Ye were hyne awa fae Nuremberg o the flags,
the death-crap o the purges; Il Duce’s
black-sarked legions heistin eagles…
Woolie’s guns and gairden canes airmed oor wars
focht on your cassies, oor granite battle-field.
Paper planes whitent the gloamin-faa,
earth-bund swallas the scaffies sweepit up.
And quines were bobbin corks aneth the tow brigs
o their skippin ropes. Cairt horses snochert
and the shod wheels girned and dirded.
Here in this play-grun atween the tenements
– sea gulls on the lums – I breathed in Scots.
Years later I howkit up the street’s kist
o memories and found amon the mools, deid words,
the affcasts o history, teuch as granite setts,
the foonds o my world.
The navel-tow o the street,
I snippit ye lang syne for war, for college,
for a dominie’s day darg…Your skirling lung
is quaiter nou, cloggit up wi metal.
(I mauna cuddle in the wyme o yesterdays.)
The granite tenements stand yet
faur streenger fowk bide nou. Windas like glowerers
gaup still on oor auld hoose,
the granite centenarian o the street.
The place is like a kirk-yaird.
Fae the dowier distances o middle age
aathing’s smaaer than it used to be.
My father crines at the het cheek o the ingle,
and oot the winda, a tooer block
rents the air.
Ower the chippit cassies
the tackety beets o deid louns thinly jow.
Nae McD’s ‘lang coffin o a street’,
mair a village fit-path lined wi setts.
Streets at tap and boddom merked oor frontiers.
We spoke o girds, scuds, quines, bleedy doctors…
I’m richt glad the auld words still come back
like migrant swallas, black shears o the gloamin.
Marx we hadna heard o, only the Marx brithers.
This was oor grunwork, the hard pan o oor lives.
A sma bit street that hirpled doun a brae.
Whitever roads I took since then I
began wi workin fowk in granite tenements.
Aa the lave was superstructure.
About this poem
This poem was included in Best Scottish Poems 2009. Best Scottish Poems is an online publication, consisting of 20 poems chosen by a different editor each year, with comments by the editor and poets. It provides a personal overview of a year of Scottish poetry. The editor in 2009 was Andrew Greig.
Alastair Mackie was my inspirational English teacher at Waid Academy. He was the first person I actually knew who wrote and was published. He once remarked longingly ‘George [Mackay Brown] doesn’t have a job’. I thought that sounded like a good idea. Alastair was, along with Robert Garioch, the outstanding Doric poet of his time, but largely unknown due to his diffidence, shyness, insecurity. Nothing couthy about it – his aesthetic was European, tough-minded, a granite of sparkles and durability. He loved Mallarme, MacDiarmid’s short lyrics, W.S. Graham and Pushkin. I owe him a lot, and it’s so good to meet him again here. This is about history personal and political, language, as much as Aberdeen. I love the sign-off: Aa the lave was superstructure.