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.



Hugh Marwick’s The Orkney Norn (1929) is the dictionary of the Norse language of Orkney. It records words of the land and words of the sea, weather words and the names of creatures and places – words like gems glittering in the last lingering light of the Viking Age.

Hundreds of the words have become obsolete, left behind as ways of living and ways of making a living have changed forever. There are also, here and there on every other page, sporadic words that have survived – against all odds – into the digital age.

So we preserve the contemptuous bruck – trash, garbage, rubbish. We maintain freck for bairns and pets. Orcadian dogs still weesk at the door for in, and when wind and tide contend at a ness there’s a lively chabble.

These words are part of the modern Norn/Scots/English mashup that is today’s Orkney language. But for how long will we keep them, in the face of online standardisation?

Mibby for twathree generations yet – for a hunder or so unbound copies of Marwick’s magisterial work have been discovered during a clear oot o the former store of Leonard’s bookshop in Kirkwall.

Now bound, and with miraculously preserved original 1928 dust jackets, these remarkable time capsules are available for sale. The new/old book is a magnificent object in itself; an antiquarian curiosity packed full of the rich and beautiful mystery of the Orkney Norn.


(The newly-bound edition of The Orkney Norn is available from The Herald Printshop, Kirkwall, priced £55)

The Ram on the Rock

Like a Nordic port of old, the Faroese capital of Torshavn smells evocatively of salt and tar. As we disembark the ferry, the harbour waters lap beneath the modest parliament building with its turf roof and oxblood weatherboarding. Skiffs and speedboats rock together alongside the many piers. Fresh cod gasp in plastic fishboxes on the quayside. There are supermarkets, restaurants, and a football stadium where Scotland have enjoyed some limited success. The town is clean, civil and unostentatiously Christian.

We enjoy the warmest of welcomes from the kindest of people in this town. Marner, who lives next door to the tidy wooden house we have rented, has just enough English to explain to me that business at his garage is good. We talk over the fence. His wife is a carer for a spinal injury patient who was flown to hospital in Copenhagen for initial treatment, but is now living back in the Faroes. People working in their own businesses or getting on with modern professional life on a North Atlantic island: this could be Orkney, Shetland, Lewis.

Next day, with our engine labouring in low gear, we set off in a north-by-northwest direction to drive over the mountains behind Torshavn. We leave the town far below, seeking out the volcanic and glacial scenery for which these islands are famed. Soon, we are cruising high above the fjord on the arid surface of what could be another planet, moving into the pagan hinterland of rocky desert, salt water and ice.

Deep in my pocket as I drive nestles a crumpled, blue-gray, fifty kroner banknote: my change from the tourist shop on the ferry. The note depicts a wild-eyed island ram, rugged and lean in the Iron Age style, with a haughty, feral expression; a curly-horned spirit of the Faroe Islands. The ram is not unlike a North Ronaldsay sheep. Up here on the mountain highway, a ram like this stands proud on every other corner, his ewes scrambling off through scrub and over screes.

Eventually we reach the foot of the western downslope of the mountain. We switch the headlights on and – not without some trepidation – enter a five kilometer long subsea tunnel…

… only to emerge into another, inconceivably strange landscape of eccentric mountains and sculpted half-mountains, sea-plummeting corries, and wave-eaten, emerald islets that soar skywards to pinnacle summits before plunging, black and fragmented, to the pallid north Atlantic hundreds of feet below.

These islanders think nothing of tunneling to immense depths or bridging at great heights across the narrow tidal sounds to improve their infrastructure and economy. Indeed, they describe their archipelago, with its 50,000 inhabitants, as a ‘dispersed city’, and there is no doubt that it is astonishingly easy to get around. Local industry thrives outside Torshavn, without additional transport barriers. I think of similar land and seascapes in the Scottish Highlands and Islands, and the retarded impoverishment of infrastructure there: the lack of tunnels or bridges, the restricted grid connections, the punishing metro-centric electrical distribution charges.

