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A bouquet of thistles

Three poetic contributions to the Independence debate

The ’45a: an alternative reality


Bonnie Prince Charlie

He was bonnie enough, I’ll give ye that, with his Frenchified ways and perfumed hands. More suited to a Paris salon than plodging through our bogs and over the moors, though God knows he wasn’t got up like a king, in his plain black coat and grubby shirt, more like the Irish priest he pretended to be.
When we greeted him in the Gaelic we found he’d none of it. French or Italian was more his lingo.

But we all liked his reply when yon Macdonald, brother of the clan chief, told him to go home: “I AM come home, sir,” he said, and sat himself down on the beach with just seven supporters (and but three of them Scots) to await the gathering of the clans.
The seven men of Moidart were the Duke of Atholl, exiled since 1716; Sir John Macdonald; Sir Thomas Sheridan; and four black Irish, Aeneas Macdonald; George Kelly; Captain O’Sullivan; and Colonel Strickland.
Barely a month later he was in Holyrood palace, the provost having left the gates of Edinburgh open to him, not a drop of blood having been shed.
Prestonpans made up for that.

But I run before my horse to market, as the English playwright said.

Back thirty or more years, John Erskine, Earl of Mar, had put together the Act of Union for the Hanoverians, but since he didn’t get the preferment he thought was his due, he raised his banner with the “No Union” slogan on it in 1715, and he had great schemes to march south to London, to have James Stuart crowned king.
He got as far as Preston, and then was chased back awa’ hame, taking the first ship to France, where he died a broken man.
Not a good example of a liberation struggle was it? Led by a turncoat, who fled awa’ when the going got rough.

Would we fare any the better?

Would we learn from his error?

Well, by the time we raised the king’s standard at Glenfinnan our number had swelled from seven to a thousand, Camerons, Macdonalds and Stuart, and within a fortnight more our number quadrupled.
The English crown put a price of thirty thousand pound on our Chairlie’s head.

We’d learned much about the young man by then:
He was struggling to learn some Gaelic, but he needed no tuition in the airts of battle: he was a match for many of us.
He could run faster, jump higher and out-wrestle any of us, and he was even a better man with the claymore, for all his Frenchified ways.
He wore a simple plaidie with a blue bonnet upon his head as we marched south along General Wade’s military roads.
When we crossed the Forth at Stirling on our way south from the Highlands, his was the first foot in the river, and he waded across at the head of the clans, like Bruce or Wallace of old.

Into Perth we mairched, the brave skirl of the pipes competing with the clang of the church bells as Cameron Lochiel welcomed us into the town he’d taken possession of in the king’s name, along with the Duke of Perth, Mercer of Aldie, Oliphant of Gask, Lord Strathallan and Lord George Murray, whom he made Lieutenant-General of his army, the Provost and the magistrates fleeing south.

The king had but a single guinea in his pocket, all the rest having gone to raise the army.
But the baillies of Edinburgh had collected five hundred pounds and sent it to him, handed over by a man in a fine periwig, the king’s head being bare.
We were all for taking the wig from off the baillie’s head, and giving it to the king, but the king denied us, so order was restored.

We left the fair city of Perth and never returned, and we entered Edinburgh in similar style.
No priestly gear there for the Young Chevalier when he came to greet his people at Holyrood: he dressed himself up in a tartan coat with the star of the Order of the Thistle on his breast, a pair of red velvet trews on his legs, a silver-hilted broadsword at his waist and a brace of pistols tucked into his belt.
He had a grand wig now, and over it he wore a velvet bonnet sewn with gold lace, bearing our emblem, the white rose.
He entered the palace park mounted on the Duke of Perth’s bay, acknowledging the cheers of hundreds who’d come to see their king come hame.

Truly he was a bonnie sight the day.

