Basin Notes - May 2010

Well versed in country lore

Looking north across the Basin from the visitor centre, it is possible to see the tall line of dark Wellingtonia trees which tower over the House of Dun.

The house was the birthplace in 1863 of Violet Augusta Frederica Kennedy-Erskine who, after marriage to Lieutenant Arthur Otway Jacob of the 20th Hussars, became Violet Jacob.

Much of Violet Jacob's poetry is concerned with the people and the landscape of north-east Scotland and is rich in references to people and places, real and imagined, near to Montrose and its Basin.

I return to her work regularly in search of seasonal references and have rarely been disappointed.

The sound of a cuckoo a few days ago had me searching for her poem "The Gowk" with its reference to "the Gowk that bides i' the woods o' Dun."

Similarly, the sight of the wild cherry blossom, which seems particularly spectacular this year, led to "The Gean Trees" and the beautiful phrase "And the flower o' the gean trees fa 'in, Was like pairls frae the branche snawin' In a lang white drift."

Sometimes the poems serve as sharp reminders of some of the things we have lost. "The Road to Marykirk" advises that "Frae mony a field yell hear the cry; O' teuchits skirlin' on the wing". Even in my youth there were still plenty of lapwings to be heard when I cycled out to Marykirk but they are a relatively rare sight in the local fields these days.

Changes in agricultural practice mean that a trip to the Angus Glens is required if you want to see them breeding in large numbers.

I wonder also if we are in danger of losing some of the names used by Jacob to describe the plants and animals around us.

I must confess that "teuchits" have always been peewits to me and how many of us still refer to a fox as a "tod"?

Scots is wonderfully rich in terms to describe our fauna and flora and I always take delight in learning different regional variations and hearing them used on a daily basis in some rural communities. Reading the poems of Violet Jacob, and those of her near contemporary Marion Angus, provides a vivid picture of the natural history of this area. It is clear that both women had a deep understanding of country life and the nature which surrounded them and their work draws repeatedly on that understanding to describe the pleasures and the pains of their lives.

Descriptions of nature are common in Scottish poems, perhaps most famously in the work of Burns but also in the work of late 20th Century poets such as Norman MacCaig.

The poetry of both those men is also clearly associated with particular localities.

Burns is clearly rooted in Ayrshire and MacCaig, at least in his poems about the natural world, writes of his beloved Assynt.

On display in the the visitor centre is a quote from the final stanza of Jacob's poem "The Wild Geese".

Since being set to music by Jim Reid, this has probably become Jacob's best known work.

In the poem, a Scot exiled in the south asks the north wind what it has seen on its journey south and in the final verse the wind says: "And far abune the Angus straths 7 saw the wild geese flee: A lang, lang skein o' beatin' wings, wi' their heids towards the sea".

I can think of no finer way to describe that wonderful sight which awaits us later in the year when, volcanic ash permitting, our winter visitors return from Iceland and Greenland.