Friday, December 22, 2006

The Sciveners' Tale: A Christmas Story

The life of a scrivener is a weary one at the best of times, and when the snow is drifting and the trees pearl with ice it may well appear as near to impossible. Indeed it sometimes seems that the pen that I have in my hand holds no mere ink but human blood, such store do I put in its patterning. And how like my children these wretched little verses seem, sent out too soon into the cruel world, first to battle the weather and the vagaries of the Royal Mail, only to struggle through at last to shiver against the rocks of fashion and opinion. The poor scrivener listens achingly for the rattle of the letter box to nurse these orphans home, always damaged beyond repair.

This morning two such stragglers arrived, turfed out after several months of indenture by the editor of the review ‘The Death Rattle’. It is no consolation to know that the man involved is an ill favoured creature and you can , dear reader, if you have any imagination or experience of life’s all too present cruelties, imagine him even now in his muffler and finger-mitts scribbling below a bare bulb in his crabbed and monkish script “No!” “No stamp!” “No envelope!” “No! No! No!, all the while stamping with his foot on the threadbare rug, then, putting his pen aside, constructing from sheer sense of spiteful self-importance new ways to frustrate honest men, such as keeping their poems an extra three months, or sending them back because they’re interesting. And should you storm these icy heights? Should this misanthrope accept the bounty of a writer’s long labour what should this man gain? Some Christmas cheer, or victuals for his little children? No. Not a single penny. Not even a farthing.

Contrast this, gentle reader, with another man whose letter, by sheer favour of circumstance, arrived at the same time and on the same poor mat as the first, a letter written in a broad and expansive hand tutored by warmth and humanity. This man, after hearty and well shaped felicitations and no few compliments humbly and gratefully received, was glad to accept a sheaf of poems sent only a handful of days since, and promises moreover a comely monetary settlement for the same! How a humble scribe rejoices in the very existence of such men! How he anticipates dancing with his two jolly barefoot children under the holly wreath tonight in sheer exultation of the continued existence of the spirit of reason and humanity in the frozen world! And how we must hope, patient and gracious reader, that the ghost of such exuberance might permeate into the lairs of the cold north to melt, if even a little, the icy hearts of evil men.

Thursday, December 21, 2006

Flash Fiction

The Trip

They’d thought of the trip months before. Then their lives were wired to serve one purpose. They competed to prove their love. They went to extremes of passion and jealousy. They’d met one night in a taxi queue, booked into a hotel at 3.00am, emerged sleepless at 9. With her sleek black hair and arab face, she was a goddess. And he felt a god.

She lived with her sick mother and that made life difficult. They looked forward to getting away: he came from up north, and she had never been. It would be perfect.
Then things changed. She’d called off a few times and, when they were together, it was different. Somehow a light had gone out and all that seemed so important began to slowly die.

As they drove north, he told stories, though he had questions he was too afraid to ask. She stared out the car window, like a doll, or a sleeping princess. He wondered what alchemy could bring her back. At Loch Awe they stopped and sat on the grass. Reeds waved like drowning arms. He’d talked, then paused for breath.

“John” and it was like the first thing she’d ever said. “I think we need to stop seeing each other”. He searched for something to define the moment, but the water was flat. She stared into the distance, munching her sandwich in a matter of fact way. Come on, she said at last, and stood up, brushing crumbs from her legs.

Later, he lay against a rock as she gathered stones. He saw her bending, her face framed against the sun, and he wished himself in the deepest part of the sea, so that, as they used to think, his dead eyes would show pictures of her, smiling like that.

Tuesday, December 19, 2006

Thank God for Thistlemilk

Stores in Drumsleet are struggling to cope with the massive local demand for Thistlemilk, a miracle substance reputed to repair liver damage while at the same time enabling the recipient to continue drinking like fuck. Veteran lounge lizards shocked at the carnage wrought by the Grim Reaper over the last 18 months in Drumsleet's premier drinking salons have turned like desperate men to Thistlemilk, initially peddled in the town by a eccentric one-legged quack physician called Theosophilus Neill. Thistlemilk can be taken as a pill but also in the form of a draught or powder ideal for pouring into the 8th or 9th pint of Guinness. Thistlemilk. You know it makes sense.

