English Nursery Rhyme

They hing the boy and thresh the lass
That steal the fat goose aff the gress
But let the birkies aal run loose
Who thieve the pasture fae the goose.

The Laa comes doon on peedie wans
That work haird wae thur own bare hands,
But leaves the lairds and ladies graand
Tae reive aal ower this dying grund.

Why the Westray cats hae good coats.

I gaed a drive doon the Nort Pier wae me blue Polo wan night last week tae see a man aboot some partans. There wis a few guys on the pier and I recognised me owld boss wae his yellow rubber beuts and his white fish-processor’s kep. He wore the kep thirty year ago when he was me boss in the crab factory in Kirkwall. He haed something black, still and feathery in his right hand.

I pulled in and opened the door tae speak tae him. (The Polo’s an isles ker, so the window doesna work.)

Dae you ken whit this is? said the bearded wan, raising his hand a peedie bit tae let me see whit he haed.

Ya, I said. It’s a deid Storm Petrel. I spent a night ringan them in North Ronaldsay a lot o years ago. We played their caals through speakers oot intae the darkness o the North Soond and they flew intae wur invisible nets. Kind o the opposite of hoo the US Marines flushed out Manuel Noriega in Panama wae heavy metal. Bonny peedie things. But that’s no gaan tae feed you and the wife the night?

No. Thur’s lots o them at Mousa Broch in Shetland. Whar aboot in North Ronaldsay dae ye get them?

In a peedie geo just sooth o the Bird Observatory. Whar Heather Woodbridge – the new Cooncillor – comes fae.

O yaas. Sheu’ll be a Green. I fund this ane deid on the end o the pier.

Folk go on aboot the puffins at Castle o Burrian, I thowt, but a Storm Petrel really is the last word in seabird cute.

Me boss gaed on: We used tae see them sometimes at sea, at night. They followed the boat in the moonlight and cam doon tae pick up things that had gotten steered up in the prop.

The boys arrived wae the partans. Wae aal ken the Orkney partans are the sweetest. (The Strumniss folk gaed B. Johnson the best they could find in Hoy Soond, but precious little did they get in return, I heard.) As I wis loading me boiling intae the boot o the Polo, wan o the boys said tae me boss, That bird’s no gaan tae feed thee and the wife the night!

Na, na. It’s for the cat. Keeps his coat good 🙂 explained the bearded wan.

Pulling Ragwort in Bonny Birsay


Nobody’s favourite job in high summer is pulling ragwort. But it’s weel kent that this vibrant plant, if it finds it’s way intae silage or hay, can be deadly poisonous tae sheep, kye, or horses. So we have spent the last two days clearing it fae a field that is soon tae be mown for silage.

It’s satisfying tae load the pickup up wae the wilting stalks and tae luk back owre the clear, clean acres ahint ye. Stealthy clegs, and the repetitive stretching movement as ye try tae get each plant up by the roots, mean that this can be a tedious job. But the views o bonny Birsay and the distant Atlantic tae the west more than mak up for hid.


The Man, you know?


Image of Jo Grimond, Rackwick July 2020.

On a crumbling sea wall in one of the outlying isles, or on the gable of a redundant farm building somewhere in a Mainland parish, you can still make out the faded lettering, daubed in white paint by a zealous supporter during, say, the 1966 general election campaign: VOTE FOR JO!

So popular and weel-kent was Jo Grimond, that only his familiar, friendly first name was required. ‘Vote for Jo, the man you know’, went the slogan. It is now exactly seventy years since Grimond was first elected as the Westminster representative for the Northern Isles. Remarkably, he held the Orkney and Shetland seat for thirty-three years between 1950 and 1983. The exhortation to vote for him was already then, as it is now, redundant, pointless, and unnecessary. Because for much of the twentieth century, Orkney and Shetland was the safest Liberal seat in Scotland.

Why should this be? And why – in the face of seismic shifts in Scottish political thinking and voting behaviour – does it remain the case? Orkney and Shetland is a curious anomaly on the Scottish political map, and Grimond goes as far as to acknowledge this in his 1979 Memoirs: ‘I have heard it said that Orkney and Shetland is a freak constituency segregated from the main highways of British political thought’. Of course, he refutes this. But the question nevertheless remains at the heart of the argument about whether people should continue to vote Lib Dem today. Is to do so not to segregate yourself and your fellow constituents from those ‘main highways’, and in so doing perpetuate the election of a tiny group who will only ever be, at best, voices in the political wilderness at Westminster?

