Wheen – New and Collected Poems by Stuart Paterson

The power of the word, talking and our languages

Wheen: New and Collected Poems, Stuart Paterson, Ulster-Scots Community Network £10.

Reviewed by Sheena Wellington.

“Nae need tae gan oan owrelang
Aboot the lied, its history o trauchle
Enough that we ken wi every leevin braith –‘
thi daith o ony leid’s a country’s daith”

The last verse of Stuart Paterson’s powerful poem ‘Leid’ seems a fitting way to begin this review.

It is always a good day when a book of poems comes out. When it’s in Scots, it’s doubly so; when, in both the Scots and English sense, it’s the rare voice of a native speaker of the quality of Stuart Paterson, it’s special indeed!

Wheen is a collection of more than a hundred poems, arranged in sets, and full of the vibrant Ayrshire Scots of Stuart’s Kilmarnock childhood, seasoned with the distinctive cadence of Galloway where he now lives and with the odd bit of Glaswegian – I blame STV.  It is very readable for anyone who grew up with Scots and there is a comprehensive glossary which I only needed once. Hands up who knew that a rigwelter is a black sheep?  

The poems are a rich mix of passion and tenderness, anger and humour, and love of people, of nature and of Scotland and its languages woven together with a touch of magic.   You could fancifully think that Joan the Wad had sprinkled a bit of fairy dust on the infant Stuart at his birth in a Cornish convent – his father was gardener there at the time – but probably not!  

Not at all surprisingly the first section celebrates the ‘Lied’. It starts with what is probably his best known poem – 600,000 plus hits on social media – ‘Here’s the Weather’:

“ carnaptious, forfochen & scunnert by weather

Dance round the double-edged sword o fash

Dinged doon by the elements, loving stramash

And the trauchle o baltic, foonert & droukit

Fair molocates fears ye’re a diddy or stupid

Yer puckle concernson the £ or the Brexit.”

This great toast to both our weather and all the wonderfully expressive words that we have for it is followed by a familiar story.


“I’m told that writing about weather

In the language of my parents is

‘inane’, that plosives, gutturals, 

Fricatives & words like ‘dreich’

Are an indication of a low-born

Nationalistic tendency to complain

& little more than witterings out of a biscuit tin.”

And haven’t we all been there?  That soul-freezing disdain, the contemptuous dismissal of the language of home, and the illogical, but surprisingly common, assumption that being bilingual in Scots and English, or Scots and Gaelic for that matter, is a sign of backwardness and stupidity. 

It has bred in so many Scots one of those twin evils, the overcompensating “Here’s Tae Us, Wha’s Like Us?” aggressive tartan kitsch and the creepy corollary, that Scotland is a basket case, that we live off the neighbours and we are not just happy about it but almost proud.  Come to think of it both of these can exist in the one individual, as many a Burns Supper has proved.

Still, the fightback is in full flow and Stuart Paterson is in the vanguard, writing about anything and everything in Scots and, importantly, writing for and working with the bairns. (I got grannie brownie points when the happy recipient of “A Squatter o Bairnrhymes” heard that the poet and I were friends on Facebook.)    

When it comes to the love poems, Stuart Paterson is not your man for sugary sweet. There’s tenderness a plenty, passion too and an almost bewilderment in ‘Glamourie’. I do not think that I have ever heard the nervous wreckage of a first tentative approach to a new love expressed better then in ‘Blate’:

“By my doiterin haun will ye ken me

Bi the stagger and stam o ma vyce

Ma een will staun oot like twa jaury bools

Am ma wirds will be five weys fae wyce.”

He also distilled Jeannie Robertson’s great song of regret for a lost love into a short but telling spotlight on the Border clearances, as devastating as their Highland counterpart but less widely known.

‘The Mune Shined on yer Bed Last Nicht’

The mune shined on yer bed last nicht

As tae yer rest ye’d gane

An shines on yet another bed

Thi ane ye’d left at hame

And the poignant last verse

It’s not at hame ye’ll lay yer heid

Nor next tae mine, my dear

Yer course maun follae the munelicht’s trail

While I maun tarry here.”

There is affectionate humour in ‘The Ode to the Finniestan Cran’, and the lovely MacSnail poems . I was particularly tickled by coincidentally timely ‘MacSnail Ponders Religion’

“Ah fash ma insular eternal soul

Still owre fast an furrit owreaw

Tae be acceptit by the Wee Free Kirk

Irony abounds and there is sometimes a bitter wit.   ‘The Guid Ship Brexit Casts Aff’ starts with Goodbye in the first languages of all the EU countries where, sadly, we no longer have the right to live, work and study.

The toast to ‘Saint Andra’ takes a wry look at the fact that the saint never saw our shores

“Christ’s first disciple, fond o crowdie

His crucifixion heelster-crowdie

We willna see his like again –

We saw him no at aw back then.”

The politics of language permeates the book, naturally, but the politics of politics is there covering everything from 9/11 and Ukraine to the death of George Floyd:

“Kid on yer richt oan

An mintit nae further

The Deil’s ee’s aye skelly

When push comes to murder.”

No one chooses the circumstances of their birth and there is no ill will to the royal baby but there is a righteous anger at human created inequality, unfairness and violence in ‘Weans’.

“A Royal wean gets whalpit

The kintra skreighs huzzah!

An in the time it taen tae whalp

A hunner weans ayont a help

Get blown tae bits in Syria.”

In the best tradition of Robert Burns there are hustings poems for the adoption nights of various SNP candidates, pithy, humorous and encouraging for both candidates and “The envelope-fillers and chappers o doors!”   

The volume ends with ‘AYE’:

“Rip up the postcairds, the tee-tooels  an place-mats

redd oot the biscuit tins, flambe the scones 

burst open, brak doon  an demolish the waas, 

the yetts an the tooers an braw fantoosh haas

O the muildert, ancestral pile we cry ’home’.

We’re canny, no Cannae, we’re aye an we’re aye

We’re Scottish, no British, we’re world an we’re I

The bullet o hope fired intae a box.

The bomb o wir future explodes in a cross.”

Wheen is a keeper, a dipper into, a source of quotes and another good addition to Scotland’s lied and literature.


Comments (2)

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  1. Alasdair Macdonald says:

    I think many of us of a certain vintage (I am 75) will remember being chided at school for expressing ourselves in the words we used at home, or on the street and, indeed, in the playground and being told that it was a sign of ignorance and stupidity. My mother, a native speaker of Gaelic, and her contemporaries were corporally punished for speaking Gaelic.

    However, despite the hostility, we continued to speak in our local languages and learned to ‘speak proper’ in particular locations. An accent was acceptable, provided the words spoken were ‘The King’s/Queen’s English’.

    Writing is different. When I write, my default is to write in Standard English, as I am doing here. Indeed, during my thinking when writing, much of my internal discourse is also in Standard English. So, if I wanted to write in Scots as I spoke it in Glasgow, I wrote in English and translated into Scots. However, with a bit of self-discipline, I have reached a stage where I can write fairly spontaneously in Scots.

    Standard English has standard spelling, whereas Scots does not have that, although there are several books which attempt to produce standardised spellings. The problem with some of these spellings was that when I sounded them out, they did not sound like I do! It was my first encounters with the poems of Tom Leonard that offered a way forward. He spelled his words phonetically and, when I read them aloud, they sounded like I sound when speaking! The scales had fallen from my eyes or, rather, the wax hud come oot o ma lugs!

    I can now write more spontaneously in the language I speak. It is liberating.

    1. babs nicgriogair says:

      Sgoinneil ! Wonderful ! Here’s to more such liberation a-plenty .

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