Crackan the troughs

A neebor said tae me a couple o year ago, ‘I mind when I war young gaan oot tae brak the ice on the troughs so the kye could drink. Ye cheust don’t get cowld waathir like that any more.’ Me faither-in-law minds the postie walkan right across the ice on the Boardhoose Loch wan winter in the forties tae cut short his route deliveran the mail.

Climate change is deeply demoralisan. Winters o notheen but relentless, weet, windy, soothwesterly waathir. Ye waaken up in the night and think aboot the poor sheep oot in that endless, drivan rain and wind, wind and rain. The worst thing for me aboot keepan animals in winter is the sea o gutter – every job ye go tae dae on the ferm ye get bogged doon in the weet and ye canna pull yer feet oot. Climate change maks the sheep miserable, teu.

These are the reasons why this current spell o deep cowld is profoundly reassuran and welcome; a return tae the fermers’ memories o owld. For the first time in me life, I hiv brokken the ice on troughs – for eight days in succession. While this waathir maks certain birds more apparent – snipe, in particular, struggle wae the frozen grunnd, and appear in unlikely places, visible and vulnerable close tae buildings or in patches o scrub, or on the salty shore – it is aisier on the sheep. Sheep can stand any amount o cowld, as long as they are dry. Weel fed on silage and barley, they sit content on the snow and in the February sun, relaxing in the later stages o thur pregnancies.

On the road home fae brakkan the ice and feedan the rams in the picture, twa Lapland Buntings accompanied me in flight for a hunder metres or so, keepan up wae the tractor at twenty mile an hour, and no at aal oot o place in crisp, georgeous Durkadale this eftirnoon.

Norse Past, Victorian Present: Orcadian readings of Orkneyinga Saga

I am privileged to work in a school in the village of Pierowall on the Orkney island of Westray, and my Monday morning commute is pretty spectacular. At Kirkwall airport, I board the little eight-seater Britten-Norman ‘Islander’ aircraft, and within a few moments we are in the air. Climbing westward from Grimsetter, the Islander veers north over the spire of St Magnus Cathedral. Soon we are moving towards and over the expansive, fertile North Isles, peering down at the multitude of saga sites and viking points of interest among the grass, heather and rocks below. Orkneyinga Saga, the great book of Viking Orkney, often comes into my thoughts while I’m on this commute.

Within the first five minutes of the flight we are passing the farm of Langskaill, on the heathery isle of Gairsay, the homestead of Eric Linklater’s ‘ultimate viking’, Svein Asleifarson. A little further north appears the stone keep built by Norse chieftain Kolbein Hruga on the island of Wyre. Then comes the long, narrow, marshy isle of Egilsay, scene of the failed twelfth-century peace summit between cousins Magnus Erlendsson and Hakon Paulson, where Earl Magnus was murdered and martyred. (We fly directly over the stone cairn marking the site of Magnus’ execution.) Then we are out over the breathtaking expanse of the Westray Firth and fast approaching the magnificent modern steading at Tuquoy, where Haflidi Thorkelson built his Christian chapel in the twelfth century. The aircraft descends over Westray and the perfect aquamarine horseshoe of Pierowall Bay, scene of Earl Rognvald Kolson’s famous landing ahead of his successful bid for the earldom, and the oldest continuously inhabited settlement in Orkney. We land with a comfortable bump on the airstrip at Skaill, in the north of Westray.

It is partly because of this geographical and topographical rootedness that reading Orkneyinga Saga remains such a vivid experience for Orcadians, a thousand years on from the events described in the text. In fact, such is the predominance of the Norse period in Orcadian historiography that the Picts who preceded the Norse, and the Scots who supplanted them, are all but forgotten. Creative writers, too, from Sir Walter Scott to Walter Traill Dennison, from Eric Linklater and J. Storer Clouston to George Mackay Brown, would mine this viking quarry for material for their poetry and fiction – to the virtual exclusion of all previous and subsequent Orcadian history.

So what of this saga text itself, if it can even be called a ‘text’? Orkneyinga Saga is a great medieval Icelandic prose work, written circa 1200. It is the bedrock underlying a great deal of the subsequent literature of the Orkney islands. Lumbering out of the Dark Ages and bristling with the myths of Orcadian origin and the exploits of pagan, viking earls, its first full translation into English appeared in 1873. As well as providing Orkney with a vivid and mostly historical account of its early medieval past, the saga has proven to be a deeply compelling and identity-shaping narrative. For many nineteenth- and twentieth-century Orcadian readers and writers, Orkneyinga Saga would come to be regarded as a ‘national’ epic. The saga is at once a historical chronicle and a literary fantasy. It is a Christian book of bloodshed that celebrates saints alongside murderers. Rich in paradox, invention and embellishment, it has enjoyed enduring popularity in English translation since the late nineteenth century.

