The Darkest Day

It’s the winter solstice, and, apparently, the darkest in five hundred years, and frankly, it feels appropriate. On a public level, I don’t remember a time so full of anger, resentment, prejudice, greed and callous indifference to the suffering of others. There was Brexit, the shambles of politics in the US, terrorist atrocities, the horror of Aleppo, and don’t get me started on the looming disasters of climate change, the parlous state of the earth’s biodiversity, the return of unreconstructed sexism and racism, the indifference to truth, justice and compassion and the incredible viciousness of  social media trolls, some of whom were much nearer to home than I expected.

And yet. On an individual level, it was very different. So many people spoke up. So many people joined protests, gave money, rallied to support people they knew to be in difficulty. Twice during the year when life got to me, my facebook friends got me through it with kindness and encouragement. Real world friendships have been strengthened, and good work has been done. Some poets I’ve been rooting for have had great books out, and more are going to be published in the next year. Some friends who have found this year personally challenging have come through stronger and more wonderful than ever. And the two big medical situations in my family have reached a level of stability I’d given up expecting.

And so I’m going to share this rather odd poem, which pretty much expresses the odd, contradictory way I feel about this dark time.

The Revolution Will Not Be Crowd-Funded


The revolution will not be engineered.
Someone with a hammer will casually
construct the new homes out of the wreck
of burned-out shopping malls.


The revolution will not be forecast.
It will happen in small outbreaks
and daily resistance to the dull
and casual cruelties of power, to build
bulwarks of compassion.


The revolution will not be fertilised.
It will happen in despite
of good intentions, celandines
seeding through the cracks
in broken tarmac or the stillness
of abandoned airfields.


The revolution will not be smart,
specific, measurable or timed.
The heart will have its way and love
will be ineluctable as lightning
in a clear sky, arcing everywhere.

Whatever festival you are keeping this holiday, I hope you will have time to become reacquainted with peace, comfort and friendship. We’ll carry their light out with us next year.

Happy Christmas.

Speaking Beings

I’ve been to see Paterson, and I am frustrated, intrigued, and in the end fairly outraged by it. You may have seen it – or plan to see it, but in case you didn’t, the blurb reads:

A hardworking bus driver (Adam Driver) in Paterson, N.J., writes heartfelt poems every day before his shift begins.

In the first place, they aren’t ‘heart-felt’, if by that you mean the outpourings of a gifted but instinctive untutored genius. They are carefully crafted and highly accomplished poems in the style of William Carlos Williams (who gets a lot of references in the film), and I quite like them. The bus driver has obviously been very well educated and has chosen to live as a bus driver for unspecified reasons, which never quite become clear. He may even like it, or like the town where he lives, but we can’t be sure, as he spends most of the film looking morose and misunderstood. He lives with his wife, a woman who paints everything in black and white and dreams of being a country singer – although she can’t even play a guitar, and running her own cupcake business. She wants him to publish his poems, but he doesn’t even make copies of them, and they get eaten by their dog.

The denouement of the film comes when he is given a new notebook by a Japanese tourist and begins to write again. Poetry, it seems, is not for publication or reward. It is a private act of personal integrity – a quiet, unshowy keeping faith with oneself, and not for anyone else.

It says a lot for this film that I can understand that this might be a credible outcome. The fault may be in the direction or the acting, but I came out of it raging. A little bit of humour, contentment or openness might have made the whole proposition seem more plausible, but the inflated reverence for the central character raises some ugly issues. The other residents of the town are presented as harmless but self-deluding fantasists, playing at love, or politics or careers; Paterson doesn’t share or even talk about his work with them, and we feel we are being told they are unworthy of it. His indulgence of his wife’s whims looks patronising (her interior designs are actually stunning  – think less Cruella de Ville, more Bridget Riley, and her cupcake business is a success), and his refusal to read her his poems  – which she obviously loves, and understands – is hurtful, especially as he spends a lot of time by himself writing them. And leaving his book about is probably the most passive-aggressive thing I’ve seen on film, calculated to show her that her appreciation doesn’t matter to him at all. And his assertion at the end that he is a bus driver, not a poet, is a lie.

