Saturday, January 31, 2009

Ben Nevis

The following poem is reputed to have been written in the visitor's book of the Ben Nevis Hotel in the late 19th century. Ben Nevis and Fort William below get some of the highest rainfall in Scotland...

Roll by, thou dense and damp pea-soupy shroud!
Do we thus reach the highest point in vain?
Roll by! we say, and leave behind no cloud
Our view to mar; but, should'st thou still remain,
Mark well the threat - "Never shall we come again."
If at first you don't succeed, try again:
Mist and rain you should not heed, try again;
When the clouds have rolled away,
And the sun holds glorious sway,
Climb the path without delay, come again,
All your labours he'll repay - grand old Ben.

We climbed thy stony sides, oh Ben!
We groped around thy cloudy head,
We peered and jeered and swore - and then,
In sheer disgust, we went to bed.

We toiled along with saddened hearts - and grief,
And found - ah, well, just mist and tinned Australian beef.

Friday, January 30, 2009

Ben Lomond

The apparent unchanging nature of mountains has prompted Thomas Campbell to contrast their longevity with the passing nature of humanity and its buildings.

Hadst thou a genius on thy peak,
What tales, white-headed Ben,
Could'st thou of ancient ages speak,
That mock th' historian's pen!
Thy long duration makes our lives
Seem but so many hours;
And likens, to the bees' frail hives,
Our most stupendous towers.

Temples and towers thou seest begun,
New creeds, new conquerers sway;
And, like their shadows in the sun,
Hast seen them swept away.

Thy steadfast summit, heaven-allied
(Unlike life's little span),
Looks down a mentor on the pride
Of perishable man.

Thursday, January 29, 2009

Bed in Summer

Robert Louis Stevenson was born in Edinburgh on November 13, 1850. Here is one of his simple poems from "A Child's Garden of Verses" which highlights the long summer days in Scotland - and the long winter nights.

In winter I get up at night
And dress by yellow candle light.
In summer, quite the other way,
I have to go to bed by day.

I have to go to bed and see
The birds still hopping on the tree,
Or hear the grown-up people's feet
Still going past me in the street.

And does it not seem hard to you,
When all the sky is clear and blue,
And I should like so much to play,
To have to go to bed by day?

Wednesday, January 28, 2009

A Bard's Epitaph

When he was preparing to publish the first edition of his poems, Robert Burns was having an affair with Jean Armour - much to the distress of her family. Burns then decided to make a new life by sailing to Jamaica. So it is perhaps understandable that the last poem in the Kilmarnock edition of his poems was this epitaph, in which he acknowledges his "thoughtless follies". Of course, the actual publication and success of his book of "Poems, Chiefly in the Scottish Dialect" changed his plans completely.

Is there a whim-inspired fool,
Owe fast for thought, owre hot for rule,
Owre blate to seek, owre proud to snool?
Let him draw near;
And owre this grassy heap sing dool,
And drap a tear.
Is there a Bard of rustic song,
Who, noteless, steals the crowds among,
That weekly this area throng?
O, pass not by!
But, with a frater-feeling strong,
Here, heave a sigh.

Is there a man, whose judgment clear
Can others teach the course to steer,
Yet runs, himself, life's mad career,
Wild as the wave? -
Here pause - and, thro the starting tear,
Survey this grave.

The poor inhabitant below
Was quick to learn and wise to know,
And keenly felt the friendly glow,
And softer flame;
But thoughtless follies laid him low,
And stain'd his name!

Reader, attend! whether thy soul
Soars Fancy's flights beyond the pole,
Or darkling grubs in this earthly hole.
In low pursuit;
Know, prudent, cautious, self-control
Is wisdom's root.

Meaning of unusual words:
frater-feeling=brotherly feeling

Tuesday, January 27, 2009


Sir Walter Scott (1771- 1832) wrote this graphic account of the Battle of Bannockburn (June 23/24, 1314) in his epic poem "Lord of the Isles" (Canto vi, stanza 26).

Unflinching foot 'gainst foot was set,
Unceasing blow by blow was met;
The groans of those who fell
Were drown'd amid the shriller clang
That from the blades and harness rang,
And in the battle-yell.
Yet fast they fell, unheard, forgot,
Both Southern fierce and hardy Scot;
And O! amid that waste of life,
What various motives fired the strife!
The aspiring Noble bled for fame,
The Patriot for his country's claim;
This Knight his youthful strength to prove,
And that to win his lady's love;
Some fought from ruffian thirst of blood,
From habit some, or hardihood.
But ruffian stern, and soldier good,
The noble and the slave,
From various cause the same wild road,
On the same bloody morning, trode,
To that dark inn, the Grave!

Monday, January 26, 2009

The Banks o' the Dee

Here is a poem by George Outram which tells of a man who is as happy as can be, walking on the banks of the river Dee, despite his obvious misfortunes - and then explains why! The meanings of words which may not be familiar are listed at the end.

I met wi' a man on the banks o' the Dee,
And a merrier body I never did see;
Though Time had bedrizzled his haffits wi' snaw,
An' Fortune had stown his luckpenny awa',
Yet never a mortal mair happy could be
Than the man that I met on the banks o' the Dee.

When young, he had plenty o owsen an' kye
A wide wavin' mailin, an' siller forbye;
But cauld was his hearth ere his youdith was o'er,
An' he delved on the landss he had lairdit before;
Yet though beggared his ha' an' deserted his lea,
Contented he roamed on the banks o' the Dee.

'Twas heartsome to see the auld body sae gay,
As he toddled adoun by the gowany brae,
Sae canty, sae crouse, an' sae proof against care;
Yet it wasna through riches, it wasna through lear;
But I fand out the cause ere I left the sweet Dee -
The man was as drunk as a mortal could be!

Meaning of Unusual Words:
owsen an' kye=oxen & cattle
delved=dug over
gowany brae=daisy covered hill

Sunday, January 25, 2009

Ballade of Wordly Wealth

Andrew Lang (1844 - 1912) is certainly not the first nor the last to argue that money, despite its undoubted power, isn't everything, and cannot "bestow youth, and health, and Paradise."

