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A Sassenach's Stravaig
Sunday 2nd August 2009 - Writers along the way


I promised that this time I'd talk about literary connections. There isn't space or patience for a full list - I've so far stayed at over 40 places in my travels - so I'll mention just one, to show how richly words and places are sometimes braided together.

Scottish Borders

The area surrounding Mosspaul surprised me with the number of famous writers who came from or who lived there.

We start with Langholm, 10 miles to the south. It was the birthplace of the poet and author Hugh McDiarmid (1892-1978). This was one of the pen names of Christopher Grieve, sometime journalist, sometime politician and ever a radical.

Among his early successes was the long poem, A Drunk Man Looks at the Thistle, which appeared in 1926. Here are the first lines. You'll need a dictionary! (Fortunately, most collections of McDiarmid's poems come with a glossary.)

I amma fou sae muckle as tired deid dune
It's gey and hard wark coupin gless for gless
Wi Cruvie and Gilsanquar and the like,
And I'm no juist as bauld as aince I wes.

The elbuck fankles in the coorse o time,
The sheckle's no sae souple, and the thrapple
Grows deef and dour: nae langer up and doun
Gleg as a squirrel speils the Adam's apple.

Forbye, the stuffie's no the real MacKay.
The sun's sel aince, as sune as ye began it,
Riz in your vera saul: but what keeks in
Noo is in truth the vilest 'saxpenny planet'.

You can hear the author reading it at this page. The meaning comes through clearer when it's read aloud.

Langholm was a town I never got to, as I was at Mosspaul only a week. If I go to the Borders again, I'll try to visit McDiarmid's monument, just outside it. Made in 1985 by another Borderer, Jake Harvey, it looks entertaining.

Henry Scott Riddell

Moving north up the A7, a couple of miles past Mosspaul you see on the left the upper part of what looks like an oversized candle snuffer made in stone. This is the Colterscleuch Monument, erected to the memory of another poet, Henry Scott Riddell (1798-1870).

He is chiefly famous in Scotland as the author of "Scotland Yet" that he composed in 1834. Peter McLeod, a well-known tunesmith of the time, set it to music soon after. For a while it was nearly as often sung in Scotland as Robbie Burn's "Auld Lang Syne".

These days it has lost ground to the lugubrious "Flower of Scotland", the lyrics of which don't even scan. FoS celebrates the defeat at Bannockburn of Edward II of England and the routing of his army.

Riddell was also the translator of some books of the Bible into Lowland Scots. Here's an extract from his version of the Song of Songs (Song of Solomon) rendered "into Lowland Scotch" in 1838:

I am blak but bonnie, O ye douchters o' Jerusalem,
as the sheilins o' Kedar,
as the coortins of Solomon.

Glowerna at me becaus I am blak,
becaus the sun hes shaine on me:
my mither's children wer angrie wi' me…

(A shieling is a summer cottage or hut.)

Riddell based his version on the King James or "Authorised" version of the English Bible. In the original, that section reads as follows:

I am black, but comely, O ye daughters of Jerusalem,
as the tents of Kedar,
as the curtains of Solomon.

Look not upon me, because I am black,
because the sun hath looked upon me:
my mother's children were angry with me…

A leap to the south-east

It's nothing to do with the Borders but I can't resist giving you another version of those lines. This time they're "in the dialect of the colliers of Northumberland but principally those dwelling on the banks of the Tyne". J.P Robson made this jaunty translation in 1860:

Aw's black, but bonny, Salem lasses,
Like the Kedar-shows;
Or, like the cortins where wor king
Lies under for a doze.

Noo, divent glower at me se,
Becas aw's black as seut,
Becas the sun maw skin he's tann'd,
Maw mother's bairns cries, "Slut"…

A modern name of this dialect is Pitmatic, previously Pitmatical. This page gives you a chance to hear how it sounded.

Back to the Borders

When Henry Liddell wrote "Scotland Yet", he showed the words to James Hogg (1770-1835), another and more famous local writer. Hogg lived in and came from Ettrick, a few valleys and about 20 miles to the west.

James Hogg was born into a sometimes destitute sheep-farming family and for much of his adult life was himself a sheep herder. One result was his being given the sobriquet of "The Ettrick Shepherd", often meant patronisingly. (Since, in Scotland and much of England, a hogg is a young sheep, his real name is an aptronym.)

Hogg's most famous prose work was Private Memoirs and Confessions of a Justified Sinner, which you can read here. Before that he had established himself as a major poet.

In time, Hogg's largely middle-class readers tired of the novelty of reading the work of someone of such lowly station in life. Also, like his similarly impecunious hero Robert Burns, Hogg was a questioning writer, critical of the status quo. This alienated some, especially the snootier Edinburgians.

As the Dictionary of National Biography puts it: "James Hogg's status as a major writer was not fully recognized in his own lifetime because his social origins led to his being smothered in genteel condescension."

Walter Scott

Hogg was a longtime friend of Sir Walter Scott (1771-1832), financially the most successful of the literary figures associated with this part of the Borders and the last I'll mention.

Jedburgh Abbey -- east doorBorn and educated in Edinburgh, Scott spent some of his childhood at his grandfather's farm at Sandyhowe, near Kelso. There he heard many of the folk tales and legends that he later drew on in his writings. Like his father he became a lawyer, his first pleading being in Jedburgh (which gives me an excuse to show this picture of the abbey ruins there.)

While building his practice, Scott started writing poetry and published a collection of ballads, The Minstrelsy of the Scottish Borders, in 1802. This led on to The Lay of the Last Minstrel, Marmion, The Lady of the Lake and others. This romantic material was later echoed in his immensely popular novels, beginning with Waverley in 1814.

Meanwhile, through a combination of ability, hard work and patronage, Scott became Sheriff-Depute [sic] of Selkirkshire in 1799. A dozen years later, he bought the property at Abbotsford, near Selkirk, that he transformed into the grand house and estate that we see today.

I find it remarkable that so many gifted writers should come from this part of Scotland (and there may be others I have left out). Apart from the big cities, I can think of only one other similarly compact area in Britain that has provided or was home to so many famous literary figures. That place is the Lake District, associated with Wordsworth (William and Dorothy), Southey, Coleridge and Ruskin, followed slightly less luminously by Beatrix Potter, Arthur Ransome and Melvyn Bragg.

Port LoganAnyway, before I figuratively leave the Borders, I feel I should mention one other figure who adds lustre to the area's reputation. It is the engineer, Thomas Telford (1757-1834). He was born in Westerkirk, about eight miles north-west of Langholm. This page on Undiscovered Scotland gives you some idea of his astonishing accomplishments. The picture is of one of his minor productions.

A bit of a downer

Understandably, and in my view rightly, large bookshops and supermarkets in Scotland usually have at least one set of shelves labelled "Scottish Writing" or similar. There's always plenty of choice. BBC Scotland also has a helpful set of pages - Writing Scotland. ("You start with a big 'S'…")

Another shelf label that caught my eye recently was in a branch of WH Smith. There, next to the massed biographies of nonentities, was a section labelled "Tragic Life Stories".

Can you imagine? "I'm feeling in a really cheerful mood today. What can I do to cure that? I know, I'll pop into Smiths and get a really depressing book about someone's unavailing fight against the forces of fate and upbringing. That'll set me right again."

They're a sort of literary put-me-down. I don't see me buying much in that genre, somehow.


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