Now I do buy the possibility of poetry as a spiritual practice. And I do buy that you don’t actually have to publish poetry if you write it. But then you can’t use it as your way of being in the world. I am very taken with Julia Kristeva’s idea that humans are ‘speaking beings’ – which implies that we not only have something we need to express, but also that we need an experience that something will listen and respond. Our lives are a constant dialogue, not only with the people we live with, but with the weather and our environment, the news we listen to, the work we do, the things we work on. If you write poetry for yourself only, it might help you focus on the conversations you most need to have – but your conversation with the world has to have something else in it, not just a sullen with-holding silence.

Over the years I’ve seen many conversations about who can be called a poet, and I like to keep the term as inclusive as possible, without issues of quality or relevance or recognition. I don’t like to see it as a status, especially not an elevated elitist one,and I really don’t like to see the kind of debate that inhibits anyone from presuming to write. But I think the difference between ‘someone who writes poetry’ and ‘a poet’, is that a poet sees her work as her way of engaging with the world – as a part of her conversation with the world that she is accountable for. Publication, recognition or reward may not be relevant. But communication, listening, responding, making a gift of your work that is of some worth – that’s the point.

Today I hand over to the next Makar of the Federation of Writers (Scotland) – Andy Jackson. He has two collections published by Red Squirrel Press, and has edited the anthologies Split Screen and Double Bill, which have given so much joy, both on the page and in performance. He also writes Otwituaries, tweet-length obituaries of significant people – you aren’t properly dead until Andy has recorded the fact! I would like to take the occasion to thank the Federation for a wonderful year, and hope that Andy has as much fun as I did!

The Charm of Nine Herbs (4) Nettle


Nettle this is called * powerful against sickness.

It drives out pain * it is powerful against sickness.

This is the herb * that fought with the serpent,

It has might against poison, * might against infection,

might against the evil one * who wanders the land.

No controversy about this one – everyone agrees that ‘stiÞe’ is nettle, and all the herbal traditions agree that it is powerful against fevers and inflammation – notoriously used against rheumatism by Roman soldiers – good for the kidneys, and a very useful antihistamine. In many countries the fibres from nettles were used to make a thread that could be woven like linen, ropes, or fishing nets. I have not found any reference to a herb that ‘fought with the serpent’ anywhere, so I can’t account for that, but Grieve says that nettles planted around beehives will deter frogs. I can’t say I ever thought frogs might be a problem, but there you go.

The Charm of Nine Herbs (3) Houseleek


This is probably not what you were expecting, if you know the charm. The usual translation is ‘lambs cress’, or hairy bittercress – cardamine hirsuta. I’ve even seen watercress. There are other candidates too, which we’ll discuss, but this is the one I’ve settled on. First, the translation:

This plant is called ‘thunder’ * it thrives upon stone.

It halts a fever * it is powerful against aching.

The word in inverted commas is a translation of ‘stune’ and the nearest I can get to it is ‘stunaþ’ – ‘it crashes’. Geoffrey Grigson says that the Cumbrian name for houseleek is ‘thunder plant’ and that, for me, is the clincher. Again, there is actual botany here. This plant ‘thrives on stone’ – unlike the hairy bittercress, which likes its soil wet, but will grow anywhere, as I know to my cost. Grigson says it could not have been native, but has been planted in Britain from very early times, presumably because it was so valuable medicinally, unlike hairy bittercress, which is edible, but hasn’t much recorded in the way of medicinal uses.  As well as being good for fevers and rheumatism, houseleek is, like aloe vera, good for burns, and had a reputation for protection from thunder, which is why it was so often planted on roofs.

There are alternatives – the stonecrop


which does thrive on stone, but is not so well-regarded medicinally. Culpepper says it’s more likely to provoke a fever than cure it. And there is biting stonecrop, (sedum acre) which is small and yellow and related to the houseleek. This does have a medicinal history, especially in Scotland, and even Culpepper thought it was ‘so harmless you can scarce use it amiss’, but mostly it was used when you couldn’t get houseleek, so that’s the one I’ve gone with.


The Charm of Nine Herbs (2) Plantain

plantainI can’t believe I didn’t have a photo of plantain when I first wrote this post. It’s everywhere, and you would think it would be somewhere in the wayside photos I’d been taking, but no, not once. But here is a photo I took later of a round-leaved plantain, flourishing even in the frost.

