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Scarborough / Wick (Donald Murray): Week 10 – 27 May

As others have pointed out, some of the most evocative words in the English language are Over the hills and far away. They conjure up images of exotic, distant places, coupled with a subtle yearning, like the faint tang of the sea on the breeze. Far away could be anywhere; and anything could happen there, anything at all. It’s the restless mood of the jaded Water Rat in the Wind in the Willows, when he meets the wayfarer rat who spins him alluring and seductive tales of mediterranean adventure.

There’s a wonderful equivalent in a poem by Robert Louis Stevenson called “A Mile and a Bittock“. It’s written in Scots, and the opening couplet sets the scene perfectly:

A mile an’ a bittock, a mile or twa,
Abune the burn, ayont the law,

Flowers of the Forest – bluebells in Dunnet Forest

Isn’t that great? In modern English it means, “A mile and a little bit, a mile or two / Above the stream, beyond the hill” but of course you lose so much in translation. (Actually the spellcheck on my computer keeps trying to change “bittock” to “buttock”, but that is, I fear, a rather different poem altogether…) I first came across the poem set to music by the Scottish folk group the Battlefield Band, on their 1982 album There’s a Buzz. (They added a chorus and called it “Shining Clear”, and I’d strongly urge you to track it down if you can.) It’s full of memorable lines: for instance, every time I hear the dawn chorus I think: An’ the birds they yammert on stick an’ stane, / An’ the müne was shinin’ clearly!

Well, it’s a Bank Holiday weekend, and a non-metaphorical deep depression has settled in on Wick: it’s 7ºC outside, cold, windy and wet. We need the rain; even if the tourists look like they wish they’d kept the receipt and could ask for their money back. So I’ve had a few days indoors to indulge myself, listening to Scottish folk music and knitting. As a result, the Scarborough gansey is now just a few days’ short of completion, which will happen sometime this week. The Wick gansey is also settling into its pattern, now that the gussets are perhaps 3/4 done. I’m also getting the hang of the horseshoe cables (by which I mean I no longer bend my cable needle into a horseshoe trying to force the twists…).

And while Stevenson’s poem is ostensibly an ode to moonlight drinking in the countryside, it’s really a celebration of good fellowship and friendship. Here’s the last stanza, enough to make me wish I was up there with them: over the hills and far away. (How far? Not very. Just a mile and a bittock, a mile or twa’…):

A mile and a bittock – Stroma & Orkney from Warth Hill, Caithness

O years ayont, O years awa’,
My lads, ye’ll mind whateter befa’ –
My lads, ye’ll mind on the beild o’ the law,
When the mune was shinin’ clearly.

[yammert = clamoured; ayont = beyond, beild = shelter, mune = moon; but you knew that already, didn’t you?]

6 comments to Scarborough / Wick (Donald Murray): Week 10 – 27 May

  • =Tamar

    Just tell the tourists that they’re getting the “true Scottish experience.” I think that’s what the tour guides are taught to say. When I was there around the turn of the century, it was unexpectedly gloriously sunny, and our hapless tour guide was reduced to saying “But it isn’t usually like this, you’re not getting the true Scottish experience.”
    Thank you for the glossary. Otherwise I’d have assumed Burns was hanging out with outlaws…

    • Gordon

      Hi Tamar, well last week it was 16 degrees centigrade cooler up here than it was in London, and wet. The weather presenters kept saying, “it’s been a glorious day across the country (for most of us, mumble mumble…)”.

      When I first heard the song I too thought it meant that they were “beyond the law” – but since it’s about midnight drinking it still made sense!

  • Freyalyn Close-Hainsworth

    Have you heard the new Skipinnish album, if you’re listening to assorted Scottish folk. It’s rather good.

  • Jane Callaghan

    What a shame ‘law’ is ‘hill’. Be much better if it meant ‘Over the stream, beyond the law.’ But I suppose that was the Borders, not Wick.

    • Gordon

      Hi Jane, if 20th century French critical theory has taught us anything, it’s that the meaning of a poem is ours to give. So I still think of them being beyond the law, past a hill somewhere!

      “An inch or a bittock, and inch or twa’
      Abune the welt, the yoke afore,
      Scarborough and Caithness and Cornwall and a’
      And the yarn was knitting freely…!”

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