Monday, December 29, 2008


Looking through the back door at twilight,
filaments of thorn rattle in the breeze like wire,
beyond a bare trestle scored with ice
dull shapes, then the vastness of night,

the hills, the mires, the barrelling sky,
and framing it, the outline
of the poet, faint as a phantom,
withering on the glass like a flame.

Wednesday, December 24, 2008

Christmas Story

People used to ask Nan MacDonald where she got the idea for her bet and she used to say ‘just a whim, a daft notion with a few pounds that’s all.’ She didn’t dare tell anyone the truth, not even her daughter Ruth, who probably wouldn’t have believed it anyway. Nan had never been one for betting but after she’d retired and she and Jock were trying to live on their pensions she had occasionally looked at the back pages of the Daily Record and thought about chancing her arm in one of these accumulator bets, a four horse yankee, or a football forecast or something like that. When she’d worked at McVitie’s in Dundee, the girls had often, daringly for the times, clubbed together for a flutter, sometimes put a bet on a whole race card, six bets in one. Jock had always frowned on the idea, though, told her it was a mug’s game and she’d be a pound better off at the end of the day if she didn’t bother. Jock had a bit of a puritanical streak- his father had been a Wee Free. Then Jock had caught Alzheimer’s, slowly at first but then with a sickening speed and his severity and his welcome and firm advice was no longer forthcoming. He began to talk disjointedly, or not at all for long periods of time, became peevish as a child and spent hours sitting in a chair staring out of the big attic window at the rooftops of Glasgow and the night sky.

They lived in a kirk hoose, sheltered accommodation run by the Church of Scotland and though Jock had got so bad that she knew he should be in a home, Nan did as much as possible to make his life comfortable, disguising when she could how difficult he had become, so they could both stay in the big flat they shared in Royal Circus and loved. Exhausted by her efforts, she didn’t give a thought to betting. She certainly thought more than once that it would be nice to have a wee bit extra, a couple of hundred pounds maybe to pay for a treat or luxury like the praline chocolates that Jock liked so much, but she reckoned that was an impossible dream. Then one day Jock had had come down from his armchair at the big window, come down with his strange shuffling walk, and said, matter–of-factly, ‘Dundee United to win the Scottish Cup 3-2 in injury time.’ This was strange: not only was it decisive and coherent in a way that Jock seldom was nowadays, but Nan knew for a fact that the Scottish Cup wasn’t even at the first round stage. She knew it because she followed football when she could, had done since the days her daddy used to take her to see Dundee play at Dens Park. She always followed the results from Dens Park and Tannadice, hoping, of course, that United lost.

‘What?’ she said, ‘what did you say Jock?’ But Jock had just sat down and was staring milky eyed at the TV as usual, oblivious to everything else. After a while she’d given up and returned to her knitting, a cardigan she was making for her little granddaughter Janet.

The next day Ruth had brought the wee girl round while Jock was having a bad spell, keeping trying to telephone his old work to say he wouldn’t be in till Monday week. She took the receiver from his hands for the seventh or eighth time and turned to her daughter.
‘He shouldn’t be here, Ma’ she said in a hard voice, ‘Ye’re no up to it. It’ll kill you.’
Nan shook her head. ‘Here we are and here we stay’, she had said cheerily. She was remembering her own mother’s voice rallying them after her daddy had been laid off from the docks. Here we are and here we stay.
‘Am no havin it, Ma’, Ruth had answered, unmoved. She had inherited the same steely resolve thought Nan, even as she was wishing she would be quiet and go away. ‘An going to go to the Social, Ma I am. You need to get this sorted.’ Her arms were folded and her foot was tapping on the lino. Janet was swaying on her wee feet beside her trying to do the same thing. Nan smiled in spite of herself.
‘Och Ruth things will be fine. You see if they’re not.’
‘I see they’re not now. Ye cannae manage him and this big place. Look at the state of you!”
Out of the corner of her eye she saw Jock reaching for the phone again. ‘Aye Jock’ she murmured, ‘phone for reinforcements’.

That night after he’d gone to bed, she was sitting in front of the fire sipping a small dram, half listening to Sportscene on the Telly, half mulling over what Ruth had said, when she head Dougie Donnelly say something like ‘…an easy cup win for the men from Tannadice over second division side Arbroath at Gayfield’ and then nearly jumped out of her skin because Jock was suddenly standing at her elbow shouting ‘GALWAY GIRL IRISH GRAND NATIONAL AT LEAPORDSTOWN 60-1 WINS BY EIGHT AND A HALF LENGTHS!’
After she’s put him back to his bed she rang Ruth’s. As she’d hoped, it was her son-in-law Fergus who had answered.
‘I’m doing a quiz’ she’d told him, ‘in one of the papers. When’s the Irish grand National run?’ ‘Sometime in May’ he’d answered in a puzzled voice, ‘a good bit yet anyway’. ‘Thanks very much’ said Nan and quietly but with great determination put down the phone and reached for her biro.

Two days later as she was taking Jock a walk in the park through the wet trees and the fractured February sunlight, he stopped and with great tenderness placed his hand on hers. It was the first time he had intentionally touched her for the best part of a year. She looked into his eyes and it was almost like looking at him again the way it had been walking out with him down the Seagate, him in his big scarf and her in her tartan muffler, the day she’d proposed to him. Jock pulled her head gently to his. ‘Jock, Jock,’ she whispered, ‘Jock, my love.’ A tear was trickling down his cheek, though the eyes were unblinking.
‘Rodger the Dodger,’ he whispered, and his voice was soft and smooth like a young man’s. ‘Rodger the Dodger in the Greyhound Derby. Comes from nowhere round the last bend.’ Nan put her head on his shoulder and wept.

Over the next ten days, with great care and precision, Jock made two other predictions, one when he was on the toilet and the other when he was shuffling round and round the settee in their living room. Plymouth Argyle would win the 4th Division Championship and Scotland would beat Brazil 1-0 in the World Cup. ‘Are you sure Jock?’ Nan had asked after a bit of research. ‘The Argyle are third bottom but I can still swallow that, but Scotland beat Brazil? Are you sure?’ Jock, as usual, had not answered, just dribbled a bit and Nan had carefully wiped his mouth with a napkin.

The day after, it was a Saturday, she had got Mrs Miraglees, the Matron of the Block to look after Jock for half an hour while she’d gone for a walk, and had gone into the Ladbrokes on Crow Road.
‘What can I do for you, love?’ a young man had asked. She had produced a sheet of writing paper from he handbag. ‘Could you quote me odds for these?’ she asked. ‘I want to put on a six-bet accumulator like we did at McVitie’s, the girls and I.’
The man frowned. ‘There are only five bets here,’ he said.
‘Indeed’ answered Nan, ‘I believe the last and greatest is yet to come.’

It took some time but when Nan hurried home she knew that the odds so far- on the accumulated five bets- were already forty thousand to one. When she got back she thanked the matron profusely. ‘I didn’t realise he was so bad’ the woman had said anxiously, ‘I really think we have to discuss things Nan’, Nan had hurried her to the door, settled Jock as best she could, then opened the third drawer of the bedroom cabinet. She took out a small enamel box and counted out the money she’d scrounged from their pensions and housekeeping over the last few years. It came to just over £251. She counted it out , feeling the folded notes in her fingers, thinking of all the times she’d nearly spent it on a wee bit of that, a little bit of this, and had drawn back. Clever girl, she thought, clever girl. It was what her Daddy had said when she brought home her first pay packet from the factory. Clever wee girl.

Over the next few weeks she waited and Jock had got worse and worse. He’s taken to shouting, frightening the other residents and had looked more than once in his frustration and confusion as if he was going to hit out, slap her with one of his big paws, but he hadn’t, he couldn’t. Jock was a gentle as a baby. Mrs Miraglee had rung the Social Services and so had the Home Help who Jock had sworn at, and they’d been to Ruth who’d given her tuppence worth, and the outcome of it all was that they had to be assessed, assessment being some fancy euphemism for incarceration and there was no way Jock was going to be locked up, he who had fought the Africa Korps and gone into battle with Nan’s letters bound by red ribbon in his breast pocket.
‘Come on, Jock’ she had said, ‘what is it? Tell me, it’ll set us free, but he had kept quiet though his head was shaking and the veins in his temple stood out as though some giant battle was being acted out inside. Then the day before the assessment, in the midst of twitching and groaning, he had rushed upstairs and she had followed, and he had looked out the big window over the city and had said, calm for a moment, ‘Aliens will land on Glasgow Green on Christmas Day.’

When he was fitfully asleep she had got one of the most good natured neighbours to step in for a moment and had nipped out, though nipped was not the word as she was so tired she could only just drag herself through the puddles. The bookie, after finding out she was serious, had to make calls to head office but emerged eventually to say ‘50,000 to 1 on that bet, dear’. She carefully unrolled the money, and completed the form. ‘Good luck’ the man had said, gravely, as she took the receipt.