And you, waybread,  *   mother of herbs,

You look to the east,   *   you have mighty inner strength.

Over you carts run,   *     over you women ride,

Over you brides are brought home,   *    over you pass snorting bulls.

Against all this you prevail    *    and will prevail yet.

And just so, you prevail    *    against poison and airborne infection,

And the hateful one    *   who wanders the earth.

Medical uses of this plant are many, and have been consistently recorded not only in Britain, but in the USA and Canada, where it was taken by migrants – to the point where it was known as ‘white man’s footprint’. In the past in many parts of Britain, the leaves of plantain were crushed and used as poultices for sores and infections, and drawing out pus from boils. It was used to give relief for abrasions, and chafing, and to stop bleeding.  Gerard recommends it for eye troubles, but is dismissive of other cures alleged at the time (including easing grief). Shakespeare mentions it as a cure for a broken shin. Culpepper says it is under the denomination of Venus and good for ‘martial’ complaints, by which he means inflammatory conditions, and also toothache and soothing for digestion. Today, Hedgerow Medicine (Julie Bruton-Seal) claims it is anti-inflammatory and soothing for burns, and brilliant for insect stings and bites, and relief of pain. She recommends drinking a tea made from it for coughs, especially sticky mucus cough, and for hayfever, too, combined with elderflower and mint, but Geoffrey Grigson says that plantain pollen is a prime cause of hayfever. The seeds are fibrous and regarded as good for constipation. They were used in some places as cattle feed, or for canaries, and when pounded, also for starching linen.

Children used it for a game of ‘soldiers’ – played a bit like conkers.

There is some actual botany in this bit of the poem. Plantain was called ‘waybread’ because it grows along roadsides, and is very tolerant of compacted soils, and this name survived in some localities until very recently.


It’s that day again. In other years I have posted about the men I knew who were in the world wars and rejected the war-time ethos – the fighter pilot in World War 1 who took his payload of bombs and dropped them on a quiet field somewhere, because, he said, ‘You can’t go round dropping things like that on people‘, or the Lovat Scout in World War 2 who sent back his medals saying he was coming home to make pacifists out his four sons.

This year its different. I really wonder what we are remembering, and why, and how it makes us feel. Why are we reviving that war-time retro chic? Why do so many political posters echo periods of the past where we felt the need to demonise and fear each other? I don’t think this country feels like one where the nobility of the past is being respected. I think we are looking for an excuse to be angry.

So this year I want to link to a post from 2011, from a different time of year, from a different kind of respect for heroism. I am hanging on to these memories, I can tell you.

Of Gods and Men

Come eleven o’clock, I’m thinking of this sacrifice. And the friends this post made back when I first posted it, including a young Islamic Algerian. If I’m going to keep faith with the past, it’s with the men who pleaded for their grieving families not to blame a people, a faith, for what was going to happen to them, who could imagine meeting their murderers in Heaven and becoming reconciled, who did not need to feel they were the good guys.

The Charm of Nine Herbs – (1) Mugwort

I was hoping the Old English Lacnunga would translate into a good poem for Haggards, but it really doesn’t. I might write my own Charm of Nine Herbs at some point, but while I was working at the original, I have done some research that might be interesting. The link I’ve given is to a parallel text, original and (sort of) translation. It’s not great, but some of the tricky words exist only in this text, and translators seem to choose meanings that fit their own theories. Very few of them seem to have much background knowledge of either herblore or Old English – the Penn State Garden site is an exception here, but does suffer from Dark Age syndrome – where the past is full of magic and ignorance and can safely be assumed to be wrong.


Anyway, I’m going to offer an attempt at translation, and a bit of background research, on the assumption that the Dark Ages might have lacked technical language and scientific theory, but they were good at observation and response.

Mugwort, remember  *  what you proclaimed,

what you laid down * in the Lord’s Decree.

First, you are called, * oldest of herbs.

You have the power * over three, over thirty.

You have power over venom, * over airborne infection.

You have power over the evil one * who wanders the world.

