Gaan Haem

orkney, Poetry

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(This version’s written in an Orkney variant of Scots. Skip to the English version if you’d like.)

This mornin A teuk a waak tae the Post Office, n than back haem bi the strand, Newark. Hid’s a waak A ken gey weel; A’m waakit hid fer 15 year, tho wi lang spells in atween. Hid’s cheenged a peedie bit sin A stairtit waakin hid: thare are twa-three mair hooses, n a fair bit mair windmills, n a wheen mair cliff faas. Hid cheenges a bit mair huily as a ceety daes, but hid cheenges, for aa the fields n the roads n the kye n the birds leuk the saem. N the sea.

As A waakit, A foond A cadna cheust mind on wha bided in whit hoose. N than A saw that, tho A thought A kent aapiece o this 30 square kilometres o aamaist-an-islan, thare wis a road on ma left A’m nivver waakit doon.

A’m haem in Orkney, whare A growed up. A flit sooth ten year ago, tho A veesit affens. A’m haem fer a fower month resairch project intae Orkney language n poetry, fundit bi a peedie grant fae Creative Scotland. Acause A luve ma haem, n thare’s mair o hid A want tae ken. Maist o aa, A want tae ken hids wirds.

A’m wrote afore aboot whit fer A write in Scots: hid stairtit as a wey to reenge n claem Scottishness, n haes growed intae an inlin tae yaise margeenal leed tae speak tae minority experience. But Scots is a hyowj aarie o hinkan n scrievan n darg, n A’m anely cheust beginnan tae unnerstaand that aamaist-an-islan o language. This project is early resairch n early hinkan. A’ll be exploran thoughts n quaistens here in this blog, writin aboot chats n meetans, maakan recordans aveelable. The wirk is interviews, lang waaks, spieran at neebours, readan, hinkan n wirkshops. A dinna ken whit A’ll find or whar A’ll gang, but A’m gled tae be on ma wey.

Here’s a curn o the quaistens A’m stairtan wi:

1) Whit’s gaan on wi Orkney language the nou?

Thanks tae active teachers, A learned a fair bit o Orkney language literatur whan A wis at schail. Part o ma stairt as a writer wis reaain Walter Traill Dennison, Christina Costie n Robert Rendall: writers, poets n focklorists wha wrowt in Orkney language, recordan, pleean wi n advocatan fer vernacular leed. Dialect is spoken on Radio Orkney, n A mind on luvin Whassigo, hid’s Call My Bluff sort o gemm, n the local papers hae affens printit bits o dialect story n poetry. Thair wirk is at the foondation o whit A’m hinkan aboot, n his bin vital tae the wider Scots project.

Thare’s tae an increasan wealth o contemporar resairch intae n advocacy fer Orkney literatur n dialect. Simon Hall’s History of Orkney Literature brought tae wider unnerstandan the trends n tradeetions o writan here; Tom Rendall’s Voices Aroond the Flow has recordit n scancit the vareety o dialect forms n cheenges ower time; the Year o Orkney Dialect, Writing the North n relatit projects are supportin Orkney language literatur n resairch faarder. Sae wha’s writan in Orkney language the nou? Whit kin o writin is gaan on? N whar’s hid bein publeeshed? Wha reads hid, n wha daes hid maiter tae? Hou’s the language cheenged, n hou will hid cheenge, n hou daes that maiter? Hou dae fock here feel aboot the language thay speak?

2) Whit wey can we write minority forms o Scots?

The standardeesation o Scots throu the wirk o Scots Language Dictionaries n the Scots Spellin Comatee haes been vital wirk fer the preservation o n advocacy fer Scots leed. Haen common weys o writan hings maks hid aisier tae read wirk, aisier tae share wirk, n aisier tae yaise translation teuls. But, inevitably, houivver muckle the mynd tae accoont fer spoken variety inower standardeesation – n Scots standardeesation haes wrowt tae dae that in a wey English’s mixter-maxter standardeesation n unpossible spellan canna – waachles tae standardise inevitably erase minority forms o language. yaisan standardised Scots tae record Orkney dialect chances marginalisation n erasan Orkney’s language forms. Sae whit wey can we write in Orkney language, n whit wey can that apply tae ither minority forms of Scots?

