Tuesday, 27 August 2013

RON BUTLIN: The Edinburgh Makar visits Orkney

I first met Ron Butlin at Glasgow's Aye Write Festival where we were both reading from our recently published novels. His was called Belonging, a novel that captures extremes of cold and heat in the landscape and explores the turbulent weather of human relationships at the edge. I loved the book. 

Ron Butlin is one of those writers difficult to categorise. Equally successful across a variety of genres, he is an award winning novelist, short story writer, opera librettist and poet, recognised internationally and closer to home where he is Edinburgh Makar - or Poet Laureate.

And his road to this position is an interesting one. Here is an extract from a biography on his website:

"At sixteen he hitchhiked down to London where he did nothing for a while (he saw The Stones in Hyde Park, went up in a lift with Paul McCartney - such was life in those days). In quick succession, he secured the positions of valet-footman, barnacle scraper on Thames barges, computer operator and city messenger. Finally he became an associate member of a rather dismal and forgotten pop-group for whom he wrote song lyrics. In less than eight months, and on the strength of two records and a B-film, he retired for good. Without music, his lyrics did their best to become poems.

After drifting around abroad for a year or so he returned to a life of intense unemployment. This was when he began to write in earnest. Over the course of several years he did very little else. Eventually, however, the Government decided it was time he made a meaningful contribution to society and, as an incentive, stopped his dole money. Spurred into action he became a male model - for students at the Edinburgh College of Art. As well as broadening his social life, this allowed him to sit and do nothing for hours on end, leaving his imagination completely free. His earliest published poems date from this period."

"There are more people writing poetry than reading it, and precious few buying it," he says. 

Which is why he learned to 'diversify' and turn his hand to all sorts of writing. Unsuccessful as he characterises his early days writing pop song lyrics, it must have been a worthwhile apprenticeship, because he has since written several libretti for Scottish Opera. His most recent book of poetry, The Magicians of Edinburgh, has run into several reprints.

Of his book, The Sound Of My VoiceIrvine Welsh said: 'One of the greatest pieces of fiction to come out of Britain in the 80s' 

We are delighted to say that Ron Butlin is visiting us in Orkney next week.

Ron Butlin
7.00 pm
Wednesday 4 September
MacGillivray Room
Orkney Library & Archive 


To book your place 
Phone: 01856 873166
E-mail: general.enquiries@orkneylibrary.org.uk

Monday, 26 August 2013

JAMES OSWALD comes to Orkney

When you think of successful writers, you don't often think about their day jobs. Successful writers don't have day jobs. Do they? Well, not only does James Oswald have a 24/7 kind of a day job, it is not the kind of job that immediately springs to mind.

James Oswald is a farmer. He runs a 350 acre livestock farm in North East Fife, where he raises pedigree Highland Cattle and New Zealand Romney Sheep.

And as if that didn't take up enough of his time, he has recently become a highly successful author of the Inspector McLean mysteries.

In Natural Causes, Inspector McLean tramps the genteel streets of Edinburgh and solves a particularly grisly series of crimes reminiscent of Scandinavian noir. But look closer to home for the comparisons in the reviews: yes, James Oswald has been hailed as 'the new Ian Rankin'. Like Rankin's Rebus, McLean is a flawed but likeable character who overcomes incompetence and lack of imagination in his senior officers, survives attempts on his life and pulls all the disparate strands of the crimes together.

And there is more. Both Natural Causes and The Book of Souls were published by Penguin this summer. Like other recent publishing phenomena, James Oswald published his books first online. When they became huge sellers, there began a bidding war among the publishers that ended when Penguin picked them up for an undisclosed sum.

What did he do with the money? He bought a tractor!

Read more about his life here:

and here: http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/uk-scotland-22447175

With such an interesting hinterland to his publishing success, we thought in Orkney Library & Archive that James Oswald would be the ideal author to kick off Discover it Yourself Week. Don't miss out! Get your tickets for this event while you can!