Mugwort was used to flavour beer, as a substitute for tea, or even tobacco in Orkney, (source Flora Celtica, published by Birlinn Books and edited by William Milliken and Sam Bridgewater). Dried leaves were used to deter fleas and to repel moths. Stems were used to make baskets.  It was sometimes known as St John’s girdle, because it was believed St John the Baptist wore it, and was believed to have power to preserve from fatigue, sunstroke, wild beasts and evil spirits. Medicinally it was used for diseases of the stomach and liver, as an antidote to poison, for fevers and nervous conditions (source A Modern Herbal M.Grieve). Credited with magical powers, it was planted to protect a house from elves (Geoffrey Grigson Englishman’s Flora) and was carved on roof bosses in churches, particularly Exeter cathedral.

The Lord’s Decree was popularly held, in early Christian times, to be what Christ taught his disciples between the Resurrection and the Ascension. Of course, where communities were mixed, pagans might have attributed this wisdom to someone else entirely, but healers don’t seem to have worried overmuch. There are references to the Bible and to Woden side by side in this text.

I’ve been a bit baffled by the word ‘attre’, which I have translated as ‘venom’. It means ‘poison’ or ‘plague’, but what I think is meant is ‘contamination’ – poison, literally, but also septicaemia, toxins, pollution or bacterial infection. It is often paired with ‘onflyge’, which means literally ‘flying in’ and must be related to the word ‘influenza’ – disease that comes in the air, or because of the weather. Or as we might say, when there’s something going round.

The evil one, wandering the world, is a reference to Satan in the Book of Job (1:7). It came in handy for Grendel, too.


November News


This is pretty close to the weather today, though the wind is getting up as we go through the day. There was frost this morning and starlings all over the rowan tree, and goosanders in the river, so it is officially winter now. Gardening is almost done for the year, the last apples are in the freezer, and there is talk of Christmas.

But first:

I’ll be at the launch of a new anthology, Umbrellas of Edinburgh, edited by Claire Askew and Russell Jones and published by Freight Books. It’s happening  at 6:00 at the Scottish Poetry Library, and though I haven’t lived in Edinburgh for many years, I have a poem in it which harks back to the birth of my oldest daughter, which I will be reading.

I have some new poems in the latest Poetry Scotland, and another has been accepted for the forthcoming issue of The Poets’ Republic.

My year as Makar of the Federation of Writers (Scotland) is almost up, and the news was broken today that my successor,from the 15th December, when I hand over, will be Andy Jackson. Andy has two collections of poetry  to his name – The Assassination Museum and A beginners Guide to Cheating, and is an indefatigable editor of anthologies, including Split Screen and Double Bill. He will be a wonderful Makar, and I hope he has as much fun as I have had.

And I will be getting involved in more editing. I’ve found this a fascinating job, which gives me a whole new perspective on the writing of poetry. It’s a bit like hanging an exhibition, as opposed to painting a picture, creating a context for the poems to work together, getting the right lighting and position for each, but it also makes me think more about the process of writing – not just the how of technique, but the why of theme and intention. What is it we are trying to do when we sit down and write?

I have a lot of thoughts about the subjects of my poems, but if you were to ask me about how I write, or what sort of poetry I want to write, or what I think poetry is for, I tend to get impatient, and simply say I want to write the best poem I can. But what do I mean by that? These questions are not simply navel-gazing distractions, but ways to build a structure of practice so I can get deeper into the kind of understanding I need to write more coherently and consistently. It will also, I hope, give me an understanding of the kinds of poetry I don’t write, and perhaps don’t really understand. I’m loving it!



Healing Threads


Healing Threads by Mary Beith is now out of print, but you can still sometimes find it in second hand bookshops, though it isn’t cheap if you look on-line. My copy was from the wonderful Kings Bookshop in Callander, and was a real bargain. It isn’t a herbal as we might have come to expect, with lists of herbs, colour pictures and outlines of what herbs were used for. It’s a history of the practice of medicine in the Highlands, and it’s a real eye-opener, confirming me in some of the opinions I’ve been developing during the Half a Hundred herbs project.