There are four English translations, two from the Victorian era, and two from the twentieth century: Joseph Anderson’s edition of 1873, translated by Jon A Hjaltalin and Gilbert Goudie, and entitled The Orkneyinga Saga; George Webbe Dasent’s 1894 translation, entitled The Orkneyingers’ Saga; A.B.Taylor’s translation of 1938, also entitled The Orkneyinga Saga; and Hermann Palsson and Paul Edwards’ translation, called Orkneyinga Saga, which was first published in 1978. The translations differ widely in style according to their period, but all bear the hallmarks of medieval Iceland in terms of terseness and pace. The names chosen for the text by each translator, or pair of translators, follow Anderson’s lead – The Orkneyinga Saga – and suggest a certain unity, as well as stressing the insular, Orkney provenance of the material of the story. This impression of unity, the concept of the text’s belonging to Orkney – the sense of Orkneyinga Saga’s existence as a great Orcadian monolith – is in actual fact very much a Victorian construct. Later historians prefer the more neutral title Jarla Saga – the saga of the earls. A total of at least twenty-one distinct textual sources are incorporated into Orkneyinga Saga: it is an anthology of Norse literature pertaining to Orkney.

The saga begins with a fabulous opening sequence giving a mythological description of the origins of the Orkney earls in northern Norway and suggesting to medieval and modern readers a sense of independent Scandinavian Orkney identity. The opening words of the first chapter, ‘There was a king called Fornjot…’ might give us the feeling that we are entering the realm of folk tale, rather than a saga of flesh and blood characters. Moving on from this introductory section, the main body of the saga begins to emerge, detailing the lives and times of the historical Norse rulers of the medieval Orkney earldom. It moves swiftly to the conquest of Orkney, Shetland, and the Western Isles by King Harald Fine-Hair of Norway, and Harald’s handing over of the earldom to Rognvald of More as compensation for the loss of his son during the campaign. The saga then goes on to relate the deeds of subsequent earls as far as the end of the twelfth century. Its themes are violence and power struggle: between rival earls – cousins, brothers, uncles and nephews; between the Orkney Earls and Scots chieftains or kings; and between the earls and their overlords, the Kings of Norway.

The saga is epic in scale and depicts a vast and sometimes bewildering array of personalities. Outstandingly colourful episodes include the cleansing of Orkney of ‘pirates’ by ugly, one-eyed, keen-sighted Turf Einar – the shadowy earl who is aligned with Odin. Or the unlikely death of Sigurd the Stout, who decapitates an enemy and then fixes the head to his stirrup, only to die from an infection caused by the corpse’s tooth cutting into his leg. Or the scene where Thorfinn the Mighty leaps from the window of a burning house, his wife in his arms, before rowing across the wide Pentland Firth to safety. The core of the narrative is devoted to the lives of Baldur-like St. Magnus Erlendsson, who refused to fight in the arrow storm of a sea battle in the Menai Strait, and his nephew the debonair poet-warrior Rognvald Kolson, who built St. Magnus Cathedral in his uncle’s memory. Svein Asleifarson, the great picaresque viking of Gairsay, is not an earl, yet he turns up continually in this story, supporting earls, kidnapping earls, sleeping under the stars on the deck of his longship, living and dying by his sword.

The translation and publication of this ‘book’ in 1873 would excite the wildest atavistic dreams of those seeking to forge national or quasi-national identities in the north (British, Scottish, and/or Orcadian) through a century’s worth of subsequent literature and historiography. Where a text like Ossian had been invented to satisfy the longings of a particular Jacobite group, Orkneyinga Saga simply had to be translated – and assembled, anthologised – to supply a unique and often historical record of a ‘primitive’, ‘heroic’ society for Victorian and Edwardian readers. Antiquarians in Orkney would, of course, have more success in corroborating the prose of the saga than those who sought to verify the authenticity of the Poems of Ossian: St Magnus Cathedral was the defining architectural symbol of Orkney; the carved runes of Maeshowe confirmed the account in the saga that vikings were there; the broken bones of the saints were discovered in the pillar of St. Magnus where they had been hidden at the Reformation; the Skaill silver hoard, too, would corroborate the tales of buried treasure and reveal the former presence of the vikings written about in this book. There could be little argument with the provenance or the authenticity of Orkneyinga Saga.

So what of ‘national’ ownership of the text? Is this, then, the Scottish Saga? We might agree that there is something absurd in trying to assign a ‘nationality’ to this nebulous collection of pre-national, medieval texts. Despite its natural dwelling place among the literature of medieval Iceland, attempts have been made to draw Orkneyinga Saga towards the Scottish canon through the identification of Celtic lexis and motif in the prose. And specialists in the early poetry of what is now Scotland have anthologised the strophes of Turf-Einar, Arnor Jarlaskald, and Earl Rognvald Kolson for a collection of the earliest poetry of Scotland. But even a tentative designation of Orkneyinga Saga as ur-Scottish might seem ill-fitting and anachronistically nationalistic. Palsson and Edwards concur that the author’s identity remains unknown, although he was very likely a cleric associated with Oddi in the south of Iceland. Confirming, or suggesting, continued identification of the text in the Orkney imagination, their 1978 introduction invests in the saga a thrilling, emotive authority: ‘for the people of Orkney, it has a special significance, having become, since its first appearance in an English translation, what might be called their secular scripture, inculcating in them a keener sense of their remote forebears and sharpening their awareness of a special identity.’ This is a heady and emotional description indeed, suggesting that Orcadians might identify, over a stretch of eight or ten centuries, with the primordially distant characters/personalities of ‘their’ saga.