Hou A write this blogposts will cheenge ower time. A ken A’m no gettan hid right yet. Fer the nou, A’m yaesan standardised Scots wi a wheen o variations as merkers o Orkney-ness, like “aa” fer the Scots “aw” or “au”; “ae” fer the Scots lang “a”; “hid” fer “it”; “an” fer the Scots “in” at wird endans. This is no, A hink, sufficient. Gregor Lamb’s Orkney Wordbook n, wi Margaret Flaws, the Orkney Dictionary, include furder suggestions fer modifyan spellan tae Orkney forms, but thair yaise is inconsistent – n the yaise o spellan bi past n present dialect writers shifts. N than, spellan’s no the haaf o hid, fer gettan hid rite is atweel aboot idiom n grammar maist o aa. Mair yet, whit wirds ye cheuse maiter, fer thare’s Scots wirds no spoken in Orkney, that ring oot wrang in Orkney writan – but than again, the mair the language cheenges, the less wrang they wirds soond. Sae whit’s the right choice?

Tae hink on it anither wey, tae standardise Orkney dialect wad be tae write oot internal vareety, n o that thare’s plenty. To Orkney lugs, thare’s gey o a differ atween Westray n South Ronaldsay, wi whole voul shifts n bytimes thare ain wirds. N whanivver A hink about standardisation, Tom Leonard yollers in ma lugs, pyntan oot that standardisation is a political teul mair’n an artistic wan, pairt o claims tae nationhood n parteecular ideas o history, n that hid daesna necessarly hae that muckle tae dae wi hou, as hid must be, “all livin language is sacred”. He puts the kinchy problems gey weel here:

Yi write doon a wurd, nyi sayti yirsell, that’s no thi way a say it. Nif yi tryti write it doon thi way yi say it, yi end up wit hi page covered in letters stuck thigither, nwee dots above hof thi letters, in fact yi end up wi wanna they thingz yi needti huv took a course in phonetics ti be able ti read. But that’s no thi way a think, as if ad took a course in phonetics. A doan’t mean that emdy that’s done phonetics canny think right—it’s no a questiona right or wrong. But ifyi write down “doon” wan minute, nwrite doon “down” thi nixt, people say yir beein inconsistent. But ifyi sayti sumdy, “Whaira yi afti?” nthey say, “Whut?” nyou say “Where are you off to?” they don’t say, “That’s no whutyi said thi furst time.” They’ll probably say sumhm like, “Doon thi road!” anif you say, “What?” they usually say “Down the road!” the second time—though no always. Course, they never really say, “Doon thi road” or “Down the road!” at all. Least, they never say it the way it’s spelt. Coz it izny spelt, when they say it, is it?

Tae snirkle hings furder, A want tae speir at no cheust hou we can write Orkney language but hou A can write hid. A growed up wi English parents, but learned tae spaek on Westray, but learned tae be an adult in the Central Belt. Bytimes A cry hid “home” n bytimes “hame” n bytimes “haem”. Hou A’m writan nou isna hou A ayewis (or ivver) spaek, whither ye’re radin this in Orkney or English. Thare are wirds n speech forms A’ve lost n want tae relearn, but shoud A? Dae A want tae write hou A speak (n is that e’en posseeble?), or dae A want tae write somethan ither? Whit daes hid beir fer me tae mak this deceesions, wi ma ain personal history? But than, mebbe the quaisten “Whit sall A write?” is aesier than “Whit should we write?” – acause the latter asks me tae mak claims fer the warld, but the former cheust asks me tae mak deceesions aboot whit A want to spaek aboot n hou best tae spaek it, n that’s cheust whit the business o poetry is.