Tuesday, December 05, 2006

The King of the Tinkers

Sandy Cranstoun died of exposure on the night of Thursday 23rd November in a field near his home in Duncow. This poem was written a time ago with Sandy in mind.

The Men from Duncow

On Saturdays men with jackets
too checked to look upon
come down the hills from Duncow,
their hands corrugated or hung
over sticks like old oven gloves.

They are from impenetrable places,
runrig, dyke and quarry,
Rommel and Sicily,
from long lines of lives
stuck in monochrome.

Through drowned chipbags
and crying kids they come,
their talk arcane,
their existence in this
café bar a mystery.

They sit and soak up whisky
like blotters, until darkness
climbs over rooftops,
then they rise stiffly from the smoke
like metal men,

and the night, and the pub,
close again round
more comfortable themes,
faces flush with puggie light,
alcopops and plasma screens,

for time moves on and that’s a fact,
though the men from Duncow clamber back.

Monday, November 13, 2006

Good Cheer for Makar

Some good cheer for Drumsleet's second best poet this morning as it transpires that one of his poems has been chosen by editor Janice Galloway to be included in 'The 20 best Scottish Poems of 2006' to be published later this month. This has been a good year for anthologies, as the troubled bard has also appeared in Edinburgh University Press' 'Edinburgh Book of 20th Century Scottish Poetry' and the Methuen Anthology 'Poems for every Day'. This and the news that his new collection 'Strange Bamboo' is on course to be published in April will bring the misspent makar some much needed encouragement and inner strength as winter takes fierce hold in the tundra and ice-fields round Drumsleet.

Saturday, November 11, 2006


The reputation of Drumsleet's second best poet was in disarray last night following revelations that he had posted on the net poetry which, it is alleged, was written by another. The three lines comprising 'the Shortest Limericks of All Time' were actually, it was claimed, written by up to 25,000 other people. McMillan's defence, that he and a poet called Stuart Paterson actually wrote these lines together in 1999, was easily dismissed. As Paterson, a Gregory Award winning writer from Manchester, said this morning:

"It's almost true, but I thought them up by myself- he was unconscious at the time. He is just a piece of slime."

Paterson himself may regret this particular epithet as it leaves him open to charges of plagiarism.

In another dramatic development this afternoon, Dean Vaughan, ecologist and heir to the principality of Galloway, himself claimed ownership to these tiny lyrics, citing as evidence the hitherto unknown existence of a third stanza, a three line limerick-

'There was a young man from Dundee
whose limericks stopped in line three.
There. Told you so.'

The case continues. McMillan is 148 years old. This will be his second fatwah.

Thursday, November 02, 2006

Drumsleet and God

In case you thought the citizens of Drumsleet were devoid of spiritual outlets.

Porta del Mare

Last year in this blog I was drivelling away about the pub in Ciutedella which I claimed was one of the best four or five in the world. Behold, folks, what has become of it. Let this be a lesson. Cherish your watering holes lest they become rubble before thy eyes.

Before Tea

Before Tea

Let us go then, little girls, into the mist,
to pick autumn pictures from leaf and mould,
stir up layers of ourselves in potholes,

and see our smiles break and swim.
Let us watch the river seethe,
bite hard on rocks and broken trees,

and stand here while the world shifts
below our boots, a tiny notch,
our breathing hung like smoke.

Can you hear it, do you feel it?
Never again like that, we three:
now girls, slowly, home for tea.

Monday, October 23, 2006

Willie McMeekin is Dead

I return from Menorca to find that Willie McMeekin, ex-desert rat, drystane dyker, carpet bowler and general all-round character is dead. I was once commisioned by the Arts Association here to do a piece on a larger than life figure and Willie fitted the bill in every way. For the 30 years I knew him, Willie was proud, clever, hilarious and, in equal measure, an utter rascal. His tales were endless, fascinating and a genuine bridge to a rural past that you can only see now in history books. Newspapers only dwell on the deaths of the 'great and good'. I thought Willie both great and good and take solace still in his perennial parting shot: "The land is ours!" here's the poem I wrote about him all these years ago:


“Drunk or sober,
yon man could pit a carpet boul
or a keystone richt oan the button.”
Willie is nodding modestly
in the Fleshers’ Arms,
70 proof, if he’s a day.