Money taketh town and wall,
Fort and ramp without a blow;
Money moves the merchants all,
While the tides shall ebb and flow;
Money maketh Evil show
Like the Good, and Truth like lies:
These alone can ne'er bestow
Youth, and health, and Paradise.
Money maketh festival,
Wine she buys, and beds can strow;
Round the necks of captains tall,
Money wins them chains to throw,
Marches soldiers to and fro,
Gaineth ladies with sweet eyes:
These alone can ne'er bestow
Youth, and health, and Paradise.

Money wins the priest his stall;
Money mitres buys, I trow,
Red hats for the Cardinal,
Abbeys for the novice low;
Money maketh sin as snow,
Place of penitence supplies:
These alone can ne'er bestow
Youth, and health, and Paradise.

Saturday, January 24, 2009

Ballade of True Wisdom

Andrew Lang (1844 - 1912) was very much an academic and a scholar who worked hard to transform information into knowledge and knowledge into wisdom. So it is not surprising that one of his many poems should be on the subject of "True Wisdom".

While others are asking for beauty or fame,
Or praying to know that for which they should pray,
Or courting Queen Venus, that affable dame,
Or chasing the Muses the weary and grey,
The sage has found out a more excellent way -
To Pan and to Pallas his incense he showers,
And his humble petition puts up day by day,
For a house full of books, and a garden of flowers.
Inventors may bow to the God that is lame,
And crave from the fire on his stithy a ray;
Philosophers kneel to the God without name,
Like the people of Athens, agnostics are they;
The hunter a fawn to Diana will slay,
The maiden wild roses will wreathe for the Hours;
But the wise man will ask, ere libation he pay,
For a house full of books, and a garden of flowers.

Oh! grant me a life without pleasure or blame
(As mortals count pleasure who rush through their day
With a speed to which that of the tempest is tame)!
O grant me a house by the beach of a bay,
Where the waves can be surly in winter, and play
With the sea-weed in summer, ye bountiful powers!
And I'd leave all the hurry, the noise, and the fray,
For a house full of books, and a garden of flowers.


Gods, grant or withhold it; your "yea" and your "nay"
Are immutable, heedless of outcry of ours:
But life IS worth living, and here we would stay
For a house full of books, and a garden of flowers.

Friday, January 23, 2009

A Ballade Of Tobacco Smoke

This poem by Alexander Anderson was written long before concerns about tobacco and passive smoking. Instead, it is very positive about the "dreams seen through tobacco smoke".
The reference in the poem to "Alnaschar" is a character in The Arabian Nights whose dreams of wealth are shattered when he wakes up and knocks over and breaks the glassware he had hoped to sell in order to make his fortune!

What fretting loads we mortals bear
Through life, whose fading rainbows mock
And Time, who drives a splendid pair
Of steeds he never will unyoke,
Sweeps his lean fingers through our hair,
He scarcely leaves a decent lock,
Yet chide him not, if still he spare
The dreams seen through tobacco smoke.
We each must have our little care
To add by contrast to our joke,
A laugh that spreads in vain its snare
To catch the lips of solemn folk.
Well, let us walk through all the fair,
And watch the crowds that sway and shock;
They follow what we see elsewhere--
The dreams seen through tobacco smoke.

Dreamers of dreams in ships of air,
Whose keels have never entered dock,
I wish you may have sounder ware
Than did Alnaschar when he woke!
Statesmen, when strife is high, forswear
For half an hour the wordy stroke,
I fain would hint of better fare--
The dreams seen through tobacco smoke!


Prince, when you weary of the chair
From which you govern realms and folk,
Your faithful bard would have you share
The dreams seen through tobacco smoke.

Thursday, January 22, 2009

Ballade of the Summer Term

This poem by Andrew Lang (1844 - 1912) is sub-titled, somewhat pedantically: "Being a Petition, in the form of a Ballade, praying the University Commissioners to spare the Summer Term." Lang, who was a student at Edinburgh as well as Balliol College Oxford, was later a fellow of Merton College at Oxford. Clearly this was a light-hearted suggestion for academic reorganization.

When Lent and Responsions are ended,
When May with fritillaries waits,
When the flower of the chestnut is splendid,
When drags are at all of the gates
(Those drags the philosopher "slates"
With a scorn that is truly sublime),
Life wins from the grasp of the Fates
Sweet hours and the fleetest of time!
When wickets are bowl'd and defended,
When Isis is glad with "the Eights,"
When music and sunset are blended,
When Youth and the summer are mates,
When Freshmen are heedless of "Greats,"
And when note-books are cover'd with rhyme,
Ah, these are the hours that one rates -
Sweet hours and the fleetest of time!

When the brow of the Dean is unbended
At luncheons and mild tête-à-têtes,
When the Tutor's in love, nor offended
By blunders in tenses or dates;
When bouquets are purchased of Bates,
When the bells in their melody chime,
When unheeded the Lecturer prates -
Sweet hours and the fleetest of time!


Reformers of Schools and of States,
Is mirth so tremendous a crime?
Ah! spare what grim pedantry hates -
Sweet hours and the fleetest of time!

Meaning of unusual words:
Responsions=first examination for BA degree at Oxford University
fritillaries=type of butterfly
Isis=the River Thames at Oxford
the Eights=rowing boat with crew of eight
prates=talks too much in a boring or silly way

Wednesday, January 21, 2009

Ballade of the Royal Game of Golf

Andrew Lang (1844 - 1912) was educated at both Edinburgh and Oxford universities and was one of the ablest and versatile writers of his day. He published a large number of books of poetry as well as novels and books on Scottish history.
While most of his works were written in plain English, the short poem below, on that very Scottish game of golf, is in fairly broad Scots - there is a glossary at the end.