James Oswald
7.00 pm
Monday 2 September
MacGillivray Room
Orkney Library & Archive


Phone: 01856 873166
E-mail: general.enquiries@orkneylibrary.org.uk

Friday, 16 August 2013

Dochan Poetry Update

The blog yesterday brought me an unusual flurry of comments - on Facebook, Twitter and by text.

Most folk were reminding me of the dochan's soothing properties on nettle stings. 

No, I hadn't forgotten that. Growing up in Orkney, this is the kind of information you absorb at your mother's knee. Probably as she's turning you pink with calamine lotion from some other assault on your skin.

Here we didn't use full-grown dochan leaves, though, as most folk describe: we went straight to the heart of the budding leaf and slimed our nettle stings good and proper with the cool, clear, sticky juice.

After my fruitless searches for poems about dochans, my cousin Rhona sent me a very nice one. 

The Dock
Come here, son: look! that leaf is dock, Beside the dandelion clock.
Wherever stinging nettle grows There, too, the healing dock leaf blows
As if to show some grand Design Of Mother Nature, all benign,
Who suffers with her children's pain And longs to make them well again:
Who cannot but provide relief As in this sting-­removing leaf.
Or are there flowers that can abate The pain when people love, or hate?
No: men and towns to dust return: The fires drink up the clouds, and burn.
Oh no, relief is never there. Come, we must go: and son, beware,
For where the balmy dock leaves stand Are stinging nettles close at hand.

The same poem was sent to me via Twitter by The Little Bookshop @1littlebookshop, who sent a link to another blog, Herbs-Treat and Taste, which gives a detailed account of the dochan's healing properties with quotes from Thomas Culpepper and George Eliot! The Little Bookshop had in turn been alerted to my quest by Zoe Toft @playbythebook, who had recently visited Orkney and been most impressed by Orkney Library & Archive. 
No author appeared on the poem from either source. Does anyone know who wrote it?
I also got some playful suggestions via Twitter:

A dock leaf soothes a nettle sting// it really is a useful thing.

There is a young dock plant named Steve Who has an overwhelming pet peeve:
Imagine the embarrassing thing Being a cure for nettle sting On your bum, that'll make him most grieve.

My sister Catherine, who recited Flying Crooked, reminded me that dochans were where we searched for - and found - 'ladybirds'. They weren't ladybirds, though: the black-spotted red beetles were unknown in Orkney when I was growing up. No, they were green beetles, green and bluey with a metallic bronze sheen. We used to collect them and keep them in a jar with holes punched in the lid. And some dochans inside of course, for them to eat.

Catherine also reminded me of another use we made of the dochan in our games. When we played hooses and cooked mince and tatties, brown dochan seeds were the mince, white curly doddies, the tatties and pineapple weed, the peas.

And look what has just arrived in my e-mail inbox from Orkney poet Yvonne Gray! This is by William Barnes who wrote Linden Lea.


The dock-leaves that do spread so wide
 Up yonder zunny bank's green zide,
 Do bring to mind what we did do
 At plaÿ wi' dock-leaves years agoo:
 How we,--when nettles had a-stung
 Our little hands, when we wer young,--
 Did rub em wi' a dock, an' zing
 "_Out nettl', in dock. In dock, out sting._"
 An' when your feäce, in zummer's het,
 Did sheen wi' tricklèn draps o' zweat,
 How you, a-zot bezide the bank,
 Didst toss your little head, an' pank,
 An' teäke a dock-leaf in your han',
 An' whisk en lik' a leädy's fan;
 While I did hunt, 'ithin your zight,
 Vor streaky cockle-shells to fight.

