Sang ae the stanes

I’m really pleased to have been part of this project for Historic Environment Scotland.

I was asked to write two poems – in Gaelic and Scots – that explored the cultural history of some of the buildings under the organisation’s care.

I looked at: Dunstaffanage Castle, where Flora MacDonald was held for a period; Kildrummy Castle, where the Earl of Mar spent many nights deciding which side he should join – the Jacobites or the Government; Ruthven Barracks, that were built to subdue the Highlands in the years after 1715; Urquhart Castle, that was captured and held by Robert the Bruce during his march through The Great Glen; Crossraguel Abbey, where the Benedictines stayed for long centuries; Kisimul Castle, in the bay where emigrants from Barra and Uist left for Canada; Elgin Cathedral, destroyed during the time of the Reformation, and; Broughty Castle, where General Monck, commander-in-chief of the Commenwealth Army in Scotland, grew tired of war after seeing the behaviour of his soldiers when they took Dundee.

Here’s how I wrote the two poems, side by side:

Òran nan Clachan

Cha bhalbh na clachan seo idir – èist.
Tè òg uasal le blas Eilean Uibhist,
a’ seinn le bròn ann an Gàidhlig bhinn,
glas-làimhe dhubh air a craiceann fionn.
Bàta fo oiteag agus an caisteal air a chùl –
teaghlaichean a’ fàgail airson tìr nan craobh.
Òrdughan, peilearan, rianan catha,
Ceòl na caismeachd, an rìgh anns a’ bhlàr.
Deasbadan tethe air oidhcheannan san fhuachd,
uachdaran a’ meòrachadh air càite an tèid a chumhachd.
Ùrnaighean airson mathanas nam peacannan,
altachadh briste, a’ bristeadh nan leacan.
Fuil a’ sileadh ‘s seanalair sgìth dheth,
na chluasan fhathast, caoineadh beag an leanaibh.
Sin uile glacte anns gach balla.
Cur làmh orra. Fairich am mac-talla.

Sang ae the stanes

These stanes arna soonless – hearken.
A quine fae Uist is quiet-like liltin
in Gylick sae doon-herted, dowie,
tinkling black chines ower her gentie bodie.
Sails in a braith o wind, wi the castle ahint
faimlies leein fir a kintra unkent.
Sodgers reddin up, the blatter ae stooer,
The muisic ae a king’s merch, michty in pooer.
Lang disputations on lang cauld nichts,
ane mickle laird sweir tae chuse whit’s richt.
Prayers tae Goad an benedictiouns,
Grace aw smattered, in years ae destructioun.
A general seeck scunnirt ae bluid awthegither
His lugs fu the screichs ae bairnies an mithers.
Thae soons ar aw kistit in ilka floor ablow.
Touch thaim. Ye maucht fin thair echo.

And here’s how they were used in the film:

Dunstaffanage Castle Cha bhalbh na clachan seo idir – èist.
Tè òg uasal le blas Eilean Uibhist,a’ seinn le bròn ann an Gàidhlig bhinn,
glas-làimhe dhubh air a craiceann fionn.
Kildrummy Castle Lang disputations on lang cauld nichts,
ane mickle laird sweir tae chuse whit’s richt.
Ruthven Barracks Òrdughan, peilearan, rianan catha,
Urquhart Castle ceòl na caismeachd, an rìgh anns a’ bhlàr.
Crossraguel Abbey Prayers tae Goad and benedictions.
Kisimul Castle Bàta fo oiteag agus an caisteal air a chùl –
teaghlaichean a’ fàgail airson tìr nan craobh.
Elgin Cathedral Grace aw smattered, in years ae destructioun.
Broughty Castle A general seeck scunnirt ae bluid awthegither
His lugs fu the screichs ae bairnies an mithers.Thae soons ar aw kistit in ilka floor ablow.
Touch thaim. Ye maucht fin thair echo.

Rottenrow labours

Beyond the Square, Montrose Street rises,
gradient growing steeper
with each circuit of time.

The cadence of the riders quickens
as gears click down lower,
rocking backsides arise.

Pain the boundary, labour the trial,
Rottenrow the rounded summit
of the quick panting climb.

A place to take a pregnant pause
before pushing harder
to finally hear the cries

that greet a champion –
joy and delight.
The end of the stage.
The start of a new life.