There are laddies will drive ye a ba'
To the burn frae the farthermost tee,
But ye mauna think driving is a',
Ye may heel her, and send her ajee,
Ye may land in the sand or the sea;
And ye're dune, sir, ye're no worth a preen,
Tak' the word that an auld man'll gie,
Tak' aye tent to be up on the green!
The auld folk are crouse, and they craw
That their putting is pawky and slee;
In a bunker they're nae gude ava',
But to girn, and to gar the sand flee.
And a lassie can putt - ony she, -
Be she Maggy, or Bessie, or Jean,
But a cleek-shot's the billy for me,
Tak' aye tent to be up on the green!

I hae play'd in the frost and the thaw,
I hae play'd since the year thirty-three,
I hae play'd in the rain and the snaw,
And I trust I may play till I dee;
And I tell ye the truth and nae lee,
For I speak o' the thing I hae seen -
Tom Morris, I ken, will agree -
Tak' aye tent to be up on the green!


Prince, faith you're improving a wee,
And, Lord, man, they tell me you're keen;
Tak' the best o' advice that can be,
Tak' aye tent to be up on the green!

Meaning of unusual words:
mauna=must not
heel=hit with the shank of the club
aye tent=always take care
crouse=confident, eager
craw=boast, brag
pawky and slee=shrewd and sly
ava'=at all

Tuesday, January 20, 2009

Ballade of Roulette

Andrew Lang (1844 - 1912) is best known as a collector of folk and fairy tales, but was also a prolific poet and novelist. After obtaining a first class degree at Balliol College, Oxford, he became a fellow of Merton College there. The poem below, about the roulette wheel of life, comes from a book of poetry "Ballades in Blue China" published in 1880.

This life - one was thinking to-day,
In the midst of a medley of fancies -
Is a game, and the board where we play
Green earth with her poppies and pansies.
Let manqué be faded romances,
Be passé remorse and regret;
Hearts dance with the wheel as it dances -
The wheel of Dame Fortune's roulette.
The lover will stake as he may
His heart on his Peggies and Nancies;
The girl has her beauty to lay;
The saint has his prayers and his trances;
The poet bets endless expanses
In Dreamland; the scamp has his debt:
How they gaze at the wheel as it glances -
The wheel of Dame Fortune's roulette!

The Kaiser will stake his array
Of sabres, of Krupps, and of lances;
An Englishman punts with his pay,
And glory the jeton of France is;
Your artists, or Whistlers or Vances,
Have voices or colours to bet;
Will you moan that its motion askance is -
The wheel of Dame Fortune's roulette?


The prize that the pleasure enhances?
The prize is - at last to forget
The changes, the chops, and the chances -
The wheel of Dame Fortune's roulette.

Monday, January 19, 2009

Ballade of the Bookworm

Andrew Lang (1844 - 1912) was an academic who graduated from both Edinburgh and then Oxford Universities. As well as poetry, he co-wrote a prose translation of Homer's "Odyssey" and the "Iliad" and produced other scholarly books on Homer and his times.
Nearer home, he threw fresh light on the life of Mary Queen of Scots and wrote monographs on "The Portraits and Jewels of Mary Stuart" and "James VI and the Gowrie Mystery". His unfavourable view of John Knox in his book "John Knox and the Reformation" produced considerable controversy when it was published in 1905. So he was well versed to produce a humorous poem on the subject of a "bookworm".

Far in the Past I peer, and see
A Child upon the Nursery floor,
A Child with books upon his knee,
Who asks, like Oliver, for more!
The number of his years is IV,
And yet in Letters hath he skill,
How deep he dives in Fairy-lore!
The Books I loved, I love them still!
One gift the Fairies gave me: (Three
They commonly bestowed of yore)
The Love of Books, the Golden Key
That opens the Enchanted Door;
Behind it BLUEBEARD lurks, and o'er
And o'er doth JACK his Giants kill,
And there is all ALADDIN'S store, -
The Books I loved, I love them still!

Take all, but leave my Books to me!
These heavy creels of old we bore
We fill not now, nor wander free,
Nor wear the heart that once we wore;
Not now each River seems to pour
His waters from the Muses' hill;
Though something's gone from stream and shore,
The Books I loved, I love them still!


Fate, that art Queen by shore and sea,
We bow submissive to thy will,
Ah grant, by some benign decree,
The Books I loved - to love them still.

Sunday, January 18, 2009

A Ballade Of "Churchwardens"

This poem is by Alexander Anderson (1845-1909) who was born in Kirkconnel, Dumfriesshire. He usually wrote under the pseudonym of "Surfaceman" and indeed worked as a surfaceman on the railway, laying and repairing the tracks. Like many of his day, however, he spent much of his spare time on self-education, mastering German, French, and Spanish. He published a number of poetry books in the 1870s - one was entitled "Songs of the Rail". In 1880 he became assistant librarian in the University of Edinburgh. After an interval as secretary to the Philosophical Institution, he returned as Chief Librarian to the University.

Why, hang it all, let life go by,
It is but bubbles we pursue;
They burst at last, and then we sigh
And pay what folly claims as due.
We have our time to smile and sigh,
Who knows the false from all the true?
Let us enjoy before we die,
Churchwardens and a friend or two.
For these are things that will not fly
Nor fade, as other pleasures do;
Nay, trust me, for I would not lie -
At least I would not lie to you.
There is a time when earth and sky
Unite - when lovers bill and coo -
A happy time; but let us try
Churchwardens and a friend or two.

Alas! what grief when you descry
White strangers - just a very few -
Among your hair. A friendly eye
Detects them, though you never knew.
Well, let them come, nor look awry,
But trust the gods to pull you through;
They'll do it if they but supply
Churchwardens and a friend or two.


Prince should your royal eyes espy
A white hair - this is entre nous -
Remember you are very nigh
Churchwardens and a friend or two.

Saturday, January 17, 2009

Ballade of Autumn

Many poets do seem to revel in writing about the feelings of a jilted lover and Andrew Lang (1844 - 1912) proves to be no exception. It must have been a change from his other writings - he translated works of Homer, wrote "leaders" for the Daily News, produced well researched books on Scottish history, investigated and wrote about folklore and anthropology and was one of the founders of the study of "Psychical Research". On top of al that, he wrote a beautifully produced and illustrated book of fairy tales and then an annual book of fairy tales and romances drawn from many sources. So if he is the jilted lover in the poem below, he certainly had plenty of other interests to keep him busy!