The reasons I hear from people voting Lib Dem in twenty first century elections range from an uncritical assertion from an Orkney Islands Councillor that ‘if Liberal was good enough for Daddy, then it’s good enough for me’, to the friend who told me recently ‘well I don’t really know anything about politics so I always just vote Lib Dem’. I suspect that these sorts of family honour or safe repetitive predictability voting patterns are pretty common in modern Orkney and Shetland. And I absolutely don’t want to denigrate Lib Dem supporters. I know that a great many of my family and friends must vote Lib Dem (and I have done so myself from time to time in the past). I like to think that people here continue to vote this way because they can’t see themselves as idealist Socialists at this late point in history, but neither can they abide the hard-hearted, money-grabbing mentality of those on the right of the Tory party. With a tradition of hardworking owner occupancy in a reasonably classless society where people work every hour available (mostly on their own small-ish farms or in their own small businesses), it’s understandable that the industrial urban roots of socialism and radicalism have never really taken hold in Orkney. Likewise, the excesses of right wing Conservatism are deeply unpalatable to people who live, for better or for worse, in a real community, and understand that there is, of course, such a thing as Society after all; this is one important fact that you can’t afford to ignore when you are an islander.

I wonder how many of the younger Lib Dem voters in the Northern Isles know very much about the history of their party of choice, or indeed about the underlying philosophy of Liberalism. Grimond’s memoir is as revealing on the history as it is fascinating on the philosophy.

We shouldn’t imagine, for instance, that the Liberal party is any less an integral component of the British Establishment or that it is any way further removed from those implacable structures of power, privilege and patronage than the Tory party is. Grimond’s recollections of his early life are a veritable Who’s Who of the rich and powerful families at the very top of the UK caste system during the thirties and forties. He describes his enrolment at Eton, and then Oxford to study the famous PPE course required of future Conservative and New Labour cabinet ministers, with weekends spent shooting on estates where dinners in the lavish country houses of British aristocrats began with sherry and ended with port. When Grimond notes that ‘in 1945 my brother in law Billy became the Chief Scout’ and ‘after retiring as Chief Scout Billy was made governor of Tasmania in 1959’, it is as if this kind of appointment coming to a member of one’s immediate circle is nothing unusual. The power, interconnectedness and exclusivity of this disproportionately tiny British coterie is nothing short of astonishing. But, to his credit, Grimond doesn’t lack self-awareness, and he yearns for a future politics that is – dare I say it? – a bit more like that which we see at Holyrood today, ‘free from the patronising airs of the old Eton and Oxford hierarchy’.

Liberalism, Grimond reminds us throughout, combines the radical instinct with an insistence on individual liberty, and does not see the two as contradictory. Sadly, it’s difficult to see any immediate future for the doctrine in our increasingly fractured and fragmenting United Kingdom. Grimond’s seventy-year-old plea for proportional representation at Westminster has fallen on deaf ears for, well, seventy years. And neither has his argument for the advancement of Liberal ideals through parliamentary coalition stood the test of time, having been shot down in the flames of the end of free university education in England. And now, most inimical of all, narrow right-wing British Nationalism has turned its back on Europe forever.

While it might take a bit of a stretch of the imagination to think that Jo Grimond would have joined the SNP by 2020, it’s not unreasonable to imagine that he might by now be mobilising something like ‘Scottish Liberal Democrats for Independence’. His close involvement with the Joseph Rowntree Foundation, the work of which informs so many contemporary SNP policies, or his concern for the plight of the Guardian at a time when it was in much less trouble than it is today, reminds us of the social compassion underpinning his values.

And Grimond was a lifelong campaigner for what was originally known as Home Rule and later became Devolution. He was arguing for full federalism and tax raising powers for Scotland when Gordon Brown was still in short breeks. Grimond would have been frustrated beyond belief with Groundhog Day Labour ‘vows’ to deliver federalism or reform the upper chamber. With the combination of his antinuclear conviction and his internationalist outlook, we might imagine he would also be content with the pragmatic middle ground balance of SNP opposition to Trident renewal alongside commitment to NATO membership.

No, Grimond is by no means hostile to the SNP – some of whose socially progressive policies, it might be argued, have stolen a march on his political descendants in Scotland. If we remove the British/Unionist factor from this equation, the only true revival of the fortunes of the Liberal party that it is now possible to imagine in Scotland would come after the event of Scottish independence (at which point the SNP’s raison d’etre becomes redundant). The urgent question Lib Dems need to answer in Orkney and in Scotland today is How do you think you are ever going to achieve anything resembling Liberalism within the archaic and undemocratic structures of the United Kingdom?