Willie doesn’t age.
Like his dykes, he weathers.
He hasn’t lost his hair,
but mislaid it in an absent minded way:
it’s strung up there somewhere
on the rich topography of scalp
as thick as ever, but vitrified,
as impenetrable as his handiwork.

Below it, creases run
through the skin
like dry river beds.
There are hard callouses
round the smile
that defines and defies his history.

His face is a map
and like all landscapes
is variable.
Willie hasn’t always been good.
I think he predates such concepts.
He is both sides of a very old coin.
The man is Galloway.

Friday, September 29, 2006

A Wee Story

Guide Camp Loch Lomond 1963

He was eight and the sun was uncomfortable on his neck. They had stopped the car so his father could shout. Understandable, his mother used to say. The war. Look at the scars. The scars you couldn’t see. A door wrenched open and the row receded to a rim of hot tarmac. Beyond their silhouettes, water dazzled. There was the sound of a blow- his father kicking something- the boy could tell it wasn’t a punch. He walked through the trees. The grass was soft like sand or sponge. Cries, like birds, faded as he moved deeper, to where light swam through tall branches. He was dizzy but unafraid.

The wood thinned to a vision: hundreds of girls in a field of flowers. He was passed from one group to another in a sunlit dream. He had hot soup. He was kissed. He was proposed to and he married many times. When his frantic parents came he hid deep in the perfumed pleated skirt of his latest love.

They cried. Apologised as if they had caused the magic that had swallowed him, but for the rest of that day and many hundreds more he didn’t hear a word they said.

Wednesday, September 20, 2006


I have just returned from a brief visit to the TES Opinion Boards on which the nation's teachers discuss austere professional matters such as whether they should dump their boyfriends cos they snore and how their deputy heads keep groping them in the car park. I was outraged to find some hussy considering ditching her otherwise admirable partner because he drinks five cans of lager a night. All the harpies and drabs (middle aged women primary teachers no doubt) of the day were egging her on, of course, urging her to call in a hit squad from Alcoholics Anonymous before the man's liver exploded, or he murdered her in her bed. What rubbish!
Alcohol is great. Think of just some of its exponents.

Picasso, Manet, Degas, Gaugin, Allen Poe, Wilde, Hemingway, Dylan Thomas, Pitt the Younger, Asquith, Churchill and so on, all pissed as a parrot most of the time but living hugely successful and creative lives.

I came across a great story about Churchill the other day. Apparently he was meeting a senior Mormon and the latter said
"I will tell you why I avoid drink Mr Churchill, it is because alcohol combines the kick of an antelope with the bite of a viper" to which Churchill replied
"All my life I have been looking for a drink like that"

Friday, September 01, 2006

Simon and me

Well, the reading on Thursday night went alright, I thought, though the boy Armitage was obviously very nervous and who can blame him, reading with someone of my stature. I took the opportunity of taking him aside during the interval and giving the lad a few words of advice. "Simon " I said, "it's always hard when you're just starting out, but take a tip from me. Drink 6 and a half pints of Irish Cider before every reading, and read the same crap old poems that eveyone's heard about 40 times before. You do that and one day you'll get an annual Royalties cheque for £28.50 just like me." And you know, I think he was really grateful.

Monday, August 14, 2006

Carron Linn

Beards of root and moss
and stone cored by water
hosing through histories of rock,
tan, black, aquamarine,
in a blaze of light
punctured by pine.

It is an eerie, secret place.
Little birds chant
and there are faces in deep pools,
footprints on the grass
and the low sound behind it all
is the wake of the past.

There's a table where the path melts away,
covered in seed and blossom,
set for fairies anyone can see.
I will sweep it clear and write:
the risk seems fit-
writing is like fading bit by bit.

