by Willie Hershaw
1) Brother James
I received the Abbot’s orders
inby the big pink house:
“Yoke Joseph and Mary,
to an oxen cart - take shovels, creels.
Wrap up - it’s wet and marshy with few paths.
Go roughly east for around six miles,
keep to the right of the hills.
You’ll see there’s previous pits dug out,
shallow indentations like plague graves.
The treasure’s beneath the turf.
The shiny black stones await, not deep,
that will warm us through the winter,
bake our bread, brew our beer.
Four days should do it.
Take Brother Peter too,
he is simple but could pull up an oak…
…no, there is hardly a soul to be seen
out in that woebegone moss:
A bedraggled wolf, a penitent pilgrim,
hirpling leper, thief or bedlam runner.
Watch that Brother Peter
does not drown himself.
2) Lord Minto’s Surveyor, William Logan
The clotted mud was still on my boots,
nevertheless my client was insistent,
Eydent to hear my initial report
In his reception room in Charlotte Square.
“Ironstone to feed blast furnaces
Is only a poor second prize -
like sheep farming in the North.
The seam’s the Gold Cup, the Lochgelly Splint.
Six, seven foot, twisting through the earth.
A thick black vein to be bled,
outcropping in places, easily reachable…
Enough to pay off outstanding debt?
Enough to keep an empire on the boil.
Enough to secure a lineage of wealth…
And if we dig deeper, who knows?
The people are poor as a pisspot.
Consumptive weavers, gypsies, slow-witted farmhands
Indistinguishable in their rank and appearance
From their down at heel Lairds and Factors.
We can buy up extraneous land for bawbees…
May I say, “Well done, Sir”?
His Lordship smiled and poured himself a brandy.
3) Ann Ceres, Servant Lass at Colqually Farm
“This is no as it seems, Sir, I sweir tae Goad.
I beg ye no tae puit me oot and me wi bairn.
The cranreugh puits a bane intil the groun yet.
I was takkin a basket o eggs ower the field
tae Cartmore, as the Mistress had bidden me.
It was a bonnie day and the sun bleezed doun.
The smaa buirds were singan in the buirks.
I taen this for a blessing. A swaw caught the corn.
It flawed like a gowden sea, pirlan in waves,
waist high. “Come ben me, Lassie”,
I jaloused it was souchan tae me.
Lichtsome and blyth I walked
intil it like Moses tae win a shortcut ower.
I sang oot “Daintie Davie”like a lintie.
Ma hert was as gleg as a laverock.
The deil maist hae been rooting like a sow
in some foul sty o hell no fuar ablaw.
He heard ma sang, and follaed the soun,
ma bare feet tappin abuin him.
Syne a neive brak through the airth
and grabbit ma cooties. Whit a fricht, sir!
I heard it lauch, speik a gey coorse aith,
syne the cratur himsel sliddert through.
He heezed me doun wi strang swack airms
whaur we were derned ablaw the sheaves.
He was a deil richt eneuch -
As Meinister Thompson had tellt us in the Kirk,
His skin bleck as sin, his teeth like white pairls,
His een like het coals. He was nakit forby.
Shameless and gallus. He wasnae uncomely
but his manners wi me were roch.
He was glisteran wi sweit and gey clarty
and kissed me ower and ower again
and shortly had his baistly wey - I couldnae stap him.
I was feart for ma life and scraighan for help.
I thoucht I micht be killt.
He forced his haun ower ma mooth,
tae smour me. I couldnae breith.
I heard shouting, fuitfaas -
aa o a sudden he was gaun back doun,
like a brock intil his set.
It was the Greive that had foun me.
“Hae you been wi a man?” he speirt.
I ettled tae shaw him the hole in the groun
but he wadnae hear me and dragged me awaa…
I sweir this tae be true Sir, on the Guid Buik
I am honest - no wanton whure.
I canna read or write but I will
puit ma cross tae this.
4) The Music Lover
Five hours we hung over the abyss
like rats in a cage.
Silent at first after Rattray fell out,
unbalanced by the initial jolt.
He screamed all the way down,
bouncing off the sides.
For a while we held our breaths,
not wanting to disturb the fragile balance,
waiting on the pulley rope to snap
and send the whole thing crashing.
Later when it looked like we were
stuck there for good
Wee Geordie produced his moothie.
As a cornet player I hated that, once dropped
a hundred weight coal deliberately
to flatten its witless cheerful key.
That day I appreciated the gesture.
It turned into quite a concert party
with only Rattray’s ghost for audience.
Bob Paterson gave us Tam O Shanter,
MacDonald, The Charge of The Light Brigade.
We wept down in the Salley Gardens,
joined in Scots Wha Hae and The Red Flag
We nearly lost Big Wull
when finally they got it shifted from above:
He was half way out the cage
when Peter Leslie pulled him in.
That shaft had always been unlucky from the start.
Subsidence bevelled it and the sides weren’t true.
Mind you, that was some fright, sticking
half way between the bottom and the top,
rolling between the pitch and the toss,
the high notes and low.
After that I always went
down Glencraig with tight white knuckles,
was happy to hear Geordie’s tuneless
sook and blaw.
5) The Back Hander
“I see factories, I see hundreds of new jobs,”
the smug councillor told the meeting.
We were down on our luck and on the dole
after Thatcher had closed the last pit.
We were greedy to hear brighter news.
“But a safe industry this time - no more filthy pit clothes,
for the wife to scrub, or you going about crippled,
like a half-shut knife from coughing black lung.
Clean plastics from the ethylene byproduct -
I’ll not blind you with the science.
All kinds of opportunities are coming here,
engineering, computers, trades and apprenticeships
we can’t even imagine the future. I’m telling you,
That oil pipe from Cruden Bay’s a lifeline.”
We got a roaring stack
spewing out flame and black smoke,
a hellish hissing flaring its pollution through the night,
cracks in the walls of our new-bought council houses,
sleepless bairns complaining of the chemical smell.
I once met a man from our village
who said he’d been a temporary janitor there.
6) The Apprentice
I received my instructions
from the Director in the Dome,
proper old school style, non-thoughtware.
I’d never heard his voice before.
“We could use a nano speirer
And holo it in. Stormy Petrel
Is a programme good for that.
But I’m sending you in person.
There’s nothing like an experience,
real time, real smells and sounds
And there might even be a bird.
That’s a story and a half to tell
In the post digital age.
Go North of the former capital,
the Fife Zone is uninhabited,
mostly under water since the Thaw.
The muckle keekers have recorded something,
a movement, possibly a marine baistie,
among the submerged archaeology
where there were settlements.
Headlines on the Bletherwab if it’s true but
probably only a subsidence or disturbance
on the surface.
Take a hurly-ashet, Caliban and Auld Blade,
watch that Auld Blade doesn’t get droukit,
His A.I. files are questionable.
Tak tent, ma quine.”
7) Coal Speaks
I’m a lump of time,
An ornamental paperweight on your shelf.
The seed songs of a million generations
Still resonate faint in the bit of me.
Their dialects are impenetrable to your mind,
A compression of sounds far off and under water.
I will bide my time.
I will be ash and sparks,
I will be water and air again,
The rechargeable battery in the leaf.
I will be free from the prison of myself some time.
I will be starlight over a lonely forest lake.