A feenal note n set of quaistens on this: A’m yaised “language” n “dialect” intercheengeably here. This wirds are no intercheengeable. A language is, o coorse, a dialect wi an army n a navy: language is inherently fankelt wi the state. Whan A cry hid “language” A’m makkan a poleetical claim, n mebbe that’s no wan A want tae mak. The fock wirkan on this in Orkney hae maistly cried hid “dialect”. Shoud A yaise that? Hid’s haird, whan as a writer in Scots A’m accustomed tae threap the languageness o ma language. Whit daes hid beir tae gie wans language that minority status? Is that a status A might want? In ma hairt, whan A stairt tae hink aboot this quaistens, A stairt tae imaigine a warld whar thare are nae languages, anely dialects. A wis nivver that fond o armies n navies masel, thou hail navies yaised tae bide here, in Orkney, n wan is sunk at the bottom o the Flow.

3) Whit poems can A airt oot here?

This are big quaistens, but the harder hing still is tae airt oot poems here. A’m wrote a curn o poems o Orkney here n thare n ayewis felt A’m missan somehing. Thare are stane circles n tombs here; thare is history unnerfit; hid’s the first piece a danderan poets’ mynd gaes, that sense o history n place. That n the birds. George Mackay Brown‘s compendious body o wirk records somehing vital in 20th century Orkney n bigs a gey personal mythology n theology, but hid’s no fairly the Orkney A ken, n hid’s no wrote in Orkney’s wirds n aa. The romantic n dramatic Orkney o Edwin Muir‘s poems likewise. But than, nor is the Orkney foond in Robert Rendall n Christina Costie ma Orkney, tho hids past is present. Whit is ma Orkney? N whit dae A hae tae spaek aboot hid?

A’m no shuir. Thare are wind turbines nou, n marine energy resairch bringan skeely employment. The fishan that stowed oot peedie herbours whan A growed up is aa but gaen, n the tourist n craft economy haes boomed. Cars yaised tae be winched aff o boats bi crane; nou thay roll on, roll of, n the isles n thair vyces hae mixt. Thare’s a nightclub that patronisan traivel journalists write aboot. Orkney music pleys throu, stranger than ivver. The sea level rises, cliffs collapse n sae dae bird colonies. A growed up on wan islan n wis a teenager on anither aamaist-an-islan; A’ll be spendan time on baith, n sae whit weys will memory daud intae reality? Whit dae A hink A ken that will be cheenged? Whit poems are here fer me?


GOING HOME

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(This wan’s wrote in standard formal English. Hap tae the Orkney version if ye want.)

This morning I took a walk to the Post Office, and then back home by the beach, Newark. It’s a walk I know very well; I’ve been walking it for 15 years so far, though often with long breaks in between. It’s changed a little since I started walking it: there are a few more bungalows, and a lot more windmills, and a few more cliff falls. It changes a bit more slowly than a city does, but it changes, for all that the fields and the roads and the cows and the birds look mostly the same. And the sea.

As I walked, I realised that I couldn’t quite remember who lived in which house. And then I realised that, though I thought I knew most every part of these 30 square kilometres of almost-an-island, there was a road on my left I’d never walked down.

I’m home in Orkney, where I grew up. I left ten years ago, though I visit regularly. I’m here for a four month research project into Orkney language and poetry, funded by a small grant from Creative Scotland. Because I love my home, and there’s more of it I want to know. Most of all, I want to know its words.

I’ve written before about why I often write in Scots: it began as a way to explore and claim Scottishness, and has grown into a desire to use marginal speech to speak to minority experience. But Scots is a huge area of thinking and writing and working, and I’m barely beginning to understand that almost-an-island of language. This project is early research and early thinking. I’ll be exploring thoughts and questions here in this blog, writing about interviews and meetings, making recordings available. The work is interviews, casual chats, long walks, talking to neighbours, reading, thinking and workshops. I don’t quite know what I’ll find or where I’ll go, but I’m glad to be headed there.

Here are some of the questions I’m starting with:

1) What’s happening with Orkney language now?