This is an enthralling and an endearing memoir, not least because of its love for and affinity with the old Orkney people and ways of life. The warmth of Jo Grimond’s character continues to shine through forty years on. When he writes ‘I take the family as the green of the grass or the warmth of the fire’, we feel we are in the company of a gentleman whose heart is in absolutely the right place. But those Orkney and Shetland folk who persist in voting for Jo today run the risk of insisting that the political world is flat.

Things fall apart; the centre cannot hold.


Anyone wishing to better educate themselves right now about white colonial history and black colonised history – which are of course just two sides of exactly the same coin – would do well to read the magnificent novel by Nigerian Chinua Achebe called Things Fall Apart.

Set about 150 years ago in sub-saharan Africa, it’s the story of the destruction of a heroic, imperfect warrior named Ikonkwo. In the 1960’s, Things Fall Apart was the first African book to reach a global audience. Ikonkwo’s community is undermined and ultimately destroyed by racist, proto white-supremacist missionaries. Spoiler alert: Ikonkwo and lots of his people die in the end, because of the white Europeans.

Things Fall Apart is one of the books that marked a massive transition in world literature. From this point onwards, English was no longer an English language. The book was written and published as many of the white empires were falling, and at a time when the global population was said to have quadrupled as all of those who had previously been designated ‘natives’ finally became ‘men’.

This book might even help people in Orkney and beyond to understand why it is profoundly wrong, in the current context, to pleep that ‘all lives matter’; to understand why the murder of Lee Rigby has nothing to do with what is going on this week; and to see why we shouldn’t be focussing on injured police horses, looted shops, or defaced monuments. All of these are profoundly minor diversions from the one compelling key issue of our times: Black Lives Matter.


Lockdown Parable


Tonight, I have fulfilled a longstanding ambition: to sow a peedie patch o sacrificial crop for wild birds. At just 0.1 o a hectare, it’s no the biggest area o arable in the West Mainland. But I’m excited aboot it.

I’m excited tae think that, through the winter months, I might see a flock o Twite, or Greenfinches, a charm o Goldfinches, or – whit I secretly hope for above all else – that most endearing o peedie birds, a December Brambling foraging among the fallen oats.

There is ancient poetry in the names o the mixed smaller seeds: Buckwheat, Phacelia, Linseed, Camelina, Borage. Carrying the bag o seed across the field, I feel like a character in a story by George Mackay Broon. The west wind has gone to bed, a bull blares in the next field, and we broadcast the seed by hand in the dyes of the westering sun.

Nicola Sturgeon will likely broadcast the beginnings o the end o lockdown the morn. Coronavirus continues tae decline for noo. We hope these seeds will germinate, grow tall, and feed the peedie winter finches in January 2021.





Latin is a magic key.

When you are in school,

And you reveal at last

A Latin word in your work,

Like a jasp among shite,

The teacher will love you,

Recognising in you something 

Of her younger self.


And at The College,

Your speeches will be richly

Redolent of the old leaders.

When you sing arme virumque,

The young men and the old masters

will happily conflate the centurion 

and the heroic drone pilot.


For Latin is indeed the magic key.

To know it is to wield a sacred power 

over the minds of the little men and women,

who will follow you, like charmed rats

Knowing surely and absolutely

that you are their leader.

And you will lead them,

Per mare, ad aurum,

ad infinitum.

Ghosts, Stones, the Sunset


Every six months or so, the sale ring of the Orkney Auction Mart in Kirkwall is swept clean with a stiff byre broom, and made ready for a sale of Orkney books. The muscular Limousin steers or prime Texel lambs usually passing through this ring make way on these occasions for other products of the islands’ agricultural hinterland. Dusty copies of Eric Linklater’s magnificent Orkney novels. Sooty collected folk tales or histories by Walter Traill Dennison or Ernest Marwick. Slim volumes of exquisite verse, written by Robert Rendall or Christina Costie in the Orcadian variety of the Scots language, their pastel-coloured dust-jackets faded with age. The air carries a powerful smell of livestock. On the surrounding benches – usually populated by canny Aberdeenshire buyers – assembles a discerning local clientele. The auctioneer begins his rhythmic chant. The gavel cracks.

