It must be true, it’s in the paper

The Mainstream Media (or MSM as the aficionados curtail them) tend by their very nature to reflect the status quo, some of them holding it up as a burning and a shining light, and others holding it up to scorn. There comes a time however when they all lend their voices to a chorus, generally decrying some egregious wickedness or monumental folly that they can all agree on. Naturally, they can be stupidly misled like anyone else. It then falls to the alternative press to point out how misguided, or malicious, the MSM are.
In Great Britain (I don’t think a lot of folk use that expression these days) the broadsheets are teaming up with the tabloid “red tops” to attack a scheme viewed by both as ill thought out at best and dangerous at (maybe) worst. This is of course independence for Scotland. It’s quite incredible how the outrage has grown since last May, when the Scottish National Party gained an overall majority at Holyrood (thought to be impossible) after announcing that it would arrange a referendum on the issue in their next parliamentary period. At the time it was ridiculous; but as the months have rolled by the spectre stalking the powers that be has grown ever more visible, and (horrors) attractive to the uneducated public, hoi polloi who shouldn’t really be trusted with a vote.
There are a few news outlets whose word is not copied from political party news releases, who for obvious reasons tend to emphasise the other sides of the argument. Even some MSM allow discussion on their websites while slanting every story to decry the latest shallow-minded proposal of the SNP – I’m thinking particularly of the venerable Scotsman, which is consistent in its bias, no matter how juvenile and misinformed it may be, yet generally allows comments from the interested readership, most of which, I may say, turns out to be pro-independence, or at least in favour of some form of further devolution, “Devo-Max” as they call it, or “Full Fiscal Autonomy”.
But this referendum idea has stirred up the proverbial hornets’ nest, and all of a sudden the Establishment, dutifully reported by the MSM, is speaking out about various aspects of independence, one after the other. Some are more believable than others of course; some are predictably rash in airing opinions and dire warnings which don’t bear any kind of examination. These Cassandra-like croakings are given full coverage in the MSM pages and the airwaves of the supposedly unbiased BBC, but shredded in their own comments threads and/or articles in such sites as NewsnetScotland, or Bella Caledonia.
It is statistically probable if not certain that some criticisms of the touted independence ideas are quite valid; but they can get lost in the cacophony of shrill ad hominem attacks and noisy sniping from hapless statu-quo-ites [I get the term from Thomas Love Peacock]. We need reasoned and informed debate, which is one reason why Alex Salmond placed the dreaded referendum in autumn of 2014, with some good time to thrash things out.
And what would Rabbie say? [I promised to mention him.] – There are those like a former friend of mine who assert that you can find a quotation in RB’s works to fit any aspect of the human condition. In these times, alas, the sort of thing that pops into my head is “Such a parcel of rogues in a nation”.


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Left? Right.

I see that Janey Buchan has died at the age of 85. When I met her she was a young 34, which seems ridiculous now. I went along to Norman and Janey Buchans’ flat a few times before I left Scotland, and often regretted I hadn’t been able to further our acquaintance. I lugged my guitar with me and was pleased to be allowed to sing a song for the company – as I remember, a sort of happy-go-lucky entourage who welcomed new faces and immediately got into conversation. And the talk was mostly about leftist politics of course. My song was a Russian one I’d learned when I was training to be a spy [more on this later perhaps], titled Pomnju ja, and I was delighted when a Polish guest joined in the chorus:

Pomnju, pomnju, pomnju ja,
Kak menja mat’ ljubila,
I ne raz, I ne dva,
Ona mne govorila.

