As Spring Fling x Wigtown Book Festival Writer-in-Residence for 2019, I’ve been creating new work exploring the links between birds, art and the landscape, inspired by my experiences during Spring Fling. The new work will be revealed at Wigtown Book Festival (27 September – 6 October) but in the meantime here are some insights and sneak peeks…
I’ve been researching place-names in Dumfries and Galloway which relate to birds. There are many, covering all sorts of ground, from coastal rocks to inland moors and up into the high hills. Many of these place-names are derived from Gaelic, spoken in Galloway until the 18th century.
Here are three, given with their English meanings, together with a description of the place taken from the Ordnance Survey place-name books compiled in the 1840s and 1850s. The map extracts are taken from OS maps published around the same time.
Benyellarie (N of Glentrool)
“A large lofty rocky heathy hill on the farms of Palgown… on its eastern side is a large precipice called “Scars of Benyellary.”
Benyellarie, from beinn iolaire, the eagle’s hill
Cairnywellan Head (by Port Logan, S of Portpatrick)
“A head land which terminates Port Nessock Bay on the South side. It is a Conspicuous object & well known to mariners.”
Cairnywellan, from cárn na bhfaoileann, cairn of the seagulls
Drumadryland (E of Cairnryan)
“A Broad heathy hill on the North side of a large Moor or marsh, and on the farm of Delhabach”
Drumadryland, from druim na’ dreolan, ridge of the wrens
As last year, this spring I led another project at Leith Primary School with Lorna Irvine and Suzanne Butler, and supported by the church of St James the Less, Leith. We worked with the two P4 classes on poetry, drama and song, focussing on their impressions of Edinburgh, and keeping fit and healthy. My group wrote about the games and sports they play, visiting Holyrood Palace, and the food they like to eat, as well as saying hello and goodbye in several languages. They also created a series of individual letters, which I collaged together to create ‘headings’ which were projected during the performance.
My thanks to the school, and especially the class teachers, Mrs McDonald and Mrs Kinneil. Here are some extracts from the script.
Hi – sup – heya – yo –
Bonjour — Salaam aalekum – Nihau – Priviet –
In other words… Hello!
We’re going on the bus to Holyrood Palace.
Outside the palace we looked around and saw
a tower that was 500 years old,
shields that had a unicorn and an eagle,
a bath house and a flower garden,
the learning centre and Arthur’s Seat.
Inside the palace we saw
the room with all the jewelry,
the king’s gorgeous jewels and golden swords –
some swords had diamonds in the middle.
We went into the gallery with 96 paintings
but barely any furniture
and our challenge was
to find a sword slash in one of the paintings
and a secret door that leads to the kitchen
and to count all the paintings
and we had to do all of that in 2 minutes!
In the evening we go home,
We’re hungry and want some food.
My mum’s banana split and coffee –
That sounds really good!
And when we go to the café
What we want to eat
Is toast or macaroni cheese –
What a delicious treat!
We hope you have enjoyed
Spending the day with us
In our Edinburgh.
Au revoir – Gudafis – Zytien – Papa –
So long – See you later – Cheerio – Missing you already –
In other words… goodbye!
Over the Spring Fling weekend (25–27 May) I visited artist studios across Dumfries and Galloway, from Gatelawbridge to Port William, speaking to artists and visitors. As well as seeing a fantastic range of bird-themed artworks, I spoke to lots of folk who shared their sightings and memories of birds.
Over the next few weeks and I’ll be reflecting on my Spring Fling experiences, and writing a new piece of work to be presented at the Wigtown Book Festival in the autumn.
In the meantime here’s a selection of birds from the weekend – some spotted during conversations and workshops, some glimpsed as I travelled, and some contemplated in studios and galleries. My thanks to everyone involved.