One book above all others has the power to create a frisson among the seasoned Orkney book buyers: The Storm and Other Poems, by George Mackay Brown. It’s more than sixty years since this maiden work of the great poet appeared, and the story of its publication has become a local legend. The young Brown was dogged by a black combination of tuberculosis, depression, and near-alcoholism. Had it not been for the love of a devoted mother, Mhairi Brown, and the guidance of a poetic mentor, the Orcadian modernist Edwin Muir, the great bard of Stromness might never have made it into print. But thanks to the encouragement of Muir, who wrote of the ‘grace’ of these early poems, and the help of the historian Ernest Marwick, who published two of them in An Anthology of Orkney Verse (1949), Brown found the self-belief to complete his first collection, and the courage to take it to a Kirkwall publisher, The Orkney Herald. A modest run of three hundred copies of The Storm and Other Poems went ahead, after which the press was dismantled. The book promptly sold out, and the rest is Scottish Literary History. Over the next three decades, George Mackay Brown became internationally famous, earning the acclaim of poets and critics the world over. A fragile copy of The Storm and Other Poems that has lain in a drawer in an Orkney farmhouse, the damp air of sixty northern winters rusting its staples, has the power today to excite the passions of even the most reserved and conservative of book buyers at the Orkney Auction Mart.

Some of the poems in The Storm and Other Poems brim with a kind of Hopkinsean gusto that is typical of Brown’s early work. The title poem especially is loud, dramatic, and flamboyantly musical. And there are occasional flashes in The Storm and Other Poems of a punky young poet, setting out to sing ‘for Scotland, that Knox ruined nation’, nationalistic and confrontational in a way that readers of the later Brown wouldn’t quite recognise. But of course, his perennial themes – land and sea, farming and fishing, sanctity and sacrifice, history and cycle – are all there from the outset.

Brown was born to be the poet of his community. His point in history enabled him to create a bridge between the ancient agrarian and maritime Orkney of the peasants and the jarls, and the modern world of international communication, publishing and poetry. His circumstances dictated that he would never be able to hold down any other kind of job, and so there was an inevitability to his development as a poet and author. And his rise to prominence during the sixties and seventies coincided with wider New Age ideals of a reversion to innocence and a seeking after pure sources. For many metropolitan migrants these ideals extended to uprooting themselves and moving lock, stock and barrel to some of the ‘remoter’ parts of Scotland. Brown’s work, which is scathing towards modernity, science, technology, and nuclear weaponry, struck a chord with an idealistic generation of southern readers. 

Critics lauded Brown’s ‘unadulterated’ art, and were blown away by the ‘purity’ of his poetics, imagining that this meticulously crafted and painstakingly developed poetry had somehow always been here in the distant north, like Neolithic treasure waiting to be lifted by southern hands from the damp northern clay. And while it may represent part of the truth of GMB’s art, this view fails to sufficiently recognise his dedication, his extensive reading, his literary network, or his individual genius – not to mention a certain canniness, his sense of the wider audience sitting round the sale-ring. 

A cynic might say that those ‘pure sources’ of Brown’s poetry have all but dried up in Orkney today. Wind turbines grind out their clean energy. Every square metre of pasture or tilth is satellite-mapped, assessed, and subsidised. Hundreds of thousands of tourists spill from ocean liners to shuffle round the rocks at Skara Brae and the Ring of Brodgar. The tides, the waves, and the very seabed have been leased to renewable energy developers. You can drive the roads of the West Mainland late in a summer evening before harvest time, seeking George Mackay Brown’s mythology, but all you’ll find are ghosts, stones, the sunset.

(Adapted from the introduction to Orcadians: Seven Impromptus by George Mackay Brown with illustrations by Simon Manfield, published by Kettillonia: http://kettillonia.co.uk/pamphlets/poetry/orcadians-seven-impromptus/ )


Haggis tasting notes, and whisky pairings


The Olivebank Haggis, Island Nation o Stronsay, Orkney

It’s a common misconception that aal haggis is the same. Nothing could be further fae the truth. As always, we aim tae promote cultural diversity – wae a peedie bit o positive northern chauvinism thrown in for good measure. This month, Brisknortherly brings you tasting notes tae three classic haggises o the north.

Haggis #1 – George Donaldson and Sons, Kirkwall, Orkney

Generations o Orcadians hiv been browt up on Donaldsons’ haggis. This is an exceptionally light haggis, wae a very high oatmeal content – meaning the haggis can be fluffed wae a fork. The colour is light, and the morsels o meat dotted among the oatmeal mean the cooked product has a bonny speckled appearance, like the breist o a Mistlethrush. The flavour is mild – as haggises go – but rich nevertheless. Donaldson’s is an outstandingly good haggis, made tae an owld family recipe. If you are new tae haggis, this is the ideal introduction. Serve wae clapshot, and pair wae Scapa the Orcadian single malt – because a refined pudding deserves a polite whisky.

