Kettillonia Press, 2012 £4.50
Reviewed by Christie Williamson and Helena Nelson
When Innes Dow won the McCash Scots Poetry Competition in 2010, it was a revelation. Scotland is a small country, poetry is a small country, and Scots language poetry is definitely a minority sport. So hearing new names is a rarity.
Innes Dow, however, turned out to be a familiar figure. With his Gaelic poetry and his own English translations of it, Aonghas MacNeacail has raised his intelligent, heartfelt and instinctively internationalist voice for decades. In Ayont the dyke, he continues to do so, but uses the Scots of his adopted home in the Scottish Borders.
Three avian poems begin the collection. The craw (crow), the pickmaw (gull) and the houlet (owl) are addressed. Straight away, themes of mortality and survival are introduced. The craw scavenges—
it’s no yir wey
tae pyke or claw
a leevin hert fae
The pickmaw is doomed—
an yon prood ee in
yir mune-roondit heid
wull be cauld as a pairl.
And the houlet’s cry gives Mr MacNeacail the willies—
it’s the ghaist i the wirds,
no whit thay say.
This pamphlet has no glossary, which is fine by me. However, Scots is such a diverse and disparate language that even the best-read amongst us can sometimes be sent scarpering to the growing online resources to ascertain, for example, the difference between “mane” and “mune”.
For all that, I wouldn’t see my bookshelves without it. The pamphlet covers a breadth of topics and marries light-hearted rhymes about his wee dug “shug” with deeply philosophical meditations on faith and doubt. He even, in “atween twa leids”, approaches the question of why, having achieved so much with Gaelic poetry he should now pick up another of Scotland’s national languages. In this poem he posits the excellent notion that both are in fact kin, and that Scots has been “kittlin ma speirin lug” all of his life.
In ‘Galoots’, the closing poem, MacNeacail inhabits the mind of Jock, holding back the tears of his lifelong friend’s imminent passing—“tears winna bring thon big lauch back”. These feisty, lithe, little poems prove that Aonghas Dubh, Kettillonia, and the collection of linguistic phenomena known as the Scots tongue are all very much alive and kicking.
The Scots in these poems is fairly dense—it stretched me many times—and this will no doubt restrict the readership (three cheers for presses like Kettillonia for proceeding undeterred). But the poems are worth being stretched for, and you can get a free Scots dictionary on line if you need it. As the houlet (a much better word for owl any day of the week) says, “it’s the ghaist i the wirds,/ no whit thay say”.
MacNeacail writes in both Gaelic and English, and now also in Scots in this pamphlet: the three languages of Scotland, therefore. He is a bardic figure, in every sense, a man with presence.
The Scottish Poetry Library has a detailed article about him that highlights his place in the Scottish canon. I am never likely to read Gaelic, but I can read Scots (as any English speaker can, with a little effort). Through these poems I feel a little closer to the spirit of the poet and perhaps, if it doesn’t sound too fanciful, to the spirit of the land.
MacNeacail is intensely aware of sound. In fact, if you allow yourself to hear these poems as your first response, you pick up the sense through that alone. ‘Blue suede shuin’, for example, is a tram poem, a journey in itself with an argument about versions of Presley’s ‘Blue Suede Shoes’ in the middle. The sound of the tram is the dominant music (“aye, listen tae the blatter o the tram”), and the sound of the Glasgow destinations (from Dalmuir to Auchenshuggle) evokes the Gaelic too. These places were once gaelic fields the poet tells us, named for the crops in them, and the sound of the poem is a kaleidoscope of language—Gaelic, English, Scots, American—the great diaspora. Fascinating stuff going on here: I could write a whole pamphlet about this single poem.
But there’s too much else to say. This is a rich publication. It includes many kinds of poems: political, comic, personal, pastoral. MacNeacail can turn his hand to almost anything. I came across some wonderful words I didn’t know. ‘Cowslem’ for example—from the old name for the evening star; it may be ‘cows’ + ‘leam’, the gleam of the star in the sky when the cattle are driven home, as in the English ‘folding-star’ (another unfamiliar reference). Here (in the poem ‘thare’s deils wad rive us fae oor leid’) the “cowslem time” is twilight, I think. But this is not just a Scots word you have to look up, and it’s not just twilight either. It’s a metaphorical reference to later days, and the later days are now, because this poem is a hymn, or maybe a paean, to the survival of language and the spirit that goes with it. Enough, the poet says, of squabbling between the languages, between lowlander and Gael. What will save us is “sangs to heeze the saul”—poems or songs to invigorate the spirit. And this is one of them. It invokes the ancients (“the wichts o aa lang time”) who will plough a metaphorical field (“mede”) in which the language will grow, must grow:
the wichts o aa lang time sall teel
a new mede whaur the leid maun growe,
a new mede whaur the leid maun growe.
It is terrific stuff. Let it work on you. This is a pamphlet that knows it is “atween twa leids”, between two languages (at least two), and that’s the point. It leaps ayont the dyke, over the conceptual wall that divides them. MacNeacail is well known for his work in Gaelic, and to a lesser extent English, and now Scots. And why not? “It shairly / canna be an ill or / misbehauden gate / tae gang, gin aw / this erch explorer / seeks is pleisur in / yir birkie lexicon”. (Surely it can’t be a bad or improper road to follow, if all this hesitant explorer seeks is pleasure in your lively lexicon.) Like the explorer poet, that’s all the adventuring reader needs: the impulse to take pleasure in a less familiar (but wonderful) linguistic territory.
You might hesitate, of course, at first, but jump right in. The language may be unfamiliar, but it’s full of music, strong feeling, and playfulness. You don’t need to understand poetry on first reading—you never did. You just have to listen.
Here’s a wee one to end with. MacNeacail can do complex and simple. If you read this celebratory two-liner aloud, the language is close enough to English to be self-explanatory. It’s called ‘Oot’ (‘Out’):
whit ur jaikits fur
oan sic a simmer’s morn
As I write, rain is drumming relentlessly against my window; the sky is December dark; the windows of the neighbours are grimly shut. But with that little two-liner, summer (for a moment) is here.