I am quicksilver, the fox in the night, emotional about the poetry, love & desire in scent, read me.

Monday 3 July 2017

Canny Hand & Eldritch Fire: ‘Damn Rebel Witches’ by REEK Perfume

Witchcraft was hung, in History,
But History and I
Find all the Witchcraft that we need
Around us, every Day —

Emily Dickinson (poem 1583)

In 1589, 14-year-old Princess Anne of Denmark set sail on Danish waters bound for Scotland to marry King James VI whom she had already married by proxy at Kronborg Castle in Helsingør, the inspiration for Hamlet’s doom-stained Elsinore. Anne’s fleet was thwarted by terrible storms and forced back onto the Norwegian coast where Anne and her retainers travelled overland to Oslo to seek refuge and wait.

King James VI & Anne of Denmark

Back in Scotland, an increasingly anxious King James became concerned that some dreadful incident had occurred because of the storms. Prayers were said, candles burned, and the anxious King scanned turbulent waters. A search party was dispatched to look for his young bride to be accompanied by a letter in French written by James:

Only to one who knows me as well as his own reflection in a glass could I express, my dearest love, the fears which I have experienced because of the contrary winds and violent storms since you embarked’ 

Eventually word came from the Danish court that winter was setting in and that any attempt to cross the seas would have to wait until spring. Undeterred, James set sail with three hundred retainers to meet Anne and bring her back to Scotland. The royal couple were luxuriantly betrothed in the Old Bishops Palace in Oslo on 23rd November 1589, the ceremony conducted in French in order that both James and Anne could understand proceedings.
After time spent with new family, attending more royal weddings and visiting parts of Anne’s homeland, the King and his new Queen arrived back in Scotland in May 1590, Anne entering the city of Edinburgh in a silver carriage as James rose alongside on horseback.


The reason this story is so relevant to my essay on witchcraft and perfume is that while in Denmark James would have noticed the fervency of Danish witch finding and subsequent trials and punishments. Denmark at that time was particularly obsessed with rooting out witchcraft and the perverse societal exemplars of torturing and killing women and some men who were essentially healers and folk practitioners. The storms that had prevented Anne’s fleet from reaching their rightful holy destination now began to take on a more menacing, demonic tint. Had witchcraft been used to manipulate the elements and raise tempestuous seas against the innocent Princess of Denmark?

Back in Scotland King James became increasingly convinced that dark forces had indeed been at work as his bride to be had tried to reach him and he was sure the hexed seas had intended to claim her. The king considered the study of witchcraft as part of theology, the purported satanic work and perverted rites were after all but a black mirror of God’s holy rituals, the very rituals he was appointed to uphold and protect. In 1597 James published a pamphlet entitled ‘Daemonologie, In Forme of a Dialogue, Divided into three Books: By the High and Mighty Prince, James &c’. 

Much of this strange three-part affair is heavily influenced by James’s attendance and personal engagement with the infamous North Berwick Witch trials. 

‘The fearefull aboundinge at this time in this countrie, of these detestable slaves of the Devil, the Witches or enchanters, hath moved me (beloved reader) to dispatch in post, this following treatise of mine (...) to resolve the doubting (...) both that such assaults of Satan are most certainly practised, and that the instrument thereof merits most severely to be punished’.

Whatever James’s reasoning and paranoia, it ensured that Scotland was ruled by a man who genuinely believed that witches were in hiding across his land, cavorting and copulating with devils, bewitching folk and devising harm to animals and crops. 

Ninety per cent of accused witches were women. Men died too, husbands, lovers and sons often as accomplices. Most of these Scottish women were wise, healing spirits who understood the ancient rhythms of land, weather, leaf and earth. They understood blood in veins, menses, the mysterious glories of birth, sanguineous anguish of miscarriage and occasional necessity of abortificients. Men are intrinsically weak around some life patterns; women have always understood the intuitive need for survival and secrets. The silent passing on of method and knowledge, aware too that somewhere, sometime such knowledge could be held like a knife to a throat and pulled quickly in cold air.

People have always been suspicious of knowledge, even though they need the skills on offer. Undermining and eventual betrayal of those who possess such knowledge is a thing of smouldering black rage.

She is a witch, I saw her become a black cat and claw at the face of a new-born child

Such nonsense but a vivid picture painted, the accuser slighted perhaps. The charge of witchcraft is laid and the terrible journey to strangulation and fire begins.

