The Charm of Nine Herbs 8 and 9 Thyme and Fennel

Two for the price of one this time.



Thyme and fennel, * all-powerful both
The Lord wisely * shaped these herbs
Holy in heaven * where he hung
Established and sent them * into the seven kingdoms
To heal the rich * and the poor alike
They will stand against pain, * they will combat the plague
Fight against three * and against thirty
Against the devil * and the terror
against the wiles * of evil creatures.

There is some argument that the eighth herb should be chervil rather than thyme, but I am not convinced. Chervil is negligible medicinally, whereas thyme is seen as very powerful to this day. Fennel is used as a digestive herb, soothing cramps, and easing the liver. Historically it has always been associated especially with fish, counteracting the oiliness of salmon, and perhaps mellowing the tang of salted cod or herring. It was used against witchcraft, and said to improve eyesight.

Thyme is still used as a decongestant – thymol is an ingredient of all those chest rubs for coughs and colds – and a disinfectant. Recent research suggested that it is even effective against MRSA and clostridium difficile, but I have not heard the outcome. Interestingly, however, I discovered that at one time it was used for stress, for nightmares, and against ‘phrensie and lethargy’ – an Elizabethan phrase, I imagine, for bipolar disorder.

The rest of the charm consists of instructions for the administration of the herbs. These are pretty difficult, some of them magical incantations and/or Christian prayers, some of them practical. I will be posting them next week.




Burnedthumb Spreading its Wings

There are a few opportunities to catch me in action coming up.

First of all, there was the interview on Pulse Radio, which you can now hear on Mixcloud at

Then I have just received notice that InterlitQ, a wonderful on-line resource  based in Argentina, has published five of my poems, including the title poem of Haggards. You can read them all here.

And for the future, I will be reading some poems and talking about artistic responses to environmental and social upheaval at a conference at Stirling University on the 19th April entitled Connecting with a Low-Carbon Future – further details here. I’ll be talking about The Scottish Centre for Geopoetics and the Dark Mountain Project.

And in June I’ll be at Expressing the Earth, a conference organised by The Scottish Centre for Geopoetics from the 22nd -24th June. I’m talking about herbs, landscape and ways of knowing, but there’s a packed programme of talks, workshops, films, music and field trips, along with the chance to meet other artists working in many different genres – and hopefully produce new collaborations and ways of creating art. Tickets are on sale now, and I can only encourage anyone interested to move fast, because we have had a lot of interest already.

The Charm of Nine Herbs 7 Crab apple

I live in a village which keeps the last remnants of ancient monastic orchards, and we still have a lot of fruit trees. When I first came here, ‘plundering’  was a regular amusement for boys from across the river, and you would find dropped apples on the bridge wherever some irate gardener had chased them. In the last year or two, a local group has planted a community orchard, and it is nice to think we are continuing an old tradition.

This is the plant * called crab apple

A seal sent this * over the sea-waves

for the healing * of alien infections.

These nine prevail * against the nine plagues.

A worm came creeping * a man slaughtered it.

Then Woden took * nine herbs of wonder.

He cut the adder * into nine pieces

apple and illness * fought it out

so that illness would never * abide in his house.

Nine herbs for the nine plagues, and at last a bit of genuine magic and paganism. Two lines later, however, we are back into the Christian references. It all reminds me of the man in the saga who was a Christian but invoked Thor during thunderstorms and in times of stress.

Too sour for munching from the tree, crab-apples have been used for cider and vinegar, and in jelly. The vinegar is often used as an anti-inflammatory, for the treatment of arthritis and gout, and a gargle with cider vinegar will often help a sore throat. Apples are also comforting to upset stomachs, strengthening the liver and digestion. They were often mixed with spices to add to the effect, and for a while their scent was believed to dispel infections.


Burnedthumb on the Radio

I’ve had a very exciting week. Tuesday saw the launch of Jim Carruth’s Black Cart, published by Freight Books. Jim read several of the poems, dealing with farming and rural  life in Ayrshire. They are knowledgeable and unsentimental, and later in the year, when I hope to get back to thinking about Grounded Poetics, I’ll have a lot to say, but for now, I can’t recommend it highly enough.

