Review: ‘Swiet Haar’ and ‘Dark Island’ (Abersee Press)

Swiet-Haar-FB cover

Swiet Haar, the first of these two new chapbooks from the Stenness-based Abersee press, brings together two established, stellar figures from Shetland literature with two younger but equally exciting Orcadian writers.

The Shelties are Robert Alan Jamieson and Christine De Luca. Jamieson is the novelist and poet who lectures in creative writing at the University of Edinburgh, while De Luca is the current Edinburgh Makar, the official poet of the city.

Highlights of the poetry collected here include Jamieson’s lyrical Shetlandic versions of a range of Icelandic, Norwegian, Faroese and Orcadian poems (the title ‘Swiet Haar’ comes from his translation of the GMB classic ‘Hamnavoe Market’), while De Luca’s ‘Digestin a poem’ is a sharp Shetland satire on Hugh MacDiarmid’s pompously ‘intellectual’ appropriation of Norn language during his residence in Whalsay in the thirties.

The first of the two Orkney writers represented in ‘Swiet Haar’ is Kevin Cormack, the Kirkwall-born artist and musician who now lives in London. Cormack is emerging as an especially interesting poet. His work gathers family, personal, or community memories, rendering them in particularly sure-footed Orcadian; maybe this has to do with his musician’s ear. The poems are postmodern, lyrical, and often satisfyingly surreal. There is a little darkness and lot of wit in all of them.

Cormack’s ‘Hert’, I think, is a poem that will find its way into a future anthology of the best Orkney poems of the 21st century. It is certainly a community poem, but it’s also a slightly dark, contemporary piece without sentimentality, and with none of the literary ‘heritage’ problems that are apt to afflict writers in rural parts of Scotland: ‘Wur hert is a ba./ A cork-filled, leather-bound,/ harlequin, humbug ba. A game,/ played through the streets – a skreed,/ a scrum, a buull in a china shop,/ driven up t’waard the hospital, or doon/ t’waard the pier -/ bite the watter or bite the waall.’

There’s also a short and poetic prose piece – previously unpublished – from Amy Liptrot, author of the now famous memoir The Outrun. ‘Sunlight on Stone’ is a finely crafted essay where Liptrot reflects with characteristic candour on homesickness, and the curiously comforting prospect of carving the letters on her own gravestone.

The other booklet of this pair, Dark Island, represents the most welcome return, after a long absence, of Duncan McLean the writer of fiction – reinvented as an integral part of the emergent and indigenous Orkney literary scene. Well, I say ‘reinvented’, but there’s all of the trademark wit and outrageous satire that we know, love and expect from McLean – it’s just that now these talents are being applied to contemporary Orkney. Stories like ‘Larkan’, ‘Housewarming’ or ‘Twatt’s Tearoom’ are deadpan hilarious, and we should be glad that we have a writer this sharp and this perceptive in our midst.

A great many people are writing fiction about Orkney these days, and some of them, I might sarcastically add, have even visited Orkney. But we can’t accuse Duncan McLean of cultural appropriation – he’s been here too long, and he’s simply too accurate, too entertaining, and too perceptive for that. McLean might never be an ‘insider’ Orkney writer, but he’s the next best thing – an honorary Orcadian, and ‘Dark Island’ represents a bizarre, irreverent and absolutely necessary component of our new island canon

Dark Island FB cover

Swiet Haar and Dark Island are available from Stromness Books and Prints, The Orcadian Bookshop, and Kirkness and Gorie.


Patron Saint of Electricians


No one of my generation can walk round the glorious port of Gdansk without thinking of Lech Walesa. The heroic, moustached electrician and activist was the darling of the British media in the eighties. We rooted for him, and for the wider Solidarity movement.

Walesa was that rare thing, a true socialist, demanding the return of workers’ rights from the bloated communist elite, and lighting the spark that eventually resulted in the collapse of the Soviet Union. Under the dockyard cranes he spoke, incomprehensible and urgent in the Baltic sunlight, demanding justice. An inspirational Pole.