(I remember, I remember, how my mother loved me, and not once, and not twice [many times] she spoke to me…)
– about the bad company I kept, otherwise I’d wind up in Siberia in shackles. A political song, of course!
Norman was into folksongs, and had a hand in getting The Reivers onto television. We exchanged books and opinions – though I was never quite as far left as they were, although I called myself an anarchist, and in fact I’ve wondered once or twice what they would have thought of later developments in Scottish/British politics. I can’t see them as Blairites, for instance.
We talked about Burns once or twice – predictably, the quasi-socialist aspect of his poems. I mention this because of the upcoming anniversary of his birth, next Wednesday, on which significant day the First Minister of Scotland promises to unveil his plans for the much spoken of referendum, so that a dialogue or discussion may take place. I follow this from thousands of miles away with a mixture of amusement and cynicism, I can say: amusement at the knots the Unionist cabal are tying themselves into, and cynicism in that I don’t really believe the promises, or threats, that they make.
If Westminster says that Scotland should “calm down, dear” and stay in the union because of jam tomorrow, I for one nod sardonically and say “Aye, right!” There is also the undiscussed and unanswerable question of the political consequences of independence. (A long time ago, when the SNP were a beleaguered minority, I broached the obvious point that a Scottish government would likely be full of Socialists of one stripe or another, not to say Communists. This did not go down well with the Catholic family I was lodging with, but my leftist friends in the Socialist Labour League were interested to chew over the idea.)
However, as “events, dear boy” have shown, what Holyrood has is a left-centre government (so far), and the prospect of a whole plethora of parties of various colours vying for their place in the sun in a new independent Scotland. – Whatever the result of the referendum, whenever it is, I think it’s true to say that “it’s comin yet, for aa that”. Maybe not in my lifetime, alas, though geriatrics are wonderful these days.
Not until then, however, will we really need to bother ourselves about a national anthem. More on this later, I trust, but right now let me disown the idea that “Flower of Scotland” is anything other than a sentimental patriotic piece of claymore-rattling. Yes, it’s a good song, and can be very effective, nay moving, in the right circumstances; but that’s it.
Next piece will be all about Burns, I promise.

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Re Verse

I notice that some other bloggers have the audacity, or rashness, to publish verse of their own making on their columns. While I hold no realistic expectation of kudos from the Scots literati, I thought it might be amusing for everyone to print a specimen or two of my own. I’ve been composing rhymes and blank verse [some very blank] for all my life, or at least since my teens, along with a good few tunes of various sorts. I’ll be uploading some of the latter fairly soon, but for now have a keek at this:

The mune tauld me the ither nicht
Endymion was deid,
And aa alang the droonin lift
The starns had bowed the heid;
But still the houlet caas on him,
And she is no dismayed,
For weel she kens he hears her still,
Altho he is a shade.

As waters flow in whirlpools
Sae turns the hert around,
And as the wun steers widdershins
The mind greets wi its wound.
I’ll rive sic disobedience out,
And kill my discontent;
For luve has come to ravish me –
Why suld I no consent?

That’s actually a Scotification of a thing I composed originally in English. On the other hand, in a deliberate attempt to write a poem in Scots from the word go, I came up with this:

The Dolmen

The eldritch skreich o gowlan winds
That souch awa within thir stanes
Wad rive the mind clean out o ye;
And the sterk dureness o the granes
Thro aa the dernit ingyne rins.

Granite, grim granite, aa aroun,
And near outby the greetin trees;
The drumlie yird alow the feet
Some caution to the spirit gies,
And gars the saul to courie doun.

Aye, as thir hard wancannie stanes
Staund stockstill here as they were laid,
The hert, nae movin, sees itsel
In the daurk chaumer it has made,
And liggs doun by forgotten banes.

It’s a far cry from such stuff to the likes of Hugh Macdiarmid or Sydney Goodsir Smith, or even, I hear you mutter it, dear old William Topaz McGonagall. But let me segue neatly into an encomium on those two former poets, particularly Smith. I came across his writing in my late teens and was captivated by the contrast with the run of the mill Scots verse I had been used to in the anthologies and old books on my mother’s shelf – which of course were somewhat kailyairdy, to say the least. But here was a new kind of writing that mirrored the modern productions of such as Ezra Pound & Co., while being evidently Scottish to the core. I naturally have grown a bit more sophisticated since then, but I still quote Under the Eildon Tree to myself, and reach for my first edition to leaf lovingly through the pages.

Bards hae sung o lesser loves
Than I o thee,
O my great folly and my granderie.