Over the next few months when she visited Jock in the home as she did every day, in spite of the fact she had to change buses twice and her own health was failing, she had given him the good news. Galway Girl by a mile, Rodger the Dodger from nowhere, Dundee United in injury time, Plymouth Argyle on goal difference. They’d even watched the TV together in the residents’ lounge as, after Brazil had hit the woodwork eight times and had two goals controversially ruled offside, their goalkeeper unaccountably threw the ball into his own net on the stroke of full time.
Jock seemed to take nothing in. He was fading, really fading, his skin was turning transparent as if he would disappear. His breath was shallow, his eyes blank or filled with sudden, silent panic. The home was nice enough but it had few windows, certainly none to match the one in the attic at home, so on Christmas Eve, while she was pushing Jock in his chair through the grounds she had hurried him to a taxi, driven home and got the man to help take Jock up the stairs. She’d locked the doors and while Mrs Miraglee knocked and knocked, she’d held him in his old chair, one of the few pieces of furniture still unpacked in preparation for her leaving, and they had both stared at the darkening sky while she stroked his forehead as she used to and they waited, thinking each light in the sky was the light, the light of their love, come over the towers of the University and all the grey gutterings of Glasgow, to restore them.

Thursday, December 11, 2008

Little Girls Dream of the Snow

Though it never comes
except in stories,
their forecasting is assured,
as precise as orbits.
There will be snow.
They feel it,
they have heard whispers,
read signs buried in the sky,
when they wake up
the village will be gleaming,
cold and buried.
The BBC thinks otherwise
but satellites know nothing,
they have no faith,
there is no magic in their eyes.
Tomorrow we will be
reborn to a world both
beautiful and blind.

Sunday, December 07, 2008

The Ghost of.....

Christmas again...with snow and black ice and lists to put up the chimney. The weans have their own ideas but I have my my own christmas rituals and memories. One was the little savings card my mother used to collect 3d a week to buy my Christmas present. I've still got it. One was a great romantic moment: A kiss from the most beautiful girl I knew, and the girl I loved dearly and in vain for many years, at the top of St Michaels' St in Dumfries- she ran, even, through the snow, leaving big footprints I went out to see the next day, just to make sure they were real. I can see her now, her hair and her smile,though she's long gone. Winter's a funny time; the dead seem closer than ever. What you remember, what you imagine, seems more real when the nights are long and black and icy. Didn't the Gaels call it the Thin Season when the gap between the dead and living was most thin,most penetrable?

I always read A Christmas Carol, the most beautiful Xmas story ever.

"Marley was dead, to begin with. There is no doubt whatever about that. the register of his burial was signed by the clergyman, the clerk, the undertaker, and the chief mourner. Scrooge signed it. And Scrooge's name was good upon 'Change for anything he chose to put his name to. Old Marley was as dead as a door nail."

Sunday, November 30, 2008

Happy St Andrew's Day

The Spider’s Legend of Robert the Bruce

Ah got scunnert tryin’ tae spin
a web for denner,
the stane wis a’ slaisterie,
couldnae get a grip,
ah wis hauf stairved by the end,
no even a midge tae claucht,
then a big lug o’ a mon cam in,
raggety, right dosser,
mair hungert looking than me,
stairted eyeing me up,
ah thought fuck this, am off,
swung like Tarzan
oot the cave on a thread
thick as a wean’s wrist.
Seemed tae cheer him up.

Tuesday, November 25, 2008

Mair Scottish Obsessions

The Douglas in Spain

(After Bruce’s death, Sir James Douglas led a small battle hardened
party of Scottish knights on crusade, bearing the dead King’s heart.
He got no further than Spain, dying before the Castle of
the Stars in battle against the Moors. The villagers of the nearby village of Teba celebrate 'Douglas Day' in early August each year in memory of Douglas and his comrades.)

When we came, pale light
was a shield on the bay,
the sea bracketed by cliffs
hung in haze.

The breeze brought us scent
of olive, oleander, pine.
A crowd met us, warriors
and their ladies, dark and quick eyed.

We were tanned too,
but by bad weather, moss
and heather, grim catarans
from the nib of the North

who’d brought England to its knees,
and our Lord, the Finest Knight
in Christendom they said.
We were flattered. The girls thought

our mission devout,
but romantic most of all.
Our heads sang with wine and heat.
We stayed too long.

After all these years,
who could blame us?

Thursday, November 20, 2008

Shug: The Movie

I note that the hunky actor James Franco is to play Alan Ginsberg in the upcoming film of 'Howl' based on the famous obscenity trial.

It got me to fantasising what I would call my own biopic - in the impossible event of me having one- and who would be cast in the lead role.

I've decided on

Odd Abrasions: The Hugh McMillan Story

starring Gerard Depardieu as Shug

I think I'll have Kate Winslet as Mrs Shug, but don't tell the real one.

Any thoughts about your own legacies, folks?

Monday, November 17, 2008

Friday Night

A fantastic night in the Forest Cafe, brilliantly organised by Rachel Fox. Such an array of talent. A great end to the Hedge Tour 2008.

Thursday, November 13, 2008



(In 1964 The Queen unveiled an equestrian statue of Robert Bruce overlooking the field at Bannockburn. The features were a romantic interpretation of a plaster cast of the King’s skull)

When I first saw Bruce, scooped shining
from bronze in a blade of autumn sun,
he had the jaw of a superhero,
gaze fixed on the cartoon world in peril,
Dr Octopus at Stirling Castle,
or the Circus of Doom crossing the Bannock Burn.
Too remote to be real:
my father was mashed in war and I was not
of a generation to think anywhere,
least of all Scotland, that grey puddled place
shut on a Sunday, worth dying for.

As long as it was for something prefixed
international, I marched across the land,
until, when finally standing still,
my country grew uninvited round me,
not the one with heroes shrunk the size
of shortbread tins, or even a sweep of landscape
that takes the breath like a blow in the gut,
but the one seen in the boss of a child’s eye,
her face sore with smiling:
that Scotland, it turns out, a place
worth living for.

Tuesday, November 11, 2008

Armistice Day

Armistice Day again and I don't know where to put myself, as usual. It's a time of frustration for me because it seems to me that the war dead and injured deserve unlimited dignity and respect but I can't bring myself to believe that anyone from the Great War, or countless other wars for that matter died for "us" like David Dimbleby and numerous commentators, churchpeople etc say. Moreover I think they do the dead a disrespect by this annual lie. The Great War was fought for a lot of things but not for freedom. Imperialist and economic domination. Not freedom. If we hadn't swallowed this interpretation of history there might not have been a Second World War, the only one you could argue was a "just" war.

As long as the grey suits get away with flogging tired old militaristic values and misrepresenting them as patriotism or a defence of freedom we'll keep burying our war dead. 1968 is the only year since 1914 when British soldiers have not died in foreign wars. It's a disgrace. I remember reading that when the war with iraq was announced Tony Blair looked "hugely excited". If people are still getting excited about wars we're remembering the wrong way.

I come back to my fellow Scotsman Charles Hamilton Sorley's poem, all the more evocative, powerful and radical because he himself died in the trenches.

When You see Millions of the Mouthless Dead

When you see millions of the mouthless dead
Across your dreams in pale battalions go,
Say not soft things as other men have said,
That you'll remember. For you need not so.
Give them not praise. For, deaf, how should they know
It is not curses heaped on each gashed head?
Nor tears. Their blind eyes see not your tears flow.
Nor honour. It is easy to be dead.
Say only this, 'They are dead.' Then add thereto,
'Yet many a better one has died before.'
Then, scanning all the o'ercrowded mass, should you
Perceive one face that you loved heretofore,
It is a spook. None wears the face you knew.
Great death has made all his for evermore.

Charles Sorley

Monday, November 10, 2008

Hedge on Tour

Gatehouse last Saturday: a very good evening. Met Tessa Ransford for the first time since we were in a tiny plane going to Shetland together about 15 years, another lifetime it seems, ago. Do you note the memorial to Mary of the Songs near Bunessan in Mull? They know how to treat their poets there.
I hope everyone within spitting distance and well beyond is heading to the Forest Cafe Bristo St Edinburgh on Friday to catch Rachel, mesel and a host of talented others. Kick off 8.00pm. See you all there.

Monday, November 03, 2008

The Poet and the Psychopath

Joe McIntyre thought he deserved to be a famous writer. Ever since he’d been a boy, scribbling love poetry to the girl next door, he’d dreamed of literary fame and had always been convinced that, one day, his name would stand with Seamus Heaney and Philip Larkin as one of the century’s greats. To that end, he’d spent many years churning out screeds of verse but, by his early 40s, had only achieved a very moderate and local success. He became embittered. “An occasionally underrated writer”, the editor of a small magazine had said. Joe did not underrate himself and knew exactly what was wrong. The poetry scene, he thought, was dominated by a small elite of self serving individuals who conspired to keep newcomers out. They had developed a house style with cute intellectual references, meaningless line breaks and little rhyme. Joe wrote more muscular poetry, in the style of Ted Hughes, about natural subjects like ferrets and budgerigars. Joe was convinced that while a coterie remained in charge of things he would reach old age without achieving his creative ambitions, one of which was to teach creative writing in an all girls American college. He occasionally dreamed of murdering who he saw as the main culprits but he lacked the nerve and the practical abilities to carry it out. Besides, Joe knew that there was a second or third rank of equally insipid writers ready to take their place should the first lot be justifiably, or accidentally, wiped out.

