Sunday, January 31, 2016

Abrach (?-?)-Part One

Born ?
Died ?

In my last entry, I wrote about how easily unanswered questions are being answered in this Internet age. Well, not so fast.

Abrach was the author of one story in Weird Tales, "The Plaid," from July 1952. The name is almost certainly a pseudonym. If you're looking for some deeper meaning to the word Abrach, you might think that it's made up of the first few letters of the magic word Abracadabra, with an h on the end of it. That doesn't do any good because it doesn't mean anything. Another possibility is that Abrach is related to the Greek magic or mystic word Abraxas or Abrasax, which may also be related to Abracadabra. But again, a magic-word explanation isn't a very good one. There are better clues in the story itself.

"The Plaid" is set in Scotland. It's a weird story rather than a fantasy or horror story or ghost story. In fact, the words weird, wraithuncanny, eerie, and rowan, all of which are Scottish or Old English in origin and all of which refer to the strange or supernatural, are in it. (1, 2, 3) The Scottish setting, words, and names are clues as to the author's name or place of origin, if not his identity.

As it turns out, Abrach is a Scottish surname, also part of a clan name. (4) Curiously, abrach is also a word used in reference to stones, specifically a kind of millstone or grinding stone. From History of Corn Milling, Volume 1: Handstones, Slaves & Cattle Mills by Richard Bennett and John Elton (1898):
The peculiar term "abrach," applied to these kind of stones, has reference not to their nature or quality, but to their supposed place of origin, the term "abrach," or, more correctly, "aberach,"indicating an origin in Lochaber; though, curiously enough, the stone from which abrach querns were made is not found at Lochaber. As a rule, the abrach was smaller than the ordinary quernstone. (p. 159)
A quernstone is a hand grinding stone, while Lochaber is a region in the west Scottish Highlands. (5) Aberach, like Abrach, is a Scottish surname or clan name originating in Lochaber. The root of the word is aber, meaning estuary or the mouth of a river or the confluence of two rivers. Abrach or Aberach would seem to have originated in a place with just such a body of water, such as in Lochaber. The meaning of the place name Lochaber seems to have been lost. (6) 

So Abrach is a Scottish surname and probably an indication as to its place of origin. Those facts lead me to believe that the author of "The Plaid" was a Scottish author, or a British, Canadian, or American author of Scottish descent or with close ties to Scotland. He or she may have been of the clans from which the Abrachs came, or have had origins in Lochaber. Weird Tales was full of stories from Scottish, British, Canadian, and Scottish-American authors. The editor, Dorothy McIlwraith (1891-1976), was also of Scottish descent. Although she was born in Canada, her grandfather came from Scotland, more precisely from Ayrshire, adjacent to Lochaber. She also received her education, in part, from Scotland, though by correspondence. And she traveled to Scotland at least once. "The Plaid" takes place during the war years and is told in the voice of a man in the form of a letter written by a military man to another man, his friend, who works in government. It tells about things from a man's point of view and in a man's way. I don't think the author was a woman and almost certainly not Dorothy McIlwraith, although I wouldn't rule it out. However, I wonder if the Weird Tales editor got the story from a friend or acquaintance who was in the war and who preferred to remain anonymous for whatever reason. Now that the records and correspondence of Weird Tales are gone, we may never know.

To be concluded . . . 

Abrach's Story in Weird Tales
"The Plaid" (July 1952)

Further Reading
You can read "The Plaid" at, here.

(1) So is the Scottish word guddling, meaning to catch a fish with the bare hands. The synonym tickling is also used in explanation. I first heard of the practice when I lived in Missouri, where it's called noodling. So I find on Wikipedia that the origin of the word noodling is unknown. Ozark culture came from Appalachian culture as I understand it, and Appalachian culture is Scots-Irish. It seems to me that noodling is close enough to guddling for there to be a connection or derivation.
(2) The name of the stream in the story is Luath, no doubt drawn from the Irish, quick or fast. The names of the characters, Shemas, Johan, and Morag, are all Scottish names with English equivalents, but Morag is also the name given to a purported monster in Loch Morar, Scotland. The woman's name came first. The monster's name Morag is probably a pun on the name of the loch. The last name of the family in "The Plaid" is MacGillivray.
(3) In the story, a rowan tree grows in the yard "to guard the house from evil." Other plants are mentioned, too. All of these are at the beginning of the story. At the end, as a kind of bracket, is mention of a hazel tree. Like the rowan tree, hazel is supposed to possess magical, mystical, or folkloric powers.
(4) For example, the MacDonalds of Glencoe, a West Highland Scottish clan, is also called Clann Iain Abrach. Glencoe, I should note, is a town in Lochaber. The surnames Aberigh, Naverigh, and Naverich are related to Abrach and Aberach.
(5) Quern is another Old English word.
(6) Or at least confused. For a discussion of the place name Lochaber, see Transactions of the Gaelic Society of Inverness, 1886-1887, Vol. 13, pp. 258-259, here.

Text copyright 2016 Terence E. Hanley

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