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Flodden Field

That referendum I mentioned last time has been promised for 2014. In the autumn, and not June (the anniversary of the famous victory), which may surprise people who thought a vote on the actual day of the resounding defeat of the Auld Enemy would be very appropriate for dealing another smack in the goolies. It might be thought however that the great anniversary could overshadow the political decision in an unexpected way; besides, oh horrors if the vote were no, such a defeat for national aspirations would do something to taint the blessed day.
Bannockburn Day is celebrated with some pomp and circumstance, skirling and speeching, as may be expected. Some think there’s a bit too much of that. Take a look, though, at the preserved site of that other battle in 1513. There’s a simple monument erected in 1910 inscribed with words I find quite moving: TO THE DEAD OF BOTH NATIONS.
The rights and wrongs of the event can be argued over – was James a warmongering tool of the French? Was perfidious Albion just defending its home? And what about Henry, eh? Well, no one can deny that the battle, the last great mediaeval battle maybe (the Scots used the old style, the wily English the new), changed history and had a dreadful effect upon Scotland. Look up the list of the fallen – great names and small, lords and lairds and knights and gentlemen from all over the kingdom, not to mention the poor bloody infantry and all who are not named in the history books. The loss in sheer manpower to the country was immense, and the king himself slain. It was in remembrance of the disaster that Jean Elliot of Minto wrote “The Flowers of the Forest” lamenting the sudden decimation of the manhood of Scotland:

The Flowers of the Forest

I’ve heard the lilting, at the yowe-milking,
Lasses a-lilting before dawn o’ day;
But now they are moaning on ilka green loaning;
“The Flowers of the Forest are a’ wede away”.

At buchts in the morning nae blythe lads are scorning;
The lasses are lonely and dowie and wae;
Nae daffin’, nae gabbin’, but sighing and sabbing,
Ilk ane lifts her leglin, and hies her away.

In hairst, at the shearing, nae youths now are jeering,
The bandsters are lyart, and runkled or gray;
At fair or at preaching, nae wooing, nae fleeching,
The Flowers of the Forest are a’ wede away.

At e’en, in the gloaming, nae swankies are roaming
‘Bout stacks wi’ the lasses at bogle to play.
But ilk ane sits drearie, lamenting her dearie,
The Flowers of the Forest are a’ wede away.

Dule and wae for the order sent our lads to the Border!
The English, for ance, by guile wan the day:
The Flowers of the Forest, that focht aye the foremost,
The prime o’ our land are cauld in the clay.

We’ll hear nae mair lilting, at the yowe-milking,
Women and bairns are heartless and wae;
Sighing and moaning, on ilka green loaning,
The Flowers of the Forest are a’ wede away.

I put up the words, even though they’re very available in umpteen books, and the Net of course. The above set is mostly as the song is given in the Stenhouse notes to The Scots Musical Museum. The tune is given in volume one, no. 63, to “Adieu ye streams that smoothly glide”, verses by Anne Home (Mrs John Hunter), whose main claim to remembrance is penning the words to “My mother bids me bind my hair”, a favourite canzonet by Haydn.


Henry VIII’s poet laureate John Skelton wrote a triumphant sneering sort of poem about the event, “A ballade of the scottysshe kynge”, which doesn’t say much except pour scorn on James (whose death was still in doubt) and his presumption. It was published in black letter that year, just after the battle, and ends

God saue kynge Henry and his lordes all
And sende the frensshe kynge suche an other fall,

Amen, for saynt charytë
And god saue noble.
Kynge Henry
The viij.

This is nicely reproduced with lots of background by John Ashton, 1882.
There is another “Ballad of Flodden Field”, composed much later, which is quite long and detailed, ending with the lines

                               Thus have you heard of Flodden fight.
                               Worthy of each to be commended :
                               Because that then Old England’s right
                               Was bravely by her sons defended.

In the great collection of English and Scottish Popular Ballads of Francis James Child, “Flodden Field” is no. 168, from a 17th-century copy of a 16th-century ballad: “in disgrace of the Scots, and in remembrance of the famous atchieved historie, the commons of England made this song, which to this day is not forgotten of many.”
I wonder what ceremonies are planned for the quincentenary next year? The Selkirk Common Riding will remember it of course. Tradition says that after the battle a lone man, the Town Clerk, came to town with a captured flag, let it be known that all but he had been killed, and promptly died.
2013 marks 60 years since the coronation of Elizabeth Queen of Scots. This year marks the 60th since good king George died. Poor man, he didn’t live to see all the shenanigans of after time, which is maybe just as well. What would he make of his grandchildren? But that’s another blog…

