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from the June 2004 issue

Three Poems

Criffel to Merrick

In this poem, two of the region's hills speak to each other. When a vehicle was needed for telling the story of Foot and Mouth, the hills seemed appropriate; they are very ancient, stand above the population and span the length of the region from East to West. In the original, Merrick speaks in Scots and Criffel speaks in English.

Criffel, you're crying!
Tell me of your sadness.
What's wrong?

My eyes are misted, yes,
an acrid smoke burns here.

Why, what's burning there?
How can it climb so high
that you can see it from your
own hill top?

Pyres burn all round me
far as the eye can see.
Sheep have been lifted
from my foothills and slopes,
shot with guns, set alight
and buried in graves.

Criffel, I know now why
mists of tears are round you.
I'd weep as well if such a
tragedy came westward.

Cattle are being culled,
farms are devastated.
Around me strong men

are weeping. Also,
their children stay home.
Farm lanes and road ends are
sealed off, straw is soaked

in disinfectant and no
deliveries are made.
Few visitors arrive.
No one leaves home much.

Oh Merrick, I hope your
green Galloway never
has to bear this darkness
I am thinking of the

old days, old names, past words.
They don't tell of the grim
reality of this.
"elf-shot"—listen and I'll

tell you of this old word.
"The ailment in the beasts
was caused by fairies,"
it's what it meant. Oh that

it were so and
summoning fairies
was enough to stop the
spread of vileness through my

land, beseech them to lift
off their spell, charm us
back to happy days and
healthy beasts; wholesome hearts.

Yes, the old words were good.
There was "croittich," a lameness,
an "lung socht," disease,
and when we saw a

halo around the moon
we knew poor times would come
forecasting bad weather.
Yes, there must be a halo around
the moon tonight.

We are powerless to change this.
All we can do is wait and hope
for these farmers were struggling already
diversification was needed
some were tryin
here's the tale of one:

For years he'd lifted stones,
tried to clear his land
of rubble, pulled out
hawthorn and gorse.

Now here's the son,
full of new ideas;
organic milk, ice cream, yogurt,
adventure playgrounds

"Lay matting round the trees.
No chemicals needed
to kill weeds,
just large stones to weigh it down."

Full circle they'll come some day,
father and son united under
the family headstone,
moss gathering green,

wind whistling through the same trees.
All plans, people, laid to rest,
the whaups circling above,
stones still lodged in the field's corner.

Like us, Criffel,
lodged the region's corners
we're seeing down the centuries
watching, waiting,
and I've never seen the likes of this.

Not even through wars, Merrick
World Wars.

Such a slaughter is a black mark
on our souls.

Unless, like they say,
it was the only way?

* * *
Oh Criffel, it has come.
The blackness has traveled
to my green lands filled with
Belted Galloways, Chambrolets, Ling.
Fires are blazing across the Machars.

The night lit with red and gold
of burning beasts. A stinking smell
fills everyone's throat and
crying can be heard when
the night goes quiet.
I've never seen strong men cry, Criffel.
Even lost on my hills and a white fog
stopping them from finding home,
they didn't sob so.

But their beasts are their lives, Merrick.

Yes, even knowing fine that all roads would lead
to slaughter anyway—

but this is different, meaningless,
and even fine beasts for breeding
are cut down.

Wasting bonnie beasts
while half the world starves on.
It's not right.
Now what?
Criffel, I'm like an empty hand.

You know my name Merrick
is from the Gaelic for
a fork or branch—Meurach?
An Meur is a finger,
and all my wee-er hills
run down like long fingers
below me, Bennan and
Benyellary. Neist there's
Kirrieoch, Tarfessock
Shalloch and Minnock.
All of us together
in the palm of our hills.
Hands held such prizes for
cattle, highest held sheep.

Oh Criffel, now I'm
An empty hand, like
a mother who's lost her
children. Babies she reared
and fed. Grown well on my
pastures rich, sweet cooling

burns tumbling through my glens—
Wigtown and Stewartry
Kirkcudbright—all my shires.

Merrick—now we will weep
together for we share
this tragedy, these deaths.
Grieve for our beasts, weep for

our farmers who worked long
and hard in every season,
lambing through snow,
calfing in sharp rain fall.

And now they talk of carriers.


Yes. Might the birds be bringing this
disease from afar?
The wintering geese carrying
If so, they say, we must cull them.

Never. We can't. We mustn't.
Kill the birds for flying?
Greylag geese,
Greenland white Fronts,
Baikals from Russia,
Bewick's from Finland,
Whoopers from Iceland,
Oh, surely we won't have to lose them?
The very birds of the air
as well as the beasts of the land?

There's black times here, Merrick.
Close your eyes
and pray for a better morning.

We've seen such sights
From our high vantage points:

A farmer at Ae still
goes out on his quad bike
with his sheep dogs
every day, same time,
though the fields are empty
of beasts.

The farmer at Auchleand
feeds his beasts though
he knows fine they'll be killed
in the morning
"You wouldn't leave them starving
even though," he tells you.

A farmhouse window is coated
with grease, fat from the burning animals.

