young to fully understand.
MacLeod was an eye-opener. I’d learned a lot of mythology and folklore transmitted orally from Lizzie. She was illiterate in that she’d never been taught to read and write, but Lizzie carried her library in her head. I found a lot of her stories in the folklore collected by MacLeod when I was a bit older.
O’Sullivan was a find and a half in a second-hand bookshop a fair few years ago now. I was idly browsing, took a slim volume of poetry from the shelf and it fell open on one of his Angus poems. Pow! I own a lot of his books now, too.
Pagan Portals: Pathworking Through Poetry explores the concept of using poetry to explore a personal spirituality/a Pagan path, with examples drawn from poets and writers who talk to me on a deep, personal level. There is a connection in the writing I discuss that speaks of shared experiences and insights, no matter how much time and history separates us.
The idea to write it came from discussions with friends and the happy discovery that a lot of us had been using a core of Irish-Scottish stories and poems as part of our Pagan paths, even though in our formative years as Pagans — in the 1970s — we had no connection at all with each other or our respective Pagan teachers / mentors. Becoming a Pagan was quite a different experience back then in the pre-Internet days. Books were hard to come by and expensive, for instance. However, in talking with other Pagan friends in later years, I found the similarities in some of the stories and poems we’d used really interesting and it made me look again at a lot of things I’d become a bit blasé about over the years. My book doesn’t lay out a Pagan path, that’s not its purpose. Finding your own path is a very personal journey once the initial groundwork has been laid and you are ready to take that step. However, the book does suggest some ways readers may use to find their own path through the hidden wisdom in poetry.
Poetry is a powerful medium in which to transmit occult teaching. I wanted to share some of my experiences with readers in the hope that they might explore the poetry that speaks to them as a method of Pathworking in their own practice. It’s an amazing experience and one it felt the right time to share.
ev0ke: If you could share one particular insight that you gained through Pathworking, what would it be? (e.g., what totally blew your mind?)
FT: What blew my mind? Time doesn’t matter; it’s only a human way of looking at things. These insights and understandings are eternal as are the patterns we repeat as humans. We are all on various arms of the triple spiral and can connect with each other through the centre.
ev0ke: What advice do you have for those who might be interested in pursuing Pathworking?
FT: Pathworking is a personal interaction between you and your Gods. Guided meditation is different: someone else leads and you follow. If someone is more used to having their personal spirituality directed by external influences, then I don’t think this would work for them.
Paganism is a personal, experiential religion, albeit one where we have some shared ethics and concepts about our relationship to the land and the Gods. In general, when we move past our initial years of learning we are ready to explore what we have learned in relation to the lands we live in and perhaps to explore the lives of some of the ancestors who live on in our genes. One of the things we do learn early as Pagans is how to protect ourselves, whether through the use of a circle or the creation of a sacred space. If we set out to work solitary, as in these kinds of Pathworkings, all of this becomes our sole responsibility, there is no third party directing manoeuvres. Those who are more used to — or more comfortable with — having others direct them may not get very much from this idea at all. And that is fine — Pathworking won’t appeal to everyone any more than going to church to have someone else interpret scripture does. But if you do decide to Pathwork, be aware the responsibility for all aspects of it is down to you.
ev0ke: You just released Stories for the Songs of the Year. What is the target audience for this collection, and what sorts of stories does it contain?
FT: There’s a strange answer to this: the target audience is a triple audience: little ones, tweens, and parents. Let me explain that one!
I’ve been writing for Pooka Pages for about twelve years now, which astounded me when I worked that out. Lora Gaddis, the editor and creator of Pooka, takes all the credit here — I never knew I could write for children until she encouraged me to try. How that ever came about, given the 5000 miles that separates us, I cannot remember now. Stories for the Songs of the Year is an amalgamation of my writing for Pooka Pages; my experiences as education officer for the Scottish Pagan Federation; and how I learned about Paganism through the songs and stories of others. What is the purpose of a story? Stories entertain for sure, but many have deeper purposes and one of those is to instruct. It may be many years before the recipient of the story works out the lesson in the tale, but a good story will have taken root and grown before then.
As adults we appreciate the stories we heard as children and come to realise how they shaped who we are. As parents, we may wonder how to introduce Pagan ideas to children. There are now many children’s books written for Pagan children. Stories for the Songs of the Year is an addition to this growing genre. It is a set of tales written specifically for Pagan children, tweens, and their parents. These tales meander happily through the wheel of the year and the festivals are seen through the eyes of a magical cat and a know-it-all rabbit, in the company of a supporting cast of Celtic Gods, Goddesses, and assorted people of the Sidhe.
Young children will enjoy the literal level of the tales. Older children may wish to use them as the basis for their paths of self-discovery, and the stories are accompanied by discussions of the major festivals. In addition, an essay for adults explores various aspects of Pagan parenting from my three-decade experience as a secondary school teacher and as Education Officer for the SPF.
ev0ke: Which story in the anthology was the most difficult, but ultimately satisfying, to write?
FT: There are two stories in the collection that are retellings of traditional tales: “Death in a Nut” and “Piper MacPhee.” Although I expanded the teachings in both of them by adding to them, I was very aware that these stories belong to the ancient oral culture of the Scottish Travellers. They are the people I first heard them from and theirs were the faces in front of me as I wrote them down. In adding to them, I was more than careful to shape them in the way I’d heard and not shaming the people who taught me them by sanitising the lore. The Herb Wife in “Death in a Nut” is the addition in that tale and she was added in honour of Lizzie. She is Lizzie and that was the level of her wisdom.
ev0ke: You also contributed to the Witch Lit anthology, Words From the Cauldron. How did that project come about and how did you become involved?
FT: I was invited to join the Witch Lit Facebook Group and the project took off from there. The editor, Laura Perry, did a magnificent job in formatting and marketing the book. It’s only available as an e-book and every penny from sales goes to supporting the charity Books for Africa . It was a great idea, a nice way to raise money and awareness for the charity, and I look forward to contributing to another.
ev0ke: Where can readers find your work?
FT: For my books, all the usual bookshops and on Amazon platforms – I have an author’s page there: Fiona Tinker Amazon
Pooka Pages Magazine for Pagan Kids – the Pagan children’s magazine I contribute to is published just before each major festival and is free to download:
Also check out my blog and my FaceBook page.
My blog has a longer piece for adults on Stories for the Songs of the Year, which might be of interest to some readers: From Wooden Brakes to Stories for the Songs of the Year .
ev0ke: What other projects are you working on?
FT: I’m working on my next story for Pooka Pages, a novel, and a radio drama. I’m a really big fan of radio plays and it’s a genre I’d like to add to my writing portfolio. There are so many excellent dramatists working on radio and it is so enjoyable to listen to a well-written play.
I’m on the credit list for this recently released new audio book recording of The Wicker Man which amuses me and delights me no end. I contributed a whole two words and did not expect this honour at all — it was just a little bit of fun to be one of the villagers. Now I’m telling everyone I can because I am seriously chuffed at this — who wouldn’t be, being on the same bill as Brian Blessed!