River names are the oldest,
the first things in a landscape.
So many times they simply mean The Water.
And the ones we tell a story about?
—they might be the names of lost gods and goddesses
we say. The chances are, in some lost language
they simply meant The Water too.
We come here for the mountain: we’re in awe
before its grandeur.
But there’s no living on mountains
—it was named for the river that grows
out of that thin burn at its foot.
It was the burn
and not the mountain brought The People
with their stone blades
their feet calloused from wandering
their lost word for the water.
About this poem
This poem was included in Best Scottish Poems 2015. 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 2015 was Ken MacLeod.
Tautological place names are a perennial amusement and surprise, as a simple search on 'river river river' will show you. This appropriately sinuous poem carries us back through language and landscape, to leave us on the bank face to face with our ancestors.
This is one of my history-geek poems: I had been reading a book about place-names, and thinking about the Esk / Usk / Ouse rivers, and whether my local river had an etymology. I try to ration myself on this material, but the past, and the ways we interpret it the light of our present needs, are themes I keep coming back to. I'm especially interested in our tendency to prefer romance and mystery –or just a good story – to historical fact. (It's a tendency we've done pretty well out of in Scotland, and another thing we can claim to have invented.) I'm susceptible to the glamour of the past, which is why I try to keep my sceptical guard up – at least, as far as you can while writing poetry. And it's not as if reality is lacking in mystery and strangeness of its own.