Burrafirth, Unst circa 1870
Whin I wis a buyy, da age at platched
Ida troot-loch, hokkit ida burn
We guid heem weet, hoopful
Fur da new hairst-taest o burstin bruinies
– dat wis sweet-maet on a empty stamick
But nauthin laek da traet a store
D’duys da sixareens cam a sitht
Der sails dark on da silver gaet
Heem fae Da Fuyra’s moontin-tappit haaf
Den we wid geen doon t da shore
Aes da keel-drochts rummelled up ower da shoormal
I mind da meyn stuid stivvened wi saut
An herdly laek ta pit a fit on da bully-steens
Efter duys an weeks buxin ida boddom o a boat
Among da silver tusk an haddocks – deyr wautit wir prize
Hudded, dark ida tae kyettle
Tae-laeves, tikk an sturkened wi shugger
An twaa weeks mibbe o steerin an poorin
Aes dey added annidder spuin o tae
Annidder spuin o shugger, duy efter duy
– da meyn wir laekly seec o da sitht o it
But dey left hit t wis, t tak athin spuinfus
Nu, dat wis da stuff
Juist laek maunna
Story from Stewart Thompson (Unst/Fair Isle)
from the memory of Tony ‘Mailand’ Smith (Burrafirth, Unst)
About this poem
This poem was included in Best Scottish Poems 2010. 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 2010 was Jen Hadfield.
This is edible language, the onomatopoeic potency of the dialect verbs in particular like food in the mouth. And perhaps that why this memory passed down from 1870 – the endurance of the fishermen, their fascination for the young boy – is still so immediate.
An old man in Unst told this to my grandfather when he was a boy. The Burrafirth beach in 1870 comes through a hundred years still clear in a child’s eye: the taste of dry sweet tea-leaves boiled for two weeks in the bottom of a sixareen, tasting as if they were sent from heaven. I could see the bairns leaving their usual ploys, down to the shore to meet the boats; men trying to straighten again out of the stiffness of days in an open boat, hard hauling as far as Faroe and back, and wanted to set it down as clearly as I received it, for what it shows.
White Below is a collection of new work by six writers about the fishing culture and traditions that shape Shetland.
bully-steens – sea-rounded boulders; buxin – walking with resistance like in snow or long grass; burstin bruinies – round thick burst-oat scone; Da Fuyra – The Faroe Islands; gaet – pathway; hardly laek – hardly able; hokkit – groped/searched; keel-drochts – wooden keel bar; hudded – hidden; platch – trudge/squelch/splash in wet ground/water; rummelled – rumbled; shoormal – the stones at the water’s edge; sixareen – traditional Shetland 29ft six-oared fishing boat; stivvened – stiffened; sturkened – hardened