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The Internet Movie Database is very useful and even enlightening, but is at the mercy of those who write in to contribute to sections like the synopsis of a film. Take “Braveheart” – Please!!
No, but seriously, folks –
I had a look at the IMDb info on Mel Gibson’s effort and straightaway saw:
“In the 13th Century England, after several years of political unrest in Scotland, the land is open to an invasion from the south.”
This seems to say that Scotland was (maybe still is?) part of England. I grant you that from the point of view of Edward Langshanks, it should have been. But this is of course the long-standing point of contention – how the English (establishment) view Scotland. There’s a pretty decent little songbook put out by A L Lloyd called Singing Englishmen, which contains the songs presented at a celebration of British folk song hosted by Lloyd on 1 June 1951 as part of the Festival of Britain. It was an interesting programme, sung by the Workers’ Music Association Choir, with arrangements by the composer Alan Bush, and featured songs from all over Britain, and so inevitably included some Scottish songs. Lloyd was of course equating England with Britain, an arrogant and unthinking attitude, but he is not alone. I remember the outrage I felt as a teenager lang syne when I opened up Stanley Gibbons’ stamp magazine to read that “Many Englishmen, some of whom were Scotsmen, have been featured on stamps.” The editor gave an asterisk and a footnote to the effect that those were the contributor’s words, and while he was allowing them to stand (no censorship) he was keeping out of it.
But there it is. Somewhere I read that back in the 1700s an English parliamentarian exclaimed in astonished argument “Are not the Scots English?” – echoed I suppose by foreigners who equate the two very easily. French doesn’t speak about the British; it’s les anglais, of course, and when I was in Paris I took pains to tell my landlady that I was écossais. The Americans seem to be similarly careless a good deal of the time, but Canada with more memories of its Scottish heritage sensibly differentiates.
One of the consequences however of this ambiguity is that the separateness of the two countries is not considered, which has led to an emphasis on “Britishness”. That concept only got going after the union of parliaments, spurred on by the incorporation of Ireland around 1800; Scotland being referred to as “North Britain”, abbreviated on addresses to “N.B.” You don’t see that these days, thank goodness, although my fellow-Fifer Gordon Brown is on record as telling Americans, wasn’t it, that he came from North Britain (besides trying to erode his Scots accent, like an eighteenth-century hopeful wanting to get on in the real capital). Such things have for the most part disappeared, for somehow or other there has been an amazing upsurge in national pride of late, certainly since I emigrated to fresh woods in 1960. This does not mean, naturally, that everyone is waving the saltire with enthusiasm. All of a sudden the Labour Party is joining forces with its enemy the Conservative Party, along with the hapless Liberal Democrats, to put obstacles in the way of the Scottish Nationalists who quite understandably want to free Scotland of the English yoke. To this end, they are forming an unlikely coalition to support Westminster in its determination to run, or certainly put strings on, the referendum on separation promised by the SNP.
It’s as if the Scottish sections of the three main parties are playing down the Scottishness and saying they welcome English interference. One must not, naturally, impugn their patriotism or call them ant-Scottish (as one wee lass dared to in Holyrood the other day) – perish that thought!! But one can think of other adjectives.
Actually, I do think that the referendum, promised for 2014, will show a majority for independence. After the break, whenever that is in fact accomplished, those parties, now tied to the apron strings of their London HQ and the mother of parliaments, will be free to develop on their own in their own directions. I bet though that a few of them will mutter “Ah, but if we were still British, I might have made it to the ermine….!”

Happy New Year, by the way, to all my readers. One of my resolutions is to be a bit more regular with this weblog. It all depends of course on how riled or inspired I become. What I can promise you is a poem or two (Scots and English), and a tune or two (of my own devising), forbye a translation or two, and a bittie folklore.


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Yule Blog

Scotland has not been awfully enthusiastic about Christmas for quite a while, ever since Cromwell at least, and before that under the Calvinists. But the sheer pagan enjoyment of the turn of the year has deep roots, and so in recent times Scots have joined in the festivities quite eagerly. Still, one index of the lukewarm reception of Christmas is the lack of carols. I can only think offhand of one, namely the Christ Child Lullaby (Tàladh Chriosd), which is of course in Gaelic. [I refer you to the URL There’s quite a few similar things in other cultures, as e.g. “Away in a Manger”, which is not initially addressed to the baby Jesus, and in Polish there’s quite a few, called kołysanki (cradle songs), such as this, which I got from an old friend of mine, the late Jan Freyman, who pointed out that the theme was used (or appropriated) by Chopin:


song 1

I admit a better rhyme in the first verse would be “greeting”, which is good Scots but maybe a bit confusing for Sassunachs.