Observer effect

I wrote this for Quantum Shorts , a competition for flash fiction inspired by quantum mechanics.  I’d really recommend reading the winner Acceptable Loss by Polish writer Przemysław Zańko – a punchy story strong on emotions, with a double twist. You could imagine it being in Amazing Stories. 


I’m walking in the park again. Or I think I’m walking in the park again. I’m not sure any more.

It’s high summer. It’s cold, but dry, and there’s still a thin band of red light, low in the west, making black shadows of the crowded tenements.

I take out my phone: 01:11:11… 12… 13… The seconds pass by, marked by the liquid crystals twisting and straightening, twisting and straightening, twisting and straightening.

The phone goes back in my front jeans pocket. It feels warm. When I get back to the hostel I’ll put it on to charge.

I don’t like the hostel. I don’t feel safe there, especially at night. I don’t like institutions. They give you all their rules, and all their procedures, and all their laws for living, but they can never, ever do the basics. They can’t keep you safe. They won’t keep you safe. They’ve never kept me safe.

So I walk the streets and parks at night and at 10 in the morning, I go back. I go back to my boxroom and lock the door. Sometimes I read. Sometimes I look at my phone. Sometimes I sleep. Most of the time I lie on my bed, looking at the two bare electric wires sticking out from the wall above my head. I don’t know if they’re live or not. I’ve told them about it, but they won’t come to see. Sometimes my hand reaches out to test it, to put an end to the uncertainty, but so far I’ve always pulled it back, or just let gravity pull my arm back down to the mattress.

Too much. Too much in my head. The thoughts going round, and round and round. The same thoughts. My job. My wife. My daughter. The university. That time I saw my dead dad on the bus. The police. The clinic. The darkened strip lights. The same dark thoughts, ever orbiting. I can’t escape them.

Last year I threw myself from a bridge. I can still feel the rush of the air on my face. When I woke up in hospital, I panicked and screamed. They gave me injections. My jaw was broken. My hip was broken. When I got out, when they sent me back to the hostel, I used my jaw as an excuse not to talk to people.

Because I’d noticed that when I talked to people on the streets, they would never speak back. It wasn’t just that they didn’t hear me, it was like they didn’t even see me. They never looked at me. It was like I was never there. That I was unobserved. It was easier not to talk to them.

That was before the bridge, but after the motorway. About eighteen months ago I walked across the motorway. I went there at night, across the fields and down through the brush trees on the steep embankment. I saw a roe deer hiding in the shrubs just a few feet from the speeding cars. I kept my eyes fixed on a lamp-post in the central reservation and stepped out from the hard shoulder. When I got to the fence, I turned round and walked back. Nothing happened. I don’t think anything happened.

But I’m not sure. The cars. The motorway. The people not seeing me. The bridge. Each day so like the day before. I don’t know. I don’t know.

I walk up the hill at the edge of the park. As I leave the path and step out onto the grass, I can feel the texture of the ground change under my boots. That must mean something. I can feel it getting steeper.

At the summit, the hill comes to an end. There’s a steep cliff on the other side of the slope. People throw themselves off of it sometimes. There’s a fence. I can smell leaves and grass and honeysuckle on the gentle wind blowing in my face.

I stop and look at my phone again. 01.11.35.

On the fence there’s a sign with a phone number. A crisis line. I look back at my phone. I dial the number. A voice.

“Crisis line. How can I help?”

“I… You’re going to think I’m mad. This is going to sound mad. But, can you hear me?”

“Yes. Yes, I can hear you.”

“I… I sometimes think I’m dead. I’m not sure if I’m alive or dead. I don’t know if this is real. Can you tell me if I’m alive.”

“I… well you’re speaking to me. Do you not feel that you’re alive?”

“Well, there are only two possibilities: yes or no.”

“Well, I’d say, yes. You’re alive.”

I feel a wave of relief pass through my mind. I collapse onto my knees, leaning against the fence.

I can still hear the voice from the phone: “Hello? Hello? Are you still there?”

An acrostic for Mr Wood

Willie’s Hole is gently filled with flowing
imprints of time. Whiteadder Water falls
lightly, sparkling, over lips of stone. Breaking
lines of effervescence form and froth and crawl
slowly over the mudstone horizon. Creeping
common lizards stop to bask along the banks. The tall
oaks, shining green, are filled with the sound of chirping
tits. Blackbirds grasp the branches in their claws.