He was not just a tartanned figurehead, mind.
He had to be dissuaded from leading us into battle at Prestonpans, though he marched us three abreast there at the head of the Camerons, his Holyrood finery changed back for a rough plaid over his coat and a blue bonnet upon his head.
We were all for falling upon Cope’s two thousand there and then, but our king proved to be a cannier fechter; though Cope had the advantage, with the estuary behind him and a marsh to the east, high stone walls to the west, a local showed us a path across the bogs, and twelve hundred of us picked our way through, and took up our positions, the Camerons to the left, Macdonalds to the right.
Six hundred of the rest followed on, mostly armed with but sickles and scythes, countrymen’s weapons.

A short battle we had of it when the sun rose that day: eight minutes and it was all over; the English shot but one bullet at us before Johnny Cope quit the field.
The generals were all for Charlie going home to Holyrood straight away, but he would not.
He made sure the wounded were seen to, from both sides since he said all were the king’s subjects, and the dead buried, before he took a little meat from a tray set up by a captured cannon, and he set off home at noon.

We lost but forty men that day, and eighty wounded; the enemy three hundred dead and four hundred wounded or captured; the remainder fled with Cope to Berwick, so speedily that news of his defeat did not precede him.
It was the first time, quipped Lord Mark Kerr, that a general brought news of his own defeat.

We went home, the most of us, rejoicing that our king had come into his own again, and the wee German laddie could savour the gall of it with his sausage, the day, down in Windsor.

But Chairlie had different ideas.

He was all for marching across the Border, to London to have himself crowned king of England.
The French had promised him support, but we were mindful how many such promises we’d heard, and nary a Frog had we seen beside us in our battles, save one small battalion at Prestonpans.

We’d have none of the march south.
Once bitten, twice shy, they say.
We’d rallied behind the “No Union” slogan on John Erskine, Earl of Mar’s banner in 1715, and putting a new bum on the English throne thirty years later would be naught but the Union under another sovereign.

Furthermore, we’d be tackling the English redcoats head on, with their muskets rattling like a killing machine.
That was not our way of war.

We minded how, when Mar changed sides and led us against the Union he’d been instrumental in constructing, we harried the English as they marched in line abreast down the military roads, picking them off like grouse from the rocks atop the glens.

We were a guerrilla army before the word was ever coined.
We were not afraid to charge an enemy as Calgacus charged Agricola’s legions, to die in glory, if need be.
But Agricola had won the day near seventeen hundred years before, a lesson we’d learnt well, not from the Romans but from bobbing John Erskine himself, off awa’ to France while the redcoats burned our homes and raped our women, after they defeated us in open battle.

At best, we told the king, we’d get south as far as Derby before the English rallied and chased us hame.
No, best we stay behind Agricola’s turf wall, we told him, and make the borderlands a place no lobster-coated mercenary would dare set foot in.

He was well advised.

We crowned him king in Edinburgh, and left the English to their own devices.

Scotland led the world in all the airts.
We grew closer to Europe while the English hedged themselves in behind wooden walls.
Our clans showed the world that there were other values than base coinage to judge a man’s worth by.
And a citizen army could defeat any troops whose loyalty could be bought for a shilling.

But sometimes, as I wander the free lands of our land, I ponder how it might have been, if we had not prevailed over his young desire to put two crowns upon his head.
For some reason, that fear chills my heart the most when I pass over the summit of Culloden Moor, as I seem to hear the screams of our whole Gaelic nation put to the sword, by the butcher, Cumberland, as if we hadn’t learned well the lessons of Calgacus and Erskine, Earl of Mar and the ’45 had been a terrible defeat, rather than a wondrous victory.

September 21, 2004

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Song: Lament for the last battle honour of the Black Watch

Tune: Jamie Foyers
(Scots traditional song)

“This may be the last attack for the First Battalion the Black Watch. Let us make sure it . . . is one that we can be proud of.”

– Lt Col James Cowan, commanding officer

Far distant, far distant the Black Watch has gone
To a land where the deserts are burnt by the sun.
They have no real quarrel with the people of Iraq,
And too many soldiers will never come back.

