Thursday, 18 August 2011


I have thought that the Cornish family name Quiller, as in the great Quiller-Couch, might have something to do with the large strong feathers of swans and geese, a 'quiller' being either a supplier of quill pens or, perhaps, a writer of glorious mediaeval gothic. It would, however, seem more likely that the name has to do with operating weaving machines, with spools and bobbins. A 'quill' says the OED is first and foremost 'a hollow stem or stalk, as that of a reed' and by extension other hollow things. The word 'pen' of course means since ancient times a feather and only by transference does it mean a writing tool.

In the first weeks of July the Estuary tideline was punctuated by swans' feathers. The swans must have been scattering plumage like our post riot politicians have been scattering platitude.

My little granddaughters wanted some pens from which to make quills, or perhaps they wanted some quills from which to make pens. A good neighbour found a dozen fine swans' feathers for their experiments between Lympstone and Nutwell, the best of them a good eighteen inches long.

One wonders how the mediaeval scribes and illuminators went about finding the ultimate writing tool. There would have been flocks of geese no doubt honking around the monastery at Exeter but the image I am nursing is of a couple of twelfth century, holy hoodies wandering along the banks of the Exe on a day in July and keeping their eyes open for the whopping great writing instrument that will shock the vestiments off their brethren.

(In the photo are, left to right: Lily Rochester, Ines McDonald, Charlotte Rochester.)

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