Joe wrote a series of long and well argued letters to newspapers and literary publications
outlining his position but, like his poems, none of them were published. He’d gone to see the local
writer in residence. She’d promised him help but, soon after their meeting, she’d moved out to a
small inaccessible croft to work on her forthcoming anthology of poems about menstruation.

It occurred to Joe that everyone was getting published because they had a gimmick. Because they wrote in some impenetrable dialect, because they were handicapped, or women. Joe struggled to find an angle himself but somehow being one of the school of short-sighted, balding writers of ferret poems was not enough. His iron will was such, however, that he could not give up, and, through the increasingly dark and desperate months, he continued to recycle his pointless littlepoems, spending the small amount of money he’d inherited from his parents on huge amounts of brown envelopes and broad green acres of second class stamps. Then, one day, he met, or rather re-met, Kevin McCutcheon, a psychopath.

He’d known Kevin from years before when they had both attended a writing class run by a man called Justin Everard Duckley, who had since, to Joe’s incandescent rage, produced a slim volume of poems short listed for a major book award. Kevin had only been interested in writing lurid crime fiction and had left the course early. Joe assumed that he had abandoned any literary ambitions and so entered into their new found relationship with at least one dangerous

They had met together in the Douglas Arms and, since it had been their only real point of contact, had begun talking about the writing course, a conversation that inevitably led to Joe’s agenda of injustices. Kevin was impressed by the other man’s passion on the subject for, ironically,in spite of having no apparent talent at all for writing poetry, Joe did have considerable talent in the field of complaining about it.

“Just ‘cos I’m not trendy, just ‘cos I’m not gay, just ‘cos I’ve not seen caribou galloping
across the tundra, just ‘cos I’m not living in a big city crawling up the right peoples’ arseholes
doesn’t mean I’m no good” he sobbed, over his eighth pint of Guinness.

“You could move” said Kevin helpfully. “Or travel and see interesting things.”
“ It’d be no use” cried Joe, “I’m a man of my environment. A woodland poet. Take me out of trees I’d be useless.”

Kevin, having heard Joe’s seminal work ‘Ferret at Dawn’ six times, had concluded that he was useless anyway but, being a highly intelligent and complex man, he listened to Joe’s slow disintegration into self-pity with interest, and no small compassion. He wanted to help. He also hated Justin Everard Duckley and had many times thought about killing him.

“Of course,” Kevin said at last, “poets often become famous when they’re dead.” Joe’s pitiable weeping was now attracting the attention of the bar staff but he managed to stutter “Only if someone takes them up. Decides they’re brilliant. None of these wankers are going to take me up, dead or not.”
“Or”, said Kevin, “become famous by the nature of their death.”
Joe wiped his eyes with a grubby handkerchief. “What do you mean?”
“Well, think of it” said Kevin. “Chatterton, Baudelaire. Dissipation, death and poetic fame.”

Joe shook his head. “They were young, and I couldn’t be dissipated where I live. They’d move me to a council house.”

After a long pause, Kevin leaned across the table and whispered “I could kill you….. In a really, really imaginative and innovative way. It would make all the papers. And it needn’t hurt.”
Joe stared across at him. “It would make all the papers because it was a gruesome crime.” He was speaking slowly, as if addressing an imbecile. “You’d become famous, I wouldn’t. I would
just be some bloke who keeps writing crap ferret poems who’s had his head cut off by a really gifted and clever killer.”

Kevin’s eyes were unblinking. “But what if”, he said with growing excitement, “a manuscript of poetry was found shortly afterwards which seemed to prefigure the death, predict it in every detail, mirror the feelings of a man who knows exactly the imminence and the manner of his death but is powerless to predict it.”
Joe shivered. “You could call it” added Kevin quietly, “Stalked by the Reaper”.
Joe shook his head. “But, how would….?”
Kevin interrupted, his face flushed with enthusiasm. “Yes. It would work. You finish the manuscript, give it to me, and after the….deed, I’ll send it to the papers and publishers, pointing out as a friend and confidant of the deceased how chilling and resonant the poems are and how much of the detail seems to prefigure the murder, or at least such detail as has been released by the police and the press!”

Of course the idea was ridiculous. Joe knew it even as he staggered away from the pub. Poetry without forest life was beyond him anyway. The next morning he put the little card with Kevin’s phone number at the bottom of a drawer and forgot about it. Two months later, though, months spent in the usual routine of revising poems, sending them off to and receiving them back from more and more obscure publications, Joe was informed in a very matter of fact way by his doctor that he had stomach cancer, and had probably had it for some time. The prognosis was not good, the original centre had spread, surgery was not, at this stage, an option. There followed weeks of debilitating treatment during which time he did not lift his pen once. His focus became drips and sheets and drugs and nausea and he seemed to be disappearing from the world, shrinking into himself. In the midst of all this misery and darkness, one flame still burned: his desire, his obsession, to be immortal through his writing. Maybe it was because he was depressed, but more and more in sleepless, sick nights he thought of Kevin McCutcheon and his idea, began to visualise the stark black cover of ‘Stalked by the Reaper’, could see his own name in gold letters under the title and just above the TS Eliot Award Sticker. So, after his second course of treatment, when he had regained a little strength, he phoned Kevin McCutcheon, and arranged for them to meet.

Kevin was sorry to hear about the illness, listened to Joe with real sympathy and interest. He hoped that he would be better soon. When Joe brought up the subject of their previous conversation in the pub, he didn’t scoff as Joe had feared, or laugh it off as a joke. Instead he cupped his hands underneath his chin and listened intently. He looked like some kind of bank manager.

“Of course in these matters” he said, “it is the practicalities that count. Everything must be worked out to the last detail and with great care. All must be in place. This is not a murder, after all, rather a business plan.”
Joe nodded. Kevin resumed. “You can leave all the logistics to me and when it comes to the actual deed…” he coughed discreetly, “I can promise you’ll feel nothing. We’ll use drugs. There will be no pain.”
Joe agreed. “No pain” he repeated. He’d had enough pain. Kevin stared into Joe’s eyes. “You write the poems. Just concentrate on that. You are the artist in that field.”

Although he entered into the work with no great optimism, Joe found that the poems came easily. They had a dark force and urgency completely lacking in his previous work. His time in hospital had added an extra dimension, a new vocabulary, into his poetry which, though dark, was now compelling. He found himself writing a series of poems about his mortality, his feelings of impending death, which far excelled anything he’d ever written before. Into these poems he laced tantalising details as to the place (a remote barn), the time they’d chosen for his death (Halloween), and, as importantly, the manner of it. Kevin had announced this on a day out they’d had to a country pub. It was Autumn, leaves were red and falling, but somehow trees didn’t seem to matter to Joe anymore. He was a real poet, and soon his poetry would live forever.

“I thought I’d slice you completely in half” said Kevin. “Top to bottom. Don’t think it’s ever been done before as far as I can see.”
At such times Joe had to concentrate on the end goal. After all, he wouldn’t feel a thing.
“I’ll need a chain saw. Would you buy one? It’ll be pretty messy.” He shook his head apologetically. “No avoiding it, I’m afraid. All these intestines, brain matter. Not to speak of blood.”
Joe shuddered. Well, his intestines hadn’t been very good to him anyway. He wondered what they’d look like gleaming on the cobbled floor of the barn. He was already forming the lines of his last poem in his head.

Kevin reminded him of the precise details of their last rendez-vous, reassured him with a measured calm that recalled, for Joe, the doctors in the hospital. They shook hands in a very civilised manner and parted. In the next couple of weeks, Joe had typed up the collection, tidied it up and bound it between sheets of card. He wrote ‘Stalked by the Reaper: Last poems by Joe McIntyre’ and sent it, along with a brand new chainsaw he’d bought, to the address supplied by Kevin McCutcheon. All was organised, and for the best.

At 11.20 pm on October 30th, Joe got into his car and drove into the country. Kevin had assured him it would take about 30 to 35 minutes. It did. He parked his car by the farm track and, his breath coning, moved towards the isolated farm building. The moon was high and round in the sky. With a few yards to go he paused for just a moment and listened to the wind in the branches, the distant bark of a dog. He would never hear these things again, but it didn’t matter. He looked at his watch. It was midnight when he opened the door to the barn.

