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.

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.

A birch leaf

(translated from Gaelic)

I see a birch tree from the window
on which there is no green growth,
its branches are black and naked now
in a winter beyond thought.

Well there is one leaf still there
that is tiny and yellow,
turning in a breath of wind
that is, it’s certain, cold.

But wait. The morning rain
is lying on it like glass,
and splitting the light
according to nature’s laws:

colours appearing,
red-green-yellow-blue,
flashing quickly
against the blackness of the woods,

shining like that one single star
that you see on a cloudy night –
white and all-coloured –
a reason for hope.

The Solitary Reaper

(after the poem by Wordsworth – translated from Gaelic)

From Grassmere to Rue Racine
and back to Grassmere again

where you sit at a desk
trying to remember
another journey
among the farthest isles –

that summer day
when a young woman cut the grass
singing, so you tell us,
in the heat of the stook-time.

Was she wearing a hat
that wee blonde girl?
Or was she big and brown-haired?
You simply don’t say.

You listened to her, though
you didn’t understand what she sang,
a lucky thing for you,
a poet.

Because ignorance is a space
that can be filled with words
like Spirit and Nature,
History and Freedom.

Scythe in hand,
cutting the world,
scoring out
an unsuitable line.

Prophecies

(translated from Gaelic)

Under my gran’s pillows
were polomints
and hankies,

and above the pillows,
on top of the bed legs,
were bed-knobs made of metal

in the shape
of closed
lotuses.

We would lift them,
myself and my brother,
and put things in the spaces beneath,

little bits of paper,
secret prophecies,
in innocent handwriting.

When she died
the bed was moved
and I searched for our childhood notes.

And there was no sign of them.

Lucozade

(translated from Gaelic)

Sickness
lying beside a bottle
enwrapped in orange film

colour
that can be lifted
carefully from the glass

cold on your hand
with rips in it
that lessen the size

of the strange
new world
you see through the plastic

the summer dusk
suddenly appearing
over the grey spring day

and the drink’s taste
in your mouth
still

sweet
sour
lasting.