Friday, June 30, 2006

Russian Express

Just back from Moscow. We took sixty students for a week in St Petersburg and Moscow. St Petersburg was spacious, beautiful and strangely deserted, Moscow much more crowded and dynamic. Visited all the usual places, our Scottish youth growing more and more blistered in the sun. The real drama was on the overnight Moscow express when we had to stop the train about 260 miles south of St Petersburg as a boy had suffered an extreme allergic reaction and seemed to be very seriously ill. An ambulance met us in the middle of nowhere and he and I juddered off to Okulovka Hospital. Hospital as primitive as they come (I hope) but the doctors marvellous and, luckily, a tall and gregarious patient called Sergei spoke a smattering of English and took care of all translations/liason. In their tender care,the patient recovered well and after two bowls of salted porridge we set off the next morning on a 400 mile taxi ride to catch up with the others in Moscow.

Here's to the Sister and Doctors of Okulovka Hospital, and to Sergei, especially, who got up at 5.00am to gather two jars of tiny wild strawberries for us to eat on the journey back. Such tenderness.


Faint birdsong caged
in the heart of the wood.
Last night we rode miles of rutted road
to Okulovka.

They came out in the half light
to meet us: men and women
like ghosts in white
pyjamas bearing us inside.

No-one spoke a word.
The doctor pushed and prodded
and they crowded round
nodding like students, sighed and slid

away only when we were shown
to bed. Through holes in the curtain
I watched the night drown in
damp streaks of grey and cream.

We left early-
a car arranged by the embassy.
All the shutters were closed
and the pines bleeding black rain

when we went, back to our take
on the world. But suddenly a white face
at the window: wild strawberries
picked at dawn, for our journey.

Friday, June 16, 2006

A little bit of Internecine warfare in the southern uplands

The World Cup is turning the Volunteer Arms in tiny Penpont into a seething hotbed of racial hatred. Last night the entire caribbean population of the village turned out to support their local team, Trinidad and Tobago. Rum flowed, calypsos were sung, flags and garlands were festooned everywhere. The carnival atmosphere was soured however by an Englishwoman who very vocally insisted on cheering on the other side, a completely foreign team. Exactly the same thing happened last week when a substantial number of Paraguayans in the village came to support their side. I only hope that on Tuesday the village Swedes won't be deterred from coming to the pub by this terrible display of xenophobia.

Thursday, June 08, 2006


Aye, it's not meant to be this hot in Scotland. It's all part of Global Warming, I'm sure. This must be stage 3 where Scotland develops a Mediterranean climate and cafe culture. The next stage -4- is when England slides into the sea.

Thursday, May 11, 2006

Dr Faustus

So Pete Gallagher is dead. This Blog is becoming a kind of roll call of the lost platoon, isn't it? Never mind, no-one reads it anyway so I can indulge myself. Hadn't seen Pete for a few years but for a good while he was omnipresent in the pubs I used to go to. While he was still working we used to go into Ruby Tuesday's about 4 o'clock every afternoon and he would reminisce. "Ah" he would say at some piece of music on the jukebox, "that takes me back a wife or two". After he had a bit too many he would get pleasantly paranoid and would round on some poor innocent, but only in the most exquisitely literary way, with some Shakesperian quotation or more likely his favourite rebuff from Christopher Marlowe. "Thinkest thou" he would demand, "that I, who saw the face of God and tasted the eternal joys of heaven, am not tormented with 10,000 hells?" The unfortunate recipient would then sidle away in confusion.

Wednesday, May 03, 2006

St Dymphna's Day

It is May again and what a pleasure it is to see the peasant women in their pastel coloured dresses scouring the mudflats in the Nith Valley for molluscs to bake in the traditional Holiday Snail Pudding. Tomorrow is St Dymphna's Day where an effigy of the blessed Lady is carried all the way over the mountain pass from Penpont to Sanquar and back on a floral float dragged by twelve specially chosen local simpletons. At night after the bonfire there is an orgy, with late bar.

Tuesday, March 28, 2006

Archie Gemmell and Bananas

Leafing through my mail this morning I come across a letter from an old friend of mine in Regensburg. He tells me of a recent conversation held through the window of a hostel with a drunken Albanian. This conversation went something like "Scotland Archie Gemmell Hugh Shug Bananas". On reading this, my blood ran cold. Surely this cannot have been the same Albanian who terrorised my railway carriage on a long rail journey through Northern Yugoslavia in the middle of the 1978 world Cup? He spent much of the journey tossing bananas onto the floor of ther carriage then jumping on them with a blood curdling cry of "SKARABUJID BANANA!" When, after all this foreplay, he leaped like a monkey on the girl sitting next to me, I was forced to flee. I don't remember if I told him my name but in the heat of the moment, with all these bananas, who can tell?