He must have fainted at the sight of Kevin McCutcheon’s dismembered body because, when he came to, the police cars were already blaring along the little country road. The chainsaw, covered of course in Joe’s fingerprints, lay among the shining viscera. Kevin’s hands, what were left of them, were gloved. It was, after all, very cold. As he was arrested, Joe was wondering, almost with admiration, how a person could inflict so much damage on himself. There was no sign of drugs.

Kevin McCutcheon’s book, ‘Stalked by the Reaper’, was published the following Spring to overwhelming critical acclaim. Seamus Heaney called it “a superhuman vision of life and death almost without parallel in this century, or perhaps in any other.” It won fourteen major awards and is currently being made into a movie with Ewan MacGregor as Kevin McCutcheon.

Joe McIntyre, after his defence was rejected by the judge as a callous and incredible attempt to “manipulate the boundaries of belief and blacken the character of a man with almost limitless artistic potential”, was sentenced to life imprisonment. Having had successful treatment for stomach cancer, he is now at Peterhead Special Unit where he has shown no aptitude at all for creative projects.

Friday, October 31, 2008

My breath is white.
It’s wintertime:
more than weather
it’s the ghost of hunger,
small sounds in the night,
a strangling of light.

I walk through haar,
through the town’s cobbled crust,
past smeared shadow,
mirrors in green glass. As I go,
halos of lamp turn to will o’ wisp,
neon to bone fire.

Moon cracks cloud
and the clock face freezes.
I burrow in a guise
no wraith will recognise,
professional, of Dumfries,
out for an hour.

In my Apple-land
they quietly wait,
souls lost, souls gained,
finger tips on window panes.
I raise a glass to Hecate,
drink, ab ovo usque mala.

Ab Ovo Usque Mala- from the egg to the apple, from birth to death, the circular path.

Sunday, October 26, 2008

Back Yam.

So I received my ten thousandth visitor while I was getting rattled about Loch Scridain like a frozen pea in a bucket. Thanks to all who dally here.

I am back from the golden Treshnish Isles and the long bleak wetlands of Glen More. What a beautiful part of the world, even in a force 10 when the boat can't berth and you have to hang onto the bar on the ferry with both hands and one leg.

A great night in the Oban Inn with a largely captive but hugely appreciative audience. This has encouraged me to plan Phase 2 of the Tour next Spring. The good thing about 'guerrilla' readings is that you're bringing the stuff to an audience most of which wouldn't dream of going to a poetry reading in their lives. You bring good entertainment as well as showing that poetry is accessible and relevant to everyone's lives. That's my mission statement anyway.

Tobermory not as successful I think due to wrong venue but I know what went wrong there and will avoid pitfalls like that in the future. Back to work tomorrow which will be a shock after such varied shenanigans. Then in 2 weeks a reading with Tessa Ransford at the Bakehouse in Gatehouse where I hope to shift the last of the Hedge. Then Edinburgh with the bold Rachel Fox.

In the next wee while I will lurk more among the curtain hems of Scotland's history and try and produce some more squibs.

Tuesday, October 21, 2008

back and away

Majorca beautiful and sunny. Gale force winds in Penpont last night but a fine kick off to the Postcards Tour. Off this morning to Oban. Will take some pics and post them when we get back.

Two more of the History pomes written. Here's an obscure one:

Pope Boniface V111 Sums Up the Evidence

In 1301 in the conflict between King John Balliol and Edward 1 of England, both sides were at great pains to present evidence to the Papacy to support their positions: Edward I’s being that the Scots were historically subject to the English crown.; the Scots being that their nation was of greater antiquity than England. Edward 1 was represented by a battery of lawyers, Scotland by one Baldred Bissett whose colourful take on Scotland’s history won over the Pope.

“We have puzzled over these petitions
Not least because both pursuants
speak the same tongues
and possess many of the same dislikeable attributes…
The testimony of the English Crown
is scholarly, deep in genealogy and law
and drawn from venerable sources beyond repute.
Its argument- that the Scots were but a younger
branch of the tribe that migrated to Brittania
after the Roman conquest- has impressed
the lawyers and historians of the Holy See.
Baldred Bissett on the other hand claims,
with no evidence at all, that the Scots
are descended from a daughter of Pharaoh
who, after a heavy night with some Irish sailors
in Ayia Napa, found herself drifting at sea
and later washed up at Lochgilphead
with a strange stone (which later disappeared),
all this while the Romans- to use his own words-
‘were a piss-poor tribe of skanks in mud huts.’
Bissett also claims to have incontrovertible proof of this
but left it in a kebab shop last night in the Piazza Navona…”

Friday, October 10, 2008


A hiatus. Mr and Mrs Shug and the shuglets are off to Spain till a week on Saturday and as the highly volatile Postcards from the Hedge tour kicks off on Monday 2oth there may be little time amongst the mayhem to make blog entries. I have left Theosyphilis Neill in charge of my affairs so please send all enquries, communications, to The Secure Unit, Drumsleet and District Mental Health Hub, Gormenghast Road, Drumsleet.

Anyone remotely in the vicinity of Penpont on Monday 20th, the Oban Inn in Oban on the 21st or the Mishnish, Tobermory Isle of Mull on the 22nd October is welcome to come in and sample artistic delights beyond imagining.

And of course on Friday November 14th from 8.00 pm Rachel Fox and I and a bevy of talented musicians will be entertaining in the Forest Cafe, Bristo Place in Edinburgh. Admission Free.

Thursday, October 09, 2008

Frank's Funeral 9/10/08

You were just gone. A
thrush sang, a butterfly passed
softly through the crowd.

Friday, October 03, 2008

Michael Scott of Balwearie

Once called "the most renowned and feared sorceror and alchemist of the 13th Century", Michael Scott was born in the borders in 1175. His life is the stuff of legend . He features in Dante's Inferno as one "who knew how the game of magic fraud was played." He also featured in Boccaccio's writing as one of "the greatest masters of necromancy." More recently Walter Scott featured him prominently in the 'Lay of the Last Minstrel.' Michael Scott is reputed to have split the Eildon Hills, ridden the back of a sea monster and, most helpfully, rid the land of plague by shutting the disease up in a secret room in Glenluce Castle.

The truth seems to be that he dabbled seriously in the occult and in areas of "light and suggestion"(hypnosis? ) but as a sideline. He was in fact a brilliant scholar. He studied in Oxford before going to the Sorbonne in Paris where he became known as Michael the Mathematician. He then travelled to Padua where one of his pupils was reputed to be Fibonacci, and then to Toledo where he learned to read Arabic and came into contact with the brilliant scholars of the Muslim world as well as writings of key figures like Aristotle which had been translated into Arabic but were still largely unknown to Christian Europeans. In Palermo he became Astrologer Royal in the Court of King Frederick 11 with whom he had a great friendship. Before leaving Palermo he predicted the date, time, place and manner of the Emperor's death, details which were later said to have been entirely accurate. After a few years in Germany he then returned to England and then to, it is said, one of the Cistercian monasteries of southern Scotland, possibly Melrose where the turbaned statue beside the tomb above is said to depict him.

Michael Scott of Balwearie

“Every great project in Scotland is said to be the work
of William Wallace, the Devil or Michael Scott
of Balwearie.”: Sir Walter Scott

After his death the legend grew.
When the light was jagged on the Eildon Hills,
a contrast of sun and black shadows,
and heaven seemed poised skewered
on the razor tips of mountains,
his horse, scattering bairns and silencing the bells,
was said to clatter down the road to Hell.
In his grave in seven silver books
were the secrets of light and alchemy
gathered from a journey round the world
on the back of a kelpie.

The truth is scarcely less fantastic.
He walked from Oxford to Palermo,
learned Arabic, found Aristotle,
out-argued the best brains of the day.
On his way home, bringing the Renaissance
to Melrose 200 years before the rest
of western Europe, he stopped in Toledo
to learn the secret of distillation,
of ‘aqua ardens’, (whisky to you and me ).
No wonder among the dubs and moss
and wet sheep, they thought he was magic.

Wednesday, October 01, 2008

Postcard from Drumsleet

The Drumsleet launch of Postcards was well attended, and many books were sold. The Arts Association Riot Squad insisted that ticketless fans, such as Theosyphillis Neill and MacDuff, watch proceedings on a large screen in the centre of town with the result that the launch was a gentle, arty affair. (Above you can see the scene in Drumsleet's November Revolution Square, and, if you have good eyesight, make out Theosyphillis on the extreme right of the picture asking for a lend of a fiver till Monday.)
The Arts Association also thoughtfully laid on a free bus for senior citizens so that they could come from the many local retirement homes and, in exchange for a small glass of port and lemon, surrender their pensions for the sake of the Arts.
Even my sister, an aristocratic old lady of 96, came all the way from Jordanhill to put a small down-payment on a copy.
Many local celebrities attended including Dumfries' finest Makar, and the lady who, when drunk, can whistle the theme tune from Cats through her nose.
All in all it was a fine event, and merely the precursor for the Postcard tour yet to come. In the 3rd week of october we hit the Highlands! Oban, Mull and the renal unit in Ullapool.

