Red Yellow Blue

This plant is tansy. It’s a terrible thrawn persistent weed, but it yields a dye that makes interesting shades of yellow and green.

Ever since Alice Oswald’s talk abut translating colours in Greek texts, I’ve been thinking on and off, about how we perceive and respond to colour. There has even been some debate on Facebook about whether the Celts or the Greeks could even see colours like blue, as there doesn’t seem to be a word for it in early texts.

This doesn’t necessarily follow. I remember my youngest daughter playing with a box of coloured plastic cotton reels just after her first birthday. Although she was beginning to talk, she hadn’t got as far as numbers or colours, but there she was, completely unprompted, sorting the cotton reels into their separate heaps – red, green, white, yellow and blue, without any mistake or uncertainty. I guess what you speak about depends on what’s important to you.

Alice Oswald analysed the word ‘glaucopis’ which is usually applied to the goddess Athena, and often translated as ‘grey-eyed’, but she points out that  the word actually means something more like ‘lively and responsive’ – perhaps even changeable – and sparkling. I thought of Tolkien’s description of the grey elf-cloaks the hobbits are given, which actually change to reflect light, grass, forest or water because, they elves say ‘we put the thought of all we love into what we make.’ Tint or pigment doesn’t seem to be on the elves’ radar either. What we record is not necessarily all we see.

Somehow, sitting in a tent at the Edinburgh Book Festival, a germ of an idea came, for the next step after Haggards, and some new writing. I thought I’d look at colour – what we see and how we say it, what we mean by it and how it makes us feel. And I thought I’d look at dye plants and how traditional techniques connect with the landscape, and then textile art especially as practised by women — it fair got away with me.

Last week at the Burgh Poets meeting, I wrote the first few poems. Here’s one:


The sea is dark,
full waves just before breaking
tinted with lowering cloud
like ripely swollen berries,
like a calyx about to burst with bloom,
a child with a birthday cake
just before the explosion of tears,
like an angry choleric face.


What I’ve Been Reading

I had some thoughts about writing ‘poet of the month’ posts, and I had a list of poets I wanted to read, or re-read, and talk about. But life, as it does, intervened, and I haven’t done any of them apart from Jim Carruth, whose post you can see here.

I have been reading a lot though, and here are some of the highlights:

Love is a Place, by Joan Magarit, an aging man, confronting death and finding that the answer is love. Does it sound like a cliche? It isn’t, because it is determinedly unsentimental, unsweet and honest. Also concise, and perfectly crafted. Anna Crowe has done a fabulous job of the translation, too.

The Blind Roadmaker by Ian Duhig. On one level a virtuoso exercise in form, not just poetic, like alliterative verse, sonnet, ballad and so on, but sometimes deriving from folk dance rhythms too. But it’s also a consideration of the creation of stories, songs, poems and myths, with a powerful reflection on truth and integrity in story-telling and cultural appropriation. This poem, which you can find at the link below, was an instant favourite, but some of the other, less accessible poems will stay with me longer.

Void Studies by Rachel Boast, from which I learned that abstract doesn’t necessarily mean vague or arid, academic and intellectual or impersonal. Abstract can be vivid and sensual, and take you to ways of speaking about the world that you didn’t expect.

I have got hold of a few books that I haven’t read yet, but I’ve heard some of the poets reading over the last few days at the Edinburgh International Book Festival – Imtiaz Darker taught me that repetition has more to do than creating structural patterns or catchphrases. Rachel McCrum put a depth of resonance to work that performs powerfully but also sits well on the page. JL Williams created a new poem about the Sator Square which shows that playing with words is not mere trickery and mystification, but unfolds aspects of thought and belief that we need to understand in a world of media manipulation.

Sometimes it’s easy to think of reading as a distraction from writing, but goodness, it’s worth it.


Bridled Vows

Changing Seasons

While demand for power is relatively low, the turbines at the Corra Linn Fall are turned off so you can see them at their best. So we did. We took our grand-daughter, and we picked wild raspberries and blaeberries, spotted new pine and fir cones, wild flowers, emerging mushrooms and interesting stones – a really good day out.

But it did reveal that there isn’t too much left of summer. On Tuesday, there were swifts, wheeling and screaming over the river as they have been since May – and then they seemed to gather together and shot away westwards. I don’t expect to see them again until next year, though the swallows and housemartins are still with us. We went away when the new rowan berries were still yellow, and we came back to find them red, much to the delight of the blackbirds. Willow warblers and bluetits are back in the garden too, along with what I think is a third brood of sparrows, and this means that so is the sparrowhawk. I got my first glimpse of it crossing the road from a tall hedge on one side to a garden on the other. I heard an owl hooting two nights ago when the moon was bright and full, and this tells me more than anything that autumn is on  its way.

On the other hand, there are still bees everywhere, and butterflies – not so many this year, and mostly whites. But yesterday I saw the first small copper I’ve seen in the territory, in a sunny south-facing front garden. And today the Countryside Rangers are going to release a thousand peacock butterflies, in the hope of building up the local population. It’s a good day for it, warm and mostly sunny, and I hope they’ll thrive.