Lighting into the river, his waders create waves.
An interference pattern spreads out over the pool,
neat peaks silvered in the bright sunlight, save
dark gaps of cancelled-out energy. The water feels cool
sliding over his legs, as he moves over paved
flashes of rock in the soft river bed. He takes the tool
out of his rucksack, ready to collect and save
records of our pre-historic past. Time to start school –

Mr Wood is ready to teach. He hefts out a boulder,
slate-grey like a tablet, but its chalk-marks lying hidden,
covered in lines of hard-pressed sediment – older
layers of brown mud that, disturbed, cloud our vision
of time’s riverbed. Mr Wood sees through it. His eyes are bolder.
Step after idiosyncratic step bring him closer to the risen
edge of solid earth. He drops the stone. Rubs his shoulder.
Regards his prize, like an eagle watching a kitten.

Out of days like this – and after painstaking preparation –
Mr Wood’s artefacts revitalise stalled
education. Ribs rise and fall with excited respiration.
Readers of journals revise the record. Enthralled
scientists marvel at new wonders from the Tournaisian.
Generations of students to come will have to recall
a name, a man, who paces restless with anticipation,
pricing finds in his shop. But Mr Wood’s Fossils are priceless, all.

This poem was written for the 2018 Hugh Miller Writing Competition, but was not shortlisted. I don’t think it’s something I could get published anywhere, but I enjoyed writing it, so I’m giving it a home here. You can find out more about Stan Wood here and about Scottish fossil finds and Romer’s Gap here.

Leugh an Leabhar

I got the chance to speak on BBC Radio nan Gàidheal, about the poem Memmetaal / Mammietung that I wrote with the help of Geart Tigchelaar.

You can listen to the programme here (from 22.04).

I’ve started translating Geart’s collection leech hert yn nij jek from Frisian to Scots. It’s a real honour to be working on his beautiful poems.

More news to come on that, I hope!

Here’s a rough transcription into English of the interview with presenter Mark Wringe.

At the start of the programme we heard a poem in two voices in Scots and Frisian. The second voice was that of David Eyre who met the Frisian poet Geart Tigchelaar at the StAnza poetry festival in St Andrews. David is with us now. So, there you were at St Andrews listening to Geart, and what struck you?

Well, Mark the closeness of the Frisian and Scots language struck me. I was the poet in residence at StAnza and I was invited to be part of the opening reading, and while I was there listening to Geart and the other Frisian poets, it really struck me how close the languages were. At times I thought I could almost understand it. I think it must be like a Gaelic speaker listening to an Irish speaker from Donegal or something like that. And it was great for me to start thinking about Scots in that context – as a language similar to lots of other European languages, instead of it being looked at as bad English, as some people used to think about it.

Indeed, and it’s not just that you understood, you took encouragement and tried to write something your self.

I tried. That night I went back to my BandB and opened my laptop and found an English-Frisian dictionary and another site where there were Frisian phrases. And using them, I tried to write a poem in Frisian, using words that were similar to words in Scots. And then the next day I met with Geart and he went through what I’d written and made corrections. He didn’t have to do that much, which surprised me, and he wrote a blog where he said it surprised him too. (Congratulations!) Thanks! And so it began from there.

So let’s listen to that poem Memmetaal or Mammietung. One poem – two voices.

So where are you going with this? Are you going to do more?

Yes, Geart was kind enough to give me a copy of his collection of poetry at the end of the festival – a collection that has one awards in Frislan. I’ve started on translating the poems in that collection into Scots. I’ve done the first part of the collection and I got an email yesterday from Geart saying he was pleased with the way that was going. I still have work to do on those poems though. I’m not sure what we’ll do with the translations once they’re completed.

How many will there be?

I think there will be at least 40. I’ve done around six or seven up until now.

Well that first poem Memmetaal / Mammietung, I can see them on paper here – Frysk and Scots face to face. You called them Steroscopic poems. That’s linked with a novel that you wrote Kaleidoscope.

Yes, Kaleidoscope was based to a degree on the life of a real man David Brewster, who created the Kaleidoscope and who taught at St Andrews University. I wanted to do a small writing project while I was at StAnza. Brewster also created the Stereoscope – that’s an instrument that allows you to look at two pictures in 2-D, which then appear in 3-D, and my family has one these instruments, from the mother of my grandfather. So I took that Stereoscope to St Andrews and I started trying to write a series of pairs of poems, in different languages, or that were picking up on one subject, but approaching that subject in different ways, so that when you read the two poems together, something else would come out of it, in the same way that you get something different when you look at the two images in the Stereoscope. That’s what I was trying to do with the Stereoscopic poems.