Isolation or distances simply aren’t a problem in Faroe. The landscape is easy to negotiate, and yet it is breathtakingly beautiful. Here, there are vast, truncated parabola shapes, and jagged dental forms in basalt, weird in their wildness. These rocks are indeed like the teeth of the sea serpent in the Orkney folk tale. Never have we experienced such a sense of our own insignificance, of being on the periphery, of breathtaking, Spartan beauty. And yet, among the volcanic grandeur, there are many, many towns and villages; there are fifty thousand people here. How can all of these people scratch a living in this oceanic wilderness?

Look again closely and you will see that there are phenocrysts in the seemingly monotonous basalt. And there’s a true, resilient independence of spirit, a self confidence in the eyes of the Faroese ram. The note in my pocket is indigenous Faroese: a version of the Danish Krone; it is not the Euro. These isles are Danish, yet they are also un-Danish. They are European, and at the same time they are virtually independent. The ram is sure of a mouthful of mountain pasture, a feed of lichen, the perpetuation of his genes. And the wide sea that makes foreign visitors feel small and insignificant inspires these islands with confidence.

Ninety per cent of the GDP here is fish, and the GDP is enviable, ranking alongside Japan, Germany, and the United Arab Emirates. As the sagas say, the man without a boat is a prisoner. The hardworking twenty first century Faroese with a share in a pelagic trawler or a crabber is indeed both wealthy and free. In the summer, for instance, a lavish fleet of privately-owned cabin cruisers are towed by four-by-fours onto the ro-ro deck of the islands’ international ferry Norrona, and shipped to Bergen for recreational cruising on the Norwegian west coast. There is no shortage of money for those who are prepared to work for it. And, significantly, these ‘isolated’ islands have become wealthy without a drop of oil – as yet.

Oil exploration activity is gathering momentum in the surrounding seas. It is rumoured that Statoil have already invested vast sums in exploration on the Faroese seabed. With new fields currently opening up in the Atlantic far to the west of Shetland, a lucrative strike on the Faroese side of the international line now seems inevitable. And – critically – it is the Faroese seabed. Fortuitously, the Faroese government succeeded in negotiating the rights to the islands’ own seabed from the Danish government in 1992. How different the situation is at home in Orkney, where seabed leases for salmon farms have paid rent to the Crown Estate for generations, and where renewables developers have begun to hand over astronomical sums for the future installation of wave and tidal arrays. Only a tiny fraction of this money returns to Orkney, in the form of petty grants for leisure slipways or suchlike. Chicken feed from the Crown Estate. We should watch what happens to the Faroes as the renewable revolution develops, for there is no failure of ambition in these isles.

Potential oil development coupled with burgeoning renewable capability is the magic combination for the Faroes. The potential for clean renewable wind, wave and tidal energy in the islands is, quite literally, endless. Solid oil wealth of their own for the foreseeable future, coupled with the opportunity to develop a secure long-term, home-grown renewable power base – what more could North Atlantic islanders possibly wish for?

The Faroes now share only foreign and defence policy with their benevolent ‘sister nation’, so they have Scandinavian ‘devolution max’ from a larger neighbour that is comparable in so many ways to Scotland, or to what Scotland could be. Denmark doesn’t do nuclear weapons, and it isn’t neurotic about having ‘clout’ or military ‘reach’ in the world. Like much of the rest of Scandinavia, it is respected internationally for diplomatic expertise, for conflict resolution, and for decidedly low-key military involvement. It enjoys a strategic defence alliance with the other western nations. I don’t want to gloss over the fact that Denmark has some of the highest taxes in Europe. But the taxed Krone ensures what is – officially – the highest reported level of happiness in Europe. The tax goes back into Danish society: into education, care homes, hospitals. I’m not overly keen on vikingry – the kind of helmet-wearing, flag-waving, Norse-ancestry mythology and celebration that goes on in some parts of Scotland – but I do think we ought to take a serious, hard-headed look at what our independent future might look like as part of the Nordic family of nations.

By our evening return to Torshavn the temperature has warmed to a balmy five degrees outdoors. Families gather under turf roofs. A dwarf alder by the picket fence bears modest fruit. Marner from next door is curious about the Saltire on my E.U. number plate. I explain laboriously that my island is part of Scotland, and also part of the UK, and also part of Europe. He chides me gently: When are you having your independence? When indeed, and why not? I’m inclined to wonder.

July, 2008


Faroes 1