Wednesday, September 24, 2008

Devorgilla's Bridge

Devorgilla’s Bridge

She was an astronaut in stone,
all her building
was meant to span the gap
between earth and our imagining

and this bridge was the same,
connecting us to the green islands,
pilgrims to their inner place.
Even now the bridge seems

to arch above the pizza shacks
and flats that hunch on either bank.
Here I first saw birds on black water,
here I kissed my first cheeseclothed girl.

Sometimes the bridge was less than solid,
a bridge too far, a dreamed of bridge,
a bridge that held at one end
a drifting fleet of moonlit pubs,

more brilliant than any field of stars.
It was a bridge of history,
Kings, bishops, bodysnatchers,
and a million more melted

on either side like ice or smoke,
a bridge of mystery, indeed:
only a hundred yards to walk,
and the infinity of space between.

Tuesday, September 16, 2008

Postcards from Thornhill

The launch at Thornhill went well in spite of , or perhaps because of, it clashing with the Scotland Macedonia game. A genteel and well educated crowd received the potery well, drinking tea, sipping lemon squash and sampling the delicious haggis canapes. Indeed I had high hopes of a very small wine bill until the doors smashed open to reveal Lexie and his mate carrying between them the half stupefied body of Ansel Broon, the richest man in Penpont. Of course it all came to a hurried conclusion then with matrons fleeing in all directions, plates being upturned and bottle after bottle of vintage Chateau Drumsleet drained. At the centre of it all, of course, was Ansel Broon who-and I have noticed this facet of his character before- in spite of being completely unconscious, managed to drink more than everyone else put together. He also did not buy a book as his wallet is suspended on a silver chain somewhere near his long johns and he claimed to be unable to retrieve it. without undressing completely, a prospect even I was not prepared to countenance for such a small sum.

After the launch we carried Ansel across the road to the Buccleugh where he started on the Black Rum. Ansel is a legend in Penpont and Sanquhar so it was a great honour to me when he turned to me at one point, still completely unconscious, and said "That Poetry was SPOT ON, son."

Ansel Broon is 142.

Wednesday, September 10, 2008

More of my Scottish poems

My new project is to represent a particular period of Scottish history, with a contemporary flavour of course. You've already had my Oatcake One below. Here are some more:

The Maid

Lydia sits framed against the sun
a wide brimmed hat to shade her eyes.
Behind her the green autumn hills roll like waves
to a distance, the collision of land and cooling sea,
the busy hum and grasp of nations.
Here she is Queen of Cats and Lawns,
her fingers webbed in sugar
and the light through fairy wings is like stained glass.
Each day is dizzy and endless.
Yet her name is known:
they mutter it already, enter it in treaties,
and the corridors she must walk down
are built and scarved in shadow.
Even as she’s an angel, the child’s a ghost.

The Harbour at Caerlaverock

Beyond the brazen red walls
of the postcard castle,
a no-man’s land of mulch
where ground meets sea and sky.
There you’re ambushed,
not by a cat-walk of nobles
in gay pavilions,
their ships riding in Solway regatta,
the re-enactors dream,
but by root and ghost,
shadows come across the black Firth
bound for Wardlaw and the shifting west,
brown men, knotted like wood,
sent to die at the eyelids of the world.

Wednesday, September 03, 2008

Tynron Doon

Tynron Doon overlooks the village of Tynron and eastwards towards Penpont and Thornhill. It has been describes as the "most important and impressive fortress in Dumfries and Galloway." People lived there from the first Millenium BC up to the 16th Century but most finds date from the period 5th-8th Century AD, including a beautiful gold pendant. Mr and Mrs Shug go up there every August. Superb views. Good natured sheep. Light drizzle. Can of cider or two. You know the kind of thing.

Friday, August 29, 2008

Hugh McMillan would like to invite you to the
launches of ‘Postcards from the Hedge’ ,
a unique book of poems, with accompanying poster
and map , illustrated and designed by Hugh Bryden.

Thomas Tosh in Thornhill, Saturday September 6th,
Gracefield Arts Centre Dumfries
Friday September 19th at 7.00pm.

Refreshments will be served at both events.

Monday, August 25, 2008

The Role of the Oatcake in Medieval Warfare

(“The Scots are able to make longer marches than other men because they carry and make cakes of oats to eat and comfort their stomachs”: Jean Froissart)

It’s a fact:
These oatcake crumbs in your pocket
are scions of a noble race,
the mighty oatcake,
paste of the Gods.
The English gave them to their horses
but it was oatcakes won freedom
for the Scots and French,
not Wallace, Bruce or Joan of Arc.
What did Archibald Douglas have in his bloody mitt
when he stove in the Duke of Clarence’s head at Bauge?
A rough oatcake.
“What think ye of the mutton guzzlers and winos now?”
asked the Dauphin of his effete courtiers
when the Scots had swept the field.
He saw the power of the oatcake.
The Maid entering Orleans victorious in 1429 was
flanked , they say, by Scottish guardsmen,
warrior giants with twice fired oatcakes,
their banner three oatcakes rampant
on a sable field.

Friday, August 15, 2008

Wednesday, August 06, 2008


Mrs Shug and I put on a 4 horse accumulator yesterday, a clear sign of desperate times.It was the 5th anniversary of our move to the Peoples Republic of Penpont and we were sunbathing among the grass and butterflies, though,being Scotland, the sky was cut in a dramatic diagonal,one side bright blue, the other black. We have not ventured far these holidays,partly because the car has decided to work only when it is being examined by mechanics. The rest of the time it sits like a very expensive pile of scrap outside the front door. Every week we get new bills from garages expressing bewilderment and grateful exasperation that they can't find any fault. It has been diagnostically tested all over Dumfries and Galloway. It is the most diagnosed car in southern Scotland, but still it will not work.

I remember in 1970 my mother and I drove in a decrepit old banger on an epic circumnavigation of Scotland - something like 900 miles without a whimper. Our Citroen Picasso can't limp to the door.

Elsewhere, poor Theosyphillis Neil is back on the parish. Last week a meeting was called of all friends and interested parties to try and raise a relief fund to pay off his bar bill from the Tartan Bunnet, to lift a ban imposed on him by the licensee. The bar bill, it transpires, is roughly equivalent to the Gross National Product of Latvia. £4.62 was raised.

The Bunnet must be a lonely establishment just now as MacDuff too has been injured in a battle against other Cyborgs and has been recalled to the Manufacturer for repairs.

Plans for the postcards from the Hedge tour continue apace. Watch this space.

Wednesday, July 30, 2008

News from the Hedge

Have been absent for the last while, furiously cutting,folding and pasting the elegant thing that is 'Postcards from the Hedge'. This cottage industry has been pursued in Hugh Bryden's sun kissed garden. Shug2 is a fantastic cook so the toil has been liberally interspersed with mediterrranean food and collapso of the most sumptuous quality. The end product is rather beautiful, I must say. A hand made artists' book with 15 poems by mesel and drawings by Hugh, and a rolled up map/poster with the poems on one side and a stylised route through Scotland on the other. Books for sale for £10 and map/posters for five quid. Damned bargain.

More news will follow on dates etc. Anyone keen on getting their hands on this rare and beautiful product before that could contact me or Roncadora Press, 14 Corberry Avenue, Dumfries.

Tuesday, July 15, 2008

Frozen North

Frozen North

Deep in the bowels of a bus
I suddenly awake
and in the dark, mistake
some loony’s neon Christmas

for the turn-off home.
Alone in the night
I watch the tail lights
disappear up six miles more

of artic-hoovered road.
The winter has rules
of its own: the moon is huge
and the wind brings the sob

of music. It would be easy
to be lost here,
we fall in and out of dreams
and could die as simply as lose our way.

The stars are sewn in gold
and the cold is a kiss.
No satellite can breach this
black stronghold.

It’s why we’re alive,
to feel the flicker of heart
timid as a scut,
under an unutterable sky.

Saturday, July 12, 2008

Important New document unearthed in Drumsleet attic

The Great Seannaisadh Ruaridh Na Bheasdh Bhard greets the first Millennium.

Introduction by Hugh McMillan

Recent discoveries in Drumsleet have enabled us to shed far greater light on one of the most significant and mysterious periods of Scottish history, that time that straddles the end of the so-called Dark Ages and the birth of the Scottish nation under the undivided rule of Kenneth Mac Alpine. As all previous histories will testify, this amalgamation was achieved through a combination of feats-of-arms and peaceful dynastic intermarriage, though the details of these remained, at least until now, vague, as written testimony to add to the existing wealth of archaeological evidence has been thin on the ground, in fact virtually non existent.

Even more intriguing, of course, is that this first flowering of Scottish nationhood coincided, approximately at least, with the first Christian millennium. Though commentators are able, through the records of the French and Spanish church, to note some of the hopes, fears, and even heretical beliefs of ordinary people there during this most historical time, no documents illuminate the situation in Scotland, either because the pre-Roman Catholic Celtic Church kept few bureaucratic records or because everyone was blind drunk.