But in the morning before that I had the pleasure of recording an interview with Shirley Whiteside of Barrhead’s Pulse Radio. This is a community radio, which receives a commendable amount of support from the local area, both in terms of advertising and help from the local authority, but also in active involvement from volunteers, including the local school.

I was recording for a programme called Booked, and talked about poetry at large, my poetry in particular, and encouraged people to read, write and participate in poetry events. I reviewed some recent poetry – Sheila Templeton’s Gaitherin, (published by Red Squirrel Press),Marion McCready’s Madame Ecosse, and the samplers from House of Three. And I read a few things.

It will be broadcast tomorrow (that is the 2nd April) at 2:00pm.

The Charm of Nine Herbs – 6 Chamomile

Remember now chamomile * what you made known

what you ordained * at Alford

That no-one should ever * lose his life because of infection

if he had chamomile * with his food.


I’ve struggled a bit with this one, as I can’t imagine cooking with chamomile, but chamomile tea is a great digestive herb, served afterwards as a tea, and has both anti-inflammatory and anti bacterial properties. I knew someone who said she cured an ulcer by drinking chamomile tea, too, so I can imagine it must have saved a few lives in those days.

The official translation of the herb mægðe is mayweed, a common wild plant, but checking with the herbal dictionaries on line, I discovered that, although it is similar to the true chamomile, its chemical components are so much harsher that it has been designated as a poison.I am going with the Roman (true) chamomile, anthemis nobilis, which Grieve identifies as the Saxon ‘maythen’.

The place name Alford is a bit of a puzzle too, though there is an apochryphal reference to the Decrees at Alford, alleged to be when Christ left his apostles significant teachings – including this. Pagans also claim that this is the lore of Woden; I am not sure that contemporary herbalists made much distinction between their sacred sources!


The Charm of Nine Herbs – 5 Burdock

A burdock plant photographed in June on the island of Seil.

Put to evil to flight, now burdock,* let the great be diminished

 the lesser be increased * until both are healed.

This, I admit, is a weird one, a flight of fancy, perhaps, but not without some thought and information behind it. I had even speculated that these two lines may simply belong to the lines about nettle, and ‘attorlaþe‘ (literally plague-defier’) might simply be a nickname. However, further research indicates otherwise.

Attorlaþe is usually translated as either cockspur grass,  or betony, but I haven’t found either option particularly convincing. Cockspur grass has very little use in medicine – the only recorded use is to shorten labour, as the grains often act as host for the fungus ergot. Otherwise it is regarded as poison to cattle and sheep, and an invasive pest. Betony has a long tradition of use as a wound herb, a nerve tonic, to relieve anxiety and calm the digestion, and this looked quite plausible until I found another text which referred to a remedy for coughs – a mixture of betony and ‘lesser attorlaþe’ – which tells me that there must also be a greater variety.

Then there is that rather magical incantatory ‘let the great be diminished, the lesser be increased’. I was baffled by this until I came across the term ‘alterative’ which is used for herbs which are used to restore and rebalance the system, particularly the digestion, liver and kidneys. I looked up native herbs which are used as alteratives, and dandelion and burdock topped the list – and there is both a greater and a lesser burdock used in traditional medicine. I’m not altogether satisfied with this identification; it is no more than a best guess. But it is a guess that does not make the assumption that the charm is no more than a superstitious curiosity, but is a genuine element of the history of herbal medicine.



StAnza 2017 Recurring Motifs

Poor internet connections have slowed the process of theses blog posts, but given me time to think over what to say – you are, of course also reading the in-house posts? you can find them here if you haven’t seen them already, and there are facebook and twitter feeds with photographs too.

I’ve talked a lot about how friendly StAnza is, and about how it is full of the meetings of friends. I love this aspect of the festival, because when you don’t live at the heart of poetry action, it is something to cherish, but it did make me wonder if I had created the impression of something rather cosy and inward-looking. Is it no more than the reunion of the same old faces?

