A single dog is sent Away bye.
Mothers, a day’s warmth in their bodies,
rise reluctant from nests of flattened grass;
barge hard squeeze through to the narrow lane.
Ignoring collie and stick,
stiff legged stragglers stop,
cough slurpy green splatters at my feet.
Steam rises, tail strands dab runes
where eager flies blacken scab and wound.
The herd waddle on tender hooves –
between hedges of hawthorn;
vein ridged udders swing milk heavy;
cracked teats drip to cooling tar.
Bodies of coarse hair, stones on a river bed,
bump and rumble in the gentle flow of their lowing.
The sun dawdles a slow decline.
Light stretches a blessing across their backs;
draws me in to the undertow
that’s pulling us all back home.
About this poem
This poem was included in Best Scottish Poems 2004. 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 2004 was Hamish Whyte.
This is taken from a group of excellent rural poems. It's an almost perfect picture, with the same kind of nostalgic quality as Sappho's 'Hesperus'. ('Herd waddle': cf. Gray's 'Elegy')
Despite my thirst for reading all types of poetry through my life I didn't start writing seriously myself until my 30s - an age when some poets have already finished. It was at this time when I finally realised that all the ideas, thoughts and flights of fancy rattling around in my head were actually poems.
Since 1997 I have found myself writing more and more about people in rural landscapes and in particular about those who live and work in the Renfrewshire hills. This includes my father and brother who work together on one of the few remaining dairy farms in the local area.
The plight of dairy farming is covered very rarely within the media and its silent decline in the last years is one I feel needs to be given a voice. My initial attempts to do this resulted in poems that were either overly sentimental or angry polemics and these were soon discarded.
Through time however I have developed a series of more successful poems which simply reflect and tell the stories of those farmers I know, their lives and the dignity they show in the way they deal with the challenges they face.
The poems attempt to capture the symbiotic relationship between man, animals and land against the background of the seasons. As part of this I've found myself exploring in more detail the relationship with my father and the family farm where I still work at weekends.
'Herd' is just one of a longer sequence of poems entitled Bovine Pastoral which has been brought together to commemorate the ultimately unsuccessful blockade of ports by Scottish farmers thirty years ago. It is also one of a number of poems I've written about cows.
In 'Herd' I've tried to match the pace of the poem to the movement of the cows and my personal challenge with the poem has been to capture an event I have witnessed for over forty years and convey it vividly enough to the reader.
The poem also displays some of my recurring themes of homecoming and belonging. Walking the cows home has been one of the few constant experiences through my life and long may it continue.