22 May 2015

The Merry Dancers

The Merry Dancers by Sheena Blackhall and Tom Hubbard
Scots poetry has become an endangered beastie!
The Merry Dancers by Sheena Blackhall and Tom Hubbard is a collection of translations of works from the countries which border the North Sea.

There are owersettings and translations of poems from Denmark, the Netherlands, Flanders, Baltic Germany, Poland, Lithuania, Latvia, Estonia, Russia, Finland, Lapland, Sweden, Norway and the Faroes, rendered in the dialects of Aberdeenshire (Sheena Blackhall) and Fife (Tom Hubbard).

Of course, we should remember that publishing in Scots is restricted to pamphlets such as this, which is little surprise given that there is barely any market for the large amount of writing in English published in Scotland.

And as for the availability of this pamphlet, and others like it, I wouldn’t expect to even find it in the mighty independent bookshops of Edinburgh and Glasgow, although I know for a fact it is stocked by Books and Beans in Aberdeen.
Perhaps you can obtain it direct from the publishers, Malfranteaux Concepts, although their own website looks like it has been fairly quiet for a couple of years.

This general lack of acceptance of Scots writing in Scotland is one reason why Scots writers often concern themselves with translation, because in translating the works of others, they reach out of our country and identify with a wider European tradition that in many cases, has been losing its own linguistic roots for just as long as we have.

Firstly with The Merry Dancers, anyone with experience of the mighty range and extent of the works of Sheena Blackhall will find themselves on familiar territory with her contributions.  Sheena is the author of over 100 poetry pamphlets, 12 short story collections, 4 novels and plays as well as radio broadcasts, is probably one of Scotland’s foremost writers.

We don’t hear much about this theory however, as Sheena not only writes in Doric, but lives in Aberdeenshire, two factors which maintain the arm's length distance between her and the country’s literati.

In this case also, as she often does, Sheena is writing with bairns in mind, because so much of her work finds her reminding younger and younger generations of the power of Scots.

It’s a pity, because if you have seen Sheena Blackhall at work in Aberdeen, you’d know that she had succeeded where for example, Hugh MacDiarmid failed.   I'm referring to that famous moment during which MacDiarmid bemoaned:  Are my poems spoken in the factories and fields / In the streets o' the toon? / Gin they're no', then I'm failing to dae / What I ocht to ha' dune.

In this much I think Sheena Blackhall succeeds, given the large numbers of people in the Aberdeenshire area (children especially) who know her work.  While Sheena may not be recited in the fields and factories (people don't work there any more, anyway) she is certainly weel kent in the playgrounds and schoolrooms, and she has achieved the kind of lasting legacy that truly befits the description makar.

Do not confuse being populist with being popular.  Crowd pleasing verse may be made by lesser poets in order to endear themselves to the people, but few poets anywhere are actually of the people in the way that Sheena Blackhall is, and The Merry Dancers demonstrates this amply.

Sheena's contributions to The Merry Dancers do not all have children in mind, such as her elegy to Gavin Greig (1856-1914).  The lyrics she offers the bairnies however are always faultless. 

This is from a Swedish folk song in The Merry Dancers, ‘owersett in Scots’ by Sheena Blackhall:

A fermer drove tae a fine fir wid
Far he heard a craa caa rare
An the fermer syne he turned back hame
Thon craw will pyke me sair
 His wife sat spinnin by her spinnin wheel
Quo, Craas are a coordie breed
Sae the fermer pit an arra tae his bow
An he shot the craa doon deid

The original song, starts thus:

Bonden han gångar åt dalande skog
- Hej torej åt dalande skog -
Där fick han höra en kråka som gol
- Hej torej en kråka som gol -

MacDiarmid raises his brow more specifically in Tom Hubbard’s work, as indeed he must.  Probably my favourite of Tom Hubbard’s contributions to The Merry Dancers is adapted from the Lithuanian poet Antanas Baranauskas which concludes:

Thir blackened stumps are aa the buggers left;
It gars ye greet, but Christ! ye’d rather fecht.
I’d sing a ballant fir ti rouse the folk
But I’m deid-düne: my efforts are a joke.
Thae posh boys let aa ither Gods go hang,
And staund upon the thrapple o my sang.

I’ll leave you MacDiarmidians out there to penetrate the MacMetaplex of the Diarmidian innuendo in these lines.  It is all apt too - Baranauskas’ academic work was the first scholarly attempt to distinguish the different Lithuanian dialects, and his own writing in Lithuanian was considered ground-breaking in its day.  This is because, like everyone else in his place and at his time, he had been brought up to speak and write the dominant Polish and Russian languages.

The Merry Dancers in fact makes a sound introduction to Tom Hubbard’s work, should you require one.  Tom was the first librarian at the Scottish Poetry Library, but has been instrumental in recent years in keeping alive the work of the neglected poets T.S. Law and Duncan Glen, among others.  What's more, this strong selection indicates that Tom is every part their equal.

Ballad of the King, the Cuddy and the Makar which heads up Tom Hubbard’s contribution to The Merry Dancers, secretly encrypts Fife legend throughout, and The Treisure O Norrie’s Law draws in yet more cultural and literary focal points:

Sae whan did aa this come aboot,
Oor tinker’s mystery tour?
The year whan Wattie Scott brocht oot
The Bride o Lammermuir.


Eichteen-nineteen: whan Scott brocht oot
Montrose and Ivanhoe;
But the times are lookin mair ti suit
Thon later Père Goriot.

Tom's work lightly reflects his academic experience and his life as a reader, but manages also to address questions about what characterises Scots, showing how the writing itself is part of so many great traditions, while expressing its primary concern: to give back to the community that sustains it.