The festival has a policy of not asking anyone back to do a similar event in less than five years, so the readers are always new, and you never get the same masterclass or workshop twice. And the regular features, Border Crossings and Past and Present, are designed to encourage more adventurous perspectives. Setting themes – this years were On the Road and The Heights of Poetry – encourages the planners to have a deliberate focus on something new every year, and there is an attempt to invite poets from a wide variety of countries, though this is inevitably limited by financial considerations. As a regular attendee, I’m constantly challenged by new ways of presenting poetry, new poetic forms, new writers.

But every year there are  motifs which recur, in different contexts. This year it was so often the constraints on writing: on writing in this language rather than that, on finding the right kind of language  – Alice Oswald’s ‘winged words’, which evoke a response, create a buzz of communication between people, a ‘through-movement’ she called it, as opposed to ‘wingless words’ which fall into empty air and are disregarded – on writing if you are perceived as being too young, or if your national identity is perceived as complicated, on writing about ambivalent feelings towards your own country (or your own people), on writing to make contact, create lines of communication rather than barriers, on finding the right words to render another person’s insight, on writing in forms that other people don’t recognise as being ‘proper’ poetry, or crossing barriers between prose and poetry, literature and art or film.

I had the feeling that this year StAnza was a kind of breathing space where poets could speak or write or experiment with ways of communicating freely. A place where many people said, ‘It is okay to say this here’. This is more than a poetry party; it’s where art begins to take on its responsibility towards a whole culture. More power to its elbow!

StAnza, Day 2

On Friday I was at readings by three poets from House of Three – Marjorie Lotfi Gill, Nalini Paul and Iona Lee, and by Kayo Chingoni and Norman Bissell, and in the evening, the big centre stage event with extended readings from Jacques Darras and Kathleen Jamie. Stunning as they all were – and Iona Lee and Jacques Darras were especially noteworthy – full of energy and innovation – I want to write today about an event which I expected to find fully subscribed, but which was in the event, not really well attended.
It was called Making a Living as a Poet, and I really expected to find it full of people dreaming of giving up the day job, but no. Perhaps everyone in and around poetry has already realised the first and most important point that was made – that this is in fact an impossible dream.

No-one makes a living from poetry, and in fact, no-one ever has.
The speakers, Harry Giles, Ken Cockburn and Sarah Hesketh, reiterated this, Harry Giles in particular with facts figures and spreadsheets at his disposal to make the point that a life in poetry is only possible if you spend a large chunk of time doing the admin, form filling, funding applications, events management, and often, completely unrelated jobs, just to create time to make art. It is also often only possible if you set your standard of living very low.

It was fascinating to hear about the processes of getting money to make art. All three speakers were clear that it is vital to be available, be flexible to the point of what looks like reckless experimentation – and be reliable and attentive to the requirements of the commissioning body. They pointed out that funding applications are a separate skill, and are not simply a lottery, nor box-ticking exercises, and it was reassuring to hear that small scale projects are not so hamstrung by requirements for ‘outreach’ or utility as is often assumed (small scale is the key here – as Harry Giles points out, if you want a lot of public money, it is only right and proper for the benefits to be shared widely).

But what came out very strongly, and what is something you don’t always hear, is the enthusiasm of funding bodies to support the creation of as much art as is possible, curbed as it might be by lack of means; and the helpfulness of artists in supporting others in the learning process. Sarah Hesketh in particular recommended asking someone who has done it to give helpful tips, and says it is very rare for an artist to refuse.
However, the best quote of the morning came from poet and publisher Colin Will. ‘I couldn’t make a living from poetry, but I have made a life.’

