Building Vocabulary

Who would have thought
I'd have to come
so far from home
to find a word that perfectly captures
the voiceless ache
of having left?

A' dol dhachaigh:
Strange that I should
find restfulness
in a language where
you can never be home,
but only going

Cianalas: homesickness, longing, loneliness, melancholy
A’ dol dhachaigh: going home(wards)

Christine Laennec, from Wish I Was Here: A Scottish Multicultural Anthology, ed. by Kevin MacNeil & Alec Finlay

Emigrant Journey

There was the comfort and the all mod-con of home
With its recognisable dangers;
There was the journey,
The endless coming on of the same wave,
The no-land time of ocean and high hopes
Until the icebergs rose
Like crystal palaces...

There was the moving days
And weary nights of train-hours overland,
The trees, the lakes, the straight and rolling plains
Until time stopped in sheer fantasy
Of a pre-dawn winter morning -
Gloved hand swinging the iron-hard handle
Of a frozen water pump
At the edge of a bark-rough cabin;
Above, the sky, moving strange magnificence,
Voile curtains of colour
Changing, shifting imperceptibly;
Below, the star sparkled snow -
A virgin's looking glass
Where spruce trees shot the only shadows
That made no movement -
Silence, immensity of silence,
Oil fires were burning brands
Reaching for chiffon robes
Of an aurora of dancers
Repeating dream sequences...

I tried to wake from unreality
Felt my spine freeze,
heard coyotes howling down the night.

Margaret Gillies-Brown, from An Anthology of Scottish Women Poets, ed. by Catherine Kerrigan
originally published in Far From the Rowan Tree

A shuttle o soonds

At da time at folk namit da nort end o Eden
a moothfoo o soonds gied frame tae da land:
every bicht, every knowe a wird pictir in Norn.

Dey hed böddies o wirds for da varg o da crofter,
soonds o da crö, da crub an da hill: some lost
on da wind owre da flakki o years.

An a kyist-foo o soonds for aa kinds o sea wark
wi a hoidy-hol for queer luckin wirds
stowed far fae wir hearin ta keep herm awa.

Da Norn is lang gien, but hit’s left a waageng
at keetchins a tongue at can hadd ony haert
can rowe up wir feelings, unreffel wir tochts.

For every haand’s turn still a mird o wird patterns
lik an allover gansey, a wirkin man’s sark –
med ta be worn, no laid up for best.

We man savour wir wirds as dey tirl on da tongue
lik snorie-ben, sneester an skaddyman’s heid
wird laalies fur aabody, no jöst fur bairns.

Fur dey mak da warp in a pattern o livin, while
da weft comes fae places ootbye da Sooth Mooth.
Dey can blend i da waeve wi wir shuttle o soonds.

Da garb o wir language is pitten dagidder
in a wye at maks room fur da new an da auld:
baith pipeline an paet-bank; rap artist an skald

A shuttle of sounds

At the time folk named the north end of Eden
a mouthful of sounds gave a frame to the land:
every inlet, every hillock a word picture in Norn1.

They had baskets of words for the work of the crofter
sounds of the sheepfold, the yard and the hill:
some lost on the wind with the winnow of years.

And a chest-full of sounds for all kinds of sea work
with a secret place for words of good luck
stowed far from our hearing to keep harm away2.

The Norn is long gone, but it’s left an aftertaste
that flavours a tongue that can sustain anyone
can wrap up our feelings, unravel our thoughts.

For every stroke of work still a throng of word patterns
like a Fair Isle sweater, a working man’s shirt –
made to be worn, not laid up for best.

We must savour our words as they spin on the tongue
lik snorie-ben3, sneester4 and skaddyman’s heid5
word playthings for everyone, not just for kids
For they make the warp in a pattern of living, while
the weft comes from places beyond the Sooth Mooth6 .
They can blend in the weave with our shuttle of sounds
The garb of our language is put together
in a way that makes room for the new and the old:
both pipeline and peat-bank; rap artist and skald.