They went to Iraq to fight for the oil.
When I heard they had gone, it fair made my blood boil,
When I heard they had gone for this Yankee war:
Too many have died but none knows what for.

By the river Euphrates they raided the homes,
They scared women and children with explosions and bombs.
They hooded the menfolk and led them away
And handed them over to the Yankees that day.

This last battle honour we shall never forget.
All your military history, we remember it yet.
Some we recall with praise, some remember in shame,
For every gunshot has been fired in our name.

Braw, braw was the skirl of the pipes on that morn
And loud was the weeping that greeted the dawn.
Black, Black is your name and blacker the deed,
When the Yankees said jump and you followed their lead.

It is working class soldiers who go out to kill
Foreign working class people who have done us no ill.
To long for the oilmen and bankers we’ve fought
Too cheap is the price for which we’ve been bought.

Back home many battles remain to be fought
As we learn from the lessons that history has taught.
Come home Scottish soldier and free up your land
And fight no more wars under Yankee command.

Far distant, far distant the Black Watch has gone
To a land where the deserts are burnt by the sun.
They have no real quarrel with the people of Iraq,
And too many soldiers will never come back.

November 26, 2004

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In Memoriam Hugh MacDiarmid


I remember when I read your Bonnie Broukit Bairn, being so intoxicated by these strange Scots words, words like crammasy and clanjamfree, that I went into the library and ordered Jamieson’s Dictionary of the Old Scottish Tongue to learn more of these felicities.

The old leather-bound volume arrived, and I dived into its pages as into a vat of wine, to feel its yeast bubbling through my wordstore; and when I surfaced, shaking drops from my head like a swimmer up from the depths, the new vocabulary like red-scattered jewels in the sun of my incomprehension, dazzling my senses, the whole word pool twinkling in the air while I took a deep breath and plunged back in again, seeking for pearls.

I had some conception that the languages of these magic islands might start breeding as equals, not raped by the dead maw of Received Standard English, but creating some new kind of post-colonial pidgin, with scraps of Gaelic and Welsh and Scots, and, yes, Cockney and Yorkshire, too, and the Geordie I’d learnt as a child and all but forgotten, rubbing shoulders and intermingling, not creaming down into some homogenised mush, but like fresh vegetables in a good stew, not overcooked, but preserving their identity, yet lending each flavour of themselves to the whole – what was the word? – clanjamfree.

I myself am a ladle of that soup, my ancestry typically mongrel in this mongrel nation: my father black Irish, born in Glasgow, my mother pure Geordie, I born in Acton (Krishna Menon used to come and visit) but learning to speak in Whitley Bay, my five-year-old shouts of glee challenging the seagulls’ cry,  then learning again in London when old enough for school, back in Northumbria as an eight-year-old evacuee, and back again to London till a man of fifty-eight, I settled up in Bradford, answering to the name K-a-a-a-rl.

And working in the cis-Atlantic world of pop music, acquiring neologisms and black slang, developing a chameleon ability to mirror the voice of anyone I was interviewing, until one day an Aussie subject asked me where I came from exactly Down Under.


Like all children, I’d been bilingual from the day I first set foot in a playground, or even trilingual.

There were things I could say at home (“mammy”) that got me mocked at playtime, words I couldn’t say in the classroom.

“No such word as can’t,” said the schoolteacher, and when I sang The Internationale, “and at last ends the age of cant”, I thought it was that non-word we were consigning to the dustbin, no more “can’t”, for now all things were possible.

My singing was full of such felicitous errors: “ladies come out in your thousands,” sang Fred Astaire in The Fleet’s In Port Again, and since beach pyjamas were the latest fashion craze (and I living at the seaside), “ladies come out in your trousers” sounded quite sensible to me.

Grammar school added to this polyglotism as I learned from my Latin that circumstances, from Rome’s circumsto, to stand around, were not something I could be under (except, possibly, if grammatical space curved back on itself like some Einsteinian continuum, allowing me to vanish up my own orifice while straying in the same place.)