StAnza Day 1

Thursday was a morning of frost and brilliant sunshine, just right for a drive through Fife. I arrived by twelve and checked in to receive my participants’ pack – a simple process made so much easier by the helpfulness of the volunteers who do most of the day to day chores of such a complicated event. I know some people have not found their experience quite so seamless, but the efforts of the staff to sort out and rectify mistakes were noteworthy. Director Eleanor Livingstone very properly gets a lot of recognition for her organising ability, but one of the most significant achievements of StAnza is the large team of helpers, so well- trained and efficient and kindly who steward events, collect the ubiquitous questionnaires, sell tickets, meet people, answer questions and generally make things easy.

I was at several events – the Poetry Cafe where Stephen Watts and Katherine McMahon gave excellent spoken word performances, the Past and Present Event where Neil McLennan talked about the upcoming celebration of war poets Sassoon and Owen in Edinburgh and Alice Oswald discussed translating Homer. I may have more to say about this later – I am picking up trends and themes as I go, and language and communication is one emerging strand. Then I was lucky enough to find a space for the Five O’Clock Verses, readings by AB Jackson and Catalan poet Joan Magarit, whose work was movingly translated by StAnza’s own Anna Crowe, and to hear a discussion about international poetry festivals. And finally, the unmissable Centre Stage event with Robert Crawford and Alice Oswald.

I will review some events in more detail as we go on, but today I’d like to give a flavour of the StAnza experience as a whole. I’ve been to other festivals and enjoyed them, but StAnza is unique. First of all, the organisation and attention to detail is amazing. There is always someone there to help if you find yourself at a loss, and this should not be underestimated. Secondly, events are concentrated over a small area, which means that it is possible to go to many things, not just the big highlights. Ticket prices are reasonable too, so you don’t get so much of people coming for the big things – they come to several events, go to the exhibitions, hang about and meet people. The generosity of allowing participants to get into any event that isn’t sold out means that StAnza is very much a poets’ festival; you can easily discover a lot of different styles and techniques and genres that may be new to you without risking bankruptcy, and because you’re all hanging about, you get to meet lots of other poets, and the conversations become as valuable as some of the events ——

And this means that many Scottish poets come every year, and stay, providing a core of continuity, and a feeling of stability and tradition. And also one of the unexpected but fun things about the big events. As soon as booking opens, we book our individual tickets, and then we wait to see who we will find ourselves sitting with – it’s like the kind of folk dance where two circles move in opposite directions, leaving you to do the next set with a random partner. Yesterday I found myself with one friend on my left, another two places along on the right, several in the row in front and two more in the bar.

And the highlight of Thursday – well two of them. The first was the beautiful slow burn of Joan Magarit’s reading. And the second was walking into the Byre through the South Court at seven o’clock. They have a sound system there so you can hear poets reading. But this time there were two thrushes singing against each other in the twilight. Wonderful!

More than the Poetry

New haircut. Come and chat if you see me about at StAnza next week. From Thursday, I’ll be at everything I can get myself into, but there does come a time when you begin to suffer from poetry overload. Plus, now that StAnza has established itself as the place to be in March, there are obviously going to be times when you just want to take a break and talk to people. The Byre is a lovely central place to meet, with lots of seating, a good cafe and very helpful staff – if you are at a loose end, you’ll almost always find someone you know. And there are lots of places to have a coffee or a meal, so I won’t advertise (apart from the Tail End which has the most wonderful fish suppers you are ever likely to see in your life). And being as St Andrews is what it is, you can get your head around a takeaway menu that includes scallops, sea bass and smoked salmon. I always do the haddock, and it’s one of the best things I eat all week.

And then there’s the bookshops. Not just Waterstones and the official bookshop, JG Innes, who have all the books featured in the Festival, and where you will see the awesome spectacle of poetry collections actually sold out, but the relative newcomers Toppings (very well-stocked, and lovely staff), the very classy second hand shop Bouquiniste, and a lot of charity shops which have a much wider selection than the average. And the poet’s market where you can get books and magazines you’d otherwise have to buy on-line, and meet the poets and publishers. As you walk around you’ll find that several of the shops have got involved, and you’ll see poetry displays in the windows, too.

And there’s the sea. I have usually found the StAnza weekend to be cold, windy and often raining heavily, but the sea is always lovely.