Thanks to active teachers, I learned quite a bit of Orkney language literature when I was at school. Part of my learning as a writer was reading Walter Traill Dennison, Christina Costie and Robert Rendall: writers, poets and folklorists who worked in part in Orkney language, recording, playing with and advocating for vernacular speech. Dialect is spoken on Radio Orkney, and I remember loving Whassigo, the Call My Bluff-style game played there, and the local papers have often printed bits of dialect story and poetry. Their work is at the foundation of what I’m thinking about, and has been vital to the wider Scots project.

There’s also an increasing wealth of contemporary research into and advocacy for Orkney literature and dialect. Simon Hall’s History of Orkney Literature brought to wider understanding the trends and traditions of writing here; Tom Rendall’s Voices Aroond the Flow has recorded and analysed the variety of dialect forms and changes over time; the Year o Orkney Dialect, Writing the North and related projects are supporting Orkney language literature and research further.

So who’s writing in Orkney language now? What kind of writing is happening? And where’s it being published? Who reads it, and who does it matter to? How has the language changed, and how will it change, and how does that matter? How do folk here feel about the language they speak?

2) How can we write minority forms of Scots?

The standardisation of Scots through the work of Scots Language Dictionaries and the Scots Spellin Comatee has been vital work for the preservation of and advocacy for Scots language. Having common ways of writing things makes it easier to read work, easier to share work, and easier to use translation tools. But, inevitably, however much the effort to include for spoken varietry within standardisation – and Scots standardisation has worked to do that in a way English’s hodgepodge standardisation and impossible spelling can’t – efforts to standardise inevitably erase minority forms of language. Using standardised Scots to record Orkney dialect risks marginalisation and erasing Orkney’s language forms. So how can we write in Orkney language, and how can that apply to other minority forms of Scots?

How I write these blogposts will change over time. At the moment, I’m using standardised Scots with a few variations as markers of Orkney-ness, like “aa” for the Scots “aw” or “au”; “ae” for the Scots long “a”; “hid” for “it”; “an” fer the Scots “in” at wird endans. This is not, I think, sufficient. Gregor Lamb’s Orkney Wordbook and, with Margaret Flaws, Orkney Dictionary includes further suggestions for modifying spelling to Orkney forms, but their use is still inconsistent – and the use of spelling by past and present dialect writers varies too. And then, it goes beyond spellingbecause getting it right is truly about idiom and grammar most of all. More still, what words you choose matters, because there’s Scots words not used in Orkney, that ring out wrong in Orkney writing – but then again, the more the language changes, the less wrong those words sound. So what’s the right choice?

But then, to standardise Orkney dialect would also be to write out internal variety, of which there is plenty. To Orkney ears, Westray and South Ronaldsay are markedly different, with whole vowel shifts and sometimes different words. And whenever I think about standardisation, Tom Leonard shouts in my ear, pointing out that standardisation is as much a political tool as an artistic one, part of claims to nationhood and certain ideas of history, and that it doesn’t necessarily have much to do with how “all livin language is sacred”. He puts the problems best here:

Yi write doon a wurd, nyi sayti yirsell, that’s no thi way a say it. Nif yi tryti write it doon thi way yi say it, yi end up wit hi page covered in letters stuck thigither, nwee dots above hof thi letters, in fact yi end up wi wanna they thingz yi needti huv took a course in phonetics ti be able ti read. But that’s no thi way a think, as if ad took a course in phonetics. A doan’t mean that emdy that’s done phonetics canny think right—it’s no a questiona right or wrong. But ifyi write down “doon” wan minute, nwrite doon “down” thi nixt, people say yir beein inconsistent. But ifyi sayti sumdy, “Whaira yi afti?” nthey say, “Whut?” nyou say “Where are you off to?” they don’t say, “That’s no whutyi said thi furst time.” They’ll probably say sumhm like, “Doon thi road!” anif you say, “What?” they usually say “Down the road!” the second time—though no always. Course, they never really say, “Doon thi road” or “Down the road!” at all. Least, they never say it the way it’s spelt. Coz it izny spelt, when they say it, is it?