 In all our plaÿ-geämes we did bruise
 The dock-leaves wi' our nimble shoes;
 Bwoth where we merry chaps did fling
 You maïdens in the orcha'd swing,
 An' by the zaw-pit's dousty bank,
 Where we did taït upon a plank.
 --(D'ye mind how woonce, you cou'den zit
 The bwoard, an' vell off into pit?)
 An' when we hunted you about
 The grassy barken, in an' out
 Among the ricks, your vlèe-èn frocks
 An' nimble veet did strik' the docks.
 An' zoo they docks, a-spread so wide
 Up yonder zunny bank's green zide,
 Do bring to mind what we did do,
 Among the dock-leaves years agoo.
Yvonne also kindly sent me a link to an internet post about dock pudding, something I had never heard of, made with dochan leaves, oatmeal and onions!

And she has found these visual artists - links below - who weren't shy of using dochans in their art. I particularly like Richard Shilling's Dock Leaf Sun Squares.

Thank you to everyone who has contributed to this ongoing discussion about dochans! It seems they not only have had poems written about them, have medicinal and culinary uses, but also hold a good deal of fascination for a lot of folk. Thank you. 


Sylvia Hays sent me a lovely poem of hers in which she mentions dochans - dockweed - and has kindly given permission to print it here:


She noses into my dew-bellied fur, not knowing,
not knowing, when I catapulted into darkness
away over the dyke, towards last week’s waning moon,
not knowing that time refracted in my eyes and lit the way.

The earth was still, even vole prey curled
silent in their holes.
Only constellations moved, a starlit
scatter over dockweed, thistle, nettle.

I crept pier-wards, mindful of my territory,
rummaged softly into creel and net.
The stars were sinking, fading into dawn
as she, not knowing, slept on.

My body clock’s command pulled me back
towards the magnet of her, of home.
I howled her out of dreams
to let  me in.

She noses into my fur, dew-bellied,
but does she know, can she detect,
earth scent, dry weed ochre,
the smell of fish amongst my stripes? 

Sylvia Hays

11 February 2006

Wednesday, 14 August 2013

Dochans & Nettles & Butterflies & Wild Pansies

I've been hunting for a poem about dochans but to no avail. It seems that the poor dochan - unlike the nettle and the thistle - has never so far been celebrated in verse.

This surprises me. And pains me a little. The garden of our newly built house, a brown field site in mid-June, is now a wash of brilliant green, courtesy of the dochan.

Nonetheless, I have been fighting a rearguard action to extricate and contain it, for it is vigorous and abundant enough to choke out any namby pamby garden plant I might like to grow. One small segment of dochan root left in the earth will next year have a head of emerald leaves. One seed escaping down into the soil can remain dormant for forty years, before thrusting upwards into the light of day. Respect!

There are thistles too, though less plentiful. And yet thistles have poems. Here's one by George Mackay Brown:


Walk along the way of our year
Past the stations 
Of snowdrop, crocus, the

Marvellous green trumpets opening 
To announce
Voar, spring, Easter,

A troop of yellow coats, daffodils
Jostling in ditches,
Laughing along the wind;

The fluent tulips;
The poppies like blood splashes;
The rare secret

Yesnaby primula
That will not root 
In sealess rockeries, southward;

Rose; seapink; meadowsweet ...
But few praise
The tinker thistle, the outlaw;

Knives in his belt, whetted,
A tall swaggerer going
With his tribe down

Lost lanes of summer.

Nettles too, I've come to realise, are quite a bonny plant, with their crimped leaves and purple hearts. If they didn't sting my feet in my sandals when I'm hanging out washing, I might let them stay. Edward Thomas praised them in a poem:

Tall Nettles

Tall nettles cover up, as they have done 
These many springs, the rusty harrow, the plough 
Long worn out, and the roller made of stone: 
Only the elm butt tops the nettles now. 

This corner of the farmyard I like most: 
As well as any bloom upon a flower 
I like the dust on the nettles, never lost 
Except to prove the sweetness of a shower.