German has, among many others, “Schlaf, mein Kindelein”, found in the Strassburger Gesangbuch of 1697, and still sung in the Rhone region.


It continues (with “Singet” etc after each verse):

“Komm, mein Kindelein, schau dein Bettelein,
das für dich bereitet ist!”
“Komm mein Söhnelein in dies Krippelein,
das mit Heu gestreuet ist!”

“Schliess die Äugelein, deck deine Händelein,
den es braust ein scharfer Wind!”
“Schlaf, mein Kindelein, dich das Eselein
wird erwärmen mit dem Rind!”

“Schlaf, mein Ziere, meine Begiere,
schweig, dass sich dein Leid nicht mehr!”
“Schlaf, mein Sohne: von seinem Throne
schickt dein Vater Englein her.”

Each two lines are sung by mother and father, alternately. It’s a bit difficult to render this accurately with the tenderness of all those diminutives, but:

“Sleep, my little one, sleep, my little son”
Sings the mother, purest maid;
“Sleep, my little dear, darling, have no fear,”
sings the father to the babe.
Sing all for the little child,
Honey-sweet wee Jesus mild.
Sing, all cherubs in the skies,
A thousand lovely melodies.

“Come, my sleepyhead, see your little bed
That is now all ready made.”
“Come, my little dear, into the manger here
That has hay within it laid.”

“Close your eyes now, cover your hands now,
For a wind that’s sharp does blow.”
“Sleep, my babykin, the manger all within,
Ox and ass will warm you so.”

“Sleep, my pretty one, sleep, my little one,
Hush, and have surcease of care!”
“Sleep, my son, and from his throne
Your Heavenly Father sends angels here.”

That’s my Christmas contribution. A Merry Christmas [and Happy Hannukah, Joyous Kwanzaa and so forth] to all my readers! Nollaig Chridheil agus Bliadhna Mhath Ur!

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I thought a day or so ago about the Kelpie. Don’t ask me why, I suppose some beastly action of the powers that be here in Canada or back hame might have triggered it. But anyway I imagine some info and ruminations on the puir craitur might be of interest.

The kelpie is the tricky spirit of water (streams, fords) in Scottish folklore. The word probably comes from Gaelic colpach, “heifer, bullock, colt”; although there is a term for it, namely each-uisge, “water horse”. It appeared sometimes as an old wrinkled man, but most often as a beautiful white or black horse. It lured travellers to destruction, but could be caught and made to perform tasks. A rhyme featuring the beast runs:

                               Sair back and sair banes,
                               Drivin’ the laird o’ Morphie’s stanes!
                               The laird o’ Morphie’ll never thrive
                               As lang’s the kelpy is alive!

                    This is in Robert Chambers’s Popular Rhymes of Scotland (1847), 117; (1870), 335; Cheviot’s Proverbs (1896), 288, Montgomerie Sandy Candy 174, #328. Chambers explains:

                     The old family of the Grahams of Morphie was in former times very powerful, but at length they sunk in fortune, and finally the original male line became extinct. Among the old women of the Mearns, their decay is attributed to a supernatural cause. When one of the lairds, say they, built the old castle, he secured the assistance of the water-kelpy or river-horse, by the accredited means of throwing a pair of branks over his head. He then compelled the robust spirit to carry prodigious loads of stones [from the North Esk River] for the building, and did not relieve him till the whole was finished. The poor kelpy was glad of his deliverance, but at the same time felt himself so galled with the hard labour, that on being permitted to escape from the branks, he turned about, and expressed, in the [above] words, at once his own grievances and the destiny of his taskmaster’s family.

The lines are quoted in John o’ Arnha’, a poem by George Beattie (1786-1823), when the hapless hero meets the kelpie by the North Esk:

                               He heard a voice, wi’ muckle dool,
                               Croonin’ i’ the Ponnage-pool;
                               An’ this it said, or seemed to say,
                               ‘Ah, willawins! alack for aye!
                               O sair’s my back, an’ sair my banes,
                               Leadin’ the Laird o’ Marphie’s stanes;
                               The Laird o’ Marphie canna thrive
                               As lang’s the Kelpie is alive.’