At least that was the situation till recently. A remarkable archive has just been opened up to scholars by Somerled MacSonnhbheate (Somerled of the cute turn of phrase), the last in a remarkable and ancient line of bardic poets whose family has kept meticulous written records of every poem submitted to Scottish small presses and magazines from the year 66BC to the present day.

One of the most important parts of this literary treasure trove date from the assumption of the Scottish throne by Kenneth MacAlpine, King of the Dalriadic Scots, who, through victories over the Britons of Strathclyde and the Saxons of Northumbria, and clever marriages into the female Pictish royal line, became undisputed King of an almost united Scotland. The manuscript in question is fragmented, heavily stained by what appears to be beer, and partly defaced by a jealous descendant of the author, who has repeatedly scribbled ‘Ruaridh MacChannmohrmittonhlichars’ (Rory of the Big Head and the tongue that hits the spot) on the margins.

The Great Seannaisadh Ruaridh MacMeannaichpuroldhrhope (Rory of the Award Winning Metaphor) was commissioned by King Kenneth Macalpine to narrate a long poem of praise to celebrate not only his coronation as monarch of the new kingdom of Scotland, but also the Millennium. It is thanks to this fascinating man, Ruaridh Mac Bhuirsharadh (Rory of the First ever Bursary) that we are able to clearly see for the first time the pre-eminence of poetry in the Scottish oral or written tradition. But, academics will pick over these works for decades to come. Let us, for the first time in nearly a thousand years, hear the unique words of the first Seannaisadh, Ruaridh MacSbhenschlambh (Rory of the Expense Claim).

Hugh McMillan

(The fragment begins in mid sentence)

…………………..of all the great and illustrious Seannaisadhs before me. That is my fame and genealogy. Who amongst the poets of these islands can claim such a bloodline? I see you, O’Rourke, unworthy, fat, bald Irish (b?ard ) (part of this word is missing- it may be the interrogative form of 'bard' or perhaps part of a longer word: HMcM), feigning sleep as though the power of my narrative could do anything but fire the belly, fortify the heart, and add extra gristle to a man’s prick, though for the last benefit, O’Rourke, you need a prick. And don’t think I didn’t see you smirking during my talk about the oral tradition. Double-entendres have no place in poetry of state which is why you fight for scraps at the tables of peasant farmers, licking out the backsides of rural braggarts, rather than be invited as High Seannaisadh to address the King of the Oceans on this most auspicious date, the coincidence of a thousand years of the Blessed Virgin and the great King’s victory over the dogs of Welsh which has established his kingdom from sea to foaming sea. From the mountains here in the heartland of the Gaeltacht, to the green plains of the east, to the cascades of the north where they say the land slips away to a torrent that roars to the world’s groin, our families are supreme and fecund, our currachs like sea wolves bring cack to our enemies breeches.

By way of a small digression, have you noticed that all our foes, who scatter like chaff, like kirtleweed before us, wear breeches, which not only must be inconvenient during bowel movements but impossible during sexual intercourse. This explains why they are dough faced and their children runts. There will never be a time near the sea when the north wind will not freely aerate a man’s testicles.

But I am asked by the King of all the Islands ,who walks like Padraig across the seas, to mark the beginning of civilisation across these lands. As is the custom, I have talked for two and a half hours about myself, but this must be like honey to you after a day’s sowans, for poetry is the life and soul of any nation, the only reason we live and breathe and copulate on this blaze of emerald and blue, the earth. Under the King of the Mountains and the Seas, poetry will thrive. Men like me, true artists, not forgers and plagiarists, will prosper. God praise the benevolence of the King of the Deer and Salmon for he has established this day, under my guardianship, a Council of Seannaisadhs and from this time on, the supply to poets of good wine, women and oatcakes will be at last regulated according to purity of form and proper respect, in the shape of small gifts. I do not foresee a time when women, spoilers of milk as they are, will write poetry, though I know our Pictish cousins think differently. There it is quite normal for women to shave their heads, pierce their noses, and pretend to be men, even to the speaking and writing of verse, though what they can know about the real world beyond whelping I do not know. It will be a long time before bald women read poetry in Scotland.

It is commonly held that the Milennium will bring troubles of a religious nature to our people. It is stated that the Millennium will herald the end of the world as we know it. As Black Angus, the Seer of Fochabers has said “When seven cats inhabit the temple of the tin people, a thick grey carpet will envelop those who have ears to hear the tale.” This has been widely interpreted to mean that on the stroke of midnight on the year 1000 AD the earth will be destroyed by porridge. But I know Black Angus and the amount that he drinks. And I know also there is not enough oatmeal presently in the west to cover the world in porridge.

To state affairs. The King of the Pines and Seaweed, as soon as Spring comes, will march east against the English and drive them from that stronghold of rock where men wear breeches, speak like barking dogs and hold a festival every August to show how effeminate they are. All good men will fight and the poets will follow to record events a day or two afterwards because war is hell. The Council will give a travel bursary for this purpose. All good poets, not gutter ranters, may apply. When we have conquered, we will disassemble the rock, make the English carry it south and rebuild the wall that the giant Fingal built to keep trousers out of Scotland. We will drive out all the lawyers and hairdressers and plant the area with conifers. A poet will be in charge of the commission to do this, for God abhors farmland and loves poetry.

Our future does not lie to the west, not even to the west of Ireland. Brendan, who was sitting by the logs till his beard caught fire a minute ago, can tell us this. He has been there, seen it, done it, written the book. America is no use to us at all. There are no poets in America, just great flat fertile plains, only good for playing shinty or dumping the English. There is no future there, there are no rocks on which to build hovels, no animals to hunt except big bearded things that Brendan thought were Pictish women poets. No forget America. If anything interesting ever comes out of there, I will give up drink.

So where does our future lie? To which great nation can we forge our destiny? Which race deserves to share our common and most glorious fortune? BELGIUM!

(Here the manuscript is torn, and begins again)

……….for what man amongst you can truly say he has never been boring? Moreover, the fruit beer, some of which is as strong as 12%, would make the most tedious man seem like Solomon and the drabbest tart seem like the Queen of Sheba.

Lastly, the King of all the Eagles and Bears has let his will be known that some lasting monuments be built to celebrate these times of great moment and unparalleled jubilation. A series of circular buildings are to be built throughout the coastline of our blessed land. These are to be called Millennium Brochs, and in them shall be gathered the fruits of our nation’s achievements, for instance sesame seed bannocks, these daft stones the Picts keep carving, and, of course, poets who will be in residence.

My thanks to you, the King of Clouds and Drizzle, may your reign be as the sunshine that sometimes lights the Sound of Mull, both dazzling and poetic………..

Friday, July 11, 2008

The long range forecast foresees heavy rain until five minutes before I go back to my work in August so now would be the time to snap up a last minute holiday, perhaps to Rhodos where I could smell the dry pine in the lost city of Philerimos or hang about the Turkish graveyard in Rhodes Town pretending to be Laurence Durrell. There are two obstacles to this plan:

1. Postcards from the Hedge is not yet ready

2. I have £12.50 till the end of July

Of these obstacles, the second seems by far the greatest.

On a lighter note the Mull Four have returned in high spirits, Theosyphilis Neill's near legendary drinking status further enhanced in the process.

I shall return to this journal presently: I am currently reworking a poem of mine I found in the washing machine.

Friday, July 04, 2008

The weekend

Much time spent this week drinking huge amounts of alcohol at various events in the local Gala. The quiz, the highland dancing, the treasure hunt. Even simple tasks like manning the alfalfa and houmus stall necessitate the downing of monstrous amounts of Irish Cider. It's a local by-law. On Saturday I am playing the part of Robert Burns in the Gala Parade, though I have been more concerned with kitting out my daughters as Rainbow Magic Fairies. I had the idea, however, of sub-contracting this to two girls at my school who are good at art and they agreed to do this but only in exchange for- it seems to me- an exorbitant amount of money for labour and materials.

Attendance at the Gala tomorrow has necessitated my pull-out from the great Mull of Galloway expedition, which sets off tonight. This is possibly a mercy. The company has swollen to four- Theosyphilis Neil , thistlemilk salesman and professional cripple, MacDuff, ex-marine and territorial army cyborg killing machine, Dean 0'Jones, wildlife warden and genuine backwoodsman, and Lexie, an epic drinker recently savagely eviscerated by a failed relationship.

As far as I can see little preparation has been made for this weekend in the open air- strong winds and heavy rain are forecast- beyond the purchase by each participant of a bottle of 12 year old malt whisky. I tell a lie: Theosyphilis has bought for £3.00 from the local spar shop a frail structure which he seems to think is a tent but seems to me to be more of a Wendy House.