1Norn: original language of Shetland, of the Norse family of languages
2sea words were secret to retain their potency
3snorie-ben: toy made from bone and string, twisted to make a snoring sound
4sneester: private chuckle
5skaddyman’s heid: sea urchin
6‘Sooth Mooth’ is not just the physical entrance to Shetland, but also a description of English and Scots speakers (‘Sooth Moothers’)

Christine De Luca, from Plain Song


Eating Orkney

Gone the salt-washed oyster-shell
of sky, the bonxies’ aerobatic jazz,
bass riff of tractor and ferry.
Gone the chorusline of jiving
thrift, the tide’s cool blues,
the intemperate applause of gulls.
Gone the indigo intermezzi,
Morning’s glimmer keeking
between midnight’s eyelids.

From a Dark Island Beer box,
partans to clean, for tea. I crack
claws, scoop meat, dispose
of still warm dead-man’s fingers,
cut my thumb, lick at the sting
of split skin, backtrack to a boat,
the Northern Lights, in trouble:
from the dark deep its crew
conjuring Harpy, Siren, Valkyr.

Dilys Rose, from Lure


Beyond you America
behind you Stromness
far from me now
the tides changing on you
as I walk the crowded mile
of Byres Road, you curve
in my mind like a film
I would run over your top lip
through an equinoxial autumn
putting words in the mouths
of fishermen & crofters
you speak to me still
a language of salt & gull & wave
Hoy over my shoulders like an uncle

George Gunn, from Dream State: The New Scottish Poets, ed. by Donny O’Rourke


For Duncan Munro & Mary McNab

We are going through Glen Urquhart
out of our eyes in our enlightened minds
by Milton and Polmaily. That is
Saint Mailie’s Pool. Then

A sign pointing to the right up a hill

B & B

It is a steep twisting forest of a road,
going on for ever in a highland day
in that three-quarters of a mile.
but we arrive at Rychraggan, Slope of the Rock.

Ducks walk across as we arrive at the cottage’s
gable end. We pass through a wrought-iron gate
and go by gravelled path to the front door.
We knock and wait.

A scene glorious as any twelfth day
down the glen
to a glimpse of a rectangle of Loch Ness
with the sun beating out of a cove of blue sky above.

The hills a hazed backcloth for eyes on their unculled
stocks. As our feet a garden enclosed by stone dyke,
richly coloured with a bed of annual flowers,
orange, red, purple, white and green.

And over the wall, to the right, on the moorland,
a rowan tree heavy with berries looks older that its years.
A group of young crows on the wall rise into the sky. They
swoosh and swirl, turning on their many selves,
the sky alive with their triangulated, silhouetted
wings. A shot cracks the silence out of the hill. The crows
float in their space. Down the glen the loch
has moved in its own waves.

At the door Mrs Macdonald stands to welcome us.

Duncan Glen, from Selected New Poems 1987–1996

The Silver Darlings

They had never been so far from land...
Neil Gunn


All afternoon the sun burned your forehead and face,
driving for miles through peatscrapes,
bare rock ridges rising from moorland, driving through rain,
mist trailed past, the sunlight strong from the blue
where the clouds were broken.

We were the last to go through, after
the bath or shower, the tables were pretty in heavy pink covers.
Outside the windrows the jetty slips down to the loch,
and the boat pulls up past the seals,
heads bobbing, water lapping the boat, leaning towards moorings.

Blues come up out of the water, as darker blurs blend
on the hills; the water is exactly H20 and moves
in particular shapes all the time. The air smells of peat. I’m glad
you’re here, and know it’s that
the other way around, as well.

It wouldn’t be if there was any
other way but this. The sea is hushed at dusk,
and in the gloamin when I’ll walk beside you, with you, up
the sloping street with houses on the one side only,
to where the sign this afternoon read ‘Post

Office’: your picture-cards all stamped and ready,
written in your hand. I’ll strain to hear
nothing, clearly there, but welcome, quiet,
welcome, and keep moving, from
the landscape all around us.

Alan Riach, from Clearances