Cf. a variant of the kelpie’s moan, from Mintlaw, Buchan: “I’ve a sair back and I’ve sair banes,/ Ca’in’ Millawaukie’s auld hoose stanes” (Rymour Club Misc. II [1912-19], 26). Yet another reference to the legend is in the poem “Water-Kelpie” by Robert Jamieson of dictionary fame, which was published by Sir Walter Scott in his Minstrelsy of the Scottish Border, mostly as an exercise in the Scots language:

                                          Quhan Murphy’s laird his biggin rear’d,
                                          I caryit aw the stanes;
                                          And mony a chiell has heard me squeal
                                          For sair-brizz’d back and banes.
Morphie is a little town about two-and-a-half miles (5 kilometers) north of Montrose, in Kincardineshire (now Grampian). The family of Graham of Morphie used to be distinguished; they got the lands by a charter of David I. Sir Robert Graham of Morphie was tutor to Montrose, and followed him through the civil war, nearly to the ruin of his estate. The mother of the last Graham of Morphie was a sister of Graham of Claverhouse, “Bonny Dundee”.

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Let us now praise famous men…


There are many qualities that tend to make people famous; one such is creating some notable work of art, as a statue (David), piece of music (Choral Symphony), writing (Ulysses) – these are the tangible things that one has produced, and which can survive for future ages to enjoy (or snipe at). Others however don’t leave any tangible artefact behind –they are the non-creative artists, or perhaps better described as performance artists. The great divas and actors and sportsmen and women of the past (before recording I mean, like film or gramophone) can be so described. We know they were esteemed by their contemporaries, but can only imagine what they were like or how “good” they actually were. Their performance was more fragile than paper, and it’s only on paper that their name has been preserved. In a way it can be said of them as Lord Henry said to Dorian Gray, “Life has been your art.”
Some are more famous than others, obviously; but there’s not that many who have given their name to the language as a model or proverbial example, or at least in a positive way. Captain Charles Boycott’s fame, or that of Vidkun Quisling, are not to be boasted of, let alone admired and emulated. One sixteenth-century Scot is the other kind. I refer of course to James Crichton, of Cluny (1560-1583), who died in a street brawl at the age of 23 or so, having taken Europe by storm with his beauty, his skill at the manly arts, his command of languages, and his debating power on many of the branches of knowledge of the time. The story is that he was set upon by a gang at the Carnival time in Mantua – all wore masks. He defended himself well, being (of course) a first-rate swordsman; but when his last assailant took his mask off to plead mercy, Crichton recognised the young prince he had been hired to teach. He knelt and offered his sword, hilt first, surrendering to his prince; but young Gonzago seized it and in drunken rage ran Crichton through the heart.
He sobered up, and tried to kill himself, but his men prevented that. The whole court at Mantua went into mourning for six months; and the story went the rounds, going viral, as we’d say, in Europe. Many poems and memorials were written about the young genius at the time, and a quarter of a century after (1609) Adam Abernethy was writing laudatory verse in Latin, the international language of the time:

                               Ergo, flos juvenum, Scotice spes, Palladis ingens,
                               Ereptumque decus Musarum e dulcibus ulnis,
                               Te, quamvis sileant alii, Critone, poetae,
                               Teque, tuamque necem nunquam mea Musa silebit.

                               Therefore, flower of young men, Scottish hope, great one of                                Pallas,
                               Glory of the Muses, reft from their sweet arms,
                               Although other poets are silent about you, Crichton,
                               On you and your death my Muse will never be silent.
Musa Campestris. 1609

In ensuing ages quite a few retellings were made – Harrison Ainsworth has a rather good historical novel of 1837 on the tale (though his version doesn’t end tragically) – and most famously there is a treatment by Sir Thomas Urquhart of Cromarty (1605-1660). He was a cavalier who fought for his king against Cromwell, and lived in exile on the continent until a servant brought news of the Restoration of Charles II, when he expired in a fit of laughter.