We built a castle in the air,
In summer weather, you and I,
The wind and sun were in your hair, -
Gold hair against a sapphire sky:
When Autumn came, with leaves that fly
Before the storm, across the plain,
You fled from me, with scarce a sigh -
My Love returns no more again!
The windy lights of Autumn flare:
I watch the moonlit sails go by;
I marvel how men toil and fare,
The weary business that they ply!
Their voyaging is vanity,
And fairy gold is all their gain,
And all the winds of winter cry,
"My Love returns no more again!"

Here, in my castle of Despair,
I sit alone with memory;
The wind-fed wolf has left his lair,
To keep the outcast company.
The brooding owl he hoots hard by,
The hare shall kindle on thy hearth-stane,
The Rhymer's soothest prophecy,
My Love returns no more again!


Lady, my home until I die
Is here, where youth and hope were slain:
They flit, the ghosts of our July,
My Love returns no more again!

Friday, January 16, 2009

Babbity Bowster

Babbity Bowster was an old Scottish country dance which was often used to finish off a ball; it also became a children's game with different rules in various parts of the country. "Babbity" means "bob" and "bowster" was the wheelshaft in a watermill.
The illustration is the Babbity Bowster restaurant in Glasgow's Merchant City.

Wha learned you to dance,
Babbity Bowster, Babbity Bowster?
Wha learned you to dance,
Babbity Bowster, brawly?
My minny learned me to dance,
Babbity Bowster, Babbity Bowster,
My minny learned me to dance,
Babbity Bowster, brawly.

Wha gae you the keys to keep,
Babbity Bowster, Babbity Bowster?
Wha gae you the keys to keep,
Babbity Bowster, brawly?

My minny gae me the keys to keep,
Babbity Bowster, Babbity Bowster,
My minny gae me the keys to keep,
Babbity Bowster, brawly.

Meaning of unusual words:
learned you=taught you
minnie=an affectionate name for mother

Thursday, January 15, 2009

The Australian Sunrise

James Lister Cuthbertson (1851-1910), who wrote this poem, was born in Scotland and was educated at Glenalmond in Perthshire and then Merton College, Oxford. He emigrated to Australia in 1874 and taught as a Senior Classical Master at Geelong Grammar School, in Victoria for 21 years. Australians may recognise his description of sunrise in their part of the world. The poem was written in 1880.

The Morning Star paled slowly, the Cross hung low to the sea,
And down the shadowy reaches the tide came swirling free,
The lustrous purple blackness of the soft Australian night,
Waned in the grey awakening that heralded the light;
Still in the dying darkness, still in the forest dim,
The pearly dew of the dawning clung to each giant limb,
Till the sun came up from ocean, red with the cold sea mist,
And smote on the limestone ridges, and the shining tree-tops kissed;
Then the fiery Scorpion vanished, the magpie’s note was heard,
And the wind in the sheoak wavered and the honeysuckles stirred;
The airy golden vapour rose from the river breast,
The kingfisher came darting out of his crannied nest,
And the bulrushes and reed-beds put off their sallow grey
And burnt with cloudy crimson at the dawning of the day.

Meaning of unusual words:
The Cross - The constellation of the Southern Cross, which appears to become lower in the sky towards morning.
The fiery Scorpion - The constellation of Scorpio which contains the first magnitude star Antares, which shines with a reddish light.
sheoak - a tree which is not as heavy and hard as oak (the Englsh settlers declared it weaker than English oak but similar so "She-oak"). It grows primarily in a small area on the south coast of Southwest Western Australia.

Wednesday, January 14, 2009

The Auld House

This poem by William Soutar (1898-1943) could refer to any one of the many derelict houses scattered around the Scottish countryside - no longer needed as the owners go off to build something newer and better.

There's a puckle lairds in the auld house
wha haud the wa's thegither:
there's no muckle graith in the auld house
nor smeddum aither.
It was aince a braw and bauld house
and guid for onie weather:
kings and lords throng'd in the auld house
or it gaed a'smither.

There were kings and lords in the auld house
and birds o monie a feather:
there were sangs and swords in the auld house
that rattled ane anither.

It was aince a braw and bauld house
and guid for onie weather:
but it's noo a scrunted and cauld house
whaur lairdies forgaither.

Lat's caa in the folk to the auld house,
the puir folk a' thegither:
it's sunkit on rock is the auld house,
and the rock's their brither.

It was aince a braw and bauld house
and guid for onie weather:
but the folk maun funder the auld house
and bigg up anither.

Meaning of unusual words:
puckle=good few
muckle graith=large furniture
smeddum=force of character, good sense
gaed a'smither=went to pieces
maun funder=must uproot

Tuesday, January 13, 2009

The Atholl Road

"East, west, home's best" runs the saying and who can disagree? Certainly not Christine Orr in this poem about the road through Atholl and the Pass of Kiliecrankie in Perthshire which she regards as the best, despite recounting such a list of other evocative Scottish placenames.

There are some that love the Border-land and some the Lothians wide,
And some would boast the Neuk o' Fife and some the banks o' Clyde,
And some are fain for Mull and Skye and all the Western Sea;
But the Road that runs by Atholl will be doing yet for me.
The Road it runs by Atholl and climbs the midmost brae
Where Killiecrankie crowns the pass with golden woods and gay;
There straight and clean 'twas levelled where the Garry runs below
By Wade's red-coated soldiery two hundred years ago.

The Road it strikes Dalwhinnie where the mountain tops are grey
And the snow lies in the corries from October until May;
Then down from bleak Ben Alder by Loch Ericht's windswept shore
It hastes by Dalnaspidal to the howes of Newtonmore.