Onomastics and geography have added their own enhancing dimensions to the saga for these readers in Orkney. It is easier to argue that Orkneyinga Saga belongs to an archipelago than it is to say it belongs to a nation. If the Orkney landscape is everywhere littered with the stone and metal evidence of past peoples – the vikings among them – then the map of Orkney, and the Orkney imagination, are dominated by the place name legacy of the Norse. The topography of Orkneyinga Saga is instantly recognisable to anyone familiar with the modern names of the Orkney landscape. For Orkney readers, the saga enlivens this landscape in the imagination, and gives the impression of political and/or violent action taking place in small and seemingly peripheral places such as Birsay, Damsay, Deerness, Eglisay, Eynhallow, North Ronaldsay, Papa Stronsay, Rousay, South Walls, Stroma or Westray, some of them now uninhabited, places some might think of as being far from the centre of things. Details of stormy weather, accurate tidal knowledge, and evocative snatches of domestic agricultural detail combine with place names and the unchanged geography of the archipelago to enhance, for Orkney folk, the sense of home setting, of this being an ‘Orkney Book’.

So accustomed have we become to the categorisations of genre that there is a difficulty for us in coming to terms with a text which bridges historiography and literature in the way that Orkneyinga Saga does. We can only really appreciate this saga when we accept that it is a paradoxical combination of literature, history, anthology, and embellished historiography. While historians have occasionally expressed impatience with the saga (Michael Lynch describes it as ‘at once verbose and sparing with the facts’) its existence has nevertheless supplied us with a great deal of our knowledge of the Viking Age in Scotland. While the case for reading the saga as history was once encouraged, corroborated by the wealth of archaeological evidence, historians working in the late twentieth century have broadened our understanding of the material, embracing its literariness. The ideological project underlying the collection of the material of the saga is taken up again when writers such as Eric Linklater, J. Storer Clouston or George Mackay Brown promote it as the essential narrative of Orcadian identity.

Perhaps the enduring appeal of Orkneyinga Saga lies in its very amorphousness, the fact that it lies somewhere between history and fiction. It has doubill pleasance, to paraphrase Barbour’s famous comment at the outset of The Bruce, both in its carpying and its suthfastnes. Orkneyinga Saga cannot be completely dismissed as a fiction, nor can it be entirely trusted as a history. It is therefore a perpetually fascinating text, and – whether or not we buy into the primordial, atavistic and quasi-national appeal that many have found in it – it would be difficult not to agree that this saga remains one of the greatest tales yet told in the north.

(This essay first appeared in The Bottle Imp magazine of the Association for Scottish Literary Studies)

Tae thee, or no tae thee?

The owld Orkney pronouns – the ‘thoo’s, the ‘thee’s, and the occasional ‘thine’s – that well up like sweet spring watter in Westray and Papay and also, less frequently these days, in the West Mainland, present me wae a dilemma.

There’s no doot that previous generations o me family used these words. We hiv a family story aboot me great grandparents visiting a ferm on the Lyde Road in Harray. The wife o the ferm asked me great grandmither ‘Wid thoo be blide o a swine’s puddeen?’. And me Granny used tae tell me aboot someone who joked ‘Aal the world’s queer but thee and mee, and thoo’re a bit queer’.

But these pronouns are more or less completely extinct in Mainland noo. Wance, aboot ten year ago, in the bank in Kirkwall, a wife said tae me: ‘Pit in thee PIN number, buddo.’ And anither time I heard a North Isles bus driver sayan tae an owld wife, ‘On thu comes’ – never was there a gentler or a more compassionate utterance. In their twilight years, the writers Edwin and Willa Muir continued tae refer tae one anither in their Orkney and Shetland parlance as ‘beuy’ and ‘lass’, and they kept their island pronouns alive, although they had lived the literary life in Prague, Dresden, the United States. The ancient pronouns serve a function going way beyond the cowld, formal ‘you’ and ‘yours’; they convey a warmth, a generations-deep familiarity, a compassion.

So, is it ridiculous for someone who hasna really used them in the past tae employ these pronouns when addressing a bairn, a spouse, a beloved pet or farm animal, in the twenty first century? The resurrectionists of Welsh, Cornish, Manx achieve tremendous success in reviving their language in its entirety – whit can a peedie pronoun hurt?

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.