How Did This Happen

There is absolutely no reason for this picture. I’m not even entirely sure where it is, though the smart money is on Argyll, from our holiday last autumn. But it was the most peaceful picture in my media files, and a bit of peace is hard to come by just now!

Distracted as I have been by family events (some illnesses, a house move – not mine – and our ruby wedding anniversary), two conferences, a lot of editing and getting Haggards out, I did not notice a whole bunch of anthologies with poems of mine in them.

  • The Brig and Rock Declaimers compiled by Paraig MacNeil this is an anthology of poems written in or about Stirling from the age of William Wallace up to present day poets like Judith Taylor, Richie McCaffery, Roderick Watson and Sally Evans. And one of mine about Cambuskenneth.
  • The Physic Garden edited by Adam Horowitz. Full of poems about herbs written as part of the Poetica Botanica project at the Ledbury Festival last year.
  • The Scotia Extremis anthology, derived from the on-line project hosted by Andy Jackson and Brian Johnstone, which will shortly be published by Luath Press – there will be more about this later.
  • The indefatigable Lesley Traynor has created an anthology from her Women with Fierce Words event during the Edinburgh Festival next year. It has my first published poem, Breaking through Gravel, in it. There will be more about this later too.
  • the 2017 anthology from The Federation of Writers will have a poem of mine in it, called The Occupation of Poetry. If you read that It’s Not Poetry Until We Tell You It Is post, you’ll know what that’s about! The title of the anthology is still to be confirmed, but the individual proofs will be going out fairly soon.

There are a couple of other things in the pipeline too, but they will have to wait until later in the month, when I’ll have news of dates of publication and so on.

It all adds up, doesn’t it. I think I’ll have to go for a bit of a lie down! Meanwhile, here’s a serene looking harvest moon. It was five years ago, and it feels a bit like it!


This is my local ‘haggard’ where the nine haggard herbs in my own charm poem – elder, hawthorn, yarrow, clover, comfrey, dandelion, wild rose, plantain and bramble – live. Last year a conservation group added ragged robin (which has gone over) ox-eye daisies and those rich purple knapweeds. I’m not sure what I think about this, but I expect the haggard herbs will have the last word.

Anyway, the big news this week is that the manuscript of Haggards has gone to the publisher, and I’ll be talking about it more as we fix the date of publications, launch events and readings. Also a pamphlet I have been editing for Red Squirrel Press is now at the design stage, and I’ve done the first edit of the anthology for the Federation of Writers (Scotland).

So I’m away on my holidays for a few days. When I get back, there will be a bit more news of a couple of projects I’ve been involved in, and I’ll be cooking up something for the Herbs and Poetry group on Facebook. So have a good summer while I’m away, and watch this space!

July in the Territory of Rain

The stock bed in my garden has hit its stride, and is full of colour and joy. I’ll be harvesting marigold flowers, poppy seeds, lemon verbena, mint and yarrow, and taking cuttings of anything I can manage over the next week.

And in the woodland bit, which is usually quiet at this time of year, I found this – it’s a broad-leaved helleborine, supposed to be rare this far north, but surprisingly common on roadsides in the Central belt. I found it n the car park of our local retail estate three years ago. It seems quite a privilege to have it actually in our garden!

There’s also this little patch of artistic calendula, from a packet of Sarah Raven seeds. It makes a good picture, and I think it will be just as effective as the old-fashioned kind, but I haven’t really warmed to them. From now on, I’m sticking to the traditional pot marigold, blazing like August on cloudy days.

The garden is full of bees, and for the first time in three years, I’ve seen honey bees. All the birds in the garden have finally fledged, though I am paying the penalty, as I’ve lost all the redcurrants and strawberries. Across the river, I saw a brood of housemartins safely fledged but still lining up along a roof to be fed, without the usual harassment from the gulls.

I have disappeared into an editing black hole, with one pamphlet done and an anthology and a full collection to go, but the manuscript of Haggards is finished, and I hope to be sending it away next week. And we are in the middle of work being done on the house, so nothing is in the right place, and I am looking at all the stuff and wondering how I managed to acquire it all and what I ever thought I would use it for. There’s going to be a cull of baking tins and kitchen gadgets at the very least!


Expressing the Earth – the Herbs

When we visited the Kilmartin Museum, my first port of call was the lovely herb garden planted alongside the path. I had been struck by this last time I was there, because it seemed very different to a lot of recent constructions, which often come straight out of a picture book, without regard to climate or local tradition. This garden had a lot of local plants, mostly native, but not all – Highland herbalists were in touch with healing traditions all over the world, and were willing to import or try out new ideas. They were all well-grown and in good condition, and divided into beds according to their uses for healing, dyeing, cooking and fibre – including flax and nettle – and beautifully labelled and displayed.

I had planned to talk about the herb garden in my presentation, and emailed the Museum so I could credit the designer, and it was with great trepidation that I discovered it had been designed by Patsy Dyer, who was coming to the conference in her other guise as storyteller!  Unfortunately we were scheduled against each other, so she couldn’t come to my presentation and I couldn’t go to hers, but it was lovely to meet her.

