Land of Plenty

Buchan- a land of plenty

Peat bogs and puddock-steels,

Weet and clorty widder,

And contermashious deils!

John C Milne 

I think contermashious is pretty memorable word. The Concise Scottish Dictionary states it is derived from a slightly archaic (or pure) English form.  Its the only word in the poem above that I would not have recognised on my own. Yet I got  the sense of it quite quickly and see the  emphatic, aggrandising fit of it against ‘deils’.

My older relatives who we visited interminably in my youth spoke something like Doric, on occasion, usually for effect – comic, demonstrative, or directive. .They loved Doric verse .. Its full of stuff like this -which probably only works if you get the double meaning of Plenty. and comes from a cultural place best summarised in the sayings “Ah kent his father” and “Wha’s like us- damn few, (and they’re aw deid)” , which used to adorn tartan tea towels in the  giftshops of my past..

Reading through the Bothy Ballads, fictive sourcebook of this stuff, I see a resemblance to the lyric sheet of a rap album – drink, girls, sharp practice, testosterone and masses of unselfconscious pride. It is the music of a masculine working class elite, but preserved in aspic (whatever that was)  by a bunch of  nostalgic schoolmasters as the Wars ended that culture, if we believe James Leslie Mitchell( which is a good idea in my view) .

I feel like I would like to claim ‘contermashious’ as part of my cultural capital , to go alongside ‘hailstergowdie’ , ‘foggit’, ‘cushats’, ‘teuchats’ and ‘wee nyaffs’. But never in the same sentence –  I don’t want to become a cultural cliché, and were I to lapse into Scots derivatives there will be a fair number of my friends who wouldn’t understand me, and they are probably more interesting than the people who would.

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Window in St Nicks, Aberdeen

Which would have been my position  through most of my adult life. But I may be at some kind of tipping point..  ‘What you cast off will hit back..’ as Mark E Smith snarled on an early album.. The tipping point is about trying to establish a sense of identity – well that part of it that allows you to have authority about a part of your life that you have lived.

I wonder if I can find a response to the language which identifies my home patch – which in the words of its makars would be Doric, a strange Hellenistic term for  the vernacular of North East Scotland.. It is now mysteriously merged with Lallans , vernacular from central Scotland into something called Scots, into which classics of children’s literature  are being translated, and some writing is being produced by James Robertson , Matthew Fitt and others.. This being distinguished from Lallans , in the words of an audience member at one of Robertson’s book signings,   ‘by the fact you can understand it’.

Intelligibility is a useful characteristic for a language, but another is descriptiveness.  My belief has usually been that nothing very original has been said in any of these languages.  They are usually comic in intent, and conservative in their form.  These are the limitations that led Hugh McDiarmid (himself an invention) to create synthetic Scots , which is unintelligible,  self -aggrandizing, but occasionally memorable.

All of these are , of course, sanitized vernaculars – the Concise Scots Dictionary has no truck  for the swearie words, the cadence is reproduced without class and locality, the democracy of presbyterianism is reproduced  without the repression.

In Doric particularly there doesn’t seem to be any  geographic beyond to look to. Not Gaeldom or Europe, but archetypes of the past , granite versions of ageless stoicism and dark, unmentioned shadows. Thus the  rise and fall  of New Aberdeen feels like a tide breaking over a large block of granite. It started in my teens and hasn’t quite lasted a lifetime ( which in my case started with a typhoid outbreak and may end with lots of the region underwater) but never seemed to have any permanence . Exhibition centres, civic buildings and house farms have all had a pop up feel.The land alone endures as LGG  has it.

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Granite lion, guess where?

It may be that sometimes the past looks more hopeful. Grammar schools, when you kent their father and, when you could trust the laird to stick up for his chiels, that great reimagined past.

Maybe in the part of the country where the contrast between a conservative , semi-rural society and high multinational capitalism has been starkest, that nostalgia is more explicable. But it is still bollocks, and we should be grateful that wee Eck’s opportunism has landed us with no worse than a mock-Baronial golf course as a monument to the worst ever US president’s vanity (not that the residents of the Mennie Estate will feel so).