Even today, expressions like “centre around” (another Einsteinian kleinbottle) can give me actual physical pain.

Then there was Geoff Chaucer, whose pilgrims spoke a strange sort of Frenchified north-countree English: “a k-nicht therrrre wass”.

I must have been weird: while my schoolmates were sniggering over The Wife of Bath’s Tale ( though I think I was the only one who recognised it as an old friend in one of Cyril Fletcher’s odd odes), I was enjoying the rich porridge of Anglo-Norman English on its way to becoming the speech of Shakespeare, where words like “con-dit-i-on” had four syllables.

I was really pissed off they wouldn’t let me learn Greek because I wasn’t smart enough, yet too smart to learn German, because that was the way they streamed us: top intellects learned Latin and Greek but no science at all, (and this, remember, was a London County Council grammar school, full of working class yobboes, who were being trained up for Oxbridge whether they liked it or no), medium-smart (eg me) did Latin and French, and a strange mixture called “general science” (because they taught us no proper physics I didn’t hear about entropy until I encountered Mike Moorcock’s Jerry Cornelius fantasies, with the result that I didn’t come to believe in a Creator, until many years later, and only then gave my life to his son), thickies did French and German, with the result that my friend Reg became a world authority on Nietszche, while I’m still getting to grips with terms like lumpenproletariat and weltanschauung, and the truly stupid did only French; no wonder De Gaulle hated us, and they still keep trying to ban our beef.

I discovered James Joyce, and the “commodious vicus of recirculation” of Finnegans Wake, the (to this Protestant atheist) totally incomprehensible parody of the Latin mass at the opening of Ulysses, the latter, as it happened, in the bookshelf of my Christian aunt, who’d lugged me three miles there and back to matins and evensong every Sunday; she gave it to me on extended loan, making no remark at the greasy thumbprints all over Molly Bloom’s erotic soliloquy at the end, when I handed it back to her.

I found a similar, and I had thought totally uncopiable voice, at the same time in Thomas Wolf’s homeward-glancing Angel, where I learned for the first time the real meaning of the “jelly roll” Sidney Bechet had been saying he wasn’t going to give no one none of his (a conjunction of double and treble negatives Chaucer would have loved – “He never yet no vileinye ne sayde” – and is perfectly good grammar to this day in Russian), the rich rhythms of Gerard Manley Hopkins and Dylan Thomas’s “heron-priested shore” were extending my verbal horizons when I discovered Kenneth Patchen and the first of the beat poets (it was decades later when I finally acquired his complete works, purchased in San Francisco’s City Lights bookshop).

At about the same time I was staggering my way through MacDiarmid’s Drunk Man Looks at the Thistle, (and coming across, for the first time, Aleksandr Blok, translated into Scots:

I hae forekent ye! O I hae forekent
The years forecast your face afore they went”;

later, I fell victim to the rough music of Blok’s The 12),

I was also being bowled over by the strange synthesis of Salford and Dumfries in the singing and spoken voice of Ewan MacColl, whom I heard for the first time on Radio 3 playing Untrue Thomas, in Sydney Goodsir Smith’s radio play about Thomas the Rhymer.

I understand MacDiarmid disapproved of MacColl’s infatuation with folk, seeing him, as did George Bernard Shaw, as the most promising playwright of his generation (funny how no one ever enquired how much of his work, and of those who followed after, had been strained through the uncouth beauty of Joan Littlewood’s way with language: would we have ever learned to love Behan, or Lionel Bart, or indeed MacColl himself, if it hadn’t been for lovely Joan; and if she hadn’t ordered him out of her life – she was then Mrs MacColl [actually Mrs Miller] – when she found him in bed with one of the juvenile females in Theatre Workshop, I wonder if he’d ever have devoted the rest of his life to folk if that unfortuitous discovery hadn’t happened?)