Damn Rebel Bitches 

In 2016 REEK Perfumes launched Damn Rebel Bitches, an aromatic hymn to the brave Jacobite women who fought their own kind of defiant guerrilla war. I was introduced to it in a pop-up store called Urban Reivers on George Street, as the annual arts cacophony was about to unleash itself upon the city. Urban Reivers was the brainchild of Sara Sheridan the novelist and defiantly feminist raconteur. I found her an extraordinary person and always came away from meetings with her aware of her searing intelligence and charming generosity. Sara wanted the store to be the best of Scotland, the total antithesis of the ever increasing number of heinous tourist tat boutiques with blaring music, hawking cheap Brigadoon and Nessie nonsense.

Everything sold in the Urban Reivers store, which was only there for the duration of the festival period was made and sourced in Scotland. The selection of textiles, gins, wood, glassware, skincare and candles was a stylish cut above the average and very cleanly presented by Sara and her team. For me it was the inclusion of a signature scent that intrigued the most, perfume houses in Scotland are very thin on the ground and Edinburgh-based Euan McCall at Jorum Laboratories is essentially the only nose currently working in Scotland.

Damn Rebel Witches
(Image ©Bethany Grace for REEK)

While Urban Reivers was fabulously Scottish in essence, REEK is a different proposition, not darker exactly, but defiantly bolder, a perfume house determined to celebrate the untouched, natural power and formidable beauty of all women. It is a potent message, told through uncompromising language and visual imagery. Molly Sheridan, Sara’s daughter is the driving force behind REEK and has created a fierce compulsive poetry of body politic and feminist call to arms that resonates off screen, skin, sticker and tote bag. The word bitch, a reference back to Maggie Craig’s book and the Butcher of Cumberland’s quote about the Jacobite women is the REEK clarion call and used obsessively throughout their scented manifesto.  

There is a powerful desire to reclaim this word, overhaul and by using it in their own singular context.. bitches unite etc..the word will become owned and perhaps lose some of its pejorative burn and spite. Or perhaps the idea is to enflame the discussion around the word. I can’t quite get past the nasty wordage of Rap culture and its continued denigration and brutal objectification of women. The other side is the uncomfortable creeping misogyny of drag and it’s flippant catty appropriation of black culture to fuel the vaguely mainstream success of its stars. Here the word bitch applied to men dressed as high maintenance parodies of women is most odd. It’s a personal opinion, the brand belongs to REEK and must advertise, platform and agitate as they wish; the repeated use of the word bitch in the strange heavy metal style font has a repetitive force, one I find a little troubling but perhaps that is partly the point. There is however nothing like REEK Perfume in the contemporary market and for this I am hugely grateful. 

Onto the reeking perfumes, they are made by the joyfully talented Sarah McCartney of 4160 Tuesdays, based in Acton, London. Sarah is a prolific perfumer, but her work is always adventurous and thoughtful, continually maintaining a high standard of originality and erudition. She is inspired by a diverse range of things from English murder mysteries, Proust and tapestries to suffragettes and Henry James. Many of her perfumes are inspired by or start life as commissions for friends or clients and end up so loved they slip into the range. I’m not that keen on the word eccentric and I’m not sure Sarah would be either to be honest, but she is very British in her mix of self-deprecating humour and preoccupation with the often contradictory and emotional minutiae of everyday life. The names of her fragrances are fantastic, punning and playful but also mark her out as a keen observer of human nature and the foibles and secrets we like to pretend we hide but in fact carry around like well-worn noisy luggage.

Foxy's Macaque travel size...
(thank you Victor....!)

Sarah has made a distinctive name for herself as a collaborative nose as well, creating lovely work for Handsome London and the beautiful Macaque for Victor Wong’s Zoologist Perfumes. This striking and patina green perfume is a cinematic vision of chthonic woolly galbanum. I love the Zoologist line; it is witty and often rather moving in the eloquent anthropomorphic translation of creature to scent. The sense of joy and creativity in the olfactive imaginings of pandas, nightingales, beavers, bats, dragonflies, civets etc allows perfume lovers not only to enjoy the unique and often innovative odours but also to indulge in the animalic fictions that Victor and his perfumers like to tell.