The Road it runs through Badenoch, and still and on it rings
With the riding of the clansmen and a hundred echoings;
Oh, some they rode for vengeance and some for gear and gain,
But some for bonnie Charlie rode, and came not home again.

The Road it runs by Alvie - you may linger if you list
To gaze on Ben Muich-Dhuie and the Larig's cup of mist;
There are pines in Rothiemurchus like a gipsy's dusky hair,
There are birch-trees in Craigellachie like elfin silver-ware.

The Road it runs to Forres, and it leaves the hills behind,
For the roving winds from Morayshire have brought the sea to mind;
But still it winds to northward in the twilight of the day,
Where the stars shine down at evening on the bonny haughs of Spey.

Oh, there's some that sing of Yarrow stream, Traquair and Manor-side,
And some would pick the Neuk o' Fife, and some the banks o' Clyde;
And some would choose the Pentlands, Cauldstaneslap to Woodhouselee,
But the Road that runs by Atholl will be doing yet for me!

Monday, January 12, 2009


The island of Arran in the Firth of Clyde is often decribed as "Scotland in miniature" with its coastline, mountains, rivers and lochs. This poem covers just about every aspect of this enchanted island (except maybe its golf courses!) and was originally written by an anonymous author in Irish Gaelic and was translated by Kenneth Jackson.

Arran of the many stags,
the sea reaches to its shoulder;
island where companies are fed,
ridges whereon blue spears are reddened.
Wanton deer upon its peaks,
Mellow blaeberries on its heaths,
cold water in its streams,
mast upon its brown oaks.

Hunting dogs there, and hounds,
blackberries and sloes of the dark blackthorn,
dense thorn-bushes in its woods,
stags astray among its oak-groves.

Gathering of purple lichen on its rocks,
grass without blemish on its slopes;
over its fair shapely crags
gambolling of dappled fawns leaping.

Smooth is its lowland, fat are its swine,
pleasant its fields, a tale to be believed;
its nuts on the boughs of its hazel-wood,
sailing of long galleys past it.

It is delightful when fine weather comes,
trout under the banks of its streams,
seagulls answer each other round its white cliff;
delightful at all times is Arran.

Sunday, January 11, 2009

Any Singers, Any Songs?

Here's a wee poem from Christina Forbes who now lives in Canada. If you have ever experienced "Any singers, any songs?" in a Scottish pub where customers (usually a bit drunk) are asked to volunteer to sing, you will immediately recognise this situation!

Gei's a song, ach no the noo.
Whit's wrang hen? that's no' like you.
Ah'm jist no ready, ah canny think,
Mibbe ah need some mair tae drink.
"Gei hur annurrer" wis the command.
Then she'll sing tae beat the band.

Efter a few, poured withoot measure,
She said "Cum oan noo, name yer pleasure"
Whit's it tae be? Ah'll sing whit ye want.
She wis confident, she could chant.
"Is it Rabbie, Shirley, or Lena Martell?"
This lassie wis said tae hiv a voice like a bell.

By this time people wur gettin' fed up wi' the patter.
Fur guidness sake sing, it disny matter.
If she disny sing, ah'll no borra,
Ye see, ah'm up fur work the morra.

The lassie finally stood up,
Drinkin' Lanny fae a china cup.
Her song wis long, bit no' forgotten.
She could sing nane, she wis BLOODY ROTTEN!!!

Meaning of unusual words:

Saturday, January 10, 2009

The Ancient Town of Leith

William McGonagal (1825-1902) became a well known figure in the 19th century giving public readings of his poetry. His combination of irrelevance, odd rhymes and confused scansion have earned him the title of "the world's worst poet". Despite that he is viewed with affection - and some degree of amusement! Here is (part) of his long poem on that most poetic of subjects - the port of Leith!

Ancient town of Leith, most wonderful to be seen,
With your many handsome buildings, and lovely links so green,
And the first buildings I may mention are the Courthouse and Town Hall,
Also Trinity House, and the Sailors' Home of Call.
Then as for Leith Fort, it was erected in 1779, which is really grand,
And which is now the artillery headquarters in Bonnie Scotland;
And as for the Docks, they are magnificent to see,
They comprise five docks, two piers, 1,141 yards long respectively.

And there's steam boat communication with London and the North of Scotland,
And the fares are really cheap and the accommodation most grand;
Then there's many public works in Leith, such as flour mills,
And chemical works, where medicines are made for curing many ills.

Then there's Bailie Gibson's fish shop, most elegant to be seen,
And the fish he sells there are beautiful and clean;
And for himself, he is a very good man,
And to deny it there's few people can.

The suburban villas of Leith are elegant and grand,
With accommodation that might suit the greatest lady in the land;
And the air is pure and good for the people's health, --
And health, I'm sure, is better by far than wealth.

The old town of Leith is situated at the junction of the River of Leith,
Which springs from the land of heather and heath;
And no part in the Empire is growing so rapidly,
Which the inhabitants of Leith are right glad to see.

Ancient town of Leith, I must now conclude my muse,
And to write in praise of thee my pen does not refuse,
Because the inhabitants to me have been very kind,
And I'm sure more generous people would be hard to find.

They are very affable in temper and void of pride,
And I hope God will always for them provide;
May He shower His blessings upon them by land and sea,
Because they have always been very kind to me.

Friday, January 9, 2009

Almae Matres

Andrew Lang (1844 - 1912) was an academic who graduated from both Edinburgh and then Oxford Universities. As well as poetry, he co-wrote a prose translation of Homer's "Odyssey" and the "Iliad" and produced other scholarly books on Homer and his times.

He also published a large number of books of poetry as well as novels and books on Scottish history, including a life of Mary Queen of Scots and one on "James VI and the Gowrie Mystery".

In the poem below, there is no doubt which of his "almae matres" (St. Andrews in 1862 and Oxford in 1865) he prefers!

