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.

Things fall apart; the centre cannot hold.

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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.

 

Latin

Latin

 

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.

Lands o Twatt

fullsizeoutput_1bThrough no fault o its own, the district o Twatt has become the most ridiculed in Orkney.

Eighty year ago, wartime servicemen sniggered like schoolboys when they discovered they were being posted tae the Twatt Aerodrome. Nooadays, English tourists delight in takkan selfies wae the arrow o the Twatt roadsign aimed at their grinning, empty heids. Tack shops in Kirkwall capitalise, flogging Twatt mugs and t-shirts tae ignorant punters. Aal o this is just the worst kind of patronising cultural misappropriation. The name is Old Norse, and it means ‘The Cleared Place’.

Me own recent experience o the district o Twatt is as a novice tenant fermer. I rent a bit o grund there fae me fither-in-law. I keep sheep, and it’s been a steep learning curve. The grund is heavy, acidic, and dense wae clay. It’s weet and cowld, and, as a neebor remarked tae me,  ‘hid’s slow tae come in the springtime’. Rashes and parasites thrive. The rock is close tae the surface, and tae plough is tae bring up stones in thur hunders and thoosands.

But aal o this is counterbalanced by the pure and absolute joy o country life in the West Mainland. A merlin crosses a field in a January gale, eight inches fae the grund. A stoat darts doon a ditch. A hunder Golden Plover alight in late winter sunshine. The brier comes on the fields in the springtime. Whaups’ nests and shalders’ nests appear. There’s the glory o cut hay, turning like a green wake in the rear-view mirror o the tractor. Silage and hay bales are the bounty of summer. A crop o fresh mushrooms appears miraculously on a damp August morning. Lambs gain weight, content on new pasture. A hare shoots oot o a peedie hollow; I stoop tae feel its residual body heat on the gress. And, best o aal, me good neebors in the owld districts o Reekiebraes and Durkadale have shown me nothing but kindness, and have given me their unconditional help, and their carefully considered advice.

 

Tame Hogmanay

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Moonrise ower Wyre fae Evie

Orkney’s New Year traditions are no whit they used tae be. In the last twenty year, the tradition o First Footan his aalmost completely died oot. It used tae be that ye could visit any hoose in yur neighbourhood eftir the bells, sure o a warm welcome, a dram and some supper.

Gangs o young folk wid waander fae wan hoose tae anither and anither – the length o a parish or a small isle. A neebor tells me that when he flit intae his new hoose in the West Mainland in the late eighties he hid a hunder visitors the first New Year.

The celebration wis immense, and the drinking wis legendary. It wis aal the better because ye didna ken who might turn up, or whit might happen. When Hogmanay came roond there wis a mixture o trepidation and excitement. Gossip and funny stories were repeated, and it gaed ye a rare chance tae sit doon and enjoy the company o neighbours, freends, and family. Ye took a peedie gless o whisky, and moved on kweekly. It wis unpredictable, and it wis great fun.

Nooadays, half the country hooses are inhabited by folk belonging tae the new, mobile, professional class. A lot o rural Orkney is effectively a commuter belt for workers in the Toon, and many o these folk set off on the first boat sooth when the Christmas holidays begin. There’s no the same critical mass o likeminded neebors sharing an Orcadian culture. Wur traditional fower- or five-day-long festival o wild daftness his geen wey tae controlled family ‘New Year’s Eve’ parties, tae planned ‘open hoose’ nights, or, worst o all, tae Tesco Kirkwall urging us tae ‘celebrate Hogmanay’ – but whit dis Tesco really ken aboot Hogmanay, apert fae the name?

I’m minded o George Mackay Brown and Ernest Marwick writan oot lists o things they hid seen disappear fae Orkney in thur lifetimes. These writers hid a romantic urge tae record the last o things as they remembered them: workan watter mills; strings o sillocks dryan in the wind; rare Orkney words. Hoo sad it will be if we hiv tae add ‘Hogmanay’ and ‘First Footeen’ tae this evocative list.

So, Ah’ll be settan oot shortly tae First Foot wan or two o the neebors wae a bottle o whisky and a couple o funny stories Ah’m heard lately. I hope ye’ll mibby brave the cowld waather and dae the same yersels. A Happy New Year tae ye, beuys and lasses!

 

 

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

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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

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

Patron Saint of Electricians

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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.

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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.

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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: