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.




A Week Among Islands

dscf1085This is the view from a walk up to Dunollie Castle near Oban, looking at Kerrera, where we did not go, while we were on holiday last week. We did, however, go to Lismore, which you can just see in the distance, and saw this:


which, much as it looks like a strange rock formation, is actually Coeffin Castle. It was owned by the MacDougalls, who also own Dunollie, and a few more fortified buildings on this coast, which enabled them to control much of the country round during the Middle Ages.

Taking advantage of some beautiful weather, we also went to Knapdale to see the beavers, and though we did not catch a glimpse of them, we saw how active and ingenious they can be, with traces of their lodges on the loch,

beaverdamand some surprisingly big tree stumps which they had gnawed through. And to Kilmartin to look at the cairns and the henge at Temple Wood – and the beautiful herb garden at the museum, which must have been planted by someone very knowledgeable.

At all these places we were impressed by the visitor centres – well-designed and built, and though obviously making a profit and providing much needed employment opportunities, not rampantly commercial. The staff were well-informed and very friendly, and the inevitable cafes and gift shops used locally sourced food and gifts. Argyll lives gently and creatively with its history and its landscape, and I have come back inspired by this dialogue between past and present, between land and sea, and between the earth and the creatures on it.

By the time we got to the holiday, it was mostly about taking a break from a long period dealing with family illnesses and upheavals, but as well as being rested, I’ve come back with some thoughts about living and learning and writing in my own landscape. Some of the books I took with me have helped with this, and I’ll be writing a bit about that next week – but also, how can you not be inspired by landscapes like this.dscf1104

Poetry Day

National Poetry Day at GoMA Library Queen Street Glasgow G1 3AH Thursday 6 October 2.30-5.30pm

Come and celebrate National Poetry Day with the Federation of Writers (Scotland) at their usual venue either as audience or as reader. The theme is ‘messages’ in all senses and since a poem itself is a message there’s plenty of scope! Three sessions: 2.30-3.15; 3.30-4.15; 4.30-5.15.

At 5.15 we round off the celebration with a reading by our current Makar Elizabeth Rimmer 

To book a five minute reading slot please contact

Writing in the Forth Valley

If you are writing in the Forth Valley (any genre, any level,) you might like to be part of the Forth Valley Writers collective, which aims to support promote and encourage creative writing in the area – anywhere from Falkirk and Alloa to Callander and Thornhill. We have regular meetups – the next one is on Friday 23rd September at the Curly Coo in Stirling. And if you can’t make it, but you’d like to keep up, we have a blog at

And from my own personal perspective, here is a link to a poem I wrote about writing in the Forth Valley – Walking the Territory. It appears in The Territory of Rain, but Stirling Makar Clive Wright has chosen it as his poem of the month for August to September, and you can now find it here.

As part of the Federation of Writers (Scotland) celebration National Poetry Day (6th October) I’ll be reading at an open mic event at the GOMA library in Glasgow, on the theme of ‘messages’. It’s an afternoon event from 2:30, finishing around 5:30.

Meanwhile I am bashing on with The Wren in the Ash Tree. It’s at 163 lines so far, and I’m only two cantos in. And the herb poems are coming along nicely. Two of them will be in the forthcoming issue of Poetry Scotland (about borage and sage), and I’m working on meadowsweet and chamomile, getting distracted by issues of land ownership in the Scottish uplands, medieval domestic economy and ghost hoaxes. If you want to know more about the latter, I can really recommend The Folklore Podcast! This is a fascinating project run by Mark Norman, and has lots of interesting things about death coaches and Springheel Jack, and many other things that keep me from working.

Plus, all the new Red Squirrel poetry has arrived – what a feast that was! There are launch events in both Scotland and North-west England, so if you are nearby, do check out the facebook page.


Melissa Officinalis

Poetica Botanica

This is the link to the Poetica Botanica project I was involved in earlier this summer at Ledbury Poetry Festival. If you scroll down the page you will come to my poem, Melissa Officinalis, but also to a sound recording of me reading it, made during the festival. You can hear how long I have been in Scotland by the way I pronounce my ‘r’s, but the original scouse shows up in words like ‘lack’. I am very glad of this!

Thanks to  Ledbury Poetry Festival and Hellens Garden Festival, for including this fascinating project, and to Adam Horovitz who developed and led it.

The Charm of Nine Herbs


I’ve been making a translation of the Old English Lacnunga, usually translated as The Charm of Nine Herbs.


This glamorous one is mugwort ‘the first and the oldest of herbs’. The best guess of what the nine herbs are (and this is in serious dispute) is:

  • mugwort
  • plantain
  • stonecrop
  • nettle
  • betony (possibly cockspur grass, but I’ve never found any medicinal use for that)
  • chamomile (or mayweed?)
  • crab apple
  • thyme (some translations give chervil, but there is no record of medicinal use)
  • fennel

I have done a quick run through, but I’m not sharing the result any time soon. Apart from the fact that my Old English grammar is worse than I remembered, some of the words are pretty obscure. I’m going to have to do some homework on it!

But I have already discovered that, despite the reference to Woden in line 34, the charm is neither so pagan nor so magical as is often claimed. There are several references to Christ, plus an extended reference to the Old Testament book of Ezechiel, and some of the text looks like a scratch translation from Latin. It’s not a well-written or a well-preserved document, but it’s fascinating.

Translators seem to have the notion that medieval medicine was a mishmash of ignorance, superstition and magic, and there is very little attempt to make sense of the instructions at the end. The otherwise careful and interesting Penn State Medieval Garden site says:

prose instructions are given to take the above mentioned herbs, crush them to dust, and to mix them with old soap and apple juice.Further instructions are given to make a paste from water and ashes, boil fennel into the paste, bathe it with beaten egg — both before and after the prepared salve is applied.

I don’t think this is the case. That phrase rendered as ‘old soap’ probably means the kind of salve base we would now make from beeswax and almond oil ‘for keeping’. The word ‘sapan’ means something like a gum or resin, a thickener. I found confirmation of this in Dorothy Hartley’s Food in England (1954), where she says that egg yolks are often used as a ‘natural soap to form the emulsion’ in mayonnaise. A ‘dust’ of herbs is foliage finely chopped to make an infusion, and the oil and beaten egg make  a poultice or fomentation. The instructions to recite the charm while treating the patient may be magical – after all we are now aware that the placebo effect isn’t a cheat, but a therapy – but it is also quite likely to be a mnemonic, or a way to time the brewing of the infusion, or how long a poultice should be left in place.

The other thing I found delightful is the word ‘onflyge’, which literally means ‘flying in’. It is an airborne infection, as malaria was thought to be. It’s the same word as influenza. This makes me a lot happier than anyone of my age ought to be!

Apart from this, I’ve been at the wonderful Callander Poetry Weekend, and helping to form the infrastructure of a new collective to promote creative writing where I live – the Forth Valley Writers. There will be more about this over the next few weeks. And while I was doing it, the swallows and housemartins have gathered themselves together, and gone. One day last week there were five fledglings (probably a second brood) lined up on a windowsill, waiting to be fed, and then the sky was empty. This morning on the bridge over the river, I looked up to see a cloud of small black birds heading south, and heard the robins and wrens duking it out, singing to claim their territories for the coming winter. Though it is as warm and sunny as any day this year, summer is gone.