St. Andrews by the Northern Sea,
A haunted town it is to me!
A little city, worn and grey.
The grey North Ocean girds it round,
And o'er the rocks, and up the bay,
The long sea-rollers surge and sound.
And still the thin and biting spray
Drives down the melancholy street,
And still endure, and still decay,
Towers that the salt winds vainly beat.
Ghost-like and shadowy they stand
Dim mirrored in the wet sea-sand.
St. Leonard's chapel, long ago
We loitered idly where the tall
Fresh-budded mountain ashes blow
Within thy desecrated wall:
The tough roots rent the tomb below,
The April birds sang clamorous,
We did not dream, we could not know
How hardly Fate would deal with us!

O, broken minster, looking forth
Beyond the bay, above the town,
O, winter of the kindly North,
O, college of the scarlet gown,
And shining sands beside the sea,
And stretch of links beyond the sand,
Once more I watch you, and to me
It is as if I touched his hand!

And therefore art thou yet more dear,
O, little city, grey and sere,
Though shrunken from thine ancient pride
And lonely by thy lonely sea,
Than these fair halls on Isis' side,
Where Youth an hour came back to me!

A land of waters green and clear,
Of willows and of poplars tall,
And, in the spring-time of the year,
The white may breaking over all,
And Pleasure quick to come at call.
And summer rides by marsh and wold,
And Autumn with her crimson pall
About the towers of Magdalen rolled;
And strange enchantments from the past,
And memories of the friends of old,
And strong Tradition, binding fast
The 'flying terms' with bands of gold,—
All these hath Oxford: all are dear,
But dearer far the little town,
The drifting surge, the wintry year,
The college of the scarlet gown.
St. Andrews by the Northern Sea,
That is a haunted town to me!

Thursday, January 8, 2009

Address to the Unco Guid or the Rigidly Righteous

Robert Burns suffered at the hands of the self-rghteous folk in Alloway when he was held to account for his love affairs and illegitimate children. This poem takes a dig at them but also gets over the idea that "every man even the worst, have something good about them".

My Son, these maxims make a rule,
An lump them ay thegither:
The Rigid Righteous is a fool.
The Rigid Wise anither;
The cleanest corn that e'er was dight
May hae some pyles o caff in;
So ne'er a fellow-creature slight
For random fits o daffin.
O ye, wha are sae guid yoursel,
Sae pious and sae holy,
Ye've nought to do but mark and tell
Your neebours' fauts and folly!
Whose life is like a weel-gaun mill,
Supplied wi store o water;
The heapet happer's ebbing still.
An still the clap plays clatter!

Hear me, ye venerable core,
As counsel for poor mortals
That frequent pass douce Wisdom's door
For glaikit Folly's portals:
I for their thoughtless, careless sakes,
Would here propone defences
Their donsie tricks, their black mistakes,
Their failings and mischances.

Ye see your state wi theirs compared,
And shudder at the niffer:
But cast a moment's fair regard,
What maks the mighty differ?
Discount what scant occasion gave,
That purity ye pride in;
And (what's aft mair than a' the lave)
Your better art o hidin.

Think, when your castigated pulse
Gies now and then a wallop,
What ragings must his veins convulse,
That still eternal gallop!
Wi wind and tide fair i your tail
Right on ye scud your sea-way;
But in the teeth o baith to sail,
It maks an unco lee-way.

See Social Life and Glee sit down,
All joyous and unthinking,
Till, quite transmugrify'd, they're grown
Debauchery and Drinking:
O, would they stay to calculate
Th' eternal consequences,
Or your more dreaded hell to state -
Damnation of expenses!

Ye high, exalted, virtuous dames,
Tied up in godly laces,
Before ye gie poor Frailty names.
Suppose a change o cases:
A dear-lov'd lad. convenience snug,
A treach'rous inclination -
But, let me whisper i your lug,
Ye're aiblins nae temptation.

Then gently scan your brother man,
Still gentler sister woman;
Tho they may gang a kennin wrang,
To step aside is human:
One point must still be greatly dark,
The moving Why they do It;
And just as lamely can ye mark,
How far perhaps they rue it.

Who made the heart, 'tis He alone
Decidedly can try us:
He knows each chord, its various tone,
Each spring, its various bias:
Then at the balance let's be mute,
We never can adjust it.
What's done we partly may compute,
But know not what's resisted.

Meaning of unusual words:
heapet=heaped, pile up
clap=clapper of a mill
douce=sober, respectable
propone=state in a court of law
scud=sail quickly over

Wednesday, January 7, 2009

Address to the Toothache

It has been suggested that this poem was composed by Robert Burns in 1795 when he wrote that he was enduring "the delightful sensations of an omnipotent Toothache, while fifty troops of infernal spirits are riding past from ear to ear along my jawbones." It was first published in the Belfast News Letter of 11th September 1797. Despite the pain, the poet manages to maintain his sense of humour!

My curse upon your venom'd stang.
That shoots my tortur'd gums alang,
An thro my lug gies monie a twang Wi gnawing vengeance,
Tearing my nerves wi bitter pang,
Like racking engines!
A' down my beard the slavers trickle,
I throw the wee stools o'er the mickle.
While round the fire the giglets keckle,
To see me loup.
An raving mad, I wish a heckle
Were i' their doup!

When fevers burn, or ague freezes,
Rheumatics gnaw, or colic squeezes,
Our neebors sympathise to ease us,
Wi pitying moan;
But thee! - thou hell o a' diseases -
They mock our groan!

Of a' the numerous human dools -
Ill-hairsts, daft bargains, cutty-stools,
Or worthy frien's laid i' the mools,
Sad sight to see!
The tricks o knaves, or fash o fools -
Thou bear'st the gree!

Whare'er that place be priests ca' Hell,
Whare a' the tones o misery yell,
An ranked plagues their numbers tell,
In dreadfu raw,
Thou, Toothache, surely bear'st the bell,
Amang them a'!

O thou grim, mischief-making chiel,
That gars the notes o discord squeel,
Till human kind aft dance a reel
In gore, a shoe-thick,
Gie a' the faes o Scotland's weal
A towmond's toothache!