Conversations I heard of an oystercatcher nesting on a roundabout, a crow that kept banging into the window, and jays burying acorns. I was told there are no magpies around Kirkcudbright and Wigtown – some say they were exterminated, others that they can’t co-exist beside carrion crows. I heard of swallow fledglings standing in a line on a beam, sometimes for three or four days, before they launch themselves, of thrushes littering the garden with broken snail-shells, and of a buzzard swooping to lift a frog from a pond, like an osprey takes fish. I was told of stock doves nesting in owl-boxes, and that there are more egrets now, but fewer lapwings and swallows. I heard from a member of a rowing club who enjoys seeing gulls, sandpipers and herons up close, and a member of a golf club who sees mostly magpies. I was told of a sound like someone in distress, which turned out to be a barn owl, and of green woodpeckers, red kites, small owls and bittern in Cambridgeshire. I heard of a heron which stands in the pond that’s not full of newts, and of a raptor which, falling on chaffinches gathered at the bird-feeder, misjudged its flight and crashed into the fence, before picking itself up and flying away embarrassed. I was told of a thrush singing at Carstairs Station, of blackbirds flying out from the bay tree, and of a hen pheasant which planned to nest in the field behind a house until the neighbour’s cat disturbed it. I heard of the bell in the County Buildings remaining silent when the ospreys didn’t return, and of sedge warblers which sound like techno and hiphop.
From the car I notice a woodpecker land on the verge, its distinctive black-and-white striped head, while a large puddle in a lay-by that loops off the road has attracted a duck and several ducklings. The looping flight of siskins around a flowering laburnum tree, oystercatchers heard through an open door, the songs of a Galloway hedgerow in late May. At the Cairnholy stones, a blackbird flies from the nearby house to the far side of the valley in seconds. From within an evergreen a thrush emerges, stands speckled on the threshold a moment as if deciding where to, then off. A buzzard circles above the green slope at Port Castle Bay, now seen, now hidden.
I visited Rome for a few days earlier this year. These are some of the many poets, ancient and modern, I encountered there.
A herm of Homer in the Vatican Museums
Two versions of Sappho –
a herm in the Capitoline Museum, and a statue in the Vatican Museums
Goethe, with his feet up at home in the Via del Corso, c.1787; and his expenses book for his Roman stay, with regular entries for ‘ciocolatta’
Keats’ grave and memorial in the Cimitero Acattolico. The inscription on his grave reads,
This Grave contains all that was Mortal, of a
YOUNG ENGLISH POET, Who, on his Death Bed, in the Bitterness of his Heart, at the Malicious Power of his Enemies, Desired these Words to be Engraven on his Tomb Stone
Here lies One
Whose Name was Writ in Water.
Feb 24th 1821
Shelley’s grave in the Cimitero Acattolico, with lines from The Tempest
Marinetti’s house on the Piazza Adriana
Gregory Corso’s grave in the Cimitero Acattolico
Finally, Raphael’s ‘Parnassus’, in the Room of the Segnatura in the Vatican museums, painted between 1508 and 1511. Its central figure is the Apollo (playing the violin rather than the more traditional lyre), surrounded by the nine Muses. To the left, Homer is flanked by Dante and Virgil, while Sappho sits beneath them; to the right stand Ariosto and Boccaccio.
Earlier this year I wrote a sequence of poems about the Isle of Jura, for a book by the photographer Charles March. Charles contacted me out of the blue, thanks in part, I think, to a poem I’d written many years before about the island.
I visited Jura at the start of February, and was taken by boat to Glenbatrick on the west coast, where Charles had taken his photographs over the previous four or five years. Above the beach, and the rugged coastline either side of it, are a number of raised beaches, created by the land gradually rising after the glaciers melted. Looking inland, the Paps of Jura dominate the skyline – Beinn na Oir, Beinn Siantidh and Beinn Chaolias.
In May and June, Charles’ photographs were featured in an exhibition at the Palazzo Borghese in Rome, where a sample copy of the book was on display.
I received copies of the book just this week – I’d forgotten how large it was. The images are beautifully reproduced, catching the shifting and subtle colours of the Hebrides.
Gleann Badraig is published by Distanz Verlag, Berlin.