It is easy to predict what will happen. 12 pints each in the pub at Drummore tonight then a five mile walk to the Mull where Dean will retire to his state of the art specially insulated bivouac, Lexie will sit in his car plotting murder, MacDuff will dig foxholes round the perimeter in case of attack, and Theo , completely steaming, will be swept off by a force niner to the Isle of Man. There will be no postcards sent home, that's for sure.

Tuesday, July 01, 2008

Poem While an Egg Boils

Poem While an Egg Boils

Six minutes. Not too soft,
solid with a vein of molten gold.
In the time that takes,
rain will scour the skylight,
small birds will twirl rudely
in front of the family cat,
grass will wave in a rich sea
against the hills and next door
they will pack the mouth
with cotton wool and raise
an artery for the needle.
Such a little time
for steam to mist the glass,
for the world to change unutterably.

Monday, June 23, 2008

Vinnie: A warning

Much to my astonishment I have received many e-mails over the last few days on the subject of Vinnie ............., not all, as might have been expected, demanding his immediate arrest. In fact the vast majority were enquiring as to his identity and where one can access his work. I have not told Vinnie about any of this because he is, of course, a dangerous lunatic well capable of hunting down and exploiting anyone weak enough to express an admiration for him or his work. Vinnie, I warn you, might seem a laugh across the safe distance of cyberspace but when you look out one morning and see a sinister balding man with a huge plastic bag standing in your garden grinning back at you it will be a very different matter.

Vinnie's work is thankfully out of print but I replicate part of one of the long poems from his unforgettable chapbook 'Bald Women and Other Modern Aberrations' (Cankered Press Ardrossan 1978.

The Scottish wumman poets

The Scottish wummen poets
fly to Tirana today,
just what the poor Albanians have done,
no-one can say.

Perhaps it’s some old poetry crime
for which they must atone,
or simply that they haven’t got many
fulminating drabs of their own.

They’re going to spend the week
detailing the injustices of living,
like publishing houses, magazines
and bursaries just for women....

Bard again.

Unhappily it was raining yesterday and I was unable to adopt the usual alfresco position outside the George. Instead I sat inside with Murray Crosbie and partook of far too many bottles of Irish cider. I was in expansive mood following my election as the Clan Bard and had also suffered a severe psychic jolt after running full tilt into the pub in Penpont to find the door locked and bolted against me. There is no sorrier sight in the universe than a pub closed in the daytime. It is not natural. It raises the fine hair at the back of the neck.No good can come of it.

Tha gàrradh brèagha agad. Am bi thu a' cluich ball-basgaid.

It is incumbent upon the Clan Bard to learn a smattering of Gaelic so that he can hail the Chief at important money making occasions such as the Great Clan Gatherings in the USA, which attract many thousands of monied McMillans from all over the North American continent, eager to part with their cash for small trinkets created in the clan sweatshop or books of uneven verse by the Clan Bard. I have started with the above phrases which could also, in an emegency, double as a chat up line for any American heiress present. Who in their right minds could be unaffected by such an entreaty couched in the lyrical and mellifluous ancient tongue of the Gael?

Friday, June 20, 2008

the Gathering

I am sitting behind the George and the sun is splitting beards of cloud. I am alone: I have instructed Mustapha the heavily muscled Turkish ex commando turned hairdresser to discourage the visits of itinerant thistlemilk salesmen and despondent poets, for I am preparing for a truly feudal occasion. Tonight the Clan Chief of the MacMillans is to visit Galloway and I am to read poetry to him and his kinsmen in Castle Douglas. As the position of the Clan Bard has been vacant since 1392 it is in a sense an audition. If I get the job I will of course be claiming more than 600 years of backpay which should amount to a lot of sheep. I am in a bit of a quandry about what to read, as my verse seems too scabrous and inconsequential for such an august occasion. I should of course have written an Epyllion or at least a wee Terrastich in celebration of the man's lineage and fame* but my only poems that mention the McMillans are the Culloden poem (below) and the World Book of the McMillans. I shall read both, of course, and the job of Bard will probably go by default to that charlatan Ian McMillan who was too busy reciting doggerel on radio 4 to apply for the job in the first place.

The World Book of the McMillans

Dear Hugh McMillan,

you have been selected by our clan computer
to receive a copy of
The World Book of the McMillans $149.95
(including unique hand painted coat of arms).
Have you ever considered, Hugh McMillan,
your family ties and heritage?
In these pages, Hugh,
you will bear witness to the heroism
and industriousness of your ancestors
and learn about the forebears
who shaped the history of the world,
like Fergus McMillan, the 8th man of Moidart,
Hector ‘Steamboats’ McMillan,
the inventor of the 12 Bore Scrotal Pump Beam,
Brian ‘Big Shuggie’ McMillan,
Golf Caddie to the stars,
and many many others,
though probably not Archie McMillan
who died of silicosis
or James and Colin who drowned in the Minch,
or Straun who drank himself to death
in that corner of the Central Bar.
To bear witness to that kind of thing,
Hugh McMilan,
it costs a bit more.

*As a postscript did you know that Anaclasis- getting things not quite right in your poetry- is an actual poetical technique? Must dig out all these anaclastic poems.

Wednesday, June 18, 2008

Lines from Scott Fitzgerald's Notebook

The car waited tenderly for a moment

The proximity of the tan legs

As twice as a double bumble bee

Then I was drunk for many years and then I died

The blue-green unalterable dream

Tuesday, June 17, 2008

New Pen New Place 2

I do not know many poets and this is not a fact I have ever recognised as a problem. I knew Ian Crichton Smith well enough to dance on his table and his passing is an irredeemable loss, but as for the rest, apart from one or two, I've never have had occasion to spend much time with them. I know the local ones, of course, and occasionally meet them on my weekly journey to the Drumsleet Souk, the Great Makar Tom Pow, the handsome and saturnine Rab Wilson, the ubiquitous and beautiful Liz Niven, the elfin Angus MacMillan...and so on. There are many more new ones, I'm told. Drumsleet has become a kind of breeding ground for poets. It's a terrible thought, and enough to put you off your sleep. Anyway what poets I still do know, mostly through correspondence, tend to be embittered old swine like myself who hardly ever stir from their firesides and whose obscurity and neglect they blame on a series of circumstances distantly removed from themselves.

So it is a great surprise when my early evening's meditation at the back of the George, my new pied a terre, is interrupted by Vinnie, a poet of roughly my own liver size from Ayrshire. Vinnie had been to hear a poetess read in Shetland dialect, an event predestined to offend him on several levels at once.

"Ark Bark Dark Gark" Vinnie mouths, slamming a Bottle of House Red on the table between us. "Fark Gark Parp"

He pours us a half pint of beaujolais each. "Could have been reading the telephone book. And you should have heard the rapturous applause afterwords. I guarantee not a *****r knew what she was on about."

It's only a matter of time till Vinnie reveals that this woman has been shortlisted for a major prize and has a contract with Bloodaxe, the reason, of course, why he is stalking her.

"And she's been shortlisted for a major prize and has a contract with Bloodaxe."

"Which prize?" I enquire innocently.

"What's it matter?" he chokes, "the **** *******Prize for ****ing Gibberish!"

It pleases Vinnie to believe that some poets are getting an unfair advantage over him by having prizes and poetry presses devoted to their minority causes. He also thinks it's unfair for people in wheelchairs to get to run marathons, but that's another story. It's only a matter of time till he turns his attention to Scots. Vinnie does not consider Scots a language.

"Ah miss ma dug, ma dug is deid,
there's something crakkit in my heid"
Vinnie chants, pouring another glass for us both.

"It's not a language, it's bad spelling!"

I go inside to ask one of the barmaids for another bottle. I will need it because there will be no stopping Vinnie until he has run the gamut.

Vinnie is also bitter about never having been awarded any prize or bursary, and does not ascribe this to the fact that he once wrote to the Scottish Arts Council threatening to blow it up and kill all its office bearers. Also, as far as I can see, Vinnie has not written a word of poetry for 25 years. Nevertheless he blames his unfair treatment on a self-serving elite of bald women who are out to stop him.

"I mean face facts. If we started a poetry competition and plastered MEN ONLY all over it we would be carted off by the police. We'd be ******prosecuted. "

Vinnie is fresh, he tells me, from being involved in a fistfight with a leading Scottish woman writer who had just published a book, emphasising, or - he claims-completely fabricating, the role of a female hero in the Scottish Wars of Independence.

"All I said was she should call it Bravetart. I didn't expect a kicking. "

Luckily Vinnie is quiter now. The wine is doing its dark job. Soon I will be able to bundle him onto the 246 bendy-bus to Cumnock and let him fight his way home at last through the night patrols of lesbians and doric speakers. We sit in silence till the low birdsong is joined by the quiet but stubborn snoring of a dying breed.

New Pen New Place

I have a new pen and have been sitting outside the back door of the George Hotel trying it out. It's a good spot, a bit like one of these Greek garage cafes on the long melting tarmac between Thessaloniki and Athens. The view here is of some skips, a public toilet and lots of cars, some of them on bricks. It's a great place for spending a few hours taking a comma out and then putting it back in again.