Meaning of unusual words:
giglets keckle=girls cackle
heckle=comb with steel teeth for dressing flax and hemp
Ill-hairsts=bad harvests
cutty-stools=stool of repentance on which offendors sat in church
mools=crumbling earth
bear'st the gree=takes the prize
chiel=fellow, child
towmond=twelve month's

Tuesday, January 6, 2009

Address to a Haggis

Declaimed at every Burns' Supper celebrated around the poet's birthday on 25 January, the closing stanza is said to have been composed by Burns "off the cuff" during a dinner. The poem was published soon after Burns arrived in Edinburgh. The earliest known recipe for this traditional Scottish dish using oatmeal, herbs and offal, was published in the same year.

Fair fa' your honest, sonsie face,
Great chieftain o the puddin' race!
Aboon them a' ye tak your place,
Painch, tripe, or thairm:
Weel are ye wordy of a grace
As lang's my arm.
The groaning trencher there ye fill,
Your hurdies like a distant hill,
Your pin wad help to mend a mill
In time o need,
While thro your pores the dews distil
Like amber bead.

His knife see rustic Labour dight,
An cut you up wi ready slight,
Trenching your gushing entrails bright,
Like onie ditch;
And then, O what a glorious sight,
Warm - reekin, rich!

Then, horn for horn, they stretch an strive:
Deil tak the hindmost, on they drive,
Till a' their weel-swall'd kytes belyve
Are bent like drums;
The auld Guidman, maist like to rive,
'Bethankit' hums.

Is there that owre his French ragout,
Or olio that wad staw a sow,
Or fricassee wad mak her spew
Wi perfect sconner,
Looks down wi sneering, scornfu view
On sic a dinner?

Poor devil! see him owre his trash,
As feckless as a wither'd rash,
His spindle shank a guid whip-lash,
His nieve a nit:
Thro bloody flood or field to dash,
O how unfit!

But mark the Rustic, haggis-fed,
The trembling earth resounds his tread,
Clap in his walie nieve a blade.
He'll make it whissle;
An legs an arms, an heads will sned,
Like taps o thrissle.

Ye Pow`rs, wha mak mankind your care,
And dish them out their bill o fare,
Auld Scotland wants nae skinking ware
That jaups in luggies:
But, If ye wish her gratefu prayer,
Gie her a Haggis!

Meaning of unusual words:
weel-swall'd kytes=well-swollen bellies
Guidman=Head of the household
nieve a nit=fist a nut
taps o thrissle= tops of thistle
luggies=wooden bowl with projecting handles

Monday, January 5, 2009

Address to the Barley Seed

Here is an entertaining way to learn how golden barley is turned into golden John Barleycorn (whisky) - including some of the technical terms. Perhaps the only aspect missing is the debt owed to pure Highland water.

When the Lord first planted oot the earth wi' trees an' flo'ers an' weeds,
He scattered roon' Speyside a puckle barley seeds;
Thus was the birth o' Scotia's brew on that fair springtime morn,
For in the month that followed, John Barleycorn was born.
The threshin' plant had scarce made off, the golden grain was cairted,
Syne bags for siller were exchanged an' industry was started.
O barley seed, had ye but known the fate that lay before ye,
The very day in which ye breared ye'd ha'e telt die earth tae smo'er ye.

Regardless o' yer injured pride, yer golden grains sae gleamin',
They ran ye on conveyor belts that in a steep were teemin',
An' there ye lay for 'oors on end, sae soakin' an' sae sodden.
Syne they spread ye oot tae dry, trampled on an' trodden.

Frae there they took ye tae the kiln, ye thocht they'd only toast ye.
They held on coke an' peats until, ye thocht, 'My God, they'll roast me!'
They sent ye tae the millroom an' they hackit an' they cut ye.
Syne they sent ye aff again, in the Glory Hole they shut ye.

An' so ye cam' tae the day o' days when the mashman started mashin';
They pushed ye doon the hopper in tae the mashtun splashin';
They soaked ye in the bilin' bree an' drained the watter aff;
They sheeled ye doon the drag hole an' noo yer only draff.

O whit a come doon tae yer pride, wee golden barley seed,
Tae think ye'd land in sic a soss for the sake o' human greed.
Tae think that once yer golden grains were shimmerin' in the breeze
An' noo yer lyin' stinkin' like ony mouldy cheese.

But ye've ae consolation that canna fail tae cheer ye,
For noo there's millions love ye, aye, an' millions also fear ye.
Noo ye're in a bottle, in the world ye stand supreme -
The world wad gang doon on its knees tae ye O Mountain Cream.

They preach ye frae the pulpit, an' mony a woman's cursed ye,
Aye, an' mony a cheel when he threw the mash wad cherish ye and nurse ye.
Ye bring a sparkle tae the e'e, ye also bring a tear,
Ye've saved a life, ye've caused a death, ye inspire baith pluck an' fear.
In solace noo, wee barley seed, or is it barley bree?
I'd like tae say that ilka day my hand gangs oot for ye,
At seven o' clock each mornin', at five o'clock each nicht.
If I should fail tae find ye, I'd drap doon deid wi' fricht.

Meaning of unusual words:
puckle=small amount
breared=first shoots of grain
hackit=chop up
sheeled=took out the husk
draff=refuse of the malt after brewing
sic a soss=such a thud
barley bree=malt liquor, whisky

Sunday, January 4, 2009

Absent-minded Andra

There are many advantages (so we're told) of being older and more mature, but there is a downside - and forgetfulness is certainly one aspect. But we can always have a wry smile at the absent-mindedness of others - such as "Andra" in this poem. The auhor of this poem is only given as "Meg" - in an old copy of "Scots Story Recitations" where this piece was found in the Scottish Poetry Library.

Men are but bairns at the best,
And need close watchin' ever.
Andra's nae better than the rest,
As often I discover.
What aggravates me most o' a',
Is he's sae absent-minded;
For mony a thing he lays awa',
Sae safe he canna' find it.
Oft in the mornin' roond he creeps,
Seekin' his stud, puir soul;
Although a spare ane he aye keeps
It's in some hidie-hole.
For gettin' things mislaid, indeed,
My Andra's sic a chiel;
I'm certain he would lose his heid
If 'twasna fixed on weel.