Sarah loves a quirky story and loves the chance to do things in different ways. I’m not sure how she’ll feel about me saying this but Macaque is perhaps one of her most gorgeous creations; exquisitely assembled, counterpointing delicious top notes of apple and mandarin with green tea and white oud in the base. The galbanum is both weather and ground, a greening of the macaques’ cedar forested territory as they roam the soft mist in robes of grey and red silk, snow falling gently on their fur.

Once again with REEK she had a great opportunity to tell a story, this time with a powerful historical impetus, which of the Jacobite women depicted in Maggie Craig’s ground-breaking book. Damn Rebel Bitches is beautifully wearable, but grounded in historical relevance. It is a huge burst of blood orange that dominates the body of the scent referencing the beginning of oranges being available in Britain and marmalade making in Scotland. Clary sage and pink peppercorns add spice and piquancy, echoing the herbal and medicinal skills the women often needed to care for each other in childbirth and their menfolk after battles and skirmishes. A nice molten malt note softens out the orange and smells delicious with the hazelnut Sarah adds in, a food source Scots would have known well at the time. The mix is at once familiar, comforting and a little odd, settling on skin with a moreish slightly orange wafer and Cointreau vibe.

'The Witches' by Massimo Alfaioli
(digitally tweaked by TSF)

The 100ml perfume comes wrapped in its own REEK linen drawstring bag; this touch echoing something Sara told me about the value that women of the time placed on precious things, making small bags from scraps of velvet and tartan to carry around and store their most valued items. All these details weave together in Damn Rebel Bitches to produce an evocative and involving perfume that really kick started REEK with an inventive and provocative cri de coeur.  

Now by the pricking of reeking thumbs comes something new, not entirely pristine, but darkly beautiful all the same, Damn Rebel Witches, a gloaming twist on the original formula, also by Sarah McCartney.

We are the granddaughters of the witches you didn’t burn’ declares the web copy for Damn Rebel Witches on the REEK Perfume site, an evocative statement that throws us back to the beginning of my piece on King James VI’s zeal in rooting out what he considered to be demonic rites and practices, witches and any signs or symbols of the devil in his holy kingdom. That he himself as a King was sometimes involved and present at interrogations and trails of these poor tortured souls was a terrible and shocking affront to human rights and to his supposed role as a protector and guardian of his peoples. But of course in his own warped religious thinking, James was saving souls and in the long term protecting his nation from satanic forces.

Devil Dancing...

Scotland didn’t have a big history of witch ducking or witch stools, a horrific practice of throwing or dipping suspected bound women into water; if they floated they were witches and then tried and executed, if they sank, they were innocent but dead. So many of these terrified women (and some men) were healers and herbalists, selfless practitioners and often unmarried helpers within communities whose lifestyles would immediately come under suspicion or be begrudged if questions were asked and monies were offered. Organised religion may have held official sway, but in the hours of darkness, childbirth, infant sickness and battle wounds people wanted more tangible assistance. They were prepared to turn their faces from a floating intangible God who preached suffering and repentance to someone nearby who might hold answers within worn hands and a warm, herbaceous cottage.

During the Great Witch Trials of 1597 over 400 folk were tried for witchcraft, 75% of them women. Ludicrous confessions could be wrenched from the accused by sleep deprivation, known as waking the witch, eventually forcing anyone to say anything really due to appalling hallucinations and the body just failing. This technique of course has been used through history as a means of torture: the Khmer Rouge, Gestapo, the French in Algeria, at Guantanamo Bay, the Raj in India and Pinochet in Chile. Where there is so-called suspected subversion and crimes against the state or ruling bodies, people are kept awake until they confess to crimes they haven’t committed, name other innocents and then die.

Witches from 'Macbeth' (2015)
Director Justin Kurzel

King James used Witchprickers in his campaign to rid Scotland of the black arts; these unscrupulous men had a particularly disturbing role in the torturing process, literally pricking the accused with pins, bodkins or long needles to find an area of the body immune to pain. This supposed Witch’s Mark often weighed heavily against the poor soul under suspicion. The problem was often these prickers used cunningly doctored needles with retractable ends or needles with both blunt and sharp ends to draw blood and demonstrate indifference. It is appalling but not at all surprising to think that these people travelled from village to village offering their dubious services. 