Today I am reading Bukowski. Bukowski liked betting at the track and, like Neal Cassady, had a system that couldn't lose and always did. I'm attracted to this.I have a system too which involves backing horses whose names remind me of the Hebrides or the Byzantine Empire 527-1453 AD. A typical 4 horse Yankee for me would be 'Uig', 'Whirling Dervish' 'Sands of Barra' and 'Belisarius the Great'. Unfortunately there has never been a horse named after Narses the Eunuch, Justinian the Great's best general. Belisarius is better known because he had better apologists, like Longfellow, Graves, Salvator Rosa and Jacques-Louis David. If there was a horse called Julian the Apostate I would bet on that too, even though strictly speaking, he does not meet the criteria.

I have a lot of things bubbling up to do or say here in the sun. I must find out if the poet Allan Cunningham was really born just down the road from where I live- in which case his 225th anniversary must be celebrated-I must read some more of the book Rachel Fox kindly sent me- "I believe there are some people we'd be better off assassinating. But it's a bad habit to get into. Like shopping."- Bukowski would like that -and above all I must keep looking for the pleasing line, that movement of sounds we're all moping around for-"Better Ae Gowden Lyric than the castle’s soaring wa; Better Ae Gowden Lyric than onything else ava” as Macdiarmid would say.

Maybe I'll hit the jackpot and feel like a God, like Bukowski winning at the races:

"I drove out among the angry losers, their unpaid for and highly insured cars were all they had left, they dared each other at mutilation and murder, zooming and slashing, not giving an inch. I made it to the exit at Century, my car stalled right at the turnout, blocking 45 cars behind me. I flipped the gas pedal rapidly with my foot, winked at the traffic cop, then hit the starter. It caught up and I moved out, drove on through the smog. Los Angeles wasn't really a bad place; a good husler could always make it."

Monday, June 16, 2008


The National Trust for Scotland , to celebrate the opening of a new visitor centre at Culloden has been searching for people whose ancestors were involved in the Jacobite Rebellion 1745-46, and especially in the final battle at Culloden. After a long search through the McMillan archives I unearthed several antique documents relating to a correspondence between my forebear Archibald MacMillan, tacksman, and his ancestral chief MacMhaolain of Castle Sween.

Three Letters to MacMhaolain Mor
from a tenant, 1745-46

1. MacMhaolain Mor

I am sorry I could not come to Moidart.
My youngest has a spot
behind her ear that may be chicken pox
but I have instructed my son Andrew to join you.
He is tall and strong as a deer and is studying Geography
and Politics at Dundee University.
He will wash our sword many times in English blood.

2. MacMhaolain Mor

I am sorry I missed the rout at Falkirk,.
it is virtually impossible to get a bus from here
outwith the tourist season,
and my son had an interview with Patientline,
but we have the fire of Fingal in our veins
and will join you
when the summer timetables begin.

3. MacMhaolain Mor

I am sorry to have missed you at Culloden
but I had an apex ticket and had to return
or pay a heavy supplement.
Exile is hell. My heart bleeds in this Travelodge.
Andrew begs your indulgence as well:
he thought Carrbridge was Cambridge
and stayed on for the Folk Festival.

Friday, June 06, 2008

Postcards from the Hedge

Exciting times: last night I met the artist and raconteur Hugh Bryden at a highly secret location and he unveiled to me the proofs and drafts of our new work, now entitled 'Postcards from the Hedge: a semi-detatched Tour of Scotland'. They look extremely fetching. There will be a hand stitched booklet with 15 poems and charming illustrations and a pouch containing an idiosynchratic fold up tour map of Scotland to accompany the poems. In addition there will be a limited edition tubed map with the poems printed on the back which can be used as a poster. Pamphlets will be a tenner, posters a fiver. We're planning a launch here and then a reading in Edinburgh. Then in October there will be an actual attempt to recreate the hazardous journey described in the work. The Oban Inn and the Mishnish in Tobermory have already expressed an interest in hosting these liver-threatening events with hopefully more to come.

Anyone interested in publishing this rare gem should contact me, or watch this space for details of the events!

Friday, May 23, 2008

My Feet

Tuesday: the birds softly bugle
end of day. I look at my feet,
bare and wriggling on hot concrete.
They are pitted, spurred, I see,
cracked as white wood.
They are at the business end, my feet,
still dodging, chasing lost causes,
up in the night silent as slippers.
To my head, at the other extreme,
they are mere beasts of burden.
Though they work for the same body
there is no camaraderie there,
no joint sense of mission.
My feet think my head’s had it easy,
up there in the fresh air all these years,
talking crap. Where would it be without
them to do the donkey work?
No fancy products wasted on their upkeep,
just soap and water, cheap socks.
I think if my feet ever met my head again
they’d give it a good kicking.

Thursday, May 15, 2008


The heatwave continues. Reluctant though I am to discuss matters pertaining to my employment as House Master in St Dymphna's Grammar, I must record my admiration for those jolly red cheeked coves forced to sit in blazers and mufflers in conditions of arabian heat while conjugating latin verbs or wrestling with the subtleties of the Second Punic War. "I say sir" said one little scamp yesterday, "does exholare mean exhale or expire?" Well as you can imagine we all laughed and laughed and as reward for the boy's wit I took my diamond tipped cane and poked a tiny hole in one of the ancient windows, welded shut since the 1842 Cholera epidemic, to allow a small breath of fetid air into the room.

Preparations for the new project are apace though they are being interrupted by my collaborator's continued stream of successes that compel him to go to prize-givings, visit Tuscany, open new branches of ASDA etc. I do not grudge him any of this and do not subscribe for a second to Gore Vidal's notion that "whenever a friend succeeds a little something in me dies", though I have been feeling a bit peaky recently.

Wednesday, May 07, 2008

Miraculous Times

Summer has come to Drumsleet in all its glory. The jacaranda bushes are blooming in the Nith Delta and the girls walking across the river to the glue factoies are wearing wellingtons of the gayest hue. Yesterday the mood was heightened considerably by the amazing news of Theosyphillis Neill's return from the dead through the miraculous intervention of St Simon Pyrites.

Neill, a life long devotee to the cult of St Simon, had lain dead for four days in his flat in Lochside when a small group of his friends gathered at the local shrine. No sooner had one taken a new £20 note out of his wallet and said "well, here's to poor old Theo" than Neill projected himself from his bed and in a state of cosmic bliss flew over the town and in the back door of the Prancing Pensioner. Such was the consternation and delight of the onlookers that Neill's first re-animated words - "Do you think you could see fit to lend me a fiver"- were lost in the din.

This of course is not the first miracle attributed to St Simon in the Prancing Pensioner.

“….and the people were much afraid,and went to their neighbours doors, wailing“Who shall gathereth in the corn and arrowroot now that our father is on incapacity benefit?”But Simon said “showeth me the crippled patriarch who built such strong dykes and fathered scores of children in his mighty breeches, so I may do the work of my heavenly Master.” And they showeth Simon to the palette wherein their father lay, swaddled in blankets and drinking deeply in his despair, and Simon sayeth, brandishing the crutches, “Rise now,for I have a place for thee standing straight and tall as a young sapling.” And to the amazement of the people, even those of the DHSS hidden among the olive trees, Simon and he walketh without aid to the local Inn…”

Simon Pyrites Third Statement to the Licensing Board,
Chapter 6, Vs 17-96

Theosyphillis Neill is 38 and is survived by Gerry, a local imbecile.

Tuesday, April 29, 2008

Theosyphillis Suicide Rumour Shock

Devastating news. Someone with an enormous amount of nasal hair reliably informs me that the clothes of poor Theosyphillis Neill have been found on the beach at Palnackie, alongside his crutches, which had been inserted into the sand like a giant V sign pointing at the heavens.

There are few outward signs of grief and mourning in Drumsleet as yet, however, not least because this is not the first time that Neill has attempted to escape his many creditors by feigning death, notably when he claimed that his head had exploded at high altitude during a walk in the Lowther Hills. The man is incorrigible and I am confident he will re-appear, as he always does, on the day my salary enters the bank, the comforting click of whatever surgical appliance is currently supporting him echoing, like Blind Pugh's limp, along the High Street.

Neill's death does not augur well for the proposed weekend I am supposed to take later in the year with him and MacDuff. To be honest a hill walking weekend in the company of one man who can't walk and another with chronic vertigo never seemed a particularly viable prospect. I recall the last time I accepted an invitation to a trip away in the company of a regular drinker from the Tartan Bunnet, the famous Eric Moodiecliffe (he of beloved memory). We were driving past Loch Lomond, Eric at the wheel, when we narrowly avoided a head on collision with a giant milk tanker. Swerving into a ditch, Moodiecliffe turned to me with a beatific grin on his face. "That was close" he said, "Thank **** I woke up up in time."