Urquhart left several works, all rather mannered and idiosyncratic, including at least one that is just impossible to make head or tail of. That one is his Trissotetras, designed to help one with all kinds of triangles, which a mathematically challenged humanist like myself leaves well alone. It’s available on the Internet in the reprint of Sir Thomas’s works for the Maitland Club (1834). That volume though also includes his Jewel*, which Sydney Goodsir Smith recommended to me as an inimitable account of an inimitable man. Urquhart’s prose style is nearly indescribable, and is maybe best compared to that of Rabelais, for whom Sir T was the ideal translator; he captures the exuberance, the fantastic imagination, the delight in putting words together in great concatenations of flowery verbiage that threaten to drown us or at least leave us gasping. The German critic Kurt Wittig refers to his “fantastic wealth of vocabulary and an eldritch humour that rather recall the grotesque side of the Makars and have no parallel in English prose before the verbal artistry of James Joyce”, noting “In one place, Urquhart gives 71 characteristic animal noises where Rabelais has only 9.”** (More on this perhaps next time.)

His account of Crichton is no doubt (none at all!) tinged with his own visionary proclivities and well-meaning embroidery, though the historian Patrick Fraser Tytler, another biographer, thinks it’s mainly not too far from the truth. Still, it should be read for its romantic enthusiasm; if this isn’t the way it was, it jolly well should have been. He gives the lament of Crichton’s mistress (who seems to have been also involved with the prince, which explains a lot):

… she, rending her garments and tearing her haire, like one of the Graces possest with a Fury, spoke thus: “O villains! what have you done? you vipers of men, that have thus basely slaine the valiant Crichtoun, the sword of his own sexe and the buckler of ours, the glory of this age, and restorer of the lost honour of the Court of Mantua: O Crichtoun, Crichtoun!”.

While Crichton left little behind him but a name, that name has become proverbial for a real Renaissance man, and was accordingly chosen as the title of James Barrie’s 1902 piece of social (and human) comedy, The Admirable Crichton. Whence of course he’s the perfect android butler Kryten in the British sci-fi comedy “Red Dwarf”.
In his honour a “James Crichton “Society” “to promote academic enquiry and discussion” was established a few years ago at St Andrews, his alma mater where he got his M.A. at the age of fourteen. Their motto is Transit umbra, lux permanet, “The shadow passes, light remains”, a good and optimistic sort of saying often found on sundials, and here deliberately applied to the Admirable Crichton.

*EKΣKΥBAΛAΥΡΟN: OR,The Diſcovery of A moſt exquiſite JEWEL more precious then Diamonds inchased in Gold, the like whereof was never ſeen in any age; found in the kennel of Worcesterſtreets, the day after the Fight, and ſix before the Autumnal Equinox, anno 1651. Serving in this place, To frontal a VINDICATION of the honour of SCOTLAND,from that Infamy, whereinto the Rigid Presbyterian party of that Nation, out of their Covetouſneſs and ambition, most diſſembledly hath involved it. London, 1652.
**Kurt Wittig. The Scottish Tradition in Literature. Edinburgh-London: Oliver & Boyd, 1958; p. 159. ===================================================================================

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Supping with the Devil – or a Fifer

The proverb It taks a lang spuin to sup wi the Deil is at least as old as Chaucer (Squier’s Tale), but very often, in Scotland at least, the warning about the Devil is changed to reflect the half-envious banter of non-Fifers for the canny folk of the Kingdom. They are reputedly fly, i.e. cunning, crafty, not easily deceived, knowing, clever, alert. Why this should be the judgement of others is obscure, but it is partnered in a way by the Fife saying Ye’re queer folk no to be Fife folk. This stand-offish attitude probably is connected with the proud history of the shire. It’s called “the Kingdom” because it was there that kings had their palaces and courts –
                               The king sits in Dumfermline toun,
                               Drinking the blude-reid wine
And Falkland, just over the hill from my home town of Leslie, has its palace still; in the old days it was the favourite hunting lodge of James V, “The Guidman o Ballangeich”, and where he died. He had just been told of the birth of his daughter Mary, and he is reputed to have said “Adieu, fareweel! It cam wi a lass, it’ll gang wi a lass.” Which came true, for the Stewart dynasty, that got the throne though the marriage of the sixth High Steward of Scotland, Walter Stewart (1293–1326), to Marjorie, daughter of Robert the Bruce, began its downfall with Mary Queen of Scots, and ended with the death of Queen Anne.
But long before that, , long before Dunfermline was a royal residence or the Stewarts moved into Falkland, the kings of the Picts ruled there. The name is found as Fib c.1150, and Fif (1165), i.e. “the Territory of Fib”, who was (we’re told) one of the seven sons of Cruithe, legendary father of the Picts. But the personal name seems to date later than the territory associated with it, so some earlier name must be involved.
However that may be, Fife has always, it seems, tried to be different, and act contrair to the expected. In the 1973 local government reorganisation of Scotland, Fife fought a successful campaign to be left as a unitary council area instead of being lumped together with Perth and Kinross, and as of 1996 it is still as proudly on its own. Others see it as a place not unique perhaps but definitely not usual. There’s the tale of the Edinburgh woman going over in the ferry and calling back to the shore “Fare-ye-weel, Scotland! I’m away to Fife!”