Behind the docks is the magesterial new Museum of World War Two, and to view it is a harrowing experience, like visiting a concentration camp. I spent four hours there, and was reduced to tears. The Polish perspective on WW2 is vital. For Poland was destroyed twice: once by the bastard Nazis, and then again by the rapists of the Red Army. Being a refugee, a migrant, a traveller and survivor by necessity, is at the core of the Polish experience.

The Gdansk old town was completely obliterated. So the medieval crane and bright gables of today’s dock front – indeed all the central streets and buildings – are modern replicas, rebuilt to the original specifications. St Mary’s church, the largest brick built cathedral on earth, was pieced together again brick by brick; such is the devotion of the Gdansk faithful. Every European should see this magnificent town now.


But the realities of Lech Walesa’s later political career are more difficult to chart. Some allege that he colluded with the Communist secret service. The older Walesa has proved to be small c conservative in the nasty way, and seems pretty narrowly nationalistic in his outlook. Other aspects of Poland emerge. Gay visitors, a guide book points out, should remember they are not in Soho any more. And the backward Right are on the march in Poland’s city squares, perverters of their own history. It seems to me that the Poles – of all people – should know exactly what it means to be persecuted, to be refugees.


Poor Peedie Gaelic

Poor peedie Gaelic.

Peedie tottie grottie buckie.

Atlantic o pressure bearan doon on thee.

Hoo kin thoo stand it, peedie thing?

Thoo’re only peedie.


Poor peedie Gaelic.

Empty shell cast up on a skerry.

Ootcast on the maritime periphery.

Peedie breist wae livan, roseate hue.

But when I turn thee ower I see

A peedie skull grinnan back at me.


Still, thoo are blessed compared wae me:

Thur’s Alba on the BBC,

A Language Act fur aal tae see,

And thoo’re distinct.

But haters willna let iss be,

Till wu’r extinct.

IMG_0225Listen to Poor Peedie Gaelic, read by the poet on Soundcloud:

New Lambs, Owld Stone



Picture: Anja Hall

Sorry, but the picture o the lambs is cheust clickbait. This post is aboot sometheen else. It’s aboot pittan up a new lambeen shed. Read on, though! Pittan up a new shed is a big event.

Ally arrived shortly eftir Christmas wae his Japanese digger tae dig oot the found. He worked long oors, and soon struck rock; the kind o stuff we caal ‘blue whin’, tae be precise. Haird as diamond. Whit ancient sediment wis he brakkan up? Whittiver it wis, stoor stood oot o it when Ally pit the brakkar on it. That slowed us doon a bit. We enjoyed Ally’s company when he wis here. But when he wis feeneeshed, we didna miss the noise o the brakkar gaan aal weekend long. D D. Ddd ddd ddd ddd ddd ddd ddd ddd ddd ddd ddd. Ddd ddd. D d. d.

Eftir the hole wis dug, Bruce and Scott arrived tae assemble the kit. It gaed up in no time. These boys work haird, teu. And in any weather. Drivan rain, howlan wind, freezan cowld. Nane o it bothered them much – they cheust worked and worked and worked. And the shed wis up – a bonny new structure gleaman in the April sunshine. They got the concrete floor poored in the nick o time.


So. Tak the sheep in, and stert lamban. The usual, cutesy ‘Lambing Diary’ stuff sterts tae happen. Multiple births. Easy lambeens. Bad lambeens. Up aal night. Unsuccessful adoptions. Successful adoptions. Orf. Snatchan some sleep through the day when ye can. Calorific breakfasts, and litres o cappuccino. Faalan asleep on a weet bale in the new shed at 4.45 am. Steam in the haet o the piggy bulbs. Milk. Mithers. Atrocious waather. Joni Mitchell on the radio. Boiler suits laggered in … best no tae say. Red Throated Divers caalan ootside. Peedie lambs gaan Meeeh! Meeeh! Meeeh! till yur cheust aboot demented wae it.

Soon, the new shed, that began as an empty hole in the grunnd, is fill o life.