Things reached a crisis, I declare,
Wi' him last Friday nicht;
In fact, he gae me sic a scare,
Even noo I'm hardly richt.
On Fridays he aye gets his pay,
And, as a rule we go
Tae visit mither doon the way
Or tae a picter show.

Andra was late o' comin' in,
"What's keepit ye?" I cried.
"I stood a while there bletherin'
Wi' a chap," he replied.
"Puir lad, he hasna got a job;
Been on the dole awhile;
So I just lent him a bit bob,
Tae help him ower the stile."

"It's like ye," I said, "but mak' haste,
You've stood wi' him ower lang,
And I have little time tae waste,
I've messages tae gang.
If you gie me your pay I'll rin,
The shops by noo are shuttin',
See that you're cleaned when I come in,
And dressed tae the last button."

Andra rose tae his feet and tried
His pockets, ane by ane.
"I canna find my pay," he cried,
"I wonder whaur it's gane.
Dash it a', Meg, I put it here
Beside my pocket-book,
But noo, my pooch is toom - that's queer,
Just come, my lass, and look."

"You've lost your pay," I cried aghast,
For I was sair distressed.
"In some fly pooch you've put it past,
Come, let me try your vest."
But though wa searched wi' anxious care,
Nae pound notes could we find,
"They're safe," said Andra, "that I'll swear,
But where, I canna mind."

"This cowes the cuddy," I declared,
"I meant tae lay away
As much this week as could be spared
For a comin' holiday.
What did ye gie that man ye saw?
No' your hale pay, I hope ?"
"A bob," said Andra, "maybe twa,
But no' my envelope."

I couldna help it, doon I sat
Completely overpowered;
And raged and stormed, and grat and grat,
While Andra glumched and glowered.
"Ye needna cairry on like that,"
Said he tae me at last;
"The money's safe, I'll bet ma hat,
I ken I put it past."

Tae his tobacco-pooch he gaed
Tae get his briar filled ;
Then waved something abune his heid,
"My pey bag's here!" he yelled.
I felt my brain begin to swim,
And shaky grew my knees;
"Andra," I said, as I kissed him,
"You'll gie me he'rt disease."

Meaning of unusual words:
sic a chiel=such a child
bletherin'=talk idly
cowes the cuddy=beats the donky (takes the biscuit)
A bob=a shilling (now 5 new pence)
glumched=grumbled, looked sour

Saturday, January 3, 2009

The Holm o Innisfree

A'll up an tak the gate nou, an gang tae Innisfree,
An a bit shielin big thare, o claut an mortar made:
Nine bean-raws will A hae thare, a stale for the bummin bee,
An bide ma lane in the bee-lood slade.

An A will hae some lown thare, for lown comes drappin slaw,
Drappin frae the murnin-wimple tae whaur the cheeper sings;
The howe o the nicht's ableize thare, an nuin a purpie daw.
An the gloamin fou o the lintie's wings.

A'll up an tak the gate nou, for aye still nicht an day
A hear loch watter lapperin wi laich soonds at the shore;
An me atap the plainstane, or on the causey gray,
A hear it in hert's wanlit core.

William Butler Yeats (1865-1939)

Friday, January 2, 2009

The Chaumert Nautilus

This is the margaret ship that, bairds wad ledge,
Sails forenent warld's edge, -
The anterous bark that flings
On the sweet simmer its purpur wings
In bosoms glamourt, whaur the silkie sings,
An coral brigs lees bare,
Whaur the mermaidens lifts tae sun thair skinklin hair.

Its wabs o leevin gauze is thirlt lang syne;
Cuist is the ship sae fine!
An ilka chaumert fauld,
Whaur its dowf dreamin life wis iver tauld,
As the frail tenand turnt his growin hauld,
Afore thee nakit lees, -
Its irised coom is spleet; its crypt owergane wi seas!

The raivelt years buir witness tae the wark
That spreid his lustert ark;
Yit, as the wimple grew,
He buid quit fernyear's dwallin for the new,
Tipperin saft its fulgent airchwey throu,
An steekin fast his lair.
Sauf in his last-fund hame, he kent the auld nae mair.

Thanks for the wird celest that's brocht bi thee,
Bairn o the wanderin sea,
Cuist frae her skirt, forlorn!
Frae thy deid lips a clearer note is born
Nor iver Triton blew fae lowpit horn;
While on ma lug it rings,
Throu the deep weems o thocht A hear a vyce that sings: -

Big thee mair solemn mansions, O ma saul,
Faurder nor year's devaul!
Flit thy laich-pendit past!
Lat ilka sanctuar, nobler nor the last,
Bield thee frae hieven wi a dome mair vast,
Till thou at lenth be free,
Castin thy riven shell bi life's wanrestfu sea!

Oliver Wendell Holmes (1809-94)

Thursday, January 1, 2009

The Salutation

Unner this airn regiment
A sing the leeberty
Whaur ilkane seeks frae ither
Whit ilkane's hert wad gie
An ilkane wauks in's marrae
Whit but for't canna be,
Inringin wi't the flichterin
Speerit tae fecht an dree.

Sae lat us tuim oor herts,
No scrimpin till we'v socht
Thair last, laist nochtie trump,
For awthing's aureate nou,
The guids an gear we hae
A fouth o hert an thocht,
That, skailin efter ither,
Breirds ahint ilkane's brou.

For handsel, A wad gie ye
Some mair nor mortal grace
Sauf that, throu your translation,
Masel A micht translate,
Forgettin luve wis born
Here in a time an place,
Miscawin wi couthie wirds
This life proposed as fate.

Whither the saul its lane
This viage lang begoud,
Or willyart body's airtin
Haes trystit hert wi hert
Wha kens? This is the maist
That saul an body coud,
Tae mak's ilkane for ither
An o ae speerit pairt.

Edwin Muir (1887-1959)