Damn Rebel Witches is a perfume to honour those women who died, those who were accused and lived to tell the tale and continued their wise lives and all women who consider themselves witches today, practicing the Wiccan arts somewhere, carrying on a sacred and fateful tradition. Much as I loved Damn Rebel Bitches and I did really like that lush marmalade vibe and gourmand malty moreishness I have to say I prefer this shadowed version, the smoky waiting echo is only different in certain places, but these places matter. The formulae are almost identical and yet Sarah McCartney has managed to create two quite different perfumes that while they resemble each other also reject each other. It is the voids and silences between the pair that actually make them more interesting than at first they might appear.

Witch Bitch Duo
(Image by TSF,
Marketing Image ©REEK)

You can purchase a 15ml vial of each in a duo called Witch Bitch, all rolled up in tissue in the trademark REEK canvas bag. The more I wore Damn Rebel Witches and then mixed the two together, the more I realised they were two parts of a whole. One perfume symbolising the doughty fighting realism of Scottish women, the other tapping in the more precarious predicament many wise and unusually gifted women found themselves in when they exposed their talents for healing, herbalism, animal husbandry and midwifery.

The main difference in the two perfumes is the addition of bitter tobacco and some subtly spiky lavender to Damn Rebel Witches. These two notes have had an interesting effect on the original perfume, introducing an aroma of misty burning and increased herbalism to the malted orange and sage notes in Damn Rebel Bitches. The hazelnut note is quieter and the malt a little more subdued. It is the scent of burning on the wind that strikes you most as the scent opens on skin. Sarah McCartney has avoided any sense of pyre and execution, using pyrazines, cade, birch tar and guaiac wood, these things would have just overwhelmed the subtlety of her formula. The tobacco smells just right, of the time, rolled, grassy, and rough around the edges but still suggesting the terrible fate of the accused women at the stake. 

Many Scottish ‘witches’ were strangled before being burned, sparing them I suppose the utter horror of immolation while alive. But the burning of a witch was more than punishment, it was warning; in Scotland the obsessive King James wanted his subjects to witness the divine punishment he metered out in God’s name. A pyre and a dead sinner would scent the sky for miles around and horrify a milieu.

This is the interesting aspect of REEK, a studied and defiant gaze at what has come before in all its darkness and yet choosing to celebrate the survival and resolution of those who continue to follow a certain path.

Witchcraft has always been about difference and defiance, women and some men who have chosen to practice beliefs and skills outside of prescribed parameters. Midwifery, healing or simply being unmarried. These things whilst not exactly crimes marked you out in times of drought, illness and suspicion as different and unyielding. Stories would be told of transformation, familiars, crops failing, poisoned water or mysterious fires and your fate would be terribly sealed. Even now we regard alternative medicine and people who advocate say..childbirth outside the usual medical system as somehow off grid and untrustworthy.

During my repeated bouts of serious illness and highly stressed search for some sort of understanding of what was happening to me, any mention of alternative therapies or my own private thoughts on the situations drew icy ire from the medical establishment. Yet they find nothing and the supposed modern witchcraft of more esoteric practitioners might just hold the key. We continue to regard difference with suspicion; while the glossier end of Instagram and social media might celebrate transgender role models like Hari Nef, Andreja Pejic, Lea T and Laverne Cox the reality for many people waiting or searching for support, information or help on transition and reassignment is brutal. Bullying, abuse, loneliness, depression and suicide are not just fleeting emotions but daily, chronic occurrences as the outside world judges as it has always judged, with pitiless violence, misogyny and fear. There will always be people to pillory and accuse. The flames always need to be fanned. 

Damn Rebel Witches is only REEK’s second fragrance, but it’s a strong showing, despite not exactly straying too far from the original perfume. I’m glad actually they went for another bold female centric offering rather than the men’s one that Sara mentioned to me last year, I’m not entirely sure a man’s scent will sit comfortably at all within the ethos of REEK. It may be that most of that planned masculine launch ended up echoed in the tobacco smokiness of this wonderful brew and if so it’s all for the better.

Have fun wearing Damn Rebel Witches, it a wonderfully made perfume that you can be very liberal with. But remember that hint of smoke comes to us from pyres lit centuries past and we should all hope to be the daughters and sons of witches somewhere, somehow.

For more information on REEK Perfume, please follow the link below:


July 2017

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