And nothing can be moved:

Away wintered sheep on the hills,

the store cattle needing to move,

cast cows ready for slaughter—

and the fodder's running low
soon ther'e'll be none

They burn with railway sleepers,
best grade coal
(too low is inefficient, the pyre
will burn for three weeks)

Bury deep, avoid water running below
seepage leads to contamination
one farmer and his wife
found blood seeping from a pipe

rats have arrived at some sites
"pigeons are flying rats"
Birkshaw Forest—a name etched
in our minds—mass gravesite

a black-faced gurkha
—strange sight at Sorbie
the white suit shining against his skin
six small children hiding by
the village hall watching
as he closed the road, checked passing cars
held his gun in readiness
what did he hope for?
What will the children mind
of these times?

Yes, but they've taken off
the soldiers of eighteen years old

a sad sight an open gate
—a sure sign all's gone

A woman in Glasserton
lifted her carpets
brought in her pet rams

One farmer said
"it's an odd thing to hear
your own voice echo in
a bull shed."

I heard whispers from Lammermuir
talking to Lothians
and down to the Fells
where they're sick to their bones.

Yes, the Carricks were calling
to Assynt all night
and Ailsa Craig let out
a long sigh in the night.
Everybody's worried sick.

If only it was all by. I'll tell you about my dream.

As I went past the Lunky Hole
I saw there were no beasts
no cattle lowing over green hills
just crows pecking feasts.

As I passed by the Lunky Hole
I knew the fields were bare
no sheep clambering through the gap
no lambs jumping with joy.

Oh if we had a Lunky Hole
where Time's drifting fair
the beasts all fine, the lands so fresh
and this Silent Spring no more.

But silence won't last.
Voices will be heard again,
our fields dotted white
once more with sheep
the baabaa chorus singing
next spring.
A fine farmer, resilient as ever says,
"there'll be a bit remnant left."

Well, I hope he's right for
I've heard many a sad tale this year.
And I've heard angry ones too,
for now voices are being heard.

Yes, voices will be heard again
asking questions,
asking why good beasts were killed at all?
Asking was it all for the sake of silver?
Asking was there not another way?

A sacrifice maybe, all a sacrifice
to global markets, export, trade.
Maybe they just needed to
"thin out a bit in the south"?
For what does it matter in the
quiet southwest?

Yes, who bothers about us?
We're not even Munros, Criffel.
We don't even catch the baggers.
Nothing to shout about here,
even though the breath is taken from you
when you drive that Solway coast
past the shining, wet sands by Creetown.

Or the fine forest of Mabie
and the bonnie Sweetheart Abbey.
You're right, Merrick,
there's a lot more needing done
to tell the world of our secret south.

All Scotland's crammed into
its middle.
Let your belt out, Caledonia,
cast your eye southward as well.
Remember you've Lowlands just as green
as your Highlands and fine and mild to stroll in.

A country garden, this region,
where the silent farmer waits in his home,
looking over the empty fields,
hoping for a new dawn.

Tenant Farmer
"We are the tenant farmers,
we don't own these lands.
We are only renting them
To tend them with our hands."

Land Owner
"We are the owners
of these farms and homes.
We lend a field to graze some sheep
or let the cattle roam."

"You are all tenant farmers
I own the earth
your world is only borrowed
till called to heaven's hearth."

Mother Nature
Nothing's owned, by any of you.
Remember this or else,
every cell, every living thing
is its own self.
There is danger if you forget
take heed, manage wisely . . .
or fret.

No Future Age Shall See His Name Expire
"No future age shall see his name expire"—Inscription on the tombstone of William Nicholson.
Brother Will, to school's routine you were ill-fitted,
they said you could carry the pack instead.
Not suited to farm with your short sight,
loaded up with combs, thimbles, gown fabric,
you set off with your bagpipes at twenty,
wondered what would printing a book do for you.

Before long your poem songs got you known,
to Edinburgh city next you were gone.
But down in London you fell on hard times,
preaching religion instead of your rhymes.
Drink made you prey to malevolent types.
Near drowned in canals, robbed of your pipes.

You'll be remembered alongside Burns and Hogg,
for your Brownie o Bladnoch written at Borgue.

The loch knows its boundaries
sure of forms from
Ice Age days when vast
depressions filled
with water
cool and clearNo man is an island but what of
woman like loch?
Sure of her boundaries,
knowing her depths.

Pines circle water's edge
reflect their own features
on windless days
like fathers, mothers,
sisters, brothers
sons, daughters
generations repeated, genes returned.

The loch knows its deeper stretches
where danger lurks;
warmer, shallow pools where
laughter, leisure, labor
can be heard
and monthly the moon returns.

The loch hosts dark islands
many try to penetrate but
turned back, they're
kept from the secrets.

The loch hosts small creatures swimming;
fish along reeds;
buzzing dragonfly, wintering geese;
plays generous host for rebirthing;
asks little in return.
Unconditional love of a parent.

The elements pound.
Light breaks,
night falls,
the loch stands.

Read more from the June 2004 issue
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