In ordinary circumstances this would have set my mind racing about the strange power of coincidence, but the answer of course is much more simple. The fact is my friend, Stephen Kirk, writing from Regensberg, is a complete liar, and always has been. So you see, things are seldom what they seem. This was proved to me once in a small Scottish country town called Biggar. I once met there with a woman who I was trying to persuade to commission me to write a book. We were searching, a I recall, for a quiet enough locale to conduct our business and chanced on a small hotel. Looking through the window I saw what appeared to be an ideal venue, a sparsely populated establishment warmly lit by a coal fire with a few old regulars sitting at the bar and a well dressed member of the bar staff leaning over the counter. "Come on" I said cheerily, "this will do fine." Imagine my horror when we entered and saw the barman was trying to stem the blood from a broken nose. "Woops" I said, whereupon one old worthy turned from the Natural History programme he had been watching and cried "Jesus Christ, hen, would you look at the size of that pygmy's cock!"
Such surprises are denied other nationalities, I suspect. For which they must be profoundly grateful.

Mean Mile

As we butt into the countryside,
our snub-nosed bus sounds more annoyed;
it grinds through swamps and ruts,
between dykes and crippled hedges,
down miles of wet tarmac,
from one telegraph pole to another,
from one five bar gate to another,
from one muddy bunkered cottage to another,
criss-crossing land dank and paralysed
below an oatmeal sky.
There seem hudreds of miles,
thousands, but it's the same mean mile
circling, taking us back where we didn't want
to come from, where we didn't want to leave.

Friday, March 17, 2006


In a Blizzard Near Closeburn

The land pole-axed under a buttered sky,
road signs peppered white,
only the bones of trees black,
and the dykes like consonants
pointing to a dim rind of hills.
Over there, a kraal of cottages
with battened down babies
and dogs smoldering in front of fires.
Over there, the faint orange morse
of a car signaling the end to this week’s
technology. Shin deep in it,
I stretch out my arms to feel the punch
of winter. The age old thrill,
and fear, of meeting the Boss.

Thursday, February 16, 2006

Al is Dead

Dark news from Drumsleet indeed. Funeral this morning for Black Al, window-cleaner, hill-walker and general raconteur, a man of vast talent and unrealised potential. The Tam O' Shanter pub has been taking on the aspect of a charnel house over the last year if the truth be told, Willie McNinch, Ian Dunbar, John Barr and now Al. Went to the hospice on Friday to see him and he tried to get on the bus with me to go back to the pub, tracheotomy and all. When I left him he was sitting with his head in his hands. Next day he was dead. I should have let him come, shouldn't I? Only the most lethal of diseases would dare to separate Al from the craik.

Friday, February 03, 2006

Hear the Fat Bard speak

Just click on 'Hear Hugh's Poems'

Monday, January 23, 2006

Another Day nearer Death

as my mother used to say. Ah, give me that west Highland Angst.


Stone wings of land
roll into a belly of sky
beyond eye-shot. They are pinned
by trees today, orange as old fire.

The wind coils Lydia's hair,
a little fleck of yellow paint
just a smudge, a thumbnail
such as you might spot

in curling photographs,
or muddy in a mind's eye.
It's tragic enough,
nailing moments like butterflies.

I sit on the hillside
and furiously blacken pages,
as if trees don't wither, hair won't fade,
nothing ages.

Friday, January 06, 2006

Hippy New Year

Long silence from Drumsleet. It's not my fault: any free time after work is spent looking after weans (specially She who Never Sleeps) or drinking as much as possible. Sometimes a wee lyric is scribbled down on a beer mat and finds its way into print. All in all it's been the time of festive season you'd describe to people as "quiet" meaning we didn't got to any parties, didn't visit anyone, in fact kept ourselves to ourselves in the log cabin in the hills, right in front of the fire. Lydia (She who Does Sleep) was delighted by all things Christmassy. Jasmine (She who Does Not Sleep) was similarly happy night or day. Suppose it's what you really want: lovely house in the country, snow at the right time, Hibs doing well in the League, good supply of 12 year old Malt.