To complicate things further, I want to ask not just how we can write Orkney language but how I can write it. I grew up with English parents, but learned to speak on Westray, but learned to be an adult in the Central Belt. Sometimes I say “home” and sometimes I say “hame” and sometimes I say “haem”. How I’m writing now isn’t how I always (or ever) speak, whether you’re reading this in Orkney or English. There are words and speech forms I’ve lost and want to relearn, but should I? Do I want to write how I speak (can I?), or do I want to write something else? What does it mean for me to make these decisions, with my own personal history? But then, maybe the question “What shall I write?” is easier than “What should we right?” – because the latter asks me to make claims for the world, but the former just asks me to make decisions about what I want to say and how best to say it, and that’s what the business of poetry is.

A last note and set of questions: I’ve used “language” and “dialect” interchangeable throughout. These words are not interchangeable. A language is, of course, a dialect with an army and a navy: language is inherently bound up in the state. When I say “language” I’m making a political claim, and maybe that’s not one I want to make. The folk working on this in Orkney have mostly used “dialect”. Should I use that? It’s hard, when as a writer in Scots I’ve become accustomed to assert the languageness of my language. What does it mean to give ones language that minority status? Is that actually a status I might want? In my heart, when I start to think about these questions, I start to imagine a world where there are no languages, only dialects. I was never that fond of armies and navies myself, though whole navies used to live here, in Orkney, and one is sunk at the bottom of the Flow.

3) What poems will I find here?

These are big questionns, but the harder thing still is to find poems here. I’ve written a few poems of Orkney here and there and always felt like I’m missing something. There are stone circles and tombs here; there is history underfoot; it’s the first place the wandering poets’ mind goes, that sense of history and place. That and the birds. George Mackay Brown‘s compendious body of work records something vital in 20th century Orkney and builds up a very personal mythology and theology, but it’s not quite the Orkney I know, and it’s not written in Orkney’s words either. The romantic and dramatic Orkney of Edwin Muir‘s poems likewise. But then, nor is the Orkney found in Robert Rendall and Christina Costie my Orkney, though its past is present. What is my Orkney? And what do I have to say about it?

I’m not sure. There are wind turbines now, and marine energy research bringing skilled employment. The fishing that filled small harbours when I grew up is all but gone, but the tourist and craft economy has boomed. Cars used to be winched off the boats by crane; now they roll on, roll of, and the islands and their voices have mixed. There’s a nightclub that patronising travel journalists write about. Orkney music plays through, stronger than ever. The sea level rises, cliffs collapse, and so do bird colonies. I grew up on one island and was a teenager on a thinly connected peninsula; I’ll be spending time on both, and so what memories will prove false? What do I think I know that will be changed? What poems are here for me?

Photo by Colin Moss, licensed under Creative Commons BY-ND 2.0.

4 thoughts on “Gaan Haem

  1. Have you read Morag MacInnes’s poems – or Fiona MacInnes’s? Doreen Sinclair and Emma Grieve’ s work will be harder to find but worth searching out! Look out too for Alistair’s Peebles’ poems. He isn’t writing in dialect but his ear is attuned to it & it does drift in very naturally. And you should speak to Alison Miller.

    1. Lovely to hear from you, and thanks for all those recommendations! I have some in my to-read pile already, and I’ve contact details for a couple of others, but there are folk here that’re new to me. If you’re in Orkney at the moment, it’d be grand to meet up and blether about this some time if you fancy.

  2. Just got back from Edinburgh, from a workshop with Morag & an amazing group of writers at the Evergreen &’the Writing the North event at the Scottish Storytelling Centre. It would be great to meet up & talk about all this! are you in Orkney just now? We could meet at the weekend – or Monday or Tuesday next week?

    1. So glad it went well! I’m in Orkney next week, but away in Westray. I could do daytime of Saturday 2nd though? Do you want to email me at harry AT harrygiles DOT org for ease of contact?

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