I step ootsite the shed door wan morneen at aboot 6.00. The sun is shinan eftir a few days o April shooers. The rain haes washed the gutter fae the thoosand fragments o blue whin that lie aal roond the site. In the corner o me eye, I see the fossilised underjaw o a peedie fish – no unlike a troot fae the Harray Loch. If thur’s new life in the new shed, then thur’s the remains o some o the owldest life on Earth rooed up ootside. Fossil fish fae the sediment o Devonian Loch Orcadie, when Orkney wis in the southern hemisphere.


Island driving etiquette

Learning tae drive on an island is easier than learning tae drive in a city. No roondaboots. No traffic lights. No dual carriageway. Ye might hiv tae watch oot for ducks crossing. Or owld fermers oot for a slow drive, lukkan at the kye. But there’s no doot, it’s easier tae learn tae drive on an island.

Ye come tae understand that ye’ll probably recognise just aboot everybody ye meet on the road. When ye’re gettan lessons, ye mak a peedie, surreptitious glance at the driver o every vehicle ye pass (hoping your driving instructor doesna notice). When you pass your test, you are free tae gie them aal a freendly wave when ye meet; it’s fun when ye see yer pals.

Folk hiv got their own, idiosyncratic waves that they use when drivan. Wan freend acknowledges ye wae an almost imperceptible lift o the finger. Anither flaps his airm up so high he hits the roof o the ker.

So it saddens me that there’s a lot o folk livan here noo who hiv no idea aboot island road etiquette whitsoever.

An owld freend o mine, who is in his 80s, wis accosted in November by a fast driver who nearly ran intae him in a 30 MPH zone. The driver pulled in ahead o him, and accused me freend o pullan oot in front o him. When me freend pointed oot that is wis a 30 zone, the ither driver became aggressive. Anither freend haed the misfortune tae go off the road on the ice in December, ending up in a field. A passing driver stopped, not tae ask if he wis OK, but tae shout ‘idiot’ at him. Giving a teenager a lesson in Kirkwall last week, I couldna believe it when a ker behint impatiently peeped the horn at her.

Whit folk like these fail tae appreciate is that this island only has a limited number of folk, and a limited number o roads. Ye’ll go roond and roond, and meet the sam folk ower and ower again. It’s worth mindan on that the sam applies tae island life in general. That’s why we tend tae be polite folk, who avoid confrontation if we can help it. 21st century road-rage doesna work in wae island living.

Skipper Gunn’s Gifts


In the four o clock darkness o the late December afternoon, Skipper Gunn turns his back on the Christmas lights that are strung fae the rigging o the whitefish boats. He crosses Harbour Street, twists his skinny frame under the Ba barricades, and slips through the front door o the North Star Bar.

Skipper likes a double O.V.D. at the coal fire through the back, his peedie thin legs hanging fae the bar stool. His phone pings relentlessly wae notifications fae Leona – mind on Skyler’s prescription, don’t forget aboot Dale’s consent form, mind on the boat leaves early the night.  Steel-toed rigger boots, a toorie and a peedie beard. That’s Skipper. He nivver actually sailed as skipper, and he drinks in binges that come like northerly gales; one every twelve weeks or so, more often in the winter months.

Ally Ratter is sat there already, like a Heavy Metal Santa. Long white beard, and the big gut. His t-shirt says Baby Please Don’t Go. Ally is the engineer on the Jarl Thorfinn. On his fortnight ashore, Ally parks his reid Hilux on the pier at aboot 12.00. He sets his heavy wallet and his phone on the Formica o the bar. The screensaver is a picture o his dowter, Carrie. Four pints o Guinness for the afternoon, and four for the evening. Ally’s phone doesna ping; his ex doesna spik tae him.

But Skipper and Ally hiv a lot tae spik aboot. Their days in the school hostel taegethir. Westray folk that merried Sanday folk; Sanday folk that merried Westray folk. Ally’s fither’s trips tae Montevideo and Nagasaki. Skipper’s grandfither on the Northern Convoys. Climate Change. The weet westerly waathir, and hoo ye nivver get a right northerly gale any more. The reward for the ROV that the renewables company lost in the Westray Firth. Orcas in Eynhallow Soond. The price o lambs. Faroese quota. Unreal tonnages o salmon feed.