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Aye, right.

In 2002 The Scotsman carried a news item about a sheriff banning the use of the word “aye” by those appearing from custody in his court, insisting on “yes”. The sheriff, Lindsay Wood, an Arbroath solicitor (well-known as a popular after dinner speaker) serving as a visiting sheriff, asked 18-year-old Ryan Seath of St Ninians whether he accepted a bail condition, and he responded ”Aye”. Wood barked: “Next time you appear in court you don’t say aye, you say yes. Do you understand that?” The poor boy quickly replied “Yes” before being bailed and told to return for trial in December.
The incident even led to questions in the House of Commons, with six Liberal Democrat MPs, including Menzies Campbell, a leading Scots advocate, tabling an early-day motion noting that “aye” was recognised throughout Scotland as a clear alternative to the word yes. The motion pointed out that “aye” was the only word acceptable in the Commons as an alternative in a vote and asserted “its use should be universally accepted in courts in Scotland and throughout the United Kingdom”.

The story also ran in the Daily Mail and the Daily Record, and the sheriff was ridiculed of course, a pundit from Aberdeen University (Derrick McClure, a Scots language expert), commenting : “Aye is a perfectly acceptable word for ‘yes’. I thought these sheriffs would have learned some sense by this time. It happens to have disappeared from use in England, but not in Scotland, which is why it’s now thought of as a Scots word.” He added: “Everybody in Scotland knows what it means, and it is ridiculous that there should be any stigma towards using it.”

This was not the first time “Aye” was objected to. In 1993 in the Stirling court again, former sheriff James Nolan held Kevin Mathieson, 18, in contempt . He was told to answer “yes” or “no” but, when asked if he understood, he replied: “Aye” – and was sent to the cells for an hour and a half. We also learned that another retired Stirling sheriff, J Irvine Smith, “banned it because it could easily cause confusion, since the Scots word ‘aye’ also means ‘always’.”
Actually they are two separate and different words, and usually spelled differently too. I pronounce the affirmative like the first personal pronoun, and the one meaning “always” with a different opening vowel. The Scottish National Dictionary gives the pronunciations differently: “yes” is closer to ah-ee, while “always” is close to eh-ee. Actually the latter is often (in English) pronounced like the first letter of the alphabet, to rhyme with “day”. The Stirling bannings are a bit of a mystery, in that I wonder why such fastidious avoidance of the vernacular seems to happen most often there; but I do understand the sheriffs, who are probably much anglified establishment pillars, poor things.
Such niceness in the use of English (however mistaken) is on a par with the former insistence on English in school, as opposed to anything else, be it the guid Scots tongue or the Gaelic, under the threat of the tawse, a length of leather, split at one end into two (sometimes more) straps or thongs, applied to the outstretched palms of the hands. The belt, as we called it, was only outlawed in the eighties, and in my time was used on pupils who didn’t perform well or acted up, though it was a bit earlier that it was applied to those who, knowing no better, spoke their mother tongue in school (and even in the playground). A similar sort of thing happened in Canada, where the First Nations (as we call them now) were ruthlessly forced out of their traditions, and on the prairies those of Ukrainian stock were despised for trying to keep theirs. That belt by the way was (mostly) manufactured in Lochgelly, a town quite close to my home town in Fife. I knew it had some claim to fame.

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