People were talking about tradition, and at first I wanted none of it.

In music, I was a bebopper (trad was decried as mouldy fig, and it took the modernists, Cecil Taylor and Archie Shepp, to teach me that black music was a seamless garment, from New Orleans to a New York loft); in politics, an extremist; in sexuality, a hard-on always looking for an orifice; what need had I of tradition?

It was all that romantic Wordsworth stuff about skylarks and daffodils that turned me off (I didn’t know about Wordsworth’s early support for the Jacobins of the French Revolution, until later), milkmaids dabbling in the dew (I found out later that it should really be “rolling in the dew”, and anyway, dew was probably a metaphor for sperm), and Kathleen Ferrier’s bell-like tones singing Blow the Wind Southerly, with nary a trace of her own natural Geordie accent coming through.

My main man, poetically, was Vladimir Mayakovsky, the Russian revolutionary futurist, who wanted to paint leaves of the trees purple because green was such a naff colour.

The Italian futurist, Marinetti, composed symphonies for machine-guns, and although he became a fascist, I could dig where he was coming from.

Later, the noise of Stockhausen and Pete Townshend’s guitar feedback seemed to me in direct line of dissonant descent.

But the idea of tradition began to rub off on me.

I heard Marshall McLuhan talking about tradition as “the total past as now”, Horton Barker pointing out that having a tradition and being imprisoned by it, was two entirely different things.

If MacDiarmid could dip into Jamieson, as into a vat of whiskey, and if I could follow him into the same intoxication, why not dip into my own past and present?

I still know very little Gaelic, though a cara strikes me as a nicer way to end a letter than “yours sincerely”, (especially when sincerity has so little to do with it), or the “yours fraternally” that so often ends a letter of uncomradely vituperation when the left’s in-fighting; though I’ve been amused to see that in Ireland, where all street signs are shown in English and Irish, they have, apparently found no Gaelic for cul-de-sac; and I know less Welsh, though enough to pronounce placenames like Beddgelert correctly.

The other day a fellow poet reproved me for using an archaism like “know full well” in a poem, when all who know me know full well it’s a term I use in everyday speech all the time.

My language is a full well, and if I dip deep into it, I find who knows what joys in its muddy bottom!

Hugh MacDiarmid called his method “synthetic Scots”, not meaning artificial, but rather the resurrection of forgotten richnesses; I write today in homage to him, realising I’ve been synthesising language all my life, as I move from south of the Chilterns to north of the Pennines, as I interview Parisien couturiers in bad French and speak in North American to Cajun accordionists who reply in a language more ancient than the Académie Française can ever acknowledge, as I enter the Jaberwocky Russtopia of A Clockwork Orange, where horror-show’s a term of approbation, derived from oroshcho,  (the title of a poem by Mayakovsky, by the way, which the translator called Very Good).

I never met MacDiarmid in his life, though number many friends who knew him as Chris Grieve, the Langholm riever (or thief) who raided the past in service to a future he hailed in his three hymns to Lenin.

And whose In Memoriam James Joyce I take, humbly, as a model for what I am trying to say in this tribute to a giant of European 20th Century literature, who had to take work in a munitions factory during the war, the powers that be lacking the Soviet intelligence that literature could move men’s souls to victory, who was kicked out of the Scottish National Party (which he helped to found) for “Communist tendencies”, only later to be kicked out of the CP for bourgeois nationalism, rejoining the latter Party (some might say quixotically, but I agreed with him) at the time of the Hungarian counter-revolution in 1956, moving away from Scots and back into that strange didactic tongue the Scots have borrowed from the English (though so unlike the way any Englishman might think, except he be a worker on the dole or the picketline, auto-didacting himself in the library to pass the time), for his densely argued final poems.

But I still love his Scots lyrics:

Deep surroondin’ darkness I discern
Is aye the price o’ licht,”

he wrote.

A bonny dialectic.
And a fine poetic statement too.

Praise him!

October 26, 1999

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