Contrary to everything I might have believed, the middle ages were not an era of superstition, magic and book-bound obedience to authority. Actual practice of medicine was lively, progressive, experimental, and characterised by a sharing of information, knowledge and technique that was enabled by the monastic network of learning centres, but extended to dialogue with Islamic cultures in Spain and Constantinople, Scandinavian centres of learning, and indigenous practitioners of medicine throughout Europe, including (from evidence from the medical university of Salerno), women. Surgery is highly developed, and some understanding of bacteria and antibiotics is shown, though some of the metaphorical language in which it is couched is distractingly cute, and hard to evaluate. There are surprising gaps, of course, (how did they not grasp the circulation of the blood?)  and some genuinely odd-ball practices that must have had magical intentions (like the bag of heads carried by healers, for instance – I can’t think what that might have been for). There doesn’t seem to have been the great divide we are often told about between ‘folk’ and ‘learned’ medicine, between ‘authorised’ healing controlled by the Church and shamanic healing practiced by ‘healers’ and certainly no assumption that lay healers or women had anything to do with witchcraft at that point.

And yet, the herbals, as we go through the middle ages, become increasingly awful. The creators seem to be more concerned to reproduce what’s on the page they are copying from than to evaluate the content. The drawings become increasingly unrealistic, and useless for identification, even of plants which must have been familiar. They show a culture characterised by the attitude ‘do as you’re told, don’t think for yourself’. And this attitude has since been wished onto an entire culture, to the point where ‘medieval’ is considered to be a suitable insult, without explanation or apology.

The explanation isn’t hard to find. It’s the copyists. Books were expensive, and the art of creating them was specialised. Even people who could read fluently would have found writing laborious, and the job – especially for a valuable book – would have been handed over to a scribe. Critics of literature are always complaining about text garbled in copying, so this is not an unfamiliar phenomenon. The resulting book would have been an objet d’art, more than a learning aid, and the actual transmission of knowledge would have been done by word of mouth, practical example and supervised practice. I’m finding this happens more and more today, too. As herbs become fashionable, more herbals come out, with prettier pictures and fancier layouts, but the information in the text is copied and pasted without any testing or verification – and sometimes it is obvious what the source is, and the copyist hasn’t understood it. I still don’t know how to use sweet cicely to polish oak, in spite of the many books which assert that you can, and no, you can’t get oil from the seeds. I’ve talked about this before, and the problem is worse now, because the copying and pasting extends even more easily to on-line and self-published text, to the point where the only reliable way to learn anything is to get hands-on experience from someone who knows what they are doing.

And this is the thing that did for traditional medicine. It wasn’t just scientific testing of methods, it was also a need to validate the teachers, and where a need for validation is perceived, there is an opportunity to exercise control. It’s not necessarily a bad thing. When my husband had a detached retina, the eye surgeon was going to fix it with a laser, and having explained this, he said, lightly, ‘Let’s give it a go then!’ My face must have been a picture, as I thought ‘lasers? eyeballs? amateurs?’ and he added, reassuringly, ‘I have done this before’. And so he had. Proper qualifications and experience and everything, so I know where the need for regulation comes from.

It comes down to the people you choose to regulate. And the history of regulated medicine is full of opportunists, bigots and the exercise of special interests. Regulators were able to lump together any useful suspicions – of women, of Gaelic or Welsh speakers, of Catholics, of witches, of anyone educated outside their own system – to restrict the practice of healing to the methods and institutions they favoured. It becomes easier to limit medicine to what you have approved than to test what anyone else might have been doing for centuries.

I’m not against testing, rather the reverse, but there is a difference between what you haven’t tested and what you know to be useless, which does seem to escape some commentators. And there is no doubt at all about whose interests it serves to maintain the status quo.

I got into this, because I am interested in herbs. But it matters to me equally as a poet. The way we transmit knowledge is important, and though language is not the only way we do it, (presentations, graphic novels and comics and youtube tutorials are changing the face of education, and it’s not a bad thing), it’s still a key element. And if we don’t learn how to handle it with precision and accuracy, how to evaluate what’s been heard as much as what’s been said, a gap of trust opens up in the transmission. And there’s always someone who will exploit that gap for their own ends (brexit,brexit,brexit). Poets who do their duty by the language they use may be the best defence we have against a post truth society. Poems could be healing threads.