Sunday 17 February 2013

Life ReCollections - Handsel

Handsel - it is a 'gift of implicit - or explicit - blessing at the start of something new'.

Just over two years ago in the last few weeks of my pregnancy with our daughter, as we awaited her arrival, my father in law was contemplating the end of his life, staying in a retreat for people with terminal illness on the island of Colonsay. In his usual selfless style, always thinking of others,  he purchased a small book for us from the only book shop on the island. It is called simply ' Handsel - Scottish Poems for Welcoming and Naming Babies'.

In its affecting, lyrical and honest introduction by Candia McWilliam it refers to how 'we are reborn through each birth among the constituency of those we love' (McWilliam, Polygon, 2005). 'Consituency of those we love', what a powerful expression. It collects together some beautiful verses which are suggested as possible words of blessing for new borns, whether you choose to christen your babes or not. Whilst neither of our children are yet christened, I did choose Handsels for them both.

When staying in Skye very soon after I knew I was expecting our son we visited Dunvegan Castle and I was reminded of the Fairy Flag legend and the wee rhyme the fairy sang to the Chieftain's son;

Bone and flesh of me,
Blood and pith of me,
Skin like falling snow,
Green thy mail coat,
Live thy steeds be,
Dauntless thy following.

The story of the Fairy Flag had captivated me since I was a child and these words spoke to me about the visceral nature of birth, the cleaving of a child that is so much part of you, away from you, precious and other. And who wouldn't want their child to be clad in armour, with strong horses and with loyal people surrounding them. Very much the wishes for a future Chieftain but amazingly still with some resonance to me and my son.

When our daughter was born, again I chose some beautiful words for her; This time  from William Soutar, a poet from Perth, where I grew up. In fact he lived and died (sadly very young) not 5 minutes from my childhood home.

To The Future

She, the unborn, shall bring
From blood and brain
Songs that a child can sing
And common men:

Songs that the heart can share
And understand;
Simple as berries are
Within the hand:

Such a sure simpleness
As strength may have:
Sunlight upon the grass:
The curve of the wave.

Words that suit my beautiful girl,  expressed 'in language as plain as pebbles' (McWilliam, Polygon, 2005).

Did you use words to welcome your children into the world? If you did I would love to hear about them. Jo xx

Please click back here and read my introduction to this set of posts. It will explain a lot. As ever your thoughts on whatever I share here are taken to my heart and that you take the time is just grand. It occurred to me to label these posts 'Life ReCollections'. You will see them popping up over the next few weeks when I feel brave enough....


  1. What a really lovely tradition ... the words are so beautiful ... Bee xx

    1. Thanks Bee,I appreciate you saying that. Hope you are enjoying the half term, Jo xx

  2. Beautiful, really beautiful.
    When I had my little girl it was song lyrics that spoke to me, and the songs I loved were all quite melancholic but sweetly beautiful. I sang Mamas and Papas Dream a Little Dream to her every night and I listened to Goldfrapp's Seventh Tree over and over. I loved reading a story from AA Milne's When We Were Young to my little girl when she was a little older too, The Dormouse and the Doctor, which is a very sweetly sad tale. I also listened to a lot more Radio 4 than I usually would! I loved Desert Island Discs and downloaded loads of their archive to listen to.
    Anyway, that was a bit of a tangent but I do love your idea of choosing some beautiful words to mark the arrival of your little ones. Thank you for sharing them. X

    1. Not a tangent at all Anna and I loved hearing what you find beautiful to read and listen too. I also adore desert island discs and had many a chuckle to Julie Burchill the other week - a lot of madness but my gosh a lot of real truths there. Have you heard that one? Jo xx

  3. Wonderful, Jo, just wonderful. I had never heard of "handsels" - is it a uniquely Scottish tradition? "Language as plain as pebbles" - I love that. I have always loved the poem "You're" by Sylvia Plath and it went round my head constantly while I was pregnant.

    Gillian x

    1. Thanks Gillian, Not solely Scottish but Handsel is a Scots word. I partly wanted to record that for my wee ones for the future, and to see if others have similar words held special. I am away to look up the one you tell me about, Jo xx

  4. The generosity of your father in law melts my heart as do the beautiful words you have quoted. Thank you Jo, so moving and interesting. Be proud of your recollections. Claire xo

    1. Thanks Claire, it was an astonsishing act of selflessness. My father in law was full of actions like that and truly lived his life as much as he could. We didn't always have an easy relationship but we became much closer in his final years- I guess we spoke more truths as we knew time was finite. I do treasure that wee book and what he wrote in it. Thanks for commenting, Jo xx


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