Colouring the Autumn

Not quite so big on poetry this week, though the outlines of my ‘red yellow blue’ project are falling into place. The herb beds are getting cleared and rearranged so that plants have more room to spread themselves about. All the plants I have moved seem to be thriving and the violets have even thrown up a few blossoms in this unseasonably mild weather we have had.

In the space to the right I have planted the first of the dye plants, a bog myrtle, which also has the merit of being an insect repellent, and there is plenty of room for a new rosa gallica officinalis

as the old one – which was about twenty years old, so probably not going to last much longer – had a lot of problems with rust and throwing up suckers with vicious long thorns that were hell to get out. There will also be dyer’s greenweed and woad, I hope, and madder, which will have to go into pots, as it is seriously invasive in the ground.

The greenhouse is clean and tidy – I don’t know when it ever looked so tidy –

and the more tender plants are going in for the winter. There are still bulbs to plant, and then the indoor work will begin.

There will be a serious amount of research going on; I have Wild Colour by Jenny Dean for the practical stuff, and The Colour Cauldron:The History and Use of Natural Dyes in Scotland by Su Grierson for the historical references. Oddly, though it was written and published in Scotland, I’ve had to import it from the USA, but is a fascinating record of the many plants, both local and imported, used in Scotland. In a very satisfactory development, some of the worst weeds in my garden can be used this way – horsetail and nettle for yellow, and ivy for greys and dark olive greens. If I could find a use for ground elder, I’d be sorted! And I have scored a copy of the iconic The Subversive Stitch by Roszika Parker for a take on the place textile art has had in the lives of women through the ages.

And this week, I’ll be trying the first dyes, using acorns, cherry bark and ivy all gathered from the territory, which has given me a new awareness of what is happening in the landscape around me, and some different ways of interacting and creating a homage to my home place.


It’s been a busy time, and as befits the equinox, it’s been divided between wrapping up old projects and planning something new.

I’ve been doing a few readings. This is a picture from the Falkirk Storytelling Festival (picture by Sweet P of the Write Angle), a great event, and one of four I’ve been at in the last ten days. The biggest was the National Poetry Day event organised by the Federation of Writers (Scotland) at the GOMA

where Andy Jackson unveiled a patchwork poem composed by members on the theme of freedom. You can see the poem here.

In between times, I’ve finished giving this website a makeover, adding pages for workshops, readings and newsletters, updating the poems on the poetry page, and generally putting my house in order before the launch of Haggards, which will be at the Scottish Poetry Library on 10th February next year.

Last time I had a book out The Territory of Rain didn’t get as much love as I would have liked because my family were busy exploring the wilder outreaches of the NHS (I now know a lot more about neurology than I ever wished to!). This time, I would like to do a bit better. Haggards has been a long time in the brewing and I would like to give it a bit more care and attention, organise some events, take it to new places, share it with some new people. There will be a little more about it in the coming months, but hopefully, not too much.

That’s because I’m also building on it to develop something new. As well as making over the website, I’ve been making over the garden, clearing and tidying, deciding what each plant needs to thrive. I’ve discovered problems with rust and thrips and aphids, and I need to up my game to grow my herbs well. I’ll be growing fewer plants, but choosing the ones that have some special resonance. As well as the herbs for scent, for healing and cooking, I’m going to grow some traditional dye plants, bog myrtle, madder, woad and dyer’s greenweed, easing my way into the colour and craft poems, and bringing together all the work I’ve done on inhabiting this small territory.

The wind has been fierce today, after the wet of yesterday, and we are well into autumn. The bird feeders are out and the hedges are alive with sparrows and bluetits. The last field has been mowed and I’m dealing with the apple harvest, making cakes and rosehip jelly, and mincemeat for Christmas. The last of the summer birds have gone, and the geese are beginning to arrive. The tomatoes are being harvested and the bulbs for spring are going in. It isn’t quiet, it isn’t the end. Autumn is a season that faces both ways, and I love it.



Updates to the Website

I’ve made a few changes to the layout of this site, adding some new pages, and streamlining some of the old ones. There are now pages for editing, readings and workshops, as, thanks to the help and encouragement of friends on FaceBook, I am in the process of developing a workshop which will be given for the first time at the Taigh Chearsabhagh Museum and Arts Centre in December.

Signs of the Times, the new anthology of the Burgh Poets, is now available to buy on the Books and Downloads page, and some of the older pages have been updated or rewritten.

Next week I will refresh the poems on the poetry page, and reorganise the news page, but just now I am about to get ready for the Falkirk Storytelling Festival tonight. Helen Boden, George Colkitto, Finola Scott, Ian Maxtone and Colin Will are reading as well as myself, besides fiction writers Suzanne Egerton, Kate Donne and Emma Mooney. It’s going to be a great night!

Winter is Coming

The robins are active in the garden, and though there are still swallows and housemartins about, last week there was the winter landfall of starlings all in their speckled feathers. The first geese are about, and the black-headed gulls have their white winter heads on.

The summer windowboxes

are almost done, and yesterday I planted up the new one for winter

It will sit in the sun for a week or two to get established, before I move it into place. I’m planting bulbs, putting out the bird feeders again, harvesting tomatoes, and tidying up in the garden,

and in the house, I’m getting to grips with the new central heating system and a new cooker

which, being electric, requires a whole new way of thinking and some new techniques.

This is a very visual post, because I’m pretty much worded out. This year’s anthology for the Federation of Writers (Scotland) has just gone to the printers’ and I’m planning for two readings in Falkirk at the Storytelling Festival next weekend, and two more on National Poetry Day. There will be more information about this in my next post, but meanwhile I want to thank Janet Crawford and Ian Maxtone for so generously inviting me to what looks as if it will be a varied and fascinating weekend.

Signs of the Times

This is a project I’ve been keeping quiet about until the time was right – and here it is! A book of poems inspired by signs and notices.

The Burgh Poets are a group of poets who meet in the Burgh Coffee House in Stirling once a month, George Colkitto, Sally Evans, Neil Leadbeater, Helen McLaren, Ann Murray and me. Through the last year, which, though full of excitement and new experiences and happy things, has been a very difficult year for me personally, the Burgh poets have met for coffee and to write, and sometimes it was the only new writing I was able to do. At least four of the poems in Haggards were written there, as well as the five that are in this collection, and I’m not sure how I’d have got things done without them. This is my chance to thank them for their support and friendship.

So this weekend, we are launching the pamphlet at the Callander Poetry Weekend, which starts tomorrow, the 1st September and runs until Sunday afternoon. There will be eighty poets there, music and films and discussion and food, and a lot of washing up.

And among other wonderful things, the launch of the long-awaited first full collection by Judith Taylor, Not in Nightingale Country. It is published by Red Squirrel Press with a fabulous cover by Gerry Cambridge.

Signs of the Times costs £3, and you can buy it from any of the poets after this weekend – I’ll add it to the site next week so you can buy it from me online, should you wish to – and you will be able to hear the Burgh Poets read from it on National Poetry Day 28th September at St Ninian’s Library, the Mayfield Centre Stirling at 12:30.

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!