Thursday, October 23, 2008

If it's nae Scottish...


Maine is the landing-place of my immigrant ancestors. My journey here has echoed theirs, in a way, as my settlement here came at the end of a month-long pilgrimage through Scotland's Highlands & Islands, a graduation gift from Celtophile friends. (That was the only time I've ever been to Scotland, but it felt eerily like home. I flew into Glasgow, took the train north, and blythely wandered from one island to the next, taking Gaelic language and music courses along the way.)

Although I will always be "from away," as the locals say, this place has drawn me back and caused me to put down roots. As my circle of Maine friends has grown, so has my delight in the state's strong Celtic connections. I discovered that Cornish fishermen were among the first European settlers in the early 1600s. I found place names like "Edinburg" and "Belfast" and "Wales." Thanks to a long line of Celtic travelers and settlers, Celtic concepts and ideas permeate the fabric of our state's culture and history. Scots words like "muckle" remain in regular usage, though the meaning has shifted. Knowing these things, and knowing my own family's history of immigration from the Scottish port of Ayr to the Maine town of Livermore Falls, I found myself moved to write. My mother's forebears--Border Reivers, rebels and patriots both--demanded a broadside ballad or a song in praise of the homeland. My father's forebears sternly recalled their heredity as brieves or law-keepers. Their ghosts called for justice, for memory's long reach.

English words didn't suit the task. I chose to write in Scots--which felt strangely comfortable, after listening to Scottish folk music and reading Scottish literature for years. Poet David Whyte once described the task thusly: "poetry is the art of saying something to yourself that you find it impossible to go back upon." I read and re-read my work to make sure it fit Whyte's description...and it did. But then I decided to submit it to a poetry contest--the only Scots-language poetry contest of which I knew, a contest that happened to be in, well, SCOTLAND.

Now the poem had to meet a more serious standard. There would be hours of fact-checking before I could take the bold and brazen step of sending the poor shivering little thing to its judgment and probable death. I searched Scots language websites, flipped back and forth through phrasebooks and dictionaries, and feshed michtily ower whether Ah'd done it richt. Finally, I sent the poem off by e-mail, expecting it to be quietly engulfed by, and lost among, the hundreds of other contest entries. It was enough to feel that I'd done something to honor my ancestors, and that I'd put great effort into doing it as well as possible with the tools I had at hand.

Here's the poem I wrote, with a caveat that you may need a good Scots dictionary nearby in order to understand it!

Screevins Frae a Bothy in Maine

Oot ayont Lewis, ayont the last lintin wing-tip
o skirlin seabirds, careenin aff craigs
whaur dings doon the ruddy Western sun,
Oot ayont strath an glen, the Border’s rollin hills,
Cap & Goon Toons & kenspeckle kirkyairds,
(Care-wairn & keekin thro lum-reek,
ash o anthracite, orange pips an chippie-wraps),

Oot ayont Ayr, anely-kent port o farin
For forebears kythed, aye, & aince mair mislaid:
(Anither muddle amang the hantle
O “Mester Robert Morrisons” on the leet…)
West o Edin(burgh), but East o the wind-
scourit Nebraska plains, the Idaho cattle-range,
an Puget Sound’s ain/ither Western Isles,
(Grossets in the kailyairds, rhodies on the braes),
Jiggin frae ane tae the neist, us unsettled settlers,
greetin gaberlunzies & sillerless sangsters seekin
Oor ain bit land:

Here, we upbigg the noo, we wabbit crofters,
Gowkin an pawky by turns,
Gang at it, ettlin, same as ilka Scot, dreyin oor ain weird on the wrang shore,
Jalousin some Grait Trowth
ayont the lint-dross, stanes an slaistered muck o History…
Kythin oor native place wis nivir wrestit, an
Kythin oor anely hame’s aye here:
The far-flung, sky-boundit ruim
O the hale blessit yirth.

--copyright MaineCelt
January 4th, 2008

Earlier this week, an e-mail came from a woman who works at the Glasgow Herald newspaper. Aye, that's Glasgow, Scotland, not just another funny Maine place-name. The poem placed second in their international contest, the first overseas entry to ever win a prize. "Astounded" doesn't begin to describe my response. There are a hantle of Scots words that suit my feelings better, but I'd start with our household favorite, "Gobsmacked."

The poem will be read aloud at a celebratory event in Scotland in November. Although I heartily wish I could attend in person, I don't plan to spend my winnings on a ticket to Scotland--it would go against certain ancestral traditions of frugality, as well as our tightly-controlled farm budget. Instead, I plan to put the prize towards the purchase of a decent laptop computer with the hope that good tools and much practice will produce a better--and more frequent--writer!

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