390 × 275 mm
96 pages, 60 color images, hardcover with linen
I have a few copies for sale – contact me if you’re interested in buying a copy.
Organised by the church of St James the Less, Leith, this year Suzanne Butler, Lorna Irvine and I worked on the theme of ‘building’ with three classes.
Suzanne (of Fischy Music) wrote a song with P4/3, Lorna and P4B made a drama piece, ‘The Three Wee Leithers’ (based on the fable of ‘The Three Little Pigs’), while I helped P4A to write about life in Leith, and also in a realm of the imagination which they named ‘Minecraft Pugs’.
One of the poems I’d read to kick the project off was Holub’s ‘The Door’. During one of our sessions, I asked the pupils to imagine and draw their own door.
The plan was to show these during today’s performance, but we were in the brand new school hall, and no-one knew how to get the brand new projector to talk to a laptop.
I thought the doors deserved some sort of public display, so here they are, in ascending numerical order, from 3 to 1,000,000.
Thanks again to all the pupils for their imagination and enthusiasm!
You dropped a purple ravelling in, You dropped an amber thread; And now you’ve littered all the East With duds of emerald!
We focused on works by Julie Brook, Caroline Dear, Linder and Sonia Delauney. Juliana read an original text written in response to the artworks, while I read a selection of poems on weaving and colour, including works by Emily Dickinson (above) and verses from the Carmina Gadelica.
A Hanover bourgeois, Kurt Schwitters,
Grew tired of painting his sitters.
In sentences terse
He declared all art Merz
And made poems from sneezes and titters.
A limerick for Kurt Schwitters on 8 January 2018, the 70th anniversary of his death.
Below are some photos from a visit in 2014 to Cylinders in the Lake District, where Schwitters made his last Merzbau in the 1940s (the barn he made it was recently in the news again), and there is a bench with extracts from his ‘Ursonate’ (to hear an extract performed by Florian Kaplick click here).
On a grey September morning, I walked to Newhaven harbour with the P5 class from Edinburgh’s Victoria Primary School. The earlier rain had stopped, and the tide was out, beaching the small boats moored there. We walked out to the lighthouse at the harbour mouth, and looked upriver to the three Forth bridges, and north over to Fife. The walk was a preliminary to reading and writing haiku, and looking at the work of Yosa Buson (1716–1783), one of the great haiku poets of Japan who was also a painter. As with last summer’s workshop at Jedburgh Grammar School I wanted the pupils to think about combining visual and verbal elements in their work.
Half a day to myself
by the nettle tree
listening to the cicadas
Summer afternoon downpour
a flock of sparrows
hanging on the grass
There’s silver grass
I expect to find bush clover
not far away
We used some as models to write from. I retained their structure, and asked the pupils to fill them with their own content. We made some together, as I wrote down their suggestions, and then I asked them to write some on their own.
A couple of days later I did a second session. This time I asked them to choose one of their verses, and to present this on a postcard, together with a drawing of their choice. I showed them examples of other postcards which used text and image in different ways – sometimes as separate blocks, sometimes completely integrated.
I also asked them to made folding cards, again thinking about the relationship between their words and images (though we didn’t have time to explore this fully).
With thanks to the teachers Mrs Gorrie, Miss Blyth and Mrs Sim at Victoria Primary School, and to the GB Sasakawa Foundation for funding the work.
I contributed a sequence of seven short poems, taking as my starting point Wordsworth’s ‘The Solitary Reaper’. They were presented as prints, and as a booklet in the display case.
The photographs on the wall are by Tomohiko Ogawa, and show postcards of Scotland ‘matched’ with landscapes in Japan. Tomohiko also took these exhibition photographs.
Some of Alec Finlay’s word-mountains were also shown. There is a fine, informative catalogue; below is a page with Tomohiko’s photographs, including one we used on the cover of The Road North (middle left; on the book cover it’s reversed), and a page with background to my take on ‘The Solitary Reaper’.