But dochans have no champion. Or at least none I have found. When my two sisters came to stay, Maggie and I were clearing dochans and other weeds at the back of the house when Catherine who had gone in for a rest, appeared at the door and, observing two winged creatures above our bent heads, spontaneously recited a poem from memory:

Flying Crooked

The butterfly, a cabbage-white, 
(His honest idiocy of flight) 
Will never now, it is too late, 
Master the art of flying straight, 
Yet has - who knows so well as I? - 
A just sense of how not to fly: 
He lurches here and here by guess 
And God and hope and hopelessness. 
Even the acrobatic swift 
Has not his flying-crooked gift.

Robert Graves

Along with the cabbage white's erratic flight, it was swallows that swooped in and out of our vision that day, not swifts, but the line could equally apply to them.

So there are three lowly specimens of the natural world that have poems dedicated to them. 

Who will write about the dochan?

Today, as I waded through their lush greenery, I glimpsed something bright under the leaves. I parted them carefully and found this!

A wild pansy! And then I remembered a story my mother told about wild pansies:

"One year when I was small – about ten or eleven maybe, there was a field next to the yard at home, which was sown with oats, but it also had a myriad of wild pansies – violets – in the corner of the field where there were no oats.
And there they were, the violets, a magical triangle of hundreds of wild violets.  I picked them – as many as my small hands would hold.  I buried my face in their cool, exquisite scent – how can I tell you what it was like – the flowers were purple and yellow, rich, violent colours, but they felt so cool and the scent was so delicate – my lips felt the silkiness of the flowers and my hands, cupped round a huge bunch, felt the absolute opulence of such splendour – more flowers than I could hold.  Oh, the complete delight of that experience – I can see the lovely purple of the petals – I can feel the silky cool touch of them on my mouth. I can smell the faint almost ‘no scent’ of the flowers. I only need to close my eyes and I can taste the ‘violets’."

What my mother leaves out of this account is that she walked back towards the house with her armful of 'violets', turned a corner and, instead of fields empty save for a few dairy cows grazing, saw trucks and men pouring in and tents going up. This was her first sight of the platoon of soldiers who were to be billeted on her father's small farm during the war. 

I'll let my mother's words stand in for a poem about dochans. It was dochans that sheltered that single wild pansy in my garden and recalled to me my mother's memory.

George Mackay Brown The Collected Poems
Edward Thomas
Robert Graves

Friday, 2 August 2013


It was while he worked as a doctor in the sweltering heat of the tropics by the Indian Ocean in Kenya that Gavin Francis first dreamed of travelling to colder climes. The tropics for him were not 'palm tree-strewn beaches' to lie about on, but relentless sun and teeming humanity. Perhaps it's not surprising that it was there that he conceived a desire to experience its antithesis: Cold and Emptiness.

For a time he worked as a GP in Stromness. Then he travelled further North through Unst in Shetland to the Faroes and on to Iceland, Greenland, Svalbard, Lapland. His account of these travels, True North, became an award winning book fascinating to all those for whom the north holds mystery and allure.

But he is clearly a man of opposites. His trip to the far north accomplished, he felt the call of the south. The extreme south: Antarctica. He spent six months there with the British Antarctic Survey in the company mainly of Emperor penguins.

In an interview on BBC Radio Orkney this morning he told Fionn McArthur how he became entranced by the place and by the penguins. 'It's so empty,' he said, 'the only species that survives there apart from humans, is the penguins. I'm not a specialist bird watcher or a twitcher, but I became fascinated by them and their behaviour.'

His book, Empire Antarctica is the result of that fascination. 

Fionn recognised that in this new book the writing is even 'more assured' and Gavin Francis agreed. He hopes, he says, to go on developing as a writer, because good writing is important to him.

There is a unique chance to come and see Gavin Francis at this stage in his writing journey. He will be visiting Orkney again on Monday to talk about his new book and to show his amazing slides of the area. Expect stunning images of aurora borealis, sunrises, sunsets, ice, spindrift. And Emperor Penguins.

Gavin Francis
7.00 pm
Monday 5 August
Orkney Library & Archive

The event is FREE but TICKETED

Phone: 01856 873166 to make sure you get your ticket!

Come on now, form an orderly queue!