Haggis #2 – George Cockburn and Son, Dingwall, Highland

This Hieland haggis is especially moist and mealy, wae powerful aromas o gravy and caramelised onion. High oatmeal content again maks for a haggis that is faer lighter and moister than supermarket haggises, or indeed the styles o haggis typically prepared in southern Scotland. (Brisknortherly’s advice is never tae buy a supermarket haggis.) Cockburn’s semolina-textured haggis has been judged the world’s best, proving ye don’t even need tae drive sooth o Inverness tae sample the cream o the crop. Serve this noble baest wae clapshot, mince and gravy (yes, a peedie bit o mince and gravy is traditional wae haggis!) and pair wae Laphroaig for a bit o complementary paet reek.

Haggis #3 – Maurice Williamson, Isle o Stronsay, Orkney

And this ane is completely different again! A denser haggis, wae cheust the right balance o cloves (more cloves than Donaldson’s or Cockburn’s, BTW, so a sweeter flavour) and a generous dash o white pepper that’s verging on pungent, but doesna owerstep the mark. An exotic pork haggis, Williamson’s honest sonsie face when boiled and drained luks like a marble boulder. Cut it open, and the pork heart nuggets inside are sweet chocolate chips in a plum duff. This is yet anither very fine haggis, fae a plucky, independent producer in a properly peripheral place. Fair fa ye, Olivebank butchers! Serve wae mashed tatties and a dram o Owld Pulteney – salt tae go wae the pepper 🙂


Dandie Dinmont


This is the dog that was invented by Sir Walter Scott. Well, that’s not strictly true. Scott was responsible for the ‘invention’ of many Scottish myths, as well as the global popularisation of many Scottish truths. Sometimes it’s difficult to tell where fact ends and where fiction begins. But when, in his 1815 novel Guy Mannering, Scott invented the dog-loving farmer character Dandie Dinmont, he coined a suitably colourful and comical name for what is probably the oldest breed of dog in Scotland; a proper terrier that had been catching rats, roaming the heather, and digging holes in the Scottish Borders for centuries.

The Dandie Dinmont is a mixter-maxter. The long body is reminiscent of a Dachshund (Dandies were known to have been put to ground to dig out large quarry such as badgers). The tail of a happy Dandie rotates like a hound’s tail. The head is heavy, not unlike the head of a Skye Terrier or a Scottie, and is topped with a silky ‘topknot’ of fine hair. The eyes are large, lustrous, and soulful. For a small dog, the Dandie has disproportionately large, powerful front legs and paws, designed for digging. The bark is deep and throaty – suggestive of a much larger animal.

Our family have been the privileged owners of two Dandie Dinmont terriers. Archie, pictured above, was a ‘pepper’ coloured dog, while Fara (pictured bottom) is a ‘mustard’ bitch.

Between them, Archie and Fara produced ten pups. We are very proud of their contribution, because the Dandie Dinmont is now a critically vulnerable breed, with only 130 pups being born in the UK last year. (By comparison, there were 35,000 Labrador pups, and 30,000 French Bulldogs.) In 2011, Fara delivered us a Christmas gift of six pups, which made for a lively holiday season. Some of the owners of these pups have become friends, and we keep in touch with people in Glasgow, the Scottish Borders, and in the Netherlands who have our Dandies.


I can say with complete impartiality that Fara is beyond doubt the finest and best-behaved dog that I have ever had the good fortune to own. She is sweet-natured, loyal and loving. She is impeccably well behaved. She sheds no hair. As I write this on a cold November afternoon, she sleeps at my feet between the sofa and the wood burner. When I ask her whether she agrees with my views on Brexit, her tail rotates accordingly.

The Brisknortherly blog is falling into a bit of a pattern of lamenting the loss, in the face of global standardisation and conformity, of things that are culturally unique. I offer no apology. There are breeds of lovely dogs like the Labrador or the French Bulldog that are hugely fashionable, and which whelp in their tens of thousands each year, and then there are the vulnerable breeds. I wish more folk would consider the endangered dogs. There is literally nothing like them. Sir Walter Scott’s invention, like so many other wonderful things, is on the verge of endless extinction.