Brief rest to sip cool water from burn’s source, then ride dank moor and black steep chasm, raid haughs, braes, knocks and knowes, make himself among laws and loans, haughs, braes, fair deans and dry hopes. That night, a grand shepherd’s welcome – devilled duck, run brandy, old songs. Work thou within, we’ll work without. He listens until full. Dapple grey mare rests by peel tower ruins. Riding home, slung around his neck is a horn; its clear blast once heralded war, summoned troopers to battle. Then silenced, stuffed with grease for honing a scythe blade on fine grit stone. Now it gleams; a trophy to polish and hang in the study where he fixes gathered scraps; ballads of a debateable land transcribed, rhythms smoothed, rhymes mended, words set. Metal nib scratches. Let me feel the breeze, let me stray by Ettrick and Yarrow.
About this poem
Our Poetry Ambassador Tom Murray said. ‘I have always loved the Border Ballads. Through Craig’s poem you feel you are at Scott’s shoulder as he rides around the Borderland, gathering old stories and mementoes, listens to the Oral tradition of the Border tales; the superb sense of excitement of worlds played out inside his head as he rode home. Words were Scott’s tools as they are Craig’s.
Through the expert rhythm of the words, you feel the excitement of how Scott must have felt on his discovering something knew to him. The poet though doesn’t shy away from difficult questions. Scott did alter what he had heard. To quote the poem ‘rhythms smoothed, rhymes mended, words set.’ Also, once words are set down on a page do they become forever trophies in a cabinet? It got me thinking is this true of any words captured on a page? A rhythmic but also thought-provoking poem that stays with you.
Craig Aitchison said, ‘As a young man, newly installed as Sheriff of Selkirkshire, Scott made what he called ‘raids’ into Liddesdale to hear traditional Border ballads, with the intention of preserving them. The songs and poems he collected formed ‘The Minstrelsy of the Scottish Border’ and fed his own imagination. I find this part of Scott’s life fascinating. In writing the poem, I included some of Scott’s words, some from the ballads and some from Robert Shortreed, a friend who acted as his guide through the untracked lands he travelled. (See italics.) I wanted to use these words as a way back to young Walter, enjoying what Shortreed called “the queerness and the fun” of exploration.’