Around the oil capital this summer I noticed lots of young people running. Probably  in circles, potentially away , but apparently to avoid stasis , the sense of settling, or like prisoners doing press ups,  to keep in shape for their eventual release (or jail break).

Of course I am drawing on another tradition the  long history of exiled Scots returning to trash their home land. Edwin Muir, JM Barrie , Rhona Cameron ( I live in Musselburgh) . Maybe we can understand it as frustration and relief..As another exiled ( almost) Scot put it

I wouldn’t live there if you paid me to,

Could we make The Thrums vibrant ? (  although currently Kirrie , birthplace of JMB, feels fairly funky). One of the legacies I can see in these grumbling narratives  is a deep pessimism about  volkishness and loyalism ( both with and without capitals)   which seems more pronounced in the North East than elsewhere. Other scots regionalism – say McDiarmid s Langholm , pie-eyed Dundonianisms or various Gaelic Brigadoons, seem to refer outward to a common humanity, and lands across the sea. Up in Buchan its the ancestors – actual or mythical.

The oil boom allowed more of my classmates to escape this than ever before. When I met them in adulthood on north bound trains they told me of their adventures in the Far East and Mid West, usually on familiar engineering installations, but with furlough in strange parts there was little doubt that travel had broadened their minds, as it broadened mine.  The ones who’ve stayed faired less well.

I’ve taken it personally. So it seems everytime I write about the North East I reach a point of suppressed rage at its dunderheided parochialism.  I want to be identified with where I grew up , but I don’t want to identify with what happens there.

I used to select items of hopeful intent from local history – the commune Edward Baird set up on Rossie Island, the Brechin carter’s strike,  the genesis of Hugh McDiarmid in a back street in Montrose,  the CND protests against the US naval base in Edzell. These are rare moments and largely unacknowledged, and moreso because of the consensual basis of parochial localness, which largely papers over the cracks and thus protects the status quo. Near where I grew up tied cottages have prevented rural development and effectively preserved a long glen as a shooting estate for a group of landed gentry. There is an efficient and well established anthropological folk museum and history project in the area which makes no mention of this.

Most of our heroes now are never going to be local . But it would be nice to imagine they could have been. That Bruce Springsteen or Morrissey , could have roamed the Angus Glens in a battered Ford Escort, gunning it towards pheasants on the roads at dusk ,partly for food and partly out of vengeance.. but it is hard to imagine either of them plucking a pheasant..  Or indeed anyone who has plucked a pheasant as a star.

Yet where do we go without dreams ? We settle . We take what we are given , grudgingly , but as plenty , as in the sense of enough. And we resent those who don’t . Contermatious may be a good word to know at the moment.

The Faces

 

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There were times when drinking brought elation, but others, like tonight, when it brought only a weariness that felt universal. It was too hard to walk home, the streets and pavements all sloped steeply upwards, the street lights dimmed, and the hoardings were all touting TORPOR.

In this mood I sat down on a bench and was shortly joined by an elderly wino.. The accepted behaviour in these situations was to move off smartly discouraging the anticipated hard luck story and importuning request.. I hadn’t the energy and it seemed neither had he to close on his mark.

Instead he lingered, hesitant in his pitch, coughed, fidgeted, and then slumped back . We shared a mutual silence. We watched the branches wobble uncertainly in the breeze as an occasional footfall passed. Time passed  too.

At some point I heard him say,

Son , the only thing that’s changed around here are the faces..

The silence resumed. We made no eye contact, but continued to stare out from our bench, at the silhouettes of the bleary figures, and finally I could see it was true. They had changed – been repaired, restored or recycled.. With concentration you could see the scars, the tucks and joins.

We sat there for aeons, and watched new versions of the same intrigues. Our vista grew and shrank and grew again, took in the growth of cities, ruinous sieges, pageants, romances, memorials, commitments, riots, pantomimes and pogroms , which we knew would cycle endlessly, like the growth and decay of the foliage which overhung our seat. There was still no need to say anything, yet I felt a certain duty to reflect on what I d seen , to pass the time of day with another witness –

‘Son, the only thing that’s changed around here are the faces.’ I said..

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