Thanks Daibhidh, good luck and I hope we can see the poems in a book eventually. And thanks also to the Frisian poet Geart Tigchelaar.

The fish that never swam

The Scottish Books Trust is running a project at the moment – Rebel – and I was asked by the Gaelic Books Council to write a prose story for it.


The aim of the project is to encourage people to write. It has to be personal. It has to be true.

I spent a good few weeks thinking about what I would write. At first, I was thinking about my great-grandfather who was – truly –  a rebel, training with the Irish Volunteers in Baillieston near Glasgow in the time after the Easter Rising. I’ve written about him before.

But, in the end, I decided to write about the campaign to save Calder Street Baths – and the day when the police appeared to evict the campaigners.

I was involved at the time. In this picture – that appeared in The Herald – I’m sitting on the right, a police horse having just stepped over my head.

Anyroad, here’s the story, and here also is a lovely poem written by Anna Frater as part of the project. 


“So whit does a poet in residence do?”

Quite a few friends and family have asked me that in the past weeks, and I didn’t really have an answer.

When I spoke with Eleanor, the director of StAnza, she had some guidance, but there was nothing set in stone. Come. Listen. Learn. Make new pals and connections.



But, ye know, I like tae ‘work’ – or I start feeling a bit guilty or feckless. So, I decided to try and do two things – #poetryatthepool and Stereoscopic Poems.

Poetry at the pool – that’s easy enough. The one time I was in St Andrews before (the wedding of Mìcheal Bauer and Rob Wherret – blessings and best wishes and a thousand thanks to them for giving me the chance to be part of that beautiful day) I noticed the Castle Rock swimming pool. Reading poetry and swimming. I could do that. And, with the help of my mum Penny Cole, I’ve recorded those readings.

The second thing. Well, the last book I wrote – ‘Cailèideascop’ – was partly inspired by the life of Sir David Brewster. He invented the kaleidoscope. And he was the professor of natural philosphy (physics) in St Andrews in the 1840s.

In addition to the kaleidoscope, it was Brewster that first brought photography to Scotland – and at a very early stage. There’s no many folk  that know that people and places from Scotland were among the very first to ever be recorded on a photograph.

Brewster also invented another instrument – the lenticular stereoscope.. It’s an instrument that could look at two photographs through lenses, and then bring them together to show one picture in three dimensions.

So I thought, I’ll do some stereoscopic poems – trying to bring two different things together in order to create a new dimension out of them. A tribute to Brewster. Suitable for my book. Suitable because the festival is in St Andrews.

And the first evening I was here, I heard poetry in Frisian, and I was really struck by the connections between the language and Scots. I felt the words at my core. I nearly understood them. At times, I did.

Anyroad, I sat down and – with help from the internet – I wrote a poem in Frisian and Scots, trying to show how close they are. My new pal  Geart Tigchelaar corrected what I’d done (but he said I’d done a ‘bloody good job’ – how cool is that!) and – here we are friends – my first stereoscopic poem.

Wêrom soe ik it net doare?
Ik ha in memmetaal
en dy taal hat in froen.
Lit my gean dêre, oan har feestmiel
fan wurden waarm en licht,
en lit my my fol ite.
Myn tonge is net swier
gjin bân oer myn mûle –
har wurden smeitsje my goed.
Sâlt fan elke see hat wearde.
For how sad Ah no daur it?
Ah hae a mammietung
an that tung has a freen.
Lee me gang ther, tae her feastmeal
fu wurdies waarm an licht,
an lee me eat ma full.
Ma tung isna sweir
nae band oer ma mou –
her wurdies smak sae guid tae me.
Saut fae ilka sea has worth.

Gaelic sci-fi at Aye Write 2018

When I read Tim Armstrong’s fantastic book ‘Air Cuan Dubh Drilseach’, it gave me a lot of pleasure, and also the confidence to try to write a sci-fi book myself.  That was ‘Cailèideascop’.

At the Aye Write book festival next month, Tim and myself will be talking about our books, alongside Alison Lang, editor of another beautiful sci-fi book ‘An Taistealach’ by Ian F. MacLeod.

There’s simultaneous translation into English. Please come along!