I distributed copies of The Charm of Nine Herbs to everyone who came, and I was delighted to find how much interest there was in my subject. The gist of my talk was that pre-scientific herbalists didn’t necessarily operate by magic and guesswork, but by observation and experiment, adapting their practice to the locality and the climate, as well as the patient, but presenting their knowledge in a way that suited a culture without books. Dependence on a uniform set text radically changed not only herbal practice, but the way we thought about knowledge, and I added that having access to the internet, with a whole mass of data, observation and opinions, was teaching us to relearn  the one-time skills of verification and adaptation of information to our own particular needs.

This went down a lot better than I thought it might! I had a lot of fascinating conversations about such things as the placebo effect, the herbal practice of a holistic approach to illness, the doctrine of signatures and the revival of old physic gardens. I’m going to try and put all  the things I said into some coherent form, and may add it to the Half a Hundred Herbs page.

Expressing the Earth – the Highlights

This is the river running through Kilmartin Glen, which we visited during the Expressing the Earth conference at the weekend. I am hoping to have some longer, more considered posts drawing out some of the themes of the experience, but this will have to wait until I’ve collected my thoughts – it was a very rich and full programme, and will take some digesting!

  • the thunderstorm which happened just after I arrived, taking out the WIFI at Seil Island Hall. It made it impossible to tweet, stream events or even to run the films we had planned, but there was enough going on without that!
  • meeting old friends, some familiar figures from previous geopoetic events, some from the poetry world, and some known only from Facebook up to now – and the making of many new ones.
  • the beautiful island setting, and the wonderful catering provided by a local firm Fisherman’s Kitchen.
  • Siobhan Healy’s glass ghost orchids
  • Luke Devlin talking about ‘radical geopoetics’, and everyone delightedly waking up to what he meant.
  • how receptive people were to my talk about herbs and to the Charm leaflet. And I sold some books!
  • the cyanotypes people made at Susannah Rosenfeld-Kings workshop.
  • hearing lots of other languages spoken – German, Gaelic, Spanish, Portuguese – and accents from all kinds of places
  • Alistair McIntosh being the voice of a stone, and talking about the community buyout of Eigg
  • Neil Simco’s keynote about the educational vision of UHI, plus Mairead Nic Craith about identity and relationship, and Anuschka Miller turning our ideas about ocean on their heads.
  • the lovely herb garden at Kilmartin, designed by story-teller Patsy Dyer, and maintained by her wonderful crew of volunteers.
  • the baby robins outside the museum, barely fledged and playing around the benches under the watchful eye of their parent, each staking a claim to its own bench.
  • Dreaming Agrakas, an opera written by Mark Sheridan moving between the coasts of Scotland Greece and Sicily, combining references to traditional Gaelic music and coastal folklore, a classical Greek ode by Pindar and a modern reflection on the many migrants drowned in the Mediterranean. There were only three performers, Hannah Bown, voice, Morag Currie, violin and Mark himself on piano, but it was a magnificent achievement.
  • hearing Nikita Pfister’s river suite, beautifully played on the melodeon, and Dave Francis, long known to me for his generosity as a teacher and developer of traditional music, singing himself.


Latest News June

All this recent wet has done great things in the garden, and my yellow flag irises which I grew from seed are finally in full bloom. June has been exceptionally busy this year and is getting busier by the minute. I’m involved in editing two books, and there’s another to come, as well as finishing my own new collection – of which more news later in the summer.

The biggest and most imminent event is Expressing the Earth, which is coming up at the end of next week. I’m still writing my talk on Herbs Landscapes and Ways of Knowing (I can talk about it like anything, but this requires organisation, and possibly PowerPoint) collecting illustrations from herbals, and getting stuff printed. I have turned my translation of the Charm of Nine Herbs into an illustrated leaflet and everyone who comes to the conference will get one.

You can have one too! If you sign up to my newsletter, (promise, not too many mailouts) I’ll send you one, or you can have a PDF if you’d rather. More than just spamming you about the book, it’s got news of a herbs and poetry facebook group this time, and there will be poems and bits of other writing I’m engaged in, as well as readings and all the stuff you would expect. Use the contact form on the new contact page and we’re good to go.

Still Standing

For London, for Manchester, for Kabul, for Syria, for Yemen, for all the places where people have been hurt.

Stand in the Light

Stand in the light.
Allow the wild things to creep
out of the shadows.
Welcome them all, the wet
bedraggled things, the ones
all spit and claws, the one
who weeps and hangs its head,
the one who stares, and says ‘Make me.’
Stand in the light. They are yours,
washed and unwashed alike.

Stand in the light, and sing.
Raise your voice as if
there was no fear of darkness.
Listen and you will hear
other voices, other songs,
rough and sweet and dauntless,
blues and canto jondo,
pibroch, nanha, tanakh.
Stand in the light and sing. Their pain
is yours. Allow it to hurt.

Stand in the light. Be still.
Light is what we need. Let it glow,
let it shine into the furthest dark
to find the lost forgotten hopes
and warm them to new life.
Allow it to grow and touch the ruined
homes and hearts and show us
what’s to mend. Stand in the light.
Be still. Become the light.