And dae you ken whit Brandon Harcus paid for that seventy acre at Ness? says Skipper, getting louder. Quarter o a million!

I heard that. I heard he paid cash in twa Lidl kerrier bags, says Ally, quietly. Still, he’s no a bad lad.

Sky News plays dumb overhead. Refugees: Skip wonders whitwey they can afford I-Phones; Ally says I-Phones are all they hiv. Ally luks at his screensaver.

Wae a dour nod tae the barmaid, Ally orders Skipper anither O.V.D. Ally’s gettan tae the stage whar he’s just aboot managing a peedie, shy smile. Skipper’s gettan tae the stage whar he can feel the rum coursing through his forearms. Ally does smile – peedie weys – aal big, heavy teeth. Skipper’s bad teeth luk broon in the mirror ahint the bar, especially when he’s been drinkan rum.

Mind on the bairns’ presents, Skipper.

Ah’ll no forget aboot them – I pat them in the waiting room.

And mind on the boat goes early.

Ah’ll no forget aboot that. Leona telt me no tae bother coman home if I miss it.

The north wind is gettan up. The boys on the boat will be gled tae get home across the Soond tae Blindarsay the night. Skipper scoops his last dram and claps the gless doon on the Formica.

Time for the boat. Hiv a Merry Christmas, Ally.

Ah’ll dae me best. Enjoy yersels the morn, Skip.

Cheers, beuy. And try no tae think aboot Carrie too much, says Skipper.

But I want tae think aboot her, says Ally. Anyway, get doon the pier – it’s three meenits tae six.

Oot intae the rising northerly wind he goes. Back across Harbour Street, and doon the pier tae the boat. Straight past the waiting room. He taks a peedie lurch as he’s crossan the linkspan, but whether it’s the wind or the rum he doesna ken. He’s no sooner aboard when CLUNK. CLUNK CLUNK the bow doors are secured and ready for sea. Skipper heads tae the lounge, kicks off his riggers, and is flat oot snoran like a bandsaw afore the boat sterts tae bury her heid in the lumps in the tide off the Ness.

He’s oot for the whole crossing until the voice blares oot o the speaker Ladies and gentlemen we have now arrived at Blindarsay please remember tae tak your belongings wae you as you disembark. And oot he goes again intae the wind.

Merry Christmas, Skip, say the boys on the deck. Merry, Christmas, beuys! Skip crosses the cobbles at the head o the Blindarsay pier. The lights hing doon fae the village Christmas tree as it springs upright and doon, upright and doon, atween the gusts. Cloods scud across the cowld sky and reveal a glimpse o the North Star. He’s home, on Christmas Eve! Skip gies a peedie skip and teks across the peedie square, past the War Memorial, and up tae his peedie Cooncil hoose whar Leona surely won’t realise he’s that drunk.

The wind claps the door shut ahint him. The nerrow lobby is fill o bruck. He sees three manilla envelopes wae cellophane windows addressed tae Mr S and Mrs L Gunn on the floor. Skyler is greetan; Dale is on the Xbox. Leona stands in the kitchen doorway. Her hair luks like it could dae wae a wash. She has rubber gloves on and a dishcloot in her hand, and she speaks quietly so the bairns canna hear: Did ye mind on the presents, Skipper? The wind roars owre the roof tiles. Jesus Christ the presents.

*          *          *

By seven AM the wind is doon again. Leona steps ootside the back door wae the bin bags, sets them doon, and lights an Embassy Regal. She can hear the eider ducks on the still bay a quarter mile away as the eastern sky reddens. They mate for life, her mither tellt her. Skip is indoors, sleepan on the sofa. The bairns are sleepan, too. As she exhales, Leona’s phone pings. It says ‘new message from Ally Ratter’:




Doon the concrete path tae the coal hoose she goes, and there, inside the door, are the three damp, bright parcels. The paper is soggy wae salt watter, and it’s a peedie bit ripped, but there they are. Leona draas deep on her cigarette, haads the breath, and stoops in under the low lintel o the coal hoose tae retrieve the gifts. Thank God fur that, sheu mutters tae hersel as the light sterts tae come up.